Jung Chang’s massive book on Mao – “Mao” – hasn’t been released in the States yet, but was on the shelves when I was in the UK last week (yes, I’m back…great trip, highlighted by dinner with Norm Geras, a productive business week, and a rocking dinner at a restaurant called “Loch Fyne” which in my view ought to be called “Loch Mighty-Damned-Fyne” but more on that later).
I’m about halfway through the book, having read through my cramped flight to LA on Virgin Economy yesterday, and wanted to note some initial thoughts.
Jung Chang lived through the Cultural Revolution, and so has cause not to like Mao much. But she really dislikes him, and her overt bitterness and rage – deserved as it may be – undermines the inherent strength of her argument. The book is full of rhetorical digs at Mao; the facts alone suffice.
If you were a leftist in the West in the late 20th Century, the book will rock your world more than a little bit; its basic premise is simple:
The story of Mao rising to power with the support of peasants who saw Communism as their path to a brighter future, and his success based on his wiliness as a guerilla leader is a lie. Mao was a brutal exploiter of peasants, whose explicit use of terror and brutality match the Islamists we oppose so strongly. He won China, not because of his skills as a military leader, or even because of the power of his guerilla (4GW) methodology, but because of the incredible level of resources the Soviet Union put at his disposal, and because he managed to control the information flow outward to the Soviets and the West – using internal control derived from fear and brutality.
He was a brutal tyrant, and nothing more.
I’ll post some longer things on the book as I get time (and if there’s interest), but two interesting points have been running through my head as I’ve been reading.
Hammes argued, if you’ll recall, that it is the power of Mao’s formulations:
Phase I: The insurgents concentrate primarily on building political strength. Military action is limited to selected, politically motivated assassinations. Any other military action must have a propaganda purpose to cement the population’s support of the insurgents.
Phase II: The insurgents gain strength and consolidate control of base areas. They begin to actively administer some portions of the contested area. And, because Mao had no outside sponsor supplying weapons [an assertion contradicted by Chang – Ed.], they conducted military operations both to capture arms and to wear down government forces.
Phase III: The insurgents commit regular forces (which have been carefully husbanded up to this point) in a final offensive against the government. This phase can only succeed if the “correlation of forces” has been shifted to the insurgents during the early phases.
that drives the power of 4GW. Does it make any difference if Phase I is in fact based on brutalizing the population into supporting the insurgents? And if Phase II can only work if a powerful sponsor is maintaining a flow of cash and materiel (as China did in Vietnam)?
I don’t know, and I want to think hard about this (which means: I want you to think hard about it and help me develop my ideas).
Second, and here’s one that will get me into serious trouble, but I have to ask anyway. Mao was unquestionably evil. There were, in almost every case, less-brutal, equally effective alternatives to the routes he took.
But – and here’s the but – what would China today be like if the Nationalists has won? Would they have created a supersized version of Taiwan (good outcome) or simply have been equally tyrannical and oligarchic? And if you think China is better off today – stronger, more prosperous, no less free – than it would have been under Nationalist tyranny (note that their status in Taiwan as a client state of the US leads me to guess that they were more liberal than they would have otherwise been), do you change your judgement of Mao?