NEW DELHI — History is replete with myths woven by victors. The myths about Mao Zedong, including his military exploits and triumphs over imperialism and capitalism, have helped keep the Chinese communists in power, even as a transformed China now practices capitalism and presents itself as a large empire with even larger imperial ambitions.
China’s repressive state machine still keeps heresy at bay and communist legends pristine. Mao’s giant portrait even now peers down Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where his successors gunned down hundreds of people to save communism in 1989 at a time when other besieged Leninist regimes began to fall.
Success is a great leveler, justifying the unjustifiable and masking follies and atrocities. Mao’s feats, real or fictional, and the remarkable rise of China as a world power have kept him as a real-life demigod in Chinese eyes and deflected careful scrutiny of the human costs exacted by the Mao-made disasters, including the “Great Leap Forward,” “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” and the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”
The Mao myths are the focus of a colossal new biography of the Chinese strongman, “Mao: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang, a Red Guard at age 14, and Jon Halliday. Their work constitutes an unpardonable act of irreverence in the eyes of Beijing, which has acted quickly to bar not only their book but also publications carrying a review of the study.
If the communists are to hold on to power, they have to shield the world’s largest population from truth. And the truth Chang and Halliday reveal is stark: Mao’s record in terms of human lives lost was worse than Hitler’s. The opening sentence of the book states that this neo-emperor “was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th-century leader.”
Long before Mao died in 1976, the outside world knew about the mammoth human losses inflicted by his madcap campaigns. Yet the United States bent over backward to reach out to the biggest mass murderer-cum-tyrant in modern world history to take on the Soviet Union, and then-U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger even sought “Chinese military help” against India during the 1971 Bangladesh crisis. As Chang and Halliday write, the true beneficiaries of Nixon’s China opening “were Mao himself and his regime.”
For Mao, human lives were cheap and expendable. A Mao-made famine — the worst in global history — killed as many as 38 million during 1959-61. While the masses starved, Mao busily engaged “in sexual play or orgies” with small-town girls, as detailed in the book.
Mao’s Machiavellian personality, which helped him outwit Chiang Kai-shek, was evident from his actions — from encouraging intellectuals in 1957 to speak up, only to ensnare them for persecution, to the “final betrayal” that put his fourth and last wife in prison until she committed suicide in 1991.
The book analytically demolishes the Mao myths that all Chinese kids are fed in school. Chang and Halliday show, for instance, that the greatest heroic act in the Mao-led Long March — the crossing of a burning bridge over the Dadu River in the face of attack from the other end by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces — “is complete invention.” It was Mao himself who sold this myth to the doting American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936.
Chang and Halliday also expose Mao’s implacable hostility toward India from the time he forcibly grabbed Tibet in 1950. In fact, soon after coming to power, Mao confided in Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that Chinese forces were “currently preparing for an attack on Tibet” and inquired if the Soviet air force could transport supplies to them.
Even after having invaded India in 1962, Mao was itching in 1965 to use “Pakistan’s war with India . . . to score another victory over India” by opening a Himalayan front against it. As the authors put it, “He moved troops up to the border, and issued two ultimatums, demanding that India dismantle within three days alleged outposts on territory that Beijing claimed.” But Mao found himself left out on a limb and “deeply frustrated” when, despite his urging to fight on, Pakistan suddenly accepted a ceasefire before the expiry of China’s deadline.
In setting out to “teach India a lesson” in 1962, Mao moved furtively and cleverly, marshaling all the guile he could employ. In the style recommended by ancient strategist Sun Tzu, Mao chose perfect timing: The attack coincided with a major international crisis that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union within a whisper of nuclear war over the stealthy deployment of Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba.
Chang and Halliday reveal that Mao timed the attack on India very well because he had advance information from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev about the secret missile deployments in Cuba. That information, along with a request for Chinese help, had come, ironically, in response to Mao’s “feeler to the Russian ambassador about how Moscow would react if China attacked India.”
The authors claim that, as part of “a hefty horse-trade,” Khrushchev agreed to “stand by Beijing” in a war with India and to delay the promised sale of MiG-21 fighter-jets to New Delhi.
Mao had also fended off the possibility of having to fight on two fronts by securing a U.S. assurance to hold Chiang Kai-shek from initiating hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. This helped Mao to single-mindedly mobilize forces against India. He pounded and humbled India in two waves of military assaults separated by three weeks, timing his unilateral ceasefire with Washington’s termination of Cuba’s quarantine. The war, as the authors rightly point out, “dealt a fatal blow to [Jawaharlal] Nehru, Mao’s rival for leadership in the developing world.”
The Mao-Khrushchev horse-trade didn’t last long. The duplicitous Mao, by lashing out against the Russian agreement to pull missiles out of Cuba, had compelled Khrushchev to back-track on his initial support to Beijing. What Chang and Halliday do not explicitly say is that, by accusing Khrushchev of “selling out,” Mao vented his irritation that the U.S. and Soviet Union did not come to nuclear blows — a mutual destruction that would have left China as the strongest power. That was Mao, the evil genius that Chang and Halliday bare in shocking detail.
Nearly three decades after Mao’s death, his political legacy still guides the Leninists in Beijing.
China’s entrenched authoritarianism, increasingly fervent nationalism, vibrant centralized economy, growing military and unbridled ambition to be “a world power second to none” raise the specter of an emerging fascist state. Its rise will increasingly challenge Asian and global security.