Mao: The Unknown Story
by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
832pp | Jonathan Cape, London | ISBN 0224071262 | £25rrp | 2005

In the winter of 1917-18, a 24-year-old student wrote commentaries on a book of ethics: “Of course there are people and objects in the world but they are all there only for me… I am responsible to no-one… The country must be destroyed and then re-formed…People like me long for its destruction.” The student was Mao Tse-Tung and the country was China. Other callow, self-absorbed students of politics might have thought along similar lines; then (one hopes) they matured, entered the milieu of work and relationships and began to understand their social obligations. Not so Mao. Born in 1893 into a peasant family in Hunan province, he entered a world on the brink of upheaval and civil war with this menacing philosophy intact. As Chinese dictator from 1949 until his death in 1976, with unrivalled power over its enormous population, he refined and expanded the sentiments of his youth, but he did not change them.

Jung Chang, who co-authored this book with her English husband, also wrote the best-selling Wild Swans, an earlier account of the lives of her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine, her mother, an idealistic Communist, and herself, a former Red Guard. Tragically disillusioned in his Communist faith, her father was brainwashed and never recovered. No hint of this personal story surfaces in these 800 pages, but her loathing and contempt for her subject is implicit throughout. This is its flaw. In the first line we learn that Mao was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime; the remainder of the book is a detailed dossier of his monstrous antics on the road to power and when wielding it. The authors do not build up a case; they assume it. Their judgements are depressingly true, yet they become wearisome on repetition. Mao’s true story – not as unknown in the West as the authors’ title suggests – certainly needed to be told, especially to his own countrymen who are, ironically, forbidden to read it; and Jung Chang needed to tell it. What she achieves is to fill in the finer details of her subject’s infamy so that any fleeting illusion of his greatness is swiftly dispelled.

It is a grim task. Compared to Hitler and Stalin, the other two members of the 20th century’s triumvirate of terror, Mao’s personality seems colourless, lacking dimension and human interest, more suited to a textbook of psychopathology if he had not happened to wield absolute power over one quarter of the world’s peoples. His early life – only four pages – tells us only that he was lazy, disrespectful to his elders, preferring reading to peasants’ work. Apparently he was a voracious reader throughout his life; frustratingly, the authors never tell us what the books were. Thrillers? Pornography? Political tracts? To know might shed more light on the inner man.

Aged 27, after flirting with joining the Nationalists he became a Communist for cynical motives of personal advancement rather than idealism. In this he differed from other members of the Politburo such as Chou En-Lai, who deliberately renounced the woman he loved to marry a Party zealot. Mao also felt a penchant for the violence characteristic of Communism; this, we learn, “filled him with a kind of ecstasy never experienced before.”

In 1927, when Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist commander, finally broke with the Communists, Mao ordered the nascent Chinese Communist party to form a counter-army. From then until assuming power in 1949, he began to demonstrate his capacity for corruption, military ineptitude, terror tactics and supreme indifference to peoples’ lives. Seemingly he had only two goals: self-preservation and the pursuit of power. He surrounded himself with guards, secrecy, spies and safe houses. “Power”, he observed, “comes out of the barrel of a gun”. If only this had been literally true it would have made the inevitable deaths of so many of his fellows mercifully quick. In practise, power for Mao often meant slow torment, both physical and mental. If his perceived enemies did not die agonizingly, they were driven mad by psychological torture. He never forgot and he never forgave. When, under the Nationalist government, the Communists managed to invade and control individual provinces, they ran them by terror and guarded them like prisons. The population of Jiangxi province fell by 20 per cent under Communist rule; murder and suicide were the order of the day. And this was before the Communists came to power.

After 1949, none of China’s hapless millions was able to escape the long, vicious arm of “the Great Helmsman”. He rarely appeared in public, preferring to work behind the scenes of a vast police network and to cultivate a mythic image through posters, slogans and indoctrination. The population was enslaved — often worked to death — conscripted, starved and endlessly spied on. Public humiliations and executions (which Hitler and Stalin largely avoided) were a common method of control as an efficient way of creating fear in the spectators. Again unlike Hitler and Stalin, Mao systematically turned ordinary institutions like schools and colleges into a form of prison. No one could move freely. This hit the peasants particularly hard. They were forbidden to leave their villages to look for work or food if it was scarce; they were thus condemned to starve. During the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, when China secretly exported millions of tons of food to Russia in return for armaments and industrial help, it is estimated that 38 million people died in the ensuing famine. Millions more died in grandiose but dangerous building schemes. Ninety million people were forced to build “backyard furnaces”, a scheme that was both futile and inefficient. In Moscow in 1957, Mao grandly announced he was prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese “for the victory of the world revolution”.

In a regime pathologically suspicious of dissent, the intelligentsia – such as Jung Chang’s family – were liable to capricious accusations of being “counter-revolutionaries” or “capitalist roaders” and then systematically purged. “We say it is good to kill,” commented their Chairman. Those who did not die faced permanent exile and hard labour in remote provinces in Mao’s own elaborate system of gulags. He was just as pitiless towards his own family. Of his four wives, he did nothing to save the second from execution; the third, forced to abandon her children on the Long March, went insane; the fourth – the fearsome Madame Mao, who outlived him – committed suicide. His defenders would say that the whole Politburo was involved, that they were collectively responsible for the crimes of the regime. In reply, I would suggest that they were not an edifying bunch. But they were dominated by one man who seemingly had an infinite capacity for spite; effective dissent was almost impossible; and after Mao’s death his successors dismantled much of the machinery and reversed many of his insane policies.

So what does the book tell us that we did not already know? The broad picture of a brutal dictatorship has been common knowledge for a long time. The authors provide overwhelming, detailed and comprehensive evidence in support of this; the list of people interviewed covers 14 pages and the notes and bibliography extend for more than 100 pages. For instance, during the Long March of 1934-35 (in which only 10,000 survived of the original 80,000) contrary to myth, Mao was carried in a litter. In the Korean War he deliberately sent former Nationalist soldiers to their deaths, providing execution squads for those who hung back; he was addicted to sleeping pills; he lived promiscuously and in luxury, while condemning his fellow Chinese to enforced celibacy — through work conditions — and the breadline. The list of crimes is endless; the numbers who suffered under him simply beggar belief. Ten years in the making, this book does a heavy hatchet job. It also makes heavy reading.

In looking at the magnitude of Mao’s crimes, one asks: what was China like before? Did he do nothing to improve his country? On this the authors are silent, perhaps with reason. When I raised this in conversation with a Marxist friend, he reminded me that poverty, injustice, famine, feudalism and foot-binding had been China’s recent history. From the evidence of this book, it would appear that only foot-binding was eradicated during Mao’s period. Rural poverty became countrywide wretchedness; injustice was entrenched in a sham legal system; famine was deliberately created on an unprecedented scale; and the feudal caste system was cruelly refashioned by an elaborate system of ranks and privileges. Was it worth it? Ask those who survived.

Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.