I just finished a powerful, mind-bending history book, Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang (a Chinese novelist) and Jon Halliday (an American writer and historian). This thick but highly readable book chronicles Mao Zedong’s entire life, from his humble beginnings as a student, librarian and bookseller to his death in 1976. According to this book, it doesn’t matter how monstrous you thought Chairman Mao was; he was worse than that. The book reads like a diatribe, but the scholarship is persuasive. I did some fact-checking, and it appears that Chang and Halliday are simply laying out the sad truth: the political career of Mao Zedong was one of the great frauds of modern history.
The most surprising finding in this book is that Mao, who was never popular or highly regarded by his political peers during the Communist rise to power, ascended to party leadership by consistently sabotaging his partners. Mao was a ruthless “master player”, always looking beyond his organization’s immediate goals to calculate the long-term effects a military defeat or victory would have on his own position within the team. Chang and Halliday provide evidence that Mao regularly forced changes in battle plans or retreat plans, often with disastrous results, so as to deny his “comrades” great victories. This is most pronounced during the famous “Long March”, in which terrible decisions were made at great human cost, diminishing the size and strength of the escaping Chinese Communist Party until it was weak and fractured enough for Mao to begin to emerge as the party’s leader.
Sabotage seems to have been the sharpest tool in Mao’s toolbox, and he betrayed the trust of his colleagues over and over during his long career. I’ll never think of the Korean War the same way again, for instance; I’d always understood that the Chinese and North Koreans were close partners in this conflict, but Chang and Halliday lay out a strong case that Mao allowed North Korea to suffer a disastrous loss in a successful bid to raise China’s global profile and gain access to weapons.
The most upsetting part of the book deals with the agricultural collectivization project known as the “Great Leap Forward”, which caused the deaths of tens of millions of peasants from 1958 to 1961. Here, Mao’s personal perversity is clearly visible; he is unabashedly proud to have managed to have caused such extreme suffering and death, as if this proves his power and his determination. In an almost comic coda to this disaster (which was finally eased after other Chinese Communist politicians bravely defied Mao to end the horror), we see Mao reaching out to heads of state in Iron Curtain-era Eastern Europe by advising them to torment their own populations as successfully as he has in China. Not surprisingly, even the communist leaders of Eastern Europe found Mao’s instructions unappealing, except for the leaders of Albania, who fell for it.
I’m planning to read more about the Chinese peasant genocide of 1958-1961. As I read these chapters, the word “slavery” kept popping into my head. That’s the clearest description of what China’s government achieved during this program: a handful of coastal leaders managed to turn the world’s most populous country into a slave society. It’s quite frightening to see how easily this was achieved.
On an existential or psychological level, a portrait of Mao emerges. He was brave, ambitious and quite smart. He appeared to be a happy and lustful person, without a shred of idealism or humane warmth. Indeed, he mocked and denigrated anyone in his orbit who expressed idealistic or romantic notions, and this ability to undercut the idealism of his “revolutionary” party served him well.
The Dalai Lama bitterly referred to Mao Zedong as his “greatest teacher”, since Mao taught him how venal and destructive a single human being can possibly be. Based on this book, I’ve still got some learning to do.