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Red Emperor

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.
Mao: The Unknown Story.
Knopf. 832 pages. $35.00

In the 1970s, Western statesmen flocked to Beijing to pay homage to Mao Tse-tung, the ruler of a quarter of the earth’s population. Richard Nixon called him a “philosopher”; Henry Kissinger compared him and his cronies to “dedicated monks” presenting a challenge to the West “in a moral way.” Mao became a pop icon in the West. Andy Warhol painted his portrait. People bought little Mao badges and brandished his Little Red Book. That he was also the greatest mass killer in history, surpassing both Hitler and Stalin, was somehow lost in the commotion. The only mention of violence in the French writer Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Long March was found in the index under “Mao on violence, the avoidance of.” Due to China’s distance, everybody was free to create a Great Helmsman of his or her own imagination.

The real Mao was of course straight out of some Nietzschean nightmare, a leader totally devoid of morals who saw himself among the great heroes of history — outside normal restraints, restrictions, responsibilities. “When great heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful and invincible. Their power is like a hurricane arising from a deep gorge, and like a sex maniac in heat and prowling for a lover,” he wrote in a notebook at the age of 24. “People like me only have a duty to ourselves. We have no duty to other people.”

The freedom to indulge in fantasy is now at an end, thanks to the Chinese émigré writer Jung Chang. Chang is known for Wild Swans, a bitter memoir following three generations of women through the twentieth century and culminating in the events of the Cultural Revolution, in which her family suffered greatly. Together with her husband, Jon Halliday, a British academic, she has now written Mao: The Unknown Story, from which the quotes above are taken. The book is based on interviews with some of Mao’s family members and close associates, and the couple had wide access to Chinese and Russian archives.

The book has received rave reviews in Britain and the West. In China, where it is banned, it has been compared to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Each communist dictatorship has a special flavor, and this book captures in wonderful detail what should be understood by the term “Maoist.” One interesting question the book raises is why Chang was given such access, why she was allowed to travel around and interview so extensively. Her views were well known to the authorities. Somebody high up must have thought the project was a good idea.


Great dictators emerge as the result of national catastrophes. Born in 1893, Mao came from a well-to-do peasant family in the province of Hunan. A clever, restless and rather lazy student, he dreamt of war and upheaval. The last Manchu emperor of China was overthrown in 1911, and the country was in the throes of a republican revolution. At the age of 28, Mao joined the Soviet-funded Communist Party. He was no fervent believer. The theory did not much interest him — he was criticized by his colleagues for being “opportunistic and right wing” — but the violence inherent in Leninism did. Mao was picked as a winner by the Kremlin because he was deemed to posses the requisite ruthlessness, and he set up his bandit fiefdom in 1928 in the province of Yenan.

Among the many myths the book explodes is that of Mao’s heroic role in the Civil War, especially the 1934 Long March of 80,000 troops to escape Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. According to the story perpetrated by his American mouthpiece Edgar Snow in Red Star over China, Mao, the military genius, walked with the rank and file, sharing their hardships for most of 6,000 miles. In fact, according to the authors, he spent most of the Long March being carried by his troops on a litter, busy reading books, splendidly unconcerned about the well-being of his men.

Central to the same myth is how the Reds, while under withering machine-gun fire, crossed the bridge over the Dadu River in 1935 on bare iron chains because the Nationalists had removed the planks. According to the authors, this was sheer fabrication. The bridge was undefended by Chiang’s forces and the only casualty on the bridge was a hapless horse. In fact, we learn, Chiang had plenty of opportunities to finish off the communists but deliberately held back because his son was being held hostage in Russia.

The communist forces did suffer huge casualties on the Long March, but these were due partly to the ineptitude of their leaders and partly to the jockeying for power among them. Mao’s goal was to outmaneuver his main rival for communist leadership, Kuo Tao, which he did by sending Kuo’s army into the most hopeless terrain, thereby whittling his forces down.

When the Japanese invaded in 1937, again contrary to myth, Mao preferred to leave most of the fighting against the invaders to Chiang Kai-shek. Mao himself concentrated on expanding his own territory. “I would rather thank the Japanese warlords. Without them we would still be in the mountains today.”

With the Civil War heating up after the Japanese defeat in 1945, Mao found himself on the ropes but was rescued by General George Marshall, who was in China to try to stop the fighting. Marshall despised the corruption of the Chiang entourage, and despite warnings from the U.S. mission in Yenan, was taken in by communist claims that they represented land reform and preferred America to Russia. At a crucial moment, Marshall forced Chiang to quit pressuring Mao in Manchuria under threat of a cutoff of funds. This four-month truce in 1946 allowed Mao time to be resupplied by the Soviets and enabled him to turn the tide.


Having shunted Chiang off to Formosa in 1949, Mao’s ambition was to turn China into a world power. For that he needed help from the Russians to build a war machine. More than anything, he wanted the atomic bomb, without which “people just won’t listen to you.”

Taking on U.S. troops in Korea would be a way to get this: Mao sought a deal from Stalin whereby China would fight America in Korea in exchange for Soviet equipment and know-how. Going into Korea was thus, as Mao put it, decided by “one man and a half,” namely himself and Chou En-lai.

Stalin, never one to welcome rivals, regarded Mao as a little too independent-minded for his taste and kept him at arm’s length. Stalin preferred to see the Chinese as — in the words of a French general — “a sort of human livestock” that could be used wear down the West. Though he supplied unlimited manpower, Mao didn’t get what he wanted from Stalin. And much to Mao’s chagrin, Stalin’s successors wanted the Korean War ended and improved relations with the West. A Russian estimate gives the figure of one million Chinese casualties in Korea.

Having failed to get the bomb through the Korean War, Mao soon started plotting again, seeking to engineer another confrontation with America, this time over Taiwan. He started shelling the small islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1954, hoping that the U.S. would threaten with nuclear weapons, thereby prodding Moscow to give them to him. In his talks with the Soviets he displayed a rather casual attitude toward the bomb. On one occasion, he startled Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko by asking where the new socialist capital should be built after a nuclear war, implying that Moscow would be history. On the other hand, China would be perfectly prepared to fight a nuclear war with America alone and endure a first strike: “All it is is a big pile of people dying.” In his view, if half of China’s population, then some 800 million, were wiped out in a nuclear confrontation, so be it. That would leave 400 million.

Rather than allowing Russia to get drawn into unplanned confrontations with the Americans by an unpredictable ally and having to retaliate on its behalf, Khrushchev decided to let Mao have the bomb. As the authors note, Mao’s way of scaring the pants off an ally was a first in international statecraft. China’s first bomb was tested in the Gobi desert in 1964. To commemorate the occasion, Mao celebrated with a poem: “Atom bomb goes off when it is told. Ah, what boundless joy.”

In the beginning Mao admired Khrushchev for his boldness but soon came to see the Soviet leader as a “disaster-prone blunderer.” At their meetings, he took to playing the part of “superior philosopher,” patronizing and lecturing the Soviet ruler. “You have a quick temper, which tends to make enemies,” Mao told him. “Let people voice their different views and talk to them slowly.” Such advice was bound to make the irascible Khrushchev blow a gasket. But Khrushchev’s position had been weakened after Molotov and Malenkov tried to overthrow him in 1957. He needed Mao’s backing. .


To achieve his superpower ambitions, Mao wanted to develop heavy industry in record time. He instigated the Great Leap forward in May 1958. To pay for it, he waged war on the peasants, forcibly confiscating their crops and their livestock. As a result, some 38 million died of starvation. (The cia stated in 1959 that there were “remarkable increases” in food output.) When his officials tried to tell him about the consequences of his policies, Mao brushed them off. He was economically illiterate. Figures bored him. He complained of having to read reports containing “only dull lists and figures, and no stories.”

As the book points out, the industrial products coming out of this colossal effort left something to be desired. Rickety planes and helicopters that were deathtraps to fly, and tanks that would not drive straight among them. In one case, a tank with a mind of its own charged a reviewing stand of assembled dignitaries. Huge amounts of equipment were left to rust.

More than anything, Mao wanted to be seen as the champion of the disadvantaged, newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. He sought o become the “arsenal of the world revolution.” To that end, China spent more on Third World aid than any other country (notwithstanding that its own population was starving).

In the West, much has been written about his special contribution to the theory of Marxism-Leninism on peasant revolution and on his expertise on the theory of guerrilla war. In real-world terms, his influence was less than impressive. The reason was that he demanded that nations he was assisting side with him against Moscow, which they would not do. Mao couldn’t compete with Soviet materiel. That’s how he lost the North Vietnamese, who were not about to break with their principal arms supplier. When Mao wanted to present Ho Chi Minh with a helicopter, the manufacturers wisely decided to detain it at the Vietnamese border for fear it would crash. Except to tiny Albania, the authors note, Peking did not represent a serious alternative to Moscow.

As to Mao’s particular style of rule, Khrushchev said, when “I look at Mao, I see Stalin, a perfect copy.” Mao ruled not through personal magnetism or oratory , but through campaigns, resolutions, edicts, and terror. While Hitler and Stalin preferred to do their killing offstage, Mao liked to do his in full public view. From the very start in Yenan, he had been in favor of public executions, which he turned into rallies. Another early Mao specialty was arranging self-denunciations and exercises of self-abasement before huge crowds. Rather than relying on narrow elites like the kgb and the Gestapo, he drastically enlarged the number of people involved in the repression.

Outwardly a man of simple tastes, his personal habits were somewhat peculiar. Like Stalin, he was a creature of the night. He loved reading in bed. He did not go for fancy clothes or believe in unnecessary cleanliness. He didn’t take a bath for a quarter of a century but was given a daily rub down with a towel. He preferred his old clothes, which his tailor would most carefully mend for him, and he had his bodyguards soften up his shoes.

His language was coarse and scatological. Prone to constipation, he was obsessed with his bowels. His favorite foods included chili with fermented beans and fish heads, which he believed would enhance his brain. His grain was husked manually to preserve the membrane between the husk and the kernel, which he liked.

He found it hard to sleep and was addicted to sleeping pills. To ensure his rest, his bodyguards once proposed using dynamite to wipe out the noisy frogs of nearby ponds. As the authors point out, Mao’s was the kind of asceticism that is very costly to maintain — “the quirks of the hedonistic superpowerful.” And he consumed concubines by the dance troupe-load.

As all tyrants are, he was of course extremely security conscious. He tore down fine old villas across China, replacing them with his special one-story bombproof hangar constructions; his car could take him straight into his living room. His security was “outwardly relaxed, inwardly tight,” which fooled foreign observers into believing that Chinese leaders could move unharmed among the masses.


In 1962, as a result of the famine, Mao was forced to moderate his policies. Thereafter, he sought revenge. This came with the Cultural Revolution, his great purge, which he launched in 1966 with the support of Defense Minister Lin Biao and premier Chou En-lai. The aim of the cultural revolution was the destruction of Chinese culture and of Mao’s enemies within the party and the state, and for that purpose he used gangs of students and secret policemen as his tools. Atrocities occurred at schools and universities throughout China, with Red Guards fanning out across the country, looting and destroying historical monuments, art treasures, and books.

Mao’s wife, the former actress Jiang Qing, was the spearhead of the Cultural Revolution, part of the infamous “Gang of Four,” and rates as one of the most spectacularly awful women in history. “Jiang Qing is as deadly poisonous as a scorpion,” Mao is quoted as saying, wriggling his little finger in illustration. Mao hated her himself but found her useful in keepingeverybody off balance. “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. Whenever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit,” she stated after his death.

Among the victims was president Liu Shao-chi, who was slowly tortured to death, and Deng Xiao-ping, who was rusticated. By 1969, with the country sliding toward anarchy, the student organizations were disbanded, but by this point Mao’s new power apparatus was in place.

With his attempts to become the Third World’s champion going nowhere, Mao tried to relaunch himself on the international scene, starting with the invitation of an American ping-pong team and culminating in Nixon’s visit in the run-up to the 1972 election. In the Brezhnev period, the Sino-Soviet relationship deteriorated to its worst condition ever. Kissinger tried to exploit this split with his famous triangular diplomacy. The book asks who was really exploiting whom. Mao pocketed a lot of concessions, especially U.S. acceptance of his position on Taiwan, and was not asked to give much in return. (Chou compared Nixon to a fallen woman, “tarting herself up and offering herself at the door.”) But Watergate kept Mao from getting what he was really after: Western technology. Thus the Chinese lacked delivery systems for their atom bombs until 1980, after Mao’s death, when their first icbm flew successfully.

Some of Kissinger’s writings seem awfully embarrassing today, especially the passages praising the acumen of Chou En-lai. According to the authors, Chou was just Mao’s willing tool, a “self-abasing slave” whom Mao enjoyed humiliating. Chou’s reward for having served Mao faithfully so long was that Mao prevented him from having a cancer operation that could have saved his life. Mao did not want Chou to survive him.

Old age and political vulnerability forced Mao to relax the regime and reinstate some of the men he had purged, Deng Xiao-ping foremost among them. (Mao’s chosen successor, Lin Biao, died in 1971 when his plane crashed as he tried to flee the country after the two had fallen out.) Mao’s deal with Deng Xiao-ping was to let Deng institute reforms in exchange for letting Mao die in his bed. He did so in 1976.

Unlike other statesmen, the verdict of history did not matter to Mao. “People like me are not building achievements to leave for future generations,” he once stated. That was certainly true: Altogether more than 70 million people died in peacetime because of him.