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Mao by a Mile

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's historic biography of Mao Zedong details how the Chinese dictator made Hitler and Stalin look like schoolyard bullies.

By 3.7.06

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Mao: The Untold Story
by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
(Knopf, 832 pages, $35)

Countries, it is sometimes said, get the leaders they deserve. But that cynical dictum is surely refuted by the case of China. By what stretch of the perverted imagination did China ever deserve such a monster as Mao Zedong? The 20th century certainly produced a uniquely murderous harvest of tyrants as the decades marched forward. Hitler and Stalin, indeed, are commonly held up as living (and now mercifully dead) embodiments of human wickedness. Could anyone have been worse?

In one sense, no. Hitler's fastening upon the destruction of the Jews as his highest ambition will for all time constitute a unique category of evil. But although Hitler imposed upon his fellow Germans the iron chains of brutal dictatorship, he did not wage war on his own people. That is something Stalin first taught the 20th century how to do, consigning to death in labor camps, by deliberate starvation or by shooting, millions of Soviet citizens. Mao Zedong, Stalin's acolyte, admirer, and for a while employee, so far surpassed in numbers of victims Stalin's tally as to illustrate the truth that students often outdo their teachers.

All this, of course, has been known by clear-eyed people for at least the half century that the Chinese Communists have ruled in Beijing. In addition, Mao's vicious degeneracy, his sexual promiscuity accompanied by total indifference to the women he infected during his lascivious lurches left and right, was first narrated in unsparing color by his physician in Dr. Li Zhisui's memoir, The Private Life of Chairman Mao. What Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday have accomplished in Mao: The Untold Story is something approaching the epic: a narrative of Mao's life which, in its savage detail, its unrelenting parade of sordid crimes, must count as one of the most horrifying biographies of a tyrant ever written.

Jung Chang, a former Red Guard and "barefoot doctor" who arrived in England in the late 1970s, achieved her initial fame with her lyrical saga of three generations of a Chinese family caught up in the political and social maelstroms of 20th century China. Her book, deservedly, was a bestseller. This new biography of Mao is a far more serious work. It will influence forever how world historians view the architect of Communist rule in China. If it is translated into Chinese, it may change history itself. Ever since 1989, the Chinese have refused to face up to the truth of what happened in Tiananmen Square in June of that year. But far eclipsing this historical and moral myopia is the Chinese unwillingness to confront the more troubling moral quandary: how to cope with the fact that the revered -- and at one point literally idolized -- founder of their modern state was a political psychopath of rare totality.

WHAT MAKES CHANG AND HALLIDAY'S work so compelling is their access while researching the book to hitherto barely scratched sources: in China, Mao's relatives and Chinese who worked for him during his lifetime, and in Russia, Soviet archives and former Soviet diplomats who worked with the Chinese Communist Party. Some of these Soviets helped to make the Chinese revolution succeed, while others, after 1949, provided China with the economic and scientific assistance needed to develop nuclear weapons. A number of revelations emerged from the Russian side of the story. First, Mao was literally on Stalin's payroll; from the late 1920s onwards, he was the recipient of Soviet funding of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao at one point also actually hoped the Soviets would invade China and set up a Chinese soviet by force of arms. Second, the much-touted "originality" of Mao's decision to develop peasant revolution instead of urban insurrection was the Soviets' idea, not his. Third, Moscow backed Mao as its China proxy at a time when it was not at all certain Mao would attain the pinnacle of political power in the Chinese Communist Party.

Moscow went with Mao because he was, not to put too fine a point on it, a very successful thug. Mao not only associated himself with, but ordered up, purges that decimated Communist ranks from the moment he was powerful enough to do so. Chang and Halliday reveal that in the 1920s, when rural insurrections were being promoted by Mao -- on Moscow's orders -- he seemed to take special pleasure in the brutality meted out to landlords and other class enemies by the revolutionaries. In fact, whenever he could, Mao again and again urged on murderous purges when the Communists were powerful enough to implement them. In Jiangxi province, the Communists' original rural base, south of the Yangtze River, 10,000 suspected opponents of Communist rule were killed. Thousands more were executed on Mao's orders before the Communists set out on the Long March in 1934. As for that episode, which has been encrusted with a thick mythology of alleged heroic events, the authors pull apart thread by thread one of the most popularized episodes, the epic taking of the Dadu Bridge in Sichuan province under fire from the rival Nationalists. The authors provide evidence that there was no battle on the bridge at all because the Nationalist forces had already left the area. In fact, in one of the most revealing discoveries the authors made while conducting research in Taiwan is the fact that Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader, essentially refrained from blocking the Communists on their trek north because he believed -- erroneously -- that once in the same remoteness of Yanan in Shaanxi Province they would cease to be a serious threat to the Nationalists.

Another myth of the Sino-Japanese War exposed by the authors is that while the Nationalists dithered, the Communists fought the Japanese occupying their country. Not so, the authors report. Far from being more patriotic than the Nationalists, Mao at one point was cooperating directly with Japanese intelligence to make life as difficult as possible for the forces of Chiang Kai-shek fighting the Japanese.

The Chinese civil war from 1945 until 1949, which was eventually won by the Communists, is treated in vivid and horrifying detail. For example, when the Communists were besieging Changchun in Manchuria they refused to allow fleeing citizens to leave the city. Tragically, Changchun's population underwent an absolute decline in numbers because of deaths from starvation. What is also apparent from Chang and Halliday's account is that the Soviet Union played a much bigger role than previously assumed in bringing about a Communist victory by making available to the Communists huge supplies of captured Japanese weaponry.

Once securely in power in Beijing, Mao's taste for savage reprisals against political opponents, real or imagined, expressed itself in two campaigns in the early 1950s, the so-called Three-Anti's and Five-Anti's campaigns. The authors estimate that 200,000 to 300,000 inhabitants of Shanghai committed suicide during these two brutal campaigns. Mao's merciless war on the people of China continued throughout the 1950s in a series of wide-ranging campaigns as irrational as they were almost psychopathic in execution. At one point, Mao told his senior Communist colleagues that he was "at war" with the whole population and that one-tenth of all the villages in China might revolt. Several times he told his colleagues that "not enough brutality" was being deployed. Mao's predilection for murderous reprisals was not confined to China. After the Soviets quelled the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Mao thought that Moscow had been insufficiently ferocious. "We must kill and we say it's good to kill," he said. Mao gave his chief henchman of the time, Deng Xiaoping, an opportunity in 1958 to demonstrate sufficient zeal by implementing Mao's 1958-1959 Anti-Rightist Campaign. As a result, approximately 550,000 people were labeled "rightists," hundreds of thousands of them were consigned to hard labor for 20 years or more, and many of them died.

MAO'S MOST HORRIFYING POLITICAL and social experiment, however, was to take place during the years 1958- 1962. That was when he launched the Great Leap Forward, during which his goal was to surpass in 15 years the steel production of Great Britain and to force China's peasantry into one giant system of collectivization by rural communes. The decline in food production that resulted from these measures resulted in a famine in which calorie consumption by urban housewives plummeted to 1200 a day. By comparison, slave laborers at Auschwitz survived on between 1300 and 1700 calories daily. By 1960, according to a Soviet diplomat informed by China's then-president Liu Shaoqi, 30 million had already died. In 1960 alone, 22 million Chinese died of starvation, the highest death toll in one year from famine in the history of the world. The total number to die by the time the famine ended was estimated at 38 million.

While all this horrific herding and goading of the Chinese was proceeding, Mao was hell-bent on developing nuclear weaponry for China. Chang and Halliday estimate that for the price China paid financially to develop a bomb, every single inhabitant of China would have been able to consume 300 calories more a day.

The most insane social and political experiment launched by Mao was the 1966-1976 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. What most people outside of China probably recall are the photographs of Chinese officials and cultural figures being publicly humiliated by having to wear dunces' hats. What they probably do not know is that in just two months in 1966, during August-September, 33,695 homes were raided in Beijing alone and 1,772 died from beatings or torture. Observing all this from his safe refuge in a Paris cafe, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre labeled Mao's lunatic experiment as "profoundly moral."

Chang and Halliday make clear that the roots of Mao's cruelty are to be found in a perverted egotism that was already expressing itself quite crudely when Mao was in his early 20s. "Of course, there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me," he wrote. Once in power, Mao lived a life of sickening luxury, throwing up residences in different parts of China at enormous cost, but sometimes spending only a couple of days in them. In justifying his sumptuous lifestyle when his own aides and servants -- not to mention vast numbers of Chinese -- were starving to death, Mao explained that this was an appropriate price for the people pay for his service to them as leader. When his Politburo colleagues, with rare courage, challenged his political savagery, Mao replied, "If there's no death, human being can't exist. From (the time of) Confucius to now, it would be disastrous if people didn't die." It is estimated that under Mao Zedong's 27 years in power more than 70 million people died, and that was in peacetime.

Towards the end of his life, when he wasn't indulging in his sexual lusts, Mao was given to bouts of self-pity. He wanted to be recognized by history as a truly great man but he wasn't sure that history would grant him his wish. In that sense, he expressed a rare insight into truth.

The question today is: When will the Chinese people recognize this reality? It may be carping to criticize Chang and Halliday for one weakness of their book. In laying out the incredible extent of Mao's cruelty, they have not refrained from editorializing. The facts would clearly speak for themselves if left alone, but they are seldom allowed to do so. It is as if every aspect of Mao's psychopathic life and rule of China in The Untold Story is printed in capital letters when lower case would have been enough for a whole book of this remarkable scope.

History will recognize Mao as one of the most wicked men ever to hold a nation in his thrall. How long will it be before the Chinese people acknowledge this as well?

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About the Author

David Aikman is a former senior correspondent for Time Magazine and the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Delusion of Disbelief: How the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness and The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Unending Conflict in the Middle East.