Mao out of context

Issue: 110

Charlie Hore

A review of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Untold Story (Jonathan Cape, 2005), £25

Chang and Halliday1 set out their agenda from the book’s opening words: ‘Mao Zedong, who for decades held absolute power over one quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th century leader’ (p3).2 Mao was worse than Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, in other words, and the book fills out this argument in overwhelming—and often contradictory—detail. Mao was an amoral, opportunistic, idle psychopath who enjoyed violence for its own sake. He joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) almost by accident, murdered comrades, double-crossed allies, and was utterly incompetent as a military leader. After 1949 he killed millions in purges, was responsible for an appalling famine, and was sexually predatory on young women until well into his eighties.

Now, most of this is true. An awful lot of the standard history of Mao and Maoism was pure mythology, which persists in some contemporary histories. And Mao was a truly awful human being, willing to accept tens or even hundreds of millions of deaths as the price of rapid economic development. But a good biography needs to understand its subject in the context of the society that produced them. This the authors don’t do—their pathological hatred of Mao (in many ways quite understandable) means that they blame Mao for almost all of China’s ills, and in the process whitewash many other equally bloodstained criminals. And they don’t limit themselves to China—there’s also the slightly deranged suggestion that Mao helped cause the stroke that killed Stalin (p391) (a good thing, you would have thought, but no), and may have inspired the Berlin Wall (p400).

China’s recent rise to becoming a world economic power has stimulated a great interest in Chinese history, and Mao: The Untold Story will be highly influential in reinforcing a particularly right wing view of it. The very idea of revolution has come under increasing ideological attack in recent years, with both the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 being denounced as the seedbeds of totalitarianism. Now, it seems, it’s the turn of 1949. While it’s critically important to understand that the Chinese Revolution was in no way a socialist revolution, we should also defend that revolution as a crucial defeat for imperialism. The year 1949 was a central turning point in 20th century history, definitive proof that the Great Powers were not going to be able to shape the post-war world exactly as they pleased. The shockwaves of Mao’s victory were felt around the world.

Imagine the alternative—if the Guomindang, with American help, had managed to defeat or hold back the CCP, China would have been condemned to decades of civil war, landlord domination, famine, corruption and decay. China would have become Vietnam two decades early, and on an incomparably grander scale. And 1949 was a major spur to the nationalist revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s—if the Red Armies had been defeated, those revolutions would have faced a far more confident and far more vicious American imperialism.

I will look in more detail at the strengths and weaknesses of the authors’ evidence and conclusions below, but three general points are important.

(1) I will focus on what’s wrong with it, but this is for the most part a serious and densely-researched book, and anyone writing about Maoist China in the future will have to engage with it. Some reviewers have questioned the extent to which it relies on interviews, but this is essential in writing about the period. The problem is rather that in places it makes strange claims for which there is no evidence at all, and gives no sense that any of the (often tenuous) evidence has been tested for reliability.

As one particularly astute reviewer wrote:

Chang and Halliday are magpies: every bright piece of evidence goes in, no matter where it comes from or how reliable it is. Jade and plastic together, the pieces are arranged in a stark mosaic, which portrays a possible but not a plausible Mao.3

(2) Many of its failings stem from the authors’ very right wing (as in 1950s Cold War) perspective. They describe Mao’s victory in 1949, for instance, as ‘Soviet Russia’s most lasting triumph in foreign policy’ (p23). This is simply stated as fact, without any recognition that it contradicts almost everything written about 1949. The near-universal consensus is that Mao’s victory independent of Russian tanks was what made the Chinese-Soviet split of 1960 possible, which greatly weakened Russia’s power. A near-universal consensus can be wrong, of course, but it is normal to acknowledge it—large parts of this book read as though the authors expect their audience to know absolutely nothing about Chinese history. Now, just because it is a very right wing book doesn’t make it worthless. They are right about the repressive nature of Mao’s China, and in their accounts of the repeated purges and faction fights. But it makes for an incredibly selective account of modern Chinese history.

(3) Chang and Halliday repeatedly claim that they are exposing a particular fact or atrocity for the first time. In fact, much of what they present as new has been known for years, often before Mao’s death, and some of what is genuinely new is highly dubious. And they simply ignore many of the Western writers who were opposed to Maoism during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As an active 1968 leftist, Jon Halliday would certainly have been aware of the various Trotskyist critics such as Tony Cliff, Nigel Harris, Livio Maitan and Peng Shuzi,4 none of who are cited here. More surprisingly, they also ignore right wing critics, such as the Belgian Jesuit Simon Leys,5 and many pre-1978 Chinese critics of Mao published outside China. Chang and Halliday are right to criticise those on the left who apologised for Mao, but in ignoring many older critical voices they make the pull of Maoism seem greater than it really was.

The first Chinese Revolution, 1925-1927

The section of the book that deals with the 1925-27 revolution, and the events leading up to it, is both extremely short and the worst part of the book. The authors praise the fast-paced modernisation that imperialism brought to a few Chinese cities, but without any understanding of the desperate poverty and backwardness that were the reverse side of imperialism’s impact on China.

After the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s China was unable to prevent Western powers and Japan grabbing ‘concessions’ (effectively colonies) in most cities and along the coast. At the turn of the century there were over 70 such ‘concessions’, some of them covering whole provinces. By 1911 the old regime had decayed so badly that a premature and isolated military revolt in central China was enough to bring it crashing down. The 1911 revolutionaries were unable to impose an alternative, however. A notional republic was proclaimed, but real power across much of China passed into the hands of local warlords, whose incessant battles for power further damaged the rural economy. An early CCP document described 1920s China as ‘semi-feudal and semi-colonial’, which as a Marxist description of the nature of society wasn’t very useful. As an encapsulation of how it must have felt to Chinese nationalists, however, it’s invaluable.

Chang and Halliday give a partial account of this history, but without any sense of or sympathy for the nationalist ferment of the times or the conditions that gave rise to it. This means, for instance, that they spend just half a page on the 4 May Movement of 1919—about as much space as they give to Mao’s extramarital affairs in the 1920s.

The movement took its name from a nationalist demonstration by Beijing students which detonated an anti-imperialist movement of boycotting Japanese goods, and then turned into widespread strike action in Japanese-owned factories. It also led to a massive intellectual ferment among students, school students and other intellectuals, utterly unprecedented in Chinese history—and barely touched on by the authors. The 4 May Movement was also the seedbed for the CCP, which threw itself into union organisation.6 Economic strikes spread to almost every Chinese city, until severe warlord repression in 1923 led to both unions and the CCP becoming illegal almost everywhere. The exception was Guangzhou province, where the Guomindang (the nationalist party) was in alliance with a minor warlord, and which consequently became the base for the revolution. Under Russian pressure, by 1924 the CCP had joined the Guomindang, and publicly restricted its aims to the removal of imperialism from China.

There were major arguments inside the CCP about this, and Chang and Halliday are right to point out that Mao’s rise to national prominence within the CCP was due to his support for the alliance. However, it’s also the case that CCP members went along with it because it seemed to work. By early 1925 a combination of Russian-trained troops and workers’ militias had extended the Guomindang’s power to most of Guangdong province, and in mid-1925 the strikewave reached greater heights after foreign troops opened fire on demonstrations in Shanghai and Guangdong.

For the authors, this was all simply the result of evil, scheming Reds using Moscow gold to hoodwink ignorant coolies. I exaggerate, but not by much. Consider this description of Guangzhou (Canton) in 1925:

With about 1,000 agents in the nationalist base, Moscow was now the master of Canton, which had taken on the air of a Soviet city, decked out with red flags and slogans. Cars raced by with Russian faces inside and Chinese bodyguards on the running-boards. Soviet cargo ships dotted the Pearl River. Behind closed doors, commissars sat around red cloth covered tables under the gaze of Lenin, interrogating ‘troublemakers’ and conducting trials (pp36-37).

No source is given for this paranoid colonialist fantasy, which reads like something out of Joseph Conrad, but it is wrong in almost every respect. The red flags and slogans were celebrating the ten month long general strike that had engulfed Hong Kong and Guangzhou, which merits not one single word from the authors. The commissars ‘interrogating “troublemakers”’ were probably the (all-Chinese) strike committees who ensured the strike’s effectiveness by fining or jailing strikebreakers.7 The Soviet cargo ships (if they existed) were almost certainly delivering arms to the Guomindang. And the figure of 1,000 Russian agents is an enormous exaggeration. There were probably less than 50 Russians in Guangzhou, almost all military advisors to the Guomindang.8

Following its successes in Guangdong, the Guomindang launched a ‘Northern Expedition’ to take all of China, and tens of millions of peasants rose up in revolt as the nationalist armies drove through their areas, while the workers’ strike movement rose to an even higher pitch. But in deepening the revolution this process also undermined the capitalists and landlords who the Guomindang represented, as strikes and peasant insurgency began to threaten the whole structure of exploitation.9

But in Chang and Halliday’s view:

At this time, warlords had been fighting sporadic wars for ten years…but the warlords had always made sure that the social structure was preserved, and life went on as usual for civilians, as long as they were not caught in the crossfire. Now, because the nationalists were following Russian instructions aimed at bringing about a Soviet-style revolution, social order broke down for the first time (p40).

That ‘social order’ was one which saw major famines throughout the 1920s, the worst of which killed between 3 and 6 million people,10 and one in which, in just one clash between warlords ‘in Liling county [Hunan province], out of a population of 580,000, more than 21,000 people had been killed and 48,000 homes had been razed’.11 The real problem was the exact opposite—the Russian instructions were aimed at preventing a repeat of 1917, and limiting the revolution to purely nationalist aims. The combination of the peasant uprisings and workers’ insurrections did indeed threaten to raze to the ground this rotten social structure—the tragedy was that they were betrayed into the hands of the Guomindang by the CCP’s limiting strategy. Mao was fully complicit in this crime, but it’s one of the very few that Chang and Halliday don’t attribute to him.

By April 1927 Chiang Kai-shek’s armies had conquered much of central China and entered Shanghai, China’s biggest city, which was in the grip of a mass strike with workers’ militias on the street. When the Guomindang told them to disarm, the CCP offered no protest. Two weeks later a vicious repression was launched, first in Shanghai and then across the country. Gangsters and the army attacked union offices, fired on a protest march, and arrested and killed tens of thousands over the following months.

In the countryside the repression of the peasant uprisings was even more vicious—in just four counties of Hunan province, 300,000 people were murdered by the Guomindang and warlords.12 The authors make much of Mao’s love of the violence used by the peasants against the moneylenders, the landlords and the other village rich, with over-graphic descriptions of the tools and tortures used. Yet they minimise the far greater violence and sadism unleashed by the counter-revolution.

The Long March and the war against Japan

After the defeats of 1927, Mao and other CCP leaders fled into the mountains, where the lack of government allowed them to set up small base areas. When the Guomindang attacked these, eventually they were forced to flee on the Long March, which ended in north western China. Here they became the focus for resistance to Japan’s invasion of China, which won them mass support and led to victory in the civil war of 1945-49, which was as much lost by the Guomindang as won by the CCP. That’s the standard history of the 1930s and 1940s,13 and the core of this book is a frontal assault on it—what the authors want to destroy above all is Mao’s nationalist reputation. The problem is that while much of the new material is or may well be genuine, they don’t come up with an alternative explanation of how the Red Army won in 1949.

One of the most important things they miss is that the CCP changed fundamentally after 1927. By 1930 nothing remained of its socialism except some of the language. It ceased to be a working class party, and became firstly a group of bandits with political aspirations, and then a purely nationalist organisation. As one relatively sympathetic study described them:

…the Red soldiers and their party, engaged in building a base area, needed men and money which could only be procured by confiscating the property of the rich and distributing some of it to the poor… In a sense, this was similar to a warlord’s strategy, except that the warlord protected the gentry instead of the poor peasants.14

But they were very effective nationalists. Those who survived the Long March went on to build an army of tens of millions, and replace the Guomindang as the party which was going to be capable of building a strong, unified Chinese state. The Long March was heroic in the same sense that Dunkirk was—an epic retreat. About 90,000 people left the Red bases in the south east—less than 5,000 of them made it to the north west a year later. Chang and Halliday debunk many of the myths about it, though their unwillingness to give any CCP leader any credit for anything makes it difficult to believe everything they say.15 Their explanation for the Red Army’s survival is essentially that Chiang Kai-shek let them escape for two reasons: firstly because he could use the pursuit of them to strengthen his hold on south west China, and secondly because his son (later the president of Taiwan) was working in Russia, and being used as a hostage.
The first is undoubtedly true. As the Red Army retreated further and further west, Chiang Kai-shek used the opportunity to bring local warlords under his direct control. But the idea that he let them go to achieve this is sheer fantasy—everything else apart, there was no way he could have predicted the route they would take. As for the second reason, this is rather undermined by the fact that in 1931 Moscow suggested (through Chiang’s sister in law) swapping his son for a Comintern agent arrested in Shanghai. Chiang turned it down.16

The real reason the Long March worked is that Mao and other generals (for Mao wasn’t the Red Army’s best military strategist) were willing to drive their forces through the most inhospitable terrain possible to shake off their attackers, and ruthlessly accepted massive casualties in doing so. The warlord and nationalist forces they faced were divided, poorly fed and trained, and with no motivation beyond trying to stay alive. And Chiang Kai-shek had to divide his attention between the Red Army, other warlords, and the steadily encroaching Japanese army.

Japan invaded north eastern China in 1931, and set up a puppet state there two years later. In early 1937 it launched a full-scale invasion of northern China. Pressure had been building inside the Guomindang and in China’s cities for resistance, and in late 1936 Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by one of his generals and forced to sign up to an anti-Japanese ‘united front’ with the CCP. A month after the 1937 invasion Guomindang forces attacked the Japanese in Shanghai, and the war became total. According to Mao: The Untold Story, the outbreak of full-scale war was another dastardly Red plot. The general commanding the Shanghai-Nanjing garrison was a CCP sleeper who attacked the Japanese without authorisation.

Now, leave aside for the moment the fact that ‘arguably…the most important agent of all time’ (p210) doesn’t feature in any of the standard histories of the period. Leave aside the straightforward assertion in Jonathan Fenby’s biography of Chiang Kai-shek that the attack:

…came at the start of a three-month battle which Chiang provoked in Shanghai to open a second front in the war with Japan. He had sent troops into the city in defiance of the demilitarisation agreement that had ended the battle of 1932.17

The larger problem is that for Chang and Halliday there is only one actor here—the CCP. Japanese imperialism and the Guomindang have, apparently, no sliver of responsibility for what happened. But in reality you cannot ‘detonate a full-scale war’ (p208) unless the threat of a full-scale war exists and is waiting to be detonated. Japanese imperialism was advancing steadily throughout China—at some point Chiang Kai-shek was going to have to stand and fight, or risk a coup. And Shanghai offered the most favourable balance of forces. It is not absolutely impossible (though it’s very unlikely) that the general was a closet CCP member, and did launch the attack at a time which suited Stalin and Mao, but full-scale war would have broken out within months irrespective of what he did. And that had nothing to do with the crimes of Mao and the CCP, but was a product of the far greater crimes of Japanese imperialism.

This section of the book is positively crawling with spies or double agents. The authors may well be right about some or even all of them: in September 2005 the Guardian published an obituary for a former high Guomindang official who had admitted being a CCP mole.18 But they don’t give any explanation of why the CCP should have attracted so many moles, or why the Guomindang was so ramshackle that the moles could have had such an impact. It certainly wasn’t careerism—very few people in the 1930s would have bet on the CCP becoming China’s rulers. It was rather that the CCP seemed utterly serious about fighting Japan and the Guomindang didn’t. The authors try to argue that in fact the CCP never fought the Japanese, but they can only do so by ignoring the guerrilla nature of the war waged by the CCP. One senior Japanese general said of guerrilla activity in 1939, ‘Beside cutting the railway and communications line with tools and instruments, the guerrillas frequently blew them up and, as they became more skilful in the use of explosives, many trains were blown up by land mines’.19

The Japanese army responded with their infamous ‘burn all, kill all, destroy all’ campaigns of repression (which the authors, again, do not even mention) which drove even more of the peasantry into the CCP’s arms. Across much of northern China the rural elites—the local base of the Guomindang—ran for the cities, leaving the CCP the only effective government. The authors record the growth of the Red Armies and the areas they controlled, but they give no explanation for why this happened, other than pointing to the purges and terror by which Mao disciplined the CCP. They are quite right about the internal repression that Mao used against any opposition, but they fail to see the material and ideological reasons that led millions to join the CCP and Red Armies.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, the CCP controlled almost all of northern China, and civil war between them and the Guomindang was inevitable. At the time it wasn’t obvious that the CCP would win—the Guomindang armies were bigger, better armed and had American backing. But internally they were corroded beyond hope, as Jung Chang powerfully recorded in Wild Swans:

Corruption wreaked havoc. Inflation had risen to the unimaginable figure of just over 100,000 percent by the end of 1947—and it was to go to 2,870,000 percent by the end of 1948 in the Kuomintang areas… For the civilian population the situation was becoming more desperate every day, as increasingly more food went to the army, much of which was sold by local commanders on the black market. Chiang Kai-shek…was unable to impose a coherent strategy on his top generals. He seemed to place all his hope on greater American intervention. Defeatism permeated his top staff.20

As the Red Armies advanced, a wave of violence against landlords and rich peasants broke across northern and central China. For Chang and Halliday, this was the CCP murdering for murder’s sake. Wild Swans again offers a better perspective, in telling the fate of a landlord who had had one man burnt to death:

The…government sentenced Jin to death by shooting, but the family of the man who had been burned to death, with the support of the families of other victims, determined to kill him the same way… The Communist officials sent to carry out the execution did not prevent the villagers from doing this…officials were told that they should not intervene if the peasants wished to vent their anger in passionate acts of vengeance.21

Over 40 million Chinese died in the 1930s and 1940s, from war, famine, floods and repression by both sides. Practically every contemporary account records the widespread belief that a CCP victory was China’s only hope of escaping this endless cycle of death and destruction. What they offered was an end to war and landlord domination, with lower taxes and honest government. While this was a far cry from any genuine liberation or self-emancipation, in the desperate conditions of the 1940s it was more than most peasants dared to dream of. For the middle class nationalists who made up the backbone of the army and future bureaucracy, perhaps more important than the content of the vision was the fact that it was a vision. The CCP thought life could and should be better—the Guomindang seemingly didn’t.

None of this appears in Mao: The Untold Story. Instead the civil war victory is explained in the same way as the Long March’s survival—a combination of improbable coincidence, devious Red cunning, and unimaginably widespread treachery. While Chang and Halliday make many good points about Mao’s ruthlessness and cruelty, their failure to recognise the realities of Chinese nationalism means that they don’t offer a real alternative to the Maoist mythology.

Maoist China, 1949-1978

The sections on Maoist China take up just under half the book, and it’s much the best part of the book. The authors’ obsessive focus on Mao’s evils makes more sense here, for two reasons. Firstly, the mass deaths and atrocities they describe really did happen (though their account adds very little to what’s generally known). Secondly, the particular twists and turns of CCP policy owed a great deal to Mao’s personal quest for power. Maoism was defined by Mao’s personality even more than Stalinism was defined by Stalin’s. But for Mao power was a means to an end—the economic transformation of China. The Great Leap Forward, and even more so the Cultural Revolution, can only be fully understood in the light of the constant battles inside the ruling class over economic strategy.

What’s missing from their account of the early 1950s is that life got better for most workers and peasants. The end of war and rampant inflation, the elimination of moneylenders and landlords, an efficient and un-corrupt government, and the 1950 Marriage Law which gave women formal legal equality and outlawed the horrific practice of ‘footbinding’22—this was not in any sense socialism, but it was an enormous improvement on Guomindang rule. The period of rebuilding the economy in the early 1950s is now looked back upon in China as ‘the golden years’.

This didn’t last long, however. For Mao the imperative was to build a modern industrial economy able to compete with the rest of the world, and from 1953 onwards the CCP began a ruthless programme of ‘primitive accumulation’ from the peasantry to achieve this. Chang and Halliday are good on why the peasants were being squeezed (though they quote almost no figures), and they give an excellent account of the Great Leap:

The four-year Leap was a monumental waste of both natural resources and human effort, unique in scale in the history of the world… Mao first worked everyone to the bone unrelentingly, then took everything—and then squandered it. Mao demanded a fever pitch of work, using non-stop ‘emulation’ drives to make people vie with each other. Undernourished and exhausted men, women and children were made to move soil at the double, often having to run while carrying extremely heavy loads, and in all weathers, from blazing sun to freezing cold (pp451-452).

There was a brutal economic rationale behind all of this. The material resources available to the CCP were insufficient to reach the growth targets they had set, and so they tried to replace non-existent resources with sheer hard labour. In the cities this petered out quite quickly—machines run for double shifts simply wore out twice as fast, and workers couldn’t keep awake. But in the countryside it carried on for a long time, ratcheted up and up by officials at all levels simply lying about output yields. And it ended with the worst famine ever seen in 20th century China (though the scale of it was successfully hidden until after Mao’s death). The authors quote a death toll of 38 million, which is over-reliant on official figures, but well within the believable range.23

Stalin’s forced industrialisation in the 1930s killed millions, but successfully built up Russian industry; the Great Leap actually dragged China’s economy backwards. The famous ‘backyard steel furnaces’ used up more steel than they produced, and they were typical of the economy as a whole—GDP shrunk by over a quarter in 1961, the worst year of the famine, and didn’t recover until the mid-1960s. Mao was sidelined by those inside the ruling class who wanted a slower, steadier pace of growth, and while he remained the regime’s figurehead he was removed from day to day power. The Cultural Revolution was to be his comeback.

From 1966 to 1971 urban China and parts of the countryside were turned upside down by the Cultural Revolution, in which millions died and tens of millions were persecuted. It’s probable that the Cultural Revolution had the same economic rationale as the Great Leap, but it very quickly descended into a twisted and very bloody power struggle at all levels of the bureaucracy. The reason that Mao had to go outside the CCP machinery to start it off was that his economic strategy was rejected by the vast majority of the ruling class. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao was so isolated inside the bureaucracy that he couldn’t even get the article that was to set it off published in the Beijing press.24

Two things ensured he got his way—the support of the top army brass, and the student and school student ‘Red Guards’. Chang and Halliday recognise an important truth about the Cultural Revolution that too many historians don’t acknowledge:

The young were told that their role was to ‘safeguard’ Mao…many responded enthusiastically. Taking part in politics was something no one had been allowed to do under Mao, and the country was seething with frustrated activists who had been denied the normal outlets available in most societies, even to sit around and argue issues. Now, suddenly, there seemed to be a chance to get involved. To those interested in politics, the prospect was tremendously exciting (pp534-535).

The cities had escaped the worst of the Great Leap—there had been some food shortages in 1961, but no sustained famine. Mao remained the figurehead of what was still a relatively popular regime. So when he decreed ‘It is right to rebel,’ millions saw this as a justification for attacking the petty authority of teachers, lecturers and managers. Once it began, it became dangerous to stand aside from the attacks for fear of becoming a victim.

The Red Guards served Mao’s purpose in getting rid of his enemies, but they quickly got utterly out of control. Rival groups got into increasingly violent clashes (using anti-aircraft missiles against buildings in Changsha), which weren’t stopped even by the army taking over almost every institution in mid-1967. Throughout 1968 and 1969 millions of young people were deported to the countryside, but in places the unrest continued until 1971. Workers also used the opportunity of the chaos to strike for higher wages and better conditions, often winning important gains.

The authors concentrate on what was happening at the top of the CCP, though they do dwell on some of the goriest episodes, such as the ritual cannibalism in Guangxi province. And their account is useful in stressing that most of those who died through the Cultural Revolution were killed by the state, not the Red Guards. But overall their account adds very little to what we know about the Cultural Revolution.

The same is true of the final period of Mao’s life—one of the murkiest periods of Maoist history. Lin Biao, anointed Mao’s successor during the Cultural Revolution, disappeared in 1971 and was denounced as a traitor in 1973. Deng Xiaoping, one of the main targets of the Cultural Revolution, came back to power in 1973 and was dismissed again in 1976. The population was subjected to a series of more and more bizarre ‘mass campaigns’. Mao was by now nearly blind and suffering from an incurable motor neurone disease, but still trying to play different factions off against each other. The Borgia-like atmosphere of Mao’s court in his final days was described in overpowering detail in his doctor’s memoirs published a few years ago,25 and while Chang and Halliday add some gory titbits, they have nothing very new to say.

And then the book simply stops with Mao’s death in 1976. There’s a four-line Epilogue concluding that ‘the current Communist regime declares itself to be Mao’s heir and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao’ (p655), which tells you rather more about the McCarthyite politics of the authors than it does about China today. The relationship between China’s new rulers and Maoism is far more convoluted and contradictory than that, and while Mao is still recognised as the founder of modern China, all of his distinctive policies are condemned today. Mao’s heirs share his aim of building China into a strong industrial power capable of competing in the world economy (an aim in which they have been astonishingly successful)—they junked his methods because they didn’t work.

Economic success has been bought at a high price, however—mass unemployment, enormous inequality, rampant corruption among state officials at all levels, and economic insecurity for tens of millions of people. However astonishing it might seem to the West, there’s now something of a ‘Mao cult’ in China which looks back nostalgically to the Maoist era as a time of greater stability and security. It’s unlikely that this book is going to be much use in puncturing that new mythology.


It may seem perverse to criticise an 800-page book for what it doesn’t contain, but there are two quite surprising areas completely missing from this book. The first is the intellectual dimension. The 4 May Movement unleashed widespread and passionate debate among intellectuals about socialism, Marxism, anarchy, nationalism, democracy and China’s future, and there isn’t a single mention of that here. Equally, there were significant moments of intellectual opposition to Mao in Yenan in the late 1930s, during the ‘Hundred Flowers’ of 1955-56, and the Cultural Revolution, only the first of which is covered in any depth.

The second is the environment. While I was writing this review, someone joked to me that the authors ‘blame Mao for everything except global warming’. In fact they should have done. There is now widespread concern about the environmental damage that China’s breakneck industrial development is causing, but Maoist China was equally destructive of the environment.26 The nearest the authors come to expressing any ecological concerns is mentioning the utterly mad 1959 campaign to eradicate sparrows, rats, mosquitoes and flies, about which they rather oddly comment, ‘There was much to be said for eradicating the other three [not the sparrows], which were genuine pests’ (p449), as though wiping out all flies (if it were possible) wouldn’t have enormous environmental consequences.

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans won deserved acclaim for its portrait of China during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and her reputation is undoubtedly behind the astonishing critical and commercial success that Mao: The Untold Story has enjoyed. But this is a markedly inferior book, in which 50 years of the history of a quarter of humanity is reduced to the evil of one man, and the connivance of a few others. It’s particularly annoying that this should be such an influential book when the last few years have seen a number of much better books on China’s history published. John Gittings’ The Changing Face of China,27 though soft on Maoism, is a better account of Maoist China and an excellent summary of events since Mao; Jonathan Fenby’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost is much better on the 1930s and 1940s (despite arguing that China would have been better off had the Guomindang won the civil war).

Even if you just want a biography of Mao, both Philip Short’s Mao: A Life and Michael Lynch’s Mao will tell essentially the same story, but with a rather better sense of the context of 20th century China.28 But the first book that anyone new to Chinese history should read is Harold Isaacs’ The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, for a glimpse of what was possible when workers and peasants rose up against imperialism and exploitation, and for an understanding of how the crushing defeat of that revolution paved the way for Mao’s dictatorship.


1: Chinese names have historically been rendered surname first followed by personal name, which is why people refer to Mao Zedong as Mao. However, in the last 20 years many Chinese people living in the West, Jung Chang among them, have taken to reversing their names so that the surname comes last, hence Chang and Halliday.
2: The figure of 70 million deaths is quoted in almost every review as the central horror of Mao’s rule. The authors’ detailed figures are questionable, however—particularly their assertion that ‘the number who died in prison and labour camps could well amount to 27 million’ (p338). A footnote explains how this figure was arrived at: ‘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 percent.’ In other words, they are guessing.
Hongda Harry Wu, a former prisoner who has written extensively on China’s prison system (see his Laogai: The Chinese Gulag (Boulder, CO, 1992) and Troublemaker (London, 1997)), has given a very different estimate of possibly 15 million up to 1997 (quoted on The authors don’t cite any of his works. But if the exact figure of 70 million breaks down under analysis, the fact remains that Mao’s regime was responsible for over 50 million abnormal or violent deaths. This alone should give pause to anyone wishing to defend Maoism as socialist. But an accurate balance sheet needs also to record that for most Chinese life expectancy and personal security improved (outside the Great Leap Forward) compared to the 1920s and 1930s, let alone the 19th century. The problem is that Chang and Halliday are not writing an accurate balance sheet but a monotone denunciation, whose exaggerations tend to undermine the valid points that they are making. My thanks to Mike Haynes for insisting on the importance of this point.
3: A Nathan, ‘Jade and Plastic’, London Review of Books, 17 November 2005.
4: Tony Cliff first developed the theory of China as being a ‘state capitalist’ society, best expounded in a 1963 article entitled ‘Permanent Revolution’, most recently reprinted in Marxist Theory After Trotsky (London 2003), pp187-201. The theory was expanded at greater length in N Harris, The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China (London, 1978). Livio Maitan and Peng Shuzi were orthodox Trotskyists (members of the Fourth International) who saw China as being a ‘deformed workers’ state’. While I disagree with some of their conclusions, both are worth reading. Maitan wrote a good book on the Cultural Revolution, Party, Army and Masses in China (London, 1976), while Peng Shuzi’s writings can be found (under the name P’eng Shu-tse) in The Chinese Communist Party in Power (New York, 1980) and online at
5: ‘Simon Leys’ was a pseudonym. His best book is The Chairman’s New Clothes (London, 1977), a devastating critique of the Cultural Revolution, but he also wrote three collections of essays: Chinese Shadows (London, 1978), Broken Images (London, 1979) and The Burning Forest (New York, 1987). All are out of print, but well worth snapping up if you see them.
6: The best history of the movement is C Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement (Stanford, CA, 1967).
7: For a detailed description of the strike, see J Chesneaux, The Chinese Labor Movement 1919-1927 (Stanford, CA, 1968), pp290-318.
8: The most detailed history of Russian missions to China in the 1920s suggests that across all of China, from 1920 to 1927, there were ‘267…Russians and other Europeans whose work in China during the years 1920-1927 seemingly was part of the effort to promote the Chinese Revolution’. See C Martin Wilbur and J Lien-ying Howe, Missionaries of Revolution—Soviet Advisors and Nationalist China, 1920-1927 (Cambridge, MA, 1989), p425.
9: The best histories of the revolution are H Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford, CA, 1961) and L Trotsky, On China (New York, 1976).
10: J Becker, Hungry Ghosts (London, 1997), pp13-14.
11: J Fenby, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost (London, 2005), p77.
12: P Short, Mao: a Life (London, 2004), p188.
13: The standard short history of this period is L Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution 1915-1949 (Stanford, CA, 1971). A more detailed study of the combination of nationalism and social policy is in C A Johnson, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (Stanford, CA, 1962).
14: L Eastman and others, The Nationalist Era in China 1927-1949 (Cambridge, 1991), p74. My emphasis.
15: One of their most eyecatching claims is that the most famous battle of the Long March—the Dadu river crossing—never happened (pp158-160). This was a pivotal and highly symbolic battle, at the site where the last of the Taiping rebels were massacred in 1862. Their evidence is one 93 year old eyewitness, and Guomindang army documents held in a Beijing archive (which no previous researcher had ever found, presumably). They also quote as the telling piece of evidence that not one of the attackers was killed, which several sources directly contradict (for instance H Salisbury, The Long March (London, 1986), p229). They could be right, and hundreds of people could have been lying their heads off about it for the last 60 years—the story has certainly been embellished in the telling. But it would be more than a little surprising that the Guomindang have always known that the story is untrue and never said so.
16: J Fenby, as above, p205.
17: As above, p296.
18: Guardian, 26 September 2005, available at
19: C A Johnson, as above, p56.
20: Jung Chang, Wild Swans (London, 1993), p143. Jung Chang’s earlier book is one of the best sources for understanding why millions joined the CCP and Red Armies.
21: As above, p166.
22: The Marriage Law (which Chang and Halliday, again, don’t even mention) wasn’t aimed at liberating women, but rather at breaking down old family structures so as to fully engage women in the workforce. But this necessarily involved giving women legal rights they had never had before (though claiming those rights was often very difficult). See M Wolf, Revolution Postponed (London, 1987), pp17-27, for a critical account of the law and how it worked in practice.
23: See J Becker, as above, pp266-274, for a detailed discussion of the various figures proposed for the death toll.
24: There are innumerable histories of the Cultural Revolution, Wild Swans being one of the best known. Two other very good books for a sense of what it felt like are Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, Son of the Revolution (London, 1984) and Anne F Thurston, Enemies of the People (Cambridge, MA, 1988). Li Zhensheng’s Red-Color News Soldier (London, 2003) is a unique and gruesomely compelling collection of photographs of demonstrations, denunciations and executions.
25: Zhisui Li, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (London, 1994).
26: See for instance V Smil, The Bad Earth (London, 1984), and J Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge, 2001).
27: J Gittings, The Changing Face of China (Oxford, 2005).
28: P Short, as above and M Lynch, Mao (London, 2004).