Mao: the Unknown Story

Apr 13, 2008

On a recent flight, I finished reading “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. (The image below is the cover of the European version. The US version has a different cover for whatever reason.)

It was an extraordinary reading experience for me in many ways. First, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book for this long :) I started reading it in February of last year (2007), and finished now in April 2008. So I read it for more than a year. Not daily, of course – it was mostly a way for me to fill time when having nothing better to do on long flights.

This already shows you one of the great qualities of this book. It is immensely readable and can be continued where you left off without any trouble at all. Sometimes I didn’t touch it for months. Yet when I picked it up to continue, I sort of recalled the gist of where I left it off and could carry on straight away. The book is divided into thematic chapters and thus you can have a go at it piece by piece and don’t have to digest the whole thing right away.

Connection with modern China and the world

Even though I read it for more than a year, I think I sort of finished it on time, even though unplanned. 2008 is the year of Olympic Games in China, and there are debates going on about whether this is a good or bad thing for Chinese people. Modern China is a strange place. It tries to combine Communist totalitarianism with capitalist economy. I don’t have a good feeling about how this is going to end up, but status quo cannot continue indefinitely there. Some sort of break is going to happen, but it could be in any direction. It is too complicated for me to predict and I don’t know too much about the current state of modern China. The longer I’ve been around, the more I’ve understood that before speaking, it’s a good plan to listen and learn.

Understanding Mao’s story is one critical piece of the puzzle about modern China. I think that I have a fairly good understanding about current state of the Western world and its 20th century history both in Europe and America. But Asia and especially China have so far to me largely been a black hole, and this book for me did a tremendous job of filling in large part of that void.

What I learned

What I learned was consistent with the bits and pieces I knew about China and the rest of the communist world before. In a nutshell, Mao managed to cause deaths of more of his own people in peacetime than Hitler and Stalin combined during the war. The book speaks of 70 million deaths due to famine and various forms of public torture and prosecution. And like all totalitarian regimes, Mao’s China was built on blood, lies, conspiracies, and disregard for most of the people living in the country.

Even though there were many similarities, Mao’s regime was unique in some aspects. For example, both Stalin’s communists and Hitler’s Nazis tried to conduct their crimes in at least a somewhat conspicuous manner. When their secret police wanted to prosecute someone, the person was dragged into a secluded cellar or sent into a remote concentration camp. Mao, on the other hand, relied on public humiliation, torture and executions as a means to invoke fear and submission.

The story also connects with various other pieces of the 20th century puzzle. Why did the Korean war start? Largely due to Mao and Stalin conspiring to test new Communist weaponry and Stalin wanting to bog down the UN forces so that he could possibly start a war on another front (which luckily didn’t happen). How come East Germany did not have food rationing? Because China shipped them many thousands of tons of food at the expense of its own people starving to death, because of Mao’s global ambitions. How did China get nuclear weapons? Because Mao coerced Soviet Russia into giving it to them. Vietnam war, Pol Pot – all of these connect to Mao in one way or another.

Modern connections revisited

All of this is highly relevant with the current state of world and Chinese affairs, with China crushing Tibetians yet again and all that. But once again, reading this book helps to understand where the regime comes from, but does not really tell you where it is going or what to think of it, other than demonstrating that their value system and ideology were different from what the West is used to.

Another thing to think of is public attitude towards the legacy of the regime. In my view, Nazis, Soviet communists and Chinese communists were in the grand scheme of things all equally evil and guilty of many crimes against humanity. Whereas Nazis are today universally condemned, the heritage of both Soviets and Chinese communists continues to live on and publicly endorsed and celebrated.

I’m highly pragmatic and I think so is a lot of the Western economy who has pushed a lot of material goods production into China, as it’s just so darn cheap. This book helps you understand a part of how this is possible – at the expense of people living there. Mao repeatedly said that when they did not have advanced warfaring techonology (a lot of which they now do have), he couldn’t care less about the thousands of people he sent to front as cannon fodder, this was simply his way of fighting. And when people died due to famine that could have been avoided, well, too bad.

Criticisms and closing

As with anything, I’m far from saying that this book is the greatest thing ever written about Mao. Criticisims are abound, but I’m not in a position to say who is right and who is wrong. This book is a result of ten years of academic research. Some other academicians have come forward to criticize. All I can say is that the authors’ work looks credible at the face of it with a great number of sources, and is consistent with my world view. Therefore I’m inclined to not dismiss it until someone comes forward with a more credible refutal than just “you should be more clear with citing your sources”.

The one personal shortcoming I had with this book was that while it goes well into detail with Korean War, it sort of brushes over some more recent conflicts such as Vietnam War and Pol Pot in Cambodia. But then again, those happened later into Mao’s life when his health was already failing, and maybe his role in those was not that great. While I would have loved to learn more about the connection between Mao and those, maybe it wouldn’t be Mao’s story any more.

But this was just a minor thing – all in all, I’m satisfied that I picked up this book, as I feel it contributed a lot to my understanding of China and the modern world.