16 June 2005 Edition

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The horrors of Mao

BY Matt Treacy

Book Review

Mao: The Unknown Story

By Jung Chang and

Jon Halliday

Published by Cape

£25/€36.99 (less €8 in Waterstone's)

The Beatle's 1968 song Revolution contains the lines:

"But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,

You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow."

Not the most profound political analysis you might come across but Lennon and McCartney were certainly talking a lot more sense than those who believed that Maoism was the path to human liberation. Certainly more so than the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who described the terror in China as "profoundly moral" or Henry Kissiniger, who claimed that Mao was searching for "egalitarian virtue".

Kissinger's reference to "egalitarian virtue" did contain a kernel of truth, in that for the vast majority of the people, those outside of the ruling elite, they were equally entitled to their share of terror, poverty and deprivation. While Mao exported vast amounts of food to fund his military and political ambitions, millions starved or barely survived on subsistence rations. An urban Chinese woman in 1960 had a daily calorie intake of 1,200. Labourers in Auschwitz had 1,300-1,700 calories per day. Of course, the more than 38 million Chinese who died during the famine of 1958-'61 were on considerably less than that.

For Mao personally, and for those temporarily in his favour, no expense was spared in providing villas, gourmet food and entertainment. However, it would be wrong to see that privilege as having been the motivating factor behind Mao and the Chinese elite. For Mao, power was the sole governing principle and its trappings were simply a bonus on top of his ability to control the destinies of hundreds of millions of people.

There was also a rationale behind the Maoist political and economic system, apart from providing the means to keep Mao in power. Far from being a 'peasant revolution', the Chinese Revolution was based on exploitation of the peasantry to supply the means for industrialisation and military strength.

The first attempt at industrialisation, the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, was a disaster and apart from leading to millions of deaths, it set back China's development for decades. Following that, and the potential threat that the instability it caused posed to his rule, Mao decided to import the means to modernise from the Soviet Union. Again, it was the peasantry who paid the price by being forced to supply the raw material and export value needed for industrial investment.

Nor did the urban working class benefit in any way from the misery of the rural population. It was calculated that between 1965 and 1975, investment in essential utilities such as water, electricity and sewerage was less than 4% of that in arms. Health and education spending had halved since 1949. Mao justified the appalling conditions with the cynical slogan: "The weeds of socialism are better than the crops of capitalism."

One who demurred was Deng Xiao Ping. Deng was purged in 1966 but returned to power in the mid '70s as Mao was forced to play off the old guard against the ultra leftist Gang of Four led by Mao's psychotic wife, Jiang Qing. Deng realised that Maoism had been an unmitigated disaster, particularly for the peasantry, and following Mao's death and victory over the Gang of Four, he loosened the state's grip on agriculture and then began the revival of capitalism, albeit under the strict control of the Communist Party. So Mao was correct to call Deng a "capitalist roader"!

Now China has the dubious benefits of a low wage capitalist economy wedded to totalitarian rule under which millions remain in forced labour and dissent is crushed.

Apart from Mao's physical depredations against the Chinese people, he also attempted, especially during the Cultural Revolution, to destroy Chinese culture. No individual artistic expression was permitted, while tens of thousands of ancient works of art, books and buildings, including the birthplace of Confucius, were destroyed. Literature and intellectual thought were replaced by absurd re-workings of the old tyrant's ramblings, which were peddled as Mao Tse Tung Thought, and summarised in the Little Red Book, much beloved by naïve pseudo-revolutionaries in the 1960s and 1970s.

There were also surreal aspects to Mao's reign, such as the decision during the 1958-1961 famine to target sparrows as one of the 'four pests' that threatened the meagre food stores left after requisitioning. Sparrows were subjected to a campaign of eradication until it was realised that they were actually more beneficial than harmful. Mao had then to request the Soviet Union to send him 200,000 sparrows to replace those that had been killed!

It is difficult to choose one phrase or incident that sums up the horror of Maoism. Perhaps a fitting one comes not from China but from Kampuchea during the terror visited on that country by Mao's protégés in the Khmer Rouge. Ungrateful brats that they were, and despite Chinese military, economic and diplomatic support, Pol Pot's gang ruthlessly targeted any sign of internal Chinese influence. The chief victim of this was one of the Khmer leadership, Keo Meas, who was accused of being too close to the Chinese party. He was tortured to death in Tuol Sleng and on his file his murderers wrote: "This contemptible Mao who got the horrible death he deserved is worthless. You shouldn't think, you antique bastard, that the Kampuchean Party has been influenced by Mao." The falcon might no longer have been listening to the falconer, but they were Mao's falcons par excellence.

Jung Chang has already written an autobiographical account of her own experience of Mao in Wild Swans and readers of that will be familiar with much of the subject matter of this book, co-authored with Jon Halliday. This is an attempt to write objective history as opposed to a personalised narrative but it is clear that Chang's own animus towards Mao was the major motivating factor. That has been cited by some as a criticism but it is clear that the book has been well researched through numerous primary and secondary written sources and hundreds of interviews.

Historical anoraks might quibble with the referencing system but it stands as an important and valuable contribution to understanding Mao and Maoism. For people interested in radical social change. it is important to grasp why totalitarianism was such a monstrosity, not least so that such things are never allowed to take place again. And that people with the freedom to read and think and talk about such things shed any illusions in a system that denies those rights to others.


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