In the innermost sanctum of hell home to the most wicked of wicked, far worse in deed and consequence than mere cheaters, scoundrels, or connivers, resides Mao, possibly the most sinister villain that ever lived. Amazingly, the extent of his treachery is not well known, particularly in China where he is lionized as a revolutionary hero. Such are personality cults.
Mao: The Unknown Story, a magisterial work by the husband and wife team of Jon Halliday and Juang Chang, paints a portrait of a monster. The book chronicles Mao's rise from humble origins to his totalitarian rule over one-fifth of humanity, a resounding achievement of utter and complete ruthlessness. He spared no one.
Born into a relatively prosperous peasant family, Mao quickly climbed the ranks of the fledgling communist party through Machiavellian guile and a pathological disregard for human life—qualities that the party, guided by Stalin, self-selected for. His ambition trumped ideological conviction. At a critical moment early in his career when his political ascent appeared stymied, Mao strongly considered joining the Nationalists.
Halliday and Chang claim that Mao’s reign cost 70 million lives. The Long March exemplified his brutality. Being pursued by the Nationalists and fearing a power struggle if he sought sanctuary while in a province home to a formidable communist rival, Mao kept circling around aimlessly, subjecting his own men to enormous hardship and privation. He later assiduously avoided taking on Japanese occupying forces, leaving the task to Chiang Kai-shek, which he correctly surmised would weaken his Nationalist foe while he built up his own army.
Mao's superpower ambitions led him to bomb Taiwanese-controlled islands off the Chinese mainland in order to heighten Cold War hostilities, thereby securing Soviet support, and to prod North Korea to attack its southern neighbor. He financed the import of military hardware with Chinese grain at a time of grave food shortages, causing a famine, and he initiated similarly ruinous economic reforms. Up to 43 million people perished during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) alone. Conditions for many Chinese during such periods, in terms of caloric intake and hours of labor, were comparable to those at Auschwitz.
Mao’s use of Stalin-like purges helped solidify his authority. The Kafka-esque reigns of terror turned cronies into the condemned, the condemned into cronies, and children into informers against their parents. During the Great Cultural Revolution, Mao made war on culture itself Taliban-like in an attempt to transform his countrymen into automatons that lived to work and worked to live.
Confidants of Mao fared no better. He regularly purged those he saw as possible threats, accusing them, using inimitable communist jargon, of being “capitalist roaders,” “revisionists,” or “imperialists.” Even his lifelong consigliere Zhou Enlai didn’t escape his wrath. Mao regularly had him perform humiliating self-denunciations, lest he become too big for his britches, and he even withheld medical treatment for cancer at the end of Zhou’s life to keep him in line. Mao’s family also suffered greatly. Mao cared little for his many wives or his children. His callous disregard contributed to the death of several of his wives, including his final one, who he ensured would be purged after his own death.
Labels tend to simplify complexities and ignore nuance, particularly ones with theological connotations. But with Mao it may be said with accuracy that he was simply evil.