Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang, Jon Halliday

The opening sentence of this book on the 20th Century Chinese communist leader says, “Mao Tse Tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.”

Chang and Halliday spent over 10 years of research demythologizing the reputation of Mao and casts him in a severe light; one that rivals the atrocities of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin as the most-killingest man of the 20th Century, mostly ignorant to Western society. Even as of this week, a portrait of Mao’s was sold for 12 million dollars ( We hear a lot about the demons of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but we are less inclined to hear about the magnanimous losses in China. We are even fed that Mao was a good ruler and misunderstand or muckraked to a poor reputation. I will propose that neither of these is true after reading this book.

Mao had a lust for power that would never be quenched until he conquered the world. Examples of this can be seen from “the Long March,” where Mao led over 80,000 communist troops all over China, most without shoes or clothing to shelter them from the elements (Mao either rode a horse, mule, or was carried the whole way while the Nationalists pursued and bombed/ambushed them), killing about 70,000 (only 10,000 survived). After he came to power in the 1940’s, he desired an un-rivaled power, using the Soviet Union to help him get weapons technology and produce China’s first atom bomb. In the process, of what now is called, “the Great Leap Forward,” he starved to death over 30 million (some estimate as high as 45 million) Chinese, making them eat leafs and dirt while he exported most of China’s produce to the Soviet union for money to 1) pay back the Soviet Union and 2) develop more militaristic weapons including a navy, air force, and guns. He enacted a policy that created the “backyard furnaces,” where pots, pans, jewelry and anything metal was confiscated and made into a sort of “pig metal” to be used for such endeavors. Of the steel made that year, only 40% of it was able to be made into anything worthwhile.

He led numerous purges in order to castigate those who were deemed as “counter-revolutionaries” into a conservative light, giving them the green to be executed or sent away to a work camp in inner Mongolia where few returned from. He was a womanizer, lazy, power hungry among other things and did not care about the people he ruled or how many he would have to kill to become a superpower. On the Great Leap, he said, “Half of China may well have to die.” Finally, in the 1960’s-70’s, he led a campaign called the “Cultural Revolution” where actors, actresses, opera, music, books, writers and the educated elite were all purged in favor of “Maoist” propaganda in the form of what was called “The Red Book:” a series of Mao quotes that nearly everyone was issued. Millions died as a result of these purges as well.

As I surveyed this book, something struck me that is applicable to our modern day. Many Americans have been critical of such conflicts as the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. But when half of the Korean Penisula was liberated from the communist North in the 1950’s, that became a beacon of freedom and capitalism that prevented the deaths of probably millions of people. When we come to view Vietnam as a huge failure, I think we fail to realize the “good” that such interventions may achieve. While we did not liberate Vietnam as we did South Korea, I think there is a moral responsibility for those who are more fortunate to help those who are unable to speak for themselves. In the same vein, there has been an enormously negative reaction to the intervention in Iraq. But if a killer and a poor leader was ousted to make the lives of millions of people better, was it worth it? In my eyes it is.

This is a thought-provoking book: it gives clarity to what freedoms we have in America and how fortunate we are. This is a great read.

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