Mao: Man, myth and monster
Weekend: July 2-3, 2005
Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, an account of the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, is still banned in China but her new biography of Mao Zedong makes that early book seem a mild rebuke by comparison. Written with her husband Jon Halliday, it not only portrays the late Chairman as a power-crazed monster but questions the credentials of the Chinese Communist Party for still relying on his cultural and political inheritance.
The man offered up by Mao, the Unknown Story is a modern emperor in league with Joseph Stalin and willing to commit any atrocity, including the deaths of 70 million Chinese in peacetime, to get and keep power.
An elegant Georgian terrace house in London’s Notting Hill Gate is the unlikely base for Chang and Halliday’s efforts to rewrite and right history. Inside, they live and work in donnish style, surrounded by books, tasteful Asian art and images of Buddha.
Chang started the book in 1992, soon after Wild Swans, and hoped to finish in two years. But with each new visit to China and each interview, "we came upon one shock after another, so it just went on, one year after another.”
When she began the project she already thought "Mao was a monster” – not a word they use in the book – but that was mainly because of her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. "But even then I did not realize he was that evil,” she says.
"What took me by surprise was the reason for the famine [during the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s]. I thought the famine was the result of economic mismanagement.” What they found was even worse: Mao knew that millions of people would die of starvation because he was exporting much-needed food to the Soviet bloc. "This was a complete surprise to me.”
Mao’s principal ambition, Chung says, was to turn China into a superpower in record time. "Speed was the soul of the Leap because he wanted to rule the world while he was still alive.”
Chang, dressed in pastel shades of green and yellow, sits on a sofa with Halliday opposite. She talks in a cut-glass, upper class English accent, though if you listen carefully you can guess that Chinese was her first tongue.
When she talks intently, she looks as stern as a dowager, but when she smiles her face lights up and her long black hair gives her a girlish charm.
With Halliday by her side, the interchange between the couple illustrates just how much of a joint project it was, with Chang’s intimate knowledge of China melding with Halliday’s grasp of the broader world picture.
Chang’s father joined the Communist Party to fight the Japanese and, like many members, believed that the Party was dedicated to driving out the invaders.
She had long doubted Mao’s intentions but the real game plan had been a mystery to the couple until their research for the book allowed them to put the pieces together.
“Yes, most communists still wanted to fight Japan, but Mao didn’t,” Chang says. “He wanted the Japanese to destroy the Kuomintang for him. This is where Mao was a strategic thinker. Nearly everybody else in China said, `We have been invaded, how do we fight and repel the invader?’ But the question that Mao asked himself was, `What’s in this for me?”’
The couple now believe that Mao wanted to draw Stalin into the fight, along the lines of the Nazi-Soviet pact in which Russia and Germany divided Poland. The scenario appealed to Mao, Chang says, because he thought Stalin might divide the country with Japan, using the Yangtze as a demarcation line and handing half the nation to Mao’s forces.
A Russian speaker, Halliday’s great contribution was to go through the Soviet archives where he discovered the friendship that bloomed between Mao and Stalin beginning in the early 1920s. “They had their conflicts but Stalin was consistently behind Mao,” Halliday says, noting that his Soviet friends protected Mao from being ousted in Party power struggles before the Long March.
The Soviet archives also yielded a double treasure. With Chinese records unavailable, the Soviet archives held Chinese cables, as well as their Russian translations, which allowed the couple to understand the dialogue from both sides.
To the intriguing question of why Stalin chose Mao, who did not speak Russian and whose communist cred-entials were lacking, Chang replies that Stalin saw Mao as someone “who would stop at nothing to pursue his power.” She notes that in the early days, when the Comintern (Communist International) was a pivotal actor, Stalin surrounded Mao with people loyal to Moscow, like Chou En-lai, who was the Party boss.
Halliday adds: “Stalin spotted that Mao had an insatiable lust for power and victory, utterly insatiable. Stalin thought that Mao was the man most like himself.” Mao, he adds, was in almost daily touch with Stalin, sharing a level of intimacy with the Soviet dictator that no other communist leader in the world could claim.
But was Mao ever really a believing communist? Halliday says no. The Cultural Revolution, he believes, was mo-tivated by Mao’s antipathy toward the Party and desire for revenge against his communist rivals. As early as 1923, Halliday notes that Mao said: “Communism isn’t going to work here and hasn’t got a hope in hell.”
Mao’s rise to power and his interplay with Stalin are compelling, Halliday says. “We have got the complete run of the communications between Stalin and Mao between 1947 and early 1949 and you can smell that Mao is elbowing himself forward.
“It is riveting,” he continues, “it is the richest relationship between two dictators you could ever find, a sort of political mafioso world.”
The Long March was a good example of Mao’s relentless drive for power. He began with 80,000 men and was left with 10,000 by the end of it. Most of them, Chang and Halliday say, were lost because of Mao’s own maneuverings against potential rivals.
Nevertheless, says Chang, it was a great victory for Mao. “The Party was his. He knew that the troops could be destroyed and rebuilt again but whoever had Moscow’s backing would win.”
But it was hardly a glorious communist victory. “Mao was not working for the interests of the Party,” Chang says. “He was working for himself.”
But Mao had ambitions beyond China, which upset even his Russian friends. Halliday discovered a chilling document in which Mao tells the Soviet leaders: “We must set up an Earth Control Committee.”
Among the several hundred people Halliday and Chang talked to was a Russian interpreter who was at key talks in 1958. The man told Halliday that the Russians were alarmed when Mao asked: “Where are we going to build the new capital of the socialist world?”
Some critics have taken issue with their book because the authors cannot find good things to say about Mao except that he was a master plotter. The two are quick to justify placing Mao at the top of the 20th century’s monster heap, above both Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
“I don’t think the simple question is: Was Mao a monster? Of course people have said that before,” Halliday says. “What we show is that Mao was consistent from the age of 24 as a thinker and certainly from 1930 when he launched his first great purge. Mao is utterly consistent in his practices, which was to take over some other communist base and kill, torture and dis-credit the local communist leaders.”
Halliday is relentless in his denunciation of Mao. “There isn’t anything to put on the plus side of the Mao ledger. I can say that because we really did look at all his political and economic decisions from the moment he took power in the base areas. There is not a single decision by him that is trying to help the welfare [of the people]. There just isn’t.”
How is it then that some Western critics who are not natural bedfellows of Mao say that at least he gave China back a sense of pride?
“This is a complete myth,” Chang says. Mao did not unite the nation or rebuild the nation, she scoffs. “Chiang Kai-shek unified the nation before Japan invaded. Mao merely imposed a totalitarian structure on the country.”
In terms of nationalism, she says, he did not even look out for China’s interests. When Japanese visitors later apologized for Japan’s invasion, she notes, Mao told them that without their intervention he could not have seized power. “Mao created the biggest famine in the history of the world. in the year of Mao’s death, 1976, according to official statistics, the average food intake was less than in 1930 under the Nationalists.”
Any praise for Mao’s so-called accomplishments, Chang says, is built on myth. In education, she says, there were even fewer opportunities under Mao for poor people than in the era of his own youth. Similarly, “health services were never free except for a tiny elite.”
Achievements in eradicating epi-demics, she says, were made “because Mao basically viewed the Chinese as cannon fodder and slave laborers, and epidemics were obviously no good.
“He was able to eradicate the epidemics largely thanks to his regime’s strict policy of nailing everyone down on a fixed spot, so you could not move.”
Halliday is anxious for his turn: “The thing about making China great is a complete myth. During Mao’s reign from 1949 to 1976, China fell back in the world league tables. As a percentage of world GNP it fell from something like 4.5 percent to about 2.7 percent.
“Mao himself said to [Vietnamese leader] Le Duan in 1975: `We are now the poorest country in the world.’ Foreign apologists for Mao sometimes say that Mao makes metaphysical remarks, but he meant it literally.
“He did not improve the standards of living of Chinese people. He did not improve China’s position in the international economic league tables, and he did not improve China’s international diplomatic situation.
“There are a lot of Chinese going round saying that Mao made the country great, but I have yet to meet a single one who can give me any evidence of this except for having the atomic bomb.”
It is also a matter of opinion whether Mao could have got the bomb without Soviet help. “The Russians basically said, `This is how you do it,”’ Halliday says. “Mao was lucky. China was unlucky.”
Chang insists, however, that the book is not a hit piece on the chairman. “We were not going for Mao’s terrible things, nor for Mao’s good things. What we were trying to do was to tell the story, and let the stories speak for themselves. We did not use the word monster; nor did we use the word evil.”
Halliday has clearly been stung by the claim that the biography is unbalanced but he is equally unbowed: “A call for balance on grounds of misinformation has no credibility.”
On point after point, the authors say, Mao hurt the Chinese people. He overspent on the military, he failed to help those suffering from the Japanese occupation, he diverted resources to fight the Korean War, he gave the Soviets unfair advantages.
To fail to see these and many other crimes is delusional. Those who have “bent over backwards to find good things about Mao,” Chang says, “should be ashamed of themselves.”
One of the impressive things about the biography is how Chang and Halliday tracked down such a wide range of people, particularly in China, even including the woman who washed his underwear. Chang’s success in getting people to talk to her has led some to believe that she has semi-official backing in spite of a formal ban on people talking to her. Not true, she says. “If officials had advised people that they should talk to us, they would not have done so.”
But she isn’t surprised that she is still allowed into China. “China has changed tremendously. The current regime targets immediate threats,” she says. “They regard Wild Swans as a threat. They regard me talking to the media as a threat, so there was a very strict ban on the media talking to me.”
But had she been physically banned, she says, the publicity would have been even more negative.
Perhaps Mao’s only saving grace was that he cared so little about posterity. Indeed, his immediate family, including the wife who loved him best and an infant son, were among the victims he sacrificed. So there was no Mao dynasty, unlike in other Asian countries.
But a great mystery is why, if Mao were such a monster, his successors did not ditch him as the Soviet leadership denounced Stalin. It might have made the task of opening the country easier.
“They missed the chance,” Chang says. “Deng Xiaoping decided against it.” The reason, she explains, was that it might have harmed the Party.
“Could our book help?” Halliday asks. “If people knew the history of the Party which is running the country, could it help [the country become democratic]?”
No one knows the answer since so far the Party has clung to Mao’s historical image, even while jettisoning his policies. Halliday thinks the Chinese people deserve to know their own history and to see clearly the role of Mao and his Soviet supporters.
Chang’s dreams are modest. “I just hope that any political reform and transition from dictatorship to democracy in China will go smoothly.”
She knows, however, that it will not be easy. “To hang on to the monopoly of power, they feel the need to hang on to the myth of Mao.”
Does Chang have any ambitions to help change China?
“I am just a writer,” she says, and Britain is now her home. “In China I am constantly torn between two extreme feelings. One is tremendous excitement at the changes in peoples lives and at the other, extreme frustration that there is so much injustice and thinking how wonderful things could be if they were run differently.
“But I always come back to London to flop, to relax.”
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