Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Mao: The Unknown Story

Recently I’ve been trying to branch out on the books I read. Normally I read a lot of programming books; and that’s great, but there have been quite a few books I’ve been meaning to read that aren’t in that area. Case in point is today’s book: Mao: The Unknown Story. I’ve heard a lot about Mao and learned about him growing up in school, but never really knew him well enough to talk about him. And the same goes for communism in general: I know and get the basic ideas but don’t really know the leaders or the history. So I picked up this book and expected to find the magic answer to my question of “why communism?”, but instead found something very different.

The book essentially relates Mao to a villain on a Saturday morning cartoon show, who is concerned only with how to acquire more power and will do whatever it takes to get it. Many dubious actions undertaken by people in the book are shown to be influenced by Mao with a very clear result: it will make Mao more powerful (usually in the short-term). Mao takes out people that oppose him one-by-one, in a very methodical and calculated manner. No tactic appears to be below him, in true Saturday morning villainy, as he appears to be a very one dimensional character who is only concerned with more power for the sake of more power. He clearly isn’t concerned with the “average worker” or communist ideology except when it can be used to his own gain. This turns Mao into a very lame supervillain and is a bit of a let down from being brought up on much more interesting supervillains in comic-book-land.

So right off the bat something is amiss: why would Mao be interested in power just for the sake of power? It is a question that is bound to come up and as such, the authors tackle Mao’s motivation at the beginning of the book. They claim that throughout his life, Mao becomes accustomed to a very certain, relaxed lifestyle and has a very unique theory on “great people” in history: that history selects certain people to do notable things and that as such, these people should be exempt from the rules imposed on them in society. Therefore, since Mao considers himself to be a “great person”, anything he does is acceptable and he should be free to have his perfect life at the expense of anything else (since anything else is worth substantially less according to this world view).

It is important to note that this is not unsubstantiated, or simply made up. The authors have come to their findings over a decade of research, and all of their work that differs from established views on the topics involved are backed up by firsthand accounts of people who were at the places involved or documented evidence. For example, all the “motivation for Mao” stuff I just talked about is all taken from Mao’s own words on a set of commentaries he wrote in his twenties (if you’ve purchased the book this is all on page 13).

This distinct world view gives the book a unique feel. It gives a very credible explanation of why Mao did what he did and at the same time, ensures the reader does not forget the brutality involved. To do so, Mao is not treated as a supervillain but really more as a thug, coldly calculating his next moves and brutally taking out any enemies in his path. He is the epitome of the phrase “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”, as throughout the book he leads on a facade of friendship to Stalin, his greatest ally, and ensures that anyone who could possibly deliver bad news to Stalin about Mao is constantly watched and eventually badmouthed and executed. This illustrates an important point, namely that the influence the Soviet Union has over China becoming Communist is much more than it appears to be given credit for. It seems like China was far from becoming Communist asides from the Soviet Union being at the right time (after upheavals of the old order in China) and the right place (being China’s neighbor to the north). Furthermore, China only appears to go Red simply because the Soviet Union bankrolls the Chinese Communist Party and feeds them everything they need in order to have a Communist ally going forward.

Once Mao becomes the de-facto leader of the Chinese Communist Party, things take a turn for the worse and he creates a society that very closely resembles George Orwell’s 1984. This is even more amazing because he doesn’t even control China at this point, but only a few provinces. Curfews are imposed, almost everyone who comes into one of these provinces is banned from leaving, and so on. Yet the most striking similarity comes from Mao’s “thought expressions”. Everyone in the province of Yenan is forced to write their thoughts down in a diary and turn them over to the police as needed. Anyone who is suspected of harboring sympathies to the opposing party (the Nationalists) or is dissatisfied with Mao can then be quickly found and arrested. This causes a flurry of panic in Yenan and since people clearly can’t write what they truly think or feel (out of fear of execution) they have no place where they can express themselves. This causes the people to become incredibly malleable and Mao is easily able to exert his will over them as needed. Although this makes it easy for Mao to control the people, his rule is not absolute: they still fear him and Mao’s enemies flow at a steady rate (and are killed off at a similar rate). At the end of this scare Mao is promoted from the de facto leader of the CCP to the de jure leader (that is, he officially becomes the leader instead of being recognized as it without the title). He now is able to affect change as he sees fit without fear of reprisal from his bosses in Moscow.

And this is only halfway through the book! As the name suggests the book starts exactly when Mao is born and goes straight until he dies and is an intriguing read. The last third or so of the book is all footnotes on the rest of the book: anytime an opinion or source is cited it all ends up here, and boy are there a lot of them. As the authors say, the book reflects a decade of research, and it is all laid out here.

So my original motivation for the book was to find out how communism works in practice, and this may have been the wrong country to look at. Its extremely clear that Mao doesn’t care about communism except as a tool to forward his own goals and desires. He rules through secrecy and ruthlessness, and is able to control the population extremely effectively (until near the end of his rule). It’s hard to convey the magnitude of the brutality he imposed on the people and it’s a vital read to learn how China became the way it is today. It’s not without its controversies (since it’s contrary to the official record on China) but backs up every claim it makes thoroughly. Check it out! It tells a story that needs to be told and needs to be known.