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Western biographies of Mao since his death in 1976 - most recently Mao: a Life, by Philip Short - have sought to strike a balance between his grand vision and its deeply flawed reality. This approach is now challenged in Mao: the Unknown Story, a new biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday that delivers an uncompromisingly negative view. Their verdict, as summarised by the Guardian's reviewer, is that Mao "lacked either idealism or a clear ideology ... he was driven by a personal lust for power", and that his rule was based above all on the "use of terror" by which he "enforced his will" on the Chinese people.
The book is based on impressive research and a formidable array of sources, but its strongly argued conclusions should provoke a lively debate. First, can the Chinese revolution really be explained, as the authors imply, as if the Chinese people were terrorised by Mao into overthrowing the Nationalist government - did they not already have good reason? As Jonathan Fenby's recent study puts it, corruption under Chiang Kai-shek was "a way of life", his carpetbaggers plundered the areas liberated from Japan, and the rural masses were "alienated by oppression". To a significant extent, the civil war of the late 1940s was a class struggle in which, as the US embassy reported at the time, the communists' mass support derived from "the agrarian and industrial proletariat".
Second, to what extent does "lust for power" adequately explain Mao's long career with the Communist party? Even if he was attracted by its revolutionary violence, would it not have been more rational to hitch himself to the rising star of Chiang Kai-shek (who was not averse to shedding blood himself)? Third, although Mao's grasp of Marxist theory in his early years was shaky, were his extensive theoretical writings over five decades really nothing more than camouflage for his ambition?