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Mao's Unrelenting Influence In China

A visitor from another country, wearing a face mask to protect himself from a mysterious flu-like disease that has killed 22 people in Hong Kong, visits a mainland-Chinese bookstore April 7, 2003. The huge poster on the left depicts the late Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung.
Thirty years after his death, if Mao Tse Tung miraculously woke up tomorrow, would he even recognize the capitalist colossus China has become? Would he recognize himself in the embalmed icon — the distant founding father figure — the Chinese Communist party has cast him as in the new China>

It seems rewriting history, where Mao is concerned, is nothing new: he did it himself, big time.

Most people always believed the official line that Mao was the man who transformed China — a heroic leader, even if he did some bad things. The real Mao, we discover, did horrendous things.

"Mao was responsible for well over 70 million deaths of the Chinese in peacetime, and he was as evil as Hitler or Stalin — he did as much damage to mankind as Hitler and Stalin," said Jung Chang, co-author of "Mao, The Unknown Story."

Jung wrote the book with her husband Jon Halliday and it has been described as a "bombshell of a book."

"In China we interviewed about 150 of Mao's inner circle, in Mao's family, relatives, friends, and many people talked for the first time," she said.

Even Jung and Halliday were shocked by what they learned.

"I did not realize how much of the misery and hardship he caused was done knowingly and so ruthlessly in terms of his own personal interests," Halliday said.

The Long March changed history. In order to win their war against the ruling nationalists, the Chinese Communists needed help from the Soviets. So between 1934 and 1935, 80,000 Communist soldiers and civilians walked 6,000 miles across China, so they would be in a secure position to receive arms and supplies. Mao, supposedly the hero of the long march, slogging along with everybody else, in fact, was carried.

"He even designed his own transport, a bamboo litter," Jung said. "He said, in his later life. 'I was lying in the litter. I had nothing to do, what did I do? I read. I read a lot.'"

Mao knew his political future depended on getting to the Russians first, so on the way, he schemed to outmaneuver his party rivals — even though that meant the calculated sacrifice of the lives of thousands of Red Army soldiers.

"Whoever linked up with Moscow had the communications with Moscow, and [who was] recognized by Moscow as the party leader, would be the boss," Jung said.

Until Halliday was given access to previously secret Soviet archives, it was widely thought that the Chinese Communist Party got started and grew on its own. Not so, Halliday confirmed. In the beginning more than 90 percent of its funds came from the Soviet Union. Not only that, Stalin engineered Mao's rise to the top even though he was hated and feared by other Chinese communists.

"Well, Stalin I think spotted Mao as probably the guy in the Chinese Communist Party was most like himself," Halliday said. "And of course Mao, also like Stalin, had long-range vision. I mean, Mao could think strategically. He was very, very smart."

Ultimately he outsmarted nationalist leader — and U.S. ally — Chiang Kai Shek. Defeated, the Nationalists retreated to the island of Formosa (now called Taiwan), where they remain to this day.

On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao declared himself leader of the renamed People's Republic of China. The crowd chanted: "Long live Chairman Mao," unaware of the horrific suffering his ambition would bring, beginning with a campaign, he claimed, to modernize China. He named it The Great Leap Forward.

"Thirty-eight million people died of starvation and overwork and Mao didn't want to stop," Jung said. "He said for all his projects to take off, half of China may well have to die."

Imagine half the population: and for what? In fact, it was to pay for the technology to build an atomic bomb. China eventually exploded one in 1964.

China's people starved, because Mao was selling what food they produced to Russia and Eastern Europe. Glowing reports to the outside world about agricultural and industrial production were propaganda.

"And when he was shown the report of food shortage, of peasants starving, Mao said, 'Educate the peasant to eat less.' And he even said, 'Death have benefit, they can fertilize the land,'" Jung said.