Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Mao Ze Dong: Methods of the Great Leader

Mao Ze Dong: Methods of the Great Leader

John F. Burns
New York Times
February 6, 2000
Title: Mao Ze Dong: Methods of the Great Leader
Author: John F. Burns
Publication: New York Times
Date: February 6, 2000

Two biographers find that Mao broke an awful lot of eggs to make his omelet.

Early 30 years ago, a Western reporter preparing for a first foreign assignment, to China, had reason to feel daunted.  In the fall of 1970, the country was in the grip of one of the greatest upheavals in its history, the Cultural Revolution.  At the behest of Mao Zedong, China's absolute ruler, millions of Red Guards had become the upheaval's shock troops, targeting the real or perceived enemies of Mao and the Communist Party, among them Western culture and, often enough, Westerners too.

That autumn, Chinese authorities had released, after 27 months of captivity in a tiny room in his home near the Forbidden City, one of only three Western reporters based in China, Anthony Grey of Reuters, whose deprivations had included watching his captors hang his cat. Other correspondents were regularly detained, or summoned by officials between midnight and dawn, held for hours in a room furnished only with Mao's portrait, then denounced by shrill-voiced, Mao-suited zealots.

In pursuit of reassurance as much as of wisdom, the reporter sought out some of the West's leading China scholars. They had reason to be dismayed, for their visitor -- this writer, then 26 and working for The Globe and Mail, a Canadian paper that alone among Western newspapers had a bureau in China -- had had only a few months of instruction in Chinese, and knew little more of the country than could be gleaned from a half dozen books.

At the time, there was relief in the scholars' advice. An eminent Ivy League professor put it simply. ''Don't judge China by Western standards,'' he said. ''China can only be judged on its own terms.'' Tell China's story as the Chinese themselves see it, he said, and the Cultural Revolution, far from the chaotic and destructive thing it appeared from afar, would become ''a noble human experiment,'' liable to change human history.

Ever after, those words have stood as a siren. Arriving in China, I abandoned the most useful tool I had, my judgment. I became, for a season, like many other Westerners then writing about the Cultural Revolution, a follower of Lincoln Steffens, one of those who ventured into Communist societies and allowed themselves, out of ideological zeal, a desire to ingratiate, the confusion of unfamiliar surroundings or just plain gullibility, to be duped.

For a year or more, I wrote uncritically, even enthusiastically, about dreadful things -- nuclear scientists shoveling out pigpens who insisted they had been ignorant until ''educated'' by the peasants; classical musicians with fingers smashed by the Red Guards who described their past work as ''poisonous weeds''; acupuncture as the sole ''anesthetic'' for deep-brain surgery in operations that, as we learned years later, few patients survived. Only when the rationalizations became too great to bear did I revert to my instincts. From then on, I hope, my reports began to show China at least somewhat as it was. Even as the authorities' ''serious warnings'' increased, I developed a small confidence that the little of the real China I could see was worth any amount of the gilded China on offer from the propagandists, or from those with a love for China but little firsthand experience.

Lately, these reflections returned as I read two new Western attempts to assess the life of Mao, Jonathan Spence's concise, 188-page biography in the ''Penguin Lives'' series, ''Mao Zedong,'' and Philip Short's 782-page epic, ''Mao: A Life.'' Both are published as we look back on the 20th century and try to make sense of its accomplishments and catastrophes. In this reckoning, few men, and few countries -- if any -- loom larger than Mao and China.

The books trace Mao's role in China's transformation from a backward, divided, foreign-dominated and largely uneducated society at his birth in 1893 to the proud giant of today, with an almost fully literate population accounting for a fifth of mankind, products in every corner of the world's offices and homes and an international weight, backed by nuclear missiles, that has returned it to a place in the world it last enjoyed before the Ming Dynasty collapsed in the 17th century.

But these books also pose the issue that confronted me during four years in China during the Cultural Revolution, and in a two-year assignment for The New York Times in the 1980's. Should Westerners assess China's progress on its own terms, or on ours? Should we see Mao as China would have us view him, or through the prism of our own values? Should we spare Mao from the full rigor of history's judgment just because, so far, the Chinese Communists themselves have?

The point is more than academic, as the accounts of Spence and Short make clear. Bolstered by much fresh informration that has emerged in recent years, some from Chinese documents released for the period before the Cultural Revolution and some from personal accounts by members of Mao's inner circle, the authors offer harrowing tales of the dark side of his rule. More than ever before, we can take the measure of Mao's repression, and it is grim indeed.

In some ways, the two books offer a reversal of form, as far as the work of scholars and journalists is concerned. Spence, a distinguished Yale University professor whose 11 previous books on Chinese history have covered the gamut from the Ming to Mao, compresses Mao's story into a read-on-a-plane format, a task he accomplishes without sacrificing his academic rigor. Short, a foreign correspondent for the BBC and The Times of London for 25 years, including an assignment to China immediately after Mao's death in 1976, has the larger canvas, and he uses it brilliantly. After seven years of research and writing, aided by the work of his wife, Renquan, on Chinese documents, he has combined much of what is best in journalism and scholarship; his book is full of colorful insights and the detail that years of hard grind in the archives yield.

From Short, we learn that Mao never brushed his teeth, preferring a daily mouthwash of tea, and that he had to be persuaded, after the Communist victory in 1949, to give up using his garden in the Forbidden City for an open-air toilet. In similar vein, Short and Spence take us into Mao's bedroom, chronicling his high jinks with young women assistants, several of whom might be sharing the Great Helmsman's bed at any one time. To anyone who lived in China when Mao was still alive, if always invisible after his last public appearance on May 1, 1971, this is rich indeed. Who, in 1970, could have imagined that the China that had declared extramarital sex ''counterrevolutionary'' was led by a man who, scarcely able to tolerate the sight of Jiang Qing, his wife, had banished her from his presence and, according to Short, had replaced her in his bed ''with as many young women as he wished''?

But it is the darker aspects of Mao's rule that are the real focus of these books. Both authors give appalling tolls for the upheavals Mao instigated. Spence quotes Mao as saying that 700,000 ''local bullies and evil gentry'' were killed in attacks on landlords and other ''counter-revolutionaries'' between 1950 and 1952. The Great Leap Forward of 1958, and the ensuing famine of 1960 and 1961, cost at least 20 million lives, again by Spence's reckoning, while ''many millions'' more died in the Cultural Revolution. Short, estimating the total number of victims at a minimum of 23 million, a maximum of 35 million, concludes that Mao ''brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader'' in history.

As striking as the figures are the conclusions the authors draw, or avoid drawing. Spence traces Mao's evolution from the 27-year-old Marxist who declared in a 1920 essay on Lenin that ''a forced attempt at construction simply will not work'' to the Great Leader of later years who fostered ''an aura of fear'' with his relentless purges, his cataclysmic efforts at social transformation and his retreat into a pampered isolation of high-walled villas and sealed trains.

Short's Mao emerges as a vengeful, manipulative tyrant, increasingly delusional, disarmingly self-critical at times but asp-like in striking down those posing a threat to his power, whose detachment from reality had reached alarming proportions as early as 1957. In a visit to Moscow that autumn, Mao, addressing Communist leaders, showed a contempt for the destructiveness of nuclear weapons Dr. Strangelove would have much admired. ''If war broke out, how many people would die?'' he said. ''There are 2.7 billion people in the entire world, and one-third of them may be lost. . . . If the worst came to the worst, perhaps one-half would die. But there would still be one-half left.''

If this hints at the edges of a psychopathic personality, it is a conclusion Short avoids. A hint of why comes in the closing words of the book, where Short, observing that ''history is laid down slowly in China,'' concludes: ''a final verdict on Mao's place in the annals of his country's past is still a very long way off.'' For an author completing one of the most exhaustive studies of Mao's life ever attempted, this suggests that Short treads with those Westerners who feel uncomfortable reaching judgments about China that are too harsh.

Short offers parallels with two other 20th-century tyrants, Hitler and Stalin, only to dismiss them as false. Mao, he says, did not set out to achieve the ''physical extermination of all who stood in his way,'' like Stalin, or ''to extirpate in the gas chambers an entire racial group,'' like Hitler, but belonged to ''a different category'' because his obsession was with remolding an entire people. ''Stalin cared about what his subjects did (or might do); Hitler, about who they were,'' Short argues. ''Mao cared about what they thought.''

This, surely, is too gentle. If we are to avoid repeating the 20th century's worst nightmares, we need to weigh what these tyrants had in common as they bludgeoned their way into history, as well as the things they did not. As these books remind us, Mao shared with Hitler and Stalin the experience of an overbearing father, a doting but overshadowed mother, provincial origins that were the cause of humiliation and exclusion, early experience of brutality in politics and war -- and, later, a political system of his own creation that left him free to exorcise devils that had scarred him from youth.

But these matters lie in the realm of psychology, one in which few scholars or reporters feel comfortable. Most of us content ourselves with history, culture, geography and politics -- tools that measure less subjectively. For myself, I wish now that in covering China, South Africa under apartheid, the Soviet Union and wars in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, among other places -- scars, all, on the conscience of the 20th century -- I had made fuller allowance for, or understood better, the role of wounded psyches in producing the Maos, Stalins, Vorsters, Najibullahs, Karadzics and Arkans I wrote about along the way.

In the case of Spence and Short, their conclusions seem uneasily close to the Chinese Communist Party's own verdict, delivered in 1981, in which Mao was deemed to have committed ''gross mistakes'' but to have had merits that outweighed his errors, in the proportion of 7 to 3. As the authors show, Mao was a political and military genius who towered over his contemporaries, remade the most populous nation on earth, and placed it, after centuries of humiliation, on the path to modernity. But he also devastated the lives of tens of millions of his countrymen and women, many of whom still struggle with the consequences. Westerners, free to reach their own conclusions, may make their own judgments. For now, that is a liberty the Chinese people, still laboring under the weight of the Communist system that Mao bequeathed, do not share. But in time they too may conclude that the human price of their ''liberation'' was too high.

(John F. Burns has been a foreign correspondent of The Times since 1976.)

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