The China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corporation--the official distributors of foreign publications in China--last week informed Dow Jones, publishers of the Review and this newspaper, that inclusion of the book review would keep the June issue of the monthly magazine off newsstands. An article on trafficking in endangered species was also deemed offensive.
"It may seem strange that Beijing is so sensitive to criticism of Mao after all this time," says Hugo Restall, editor of the Review. "But then consider that, despite tremendous economic progress, China's political system is still pretty close to where it was half a century ago--and look at the disasters like the Cultural Revolution that followed.
"Naturally, the country's leaders want to conceal from their own people and the rest of the world just how vulnerable China is to political instability," Mr. Restall went on. "The tools in their arsenal range from the subtle, such as recruiting businessmen to speak on their behalf, to the crude, like banning magazines."
Two years ago at a Harvard conference devoted to Mao Zedong, retired Beijing University Professor Yue Daiyun recalled her suffering during the Maoist era. “Why would Mao relentlessly and repeatedly knock down and trample those who came to support him, had never opposed him, indeed embraced and loved him?” The constant fear during those years, she said, was that “no one is safe.”
Too infirm to come to the Harvard conference, Li Rui, once Mao’s secretary, sent a paper stating that “Mao was a person who did not fear death and he did not care how many were killed. Tens of millions of people suffered during every political movement and millions starved to death.”
Most of the contemporary biographers of Mao, from Stuart Schram, (still the leading Mao scholar), to Philip Short, author of Mao: A Life, were at Harvard. Only two guests from Beijing praised the chairman. But there was an effort among the other academics to find why many Chinese worshipped Mao.
One of those present was Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar, who in volume three of his great The Origins of the Cultural Revolution compared Mao to Hitler and wrote, “I have been particularly interested in the human tragedy represented by Mao’s purge of his long-time comrades of the Long March and the base areas [and] his dissolution of the Yan’an ‘Round Table.’”
Now comes Jung Chang, author of the excellent, bestseller Wild Swans. She and her husband, the historian Jon Halliday, have written Mao: The Unknown Story—which is huge in every sense. They answer Professor MacFarquhar’s concern, Professor Yue’s question—how could Mao do it?—and refute Li Rui’s suggestion that while Mao was a world-class killer, he didn’t fear death. From this copiously documented book we learn that Mao killed because he liked it; that he acquired a taste for slaughter in the late 1920s; and that he was terrified of death, probably because he had killed so many that revenge may have been lurking around every corner.
In her publisher’s note, Ms. Chang explains her motives for writing this book:
I decided to write about Mao because I was fascinated by this man, who dominated my life in China, and who devastated the lives of my fellow countrymen. He was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did. Yet the world knows astonishingly little about him.In an interview in the Sunday Telegraph she said Mao was “the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world.”
It is always disturbing when a book claims to be the “unknown story.” Ms. Chang claims that the world knows little of Mao. Actually the world, because of years of Western Mao scholarship and the experience of many Chinese whose lives the chairman indeed devastated, knows a lot about him. There are other biographies, some of them excellent, to which little or no credit is given by the authors, and—thanks to Harvard’s Stuart Schram—many volumes of Mao’s writings.
I am no Mao specialist, but before reading this latest biography I was broadly aware of the Mao story, particularly his life-long heartlessness and capacity for inflicting suffering on a national scale. Lucian Pye, for example, saw him pretty clearly decades ago (he is not cited in this book) and Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic by David Apter and Tony Saich, cited but not acknowledged, analyzes Mao’s unusual capacity for striking terror as acutely as Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday. Some of the lesser parts of the story had been published earlier, such as the enormously profitable opium-growing business at Mao’s guerrilla headquarters, Yan’an, by Chen Yung-fa in 1995 (cited in this biography) but in every case Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday add considerable detail to a story which will shock many Chinese.
And until this book there continued to be a lingering feeling in the West that Mao, despite everything, was a great man. And among many Chinese he remained a great man who went bad. That is the view of the Communist Party, which has officially judged Mao to be 70% good and “a great Marxist,” and still hangs his gigantic portrait over the main gate to the Forbidden City, from which it gazed down during the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989. It was a mark of Mao’s continuing special status that in May of that year, near the end of the demonstrations, when three men hurled paint at the portrait, they were tackled and detained not by the police but by other demonstrators. The very people who were shouting “Li Peng resign,” and “Down with Deng Xiaoping,” and calling for fundamental reform of the Party, could not countenance an attack on the Great Teacher and Helmsman who in their childhoods they had learned was “the red red sun in our hearts.”
All that is swept away by the authors. If Mao were on trial, and they presented their evidence, if the judge warned the jury they could convict only if there were no shadow of doubt, the verdict would be a unanimous guilty as charged.
--if only to quietly vex Mao's successors.