It's finally common for people to mention Stalin along with Hitler while talking about history's worst monsters, but you know you have a history buff when someone brings up Mao Tse-Tung in the same breath.
Still, if you take all of Hitler and Stalin's domestic victims, then throw in the civilians murdered by Cambodia's Pol Pot, the Hutus in Rwanda, Saddam Hussein and other various totalitarian regimes, you still would not come close to the horrific totals racked up by Mao, China's communist dictator for most of the latter half of the 20th century.
"Mao: The Unknown Story" - a new biography by Jung Chang, an internationally best-selling author, and her husband, Asia scholar John Halliday - should set the record straight. They spent the past 10 years in China and Russia viewing newly declassified or discovered documents and interviewing witnesses to Mao's terror, including many who were very close to the dictator.
They show that Mao outdid Stalin and Hitler in every respect - and not just in the number of deaths. While Stalin killed millions in purges to rule the Soviet Union through terror, Mao killed about a million members of groups allied to him and noncombatants populations before he even gained power. Once he took over China, the authors note, he replicated the tactics on a huge scale.
While Stalin used famine as a weapon against his enemies - most notably in the Ukraine, where millions died in the early 1930s - Mao deliberately starved 38 million peasants without a second thought to keep Eastern Bloc governments afloat while the Russians built him an atomic bomb, the authors report.
Hitler and Stalin mostly did their darkest deeds in secret with specific targets for their terror, but Mao wanted everyone in China, even children, to learn a lesson from his atrocities.
Chang and Halliday aim to do more than ensure that Mao takes his rightful place as one of history most vicious monsters; their goal is to systematically dismantle the layers of false myths that enshroud Mao.
Most of what the history books say about Mao's rise to power is based on the writings of Edgar Snow, an American reporter who met Mao in China and believed everything the then-revolutionary told him.
The story, as recounted in Snow's book, "Red Star Over China," and repeated countless times since then, goes like this: Mao Tse-Tung, a charismatic and brilliant military leader who founded the Chinese Communist Party, led a peasant revolt against China's corrupt regime. When Chiang Kai-shek began slaughtering the Reds, Mao led a strategic retreat that became known as The Long March, during which he wore down the Nationalist Chinese army, gained the peasants' support and became a great leader of the people.
Scholars have chipped away at this legend over the years, and only a few Maoists take Snow seriously anymore, but the general outline of the story has survived. Until now.
First, the authors prove Mao had nothing to do with founding the CCP; he was a bit of a latecomer to the party, but he was skilled at bureaucratic infighting and quickly rose to prominence. Mao never raised an army or led one into battle; his methodology was to maneuver a Red Army unit into a front-line position, let it take a beating and then grab control from its leader. He then would arbitrarily execute about a quarter of his new command to terrorize the survivors and leaders into submission, Chang and Halliday reveal.
This set a pattern that Mao would use as ruler, particularly during the disastrous Cultural Revolution. The authors note he not only used direct terror and slaughter to control the masses but also engineered hardships that killed even more.
Most devastatingly, the authors persuasively propose that the Long March was set up by Chiang to give him an excuse to unite a remote part of China (and Chiang, meanwhile, held up from destroying the Red Army because he was negotiating for the release of his son, whom Stalin was holding hostage).
Besides destroying the mystique of the Long March, Chang and Halliday drop several other bombshells:
* Stalin and the Communist International exercised great control over the Chinese party and revolution, as shown by previously secret cables between the parties that the authors quote extensively.
* In 1949, Mao had already issued the order to disperse the Red Army into guerilla units when Chiang gave in to General George C. Marshall's insistence on a cease-fire. This saved Mao, giving him a chance to marshal his forces and finally link up with the Soviet military in Mongolia and launch the offensive that brought him victory.
* Stalin and Mao jointly planned the Korean War. Stalin wanted to tie up American forces in a conflict, while Mao tried to keep the war going so he could use his massive casualties to get Stalin to build a modern war machine for him. At the same time, even North Korea's maniacal Kim Il Sung was crying for peace because his country was so devastated.
* Stalin and Mao together picked Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam's communist leader, and in the early part of Ho's rule, the Chinese organized a Maoist reign of terror in North Vietnam.
* Mao manipulated Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to get everything he wanted out of the supposed American diplomatic triumph when the United States and Mainland China resumed relations.
The subtitle of this sensational book - "The Unknown Story" - is derived primarily from the authors' dismantling of the Mao legend that was built up by Snow. While Chang and Halliday offer plenty of telling anecdotes and new insights into Mao's reign of terror, the big picture is more well known due to previous accounts.
That doesn't mean that Chang and Halliday's account of Mao's historical rule is redundant. First, the book is incredibly readable, and compelling from beginning to end. Second, the research is meticulous and convincing.
As such, "Mao: The Unknown Story" will be equally appealing and illuminating to readers steeped in the subject and those with only a cursory knowledge of the events it covers.