I have just finished listening over a three week period (during exercise, housework, garden chores etc!) to the well researched and extensive biography of Mao, written by Jung Chang and John Halliday.
As an interested student of contemporary history and politics, I am surprised and ashamed that my overall impression of Mao from my previous reading was so far from the mark. OK, Jung Chang reads the worst interpretation into every action of Mao’s and was heavily criticised by some professional historians for taking such a strong viewpoint, but, given the extent of his crimes, it’s not a bad viewpoint and it helpfully corrects the benign ‘Great Helmsman’ image propagated by his propaganda team. It’s easy enough to see where some of the claims as to Mao’s intentions are at best speculative and other occasions when there is supportive evidence. I suppose that’s what surprises me.. that despite my constantly critical perspective on such matters, I accepted in the past some at least of the positive image of Mao. Most historians reject ‘great man’ theories of history – overly simplistic accounts which overemphasise the power or agency of one person, when there are so many other social and political factors involved. But there is a danger that the nuanced and complex interpretations of academic historians do not give sufficient attention to individual agency. Among the myriad personalities and forces which shaped the story of China in the 20th Century, Mao’s individual story (his decisions, values and actions) is enormously important. The account of Mao given here has a strong internal validity, even allowing for the fact that some of their sources have not been objectively verified by other historians.
JC and JH had access to a range of sources (ie. eye witnesses such as interpreters who are now willing to speak, Kremlin documents and so on) which were not available to earlier writers – and they are determined to ‘expose’ Mao. Even quite conventional statecraft and wily diplomacy, which might be seen as positives in another politician, receive no credit from them: there can be no positives for world history’s ‘greatest mass murderer’. The sheer scale of Mao’s psychopathic megalomania, I now believe, was evident from an early age and the sycophantic writings of Edgar Snow and others doubtless persuaded many others, like me, to take a more favourable view of Mao than is justified.
I, for example, had bought the Edgar Snow line that his heroic ‘Long March’ was an episode that brought him credit as a revolutionary leader, willing to risk death ans suffer privation to bring a better life to the people. Chang and Halliday present a convincing alternative narrative. Long before, but also during, the Long March, he showed a ruthless capacity to send others to their deaths in order to protect himself, while he himself was often carried on a dais and enjoyed luxuries and concubines throughout the ‘heroic’ struggle. The terrible famine of the Great Leap Forward (over 30 million died between 1957 and 1961) resulted not from natural disasters, as Chinese propaganda at the time and later said, and as I had always supposed, but from deliberate CCP policy, imposed by Mao against the wishes of some of the most senior party members who were threatened with ‘rightist’ denunciations if they objected (Chou En Lai had to make a grovelling public self-criticism). The party requisitioned massive quantities of food, by force, so that it could be exported to pay for weapons rather than being used to feed the people who had grown it.
It is both horrifying and compelling in equal measure, to understand how the qualities we most abhor, as citizens of a plural democracy, are the very ones which brought him such absolute power – his total indifference to the suffering of others, his callous use of death as a political weapon, his cynical use of terror (forcing people to witness horrible torture executions) as a means of control and his clever manipulation of the weaknesses of others to increase his own power. At every level, he grew his own power, justifying means with reference to ends – the dream of a communist utopia which he did not believe in and showed no commitment to in his own lifestyle. In the 20s, he was constantly manoeuvering to become first among equals in the Communist Party. Later, his constant motivation was to protect his own power base, sometimes by sacrificing many thousands of Communist comrades/rivals, in order to win the civil war against Chiang Kai Shek. Once established as the ‘Communist Emperor’, he used the Soviet alliance to build up his military strength, including the technology of the nuclear bomb. East European witnesses told Halliday and Chang about his callous references to the value of nuclear weapons to China. He did not fear a nuclear war, as he had inexhaustible human resources, even if millions were killed.
In the mid50s, Mao was requisitioning food to send to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in order to buy armaments and technology, while causing widespread famine and starvation in the Chinese countryside. Over several years, some 6.5% of China’s GDP was being sent abroad as ‘aid’ to further Mao’ desire to develop ‘superpower’ status – the UK has never attained the target of 0.7%!! The difference is that most of Mao’s #aid# was going to countries richer than his own. East Germany was able to abolish food rationing in the 1950s as a result of the food aid sent by China while its own people were starving, all done to further global ambitions to power.
Now I understand who well Pol Pot learned at Mao’s feet, when he and his clique were based in Beijing before they took the struggle into Cambodia. He learned:
- how to create and atmosphere of terror within the party as well as the country at large through systematic torture, quota killings (there must be x% of ‘rightists’, so each area has to kill their quota, or they themselves would be labelled ‘rightists’, since they have obviously hidden or protected some others) and the promotion of psychopaths (people not only able to carry out these kinds of policies, but who actually do it with enthusiasm);
- how to ensure complete obedience through an obsession with enforcing purity of thought and doctrine as defined by the leading clique;
- the use of mass labour (either intellectuals or peasants) as the most plentiful resource for infrastructure projects. These were often very badly designed. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao advocated that major projects such as dams and canals should be delivered instantly through Survey / Design / Build all being done ‘simultaneously’, rather than sequentially (the ‘Three Simultaneouslies’) – this led to projects which were ecologically disastrous as well as dangerous (dams constructed during this period later collapsed, for example, drowning hundreds of thousands).
Pol Pot followed all of these practices (including the famous useless canal, which turned out to be designed to take water uphill, on which many of his victims worked and died) and many more in his disastrous Year Zero plans. The main difference is that the sheer size of China allowed it to absorb more readily the millions of deaths which resulted.
Is this relevant to us in a plural democracy? I believe it is. Even at the lowly level of Scottish local government, and certainly in national government, there are politicians whose main strength is their ability to put self above others, to manipulate and dissimulate in order to gain position, while maintaining a front of commitment to party policies… and it is a strength, because often these are the people who succeed in politics. Our system quickly squeezes out those who seek agreement, who see the strengths of their opponents and recognise the weaknesses in their own position. In fact, most such people are disinterested in party politics, precisely because the hard-nosed power seekers will always come out on top. Presently, with our considerable wealth, the rule of law, a free critical press and a relatively highly trustworthy police and judicial process, this probably doesn’t matter. A British/Scottish Mao would have to acknowledge these greater forces. However, suppose we lost our wealth, or that competition for resources, or a great natural disaster, broke up the security of our social communication systems, as happened in Germany in the early 1930s, do we understand what it would take to resist a manipulative single-minded populist psychopath?
Our most important resource is our knowledge of history – all citizens in a modern European democracy should know about and understand the disastrous journey to power of Stalin and Hitler. Mao recognised his fellow psychopath, Stalin, as ‘the master’. But he later outdid him. Mao’s story, and the story of those who who copied him to power – Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung in particular – should also be known. Kim Il Sung’s disastrous communist social order in North Korea (brilliantly covered from a very readable personal angle by the American journalist Barbara Demick in her best selling book ‘Nothing to Envy’) might yet threaten peace in Asia and beyond. Mao’s legacy lives on.