Commanding The Gun
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday on Mao's mismanagement of China
By Ken Kwek
The daughter of two Communist Party officials, Jung Chang was born in Sichuan in 1952. Her father's status in the Party meant that she was raised in a household with servants and was educated along with the children of other highly-ranked cadres. At 14, she became a Red Guard, but this was short-lived as she could not bear the violent attacks on intellectuals. Her parents too started to see flaws in Mao Zedong's policies after the Great Leap Forward, although this criticism led to retaliation from Mao's supporters and public humiliation for her parents.
Chang's education suffered with the advent of the Cultural Revolution, and she spent those years working in turn as "barefoot doctor", steelworker and electrician. When the universities finally re-opened at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chang enrolled in Sichuan University to read English, and followed her degree with several years as a lecturer in the same institution. After Mao's death, Chang completed the examinations allowing her to leave China and study in the West, where eventually she became the first Chinese national to be awarded a doctorate from a British university a PhD in Linguistics from the University of York. She continued to work in academia, teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London until the mid 1990s when she left to pursue writing.
In 1991, Chang published her first book the autobiographical Wild Swans. In it, she recounts the experiences of her family, set within the traumatic history of revolutionary China. The book was translated into 30 languages and became an international hit, selling over 10 million copies worldwide. It is still banned in China, although two pirated translations are available.
Jung Chang's husband Jon Halliday is an academic who has written and edited several books on Russian history. He was formerly a senior research fellow at King's College, London.
Together, the husband-and-wife team has written Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). With 10 years of research into previously unavailable Russian archival material, coupled with extensive interviews across the world, this sensational biography has contradicted much of the existing literature about Mao's rule.
A week after the publication of Mao: The Unknown Story in the United Kingdom on 7 June 2005, Ken Kwek, then a freelance writer based in London, interviewed the authors in their Notting Hill home.
KK: First, the obvious question: why a Mao biography? Was it a natural follow-up to Wild Swans?
JC: It is a natural follow-up. Wild Swans is about a family, a family's life under Mao. We were completely dominated by Mao, and he wreaked havoc in the lives of a quarter of the world's population. So I really wanted to understand a bit more about him.
KK: Was there a feeling that there was something unfinished in Wild Swans?
JC: Yes, you are absolutely right. The unfinished thing is the understanding of Mao. What drove him, what motivated him, how he came to power, how he came to dominate the lives of so many people how he achieved all this, and what went on in his head.
KK: I get the feeling that although Wild Swans is described as the story of three generations of women, one of the most moving narrative threads in the book is the story of your father, because he was such a staunch believer in Mao's regime.
JC: He was communist in his youth. Writing about Mao has helped me understand my father and how he got involved in this regime. There is a chapter in our book about people like my father who went to Yenan during the war against Japan believing, quite wrongly, that the communists were the more dedicated in fighting Japan, and that the communists stood for equality, freedom, that they fought for the peasants, all of these things. But when they got to Yenan, most of them became disillusioned. And Mao [then] found that they weren't the right material for his regime. So between 1942 and 1945, he basically imprisoned them and terrorised them and built his regime through terror.
KK: How did you both work out the method of co-writing Mao? How did you agree on the process?
JH: Well, it sorted itself out through language really. I don't speak Chinese, so Jung did the Chinese side of things, and I did most of the interviews in Russia and the archive work in Russia. But we also did a tremendous lot together. I was lucky enough to meet some people in China during our big trips to Yunnan, Jingangshan and Taiwan. And my wife came to Russia as well and worked in the Russian archives, because there's a lot of Chinese material there. A good example of this is the files we found in Moscow, which contained original reports coming from Jiangxi and Fujian at the time. We went to the Albanian archives together, and also went through the East German archives together. So there was a division of labour, but there was also a huge amount of stuff that we did together, and most of the interviews that we did in France and America, we did together.
JC: We met Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore!
KK: Well I'm very curious to know what he thought of the angle you might be pursuing.
JC: We didn't ask our interviewees what they thought of Mao. We asked them [about] specific incidents specific questions about the details. And with Lee, we asked him about his meeting with Mao.
JH: He was one of the last people to see Mao. I think it was 1976. And to my great surprise, he was describing how Mao could hardly speak, and he actually did an imitation for us [demonstrates physical reclining position] which I didn't expect to get from him! But as you know, it was a very short conversation. We also interviewed Mr Rajaratnam, who wrote some very shrewd things about Mao. I noticed he said Mao wasn't really a Marxist, didn't really believe in Communism, which is quite outspoken, really. But as you know, Singapore's first generation of leaders have their own complicated relationship with China and Communism.
KK: Underlying your narrative voice, there is a sense of outrage. It's not a completely cold and detached view of history; there's a tremendous amount of anger there. How did you come to decide that this was the way you wanted to present the book?
JC: Before we started writing this book, we already knew he was a monster that was without question and I think that came across in Wild Swans. But we wanted to keep an open mind. Still, as we discovered more and more, so many things shocked us, all the time. And what shocked me most was when I discovered the truth about the famine between 1958 and 1961. We calculated [that there were] 38 million deaths from starvation. When I was writing Wild Swans, I thought it was because of economic mismanagement Mao was no-good at managing the economy. And then we realised one day that this was not true at all. Yes he was no-good, but he had intended... he had calculated he knew that this amount of people would die, because he was exporting the food people depended on for survival [in a] rush to increase his arms industries, to fulfil his own dream of being of becoming a military superpower... to dominate the world. He knew this number of people but he didn't care, and when we discovered that he had said half of China might well have to die, we were very shocked. He was a monster of this dimension, and he had this evil that went beyond my imagination. So we let our outrage show in the story, although we took care not to use words of judgment. We let our readers judge. We recorded the facts, but the facts themselves are so shocking. But it would have been impossible for anyone who had any moral sense, or who had a heart, not to be outraged.
KK: I tried to compare your book with previous works about Mao and his life Jonathan Spence's writings, and the biography by [Mao's] physician Dr Li Zhisui. But when I read this book, some of my understanding of Chinese history had to be unravelled. These other books written by eminent China scholars or insiders close to Mao did not go as far as yours did in detailing Mao's malevolence.
JC: I think that is absolutely true. You tell him Jon...
JH: We did discover a lot of new stuff, and I think the documentation and backup in this book is strong. It's a little bit like... If you're writing about Hitler during the Second World War, Hitler's at war everyday. Mao's like that, but Mao was at war, in a way, against his own people and country! That's what the guy's doing: scheming, planning, 24 hours round the clock, trying to instil terror not only in the population, but also constantly abasing his own colleagues he's a sadist! These are his real characteristics. I was pleased to hear you say that the narrative drive is very strong. That is definitely due to my wife. I don't think we're unfair to Mao. It's not a very nice story, but the reason why it's not a very nice story is because he wasn't a very nice man!
KK: He did absolutely nothing for China?
JC: Well, we came to that conclusion. He left China in shambles, and in the year he died 1976 the average food intake of the Chinese was lower than in the 1930s. I mean, people in the countryside... adult women had no clothes to cover themselves. People were living in utter misery, and the communist regime has admitted now that the Cultural Revolution was an unprecedented catastrophe in Chinese history. I struggle to think of anything [good Mao did for China]. Well, except the eradication of epidemics. Mao's regime did place a lot of emphasis on this. But that is because Mao treated the entire population as a slave labour force, and obviously, epidemics are no good for a slave labour force. He also had the help of the advancement of medicine. Add to this the fact that the regime nailed every citizen to a fixed spot, so when an epidemic threatened, they could simply seal the place off and not let anyone leave or come in. Very often, the people in these places all died. Of course, Mao was also worried about epidemics affecting him. During the Great Leap Forward and the famine, he was overworking and starving people to such an extent that there were a lot of outbreaks of epidemics, and Mao gave order at one point to lessen people's workloads. But this was because he had learnt that there was a typhoid epidemic in Hanshan which was very near Beijing he was very worried about himself.
KK: Speaking of medicine, why didn't you mention Li Zhisui in...
JC: Actually, we did, we quoted his book at length you can look at the notes. We actually fixed an interview with him when we went to America to interview Kissinger and George Bush Sr, etc. But he died just before our trip. We also interviewed his predecessor and other members of staff in Mao's court whom Dr Li mentioned in his book. It is true that we don't mention him in the text, because we were trying to cut down on names, to make the book more accessible to the general public. We only kept the names of the main players in the book. It was a question of not introducing too much that might confuse our readers.
JH: We had to make a decision about this, in fact do we constantly refer to this person who said this, or that thesis, or some other academic who disagrees, or whatever, and we felt that the way to get this book to a larger audience is to just tell the story. In the case of Edgar Snow, of course, we had to mention him because of the role he played in Mao's politics. It's not because we didn't want to give credit where it was due, but simply that we wanted to just tell the story with a strong narrative and not too much footnoting.
KK: You do cover a great scope and tell us a lot about the major players. One thing I don't really understand is this: Mao was surrounded by capable men, men with much more sound ideology than he had. So how did he overwhelm all these able and considerably powerful individuals throughout history? I mean, for more than 50 years, he managed to overpower a very strong team around him.
JC: This was the central question we were trying to answer [throughout the book]. With Zhou Enlai Zhou Enlai was extremely able and the ideal administrator for Mao. Mao came up with the programme, Zhou carried out his orders. With Zhou, Mao's main tactic was blackmail. Mao was very good at spotting people's weaknesses and making use of them. Zhou's main weakness was a great fear of disgrace. So from 1932, [Mao used] the 'wu hao qi shi' the fake document (in which Zhou supposedly renounced communism and condemned the Party) singularly to blackmail Zhou throughout the latter's life. With Liu Shaoqi, he was the only one of the top leaders who shared Mao's cold strategy of using Japan to destroy Chiang Kaishek. He was a very able number two who had no ambition to supplant Mao...
KK: So that was it then ambition...
JH: I think you can see some of the answers to your questions from the period between 1927 and the Long March. We got a lot of detailed information on how Mao's colleagues couldn't stand him [during this period] and tried so hard to get rid of him, but couldn't get rid of him. And Mao was rescued only by the Russians and that we documented for the first time I mean, the cables between Moscow and the Chinese communists. But Mao was a bruiser, he was a terrifying guy. People would have been saying to themselves, "This is a dangerous guy. If I cross him, he's going to get me." He gave people that feeling. So that early period... I hope we've given a good description of how he's a sort of not a street-fighter... but one who fought in the "smoking room", with lots of [psychological] elbow. Then after the Long March, when he rose much higher up and got demonstrable Russian support, his colleagues also had to say to themselves, "Is it feasible to get rid of him?" The Russians are clearly supporting him, and they (the Chinese) depended on the Russians for arms and money. It became very difficult to get rid of him. But to add to your earlier point about Liu Shaoqi Liu Shaoqi was in many ways a remarkable man and is the most interesting character about whom the least is said. He was the real number two, but again, he was vulnerable to blackmail. As for Zhou, during the purge, Mao was about to get Zhou on the grounds that he had been running the underground, and we have documentation of this. Anyway, it was a constant process of [manipulation]. Something very interesting about these two men is found in the Dalai Lama's memoirs. He saw both Liu and Zhou at close quarters. His portrait of them is based on [his knowing them in] 1945. According to him, Zhou would say one thing in one room to a certain audience, and then go into another room and trash the people he had just been pretending to be nice to. But he said that Liu Shaoqi would never do something like that. The Dalai Lama was probably the only person to juxtapose these two characters.
JC: Most of Mao's colleagues were devoted communists. Mao was able to become the leader of the Party mostly thanks to Moscow. Stalin identified him in the 1920s as the most power-hungry, most brutal and ruthless guy who could bring this tiny Communist Party to power. Stalin backed him at every stage.
KK: Mao seemed also to be assisted at every point, especially when he might have been backed into a corner, by some historical abomination, some strange coincidence, like the Marshall diktat in 1946 for Chiang to withdraw his troops in Manchuria. History seemed to be on his side.
JC: He was lucky. Everybody needs some luck.
JH: There was also a lot of infiltration. Mao infiltrated not only the Nationalists but actually some of the people working around Marshall.
JC: Yes. For example, one person who was close to Marshall was Zhang Zizhong, who was responsible for drawing the Japanese into China, into a war in Shanghai. He had started the war 'xian fa zi ren' (first to fire), to draw the Japanese into South China so that the Japanese would not consolidate their occupation in the north and turn on Russia. So he was a tremendous spy, working closely with Marshall's entourage. There were many other agents we don't know yet what specific roles these agents played in the U.S. government, something that is really worth studying.
JH: In fact, the Chinese communists had a tremendous intelligence system in America. And one of the things [we found out] in the Russian archives is that they (the Russians) were quite impressed with the Chinese intelligence system there were [Chinese spies] in America and Hong Kong where the Russians could never get to. History did come to Mao's aid, but he was also very shrewd at turning things due to his utter ruthlessness in his favour. Take two examples: the Japanese invasion of China and the Korean War. Most people would say that both of these were terrible disasters, but Mao saw the Japanese as a tool against Chiang, and as for the Korean War "Forget the Koreans, the war is useful to me." He thought like that what's-in-it-for-me sort of mentality.
KK: You mention Mao's visceral lust for violence, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that he himself performed acts of physical violence.
JC: He wasn't personally violent. He certainly didn't charge in front of his troops. When he said that power comes out from the barrel of the gun, he himself never really carried a gun, except on a couple of occasions...
KK: ...almost for show...
JC: ...almost for show, exactly.
KK: The quote is often used to stress his bellicosity, but in fact the full quote reads in full: "Power comes out of the barrel of the gun. Our principle is that we should command the gun, rather than let the gun command us." So it's a much more nuanced statement.
JC: I think that full quote is from the Little Red Book. I don't think that was what Mao meant when he first used the statement. The context [in which] he first used this expression is: "I agree with the [Russian] spy's envoy" i.e. after Chiang's split with the communists on 7 August, 1927. Stalin had made the decision to form the army, to go for the military route. It was Moscow's decision to send the envoy to carry out the "military first" policy. I believe Mao said, "I agree with the representation of the Comintern. Power comes out of the barrel of the gun." He was in agreement. Only later on did he add the part about never letting the gun command the party. This was because he wanted to subjugate Zhu De, a far more popular man than he was from 1929-1930. Zhu De was a bona fide military commander, who commanded a prestige in the popular context of "military first". At that time, Mao was at a disadvantage, because he was not a military man. But he did have control of the Party. So it was for his own power and position that he added the subsequent statement of submitting the gun to the will of the party.
KK: Would you say Mao himself effectively became "the gun"?
JC: Well he controlled the party and the gun. One person we interviewed said that if Mao had the party position he would say, "The party controls the gun," but if he had the military position he would say, "The gun controls the party."
KK: So it comes back to manipulation.
JC: Yes, yes.
KK: What do you think this book will achieve, given that, like Wild Swans, it won't be seen in China any time soon?
JC: We hope many copies will go into China. In fact, many English copies are going to China this very minute. I'm translating it into Chinese, I'm trying to finish it. We're publishing it in Taiwan and, we hope, Hong Kong. There were two pirated editions of Wild Swans in the mainland, and certainly pirated versions of this book will get into China. Many people will read it. And I think that those who lived under Mao, who knew he was bad my generation, the older generation they will think, "Gosh, we knew that he was bad, but we didn't know he was this bad." And for the generation who didn't live under Mao, and who grew up under the current regime's brainwashing of saying Mao was more good than bad, we hope this book will open their eyes.
JH: I hope it will give those who get to read it in China a chance to understand the history of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) as much as a history of Mao. It was Mao himself in 1923 who said, "I don't think Communism has a hope in hell of working in China. The only way it's going to work is if the Russian army invades China." The fact is: the CCP was set up by a foreign power. Mao himself was brought to power by a foreign power. The Communist Party, which still rules China, was a foreign creation with no roots. People need to understand that.
KK: But surely that will do nothing less than rock China. China has such a long history which it is very proud of, and that, together with the recognition of Mao, is a way of legitimising the current regime. Any sort of official back-peddling may throw the country into turmoil.
JC: I don't think that communist ideology is in the tradition of Chinese culture. By traditional Chinese standards, he was the most appalling despot. That's why Mao hated Confucius so much. The core of Confucian theory is that the subject must obey the Emperor, but the Emperor must care for the subjects. Any emperor who doesn't care for his people is a despot. Mao said he hated Confucianism because it is a people-centred [school of thought]. So Mao doesn't belong in the Chinese tradition. He had much more in common with Hitler and Stalin. He was the product of twentieth century totalitarianism. We just hope the Chinese government will come to see how unacceptable it is for them to claim that they are Mao's heirs, and how ridiculous it is to let Mao's portrait still dominate Tiananmen Square. The only comparison to this is to have Hitler's portrait still dominate the centre of Berlin, and to have German leaders claim themselves to be Hitler's heirs. I am hoping that the current leaders will make a clean break from Mao and Mao's legacy.
KK: I am still baffled as to how they could possibly achieve that without completely undermining their own legitimacy and the country's stability.
JC: Well, that is the problem. I don't think the portrait is there because the leaders worship Mao or his legacy. They know the story how awful Mao was, what a mass murderer he was. They have Mao up there because of their own legitimacy. The question is whether they should put their own legitimacy before the interests of China.
KK: So what does China need then? A team of leaders who are brave enough to say, "He was wrong"? To really face up to the history that you think is the true history of China?
JC: Yes. Mao's legacy is what's holding China back. But if you make a break with Mao's legacy, China would make a true leap forward towards being a wonderful society. We need a leader who is far-sighted and who places the interests of the people before the legitimacy of the party.
KK: You're saying that the residual political ideology if not the economic policies is the Achilles' heel of the current government.
JC: Definitely. Freedom of information is crucial.
JH: It's not just the political ideology, but the political practice, the control of information, etc. Freedom of information is critical. This is well-documented. It would be marvellous if people in China could see this documentation and find out for themselves what really happened, have the freedom not only to inform themselves but also to discuss things. We need more open debate.
JC: The people can better contribute, can come up with better ideas about how we can move forward. At the moment, the control of the press in China is far worse than under the Nationalists, before Mao came to power. I mean, we all know the advantage of a free press, we don't need to lay it on, that's obvious it's beneficial to a society. Without freedom of press and expression, you get corruption and many other malpractices. Just that alone will free things up a little and help society move forward.
KK: My last question: what's next?
JC: I'm translating the book into Chinese. I can't wait for the Chinese people to read this book (and as you know, most Chinese only read Chinese).
JH: I have to draw breath. I might try and do something with all the Russian material that we weren't able to use.
KK: Well that's it, I guess. Thank you very much.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005