The real story
In the 1920s, the movement to free China from foreign domination, and from the vicious rule of warlords and Emperors, came to a head in the rapidly industrialising coastal fringe of the country. Foreign investment had spurred the growth of the market there, and with it the emergence of a capitalist class and a vast working class. These two forces were both represented in the nationalist movement to free the country, though it was an alliance that was straining at the seams. The merchants, led by soldier and sometime commodity dealer Chiang Kai-shek, were aghast at the strike wave that the left had launched in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The story is told best in Harold Isaacs’ Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, and was the inspiration for Andre Malraux’s novel The Human Condition. Most recently it has been told from the point of view of an English officer of the Shanghai Military Police in Robert Bicker’s Empire Made Me (2). The left, led by Ch’en Tu-hsiu and calling themselves Communists in identification with the Bolshevik revolution, were reluctantly following Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s advice to stick with the nationalists. Ever cynical, Stalin did not believe that socialism was possible in China, but hoped to influence Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang responded by slaughtering the Chinese Communists in their thousands to take control of the nationalist movement, the Kuomintang.
Mao rose to prominence in the Chinese Communist Party as someone who would cover up the disaster of the 1920s. He helped to reorient the scattered militants of the CCP from a workers’ revolution to one based on the ancient grudges of the Chinese peasantry: ‘it was the class struggle of the peasant uprisings and the peasant wars that constituted the real motive force of historical development in China’, he wrote in 1939 (3). It was a policy that seemed destined to failure. The peasants had only ever produced violent jacqueries, which usually ended in disaster, most recently in the Boxer rebellion of 1900. But it had the advantage that it covered Stalin’s blushes over 1927, and for that reason he helped promote Mao above Ch’en Tu-hsiu.
In the end, Mao’s peasant-based Red Army did win out over the nationalists, in the context of the struggle against Japan’s invasion. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday struggle to explain Mao’s victory in their Unknown Story, because their hostility to their subject forbids any credit whatsoever. In this telling the Red Army’s victories over his Kuomintang rivals are explained away as increasingly bizarre conspiracies. In the decisive campaigns, they allege, the Kuomintang troops were led by CCP spies infiltrated into the leadership 22 years earlier, when they were all on the same side, and these generals deliberately led their men to disaster after disaster (4). Worse still, the Western diplomats advising Britain and America that the Kuomintang were corrupt and brutal, Archibald Clark Kerr and Lauchlin Currie, were Soviet agents (5).
It does not fill you with confidence in Chang and Halliday’s research to discover that outside of far-right websites, nobody believes that either Baron Inverchapel or the New Dealer Currie were Soviet agents, not even the authorities that they cite (6). Chang and Halliday also misunderstand the defections back and forth between the Kuomintang and the CCP. These were less examples of espionage, as the fluidity of the situation, when many Chinese top brass were just not sure who would come out on top, and hedged their bets.
What is more, there is no need to descend into conspiracy theory to explain Mao’s victory. Chang and Halliday’s instinct that Mao’s political appeal or military know-how are not sufficient explanation is justified. The reason that Mao won was because of the collapse of all the other alternatives: the last Chinese Emperor, Pu Yi had abdicated; the British Empire had retreated before the Japanese advance on Hong Kong and Singapore; the Kuomintang had failed to defend Manchuria against invasion; and finally the Japanese in turn had been driven back by US troops. Once they stopped retreating into the marshland (the Long March properly demystified by Chang and Halliday), the Communists succeeded in filling the power vacuum. Mao ‘had not overthrown the government’, said US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950, because ‘there was nothing to overthrow’ (7).
On a socio-economic level, the export of capital to the less developed world in the 1920s, having failed to resolve the stagnation of the developed economies, was thrown into reverse. The massive destruction of industry and capital in the war led to a retraction of investments back into Japan to partake in the postwar reconstruction, leaving mainland China starved of new funds. Chiang Kai-shek’s attempt to build a national movement on the basis of the Chinese merchant class failed because it was eating up its own dwindling support in extortionate taxation (8). Of the two nationalist movements, the one that was based on the capitalists was bound to fail because capital was being withdrawn from the mainland.
Chang and Halliday seek to challenge the accepted view that ‘the CCP were more patriotic and keener to fight Japan than the nationalists’, which they say is an example of ‘history rewritten’ and ‘completely untrue’ (9). They support this assertion with a nit-picking analysis of the difference between the CCP slogans ‘“Down with the Nationalists”, but merely “oppose Japanese Imperialism”’. But before considering the facts of the case, it is worth asking who it was that so deceived us. ‘Chiang Kai-shek had adopted a policy of non-resistance in the face of the Japanese seizure of Manchuria and increasing encroachments on China proper’, according to one account, ‘and had concentrated instead on trying to annihilate the Communists’. Who is the author? Jung Chang, in Wild Swans, the best-ever-selling family memoir (10). To support this earlier claim, Chang quotes Chiang Kai-shek’s maxim, ‘the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart’.
A new interpretation
Indeed Mao: The Unknown Story flatly contradicts Wild Swans throughout. One revelation in Unknown Story is that Mao engineered Chiang Kai-shek’s abduction by his junior Chang Hsuieh-lang in 1936. But in Wild Swans Chiang was ‘partly saved by the Communists’ (11). Perhaps Unknown Story is intended to correct the ‘completely untrue’ claims made in Wild Swans, and put the 10million readers of this best-ever-selling non-fiction paperback right. But there are no indications that Jung Chang is correcting her earlier assertions in the text or footnotes. And look, here, on the back page cover of Unknown Story, not corrections of, but ‘praise for Wild Swans’.
It is not just the earlier Wild Swans that contradicts the argument in Unknown Story that the nationalists took on the Japanese occupiers, or the many other sources (12), but the facts presented in Unknown Story itself. Just 20 pages on, Chang and Halliday tell us that Chiang Kai-shek ‘mobilised half a million troops’. To fight the Japanese? No. ‘He had agreed a truce with the Japanese, acquiescing to their seizure of parts of north China, in addition to Manchuria, and this freed him to concentrate his strength on fighting the reds’, they write approvingly (all the time condemning Mao for fighting Chiang, not the Japanese) (13). When evidence of Communist opposition to Japan is unavoidable, Chang and Halliday insist that it was an exception, as in the July 1940 campaign against supply lines in northern China to relieve besieged Chongqing, which cost the Eighth Route Army 90,000 men (14). When Chiang Kai-shek slaughters the Communist New Fourth Army in 1941, Chang and Halliday want it both ways: minimising the atrocity, but also blaming Mao for betraying his rival commander Xiang Ying.
It is not the facts that are new, so much as the interpretation that Chang and Halliday put on them. Even the interpretation is not that new, repeating much of the argument put by the US right, the Taiwanese government created by the Kuomintang’s retreat to that island, and more latterly by the increasing number of mainland Chinese critics of Mao.
Chang and Halliday argue that Chiang Kai-shek let the Red Army retreat north because Stalin was holding his son hostage in Russia. Not wholly unknown: Chiang Ching-kuo, who later went on to become president of Taiwan, gave this explanation of his articles condemning his father in the Moscow Press back in 1937 (15). Chang and Halliday shore up their argument by asserting that Chiang Kai-shek’s information minister Shao Li-tzu, who had accompanied Ching-kuo to Moscow, was a Communist agent, and that Li-tzu’s son had been killed by the Kuomintang in revenge in 1931. Which is a great tale, except that Shao Li-tzu kept his post as the information minister right up until 1949, in ‘an almost unbelievably complex web of intrigue, deceit, bluff and double bluff’ (16). Or maybe it is just plain unbelievable.
Of course it is more than possible that Stalin detained Chiang Ching-kuo in Moscow as leverage, but that does not mean that he did not initially go willingly in 1925 - many Kuomintang were trained in Moscow. More importantly, Chiang Kai-shek does not seem to have worried about the danger to his son enough to stop killing off thousands of CCP members in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1927, so why would he have been so moved to spare Mao? A simpler explanation is that Chiang Kai-shek welcomed the Communists’ long retreat from the coastal cities, and Chang and Halliday describe well the way that the Kuomintang boxed the Red Army in.
Pursuing the Communist ‘sleeper’ explanation of Kuomintang strategy, Chang and Halliday allege that Russian mole general Zhang Zhi-zhong single-handedly started the war with Japan, in August 1937. ‘This was probably one of Stalin’s greatest coups’, they write, noting that the eight-year war cost 20million lives and shifted the ratio of Chiang’s army to Mao’s from 60:1 at the start to 3:1 at the end (17). The implication is that the Communists (through their agents) provoked the war with Japan to advance their cause. A more conventional explanation of the conflict is the division of China between the major powers at the Washington conference in 1921, and that ‘Japan lacks many of the raw materials needed for industrial manufacturing’, driving it to establish ‘a colonial penumbra’ before 1945. At least that was the explanation that Jon Halliday preferred in 1973, when he gave it in the book Japanese Imperialism Today (18). But 30 years later the overriding need to excoriate Stalin and Mao means blaming them for their enemies’ sins. Japan’s atrocities against China are supposed to be down to Communist provocation not imperialist domination. Even the infamous Japanese massacre of 300,000 Chinese at Nanjing is minimised by a comparison with starvation during the Communist siege of Changchun in 1948 (19).
Similarly the 1950 Korean War between the North’s Kim Il Sung, backed by China, and the USA, is explained wholly in terms of Mao’s attempts to secure Soviet military aid. No doubt those were among Mao’s motives, but Chang and Halliday ignore the motives of the other players, South Korea’s Syngman Rhee and US President Truman. In fact, South Korean forces had tried to invade North Korea in June 1949, a year before Chang and Halliday have North Korea invading the South (20). Whatever Mao’s motives, Truman needed a war to promote his containment policy. As US General Van Fleet said in 1952: ‘There had to be a Korea either here, or some place in the world.’ (21)
In Chang and Halliday’s telling, Mao’s determination to string out the war led America to bomb, in US Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s words ‘until there was nothing left to bomb’. No doubt Mao’s cynical recklessness exacerbated the conflict, but in the end it was America, not China that destroyed Korea. As impressive as Unknown Story‘s bibliography is, one glaring omission is Halliday’s own book Korea: The Unknown War, or any of the many books by its coauthor Bruce Cumings that have detailed American and South Korean provocations and atrocities against the North (22).
In Hong Kong, too, the Unknown Story argues that while the British colonial authorities might have ‘killed some demonstrators’ in 1967, the real danger was attacks on police by mainland Chinese soldiers (23). A much better account of the conflict between the people of Hong Kong and the British authorities can be found in Halliday’s 1974 essay ‘Hong Kong: Britain’s Chinese Colony’, where the 1967 events are ‘anti-colonial riots’ against an administration where there ‘is no democracy’. Thankfully the younger Halliday’s call for an end to ‘over a century of British aggression against China and the cessation of the horrendous and continuing exploitation of four million Chinese in Hong Kong’ prevailed over the older Halliday’s version of Britain as a victim of Chinese aggression (24). But sadly Chang and Halliday’s demonisation of Mao leads them to emphasise the conflict between Britain and mainland China over a more interesting investigation of the collaboration between them on Hong Kong’s special status as offshore trading post (25).
Despite its retrieval of Cold War positions, Mao: The Unknown Story is especially interesting on Mao’s various attempts to create an ‘Asian Cominform’, and to influence the development of the emerging Third Worldist movement, and how these were eventually stymied by the Soviet Union. Halliday’s original research in Moscow’s archives adds a lot. Compellingly, Chang and Halliday relate China’s failure to internationalise Maoism to the moves towards rapprochement between China and America in the 1970s. Though here they portray Nixon and Kissinger as patsies who give away too much, forgetting that the major reason for the opening to China was to undermine the USSR. However, the most interesting material in Unknown Story is China’s own internal development under Mao.
The ghoulish details of Mao’s rule ought to disabuse the most unreconstructed Maoist: that he travelled the Long March carried by servants on a bier, that President Liu Shao-chi’s six-year-old daughter was brought to watch her parents being beaten, that the party outlawed irony in the Spring of 1942, and launched a campaign to outproduce US steel with domestic furnaces (26). (My own favourite is the story of the comrade who arrives late at a meeting to hear a compelling denunciation of the errors of leader Li Li-san, only to be told when asking the speaker his name, ‘I am Li Li-san’.)
No doubt Mao’s personal depravity was a decisive factor, but it blossomed in the peculiar conditions of China’s liberation through the withdrawal of all developmental possibilities, whether capitalist or socialist. Mao made a political state that corresponded to the deformation of Chinese society and industry. It was in that context that Mao attempted to substitute political will for economic development, launching his ‘Great Leap Forward’ between 1958 and 1961. This attempt to industrialise through coercion alone only succeeded in plunging the country into starvation (27).
Chang and Halliday are particularly informative on the political in-fighting that followed, and specifically Mao’s determination to overthrow the party machine that forced him to back down on the Great Leap Forward, and even demanded humiliating ‘self-criticisms’ at the February 1962 Conference. ‘A few years later’, Chang and Halliday tell us, Mao ‘launched his Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution, in which [President] Liu and most of the officials in that hall…were to be put through hell’ (28).
It is the atrocity stories from the Cultural Revolution that began in 1965 that have excited reviewers. It is at this point, though, that Mao: The Unknown Story ought to have a health warning. Jung Chang was one of the Red Guards, the shock troops of Mao’s great purge. ‘I was not forced to join the Red Guards’, she wrote in Wild Swans, ‘I was keen to do so’: ‘I was thrilled by my red armband’ (29). This is of course a political affiliation that she shared with her husband-to-be, Jon Halliday, who in 1973 was lauding Mao’s political thought (30).
In fact, not just a Red Guard, Jung Chang was the privileged daughter of China’s Communist elite. It is a peculiarity of the reception of Wild Swans that it was told and read as a story of great personal suffering, when its author grew up with a wet-nurse, nanny, maid, gardener and chauffeur provided by the party, protected in a walled compound, educated in a special school for officials’ children (31). As a Grade 10 official (32), her father was among the 20,000 most senior people in a country of 1.25billion, and ‘it was in this period that “high officials” children became almost a stratum of their own’ (33). Still, the enthusiastic Western audience of Wild Swans found something to identify in Jung Chang’s perennial fear of being reduced to the level of the rest of the population, shuddering with her at the prospect that ‘Mao intended me to live the rest of my life as a peasant’ (34).
Chang’s description of the Red Guard ideology is disturbingly familiar since many of its themes, though watered down, were carried over into the radical left in the West: a philistine rejection of past culture and literature, dismissal of higher learning, exams and attacks on teachers, ‘the idea that everything personal was political’ (35), and disengagement from the global economy into ‘self-reliance’. At the risk of trivialising the Chinese experience, one can see what the deconstructionists of the École Normale Supérieure got out of their early flirtation with Maoism.
As Chung explains, the first Red Guards were themselves the sons and daughters of the high officials (equivalent to the Soviet nomenklatura). This gave rise to the ‘theory of the bloodline’, summed up in the saying ‘the son of a hero father is a great man; a reactionary father produces nothing but a bastard’. And Chang admits ‘I was according to the “theory of the bloodlines”, born bright red, because my father was a high official’ (36). ‘Armed with this theory, some high officials’ children tyrannised and even tortured children from “undesirable backgrounds”’, she says, though she only admits to withdrawing from the company of her less senior classmates and colleagues (37).
Chang is careful to reject the theory of the bloodline (‘ridiculous as it was brutal’), but it is hard to avoid that it is the unconscious theme of the earlier book Wild Swans, an account of three generations of women rising above the political din of civil war and revolution. One theme that Chang returns to again and again is the betrayal of the parents by the children, which she says was the point of the Red Guard - to use the younger generation to overthrow the party establishment. What she does not say is whether she personally denounced her father, though he was purged, and suggestively she does record his forgiving her - ‘it is good that you young people should rebel against us the older generation’ - as if to salve her conscience (38).
Chang accounts for her own disillusionment with the Red Guards on the grounds that they were being turned against the old guard (39). But a keener motive is that the original predominance of the children of the elite was being diluted as the movement attracted more plebeian supporters: ‘The original Red Guard groups, most of them made up of teenagers, now fell apart, as they had been organised around the children of those same high officials who now became targets.’ (40) Chang’s personal realisation that the Cultural Revolution did not advance her position in the hierarchy but threatened it mirrors the broader elite’s fears that they had unleashed forces that were wrecking public order. Under the slogan ‘arm the left’, competing Red Guard groups were descending into civil war (41).
Falling out of love with Mao
Just as they had fallen in love with Mao in the 1960s, Chang and Halliday fell out of love with him in the 1980s. Where once he had been the great leader, now he was the evil despot. The limitations of this personalisation of the regime’s failings is that it restricts the criticisms to Mao alone, where in truth the elite as a whole were culpable - including Jung Chang and her parents. Chinese-American academic Wenying Xu, who lived through the Cultural Revolution, characterises a kind of autobiography whose authors ‘strive to portray their own moral superiority to those Chinese who betrayed, persecuted, or brutalised others for their own political security or advancement’, and ‘Such is the tone in Jung Chang’s Wild Swans’. These are ‘unsatisfactory because of their high moral tone, which exonerates them from any responsibility for the horrors’ (42).
One factor driving the scholarship is that there are clearly many more critical accounts of the Mao era being published in the People’s Republic of China. Veteran Communist and former secretary to Mao, Li Rui, chose the publication of Mao: The Unknown Story to demand the country face up to its past (43). Now that Mao is dead and buried, it is relatively easy to project all of the country’s failings on to one individual. For Jung Chang that means excusing her own role as Red Guard, and retrospectively exonerating her father (despite his own admissions of supporting torture and issuing execution orders (44)). Seeing how convenient it is to restrict the blame for China’s crippled development to Mao you have to remind yourself that Jung Chang played in ‘Auntie Deng’s’ apartment as a child - that is to say the apartment of the stepmother of Deng Xiaoping, architect of the market reforms after Mao’s death (45). It might not be officially sanctioned, but Mao: The Unknown Story is parallel to the historical revision that the Chinese leadership is undertaking as part of its opening to capitalism.
The attraction of the book in the West is that it seems to confirm the prejudice that radical change must end in disaster. This is especially pressing for one-time radicals who have now made their peace with the system. In his Guardian column, Simon Hoggart admitted: ‘I still flush with embarrassment when I think that as a student I thought Mao was a good thing’, before turning on Tony Benn for thinking the same, when the evidence of Mao’s depravity is there in Chang and Halliday’s book (46). As well as provoking an embarrassment at youthful indiscretions, Mao: The Unknown Story satisfies a Western superiority complex that has been provoked by China’s recent economic take-off. Irritated at China’s much higher growth rates, Europeans and Americans enjoy reading horror stories that tell them this is a deficient society after all.
The single fact that every reviewer cites is Chang and Halliday’s estimate of 70million deaths attributable to Mao’s rule. Tellingly, the figure does not feature in the text but in a picture caption. The principle components are the 38million deaths due to the ‘Great Leap Forward’ famine, the estimated 27million deaths in camps, the three million killed in the Cultural Revolution (47). This is indeed a ghastly indictment of the attempt to enforce a disengagement from the world economy and economic development by political will - and its attendant repression - alone.
But if Mao was guilty of making a virtue of China’s isolation, he did not create it. That was a consequence of the postwar contraction of capitalist accumulation to its metropolitan centres, Western Europe, America and Japan. Chang and Halliday dismiss China’s liberation as the beginning of enslavement to Mao, but China free from foreign domination did develop within the constraints put upon it. Even with the 1957-61 famine and the Camps, life expectancy rose from 35 in 1949 to 63 in 1975 (71.3 in 2000) (48). Political independence, too, is the precondition for the indigenous development of Chinese industry today - and this great leap forward has real prospects.
James Heartfield‘s paper ‘China’s Comprador Capitalism is Coming Home’ is published in The Review of Radical Political Economy, Vol. 37, No 2, Spring 2005.
(1) La Chinoise, 1967
(2) Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, Robert Bickers
(3) East Asia, Arthur Cotterell, Pimlico, 2002, p221
(4) ‘Our investigations have convinced us that General Hu was a Red “sleeper”.’ Mao: The Untold Story, p312; ‘Moles continued to play a key role in the defeats Chiang suffered’, p318; ‘Unlike Wei, Fu was not a secret Communist. But he was surrounded by people who were…’, p319
(5) Mao: The Untold Story, p241, 242
(6) Radical Diplomat: The Life of Archibald Clark Kerr, Lord Inverchapel, Donald Gillies, 1998; ‘Guilt by association? Lauchlin Currie’s alleged involvement with Washington economists in Soviet Espionage’, Roger Sandliands, History of Political Economy, 32:3, 2000, p474-515
(7) Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson, 1969, p355
(8) The Shanghai Capitalists and the Nationalist Government 1927-1937, Parks M Coble, Jr, 1986
(9) Mao: The Untold Story, p104
(10) Wild Swans, 1991, p158
(11) Wild Swans, London, 1991, p158
(12) See, for example, From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew, 2000, p582
(13) Mao: The Untold Story, p125
(14) Mao: The Untold Story, p233
(15) They were published in English in 1989 by the US Global Strategy Council, in Ray Cline’s Chiang Ching-Kuo Remembered
(16) Mao: The Untold Story, p141
(17) Mao: The Untold Story, p210
(18) With Gavin McCormack, Penguin, p1, 17, 230
(19) Mao: The Untold Story, p325
(20) ‘US and South Korea accused of war atrocities’, Guardian, 18 January 2000
(21) UP, 19 January 1952
(22) Korea: The Unknown War, Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, 1988; The Origins of the Korean War, Bruce Cumings, 1981, 1990
(23) Mao: The Untold Story, p591
(24) New Left Review, vol 87-88, 1974, p101, 112
(25) Which gets a better treatment in Hong Kong: Britain’s Chinese Colony. See also ‘China’s Comprador Capitalism is Coming Home’, James Heartfield, Review of Radical Political Economy, vol 37, No 2, Spring 2005
(26) p144, 553, 256, 444
(27) Mao: The Untold Story, p444; see also The Chinese Communist Party in Power, P’eng Shu-tse, 1980
(28) Mao: The Untold Story, p498
(29) Wild Swans, p404
(30) In the otherwise sensible book Japanese Imperialism Today, pxvii
(31) See Wild Swans, chapter 13, ‘In a privileged Cocoon’
(32) Wild Swans, p255
(33) Wild Swans, p353
(34) Wild Swans, p503
(35) Wild Swans, p179
(36) Mao: The Untold Story, p538; Wild Swans, p390
(37) Wild Swans, p378
(38) Wild Swans, p433
(39) Wild Swans, p428
(40) Mao: The Untold Story, p543
(41) Wild Swans, p471
(42) ‘Agency via guilt in Anchee Min’s Red Azalea’, Melus, Fall/Winter 2000
(43) ‘China must face up to its dark past, says Mao confident’, Guardian, 2 June 2005
(44) Wild Swans, p 166, p 591
(45) Wild Swans, p 348
(46) Guardian, 11 June 2005
(47) Mao: The Untold Story, p338, p456
(48) Population Growth in China: The Basic Characteristics of China’s Demographic Transition (.pdf 200 KB), Maristella Bergaglio
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