Move China to modernity

By Victor Mallet

Financial Times

Published: July 5 2005

Eleven years ago, when Jung Chang and Jon Halliday were starting the painstaking research for their new biography of Mao Zedong, Communist party leaders in Beijing issued a stern warning to their subjects not to co-operate with the two authors.

In a manner typical of totalitarian states, the warning had the opposite effect. Many of the relatives, acquaintances and enemies of Mao judged the telling of the truth to be worth the risk of persecution. To them, the official warning was a clue that Ms Chang and Mr Halliday ought to be taken seriously.

“Most people actually talked,” Ms Chang said at the launch of the book in Hong Kong last week, “and they talked because of the warning.” The result is Mao: The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape), a book portraying the unparalleled brutality, selfishness and ambition of the man who ruled China for 27 years and presided over the deaths, the authors conclude, of more than 70m people.

As the informants of Ms Chang and Mr Halliday realised even a decade ago, the shattering of the Mao myth is long overdue. If the legend persists of the Great Helmsman as the liberator and moderniser of China, the country will never be truly modern or take its place as a “normal” nation alongside the other great powers.

One can argue that the outside world already knows of the famine, chaos and senseless brutality of the Mao era, although that makes it odd that westerners happily wear T-shirts and buy kitsch art depicting a man responsible for probably more peacetime deaths than any other 20th-century leader.

One can also argue that censorship inside China ensures that the Chinese themselves will be none the wiser as a result of such revelatory books. Mao is knitted into the fabric of Chinese life and political discourse. His face is on every banknote, his picture hangs on the living room walls of rural homes and his embalmed corpse is on show at a mausoleum in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

But every little bit of truth helps, especially when the Communist party – despite its abandonment of Mao’s disastrous economic policies – has not progressed beyond its long-held assessment that he was “70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad”.

In fact, the latest Mao biography shows that he was 100 per cent bad. The heroic Long March? Mao was carried most of the way in a litter; the famous battle with the Nationalists at the Dadu river bridge never happened. The struggle against the hated Japanese invaders? Mao collaborated with them to defeat his Nationalist rivals. Economic modernisation? By the early 1970s, the average Chinese was poorer than the average Somali.

In defence of China’s current leaders and their stance on Mao, it is often said – even by Ms Chang – that they are Mao’s heirs and that they think their right to rule rests on Mao’s perceived achievements.

Nowadays, the government’s popular legitimacy relies at least as much on China’s startlingly successful post-Mao economy as on the stories of what one man did or did not do five decades ago.

In an interconnected world, telling gigantic lies and trying to protect them behind a wall of censorship is as old-fashioned as pickling your leaders in formaldehyde. There is something incongruous about a nation feted abroad for its commercial and artistic achievements persisting with a personality cult at home for a long-dead leader responsible for the deaths of so many of his own people.

History and history books, furthermore, are hotly debated subjects in east Asia these days. China frequently criticises Japan for failing to come clean about its aggression and cruelty across Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet China’s own failure to come to terms with the violence and treachery of the Mao era make the accusations sound hypocritical and self-serving.

“It would be marvellous if people had the chance to know the truth about their own history,” Mr Halliday said in Hong Kong when asked about the possible impact of the Mao book. “Myth-making is more dangerous than telling the truth.” Even in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist party, there must be some who see the sense in those remarks.

victor.mallet@ft.com