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Every morning, as many as 20,000 people flock to Tiananmen Square to join the vast queues of pilgrims, often stretching a kilometre long, at the entrance to the tomb of Mao Zedong.

They stand for an hour or more, in blazing sun or winter cold, waiting patiently to pay their respects to the Great Helmsman. They place flowers at the foot of a Mao statue. They gaze reverentially at the chairman's crystal coffin, often bowing to the waxy corpse inside.

Almost 30 years after his death, Mao remains the sacred symbol that China dare not touch. His massive portrait still looms above the entrance to the Forbidden City. His face is on every banknote in the country.

Yet while he continues to be worshipped in China, a shocking new book has concluded that Mao was the bloodiest mass murderer in history, a sadistic thug who enjoyed torture and was willing to sacrifice half of China's population for his dream of global domination.

The biography, based on 10 years of archival research and interviews with people in Mao's inner circle, is a stunning challenge to China's conventional view of the Communist leader.

The book estimates that Mao caused the deaths of 70 million people in peacetime, making him a far worse killer than Hitler or Stalin. It portrays him as a sociopath who loved killing and allowed millions of peasants to starve to death while he exported food to pay for his nuclear weapons; a man whose legendary achievements in the Long March were an invention; a man who turned China into a cultural desert of misery and violence, while maintaining dozens of luxury villas and a troupe of female sexual partners.

One of the book's two authors is Jung Chang, the Chinese writer whose family memoir, Wild Swans, became one of the biggest-selling non-fiction books of all time. Her co-author is her husband, Jon Halliday, a historian who gained access to Soviet archives on Mao.

Their 814-page biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, is to be published in Canada and the United States in October. The book is already a bestseller in Britain, where critics have hailed it as a major work. A Chinese translation is planned, although the Chinese edition is unlikely to circulate outside Taiwan and Hong Kong.

China's rulers have acknowledged that Mao made some "serious mistakes," but only "in his old age." And they continue to praise him lavishly, decades after his death. "Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist; a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist; a great patriot and national hero," President Hu Jintao said on the 110th anniversary of Mao's birth in 2003.

The new biography, however, paints Mao as bloodthirsty tyrant who was never interested in Marxism or helping China's impoverished peasants, but was obsessed only with personal power and military dominance. He rose to power because of his ruthlessness and cruelty, and because he was installed and financed by Moscow. Beginning with his earliest purges, in which he ordered the torture and death of thousands of Red Army soldiers in 1929, he believed in violence.

As early as 1927, the biography says, Mao was lauding China's peasant associations for their use of terror and torture to break down the dignity of their enemies. He exulted that their violence was "wonderful" and "a kind of ecstasy never experienced before."

After seizing national power in 1949, Mao launched a brutal campaign that killed three million "counter-revolutionaries." Executions were usually done in public. "His aim was to scare and brutalize the entire population, in a way that went much further than either Stalin or Hitler, who largely kept their foulest crimes out of sight," the authors write.

By the late 1950s, Mao was starving his people to pay for his dream of making China a nuclear-armed superpower. He treated the peasants as dehumanized slave labourers, feeding them less than Auschwitz death-camp inmates. The authors estimate that during the Great Leap Forward, almost 38 million Chinese died of starvation, the worst famine in recorded history.

Another three million people died violent deaths in the Cultural Revolution, and Mao enjoyed seeing films of his enemies being tortured and humiliated, the authors say. In some provinces, the killings reached such a frenzy that cannibalism was practised.

Throughout all of this, Mao repeatedly told his aides that he was willing to let half of China's population die for the cause of world revolution and his superpower dream.

Even the myth of Mao's heroism in the Long March of 1934-35 is exposed as a sham. His Nationalist enemies deliberately allowed his army to escape along a prearranged 9,000-kilometre route, and Mao himself was carried most of the way on a bamboo litter.

The authors are contemptuous of the naive Western politicians, including Pierre Trudeau, who were deluded by Mao's propaganda. While millions of Chinese were starving to death, the future Canadian prime minister travelled across China in 1960 "and co-wrote a starry-eyed book -- which did not say a word about famine," they say.

Yet ordinary Chinese continue to believe that Mao was a glorious hero, as they were taught in school. "We respect and love Chairman Mao," said Jiang Chuanjia, a 65-year-oldworker from Hubei province who brought six grandchildren to the Mao mausoleum last month.

"He was a great man."

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