Pantsov and Levine give you little more than the bare facts about Mao’s private life. One can find juicier revelations in the memoirs of Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui. Mao’s heartlessness was even clearer in his treatment of his children, in particular his three sons by Kaihui. After their mother was killed by the Nationalist government, the youngest son died and the older two lived like beggars in the streets of Shanghai. They wrote to Mao, who took no notice. They languished until Stalin invited them to Moscow.
Mao had a plan for the new China once the Japanese were defeated. He wanted a Bolshevik-style revolution, a monopoly of power by the Communist Party, a proletarian dictatorship. But his Soviet masters intervened. Stalin did not want China to rival the USSR. When Mao came to Moscow in 1950, Stalin made sure he knew his place – Mao was left to his own devices for a month. When he finally had an audience, he was forced to accept everything Stalin wanted.
Mao was at last freed to realize his revolutionary vision after Stalin’s death in 1953. But moderates like prime minister Zhou Enlai and president Liu Shaoqi opposed such a “blind rush forward.” So Mao cultivated two powerful radical allies, Gao Gang and Rao Shushi, only to dispose of them when they wanted the top jobs as reward, accusing them of plotting to seize power. Gao committed suicide while Rao died in prison. And the purge began to wipe out all the “followers and conspirators of the Gao and Rao clique and counter-revolutionaries”: 180,000 handed themselves in, 80,000 were arrested, 4,000 committed suicide and the cult of Mao began, fanned by none other than Liu himself. As Pantsov and Levine say, this first purge in the New China “created a very dangerous precedent that doomed a large percentage of the party to defeat in the power struggle with Mao.”
Mao's Great Leap saw all the peasants organized into communes and making steel instead of growing food. Tens of millions died of starvation. To excite continuing revolutionary fervour, Mao then unleashed the Cultural Revolution, creating universal chaos, setting all against all, destroying all authority. Liu Shaoqi became the prime target, the biggest “capitalist and revisionist.” Liu died in a cell, far from his family, denied any medical treatment.
Mao named as his successor Lin Biao, a brilliant general who fought with him from the beginning, obeyed him in everything and had no political ambition. Mao said, “He worshipped me like the holiest of saints.” It was he who turned Mao’s Little Red Book into the Communist bible. But he incurred the jealousy of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who schemed for her own people, the Gang of Four, to succeed her ailing husband. Mao, ailing but still powerful and virtually divorced from the world, drove Lin Biao to flee. His plane crashed in Mongolia.
With that, Mao’s sense of invincibility was shattered. He was left wavering between his wife and Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping to secure his succession. Zhou died in January, 1976, six months before Mao; Jiang Qing survived Mao, only to be captured and imprisoned three months later, after a coup that handed power to Deng.
The reader of Mao will take away book a clear, nuanced and rounded account of a tireless revolutionary fighter, brilliant politician and bloody social reformer. The scale of his achievements and his crimes make him impossible to sum up, though the authors do their best to take a balanced view: “Mao transformed China from a semi-colony into an independent and powerful state. … compelling the entire world to respect the Chinese people. He united mainland China after a long period of disintegration, power struggle, and civil wars.” Though the country remained poor and the economy Third World, there was a new pride in being Chinese.
But they’re also fully aware of the totalitarian society Mao imposed and the brutal social experiments that cost the lives of as many as 60-million people and blighted those of hundreds of millions more, a monstrousness never made clearer than in Frank Dikötter’s Samuel Johnson Prize-winning Mao’s Great Famine.
So, even as Chinese leaders determine the future of their growing colossus, people still line up to visit Mao’s mausoleum. He haunts them still – and possibly forever.
Shuyun Sun is a film-maker and author of The Long March, among other works. She lives in England.
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