Short on Mao: power through terror

January 18, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff

"Mao: A Life," by Philip Short. Henry Holt and Co. 784 pages. $35.

By any measure, Mao Tse-tung ranks as one of the great killers of the 20th century. Two of his worst policies, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), cost China an estimated 30 million lives or more. And yet, on weekday mornings in Tiananmen Square, thousands of people from across the country stand in line to catch a glimpse of the Great Helmsman inside his crystal sarcophagus.

Given the havoc Mao wrought, it would be easy to assume that all those tourists are simply checking to make sure he's still dead. The truth is more complex. While Westerners may generally remember Mao in his later years as a debauched madman, he was once a brilliant, idealistic young peasant. And -- despite the extraordinary suffering he caused -- Chinese still revere him for unifying the world's most populous country after years of civil war and foreign occupation.

Philip Short's historical biography helps explain some of the grand contradictions behind the man who founded the People's Republic of China. Written at times with vivid detail, the book traces Mao's life from his peasant upbringing in Hunan Province to his victories as a guerrilla army commander and his eventual decline in Beijing, when he grew as isolated and autocratic as the emperors who proceeded him.

Unlike the 1994 book "The Private Life of Chairman Mao," by Zhisui Li, Anne F. Thurston, Li Zhisui and Andrew Nathan (Random House, 682 pages, $20), which intimately reveals his decadence as China's leader, Short's biography largely focuses on the decades leading up to his ascension. A creature of his times, young Mao became radicalized in the early years of this century when foreign powers exerted considerable control over China and Manchu officials were weak and corrupt. Through studying Confucius and observing the rule of a military governor named "Butcher" Tang, he came to believe in centralized power and the use of terror to maintain it.

Short, a former BBC correspondent, shows how history could have been different. Frustrated by foreign languages, Mao refused to visit Europe, where he might have developed a more balanced world-view as both Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, did.

At times, the author bogs down detailing battles between the Communists and Nationalists, which shed little light on Mao's development. Short is at his best, though, when he foreshadows the devastating policies Mao would later inflict on the nation.

More than three decades before the Cultural Revolution ruined millions of lives, Mao backed a political purge aimed at Nationalist sympathizers who were thought to have infiltrated the Communist Party. Soldiers tortured confessions from innocent people and Mao used the atmosphere of paranoia to dispatch his enemies. Thousands were executed.

"They said quite openly that it was better to kill a hundred innocent people than to leave a truly guilty one at large," one party official later wrote.

History reveals itself slowly in China and Short says he leaves the final verdict on Mao to others. Ultimately, the Great Helmsman was the man to unite the country, not lead it. Mao's contemporary, Chen Yun, summed him up neatly. "Had Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal," Chen said. "But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?"

Frank Langfitt has served as The Sun's Beijing correspondent since 1997. He has covered such stories as the hand-over of Hong Kong, the demonstrations against the U.S. embassy following the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the recent crackdown on the spiritual-meditation group Falun Gong.

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