The Late, Great Helmsman


Eagles soar up the long vault Fish fly down the shallow riverbed Under a sky of frost, ten thousand creatures vie to impose their will Touched by this vastness, I ask the boundless earth: Who after all will be your master?

~ Mao Tse-Tung

The more history you read, the less you learn from it. Not that it isn’t entertaining; to the contrary, history is nothing if not diverting. The trouble is, it is nothing more. In the end, all you take away is a gaping mouth and a mind pried so wide open it is ready to believe anything…and nothing.

We say that after reading a grand biography of Mao Tse-Tung, written by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. The authors must have spent many years trawling through the official records, listening to oral histories, and reading the newspapers. What they have come up with is extraordinary. And what is most extraordinary about it is that it shows how man — and here we speak of the species, not the gender — can get away with almost anything.

In the 20th century, man got away with more than usual. Murder, robbery, torture, starvation were not uncommon. And the people who committed these crimes often found themselves the subjects of popular adoration. Their silhouettes were recorded on paper currency. Likenesses of themselves were chiseled out of granite and hoisted onto public squares. Their quips and sayings were printed up in little books, distributed to the masses like Christmas candies…and studied by callow scholars as if they were Gospel lessons.

In the 1960s, we spent some time in a center of higher learning in Paris. We recall that the most difficult choice a young European intellectual faced was whether to sign up with the Trotskyites, the Leninists, or the Maoists. Each had his own special style and doctrine. Students stayed up late into the night arguing the fine points of one or the other, none of them with a single clue about who these men really were or what their bloody creeds really meant.

Now, with the opening of archives and the closing of the lives of most of the principals, we get to find out more of what really went on…and what these great revolutionary heroes were really like. And what a ghastly show it is! Hegel meets Helter Skelter. Das Kapital meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Chinese are a smart people; just look at the names that make it to advanced science programs at America’s top universities. IQ aficionados tell us the Chinese and Japanese have an edge over the rest of us. But read the story of Mao; it makes you wonder: how could so many smart people do something so moronic…it would be flattery to call them stupid?

Who would have thought that one of the planets most ancient and refined civilizations would yield itself over to a lame-brained intellectual whose principle preoccupations were creating havoc…and making sure his own bowels moved? What went through the minds of his followers when they watched him order his trusted subordinates trussed up, tortured and murdered…? What did they think when their own general — faced with an implacable enemy who vowed to u201Cannihilateu201D all of them — set in motion a purge of his own forces that wiped out a third of his entire army…or dilly-dallied in hostile territory, against the orders of his superiors, and managed to lose 70,000 out of an original 80,000 of his long-suffering followers? What could they have thought when the man who claimed to be a champion of the poor starved, robbed, and tortured them without mercy…so ruthlessly that any peasants with the strength to escape ran off to the other side?

If they didn’t flee, they hung themselves or opened their veins. When Mao first got his hands on a little chunk of China he immediately turned the place into a prison. Armed guards patrolled the streets and borders — prevent people from escaping. People were encouraged to denounce each other…torture was barbaric…executions were everyday occurrences. Families were not allowed to visit each other…as the authorities worried that they might be up to something. A family found to have welcomed a visitor was to be killed. Not surprisingly, people found this proto-Maoist worker’s paradise rather depressing. Even top-ranking cadres began to take their own lives. “Suicides are the most shameful elements in the revolutionary ranks,” came the slogan designed to halt the trend.

What were the Chinese thinking, to let Mao get away with it? It was as if they didn’t think at all. During his career, Mao-Tse-Tung was responsible for more deaths — murder, starvation, torture…the usual ways of dying, plus a few novelties added by Mao and his thugs — than any other man in history. Seventy million is the sum given by Chang and Halliday. Even the entire Mongol reign of Genghis Khan and his whole line — who conquered three civilizations…Muslim, Chinese, and Hindu…and threatened to conquer Christendom too…didn’t match Mao in killing people. You’d think one or other of the hundreds of millions of Chinese who suffered at his hands would have done something about it. Surely, millions must have realized what was up. It was obvious from the very get-go that Mao was a homicidal, incompetent tyrant. Why didn’t one of them whose wife had been tortured abominably…or whose sons had been killed wantonly… or whose family had been starved or bayoneted…do something to get even? In the early days, it would have been fairly easy to ambush Mao. Maybe that’s the trouble with the modern world; people don’t take the obligation of revenge seriously enough. Mao died of natural causes, many decades later.

It is a relief to many that Mao was a communist and that bolshevism no longer fires hearts and heavy artillery. But it is a counterfeit comfort. Mao never cared about ideology. He murdered his keen communist followers as readily as capitalist roaders. He took money from Moscow…but he also turned his back on the Russians whenever he could get away with it. He might just as well have been a Republican. He went with collectivism only because it was stirred the pot…and the faster it swirled, the more ruthless bits of slime came to the surface. It was necessary, he wrote, “to bring a reign of terror in every country.”

Practically everything about Mao Tse-Tung was a lie or a swindle. In that sense, he made a perfect leading man for a great public spectacle. And as it turned out, he was perfect for the role. He was all show…all humbug…all mountebank.

As a soldier, Mao was a disaster. He absented himself from the fight on every possible occasion…usually holing up in the biggest, safest, most luxurious house in the area…generally feasting and resting…while his gang of killers did their work. Ordered by the Marxist hierarchy to join the battle, he would take his army in the opposite direction…or just wait out the fight and then come in afterwards. Why the party leadership didn’t kill him is a mystery…an oversight that they later greatly regretted.

Very early in his career, he experienced the thrill of brutality. It gave him “a kind of ecstasy never experienced before…it is wonderful…it is wonderful…” he said. To say that he was hard-hearted was a bit like saying the Peking sewer is malodorous; it fails to capture the smell vividly enough. Mao would take part in torture sessions. He would condemn entire villages to starvation. He would waste his own soldiers in pointless battles and unnecessary suffering. Even on the famous ‘Long March’ he did little marching himself. His skinny soldiers had to carry him on a litter!

Military men are often blockheads, at least the best of them are, but Mao was in a class by himself. The Long March was so long partly because Mao wasn’t going anywhere. He marched his men uphill and down…hundreds of miles this way and that…with meager rations…and almost no medical attention, even to the wounded…just to avoid going to a rendezvous that might weaken his political grip. He was supposed to link up with another army boss, one just as ruthless as he was.

The communists’ main enemy at the time — almost everyone hated them — was Chiang Kai-shek. But Chiang had already decided to let the Reds get away. Still, Mao managed to stir up fights that decimated his little army. At Tucheng, for example, Mao put his own troops in about the worst possible position — with their backs to the Red River — and faced the best of Chiang’s force. Naturally, the communists were nearly wiped out…while Mao watched from a nearby mountain. Of those red soldiers who weren’t killed in the fighting itself, many soon died of cold and wounds…or were killed by the local farmers who were getting even for way they communists had treated them. Wherever he went, Mao handled the locals with such naked brutality…he caused revolts — against the revolutionaries!

The whole Long March is nothing but a recitation of one Mao-caused calamity after another. But the gods must have had a sour sense of humor in the 1930s…they let Mao, Adolf and Josef rise to power anyway.

While Mao was a dud of a general, he was a bad joke of a political philosopher. Early in his life, he might have been a follower of Ayn Rand. “People like me only have a duty to ourselves, ” he wrote. We have no duty to other people.” Later, he dipped his fork into Marxism like a Western teenager sampling sushi. He was not too sure what was in it, and wasn’t too eager to find out. Instead, he took Emperor Qin Shihuangdi (221—206 BC) who founded imperial China as his model. Qin’s empire lasted nearly two thousand years. Not only did he build the Great Wall, he also killed Confucian scholars, burned classical books, and persecuted thousands — perhaps millions — of people.

It was his single-minded pursuit of power that made Mao so successful. His rivals actually believed the Marxist claptrap. They took their orders from the party hierarchy and earnestly tried to implement many silly and impossible programs. When Mao gained the support of Moscow, his Chinese contemporaries felt their hands were tied; they knew he was trouble, but they couldn’t get rid of him.

Mao operated under no such restriction. He eliminated enemies and friends — as it suited him. He listened to Moscow when he wanted to; when Moscow gave him directions he didn’t like, he ignored them. He was not a "good communist." He was hardly a communist at all.

“Communism is not love,” he said. “Communism is a hammer we use to crush the enemy.”

But it is in his relations with the fair sex, that the worst of Mao is visible. When it came to women, the Great Helmsman was more than a bungler… or a brute….he was a cad.

He married one woman…and then dismissed her. The next bore him two children. Scarcely 18 months later, he was conducting some atrocious campaign of murder…and brought his army up near where she lived. Mao could have and should have immediately gotten his wife out of harm’s way…but he didn’t. His enemies seized the poor woman and put her to death, hoping to strike a blow at Mao’s heart in that way. But the man seemed not even to notice. He had new paramour by then and had forgotten spouse number two.

The new girlfriend, Gui-yuan, then became his third wife and had a baby during the Long March. Again, Mao was nearby but did not come to see her. Thinking to save her baby from the appalling conditions prevailing, she gave it to a local farmer, along with a sum of money to pay for its care. It soon died.

Then, Gui-yuan herself nearly died when she was struck by one of Chiang’s bombs. Doctors said she only had a few hours to live and her pain was so great that she even begged her comrades to put her out of her misery. Once again, Mao, who was in a nearby village, said he was too u201Ctiredu201D to come see her.

What a sight it must have been! As many as 80,000 soldiers backed the communists under Mao when the Long March began. A rag-tag band…walking along…feared and reviled almost everywhere they went. And in the midst of it all went the litters carrying the people’s top honchos and the wives of the people’s top honchos. By the time the wandering was over — Mao didn’t especially want to arrive anywhere — he had managed to reduce his own ranks to only 10,000. The rest died along the way…were killed in pointless battles…or ran off, as soon as they got the opportunity.

In reading about the life of Mao, the dominant emotion the reader experiences is neither contempt nor outrage, but rather puzzlement. He wonders how the big Chinaman got away with so much. How was it possible that a nation of so many millions couldn’t manage to figure out that their leader was an incompetent, self-interested fraud? Or find one person who would put an end to him?

Didn’t Mao’s early career as a bloody crime boss signal what was coming next?

When he brought out his first torturers…and his policies of mass starvation and working the peasants to death…

…or his proto-purges…his early assassinations…

…or when he got his hands on a little bit of ground where he could set up his model society, and it turned out to be a miserable prison for everybody but its bosses…

…wasn’t it clear where he would take the nation? An earnest communist from Sweden later visited one part of the country — Yenan — and wondered why it was so poor. After all, it was the cradle of the people’s paradise. It was such an important part of Marxist traditions. “What went wrong?” he wanted to know.

“Ah traditions…traditions…” Mao laughed heartily. He couldn’t believe the Swede was so naïve.

Mao cared nothing for traditions…neither real Chinese traditions nor instant Communist ones. What he cared for was power, and he exercised it ruthlessly, pitilessly, recklessly and absurdly.

What’s troubling about Mao’s life was not Mao himself, but the rest of us (he was merely a talented cutthroat, and a lucky slob). What’s wrong with us? Normal, decent human beings repeatedly buckled under Mao…they let him get away…or couldn’t get organized to oppose him. When they were ordered to persecute each other, they took up the task readily…even knowing that their own necks could be next. When they were told to take up a new agricultural policy, for example — which every peasant knew in his bones was lunatic — they nevertheless put their backs to it. When they were summoned to carry Mao on their shoulders…or procure women for him…or embark on some suicidal military campaign…or build him another luxury villa…did any one of them raise a serious objection? Some did; but the rest went along, usually taking the objector out to execute him.

Mao worried about being murdered all his life. He took exaggerated precautions to make sure no stranger could get close enough to put a bullet in his brain. Cronies, henchmen and servants were kept under surveillance and in a state of terror. Those who appeared likely to cross Mao were eliminated. Mao encouraged periodic purges…denunciations and confessions. Even his most trusted and loyal bagmen — such as Chou En Lai — were required to humiliate themselves from time to time for the chairmen.

Still, only one person was known to have tried to assassinate Mao — Marshal Lin Biao’s son, "Tiger," in 1971. The plot quickly thickened…then dissolved altogether. Tiger and his wife died in an airplane crash in Mongolia as they were making their getaway.

There must have been a hundred million people in China who would liked to have seen Mao dead, and hundreds of millions more if they had known what was going on. But Mao controlled the press, and had created such an aura of fear that people dared not talk, even to friends or relatives.

In the late ’30s and early ’40s, while Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces fought the Japanese, Mao focused on killing and purging his own troops, and supporting his strange kingdom by selling drugs. Even this, Mao could not do well. Opium production soon expanded beyond what the market would take up. By the time the first American officials arrived on the scene, Mao had filled his coffers with cash and was ready to suppress the trade. (The Russians estimated his opium sales at $640 million in today’s money.)

Mao also experimented with central banking during this period. He printed his own currency, the bianbi. This too went in the predictable way. Neither communists nor capitalists seemed able to resist the lure of easy money for very long. By 1944, the reds had printed so many bianbi that the price of matches was 25,000 times greater than its price in 1937.

During this whole time, Chiang had threatened to wipe out the communists several times…but he relented; Chiang’s only son was being held captive in Moscow. Stalin told him that if he ever wanted to see his son again, he would have to ease up on Mao’s troops.

Then, after the Japanese were defeated, Mao found another protector — the United States. Once again, Chiang was going after Mao, and by this time the Nationalist forces were seasoned fighters — they’d been engaged in serious fighting with the Japanese for years, while the Reds had been doing nothing but preventing each other from escaping. When the two forces clashed, the outcome was inevitable — Mao’s men were run off. Chiang was about to go after them and crush them completely when George Marshal intervened, pressuring Chiang to lay off.

Which just goes to show why U.S. public officials have no business meddling in foreign affairs. When the first Americans arrived at Mao’s headquarters, the communists put on a show designed to win them over. With an apparently straight face, Chou told Marshal that Mao preferred America to Russia…and Mao let it be known that he was even considering dropping the word "communist" from their party name! Marshal must have fallen for it. Because Chiang was pulled off the chase…and the commies got away to Manchuria.

The mistake proved fatal to the Nationalists. Out in the northwest, the Reds linked up with the turncoat Chinese “Manchukuos” who had supported the Japanese during the war…and were also closer to their supply lines from Russia. With these supports, not to mention a clandestine campaign against poor Chiang, they were able to boot the Nationalists out of the country and turn the whole place into the largest Auschwitz in history.

I say that not to exaggerate. It is not merely an analog guess but a digital comparison. In the Nazi concentration camp, inmates received between 1,300 and 1,700 calories per day, as they were worked to death. In the famine Mao forced on China in the late 50s and early ’60s, the average calorie intake was only about 1,200. Mao, of course, thought the peasants had too much to eat. He was determined to squeeze the grain out of them so it could be shipped overseas, to help pay for his crackpot modernization programs. His agents went about their work with the same zeal they has shown in his earlier famines and purges. Chang and Halliday report, in their book, Mao:

“The cadres’ job was to stop the peasants ‘stealing’ their own harvest. Horrific punishments were widespread; some people were buried alive, others strangled with ropes, others had their noses cut off. In one village four terrorized young children were saved from being buried alive for taking some food only when the earth was at their waists, after a desperate plea from their parents. In another village, a child had four fingers chopped off for trying to steal a scrap of unripe food; in another, two children who tried to steal food had wires run through their ears, and were then hung up by the wire from a wall….”

People starved to death by the millions.

One of the lessons we take from these stories is that the people who want to force their ideas on you, are always the same people whose ideas are idiotic. Mao had more than his share of them. He had peasants digging up the soil by hand, down to a depth of half a meter. Then, he figured that planting seeds closer could enhance crop yields…while actually reducing the amount of fertilizer applied. He had the whole country launched on a goofy program of making steel in backyard furnaces. And then, he decided that sparrows were eating too much of the nation’s harvest…so he got the peasants to shoo away the birds and kill them. As the sparrows disappeared, along came the bugs and insects that they had kept under control, in such numbers that they soon threatened the entire harvest. Secretly, the Chinese government finally had to ask the Russians for aid: please send sparrows, in the name of socialist internationalism!

Yes, there are funny parts to the Mao story. So eager were the Maoists to industrialize that they completely neglected quality control. Chinese planes couldn’t fly. Tanks couldn’t drive in a straight line (on one occasion, a Chinese made tank swerved around and charged at a group of VIPs, say the Mao authors). Chinese ships were more of a danger to their crews than to the enemy. And when a Chinese helicopter was presented to Ho Chi Minh, the manufacturers detained it at the border because they were afraid it might crash.

But mostly, the Mao story raises question marks about our whole race. Western readers may be appalled by the murders, betrayals (Mao would set up his own troops, in the thousands, to be killed by the enemy…just to give himself an excuse to break an agreement or avoid following orders), famines, and tortures. But they will surely find Mao’s attitudes to sex reprehensible too. The modern citizen of a western democracy feels he is entitled to sex, above all else. At least, that is the idea you get from reading the press or watching TV.

But Mao was a humbug on sex, as on everything. Workers were expected to follow orders and put the party and its rules above all else. There was little privacy…and, with people dressed in those tawdry, gray Mao outfits, and crowded into tiny, charm-less tenements, there was neither the time, the energy nor the place for romance — or sexual congress. Couples were often posted to different cities…and allowed to see each other only 12 days per year. The rest of the time they were not allowed any outlet for sexual feelings — if they had any. Even masturbation was outlawed.

Meanwhile, Mao himself lived it up in his luxurious villas — dozens of them spread all over the country — complete with in-door swimming pools. He ate like a pig and had his agents scour the countryside to find young women — "imperial concubines" for the Chairman. Singers, dancers, nurses, house staff — they were all available to Mao as he pleased.

But Mao was fat and repulsive. He never bathed in 27 years, according to reports. And his teeth, which he never brushed, went black. How did he get women to sleep with him? Ah, dear reader, that is just another mystery of our race; people seem willing and able to do just about anything.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.