AS THE EXTRAORDINARY economic miracle of post-Mao China continues to grip the world, prompting either dreams of untold riches or “yellow peril” nightmares in the West, a brilliant but devastating new biography of Chairman Mao Tse-tung has been unleashed (“published” seems too tame a word) to make sure the world understands something it doesn’t really want to absorb.
That something is the terrible truth that the current Communist regime is constructed atop the corpses of millions of victims and a half-century of messianic, unrelenting persecution that is almost impossible for anyone to grasp fully—including many of the Chinese people themselves. It’s as if the story of the Soviet Union was still served up without the truth of the Gulag, or the Nazi regime in Germany came to us minus the concen-
ine Andy Warhol turning Idi Amin or Hitler into a pop art icon: the world would have howled. But in smart apartments in Upper Manhattan and the salons of Rosedale, a psychopathic perpetrator of nearly 100 corrosive, deadly political campaigns and at least three completely unnecessary wars is right up there with iconic artwork subjects like Che and Marilyn Monroe.
Jung Chang, who was born in Sichuan province in 1952 and came to the West only in 1978 (where she did a doctorate in England), lived all her formative days within this deadly Maoist experiment. Give the monster his due: when Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966 and urged the youth of China to rise up and rebel against their parents and teachers, he knew more than enough about human psychology to bet on the appeal this would
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, the author of the international bestseller Wild Swans, and her husband, Jon Halliday, transcends every other attempt ever made to tell the story of the leader of New China. It does this through impeccable archival research—exhaustively documented in nearly 150 pages of reference notes—spread over 10 years, and remarkable interviews with hundreds of witnesses and key observers inside China and around the world.
It’s about time, too. Of the three dominant monsters'of the 20th century, Mao has always fared dramatically better than Hitler or Stalin. There are many reasons for this, chief of which remains the fact
HIS FAVOURITE BATTLE tactic
was the human wave-simply sending young men over the hill, regardless of the cost
that his primary legacy, the Communist Party of China, still rules over the most populous nation in the history of the world (now estimated to be around 1.3 billion). Consequently, the party has a huge stake in moderating any defamation of Mao’s record.
At the same time, it has long been a curious phenomenon that many Western observers, from professional China-watchers to well-wishing visitors (everyone from Pierre Trudeau to actress Shirley MacLaine), have always exempted Mao from the kind of dictator opprobrium handed out to the Francos and Pol Pots of the world. This studied ignorance is not just a small thing. Imag-
Books I >
have for teenagers like 15-year-old Jung.
But she learned from her own experiences as a Red Guard the fraud that had been perpetrated on the country, biding her time until she could go West and tell the truth about the Maoist China she had survived. Curiously, as she admitted in an interview in Toronto
ITS CURIOUS how well-wishers
from Pierre Trudeau to Shirley MacLaine have exempted Mao from opprobrium
earlier this week, it wasn’t really till she and her husband started researching the Mao book that she had even an inkling of the frill immensity of the terror the Great Helmsman presided over.
“Even Stalin choked at what Mao was doing with the military,” says Halliday, a retired British academic. “At the height of the Second World War, for example, the Soviet Union’s defence budget never exceeded a nevertheless appalling 56 per cent of the GNP. After 1949, Mao’s annual defence budget was never less than 60 per cent. Not once! Think of the consequences for that poor country of this fact alone.” In fact, during Mao’s lifetime, he never got grain production up to the per-capita level of the year just prior to the 1935 Japanese invasion.
Yet it is not economics or social policy that ultimately haunts every page of Mao, but the cost in human lives and well-being. One
of the most remarkable aspects of the book is the sequence of first-person accounts of victims still alive and willing to talk, both from within the Communist party apparatus and among dissident circles. It is important to realize that it was not Western imperialism or capitalist exploitation that held Chinese lives most cheaply after 1949; it was Mao himself. He thought nuclear war would be fine because no matter how many bombs the West might drop on the Middle Kingdom, there would still be Chinese left, meaning “victory.” His favourite battle tactic was the human wave—simply sending young men over the hill, regardless of the cost, until the objective was achieved.
The deaths by famine as a direct result of Mao’s unconscionably naive and stupid political campaigns to reform agricultural and industrial production were in uncountable millions. So, too, were the number of deaths caused by endless political campaigns to rout out, first, Kuomintang officials, and then, in deadly succession: landlords, fifthcolumnists, religious figures, capitalist-roaders, moderates, far-leftists, splitists, humanists, right-wing deviationists, journalists, theorists, Confucians... The procession of the persecuted rarely varied in intensity even if the labels were adjusted to suit the times.
And there were always quotas in this most bureaucratic of regimes: so many for the execution grounds, so many for the labour-reform camps, so many for disciplinary action, so
many for self-criticism, MA0: THE UNKNOWN j j STORY
and etc. and etc. Jung Chang and Jon
“The Chinese peoHaiiiday; Knopf; $50
pie are good people and loyal to the party even if they aren’t all members,” Mao opined once in one of his jolly little games with statistics. “Only five per cent are bad and need to be supervised by the masses.” Seems fair enough until you realize five per cent of the Chinese people would today constitute somewhere between 50 and 65 million people, or twice the population of Canada—all the justification deemed necessary for the endless array of prisons and labour reform camps that still pockmark the Chinese geographical and metaphysical landscape.
Chang and Halliday’s book would be too depressing to read if it were just an endless summing up of statistical and egomaniacal detail. What makes it more than a mere catalogue of horrors—important as that cataloguing is—is the controlled anger that animates the whole tale. The authors go to real pains to make sure there is no convenient escape route for the sort of woollyheaded thinking that would excuse Mao his worst excesses because of the greater good he brought the ever-suffering Chinese people.
The best indictment for such nonsense is the spectacle of post-Mao China ushered in by Deng Xiaoping and the generation of Communist reformers who have been handed the difficult task of moderating expectations at the same time as trying to manage the Chinese people’s frustrations and longing for a better life. The authors clearly imply that until the regime comes to terms—until the Chinese people themselves come to terms—with the grotesque legacy of the Maoist era, they run the risk of never being truly liberated.
In all this vast saga of woe, one wretched little tale seems to stand out to capture Chairman Mao’s inimitable style, one little deed of vileness that rings out in a world longing to be better than it is. As she lay dying, Mao’s old mama—the woman who bore him and spoiled him and protected him and was proud of him—suffered terrible agonies of pain. When Mao heard of this, he decided not to visit her on her deathbed. He preferred to remember her the way she was when she was well, he told family and friends, and not have any vision of her suffering clouding his consciousness. That’s how he treated someone he loved. The way he treated his enemies—real and imagined—is what this crucially important book is all about. I?]
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