The Magazine

Helmsman from Hell

Mao Zedong was "a genius at insurrection."

May 1, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 31 • By MAX BOOT
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The Unknown Story

by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Knopf, 814 pp., $35

MAO ZEDONG HAS BEEN DEAD for 30 years, but he continues to cast a considerable shadow over the state he founded, the People's Republic of China. Both his preserved corpse and a giant portrait of him continue to occupy positions of honor in Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing. That's no accident, since today's rulers still trace whatever legitimacy they possess back to the institutions created by the Great Helmsman. Hu Jintao is president, after all, not because he won the votes of most Chinese but because he won the votes of the most influential members of the Communist party's inner circle.

In many ways, of course, particularly in the economic sphere, today's China bears scant resemblance to the one Mao left behind in 1976. But even as a pragmatic philosophy of "market-Leninism" has taken hold, there has never been a real repudiation of Mao. The official line has remained the one laid out in 1981 by Deng Xiaoping (who was raised to the heights of power by Mao, purged, and then rehabilitated)--that Mao was "70 percent right, 30 percent wrong."

Imagine the scandal if a postwar German leader had said that Hitler was "70 percent right." Or if a current leader of Cambodia said the same thing about Pol Pot. Yet, in spite of being responsible for more peacetime deaths (an estimated 70 million) than the other great monsters of the 20th century, Mao has, at least until recently, occupied a different place in Western opinion. Wearing a Mao button or T-shirt is still seen in some quarters as kitschy fun in a way that a tribute to Hitler or Stalin would not be. There's even a bestselling business book called The Little Red Book of Selling. Don't look for the Mein Kampf of Investing anytime soon.

Sure, there is growing recognition that Mao was responsible for widespread suffering and death. But somehow he is still given credit in the popular imagination for a host of virtues: for being a well-intentioned agrarian reformer, a staunch anti-Japanese fighter, a personally abstemious and incorruptible scholar-king, a progressive thinker intent on junking oppressive remnants of China's feudal past, and a pragmatic nationalist who raised his country to new heights of power and only turned to the Soviet Union after being spurned by the United States. Much of this impression was created by Communist propaganda, making use of Western dupes such as Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China, the 1937 book that first introduced Mao to much of the world.

Jung Chang and her British husband, Jon Halliday, have produced a blockbuster that seeks to demolish these myths once and for all. She has previously told her story in Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991), an international bestseller that set her family's experiences against the tumultuous backdrop of 20th-century Chinese history. Having survived the lunacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (when she was briefly a Red Guard), Chang escaped to Britain in 1978 at age 26. Mao: The Unknown Story is her scathing indictment of the man who tormented her and countless other Chinese. While billed as a dispassionate work of history, it is really a heartfelt exposé and denunciation that has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago (as Arthur Waldron has noted) than with Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History.

The main themes are established at the start of the narrative. Mao was born in 1893 to a farm family in Hunan province, but, contrary to the claims of his acolytes, Chang and Halliday write, "Mao's peasant background did not imbue him with idealism about improving the lot of Chinese peasants." Instead, they write, in a statement echoed throughout the book, "Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao's outlook."

The key to Mao's worldview can be found, they argue, in a philosophy paper he wrote as a 24-year-old student in the winter of 1917-18. The young Mao wrote: "People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people. . . . I am only concerned about developing myself." Combined with this extreme solipsism was a grandiose desire to transform his country. China, he wrote, "must be . . . destroyed and then re-formed . . . People like me long for its destruction, because when the old universe is destroyed, a new universe will be formed. Isn't that better!" The costs of this radical undertaking were waved away: "Long-lasting peace is unendurable to human beings, and tidal waves of disturbance have to be created in this state of peace." Even death was no big deal to Mao. (At least the deaths of others; he always took great care to prolong his own existence.) "Human beings are endowed with a sense of curiosity. Why should we treat death differently? Don't we want to experience strange things?"