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Two Faces of Chairman Mao

By Bertil Lintner

Darling of leftist movements worldwide, and one of the biggest mass murderers in history: two violently different views of Mao Zedong.

Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 816 pages.

Next to Che Guevara, no revolutionary icon had a more profound impact on leftist movements worldwide in the 1960s than Mao Zedong. In Burma, young Sino-Burmese began wearing Mao badges, which violated some official regulations. When they refused to take them off, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Rangoon in June and July 1967. Chinese shops and homes were ransacked and looted, and many Sino-Burmese were killed. The authorities did not intervene until the mobs stormed the Chinese embassy in Rangoon. Beijing responded by branding the Ne Win government as "contra-revolutionary, fascist and reactionary"--and by lending all-out support to the Communist Party of Burma. Somewhat ironically, Burma's communists remained loyal to "Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought" long after China itself had abandoned ideological rigidity and adopted the path of the "capitalist roaders," of whom Mao once had warned "the masses." His "Little Red Book" was carried by youthful demonstrators in Paris, Tokyo and, as Xanana Gusmao confesses in his autobiography, in the mountains of East Timor.

So who was he, this man who influenced millions all over the world and became a symbol of Third World revolt against colonial and imperialist oppression? This study by Jung Chang, a former Red Guard, "barefoot doctor" and university lecturer, together with Jon Halliday, a British academic, is the most comprehensive biography of Mao since his personal physician, Zhisui Li, wrote The Private Life of Chairman Mao more than 10 years ago. And Chang's and Halliday's account of Mao's life is equally damning. The chairman was not a champion of the oppressed but a megalomaniac responsible for the deaths of perhaps as many as 70 million of his own countrymen--which would make him the biggest mass murderer in history.

Mao's "Great Leap Forward," which lasted from 1958 to 1961, reduced tens of millions of peasants to "a state where they were simply too enfeebled to work," and led to famine. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the country was plunged into chaos and anarchy as youthful Red Guards went on a rampage, humiliating respected community leaders, university professors and anyone suspected of being disloyal to the chairman, destroying ancient temples and monuments, and, again, disrupting food production all over the country.

Chang's and Halliday's book covers Mao's "long march to supremacy" in the Chinese Communist Party--of which he, contrary to later claims, was not the founder -- and how he built his power base in the party and the state. The reasons behind his falling out with the Soviet Union are carefully analyzed, as are the motives for launching the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Mao was an ardent admirer of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but with the difference that, in China, mass executions were carried out in public, not inside closely guarded prison camps. He supported and encouraged the rise of Pol Pot's murderous regime in Cambodia, and tried, unsuccessfully, to ignite similar revolutions in Burma, Indonesia and Thailand.

At the same time, leftists ranging from Burma's revolutionaries to American journalist Edgar Snow saw in Mao a "direct, frank, simple [and] undevious" leader whose words were "honest and true." Snow's classic Red Star Over China played a big role in swaying even Western opinion in favor of Mao and his communist partisans. That his rule was brutal and autocratic, and that he was a sex maniac who ordered the People's Liberation Army to provide him with a steady stream of fresh, young, attractive female "recruits," was totally overlooked. In 1953, then army chief Peng Duhai termed this "selecting imperial concubines"--a complaint that would cost him dear in times to come. During the Cultural Revolution, Peng was dragged to scores of denunciation meetings, at each one of which he was kicked by Red Guards wearing heavy leather boots and beaten ferociously with staves. Miraculously, he survived the humiliations, and died of cancer in 1974.

Despite such brutality, Mao managed to unify China in a way that no ruler before him had managed to do. He also left behind a China that was stronger than it had been in centuries, and which today is able to challenge the US's role as the world's only superpower. And, as Chang and Halliday write, even if China today has adopted a capitalist course, "Mao's portrait and his corpse still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital. The current communist regime declares itself to be Mao's heir, and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao."

To get a better understanding of the contradictions of modern Chinese history, and how Mao rose to power and near-sainthood at home and abroad, read this book. It is, as the London Sunday Times pointed out, "a mesmerizing portrait of tyranny, degeneracy, mass murder and promiscuity, a barrage of revisionist bombshells and a superb piece of research."

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, January 2006

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