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Book details Mao's rise to power
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Book details Mao's rise to power

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Title: "MAO -- The Unknown Story"

Author: Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday have written a very important history and biography of Mao Tse-Tung, ”who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population (and) was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.” From that opening sentence Chang and Halliday in 631 packed pages reveal Mao’s rise to absolute power over the countless millions of lives murdered paving his way to rule China.

From Mao’s birth on Dec. 26, 1893, to his death on Sept. 9, 1976, Chang and Halliday have detailed Mao’s relentless quest for absolute power. He was the third-born son but the first to survive beyond infancy. Tse-Tung is a two-part name. ”Tse means ‘to shine on’ …; Tung means ‘the East.’" So his full given name meant "‘to shine on the East.’” As a young student, Mao “was blessed with an exceptional memory” and managed to recite and “write by rote” difficult Confucian texts. “He gained a foundation in Chinese language and history, and began to learn to write good prose, calligraphy and poetry, as writing poems was an essential part of Confucian education. Reading became a passion.” Throughout his rise to power and his reign as dictator he wrote poetry and was surrounded by books.

Still a student as he turned 24, his core philosophy was “I” above everything else. “Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty. 'People like me have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.’” Mao believed for China to change, “the country must be destroyed and then re-formed. … People like me long for its destruction, because when the old order is destroyed, a new universe will be formed. Isn’t that better?” What Mao destroyed in his rise to power and his rule over China were the lives of millions, and Chinese culture.

The Bolsheviks, having taken over Russia, were exporting communism through the Communist International. It arrived in China as the Chinese Communist Party just as Mao was ready. ”Although not one of its founders (the CCP), Mao was in the immediate outer ring.” I got the distinct impression from reading this book that Mao was not concerned with communist ideology, but rather he saw he could use the CCP to maneuver his way to the top, which is consistent with “I” above everything else. Chang and Halliday nicely set forth his coldhearted cunning as he stepped over and eliminated his communist contemporaries.

All of this played out against the upheaval in the first half of the 20th century with the establishment of a Republic advocated by Sun Yet-Sen and the battles among the warlords, the Nationalists army led by Chiang Kai-Shek, the smaller armies of the CCP, and the Japanese Army in Manchuria, all of which was churning in China before and during World War II. This was an unstable time for China, which Mao and the CCP successfully exploited. Mao schemed to achieve ever-higher positions in the CCP as he sought control over a CCP army. Mao established a base in Yenan during the war where he started a campaign of self-criticism by everyone but himself, giving him absolute control over the lives of the people. It was referred to as the Yenan Terror. Mao’s rise in the CCP was accompanied with terror, as enemies were publicly executed while people’s possessions were taken from them.

By 1945, with the end of the war Mao was firmly in control of the CCP. Chiang Kai-Shek was in a position with a much larger army to destroy the communists. However, disloyal Nationalist generals deliberately led entire Nationalist armies to destruction, forcing Chiang Kai-Shek and his remaining followers to escape to Taiwan. Mao was left in control of China. On Oct. 1, 1949, in Peking (now Beijing), ”standing on top of Tiananmen Gate … Mao inaugurated the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”

Mao’s goal was to take over the leadership of the worldwide communist movement and control the world. But he needed the help of the Soviet Union under Stalin and then under Khrushchev to build China into a military superpower. The question was how to pay for it. As China had a peasant agrarian economy, the answer was the peasants would pay for it. They would produce food for export to the Soviet Union to generate the money Mao needed. Without enough food for themselves, starvation became a scourge; “over 10,000 peasants died of starvation in 1947” in the Yenan region. According to Chang and Halliday, ”Mao’s most formidable weapon was pitilessness.”

Mao wanted North Korea to attack South Korea in 1950, as he believed it would lead to war with the United States which in turn would cause the Soviets to give him the weapons and military technology he wanted. As North Korea was being driven north by the U.S. and its allies, Mao on Dec. 7, 1950, committed 450,000 troops into Korea to kill Americans and keep the war going to get more help out of the Soviets. Mao’s son was killed in Korea.

The starvation brought on by increased requisitions of food and forced collectivization of farms was compounded by the “Great Leap Forward,” which ran from 1958-61. The peasants were made to work harder and longer with less food. “Close to 38 million people died of starvation and overwork in the Great Leap Forward and the famine, which lasted four years.” Additional waste resulted when the government encouraged  steel production in “backyard furnaces,” a truly absurd idea.

This was followed in 1966 by the Cultural Revolution, at first, a simply horrible attack on teachers and those in charge of education. A group of middle school students named themselves the Red Guards. The name and the terror unleashed with it spread quickly. “The Red Guards broke into homes where they burned books, cut up paintings, trampled phonograph records and musical instruments -- generally wrecking anything to do with ‘culture.’ They ‘confiscated’ valuables and beat up the owners.” All this was a preface for Mao to purge millions of CCP officials.

By 1969, “Mao had completed his great Purge, though this did not mean that killings ceased. In the ten years from when Mao started the Purge until his death (from ALS) in 1976, at least 3 million people died violent deaths, and post-Mao leaders acknowledged that 100 million people, one-ninth of the entire population, suffered in one way or another. The killings were sponsored by the state. Only a small percentage was at the hands of Red Guards. Most were the direct work of Mao’s reconstructed regime.”

It is hard to imagine the millions and millions of deaths inflicted by Mao on his own people! I have confidence in this history by Chang and Halliday, as they have listed their extensive research, which includes 14 pages of names of people and the positions they held as witnesses to this entire tragedy. I recognized a few of the names, but with all of their positions set forth it gives a real sense of how comprehensive their work is. I wanted to read about the Cultural Revolution, but I learned so very much more about China and the suffering endured by its people. And I have not developed any sense the current leadership has any smaller goal than Mao had. We need to be very cautious.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota state district court judge, a former attorney general and a retired Navy captain.

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