Reviewing ‘Mao: the Unknown Story’

Post-Truthfulness: Chang & Halliday’s biography of Mao

By Gwydion M. Williams

In the century before Mao took over, China was the ‘sick man of East Asia’. Unlike India, Vietnam etc. it was not modernised as part of a colonial empire. Unlike Japan, it failed to modernise within its own traditional framework. China fell into even worse chaos when it tried to imitate the West with the Republic of 1911. It needed Mao’s ruthless determination and radicalism to ‘turn it round’. Though the West now sneers at his memory, he left behind a strong unified state, a healthy well-educated population and a flourishing economy.

You’re nowadays given the impression that China was stagnating during the Cultural Revolution, and only took off economically when Deng took over. But all detailed studies of the actual economic history of 1966-76 agree that China was growing at maybe 6% a year during Mao’s last years. For an isolated mostly-agricultural economy facing the risk of invasion, this was a grand achievement. Especially since China’s norm had been changelessness.

Adam Smith in the late 18th century had rated China as richer than any part of Europe, but also static. Static was what it was supposed to be, according to the Confucian ideals which had their roots in the Bronze Age and which had worked well for a couple of millennia. China remained static until the Opium Wars in the 1840s showed how vulnerable China was in a changing world.

The next century saw several failed attempts at modernising within something like the traditional framework. The Taiping were a very serious home-grown movement that had its own version of Christianity, and the West helped defeat it. Sun Yat-sen was eager to make a strong China based on Western values, but a weak and cringing China was preferred. Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang was corrupted and led into a blind ally by Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang’s 22 years of power left China as badly off as he found it; China’s net economic growth during his time on the mainland was zero. (The World Economy: Historical Statistics). Success in Taiwan after 1949 means little: Taiwan had been part of Japan’s brutal but successful modernisation. Taiwan had vast sums of US aid pumped into it, along with a land-reform that was undoubtedly helped by the example of what was happening to landlords in the rest of China. A blue-arsed baboon could have made a success of Taiwan.

Starting from a very low base, Mao more than tripled China’s economy during his period of rule. He did this while also uprooting ancient systems of oppression and asserting China’s status as a Great Power. And he did it without much outside help—some Russian help in the 1950s, but at a price. In most other cases during the Soviet Union’s existence, the recipient of aid eventually had to choose between throwing them out or else becoming subordinate to Moscow. Mao chose to throw them out—strictly, they were pulled out, but it was the foreseeable consequence of not accepting Moscow’s demands. But unlike other leaders who threw out the Soviet Union, Mao did not then become subordinate to the USA. Which explains why he gets condemned, while pro-Western capitulators get praised far above their achievements for their own people.

In the 1970s, the USA was scared of the Soviet Union and keen to make friends with China on China’s own terms. China at the time was viewed as a third Superpower, which was exaggerated but based on solid fast-growing power. No IMF ‘financial soundness’ for them: China was able to do as the West had done during its own rise, rather than following policies that ‘mysteriously’ left poor countries poorer and dependant on the West. Deng raised the rate of growth well above anything Mao had managed, but Deng did it with Western help and cooperation. It gets called ‘capitalist’, but ‘market freedoms’ have so far been ignored and most of the big companies are state-owned. Peasants run their own farms, but there is no clear private property in farmland. Non-state companies are generally cooperatives owned by a whole village, with village bosses sometimes flaunting their wealth, but dependent on the goodwill of their neighbours.

The rulers of the West are worried by a strong and self-confident China. They would prefer that China be ashamed of itself and obsequious to Western values. There were some signs of this in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, but the protestors were a very mixed bag and some were nostalgic for Mao. In the 1990s, the shrinking economies of Eastern Europe in the 1990s also persuaded many protestors that they had been seriously wrong—Eastern Europe is being reorganised as West Europe’s backyard, but Russia was declining steadily until Putin took over.

With most Chinese still failing to realise that they should be ashamed of themselves, we have this year seen amazing praise in the British media for a thoroughly silly book: Mao, The Unknown Story by Jung Chang & Jon Halliday. Chang told an interesting gossipy tale in Wild Swans; but was gullible and unrealistic when not talking about family matters. Jon Halliday is one of many former New Leftists who have ‘flipped’ since the Soviet Union collapsed. His previous books include Korea, the unknown war, which is just as silly as his Mao book, though he was then in possession of a different Eternal Truth. This Halliday (brother of Fred) ignored the standard story that Kim Il-sung was a Captain in the Soviet Army who was simply slotted into place by Stalin when the USSR was given control of North Korea. He didn’t give reasons why it shouldn’t be believed; he just ignored facts that didn’t fit. Whether praising Kim or damning Mao, he doesn’t let his beautiful theories suffer damage from unwelcome little facts.

Chang & Halliday’s biography of Mao has the lease accurate summary of Chinese history the I’ve ever encountered. The May 4th movement, as critical in Chinese culture as 1916 was for Ireland, gets half a sentence and is not in the index. They summarises Yuan Shikai’s career without mentioning his attempt to make himself Emperor—rather as if one were to summarise Hitler’s career by saying “he was President of Germany from 1934-45”. They ignore Yuan Shikai’s role in the coup against a reforming Emperor in 1898, and his servile willingness to submit to Japan’s ‘Twenty-One Demands’, the start of the Japanese campaign to conquer China. They also show a bizarre fondness for the warlord regimes that succeeded Yuan Shikai’s failed leadership, the warlords whom Chiang Kai-shek compromised with when he broke the Kuomintang-Communist alliance. Jung Chang is the granddaughter of one such warlord, a tale told in interesting detail in Wild Swans.

Sun Yat-sen had decided in 1922 that Moscow was a better ally than the West, which preferred corrupt warlords. He accepted the Communists as allies in this process. Tragically, he died in 1925, leaving the leadership uncertain. Chang & Halliday make the bizarre claim that Wang Ching-wei then became leader: most historians count it as uncertain for a couple of years, but with Chiang Kai-shek best-placed as leader of the army. Chiang had gone from military leadership to gangsterism and then back again:

“After these excursions into public life, Chiang lapsed into obscurity. For two years (1916–17) he lived in Shanghai, where he apparently belonged to the Green Gang (Ch’ing-pang), a secret society involved in financial manipulations. In 1918 he reentered public life by joining Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang.” (Britannica, 2002 DVD edition).

This ‘Green Gang’ was a Triad, a type of gangsterism that had originated in resistance to the conquering Manchu dynasty in the 17th century. Gangsters can occasionally become patriots or revolutionaries; Chinese Communism included many of them, but always subordinate to leaders of a more serious and idealistic origin. The Green Gang with Chiang Kai-shek as its front-man followed a more typical path, bullying the weak and cringing before anyone strong and ruthless.

Sun Yat-sen’s National Revolution was turned into a gigantic criminal racket, with Chinese Communism targeted while Japan was allowed to seize chunks of North China. A national leader threatened by a stronger foe can choose to go down heroically, or else can submit and spare their people the inevitable suffering of a resistance war. Those were the choices of the Poles and the Czechs faced with Hitler, and there are many other cases, resistance against hopeless odds or else submission to save lives. But Chiang Kai-shek did not act like a national leader; he acted like a racketeer who tries to hang on to what he’s got. During World War Two he sat in the remote west of China in the belief that the USA would restore him to power if they won. US observers like Edgar Snow and ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell were contemptuous of Chiang and noted that the Chinese Communists were at least willing to fight. These were men who knew China well and spoke the language; they saw the hollowness of Chiang’s rule.

This is not, of course, the picture you get from Chang & Halliday. Their ‘biography’ is a jackdaw collection of anti-Mao stories, none of them analysed. They fail to mention any anti-Mao story that they don’t believe, nor do they mention any contradiction in the evidence, or any lack of reliability by those who say what they want to hear. Eye-witness reports are interesting, but you will always find liars or fantasists. Some of them even come to believe their own stories, but a sensible researcher remains skeptical.

Some reviewers have been overawed by Chang & Halliday’s 100 pages of biography. Quantity does not make up for lack of quality. They have a lot to say about Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, but list just the revised edition of the 1970s, without bothering to check the unrevised original.

Chang & Halliday generally shut you off from their sources, which are seldom quoted directly. References are haphazard and you have to guess who is the source for what. You’d also have to trust them to have ‘processed’ the source in a fair and accurate manner. Some of it would be interesting, if true. But seeing what they’ve done to sources I have readily to hand, my trust is zero and every single source would need re-checking. It is part of the general pattern of Post-Truthful History, people who fit available facts into their belief-system and ignore the rest.

Anglo culture had a ‘moment of truth’ in the 1960s and 1970s, realising its actual historic role and the value of other cultures. But the genuine democratisation of the 1960s and 1970s brought up brasher, more self-confident people into positions of authority, and there has been a partial reversal of the earlier understanding and guilt that was typical of the tail-end of the old ruling class.

Anglo culture could have said “we successfully assimilated the best elements of rival systems”, which was said sometimes at the time, but not often enough. The Post-Truthful view ignores the actual process of learning, change and compromise in response to rival systems. It finds that Anglo traditions were always virtuous and the alternatives bad and foolish. Rather than feeling ashamed at having made Russia and Eastern Europe poorer in the 1990s, they are baffled that China does not want the same ‘help’. And China’s past has become a battleground for more that just historians.

Red Star Over China tells of the heroic crossing of the Luding Bridge by the Red Army, escaping from the south on a path that would lead eventually to glory in the anti-Japanese war. Chang & Halliday say

“This bridge is the centre of the Long March myth created by Mao, who fed it to the journalist Edgar Snow in 1936… There was no battle at the Dadu Bridge… the Red Army crossed the bridge without incurring a single death. The vanguard consisted of twenty-two men, who, according to the myth, stormed the bridge in a suicide attack. But at a celebration immediately afterwards, on 2 June, all twenty-two were not only alive and well, they each received a Lenin suit, a fountain pen, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks, Not one was even wounded.” (Mao, the unknown story. Pages 159-160).

Red Star Over China says that 30 men attempted the crossing, with at least three killed crossing the bare chains. This followed the successful seizure of three ferry-boats, meaning that there were Red Army troops on both sides. The crossing is not called a battle, though the bridge had to be secured for the main army to survive.

There was fighting for both the bridge and the adjacent city of Luding. Exact numbers and casualties vary between accounts, though all agree that the enemy mostly ran away. You always get disagreements in later recollections of the heat of battle—no-one can agree how many times the French cavalry charged at Waterloo, for instance.

At Dadu bridge, something heroic must have been done, else why all of the awards? Snow says: “For their distinguished bravery the heroes of An Jen Ch’ang [the seized ferry boat] and Liu Ting Chiao [the bridge] were awarded the Gold Star, the highest decoration in the Red Army of China.” This should be checkable, and of course Chang & Halliday ignore it. 22 attackers or 22 survivors? It needs a proper historian to sort it out. Chang & Halliday do not reproduce the key documents, which is the habit of historians who have really discovered something dramatic.

Chang & Halliday make much of the failure by Peng Dehuai to support the standard story, when asked about it in 1946. But Edgar Snow talked a lot to Peng during his time in Red China in the 1930s; Peng gets two whole chapters, more than any leader apart from Mao. Snow associates Peng with the river-crossing story: “‘Victory was life’ said P’eng Teh-huai [Peng Dehuai]; ‘defeat was certain death.” This is from the 1971 edition of Red Star Over China, when Peng was is disgrace and Snow was unable to get to see him. The original edition has the same remark without mentioning Peng, but he is listed among the leaders who met to discuss the crossing earlier on.

Dick Wilson’s The Long March also mentions the 1946 interview with Peng, but in a very different light. Peng was describing a battle in one of the encirclement campaigns, then suddenly realised he had confused it with another battle several hundred miles away. (Page xvii, Penguin edition). Wilson later gives a detailed attack of the crossing of the Dadu, mentioning an attacking force of 22 men followed by others on both banks of the river, with casualties of maybe 17, maybe 50. Eye-witnesses got confused even about the trivial matter of how many chains the bridge consisted of: Wilson explains how Edgar Snow says 16, other sources range from 9 to 20, and the correct figure is 13.

Wilson is missing from Chang & Halliday’s 100-page bibliography, as is the English-language version of Yang Cheng-wu’s Lightning Attack on Luting Bridge, the main account in English besides Snow’s, giving details of the entire skirmish and with specific named individuals . The bibliography of Chinese-language sources appears to list this work, but Chang & Halliday make no attempt to assess the account of a man who said he saw it all happens and names specific individuals, along with their roles in the assault. If they believe Yang to have been a bare-faced liar, then they should say so. But they act like magpies, collecting anything to throw at Mao and showing no interest in a coherent account.

Chang & Halliday claim that there was a walk-over at the Dadu Bridge, with a battle invented for Edgar Snow’s benefit and widely publicised in Red Star Over China. At which point the Kuomintang might have been expected to say ‘no, that never happened’. Although they speak of ‘Nationalist troops’, these were actually warlord forces and could have been sensibly accused of cowardice or treachery by Chiang’s government. Some Red Army’s successes were undoubtedly helped by warlord inefficiency and corruption, but no one else has seen the Dadu Bridge in this light.

The denial of the Dadu Bridge crossing—hailed as a brilliant discovery by British reviewers—goes along with a wider claim that Chiang was not in fact trying to wipe out the forces led by Mao and the other main Communist leaders.

“There can be no doubt that Chiang let the CCP leadership and the main forces of the Red Army escape… Letting the Reds go was also a goodwill gesture on Chiang’s part towards Russia. He needed a harmonious relationship with the Kremlin because he was under threat from Japan. And the CCP was Moscow’s baby.” (Pages 137-138).

There were several separate Red Armies in China: Mao’s was not always the largest, but it did contain the national leadership, who had accepted Mao as supreme leader when he saved them from a military disaster that they had been responsible for. Moscow never did have much liking for Mao: had they been in control of events, it would have been logical to ensure that Mao’s faction was destroyed, or at least discredited. Had Chiang and Moscow been in collusion, there would have been no reason to drive the pro-Moscow leadership out of Shanghai, which is what happened and which ensured that they displaced Mao and lost the Liberated Area that Mao had helped create. Moscow would also have had no wish to see Mao go north and displace other Chinese Communist leaders who were more obedient to Soviet wishes.

There is a lot more I could say about Chang & Halliday, but this article is getting too long already. I need to say something about the interesting parallels between brave but unsuccessful anti-Fascism in Spain, contrasted with even braver and highly successful anti-Fascism in China. Policies Mao tried after 1949 resemble the policies attempted by Anarchists and Anarcho-Communists in Spain. The Spanish Communists are denounced for stopping the things that Mao is denounced for permitting and encouraging: that’s what modern ‘Post-Truthful’ history is all about. But the topic needs a much longer treatment, another issue of Problems.

For now, I will round off by discussing the so-called Great Leap Famine of 1959-61. Chang & Halliday claim 38 million famine deaths, to which they add 32 more unspecified deaths to make up their much-publicised 70 million. Yet at the time, observers agreed that there was no famine in China, though there was certainly hunger. They also agreed that the weather was abnormally bad.

“The increasing preoccupation with the weather, which began when vast areas in north and northeast China suffered a lack of snowfall and spring rain, grew steadily with the constant threat of floods throughout the southern provinces and a persistent plague of locusts in the region along the yellow river… The deluge in June (which brought 30 in. of rain to Hong Kong in five days) moved northward, flooding the countryside as it moved, so that the greater part of the country south of the Yangtze was seriously affected.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the year 1960).

This can now be recognised as the backwash of the El Nino event of 1957-58, the first to hit China since the 1920s. This happened while Chinese agriculture was being massively re-organised—a process that in the longer term succeeded. But after several years of genuine success, local officials started lying when the weather turned against them. Mao let himself be misled; and when Peng Dehuai complained to him on the matter, Mao took this as part of an overall challenge that also aimed at professionalizing the army and remaining subservient to Moscow. Mao wasn’t alone in this suspicion: there was general agreement that Lin Biao should replaced Peng as Defence Minister, even while Mao transferred some of his powers to Liu Shao-chi.

Official Chinese figures show the death-rate rising to 25.5 per thousand in 1961, having been brought down as low as 10 or 11 per thousand in the first years of Communist rule. This compares with a norm of 21 per thousand under Chiang Kai-shek, and a norm of 24.6 in the Republic of India for the same period. At the start of the 20th century, India had had a death-rate as high as 48 per thousand ([]).

Chang & Halliday claim 38 million excess deaths, but on a very vague basis, comparing a norm of 10.8 per thousand to an alleged high of 43.4 per thousand. They seem to be taking their norm from the official figures but their high from alternative ‘reconstructed’ figures. The whole calculation lurks in a footnote to pages 456-457, with no indication of the complexities and no details of sources.

If one accepted their rather odd figures but took 20 per thousand as a normal death-rate for a poor country, then there were 7 million less deaths in 1957-62 than the Third-world norm.

An assessment of famine and disaster should anyway look at deaths per thousand, allowing a sensible comparison between big and small countries. The alleged 38 million deaths in a population of 650 million would be 59 per thousand, a middling sort of disaster. The Encarta reckons that the Irish Potato Famine killed 1 million out of 8 million, 125 per thousand, with as many again forced to emigrate. Among German military personnel, the Encarta’s figures indicate a shocking 163 per thousand for the Great War, but an even more shocking 180 per 1000 among the ethnic Germans called up for Hitler’s war. Genocide by mostly-Anglo settlers against inconvenient natives reduced them by several hundreds per thousand. Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe typically suffered death-rates as high as 800 or 900 per 1000. Some communities have no known survivors—this is true of both Jews in Europe and native peoples in areas of European settlement, and I refuse to put the two human groups in separate categories.

This appeared in Labour & Trade Union Review, some time in 2005


  1. That’s an odd characterization, the “even braver and highly successful anti-Fascism in China.” What fascists were the communists fighting? As for success — as you note, China “gets called ‘capitalist’, but ‘market freedoms’ have so far been ignored and most of the big companies are state-owned.” It’s a one-party, increasingly nationalistic, quasi-socialistic police state that allows market freedom, but only to the extent that it serves the party’s objectives. Sounds pretty fascistic to me.


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