Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On Mao: The Unknown Story

A few days ago, I finished Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story. To say it was an eye-opener fails to do it justice; this book is a 630-page myth shatterer. Hardly any piece of conventional wisdom on Communist China survives.

If I attempt to list all of the myths debunked, I might never finish this post. As such, I will just focus on the major ones:

The history of the Nationalists: Contrary to conventional wisdom, it was the Nationalists that had Moscow support in the 1920's. The Communists were largely a secret organization tasked by the Soviets to take over the Nationalists. Before they could succeed, Chiang Kai-shek broke with the Soviets in 1927. The Soviets retaliated by holding Chiang's son hostage.

The Long March: This was supposedly the Chinese Communist Party's desperate and successful struggle to survive against the Nationalist juggernaut. In reality, Chiang Kai-shek's forces not only allowed the Red Army to escape to northern Shaanxi, but they all but paved the Red Army route. This was for two reasons. First, Chiang wanted to use the Red Army to scare warlords in western provinces to seek his protection (this was largely successful). Second, by keeping the Red Army alive, Chiang hoped a grateful Moscow would return his captive son to him (this was not successful).

The kidnapping of Chiang: The Communists would have us believe Chang Hseuh-liang (the "Young Marshal") kidnapped Chiang in 1936 to force him to face the Japanese invaders. In fact, the Young Marshal had hoped to replace and kill Chiang. Mao encouraged the Young Marshal, but Moscow pulled the plug. Furthermore, Chiang did not allow the Communists into his government to secure his release, but that of his son.

The War with Japan: During the Sino-Japanese war, Mao made perfectly clear who the enemy was - Chiang Kai-shek. In fact, the Nationalists were forced to confront the Communists militarily on numerous occasions while they were trying to repulse the Japanese invasion. The only major battle between the Communists and the Japanese empire was fought against Mao's wishes. Mao continued to fight the Nationalists during World War II until Stalin ordered him to stop.

On the real fate of the Chinese civil war: In the late spring of 1946, the Chinese Communist Party had been so thoroughly beaten that they were down to one major city, Harbin. At this point, Chiang stopped fighting, under heavy pressure from U.S. General George Marshall and President Harry Truman. The cease-fire gave the Communists time to regroup and, most importantly, receive "gigantic assistance from Russia, North Korea, and Mongolia." As Chung and Halliday, being Chinese and British respectively, missed the political fury over McCarthyism here in the U.S., they can focus on the facts: "Marshall's diktat was probably the most single important decision affecting the outcome of the civil war."

On the "famine" in Communist China: Contrary to what is well-known, starvation in Communist China was a near-constant reality, due largely to Mao's insistence on becoming a world power (his "Superpower Programme") and his willingness to trade food for weapons, factories, and international prestige. As nearly 40 million died from starvation from 1958 to 1961, Mao was exporting millions of tons of food: "the equivalent of over 840 calories a day for 38 million people - the difference between life and death."

On Nixon: This was unreal. Later in life, Nixon would rail against the refusal of his Watergate-forced successor, Gerald Ford, to come to South Vietnam's aid after the Communist North invaded. What Nixon forgot to mention was the promise his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, gave to Mao to "abandon the South Vietnamese regime" in exchange for Mao hosting Nixon in 1972. In fact, there was even talk of abandoning Taiwan in 1975, and of Communist China being handed American nuclear weapons, but the grand scheme fell apart due to what Kissinger told Mao was the "domestic situation" in 1973, i.e., Watergate. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did more for their country than even they know.

On Deng Xiaoping: It was widely believed that Deng was on the outs with Mao during the Cultural Revolution. This is true, but only up to a point. By 1973, Deng was back in Mao's good graces, and while the two quickly established and maintained an acrimonious relationship, "Deng never made a move against Mao's person while Mao was alive, and even after Mao's death, insisted that Mao must not be denounced personally."

As I said, these are just the main myths. There is so much more in this book: the terrorizing of the Chinese people, the escalation of the Kinmen and Matsu issue with the U.S. to scare the Soviets into giving Mao more armaments, the Communist Chinese military presence in Vietnam (which lasted until late 1973), etc. In order to do Mao: The Unknown Story justice, one must read it oneself. It is that good, and that important.

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