The way of dictators

October 07, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

WAS MAO Tse-tung, the great "liberator of the Chinese people," capable of loving them?

The man who may well know more about the legendary Chinese communist's real life than anyone living today did not hesitate when I asked him that question.

Love the people?" Dr. Li Zhisui responded immediately. "No. In public demonstrations, he talked of love. But in his personal life, anyone who got in his way had to be destroyed."

The Chinese doctor's watershed book, "The Private Life of Chairman Mao," parts of it condensed in U.S. News & World Report, is causing quite a stir. His insights into the "Great Helmsman," whom he served as personal physician from 1954 to 1976, are shocking a good many people.

For, despite all the debunking and cynicism in this generation, there still are, amazingly, trusting people around who need to believe in great helmsmen, dear leaders, fuhrers, presidents-for-life, generalissimos and charismatic caudillos.

How hard it will be for them to accept that a man like Mao, who on the surface ruled China as a puritanical leader -- even forbidding his people to dance -- actually enjoyed secret "decadent and bourgeois" dancing parties! That he never showed the slightest sadness at terrible deaths or tragedies! That he regularly had nubile young Chinese women delivered to him for sexual submission, most often several or more at a time!

"Mao was not like the rest of us," says Dr. Li, who has lived for many years in a suburb of Chicago. "He had no sense of time. He slept and woke when he wanted. He never had to raise a hand, put on his own socks and trousers or comb his own hair." (To Mao, in short, other human beings consisted of "servants, subordinates and sexual partners.")

Mao also practiced an evil perversion of Christianity's belief in redemption through faith. "He would begin by charming people," Dr. Li writes, "winning their trust, getting them to open up and to confess their faults. He would then forgive them, save them and make them feel safe. Thus redeemed, they became loyal." (At even the slightest hint of any challenge to Mao, they would be mercilessly destroyed.)

But even worse than those traits was the manner in which, through his extraordinary economic "hocus pocus," Mao managed to starve to death millions of Chinese through his "Great Leap Forward," which was supposed to make the Chinese people self-reliant.

Dr. Li describes traveling with Mao by his own personal train (when it traveled, no other train dared to) and seeing miles and miles of farmers fervently feeding household implements into primitive backyard steel furnaces.

In Mao's strange and contorted mind, this was going to make China a powerful country without the need for iron and steel mills -- but the "Great Leap" led only to an estimated 30 million dead in the three years between 1958 and 1961, as agriculture was destroyed in favor of Mao's great power-through-steel.

What struck me in talking with Dr. Li, one of the few survivors of Mao's wrath, is how terribly similar all dictators are -- and how, therefore, we really ought to be able to understand them.

As a biographer of Cuban President Fidel Castro ("Guerrilla Prince"), another "revolutionary" leader of the same era and ideology as Mao, I can say that virtually every trait Mao has, Fidel has too.

Love? Fidel could only love "las masas" or "the masses" in the plaza, and that only because they fed his need for control and power.

Personal life? Fidel, too, remained distant, indeed mythological, until I was able to reveal his many unknown amours and many illegitimate children.

Time? He disdained it, usually receiving people only in the dark of night (which, of course, made him seem more powerful).

Redemption? Fidel, too, drew people to him through their feeling that he could save Cuba -- and redeem them -- from a hopeless past (but at each stage of his life, Fidel simply got rid of any perceived competitor).

Economics? Fidel had a "new genetics" and a "new agriculture." He mixed cows by breeding the Cebu and the Holstein and calling the new cow the "F-1" as though it were a gun (a disaster). He planted coffee all around Havana (a failure).

Neither of these two men, of course, could ever accept either political liberty or economic freedom -- they could accept nothing that would remove any of the total power they craved, demanded and killed for. They did not need to think scientifically; they only willed.

Dr. Li, backed up by a remarkable PBS television series, "Mao Years," has done us a great favor by bringing forth the truth about Mao at this time. For it exactly parallels the truth about all charismatic dictators, from Hitler to Mussolini, from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Castro.

In the anarchic world already upon us, where more and more lost souls will seek redemption through such talented political con men, there will be many more of them, and it is surely time to get them straight.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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