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A painting from the documentary “Morning Son” shows Mao's grand strategic plan in 1968. (AFP)
A painting from the documentary “Morning Son” shows Mao's grand strategic plan in 1968. (AFP)

THE BIG READ

New bio reveals Mao, the builder and the monster Add to ...

  • Title Mao
  • Author Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven I. Levine
  • Genre biography
  • Publisher Simon and Schuster
  • Pages 755
  • Price $40

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where China’s new leadership will soon be announced, stands opposite Mao’s mausoleum. Facing them both is the Forbidden City, where for the previous six centuries China’s emperors intrigued, plotted and killed for their own succession. At least the process is less bloody today. Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing, has been abnormally quiet lately, riddled with security men and police; anyone going through has to register their identity, and taxis are ordered not to let passengers roll down their windows. But the large portrait of Mao still looks out benevolently from the Forbidden City podium over this great historic space.

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The Communist Party’s 18th National Congress is now sitting in the Great Hall on the square, finalizing its decisions. The high security is not without reason, given the fierce power struggle: the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, a hopeful for high office; the disappearance for several days of Bo’s arch rival, Xi Jinpin, the new top man; and then the recent sensation, no doubt dished out by the Bo faction, about retiring premier Wen Jiabao and his family’s alleged $2.7 billion hoard of assets.

We know only a little about the horse-trading behind Xi’s ascent to power, but Mao would think it all trifling compared with his own long struggle. The story of Alexander Pantsov’s new biography is one of a man of ambition, revolutionary zeal and a sense of invincibility, but also, as his stature grew, a paranoid concern about real and imaginary opponents, and total indifference to the fate of the millions of victims of his actions.

Underlying all was his extraordinary political skill to divide and rule, knowing when to advance and when to keep silent. Mao is a valuable addition to our knowledge, largely because of its extensive mining of Soviet sources and striking comparisons between Russian Bolshevism and Chinese communism (the Moscow-born Pantsov, author of many books on Russia and China, is now a professor in Ohio). This apart, the book is fairly conventional. But it does give a clear, nuanced and more rounded account of Mao than any of its predecessors.

Mao was born in 1893 to a family of well-off landowners in the southern province of Hunan. Pantsov and co-writer Steven I. Levine give a vivid picture of China’s ferment during Mao’s early years. The country had thrown off its imperial rulers and set up a republic, attacked Confucianism, reformed its education and language – but was still humiliated by foreign powers, divided by warlords, and its huge, mostly illiterate population was racked by poverty and hunger.

Mao studied avidly for over a decade, reading everything from social Darwinism to anarchism. Eventually he found his guiding lights in Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution. He helped to found a Communist cell in Hunan and went as a delegate to the first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai in 1921.

The infant Party was totally dependent on Moscow, which funded it to the last penny. In return, Moscow and the Comintern demanded total obedience. Mao and his comrades were told to work with the Kuomintang, the ruling Nationalist party, which almost wiped them out in the White Terror of 1927. The fledgling Red Army was ordered by the Comintern to attack the big cities, as in the Russian revolution; it was crushed. But what Mao hated most were the young Moscow-trained students who knew nothing of the realities of China, answered only to Moscow, but held real power.

Mao’s fight back was through the Long March, the Red Army’s retreat, which ended in 1936. Here the book is rather weak, relying excessively on the account of Comintern adviser Otto Braun. Mao gradually wrested power from his opponents, finishing them off one by one, first within his own army, and then against the Fourth Army, headed by the powerful and ambitious Zhang Guotao, who had 40,000 men compared with Mao's 6,000 at the end of the March. The Long March was the defining moment in Mao’s political career, establishing him as the supreme leader, for life.

Soon after Mao and his beleaguered army reached Yanan, a small town in northern China, Japan launched a full-scale invasion in 1937. For eight years, while the Nationalist government battled with the enemy, Mao and his troops recovered and expanded rapidly, with the help of Stalin. In this relatively calm haven, and totally in control, Mao was able to indulge his womanizing. He was smitten with Jiang Qing, a beautiful young actress from Shanghai, so he packed He Zizhen, his third wife, off to Moscow with their daughter. He had moved her in while still married to his second wife, Yang Kaihui, by whom he had three sons. (He had long abandoned his first marriage, arranged by his parents.)

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