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book review

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

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.

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.)

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.