BOOK REVIEW / Chinese whisperers: 'The New Emperors: Mao and Deng' - Harrison Salisbury: HarperCollins, 20 pounds

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A revolution, according to Mao Tse-tung, is not a tea party, but if you read Harrison Salisbury it certainly includes a lot of ballroom dancing. Mao and his Communist Party colleagues, it is now revealed, were slow-slow-quick- quick-slowing in the caves of Yunnan, and doing the same every Saturday night in Peking when they came to power. This passion for rhythm changes and foot-shuffling may account for the Communist Party of China's great talent for taking one step forward and two steps back.

But I shouldn't joke about Mr Salisbury, or China's unelected leaders. The latter take themselves very seriously indeed, and the former goes along with them because they tell him things that they don't tell anybody else, especially not their fellow Chinese. With this in mind I can say with the fullest confidence that Salisbury has written an extraordinary book. But there is one problem. I do not know where to find the truth; is this book just one side's propaganda or is it a genuine and impartial historical record?

The answer, I fear, is that Harrison Salisbury's latest contribution to history is flawed. Not because he has got his facts wrong, but because he has accepted at face value everything he has been told. Impressed, it would seem, by his high level contacts - and that includes the president of China, Yang Shangkun, and an awesome list of senior officials whose names cover nearly six pages at the end of the book - he churns out every revelation and opinion uncritically, sometimes interposing but seldom illuminating. Another shortcoming: his information is by word of mouth. It is clear that Salisbury and his translators were not allowed near the communist party's official archives. They might tell a different story if they are ever opened.

Nonetheless Salisbury has been given some nuggets, never revealed before, about Mao's private life: his addiction to opium-based sleeping pills which constipated the Great Helmsman for weeks on end and which are also blamed for his political irresponsibility, his vindictiveness, his deviousness, his fear of assassination, his passion for young women who were formed into dancing troupes and bounced into his bed by his fawning secret police chief, Kang Sheng, posthumously chucked out of the Party by the men who are now spilling the beans. Nor have we been told before about life in the court of the Communist dynasty behind the walls of the former Imperial pleasure gardens beside the Forbidden City, or their feudal and irresponsible way of running the country.

I wonder why the present leadership has chosen to give out this information now. Most, but not all, were victims of Mao at some time or other. And there is a tradition in China of rewriting the record when a new ruler comes to power - Mao, it would seem, still needs to be brought down to size. There is also an even more modern habit, begun by the Helmsman himself, of using a foreigner to tell your story. But it is a dangerous precedent. Mao had Edgar Snow's Red Star over China, which made the world and many urban Chinese aware that communists were not always bandits. Over the years other paeans followed from Snow's pen. Jiang Qing, Mao's widow and leader of the Gang of Four, used American academic Roxane Witke to put her case. She was toppled soon afterwards, and one of the charges against her was that she had given state secrets to a foreigner. Similar charges were laid against Zhao Ziyang, the party leader in 1989, for telling Gorbachev during the student protests in Tiananmen Square that all authority in China descended from Deng Xiaoping. Zhao was ousted and is still in disgrace, protected from jail only because he was Deng's protege.

Harrison Salisbury was too late into China to talk to Mao. Deng was either too clever or not interested and kept his distance from the American, although Salisbury did interview members of his family. I got the impression that President Yang Shangkun was perhaps behind this book.

Dear me, I am beginning to think like a Chinese, seeing conspiracies everywhere. You could not say that about Salisbury. His view is straightforward. China and the Chinese always get the benefit of the doubt. Stalin was a monstrous tyrant and the Russians are naturally devious. He can't quite bring himself to say the same about Mao, who was responsible for the deaths of as many innocent people as old Joe, perhaps more. No, Mao was different. Circumstances alone made him ruthless. It was his impatience for change that swept away his judgement, Salisbury was told. And he is asking us to believe it. I don't.