Mao Zedong killed more people than anyone in human history. In his near 50-year run as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, he was responsible for the deaths of well over 50 million people. Mao had no limits when it came to the pursuit of power. He killed anyone and everyone in his way, and he turned an entire country into an extension of his will. The scariest part is that it could have been much, much worse. Mao didn’t just want to rule China. He wanted the entire world. He was a James Bond villain in real life, except without James Bond to bring him down. In Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday paint an unflinching portrait of one of the worst killers of the 20th century, tearing apart the myths that surround him, and raising unsettling questions about what a 21rst century version of Mao could do.
Mao was the son of a farmer in rural China who preferred laying in bed and reading to working in the fields. If he had been born in a different time and place, no one would have known about him outside of his isolated village, which didn’t find out about the death of the Emperor for two years. However, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty, and the power vacuum that came with it, created opportunities for ambitious young men like Mao. Even though he became one of the most influential leaders in Communist history, Chang and Halliday use his diaries and letters to show that he was never a true believer in Marxism. He didn’t need to be. Unlike his rivals in the CCP, Mao was never weighed down by ideology. From the beginning, he was more concerned with raising his status within the organization than accomplishing its goals.
It was the Iron Law of Institutions in a nutshell:
The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution "fail" while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to "succeed" if that requires them to lose power within the institution. This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America.The CCP in its early years was fighting for its life against the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, but Mao never cared. He ruthlessly maneuvered to get rid of his rivals, sacrificing huge numbers of Communist troops who weren’t under his command, most notably during the famous Long March, where the CCP armies took circuitous routes that exposed them to needless danger as they trekked across the country. Like a game of chicken between two cars racing towards each other, the one most willing to crash wins. With the Communists having to deal with the Nationalists and Japanese, as well as an often reluctant patron in the USSR, they couldn’t afford infighting. Either Mao would run the CCP or they would be destroyed. The only way to stop him was to split the party, and none of his rivals were as willing to do it as he was.
He doubled down on that strategy during World War II, repeatedly stabbing the Nationalists in the back as they struggled with the Japanese. Mao later claimed to be a fierce Chinese nationalist, but he always put himself first. He focused on the near enemy and then worked outwards, since they were the biggest threat to him personally. Mao wasn’t much of a military tactician, but he was a brilliant strategist, and he was able to parlay his ability to play two sides off against another to eventually take over the biggest country in the world and banish Chiang to Taiwan. There was never much of a populist insurgency in China: Mao inspired fear, not love. In that respect, he was cut from the same mold as Joseph Stalin, and some of the most fascinating parts of the book outline the titanic power struggles between the mentor and protege, as they grappled for influence in the Communist world in the first decade of the Cold War.
The authors put the Korean War in an entirely different light, with the US being an unwitting pawn in Mao’s quest to wrangle a nuclear weapon from Stalin. In their version of the story, the North Koreans were a paper tiger controlled tightly by Mao’s CCP, and he kept them afloat and strung the war along for years. His goal was to bait the Americans into dropping nuclear bombs, and let Stalin use China as a nuclear proxy, which would give him access to the Russian arsenal. As Mao saw it, China had a huge manpower advantage, and so would eventually come out ahead in a nuclear war. He was playing the game of thrones, and he didn’t care who he had to harm to win. Few world leaders rivaled Mao in terms of pure sociopathy, and no one was hurt more by it than the Chinese people, the ones he claimed to be fighting for.
Mao was obsessed with turning China into a superpower before he died. He didn’t care about his legacy or the future: his only goal was to maximize his own power in the time he had left. While Chiang obsessively tried to free his son from captivity in Moscow, Mao showed little interest in his family, whether they were his brothers, wives or children. His second wife died in a mental institution, while two of his sons starved in the streets of Beijing in the years leading up to World War II. He cared even less for his subjects. When Mao took control of China, it was an agricultural country with little manufacturing capacity, so the only thing he could export was massive quantities of food. He had to starve his people to get weapons and advanced military technology from abroad, and that’s exactly what he did, killing millions in the process.
If the authors didn’t meticulously document the sheer perversity of Mao’s schemes, they wouldn’t seem plausible. The most telling statistic about his methods of leadership comes from the end of the Long March: his section of the Red Army wound up with nearly as many officers as soldiers. The enlisted men literally carried their commanders on their shoulders for thousands of miles. The ones who complained were eliminated. Everyone who served under Mao lived in fear of him. He constantly purged the CCP for spies, because even if he didn’t find any, he found the atmosphere of terror it created useful. It was Darwinian selection: either you fell in line behind Mao or you were killed.
Since he was speaking for the people as the head of the CCP, anyone who defied him was, by definition, an enemy of the people who could (and should) be purged in order to further the revolution. Once Mao maneuvered his way into the CCP power structure, he was able to turn its own principles against its most committed believers and take it over from the inside out. Once he was put in charge of the entire country, he ramped things up even further. China became a giant prison camp, where everyone spied on each other and no one, no matter how high they were on the chain of command, was safe from being denounced. Mao’s philosophy was to kill first and ask questions later. Anyone who died became a class enemy after the fact, in a repeat of what Stalin did in Russia. One way to create a classless society is to make everyone a slave.
Much like Hitler or Stalin, it would have been easier to stop Mao at the beginning, when he was merely a commander in the CCP, and not when he had the entire state infrastructure at his disposal to crush his enemies. The problem is anyone who stopped Mao would have to have been just as ruthless as he was. Once Pandora's Box is opened, if often takes a strongman to close it. If Mao hadn’t ended up on top, it would have been someone else just like him. In Animal Farm, George Orwell warned that revolutionaries end up turning into the very people they initially revolted against. Mao is proof that Orwell was an optimist. They could turn out worse.