Friday, March 17, 2006

# Posted 12:43 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE TOO CRITICAL OF HITLER? The answer to that question seems like an obvious 'no'. But what about Mao? Leave aside the body counts, which don't tell you much about who was more evil. Both Mao and Hitler were simply so evil that it is hard to imagine what excess criticism would look like.

And yet, having made my way through the first half of the new Mao biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, I'd have to say that their criticism of Mao is excessive. This conclusion won't come as a surprise if you've been reading any of the reviews of their book, but even if you have read the reviews, you may not find such reservations about the book to be in the least bit credible.

If you read the reviews, you may sense that the reviewers simply can't let go of some of the good feelings about Mao that inhabited the American left throughout the Chairman's lifetime. For example, Nicholas Kristof writes in the NYT that,
Based on a decade of meticulous interviews and archival research, this magnificent biography methodically demolishes every pillar of Mao's claim to sympathy or legitimacy.
And yet Kristof still hedges his negative stance toward Mao by ending his review with the almost indefensible argument that:
Mao's ruthlessnes was catastrophic at the time...[but] Mao also helped lay the groundwork for the rebirth and rise of China after five centuries of slumber.
Which is sort of like saying that Hitler laid the groundwork for the rebirth and rise of Germany after World War II. The point is, the same thing could've been accomplished without piling up tens of millions of corpses.

That said, how could I, who am a stranger to any sort of nostalgia for the extreme left, still say that the Chang & Halliday bio goes too far? Here's how: the issue isn't so much that their sum total judgment of Mao is unfair, but rather that they distort or neglect important aspects of both Mao's life and modern Chinese history by describing everything that happens as the result of Mao's evil intentions (and the stupidiy of others who didn't perceive them).

For example, Kristof hits on this point quite well when he observes that
[Mao] is presented as such a bumbling psychopath that it's hard to comprehend how he bested all his rivals to lead China.
Although you'd think that Chang & Halliday would present most other Communists as being almost as evil as Mao, they actually present them as surprisingly naive or even well-intentioned. Even those such as Chang Kuo-t'ao, whom they describe as savvy and ruthless, ultimately wind up making incredibly stupid and suicidal mistakes during their confrontations with Mao.

Lucian Pye, a highly-regarded scholar of Chinese politics, notes in his brief (and terribly unfair) review in Foreign Affairs that Chang & Halliday
Make no effort to explain how so many people, both Chinese and foreigners, fell under the spell of [Mao] and his myth.
Actually, the authors do provide an answer, but a very simplistic one: the Big Lie. Once Mao was in power, that approach might have worked, as it did for other dictators.

But one problem is that Chang & Halliday never explain why tens of millions of Chinese peasants supported the Communists -- and millions fought for them -- during the Chinese Civil War. Instead, they only tell us how Mao brutalized countless peasants during those years. True, but something here doesn't add up.

What I'm trying to suggest here is not that Mao was any less evil than Chang & Halliday insist, but rather that their overwhelming emphasis on his evil has blinded them to his talents. By itself, talent has no moral valence. In no way does being talented redeem Mao Zedong. But it is absolutely critical to explaining his success.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

[Mao] is presented as such a bumbling psychopath that it's hard to comprehend how he bested all his rivals to lead China.

I don't see how anyone on the Left could make that argument after years of making the following argument:

Bush is such a bumbling psychopath that it's hard to comprehend how he bested all his rivals to lead the US.
Easy. The Left thinks Bush is a tool of Rove and Cheney, so they don't give him any credit for besting his rivals.
I suspect that is the true reason the Left has such rage against Bush. Back in the 90's the Republicans hated Clinton but when he beat them, the Republicans took solace in the fact "Well, I hate him, but he IS one hell of a politician." But the Left see themselves getting beaten time and again but a bumbling idiot. Being outdone by someone you have no respect for, that’s a sure recipe for blinding rage.
Agreed, David. Working my way through the initial stages of the book I've found it unfortunately lacking in an analysis of the political skills that Mao did possess. The focus seems to be primarily on the violence Mao used to intimidate foes and subordinates, and we don't get nearly enough of how he sold his message to the Chinese people. Brutality alone cannot conquer a nation, and I believe we need more analysis of Mao's "soft power" - his political assets based on the attraction of his ideals and the potential for a better future China that they represented.

On the other hand, the book does contribute positively by exposing Mao for the evil he represents and exploding the ends-justify-the-means arguments for his actions. But it suffers perhaps from the problem that all extreme accusations suffer from - the audience shuts off its thought process and simply reacts emotionally.
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