The Strange Allure of Cruel Dictatorships

By McIntyre, Andrew | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Strange Allure of Cruel Dictatorships


McIntyre, Andrew, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


The strange allure of cruel dictatorships

Andrew McIntyre reviews

Mao: The Unknown Story

By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.

(Jonathan Cape, 2005, 814 pages)

To much fanfare and international recognition, Jung Chang, author of the all-time best selling non-fiction work Wild Swans, and her British husband Jon Halliday have co-authored a definitive history of Mao Tse-tung. The book has already been flagged as the best political history published this century. This is not mere historical revisionism; it indeed could claim to be the definitive corrective of just exactly how monstrous a tyrant Mao was. Relentless in its depiction of the biggest mass murderer of the twentieth century-more than 70 million deaths in peacetimeit focuses very much on Mao the man.

Although just over 800 pages and with copious notes and documentation, this book is for the general public. It reads as a compelling narrative and is told in the accessible style of Wild Swans. One of the strengths of the book is that there is no facile moralizing. The authors simply describe a man according to the lights of the people who knew him, or who met him. This has not stopped the inevitable apologists claiming that it is a calculated demolition job. After all, Chang's own family were victims, so this must be her 'revenge'. In response, Chang is at pains to point out that the book overwhelmingly rests on documented facts and primary sources. She explained in one Melbourne interview that 'the book is not a polemic. It is a straightforward story with facts. Readers can draw their own conclusions'.

Between them, the authors travelled through China and interviewed over 150 family relatives of Mao, his friends, colleagues, personal staff and members of the top echelon of the Party. These people had never before talked about Mao on the record. Although the authors give the reader little alternative explanation or a wider historical context for Mao's actions, it is hard to resist the picture put before us.

The compelling conclusion is simply worse than most of us could imagine: Mao was totally cynical and unscrupulous. He survived precisely because he was more ruthless than anyone else he encountered, including Stalin. Mao, from these direct accounts, had a seamless life of cruelty waged against friend, foe and family alike. To make the assessment worse, it turns out that there was not even a vestige of ideological belief-Marxist or communist-nor idealism of any sort.

The most chilling assessment of Mao was given in detail by the man himself. In 1918, at the age of 24, Mao wrote in his diary:

People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people ... Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me ... Some say one has a responsibility for history. I don't believe it. I am only concerned about developing myself...

On death and killing others:

Human beings are endowed with the sense of curiosity, why should we treat death differently. Don't we want to experience strange things? I think this is the most wonderful thing...

Right from his earliest years, the story traces Mao's psychopathology and his cruelty to others. It starts with him as a child with his immediate family, then moves to his professional colleagues and allies as they were systematically betrayed for Mao's personal hunger for power, money and domination. He was totally pragmatic. Very early in his long life, he had found an easy way to obtain money and do no real work.

Mao's treachery is illustrated during the course of the Long March, where he made his troops march for months through fruitless detoursthus sacrificing thousands of scarce fighting men-to serve no other purpose than to advance his bid for leadership. In another episode near Banyou in 1935, Mao connived, lied and menaced to force Kuo-tao, then military supremo of the main communist force at the time, to take his troops through marshes where there was neither food nor villages. …

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