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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What Chang and Halliday themselves describe as an "unbelievably complex web of intrigue, deceit, bluff, and double-bluff" may indeed account for the Communists' survival. Or it may have something to do, as conventional accounts have it, with the fortitude and determination of the Red Army and the corruption, incompetence, and disunity of their enemies. Chang and Halliday do not offer any real proof of Chiang's supposed "Reds-for-son swap"--"It was not an offer that could be spelt out," they note--yet they admit of no rival interpretation.

This reveals some of the book's flaws: an unwillingness to weigh historical evidence, to qualify sweeping claims, or to account for the impact of chance and miscalculation in the shaping of events. Mao: The Unknown Story is, to put it mildly, rather conspiratorial. Most major developments are traced to secret plans, mainly Mao's. Undoubtedly, China in the 1930s and '40s was full of duplicity and shifting allegiances, but is it really credible to ascribe two major turning points--the 1937 Japanese attack on Shanghai, and the Red victory in the 1945-49 civil war--entirely to the machinations of secret agents without taking account of broader historical forces?

This is just what Chang and Halliday do. According to them, the Kuomintang general in charge of the Shanghai garrison in 1937, Zhang Zhizhong, was a Communist "supermole" who attacked Japanese forces to draw Japan into a wider war in China that would preclude a Japanese attack on his Soviet patrons. Later, they name two other senior Nationalist generals--Hu Tsung-nan and Wei Lihuang--as closet Communists who deliberately sacrificed their armies in 1947-48, making inevitable the Nationalists' defeat.

Mao: The Unknown Story is based on extensive research conducted over more than a decade, including hundreds of interviews with everyone from Mao's colleagues to former President Bush, the Dalai Lama, and actor Michael Caine (a Korean War veteran). While Chang interviewed Chinese participants and somehow gained access to official archives (she does not say which ones), Halliday unearthed a good deal of fresh material in Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries. Their apparent diligence makes it impossible to dismiss such startling claims, but it is hard to accept them on faith, either. Numerous Sinologists have complained that, in critical spots, their sourcing is either deficient, vague, or not available for verification by other scholars. Whether they have unearthed historical treasures not available to anyone else, or passed along rumors as fact, is impossible to say. Judgment will have to be reserved until other scholars can follow their footnote trail and look at the documents they cite and talk to the people they mention. That could take years. In the meantime we are left with a scathing portrait of Mao that is, for the most part, solidly rooted in the historical record as it already exists.

There can be no denying, for instance, the catastrophic impact of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), to which Chang and Halliday do full justice. Mao's aim was to turn China into an economic and military superpower. To achieve this goal he pulled vast numbers of peasants off their fields and into inefficient factories and collective farms. He also expropriated their food and exported a good deal of it to the Soviet Union in exchange for factories and weapons. There was not enough left for most Chinese to eat; urban housewives in 1960 got fewer calories a day than slave laborers at Auschwitz. Even as mass starvation broke out, Mao continued to give away vast amounts of food and money to bolster his influence among foreign Communist movements. According to Mao: The Unknown Story, China donated more of its gross domestic product in foreign aid (a whopping 6.92 percent in 1973) than any other country in history, with much of it going to countries such as East Germany that were considerably richer than China itself.

The Great Leap Forward killed an estimated 30-40 million people, making it the worst famine in history. (Chang and Halliday give a misleadingly precise figure of "close to 38 million people" based on dubious demographic data.) Mao was predictably unperturbed by all the suffering he had caused. "Deaths have benefits," he told senior cadres in 1958. "They can fertilize the ground."

This insouciant attitude was possible because Mao himself was shielded from any suffering. He lived the life of an emperor, protected by his own praetorian guard, residing in dozens of vast estates complete with swimming pools and nuclear-bomb shelters, enjoying books, operas, and other entertainments forbidden to anyone else, gorging himself on delicacies produced just for him, traveling in his own fleet of aircraft, trains, ships, and automobiles, his needs tended by a vast staff of retainers, including comely "singers and dancers, nurses and maids" who performed double duty as concubines.

The accumulation of such well-documented depravities, one after another, has a devastating effect. For all its flaws, Mao: The Unknown Story succeeds better than any other book in exposing Mao as the monster that he was. It is a blood-curdling indictment told in simple, spare language and easy-to-digest chapters that anyone can understand. If the CIA is interested in promoting democracy in China--and, if it isn't, it should be--it could do a lot worse than to smuggle millions of translated copies of Mao: The Unknown Story to the mainland, where it has been officially banned.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.