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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Chang and Halliday nevertheless claim that Mao did not join the Communist party in order to realize these fantasies but simply to get a good job that didn't involve any manual labor. In 1920 he was given a commission by one of the founders of the Chinese Communist party to run a Red bookshop in Changsha, the capital of Hunan. "Mao was no fervent believer," Chung and Halliday write; he became a Communist "not after an idealistic journey, or driven by passionate belief, but by being at the right place at the right time, and being given a job that was highly congenial to him." There is no doubt some truth in this, but it slights the importance of the very beliefs quoted a few pages earlier. If not perhaps an orthodox Marxist-Leninist--Mao never showed much interest in the classics of Communist literature--he was nevertheless driven, like many other tyrants and conquerors, by a sense of personal destiny and a desire to remake the world that went beyond, as Chang and Halliday sometimes suggest, simply seeking a life of ease. Otherwise he would have become a merchant or college professor, not a professional revolutionary.

Whatever his motivation, Mao proved a genius at insurrection. Like other successful dictators, he made his first, and top, priority consolidating his authority within his own ranks by terrorizing real or imagined doubters and rivals. Mao's first large-scale purge, which occurred in Jiangxi province in the early 1930s, set the pattern. According to Jang and Halliday, over 10,000 Red soldiers alone were killed. Many were first subjected to gruesome tortures such as having a wire "run through the penis and hung on the ear of the victim," and then having the torturer pluck at the wire. Wives of Reds who fell into disfavor were not exempt from monstrous mistreatment: "Their bodies, particularly their vaginas, were burned with flaming wicks, and their breasts were cut with small knives."

Bloodthirsty in dealing with fellow Communists, Mao shrank from battling Japanese invaders. Though Chiang Kai-shek's numerous detractors have long excoriated him for not doing more to fight the Japanese, Mao did far less. The only time his troops engaged in combat with the Japanese, Chang and Halliday write, was when Red Army commanders disregarded his orders. Moreover, they claim that Mao actively collaborated with Japanese intelligence to undermine their mutual enemy, the Kuomintang. Mao: The Unknown Story shatters the lingering image of Mao as nationalist guerrilla fighter.

Another pillar of the Mao cult is reduced to dust when the authors show how dependent Mao was upon the Soviet Union from day one. Moscow's agents created the Chinese Communist Party, selected its leaders, and kept it going through massive infusions of weapons, cash, and advisers. The conventional wisdom among Western Sinologists that American intransigence drove Mao into Stalin's arms is revealed as a combination of wishful thinking and Communist disinformation. In fact, Chang and Halliday write, Mao did not even want his regime to be recognized at first by the "capitalist countries" because he feared that "recognition would facilitate subversive activities [by] the U.S.A. and Britain."

Yet another major element of Maoist mythology concerns the Long March, the 6,000-mile trek that Mao led in 1934-35 from southeast China, where the Red Army was in danger of annihilation, to establish secure enclaves in northwest China across the border from Soviet-controlled Mongolia. Chang and Halliday want to show that Mao was no hero. Rather than marching alongside his soldiers, they note, he was carried most of the way by porters in a bamboo litter covered with tarpaulin to keep out the sun and rain. Not content with such damning facts, the authors insist that the Long March succeeded only because Chiang wanted it to.

Why would the Nationalist leader allow his sworn enemies to escape? Chang and Halliday offer three explanations, none entirely convincing. First, Chiang wanted to let the Reds go in order to convince Stalin to let his son, a student in Russia, return to China. Second, Chiang wanted to drive the Reds out of "the rich heartland of China . . . into a more barren and sparsely populated corner, where he could box them in." Third, Chiang thought that independent warlords along Mao's route "would be so frightened of the Reds settling in their territory that they would allow Chiang's army in to drive the Reds out." To carry out this devious scheme, Chang and Halliday write, Chiang carefully limited his attacks on the retreating Communists, while always leaving an escape route open.