(published in the AFR 26 August 2005 under the title ‘So Vile a Thing as Chairman Mao’)

Paul Monk on Jung Chang’s biography of an odious tyrant

 “And why should Caesar be a tyrant then? Poor man!
I know he would not be a wolf, but that he sees the Romans
Are but sheep: He were no lion were not Romans hinds.
Those that with haste will make a mighty fire
Begin it with weak straws: what trash is
What rubbish and what offal when it serves
For the base matter to illuminate
So vile a thing as Caesar.”

-Shakespeare Julius Caesar Act I, Sc iii, ll.102-111.

“According to Lenin…the Communist Party is based on the principle of coercion, which doesn’t recognize any limitations or inhibitions. And the central idea of this principle of boundless coercion is not coercion itself, but the absence of any limitation whatsoever - moral, political and even physical…Such a Party is capable of achieving miracles and of doing things which no other collective of men could achieve.”

-Yuri Pyatakov, Bolshevik, to the Menshevik N. V. Volsky (1928)

“Some 12 million died in the Nazi concentration camps and a further 30 million were killed during the Second World War. Stalin is thought to have allowed 20 million to die in the gulags and overall he is believed to have been responsible for between 30 and 40 million deaths. However, an investigation into Mao’s record…suggests that Mao exceeded even these ghastly totals.”

- Jasper Becker Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (1996) p. 274.

            Some years ago, I was teaching a course on Chinese politics at one of the universities. I used give the students multiple choice quizzes in each tutorial. In one tutorial, there was a question which went like this: Daniel Chirot’s verdict on Mao Zedong is that he was (a) a homicidal maniac, even crueler than Stalin, who believed that many millions of Chinese should die, in order to purify the country of its old culture and its foreign corruption? (b) a far sighted and genuine socialist idealist with a fatally flawed blueprint for transforming China into a ‘perfect society’? (c) a sex-crazed, constipated, opium-addicted insomniac, who eliminated countless intellectuals, because he believed they were all political eunuchs, were full of shit, and didn’t understand that the country needed to be woken up? 

            The third choice was intended as a wry joke; though I was secretly hoping one or two students would fail to see the joke and would circle (c) as the correct answer.  The real point of the question, however, was to get students to differentiate between judgments (a) and (b). Mao had been dead for a generation by then and not even the Chinese Communist Party’s propagandists any longer claimed that his version of socialism had been anything but seriously flawed. What was at stake was whether the idea of socialism and the rhetoric of revolution still seemed to cast an aura of ‘historical necessity’, never mind romantic glory, over the enormous suffering that Mao Zedong inflicted on China. Chirot’s verdict, in 1996, was clear - Mao was even crueler than Stalin.

            Jung Chang, author of the immensely popular memoir of the Chinese revolution Wild Swans, with her husband, historian Jon Halliday, has now produced a biography of Mao which blends answers (a) and (c) above, depicting Mao Zedong as a moral monster without redeeming features and the worst mass killer of the twentieth century, which had more than its fair share of them[i]. It is called Mao: The Unknown Story and it appears to have reached a far wider audience than earlier biographies of the tyrant had done, exploding for them what had long been exploded among the better informed: the myth of Mao as a benevolent dictator who made some mistakes, but was a giant among 20th century political leaders. In that sense it does tell what was, for millions, an “unknown story.” It isn’t clear, however, that it makes any significant addition to scholarship.

As Linda Jaivin remarked, in an early review of Mao: The Unknown Story, That his rule involved mass murder, tens of millions of deaths from famine, and persecution on an unprecedented scale is incontestable and well-known. It’s no secret, either, that in his private life Mao could be cruel, narcissistic and paranoid, and that even his sexual appetites were monstrous.”[ii] These are the most fundamental indictments of Mao as a ruler and as a man. They were not an unknown story to any but the oblivious, before Jung Chang and Jon Halliday wrote their book. Yet the impact of the book is very likely attributable to the fact that these indictments are made in it, in a popular style accessible to those whose knowledge of modern Chinese history comes only from popular books.

This is not, in itself, a reason to object to the book. On the contrary, it could be that it will serve a very good purpose to have such a damning an account of so odious a tyrant in general circulation. Purists and specialists might feel irritated by its claims that what it reveals was hitherto ‘unknown’ and by a number of aspects of the way it is written, but this, at the end of the day, is like Mozart purists being offended by Tom Hulce’s American accent and vulgarity in Amadeus, a film which brought Mozart’s music to millions who had not previously been acquainted with it.

This, I think, is how Mao: The Unknown Story should be seen. For, if it persuades millions of the otherwise ingenuous that Mao Zedong was a catastrophe for China, not its liberator, it will have performed a very great service. It might then be complemented by a film, on the lines of Downfall, directed by, say, Chen Kaige, which would depict the dark, haunted and depraved character of Mao Zedong at the end of his murderous life.

That said, Mao: The Unknown Story will not rank with the great political biographies. It is too loose, too anecdotal in composition; it lacks both psychological and sociological balance. Whereas, for example, Alan Bullock’s acclaimed dual biographies of Hitler and Stalin provided a carefully measured assessment of how each individual was formed, became a political leader, exercised power and committed crimes on a staggering scale, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday do not appear to have any sense of measured assessment.

Their book reads like a hastily written polemic and often has the dissatisfying character of a gossip column or muckraking reportage. It lacks the gravity and stringency of argument that are indispensable to the making of a really masterful piece of political biography or history. It is, a classical scholar might say, the kind of biography Suetonius might have written of Mao Zedong, rather than the kind of history Tacitus wrote of early imperial Rome.

In writing this, I have in mind the observation of Betty Radice that Suetonius, in his famous Lives of the Caesars, exhibited an “interest in the colourful vices of his subjects (which) makes lively reading and has given him the reputation of a scandalmonger, but his real fault is that he records everything he can find without any critical evaluation.” [iii] Tacitus, by contrast, in his Annals and Histories, covering the same material as Suetonius, wrote in powerful, astringent Latin, with a wholly serious purpose and was the ancient historian most admired by Edward Gibbon, who saw him as a model to emulate, in writing his own monumental history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.[iv] Suetonius is entertaining, but had his Lives of the Caesars perished, they would not have constituted a serious loss to historians. Tacitus is another matter. It is considered one of the greatest losses to our knowledge of Roman history that so much of his work perished long ago. Indeed, we only have the parts we do because of the discovery of a single manuscript during the Renaissance.

But I digress. Mao: The Unknown Story is not merely scurrilous. It is, in its own way, perfectly serious; but it does partake of Suetonius’s tendency to record everything he could find without critical evaluation. For that reason, it will be left to someone else to do properly what Jung Chang and Jon Halliday declared their story would do: demonstrate systematically that Mao Zedong should be regarded as having been a criminal and tyrant every bit as terrible as Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. They have made a contribution to that demonstration, but their work is too unsystematic, too superficial in its analysis of how Mao’s mind worked, how he rose to power and how his regime worked to bear comparison with the best works of scholarship on modern tyranny or Chinese history.

Three examples of how they handle crucial matters will have to suffice here to illustrate this point. First, they paint such a dark portrait of Mao that they leave one wondering how he could ever have inspired anyone to follow him. Clearly, this is explicable, for both Hitler and Stalin were very dark characters, but were able to rise to power. The point is that a serious biography would set out to show this in detail.

In Mao: The Unknown Story, one is left flabbergasted that the machinery of conspiracy and revolutionary war did not disintegrate around Mao, given his capricious cruelties, lack of judgment and utter hypocrisy as described by the authors. From his earliest days in the Party, they argue, Mao was devoid of idealism, completely cynical about communist ideology and without loyalty to anyone. If this was so, it was not power that corrupted the man, but an utterly corrupt man who rose to power. We need to know how - in detail.

Second, they fail to provide any account of how the Communist Party set about governing China after 1949, or running the economy. They ascribe purposes and policies to Mao without offering any comprehensible account of how any of these were put into practice. This is a critical omission, for it was not merely Mao, the monster, who imposed a command economy, totalitarian propaganda and mobilization, mass terror, a regime of concentration camps and destructive cultural upheaval on China; it was an ideological mass movement: the Chinese Communist Party.

That Party and the machinery it had created was the indispensable tool for Mao to do what he did, even though, in the process, he turned on the Party itself and purged many of its leading figures. A biography of Mao without a biography of the Party is like a biography of Hitler without any serious account of the creation and expansion and appeal of the Nazi Party, or a biography of Stalin without any serious account of how the Bolshevik Party and the Cheka were set up and made Stalin’s rise to tyranny possible.

This second point is even more important than the first, because Mao is dead, but the Communist Party is still in power and exercises power on no basis other than its appeal to the legacy of Mao Zedong, whose portrait still hangs over Tiananmen Square, where the Party crushed students beneath tanks in 1989 and where it arrested thousands of Falun Gong demonstrators in 1999. That Party still exercises dictatorship and, for all the talk, since the death of Mao, of replacing the rule of man with the rule of law, it remains outside the law and arbitrarily crushes any dissent. It has banned Mao: The Unknown Story and suppressed even reviews of the book inside China. Why? Because it fears the implications that the book itself does not even spell out: that the Communist revolution was a totalitarian seizure of power, not a liberation of China and that it’s blood-soaked history disqualifies it from any claim to govern the country, much less to crush all opposition as if such opposition constituted a threat to the ‘stability’ of the country.

Third, the authors rightly emphasize, from their first sentence, that Mao was responsible for the deaths of many tens of millions of people in China, but they are far too self-indulgent in the way they use the statistical data behind this claim. This may seem a pedantic point to make, unless one wanted to argue that they are fundamentally in error and that Mao was not responsible for anything like so many deaths.

There are variations on this theme. While it is now generally accepted by those acquainted with the best research on the subject that the Great Leap Forward, in 1959-61, for example, caused some 30 million deaths by starvation, there are those who have long been inclined to gloss over this staggering toll with the disclaimer that Mao cannot be likened to Hitler, because he did not intend these people to die, he just made terrible errors in economic planning. But the numbers who perished in atrocities during the civil war, in the land reforms, in internal party purges even before 1949, in the terror campaigns of the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the prison camps over decades, in the Cultural Revolution are much less certain and much debated.

Given that the book pivots on its opening claim that Mao “was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader”,[v] it is disappointing that it does not offer a far more scrupulous accounting of these deaths. The statistic itself is mind numbing. We remember the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazi machinery of death in the Holocaust,[vi] or the one million Armenians exterminated by the Turks in the genocide of 1916,[vii] or the 800,000 Rwandans exterminated in the horrific upheaval of 1994.[viii]

But the figure of 70 million Chinese deaths caused by the machinery of totalitarian revolution and government under Mao Zedong would make even these shocking episodes from 20th century history pale by comparison. Can it be true? How can we absorb the moral and political implications, if it is? How would we know? Alas, Mao: The Unknown Story makes claims, makes ball park estimates, tells anecdotes, but nowhere attempts a systematic and sober reckoning.

This is a serious issue, but first let me address briefly some aspects of the first two points I have made about what the book fails to do. The authors report that Mao discovered a taste for cruelty and brutality, torture and terror, in 1926-27, in the Hunan countryside.[ix] At the end of December 1926, they claim, he undertook a tour of rural Hunan. “By the end of the tour, which lasted thirty two days, he had undergone a dramatic change. Mao himself was to say that before this trip he had been taking a moderate line, and ‘not until I stayed in Hunan for over thirty days did I completely change my attitude’. What really happened was that Mao discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery.”[x] “Mao saw and heard much about brutality, and he liked it. In the report he wrote afterwards, in March 1927, he said he felt ‘a kind of ecstasy never experienced before’.”[xi] His conclusion, then, in 1927, was that it was “necessary to bring about a reign of terror in every county.”[xii]

All this the authors describe as the efflorescence in the young Mao of a taste for violence which “verged on sadism”.[xiii]  However, a few pages later, they describe the outbreak of anti-Communist terror, in which, by their own account, “tens of thousands of Communists and suspects were slaughtered” without any mention of sadism. They comment, indeed, of the communists themselves, “Anyone could be arrested and killed, simply on the charge of being a Communist. Many died proclaiming their faith, some shouting slogans, others singing the ‘Internationale’. Newspapers hailed executions with pitiless headlines.”[xiv] Yet there is no suggestion that those slaughtering the Communists were merely sadists who did not believe in their own cause, or that the violence was all to be laid on the feet of anti-Communist supremo Chiang Kai-shek and sadism on his part. And what of the Communists who ‘died proclaiming their faith’? Faith in what? This is what the book never seriously explores.

The violence within the Party should, surely have undermined it very early on, had there not been something about it that drew people to it. The authors relate, without closely analyzing, bloody episodes in the Party’s early history, in which thousands of so-called ‘Anti-Bolsheviks’ within the Party were tortured and executed.[xv] They report, in a footnote, that, in 1983, the Party itself listed 238,844 people as having been ‘revolutionary martyrs’ during the Jiangxi period, before the Long March, including ‘people who had been killed in war and intra-party purges.’[xvi] They describe mass terror and torture at Yenan, during the mid-1940s.[xvii] What they do not do is explain how all this was possible.

Who did the torturing and killing? Certainly not Mao himself. How was the Party sustained, after such mass terror and killing? In the Philippines, in the mid-1980s, such internal party purges tore the Philippine Communist Party to pieces. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday describe what occurred in China in the early 1930s as if this is just what sadists do, with no explanation at all as to why thousands of Party cadres were prepared to slaughter their own comrades and keep fighting for a cause that was being itself brutally repressed by a dictatorship.

This problem runs through the whole book, right up to the late chapters on the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao finally destroyed so many of his longtime colleagues. The authors imply again and again that many of these colleagues were basically decent Communists, such as Peng Dehuai and Liu Shaoqi. What they never address is, if Mao was such a cruel and corrupt figure, why did basically decent people follow him through two decades of hardship and civil war? What were they fighting for, alongside such a savage miscreant?

They argue that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people died as a direct result of Communist rule in bases areas before the Long March.[xviii] But if this was so, one would expect to find that all the key Communist leaders, not Mao alone, were somehow sadistic, hypocritical and amoral. They don’t argue this and they talk about Communists dying for their ‘faith’. This simply does not seem to add up, but the anomaly never seems to give them pause. It cries out for careful exploration.

This brings me back to the question of the numbers. The mass killings and deaths by starvation in the Communist base areas in the early 1930s stand at the base of the gigantic pyramid of skulls that the authors indicate was the consequence of Communism in China. The civil war brought the next layer of skulls and it did so not merely through battle, but in the form of atrocities which the Party has, to this day, sought to censor from history. The siege of Changchun, in 1948, is one of the better known examples. The city was starved into submission on the direct orders of Mao and his longtime henchman Lin Biao, according to a memoir by a Red Army officer, Zhang Zhenglong, published in Hong Kong in 1991, which is their chief source for the story.[xix] The death toll was some 330,000; “higher”, the authors remark, “than the highest estimate for the Japanese massacre at Nanjing in 1937 (which is 300,000).”[xx] They quote another retired general, Su Yu, as stating in memoirs published in 1988, that this murderous policy of mass starvation was used ‘in quite a few cities’ at that time.[xxi]

How many were killed altogether, before 1949? They do not offer even an approximate figure. Admittedly, it would be difficult to arrive at an accurate figure, but this is, after all, the main argument of their book - that the Chinese Communist Party is drenched in the blood of the Chinese people. In any case, the really serious killing began once they had taken power, as with all totalitarian regimes. They do not kill simply in order to take power; they take power in order to kill. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday estimate that, in one year, in 1951, three million people “perished either by execution, mob violence or suicide.”[xxii] They do not substantiate this figure with anything other than a brief footnote, in which they quote Mao as declaring 700,000 had been executed, but add that “those beaten or tortured to death in the post-1949 land reform…would, at the very least be as many again.” And that suicides were “very probably about equal to the number of those killed.”[xxiii] This is annoyingly cavalier, surely, where so many lives are involved; especially since 1951 was only the beginning of the matter.

            They state, in a single line, that the number who died in the prison camp system throughout Mao’s rule “could well amount to 27 million.”[xxiv] How do they arrive at this stupendous figure? By a very simple, but actually dubious statistical calculation. “By the general estimate, China’s prison and labour camp population was roughly 10 million in any one year under Mao. Descriptions of camp life by inmates, which point to high mortality rates, indicate a probable annual death rate of at least 10 per cent.”[xxv]

This simply will not do in such a desperately grave matter. They cite a few of the better known sources on the Communist prison camp system, but they nowhere show awareness of the extensive debate about mortality rates in both the Chinese (Laogai) and Soviet (Gulag) camp systems and no serious account of which I am aware now supports so glib an assertion as theirs that there was a “probable” annual death rate of “at least 10 per cent.” It was, I think, from a moral as well as a scholarly point of view, both negligent and obtuse of them not to have taken much greater pains with these appalling matters than they did.

            Clearly, these few brief remarks show that far more might be said about this book and its merits as history. It would be possible to write a critical reflection three times as long without exhausting the scope for commentary. Any such commentary, however, would have to come back to this: that the regime which still rules in China identifies itself with Mao Zedong and is founded on a mountain of Chinese bones. There is something acutely disturbing about the fact that it has been able to present itself, and continues to present itself, as a ‘liberating’ force in Chinese history.

If, in South Africa or Central America, ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ were necessary for whole societies to come to terms with the grim realities of thousands or tens of thousands of violent deaths, what could possibly achieve an adequate reckoning with the past in China, where the death toll in peace time under Communism certainly amounts to tens of millions, whether or not the highest estimates are fully accurate? Nothing could do so, surely, short of the downfall of the Party and the thorough airing of its archives. It cannot be redeemed or forgiven, any more than the Nazi Party ever could have been. It must be replaced by a democratic regime and its past finally accounted for.


Byline: Paul Monk is co-founder of Austhink Consulting. A footnoted version of this essay can be found at His book, Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China has just been published by Scribe and will be officially released in early October. There will be an initial launch at Asialink, the University of Melbourne, at 5.30 pm on Wednesday 7 September.


[i] They also, as it happens, describe him as a sex-crazed, constipated insomniac and, if not as opium-addicted, then as having used opium trafficking during the 1940s to raise money for the ‘revolution’. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday Mao: The Unknown Story, Jonathan Cape, London, 2005, p. 35: “His nervous condition (even in 1925) was reflected in his bowels, which sometimes moved only once a week. He was to be plagued by constipation - and obsessed by defecation - all his life.”

[ii] Linda Jaivin ‘What Mao?’ The Bulletin, 3 August 2005.

[iii] Betty Radice Who’s Who in the Ancient World, Penguin, 1973, p. 229.

[iv] Betty Radice Who’s Who in the Ancient World, Penguin, 1973, pp. 231-32. 

[v] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday Mao: The Unknown Story, Jonathan Cape, London, 2005, p. 3.

[vi] The Holocaust is, surely, now well enough ingrained in the general understanding as hardly to require referencing in an essay of this nature. However, because of the confusion caused by Holocaust deniers, the court judgment against David Irving in the Lipstadt case is a crucial resource. See The Irving Judgment: David Irving vs Penguin Books and Professor Deborah Lipstadt, Penguin 2000 349 pp. and Deborah E. Lipstadt History on Trial, Harper Collins, 2005, 378 pp.

[vii] Peter Balakian The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide, William Heinemann, London, 2004, 473 pp.

[viii] Romeo Dallaire Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Random House, Canada, 2003, 562 pp. and Samantha Power A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Perennial, Harper Collins, 2002, Ch 10 ‘Rwanda: Mostly in a listening mode’, pp. 329-390.

[ix] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday Mao: The Unknown Story, Jonathan Cape, London, 2005, pp. 40-43.

[x] Ibid. p. 41.

[xi] Ibid. p. 42.

[xii] Ibid. p. 43.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 41.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 47.

[xv] Ibid. pp. 92-114 and 133

[xvi] Ibid. p. 114.

[xvii] Ibid. pp. 245-273.

[xviii] Ibid. pp. 113-114.

[xix] Ibid. pp. 324-326.

[xx] Ibid. p. 325.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 326.

[xxii] Ibid. p. 337.

[xxiii] Ibid. p. 337n.

[xxiv] ibid. p. 338.

[xxv] Ibid. p. 338n.