Chairman Mao: The Success of Myth


Published in October, 2005, the Jung Chang and Jon Halliday biography about Mao Zedong entitled Mao: The Unknown Story challenges every other Mao biography that came before it. Its central assertion is explosive enough:

Mao was responsible for the deaths of well over 70 million Chinese in peacetime, and he was bent on dominating the world. (Authors’ comment on Amazon.)

The book also specifically repudiates a number of myths about Mao, all of them central to his stature as a great leader. I have rather arbitrarily enumerated 10 of these myths from the Chang book, extracting from the wealth of detail there. All page references are from the 2005 Knopf hardcover edition of 832 pages.

Myth #1: Mao loved the peasantry and worked for their benefit. Mao hated the peasantry, especially his father (p. 6), cared nothing for workers (p. 30), and did not write an article about their sufferings until 1925, when he was 31 years old (p. 9, 39).

Myth #2: Mao was an altruist who devoted his life to the service of the Chinese people. If Mao was an altruist, he was one who believed that everyone should sacrifice to his, Mao’s, whims and not the other way around. This principle he stated clearly in a commentary written at age 24 on Friedrich Paulsen's A System of Ethics (p. 13), which was fully realized in his subsequent actions.

Myth #3: Mao was one of the key founders of the Communist Party in China. The Communist Party in China was founded and subsidized by the Soviet Union, first through its agent Grigori Voitinsky in Shanghai in 1920. Mao ran a subsidized Communist bookshop in the city of Changsha in his home province of Hunan at age 27, but was not a fervent supporter (p. 20, 32). He did not make the final decision to embrace Communism until 1927, when he was 33 (p. 46).

Myth #4: Mao led the 1927 u201CAutumn Harvest Uprising,u201D a peasant revolt against the rich in Hunan province which started the Communists to power. No such uprising ever occurred (p. 52). Zhou En-lai led the mutiny of some 20,000 Communist soldiers out of the Nationalist force at Nanchang (p. 50), and Mao talked 1,500 of them into becoming a gang of bandits in Hunan's Jinggang mountains (p. 52). When Zhou's mutineers were defeated by the Nationalists, a remnant of 4,000 led by Zhu De joined him (p. 62).

Myth #5: After taking over command of the Red Army on the Long March in January, 1935, Mao saved it from destruction by the Nationalists. In a key victory, the daring Communists crossed a burning wood and chain bridge over the Dadu River at Luding under heavy fire on May 29, 1935, without a single casualty. Mao was personally responsible for the biggest defeat on the Long March, at Tuching, where 10 percent of the 40,000-man army was killed or wounded (p. 144). Mao wandered in circles south of Sichuan province, losing all but 10,000 of the rest (p. 157) because he needed time to secure his grip on this part of the army, which was to meet a larger force led by Chang Kuo-t'ao in Sichuan (p. 152). The only u201Cstrategyu201D was that of their pursuer, Chiang Kai-shek, who drove the Communists through the Western provinces to scare warlords into joining his Nationalist forces – and who often gave the Communists safe passage to effect this strategy (p. 147). As for the Dadu River bridge assault, there were no casualties because there was no opposition in Luding: the incident is pure propaganda (p. 154).

Myth #6: As reports of the time prove, Mao's Communists were the only credible group in China in the 1930s dedicated to fighting the Japanese. When Japan started the Sino-Japanese war in July, 1937, Mao joined his Communist forces with the Nationalists, suppressing his own ambitions in favor of a common front against the invaders. This myth has its source in two books published in 1937: Mao Tse-tung Autobiography (actually written by Shao Li-tzu) and Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow. The first author was a PR man loaned to Mao by Chang Kai-shek in exchange for helping secure the release of Chiang's son, who had been abducted to Soviet Russia as a hostage (p. 191). Snow did not have access to most original sources, but in any case, like so many Communist fellow-travelers of the 1930s, he deeply wanted to believe what he was told (p. 192). Ernest Hemingway, who was in China in 1941, wrote the following:

America has an exaggerated idea of the part [the Communists] have played in the war against Japan. Their part has been very considerable but that of the Central Government troops has been a hundred times greater (p. 233).

This reporting never saw the light of day, however. Hemingway, on the advice of FDR's special envoy to China Lauchlin Currie – u201Cthe man who lost Chinau201D according to American Communist defector Elizabeth Bentley – suppressed it.

The Sino-Japanese war was started by Zhang Zhizhong, a Communist mole within the Nationalist army, on instructions from Stalin, who wanted to divert the Japanese from any strike against Russia. u201CMao did not want the Red Army to fight the invaders at all. He ordered Red commanders to wait for Japanese troops to defeat the Nationalists, and then, as the Japanese swept on, to seize territories behind the Japanese lines.u201D (p. 204) The Communist leading the war against Japan was Wang Ming, under direct orders from Stalin, not Mao (p. 206). Wang, who thus emerged as a serious rival, was repeatedly poisoned at Mao's direction (p. 262). Wang died in exile in Moscow in 1974 (p. 253).

Mao avoided battles pitting Communists against Japanese, removing his commander in chief Zhu De from fighting in 1944 (p. 222). The only significant Maoist victory against the Japanese that was not merely a harassing engagement was won at Pingxingguan in 1937, by Lin Biao, acting in defiance of Mao (p. 205).

Myth #7: Despite the greatest provocations, Mao strove to avoid a civil war both during the Sino-Japanese war and after the Japanese surrender in 1945. But Chiang Kai-shek would not have it, and Mao had to once again demonstrate his military genius, this time against Nationalist armies.

Mao explicitly instructed his commanders to skirmish with Nationalists so as to put them at fault for starting a civil war (p. 215). In December, 1940, in the worst such provocation, known as the New Fourth Army Incident, Mao ordered that army east from Cloud Mountain instead of north as both he and Chiang had agreed, straight into an unsuspecting Nationalist force, which thought it was an attack. Mao then suppressed cables between the armies that sought to correct the blunder, resulting in the slaughter of his own 8,000-man force, and, as planned, the death of its general and his political rival Xiang Ying (p. 231). Thanks to misinformation from Edgar Snow and Evans Carlson, FDR blamed Chiang, and threatened removal of America's considerable Nationalist support (p. 231).

When civil war did break out, Mao's u201Cbrilliant victoriesu201D were given to him by moles at the highest level of the Nationalist military. General Hu Tsung-nan ordered tens of thousands of Nationalist soldiers to repeated piecemeal death by ambush in the northwest (pp. 301–4); in Manchuria, Wei Li-huang concentrated his half-million-man Nationalist army into scattered northern cities, where they were surrounded and slaughtered (pp. 307–8); General Fu Tso-yi, who led Nationalist forces in the Peking-Tianjin Campaign further south, was not a Communist, but his daughter was, and she relayed his every move to his Communist opposite, dooming Fu's 600,000-man army (pp. 308–9). The strategies of u201Csurrounding the cities from the countrysideu201D and of u201Caiming mainly to eliminate enemy forces, not to defend or capture citiesu201D prominent in Communist literature extolling Mao, were those of Liu Shao-ch'i and Lin Biao, respectively (p. 291).

Of far greater importance as u201Cthe man who lost Chinau201D was American General George Marshall (pp. 294–5), who was completely ignorant of Mao, and who secured for Mao a cease-fire just at the critical moment in the civil war when Chiang was about to retrieve the Nationalist disaster in Manchuria. But much of the blame for the loss belongs to Chiang Kai-shek himself, who refused to weed out generals suspected of Communist collaboration, and who allowed his relatives, especially the Soong and K'ung families, to extort and swindle in areas under Nationalist control.

Myth #8: Mao committed Chinese troops to North Korea in the Korean War to aid an Asian ally. Mao launched the Korean War as part of a deal with Stalin: China would fight the Americans as a Russian proxy in exchange for Soviet technology and equipment (p. 358). By 1951, Mao had taken 100,000 casualties and was expecting and ready to expend another 300,000 in human wave assaults (renhai zhanshu), in exposure to minus-30-degree cold, and in starvation (p. 366).

Myth #9: The Great Leap Forward was a noble but failed socialist experiment aimed at modernizing the Chinese economy. The Great Leap Forward began in May, 1958 to accelerate Mao's u201CSuperpower Programmeu201D (p. 426). It was not a socialist agricultural experiment, but rather a forced work program aimed at confiscating every item of agriculture for exchange to Russia and Eastern Europe for military goods and services, and as such was completely military in nature (p. 380).

In the context of reports that peasants were being worked to exhaustion, Mao said on November 21, 1958, to his inner circle: u201CWorking like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die. If not half, one-third, or one-tenth – 50 million – die (p. 439).u201D Mao's number two, Liu Shao-ch'i admitted that 30 million had died in the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward (p. 438). Chang herself estimates 38 million deaths, and says that none of these would have happened if food exports to Russia and Eastern Europe had not been made (p. 438). Even after its failure, the government killing did not stop. Deng Xiaoping estimated that afterward another 10 million of its critics were killed in purges, including many doctors who had spoken up to authorities (p. 451).

This event was in no way a u201Cfood shortage.u201D It was a famine, the largest man-made famine in history. In the countryside there was cannibalism (p. 438), and grass, leaves, tree bark, and worse were eaten. Chlorella, a type of algae that grows on stagnant pools of urine, was even recommended by Chou En-lai for its taste and nutrient value (p. 437). Horrific punishments were meted out to those who stole food, including amputations, the burying of offenders alive, and the cutting off of noses. In one case, wire was strung through the ears of hungry children who were then hung from a wall (p. 436).

Yet even at the height of the famine it was easy for Mao to fool the West. The February, 1959, a report of the CIA on Chinese food output stated that there were u201Cremarkable increases in productionu201D (pp. 459–460). This report is typical of the merry band that thought up Operation Mongoose to discredit Castro by making his beard fall out, Operation Acoustic Kitty to wire up cats to eavesdrop on Soviets, the Stargate Project to telepathically extract Soviet intelligence – typical of the acronym-spouting kiddies who failed to foresee the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, who even missed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Stupidest of all had to be China CIA chief James Lilley, who thought his infiltration of China was u201Ceasyu201D (p. 462), yet still passed on misinformation, oblivious to the starvation all around him (p. 467).

Mao would have continued the murderous Great Leap Forward, had not Liu Shao-ch'i hijacked the January, 1962, Communist Party Conference in Peking to force a reduction in food levies (p. 477). For this Liu was later purged and tortured, along with his entire family, for over three years until his death in prison in 1969.

If you find all of this beyond belief, find corroboration of Chang's account of the Great Leap Forward in Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine.

Myth #10: For all his faults, Mao was a good man whose foremost thought was the betterment of the Chinese people.

It is difficult to argue that Mao had the betterment of the people of China in mind when he grew opium as a large-scale cash crop while in Yen'an after the Long March (p. 279). Many of the people there in fact became addicts. Also, how to explain the fact that that he hid the death of his son An-Ying in Korea from An-Ying's wife for years (p. 379), and that he had over 50 personal estates throughout China (p. 329), all of them lavishly maintained even when China was starving?

While it is true that Mao cared little for things such as fancy clothes or gourmet food (fish head soup was his favorite), it is also true that his first standard was his own comfort and indulgence. Although Chang describes Mao's relentless womanizing, probably a more pathological account is offered by his personal physician, Li Zhi-Sui in The Private Life of Chairman Mao. This latter work describes Mao's complete indifference to giving venereal disease to the hundreds of young women who shared his bed.

How could so great an evil – a privation and negation of the good we are reassured – have so completely succeeded? Reading the river of blood that was this man's life, feeling a palpable nausea in knowing that each page shows the triumph of evil, one at last opens onto a fetid delta of redaction in trying to account for it all.

Shall we meander along Arendt's notion of the banality of evil, or Rand's notion of the sanction of the victim, or the complicity of intellectuals, la trahison des clercs, best given by Czeslaw Milosz in his book The Captive Mind? Laurels await the one who can explain the success and continued appeal of this bloodthirsty and completely callous man. But more than that, we humans are fascinated by the theme: We want to be able to say that we navigated the whole course of evil, understood it, and at last locked it up in a book.

Mao learned and grew in evil – he made a career of it, starting from earliest childhood. We might say that then the key lesson was learned: that by manipulating people, reality could be controlled. He realized that by making imperious demands through his mother he could get his father to do what he wanted: he could do as he liked and not have to do any real work, especially not peasant work. And how ironic that the justification for his power should come from Marxism, a philosophy that romanticized work, as if it too were a foreign subject or a story in a book!

He learned that most people are obedient, that most people are fearful and do not want to risk family and capital in any confrontation – and that those without such scruples have them by the throat. He learned that witnessing physical torture gives pleasure, and even wrote poems to the suobiao, or lance, that his men used to hack u201Clandlordsu201D and u201Canti-Bolsheviksu201D to death in the 1930s in his Hunan home province.

But Yen'an in the early 1940s was a special finishing school. There he learned the macabre Gesamtkunstwerke of mass terror. He learned that once people are whipped into excitedly pronouncing something as a group, they all tend to believe that thing, no matter how false; that when they experience a public murder in such a state, they will all exonerate themselves. He learned that most people will do anything and commit any deed to avoid being cast out from the group; that u201Cself-criticismu201D or public confession can make the law not an external command but rather the very voice of a person's own consciousness.

One cannot avoid the obvious comparison of these techniques to those of religion. Of course apologists from Burke to von Kuehnelt-Leddihn would say that temptation to use such techniques is man's nature and that religion holds them in check. This is worth pursuing elsewhere. What's important to note here is that Mao did advance theory – not the flimsy idea of a rural proletariat, but totalitarian theory of how to control the thought of the masses. One great theme of von Kuehnelt-Leddihn is surely right: the appeal of such totalitarian systems endures in the face of all logic and fact because it is rooted in a profound impulse that is essentially religious. In this sense we might better say that having navigated the whole course of evil, that we should lock up its knowledge not in a book but in a priesthood that that will never have political power.

April 25, 2007

Terry Hulsey [send him mail] is a writer living in Fort Worth, Texas.