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Unmasking Mao By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Stalin is supposed to have said, “one death is a tragedy; thousands are but a statistic.” Let us, for a moment then, ponder this statistic, from the very opening sentence of Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s majestic new biography of Chairman Mao: “Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives on one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.”

Think about that for a moment. The staggering figure exceeds that of the deaths caused by Stalin and Hitler combined. But while one can find almost no one in today’s world who extols the once current benign image of Stalin and Hitler- indeed, few would even admit to holding favorable views of these two tyrants- Mao’s reputation has remained relatively unscathed. The current government of The People’s Republic of China proudly hails Mao as its founder. His life size photo hangs over the balcony overlooking Tiananmen Square, where Mao once addressed the throngs of adoring “Red Guards,” and from which in 1949, he proclaimed the very birth of the new revolutionary regime. That regime’s very legitimacy stems from the creation of Communist China after Mao’s victorious Red Army successfully seized power, forcing the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek to flee to the island of Taiwan.

 

If you ask any literate student or scholar in China what they now think of Mao, they will tell you, “Mao was two-thirds good and one-third bad.” This reflects the official revised version of Mao’s standing by the current government, which allows one to reflect that some of what Mao did was unnecessary, since it is far too obvious that his own policies led to what they call the “excesses” of the Cultural Revolution.

      

It is the importance and power of the new biography by Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday that the world’s understanding of Mao is about to undergo a cataclysmic change. The authors are well equipped to undertake such a monumental task. Jung Chang, born in China in 1952, suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, where she was assigned to be a “barefoot doctor” who treated peasants without any medical training, as real doctors were arrested or killed. Her international best selling memoir of three generations of her family, Wild Swans, captured the ways in which giant cultural change impacted on her own family’s life. Halliday, a Russian historian at King’s College in Britain, was a former editor of New Left Review, and during one period in the 1960’s, a supporter of the Communist regime in Albania. Halliday obviously had serious second thoughts, and in this book, any romance with Communism and illusions about its role in the world have thoroughly disappeared.

 

Before I discuss what the authors reveal about Mao, his beliefs and his policies, it is necessary to list in summary form much of what most of us have heard, digested and believed about Mao and the Chinese Communists. These commonplace views come from scores of books and reports appearing over the decades, such as:

 

  • Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China. Appearing in print originally in 1936, and based on Snow’s exclusive interviews with Mao held with the future “Chairman” in the caves of Yenan, Snow created the mythology of Mao as a brave Communist leader who invited a new rural form of Communism, in which the revolution would be made not by the industrial working class, but by the oppressed peasantry. Snow gave us the first influential account of the “Long March,” in which Mao told the gullible journalist how his troops outwitted and successfully fled the attacking Nationalist troops during the start of the civil war, until Mao and his brave legions settled in the protected safe area of China’s northwest. The heroic account of the bravery of Mao and his troops is most exemplified, Mao claimed, by the battle at the bridge in Dadu, where Mao and his troops triumphed despite the fire that enveloped the bridge as his troops valiantly crossed it. This decisive victory reported by Mao is one that proved his troop’s commitment and dedication to the world who first learned about it from Snow.
  • The writing of other Western visitors to China, such as Agnes Smedley, whose glamorized account of life with the 8th Route Army after it left Yenan, and her glowing account of Mao’s selfless dedication while directing his troops from the protected Yenan area, helped acquaint scores of Americans with Mao and his legend in the pages of the popular large circulation Saturday Evening Post, as well as in her own books.
  • The reports of a future generation of men who came to be called “the Old China hands; American diplomats such as John S. Service, John Carter Vincent, John Paton Davies, Owen Lattimore and John K. Fairbank. The list also included reporters and writers such as Barbara Tuchman and Theodore White, whose reports and books carried on the picture of Mao and his Communist troops as indigenous democratic rebels, seeking to end the capture of China by corrupt gangsters, militarist warlords, the Japanese imperialists and unpopular local lords. It was from these men that Americans were told the Communists were really “agrarian democrats,” leaders who sought to build a democratic China at peace with the United States, a goal sabotaged only by American policy makers, who bet on the wrong horse (Chiang) and thus pushed Mao and China into the Soviet Union’s hands.

Even during the Cultural Revolution, these China hands stood resolutely with Mao, whose disastrous policies they supported. Harvard’s distinguished China scholar, John K. Fairbank, returned from a visit in 1972 to report that “the Maoist revolution is on the whole that best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in centuries.” When Harvey Klehr and I interviewed John S. Service for the good part of a day in 1985, (for a book we were working on) Service at that late date told us how he supported Mao thoroughly and how great the Cultural Revolution was for China. When Service was reporting back to the State Department from China in 1945, he wrote that the “so-called Communists” were only the prominent manifestation of a broad movement for “agrarian reform, civil rights, the establishment of democratic institutions.” As for Mao’s life in the caves of Yenan, Service had reported how Mao lived austerely in a mud-daubed cave carved out of the cliffs of the Yen River, and even Mao was forced to raise his own vegetables and tobacco in order to fill his own needs. At Yenan he reported what came to be the commonplace view: the high morale of the Red troops, their purposefulness, and the egalitarianism they all practiced. “All of our party,” he reported after six days, “have the same feeling- that we have come into a different country [than Chiang’s China]” where “bodyguards, gendarmes and the claptrap of Chungking officialdom are completely lacking,” where there was “no police,” “few soldiers” and most impressive, “no beggars, nor signs of desperate poverty.”

 

With reports like the above coming from our finest diplomats and China hands, it is not surprising that to “progressive” opinion, Mao and the Chinese Reds had developed a fine reputation and a heroic reputation- for honesty, egalitarianism, a lack of corruption and a dedication to the interests of the oppressed peasantry. It is a picture repeated often, that has lasted down to the present time.

 

How, one wonders, would Service and the others have responded, were they able to learn the truth given to us so boldly in the Chang-Halliday biography? That is why to understand the impact of their book, it is necessary to know how much of what they reveal about the real Mao undermines the view most Americans (if they have thought about China at all) have grown up with.

 

Then, of course, one cannot discount the impact of the 1960’s Left, much of whom glorified the Chairman as the world’s only remaining pure and selfless revolutionary. The support to the “Cultural Revolution” by many of that era’s New Left (a group of which co-author Halliday was once a part) was symbolized to me by the words of a well known Marxist-feminist, who upon returning from China, proclaimed that the Cultural Revolution “was about the freeing of women.” And the mythology extended to the Marxist intellectuals of the influential journal Monthly Review, whose editor Paul M. Sweezy pronounced that Mao was the world’s greatest Marxist, who had seen the need to break bureaucracy and keep the flame of Marxist revolution alive.

 

The brutal truth, to put it as starkly as possible, is that Mao Tse-tung was the last century’s most violent and vicious ruler – a power mad figure who dreamt of extending his rule to the entire world, a goal he pursued while engaging in murder, torture, rape and forced starvation, while demanding complete obedience to his every whim, all the while attended by personal servants who offered him every luxury he desired.

 

Let us begin by briefly describing the real story of the Long March. The authors demolish what is perhaps Communist China’s  single greatest myth. Mao did not flee to save the Red Army from encroaching Nationalist troops, but rather, to defeat the forces of a popular competing general whom Mao sought to destroy politically. Rather than come to General Guotao’s aid, Mao left him vulnerable to defeat purposefully. Moreover, Chiang could have easily defeated Mao; but for his own reasons, especially the wish not to alienate Moscow, allowed his troops to escape. “The famed Long March,” the authors write, “was to a large extent steered by Chiang Kai-shek.” Moreover, Moscow had planted scores of secret Communist moles in Chiang’s Nationalists party, who both influenced policy and gave Mao vital military data.

 

Not only did Mao not suffer on the March, he was carried the entire thousands of miles on a litter, with porters assigned to carry all his luggage, books and belongings. In all details Mao was a new Emperor, who in practice never allowed egalitarianism to enter his private domain. Mao read as his carriers trekked up mountains, with their skin and flesh rubbed raw, as they sweated and shed much blood. As for the reported critical battle at a bridge over the Dadu river, a suspension bridge between two cliffs, Edgar Snow had reported that the wooden panels had been removed and Mao’s troops crossed on bare iron chains, facing machine gun fire as the remaining planks were burning. “Who would have thought,” Snow wrote, “that the Reds would insanely try to cross on the chains alone?” The truth is that the story is false. No battle took place at the bridge – a site picked by Mao to portray heroic deeds to the gullible Snow because it looked like a good place for them to have occurred! Later, a phony propaganda film was made in which a mock battle was filmed and offered as evidence.

 

As for the indigenous nature of Chinese Communism, the authors provide solid evidence proving how the entire Chinese Communist movement was funded, led and run by Stalin and the Comintern. The impetus for Chinese Communism came from Moscow, that had control of the Chinese Reds in the same fashion they controlled all Communist parties throughout the world. Chou en-lai was first picked by Moscow as their man to create an army and plant secret Reds in the highest ranks of the Nationalist forces, after returning to China for the Comintern. Chou also set up the Chinese KGB, ran its assassination squad, and showed total obedience to Stalin and Moscow’s line.

 

Another great myth destroyed by the authors is the long-standing belief that Chiang’s forces fought only the Reds, while seeking to avoid fighting the Japanese invaders – unlike Mao’s Red Army, which sought unity with Chiang and seriously harmed the invading Japanese troops. What Mao achieved was to do anything but fight the Japanese; indeed, he allowed and welcomed Japanese aggression as the mechanism by which the invaders would pulverize Chiang’s forces, allowing the Red Army to move in afterwards and gain control of the areas the Japanese had fought in. Mao’s goal was to destroy Chiang and leave himself as the only viable figure to lead China. Mao in effect sought and welcomed the Japanese fighters, and instead of responding to their aggression, allowed them to win as his troops did all they could to avoid fighting. Those who disagreed with his strategy were quickly purged, and sent to the torture palaces of Mao’s butcher, Kang Sheng, who headed Mao’s secret police.

 

What Mao was an expert in and took great delight was in the torture, repression and savage treatment of the peasants, for whom he had no concern at all. Rather than seek to build a peasant based socialism, Mao saw the peasantry as expendable; as a source of brute labor, who could always be forced to do without any basic means of simply having sufficient food necessary to live. Moreover, Mao was so unpopular with the people, that when the Red Army marched in to “liberate” cities in the last days of the civil war, in some areas not one person appeared to cheer them, since their population had experienced the wrath and reality of Mao’s terror in earlier days of temporary Red rule in the 1920’s.

 

From the start, Mao believed in force, torture and humiliation to gather total support. What the world came to witness when the truth about the late 60’s Cultural Revolution came out, was the means Mao used to rule from the very start of the first Red bases in the early days. “What fascinated Mao,” they write, “was violence that smashed the social order.” In the 20’s, Mao advised loyal followers that those who would not follow them should have the ankle tendons slit and their ears cut off. When Mao succeeded in creating Red bases in the late 1920’s, he brought thousands to witness the victory, as well as to hold public executions of so-called “bad landlords,” which meant almost any peasant who resisted his hold on power. Public killing became compulsory as a mechanism to put fear into the whole population, as they watched bloody butchering of Mao’s enemies. Other devices used by Mao regularly were to bury opponents alive, lead them around by wires drawn through their nose and ears, destroyed whole towns where suspected counterrevolutionaries lived, hold classic bandit raids to take food and goods from the local peasant population for his own forces, and force average Chinese to condemn and testify against their own family members and friends.

 

As to living in a cave in Yenan, Mao always lived the life of complete luxury. Wherever he went, his forces always confiscated the most luxurious homes of the wealthy for Mao’s personal use, and immediately, new quarters that were bombproof and completely isolated were built in grandiose fashion, should Mao need to retreat to them. At Yenan, where useful idiots like Snow and Agnes Smedley saw Mao in what was purportedly his cave, they did not know that Mao actually lived in a mansion in Phoneix Village, with a giant courtyard, decorated walls and central wall heating. He also moved soon to Yang Hill, in a mansion of the KGB compound called the Date Garden. Behind both of these residences Mao had built secret secure compounds for himself and his immediate staff. There, in addition, he had at his disposal glamorous educated young women, procured to service his sexual needs.

 

Mao’s base was not a supportive peasantry, but a population cowed into total obedience through the use of complete terror- a device perfected by Mao between 1941 and 1945. Areas controlled by the Reds witnessed interrogation after interrogation, and mass rallies, in which many were forced to confess to being spies and to name others in front of the large crowds that had gathered. All social life was banished – there was no singing and dancing allowed, and the only peace came from “thought examinations” in which people had to write at length about their own anti-Party thoughts. If one resisted, that was taken as proof that the individual was a spy; the purpose was to destroy all trust between people. Chang and Halliday argue that as a result, most of the people suffered what they call “brain death;” the inability to think or act on their own.

 

As for money, Chang and Halliday reveal the hidden truth that Mao got the funds required to control his conquered territories through the smuggling and sale of opium, as farmers were ordered to grow regular crops around the poppies to hide what the regime had ordered. 30,000 acres of the region’s best land was reserved for opium growing. While the lives of Party leaders got better – plentiful food and comfort was reserved for the elite – but it did not improve the standard of living of the regular population of Yenan. The lowest ranking Communist cadre had a meat ration that was five times that of a local peasant, where the mortality rate continually outstripped the birth rate by 5 to 1. In addition, opium production produced inflation, which further eroded the average peasant’s ability to live a decent life.

 

Finally, Chang and Halliday force a reevaluation of the role played by the United States in Mao’s rise to power. One is shocked to learn that in 1946, Mao was about to fail. Chiang’s army could not be stopped by them; the Red Army was in full retreat and about to fall completely, and as the Russians pulled out of Manchuria- where they had fought the Japanese- the Nationalists had seized every major city except Harbin, and the Red Army was in a state of collapse. The Reds were about to be forced to flee the border into Russian territory, or to form guerrilla units in the mountains. Lin Biao asked Mao for permission to abandon Harbin, and Mao was forced to acquiesce. But just as the Red Army was bound for failure, Mao “was rescued,” they write, “by the Americans.”

 

In a startling chapter called “Saved by Washington,” the authors reveal the brilliant ways in which Mao manipulated the United States to serve his ends. The US and its envoys, they argue, were already ill-disposed toward Chiang because of his relative’s blatant corruption, and hence susceptible to Mao’s phony claims that the Communists were democratic and potential friends of the United States. General George Marshall, whose plan to save Western Europe at the war’s end catapulted him to greatness, was taken in completely by Mao, falsely believing, and telling Truman, that the Reds were more cooperative than Chiang and the Nationalists. Marshall also told Truman that the Soviet Union was not supporting Mao. Mao received Marshall in Yenan in 1946, and he was ripe for the bait. He swallowed lie after lie and repeated it as gospel truth to the President, hence, as they put it, performing “a monumental service to Mao.” Just as the Chairman was facing his Dunkirk, Marshall put the decisive pressure on Chiang to stop pursuing Reds in northern Manchuria. The Generalissimo agreed to a ceasefire just at the moment when Mao had agreed to give up the remaining Red held cities in Manchuria and Harbin. The result was Mao’s victory in gaining a secure base in north Manchuria, a step which allowed him to regroup and to eventually win his civil war. With Moscow’s help, as the Soviets armed Mao to the hilt, and transferred Japanese POW’s to Mao’s control, the once ragtag Red forces became a formidable fighting machine. The authors explain:

 

“The goal the Communists had been secretly seeking for more than two decades, ‘linking up with the Soviet Union,’ had been accomplished- with help from Washington, however unwitting. Mao’s victory nationwide was only a matter of time.”

It was not the last time that Mao succeeded in manipulating America. In the 1970’s, the world witnessed the Nixon administration’s bold change in policy, and its opening to China that resulted in the President’s trip to the mainland, his meeting with Mao, and eventually, to American recognition of Mao’s Republic. But the authors argue convincingly that the Kissinger/Nixon/Mao rapprochement was also orchestrated by Mao, as Nixon and Kissinger fell readily into a trap laid by Mao, who thought out the entire scenario. Moreover, Kissinger even offered to surrender Taiwan to Mao, and promised that the US would withdraw from both Korea and Vietnam.

 

In the meantime, having conquered China, Mao encouraged Kim Il Sung to invade South Korea, a step necessary to reach his new goal- to build a world class war machine with economic and military aid from the Soviet Union, which would be forced by such actions to give China what it needed. Mao believed that if his troops would enter the battle, the Americans would be tied down, the balance of power would shift in Stalin’s favor in the world, and then he could get the money from the Soviet Union for a giant war machine, as well as enable the Soviets to seize Germany, Spain and Italy. As Stalin said to Mao, “If a war is inevitable, then let it be waged now.”

 

The fact that Mao’s poverty stricken nation and army entered the Korean War is again typical of Mao’s style of action. In future years, with the economy on a downswing and production plummeting, with mass starvation in much of the nation, Mao still spent a fortune in exporting foreign aid to various regimes, in order to win them to China’s cause. In one case, Mao gave a fortune to Stalinist East Germany, actually one of the most well off of Stalin’s Eastern European satellites, which meant taking money for food out of the hide of the peasant population. East Germany imported so much food it ended rationing in 1958. And yet, as tens of millions died of starvation in China, Walter Ulbricht, the GDR’s chief, asked for more food from China, and Mao complied. When others told him that the peasants might starve, he responded that they could eat tree bark. From 1953 to 1956, Mao waged a virtual war on the peasantry, for one purpose alone: to extract food to pay for the cost of making China a military superpower. His system was simple: “leave the population just enough to keep them alive, and take all the rest.”

 

None of what he did compared, however, to the disaster created between 1959 and 196l during the so-called “Great Leap Forward,” portrayed usually as an attempt by China to use its manpower to industrialize rapidly. Not only did the program fail; it produced mass starvation, with areas of China forced to resort to cannibalism. Mao proclaimed that China could industrialize in three to five years, not the originally conceived ten to fifteen year period. Peasants and city dwellers alike were forced to build home steel furnaces, and all metal implements- including pots and pans used for cooking- were to be smelt to turn each home into a local steel producing factory. Mao also ordered that all sparrows be killed, since they ate grain. The “bourgeois” bird was condemned; the result was upsetting of nature’s ecological balance, as pests and other birds once killed by sparrows began to attack crops. Before long, Mao was asking the Soviet Union to send them 200,000 sparrows from the Soviet Far East. Mao had said: “Half of China may well have to die,” and he was prepared for such an outcome. It almost came true. 38 million people died of starvation and overwork during the Leap and the subsequent famine, which lasted for four long years. The greatest manmade famine of the 20th Century, exceeding the deaths caused by Stalin’s collectivization of the Ukraine, could be added to the list of the Chairman’s great accomplishments. As Mao told his staff, “50 million” might have to die…you can’t blame me when people die.”

 

Finally, Mao would outdo himself with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, (1965-1976). Common belief is that the disaster and horror took place because Mao wanted to keep the flames of revolt alive, and crush a self-satisfied Party bureaucracy. Thus many fellow-travelers in the West praised Mao, and welcomed his attempt to keep the spirit and soul of rebellion alive. As the authors explain, however, the actual goal was quite different: to purge every past and possible future opponent, as a means to cement total power in his own hands and prevent any potential disillusioned leaders once in his graces turn against him. The means was to frighten the entire nation into complete and total conformity. Officials were ordered to have their children from “Red Guard” groups, who were told to embark upon atrocities, such as the torture and murder of teachers who taught the children of Party officials.

 

The first great victims were any of the upholders of traditional culture, both ancient Chinese and Western. Writers were attacked; musicians killed – a leading pianist had his hands cut off – and ancient landmarks and cultural artifacts were sacked and destroyed. Only an official decision to spare the destruction of The Forbidden City (which was surrounded by troops) allowed it to remain intact; all other symbols of the past, including great architectural artifacts, were destroyed by raging mobs. Homes were destroyed, books and paintings and musical instruments trashed, and owners of homes beat up and tortured. The Red Guards also served as proxy bandits, confiscating items of great wealth and handing it over to the State. Mao, who forbid the reading of books, personally acquired many captured volumes to add to his own library, which Western visitors saw and hence proclaimed Mao a great scholar and intellectual. One leading official, the Foreign Minister, correctly called the era “one big torture chamber.” By the time the Great Purge ended before Mao’s death in 1976, three million had died violent deaths, and one hundred million, one ninth of the population, suffered greatly.

 

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday have clearly written what will be regarded as the book of the year: the book that finally will have told all the bitter truth about Mao, and thus which will have completely destroyed any remaining reputation he may have had as an individual who helped free China from submission and imperial control. Under Mao, China slipped back from a move towards the modern world into pure barbarism, and the hell Mao created far exceeded any of the difficulties confronting the Chinese people during the short reign of Chiang’s nationalists.

 

It is hardly a surprise to learn that the current government in China – a regime that has moved China economically into the modern world by taking what Mao had condemned as the “capitalist road” – has moved to suppress the book and prevent its appearance and publication in the mainland. Politically the regime still calls itself Communist. It operates a one-party state, controls all sources of information , suppresses dissidents, imprisons them in the Chinese gulag, and engages in mass suppression of the peasants and factory workers, who are forbidden to organize and try to rectify the horrific conditions in which they live. 

The ability to try to push this book past the walls of the Chinese government censors, and to make its findings known in the internet and then through China, is itself part of the struggle that will have to be made to improve the chances for a democratic development in China’s future. It is a difficult, but not impossible task. The Chinese people will someday thank and honor Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.

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Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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