Philip Hensher: Could such evil deeds take place today?

After reading this, I thought: how can anyone in the world now call themselves a Maoist?
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The Independent Online

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's biography of Mao is an important book in ways not envisaged by most biographies. Jung Chang's first book, Wild Swans, swept the world and exposed to a large audience, for the first time, the horrific experiences many Chinese endured under Mao's reign. Even so, the fact that centrally it was the story of one family left it open to ingenuous objections that her experiences might not be universal, or even typical.

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's biography of Mao is an important book in ways not envisaged by most biographies. Jung Chang's first book, Wild Swans, swept the world and exposed to a large audience, for the first time, the horrific experiences many Chinese endured under Mao's reign. Even so, the fact that centrally it was the story of one family left it open to ingenuous objections that her experiences might not be universal, or even typical.

Unlikely as that objection might seem, she and her husband have now answered it, surely definitively, with this magnificent and shocking book.

Our age has a distinct taste for memoir, for history related through personal experience. Superb as Wild Swans is, the form cannot achieve some things; clearly, Jung Chang's family was an exceptional one, and anyone with an agenda could have misrepresented their suffering as exceptional, too.

The greater purpose of showing Mao's China for what it was can, in the end, only be achieved by a history. Memoir and fiction can bring it home to us with, perhaps, greater force; but only a book like Chang and Halliday's Mao can give the full picture. And what a book: to gauge the authority of it, you only have to look at the astonishing scale of the bibliography, the huge number of people interviewed, from Chiang Kai-Shek's associates and great Western statesmen to a lady who, though now 93, had a very clear memory of what really happened at the crossing of the Dudu bridge, one of the chief fantasies of the Long March. The success and fame of Wild Swans must have opened a lot of doors to them, and they have taken advantage of it to produce a work of unanswerable authority.

Mao is comprehensively discredited from beginning to end in small ways and large; a murderer, a torturer, an untalented orator, a lecher, a destroyer of culture, an opium profiteer, a liar. At the top of his list of crimes is the fact that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 70 million people. Near the bottom are disgusting, but somehow immensely telling details that he never brushed his teeth and did not take a bath for years on end. This book, surely, will somehow get into China; and when it does, it will change the world.

This morning, reading the newspaper, I came across the dreadful news of the murder of 40 Nepalese in Chitwan, 100 miles south of Kathmandu. Those responsible were the Maoist guerrillas who have been waging civil war since 1996. Nepal's Maoist movement is probably the most extensive in the world today, although there are others of some significance; Maoist factions in Afghanistan are persistent presences. My immediate thought was this; how can anyone in the world now call themselves a Maoist?

Well, the answer is ignorance; and as the news of Mao's evil spreads throughout the world - and it is news - it will become much like declaring yourself a National Socialist. There may always be madmen willing to enlist in such a cause; there will, pray God, never be enough again to take over a country, or even, given time for the truth to spread, to wage a civil war.

Would the events told in this book be possible now? I suspect not. The single reason is, I think, the hugely increased power and presence of international organisations, and, in particular, the United Nations. During most of Mao's reign, most of the reports from the country came from carefully selected Western stooges, whose comments, still, turn the stomach.

In subsequent Maoist regimes, such as Pol Pot's Cambodia, there were no international observers at all, and the atrocities have had to be pieced together from survivors. It has taken an incredible length of time for anything approaching a criminal case to be put together against the Khmer Rouge.

But things, I believe, have changed fundamentally. In the last 15 years or so, countries committing atrocities against their own population have done so, in general, in the presence of watchful organisations such as the United Nations. In Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan under the Taliban and now Darfur, international organisations have been fairly constant witnesses.

There is no doubt, of course, that the UN could not prevent these atrocities taking place. But at least they were there; they have provided, in time, the sort of vital evidence for criminal prosecutions which was lacking in Cambodia.

In some of these cases, the killing spree was brief; Mao's China murdered on a Rwandan scale for years. In others, such as Sudan or Saddam's Iraq, the evidence was provided to the outside world throughout; if it lasted an inexcusable length of time, that is the responsibility of national politicians. No politician can say, as they could of the Khmer Rouge's regime, that they just did not know.

Mao's China was able to conduct itself in such a way not just because of its size and assumed power. That secured it from international pressure, even if the international community had been willing to exert such pressure. The whole monstrous saga was possible, just as in Cambodia, because international organisations did not possess the legitimacy we now see.

Vast crimes will continue to take place, there is no doubt about that. I suspect, however, that in the future, they are less likely to be conducted, like Mao's, over 30 years; I strongly doubt that it will take another 30 years before the world discovers the appalling details.

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