Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mao: The Unknown Story

I just finished a fascinating biography of Mao called Mao: The Unknown Story. I hadn't known much about Mao or Chinese history, so it was pretty enlightening. The book was apparently pretty controversial when it came out, with some people calling it brilliant, and some calling it an example of lazy research. I haven't looked too far into the critical claims about the book, but I find it difficult to believe that it's poorly cited, given the hundreds of pages of notes at the end, and the incredibly comprehensive list of very famous world leaders that the authors interviewed. In any case, I highly recommend the book. Here are some things that I learned from it that I hadn't even heard of before:

  • For most of the Long March, Mao was carried on a litter and was comfortable enough to read.
  • The Communists' success during the Civil War had everything to do with the Russians having planted sleepers among the Nationalists during the heady days of the Wampoa Military Academy, and nothing to do with the Communists' military skills.
  • The Second Sino-Japanese War was started by Stalin when he activated a sleeper who was the commander of the Nationalists' garrison around Shanghai and Nanjing and had him incite the Marco Polo Bridge incident which began the conflict. The Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek had no intention of fighting that war at that time, but Stalin wanted to draw the Japanese into China proper to avoid them invading the Soviet Union from the east.
  • The two Taiwan Straits crises in the '50s were engineered by Mao to provoke the US into threatening nuclear war, which would then compel the Soviet leadership to hand over to Mao blueprints for atomic weapons (the reason for the first incident), and missiles capable of carrying them (the reason for the second).
  • Much (if not all) of the deaths by starvation in the late '50s and early '60s were due to Mao's generous support of would-be allies abroad. China became the biggest donor of foreign aid history has ever known, and was exporting food to Eastern Europe (places which barely knew food rationing, much less death by starvation) at a time when millions of Chinese laborers were receiving fewer calories than those at Auschwitz. Mao even exported food to the USSR while his own citizens were starving despite the pleas of the Russians not to.

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