[OBSERVER]The ‘69% difference’ in views of Mao

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[OBSERVER]The ‘69% difference’ in views of Mao

The American artist Andy Warhol made Mao Zedong a pop icon ― alongside Marilyn Monroe and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” On the other hand, Mao was responsible for the deaths of about 70 million Chinese. A mixed legacy: “70 percent good, 30 percent bad.”
I have heard that calculus ― “70 percent good, 30 percent bad” ― from widely divergent sources: Chinese tour guides in 1993 and 2001, a Chinese student in Korea, a Korean journalist in Beijing. So it is apparently the accepted Chinese formula. Mao had his flaws, like all of us. Still, he was 70 percent good. Are you any better?
Mao’s latest biographers, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (“Mao: The Unknown Story,” Globalafair Ltd. 2005), want to set the record straight: He wasn’t even 1 percent good.
He was not a charismatic orator who could rally the masses like, say, Hitler. In fact, he rarely spoke in public, but ruled by terror and blackmail.
He was not an inspired thinker like, say, Lenin. In fact, he believed only in himself; his “thoughts,” in his Little Red Book and elsewhere, were mainly slogans designed to advance his own power. For example, the ostensibly liberal “Let a hundred flowers bloom” campaign was designed to lure dissenters into the open, after which Mao eliminated them.
He was not a military genius like, say, Sun Tzu. In fact, he squandered military manpower in order to weaken potential rivals.
He was not a man whose followers forgave his failures in respect of his integrity like, say, George Washington. In fact, Mao’s repeated failures were invariably followed by scapegoating and purges.
Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday demolish myths ― for example, the heroic Long March. Mao’s forces, the authors demonstrate, were essentially herded by the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek into areas where (Chiang supposed) the Communist threat could be marginalized. Meanwhile, Mao and other leaders did not march with the peasants. They were borne on sedan chairs.
Once he had taken power, Mao starved the peasants, taking their produce to barter with the Soviet Union to build up the military infrastructure. As many as 38 million Chinese starved or died prematurely from overwork or disease in the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961. “Half of China may well have to die,” Mao said.
Oh, and also he was cruel to his wives and callous to his mistresses and children.
Much of this is not really new, but it is laid out in meticulous detail by Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday, a married couple who spent a decade scrutinizing documents and tracking down witnesses ― from laundresses to surviving insiders. Their 631-page text is augmented by 187 pages of acknowledgments, source notes, bibliography and index.
Of particular interest in Korea are two chapters titled “Why Mao and Stalin Started the Korean War” and “How Mao Milked the Korean War.”
It has been pretty well accepted among historians that although both Syngman Rhee in the South and Kim Il Sung in the North were spoiling for a fight to reunify the peninsula, their patrons, the United States and the Soviet Union, did not wish to be drawn into World War III and restrained their attack dogs. Stalin finally gave Kim the go-ahead when he judged, wrongly as it turned out, that the United States would not fight in Korea.
Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday assert that, on the contrary, Stalin wanted a war with America in Korea because he had Mao to fight it for him. Mao had offered to do so in exchange for Soviet technology and equipment. Thus Stalin got a chance to field-test Soviet war materiel while tying down America and assessing its fighting capabilities ― all, from his point of view, risk-free.
This account would explain the otherwise puzzling failure of the Soviet Union to veto the UN resolution that authorized troops to support South Korea. Stalin “did not want to keep Western forces out,” the authors conclude. “He wanted them in, where Mao’s sheer weight of numbers could grind them up.”
As the war sank into stalemate, Kim Il Sung, watching his country being bombed to smithereens, wanted to sue for peace. But it was no longer his war; Mao had hijacked it. Ignoring Kim’s increasingly frantic cables, Mao ordered that the war be kept going so that he could weaken the Americans and extract more hardware from Stalin.
In February 1953 the new U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower, hinted that he might consider using atomic bombs in China. The threat excited Mao, the authors say, because it provided an excuse to ask Stalin for nuclear weapons. But Stalin shied from a nuclear confrontation, and he decided, almost on the eve of his death, to end the war. His successors had their own reasons to prefer peace, so the obstacle that had deadlocked peace talks for 18 months ― forced repatriation of prisoners ― vanished in a trice.
More than 3 million Chinese soldiers were put into Korea, and at least 400,000 died, a figure the authors attribute to Deng Xiaoping. Among them was Mao’s eldest son, killed in an American air raid while working as a Russian translator. When the news reached Mao, he observed laconically, “In a war, how can there be no deaths?”
To the somewhat pointless debate over whether Stalin or Hitler was worse, the answer now seems to be: Mao. This book, of course, will be banned in China, but inevitably copies will be circulated. How much longer, one wonders, can Mao be seen as “70 percent good, 30 percent bad”?

* The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at GSIS of Yonsei University.

by Hal Piper
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)