|English: Photo of Mao Zedong visiting with a family, from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
|President Nixon meets with China's Communist Party Leader, Mao Tse-Tung, 02/29/1972 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
|Pictured here is former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong announcing the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1 1949. Italiano: Immagine di Mao Tse-tung che proclama la nascita della Repubblica Popolare Cinese l'1 ottobre 1949 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have just finished reading an immense book, 638 pages, on The Private Life of Chairman Mao, written by a man who was his private doctor for 22 years, Dr Li Zhisui. The book was published in 1994, and has since gained a reputation as one of the most detailed and fascinating accounts ever written about the private life of one of that rare breed of man who is considered great, or a leader of men, during his lifetime and sometimes beyond.
That Mao must be considered to have been a great man, I suppose, is incontestable, for, coming from a peasant background, he clawed his way to the top position in the government of the world’s most impoverished and largest nation, and set about its transformation in a more thoroughgoing way than perhaps anyone had ever attempted anywhere before. In that, he was certainly a man with remarkable gifts of leadership, just as, I suppose were Napoleon, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Hitler, and Julius Caesar. One of the conquerors. And, inevitably, one might as well add, one of the tyrants. I remember thinking one day as I lined up in Tiananmin Square to go in to take a look at Mao’s body, preserved somehow or other and put on exhibition for ever, that the greater tyrant a man may have been, apparently the greater is his attraction for the masses, who long after he is gone, will line up for hours just to catch a glimpse of what is left of him.
He certainly looked more like a wax figure than a real person, and the book opens with a grisly account of the problem of preserving him for display, for a mere two weeks as first demanded, and then, by decision of the politbureau, the decision-making body of the Communist government, for ever. The doctors, conscious of the disasters that had befallen similar efforts made in the past to preserve Lenin and Stalin --- Lenin’s nose and ears had rotted off and been replaced by wax, and Stalin’s moustache had fallen off ---- frankly believed it could not be done, especially since their Chinese knowledge of embalming techniques were far below those of the Soviet Union. At first they had dealt with the demand for two weeks by pumping his body full of formaldehyde, and the only thing they could think to do for the longer preservation was to double the dose. That had left Mao’s body so grossly swollen that he was almost unrecognizable, so before he could be displayed they had tried to at least reduce his face to more or less normal size by squeezing the formaldehyde down into his lower body, which remained so huge that his clothes had to be cut down the back to ensure he did not burst out of them. Dr. Li records that for insurance, they had begun to prepare a wax version of Mao’s body, and certainly when I saw him he looked more like a wax model than a real person. A grisly tale all round.
Dr Li was a young man from a family of doctors, an elite Chinese family which in the past had had some minor connection with the party opposing the Communists in the battle for control of China --- a connection that haunted him throughout his working life in the tumultuous events he lived through in China. He was working in Australia when he was offered a job back in China in 1950, and in 1954, although he dreamed of becoming a top surgeon, he was appointed medical director of the health clinic in Zhongnanhai, the place in Beijing where most of the top leaders lived and worked. This made him personal physician to Chairman Mao, whom at first he adulated and was happy to serve. After 22 years at the centre of the byzantine school of back-stabbing, rumour-mongering and medieval-type manoeuvring for power which he found the central leadership to be always engaged in, his admiration for the leader had evaporated.
His account of the amazing manoeuvring that went on between the various factions, all of whom acknowledged Mao as the supreme leader who could dispose of any of them on a whim, is really something unusual to read about the modern world. A friend of mine who is vastly knowledgable about the history of China does not think their behaviour was so extraordinary, but merely very Chinese, since emperors of China in the past had been gotten rid of by their subordinates and even their sons, in struggles for power in which no holds were barred.
The Communist government did succeed in getting the country working, and establishing a massive bureaucracy to keep it moving. But Chairman Mao, who Dr. Li says never understood economics, was always restless, and he wanted to keep the party under him restless. He would embark on amazing schemes, force them on the party, and had the ruthlessness and the means to impose his schemes on the nation.
Reading the book, the revelation of his ruthless attitude towards politics and towards the people under him did not surprise me. I had read Vol. V of his selected writings in which he coolly --- coldly might be a more appropriate word --- outlined his theory of politics, which acknowledged that maybe three per cent of the people at the top were entirely with him, perhaps ten per cent were supporters whose loyalty might be questionable (and who therefore had to be unmasked, and gotten rid of), the vast majority were indifferent, and ten per cent at the bottom were out and out opponents, and also had to be gotten rid of.
The troubles described in such detail and with such eloquence in this book really began in 1957 when he decided the time had come to unmask the ten per cent of lukewarm supporters. So, he launched his programme, “let 100 flowers bloom, 100 schools of thought contend,” and invited everyone to express honestly their opinion of the work of the Communist government so far. People seized the opportunity to say what they really thought, and gave expression in big character posters which appeared everywhere. Eventually, Mao decided he had heard enough, cracked down on any further expressions of negative opinions, and expelled those who had been negative to twenty-five years of working in the nether regions as peasants. I remember, years later, meeting an 80-year-old woman writer, Ding Ling, on a tour of Canada, who had not long before emerged from her twenty-five year exile among the peasants. She was a woman of remarkable calm, apparently exhibiting not a trace of bitterness, although perhaps this was just another Chinese characteristic which westerners like me had difficulty in comprehending.
Anyway, Mao’s ultimate objective --- apart from maintaining his own unchallenged power --- was to keep his subordinates on the hop, and to establish the once-despised nation of China on the world stage as a genuine power. So, he next launched what was called The Great Leap Forward, in which the aim was for China to overtake the United Kingdom in production and standard of living. To that end he encouraged everyone to establish a backyard furnace in which they could make their own steel, in this way overcoming the figures for UK steel production. According to Dr. Li, everyone in the country jettisoned their knives and forks, plates and other household goods into backyard furnaces which were fuelled by their wooden furniture, broken up and burned, leaving them with nowhere to sleep except on their baked-mud floors. While tending to this useless occupation --- useless because the furnaces might have produced ingots of steel, but these ingots were found to be useless for any purpose their creators could think of --- all the able-bodied peasants who should have been tending their crops were just allowing their crops to wither on the vine, untended. Local bureaucrats, pressured to produce more and more, declared impossible yields ---- at first maybe 10,000 pounds of wheat per mu, a mu being .16 of an acre --- and later 20,000, 30,000 and so on, totally impossible yields that were announced but never actually produced. A vast famine spread throughout the land, but Mao and his functionaries and subordinates, lounging in their own specially guarded enclaves, were isolated from the worst effects of the famine, and scarcely acknowledged it. During this time Dr. Li was sent by Mao into the countryside to work with the peasants, but with orders to report to the leader about what he was seeing, and he discovered agonizingly terrible poverty had seized hold of the peasantry, resulting at first in thousands, then hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of deaths.
A few brave functionaries did not toe the party line as required; they told the truth about what was happening, but they were immediately dismissed from their posts and banished to sinecure jobs in the hinterland.
So long as the Glorious Leader’s position was never challenged all was well.
Meantime, ideological debate raged among the comrades, with Mao’s estranged wife, Jiang Quin, a former actress, and by this time a dangerously deranged personality, putting in her bid for power, gathering ultra-leftist followers, and denouncing everyone to whom she took a dislike, or who seemed to be standing in her way on her quest for power.
While all this was going on, Mao himself was plunging increasingly into an almost non-stop orgy of pleasure, surrounding himself with adoring young women, some of whom became figures of authority because of their relationship with the Leader, and whose arrogance could not safely be challenged even by other top leaders of the party. Verily, Dr Li reveals a truly Byzantine world, tinged with madness, it seems to me, although one thing about Mao that remained functional as his body declined, was his brain. He seemed to be able to keep enough of a hold on commonsense to enable him to bring some of this madness to a halt when he felt it had gone far enough.
The days of the Cultural Revolution are described in agonizing detail. Trying to look at it objectively, one can say that probably no other great leader in history had ever before attempted to cleanse his court by calling out the people to destroy its members, as Mao did during the Cultural Revolution. If it had not resulted in so much injustice, so much terror, so much appalling cruelty, one might have been able to praise it as an unprecedented act of political bravery.
The other leaders come and go through the book: Liu Shaoqi, a veteran Communist, was appointed head of the nation when Mao decided to relinquish that post and confine himself to being Leader of the Party. But Liu proved to be too independent, and became the convenient scapegoat for Mao in the search for those responsible for every mistake. He was hounded out of office, fell ill (and was denied treatment) and died in disgrace. Then Lin Biao, head of the Army, was named as Mao’s likely successor, and formed an alliance with Jiang Quin, but when Mao decided to cut him down, he tried to organize a coup, and when that failed, took off for the Soviet Union with his wife in a plane that was inadequately supplied with fuel, and crashed on the way, killing everyone on board.
Others, like Zhou Enlai, a smooth diplomat, and the favourite Chinese Communist leader in the West, was in and out of favour, but was never anything but a follower of Mao, and a subservient follower at that, according to Dr. Li. Similarly Deng Xiaoping, an independent-minded second-level official, was in, out, in again, out again, of favour. He was not named by Mao as his successor, but soon after Mao died he returned to power and became the unchallenged ruler of the country --- although without any formal post --- for some twelve years. He it was who set China on its new course that has produced such spectacular results.
Mao chose a mild-mannered, reasonable man, Hua Guofeng to be his successor, and within a month or so of the old man’s death he combined with other survivors to arrest Jiang Quin and her clique who became known as the Gang Of Four, and commit them to life imprisonment, they having been seized just before they were ready to seize power in a coup d’etat.
The final days of Mao’s life are described agonizingly by Dr. Li. At one point 24 nurses, working in shifts of eight, and five full-time doctors, were assigned to his care. None of them wanted to take decisions alone for fear that if things went wrong for their patient, they could be accused of killing him. The so-called Doctor’s Plot which had obsessed Stalin as he was dying hovered over all these people as a grave warning of what might happen. At one point the doctors agreed on a course of treatment and presented it to the young woman who was the only one who had direct access to Mao in these last days of his life. But --- she had been a railway employee when Mao met her some years before --- she announced their proposed treatments were worthless, and she had decided he would need to be fed glucose. The doctors were horrified, because they feared that Mao, who at that point could not swallow, would be choked to death when trying to take the glucose.
A high functionary named Wang Dongxing, who had been in and out of Mao’s favour, had been Dr. Li’s most significant protector through most of this experience, and he was a major influence in the arrest of the Gang of Four. Through his influence Dr. Li managed to survive, and finally was allowed to go off to a job as leader of a Beijing hospital. Eventually he took his ailing wife to the United States, where his children already lived, for treatment. He stayed there after his wife’s death, and he wrote his book “….for everyone who cherishes freedom. I want it to serve as a reminder of the terrible human consequences of Mao’s dictatorship and of how good and talented people living under his regime were forced to violate their consciences and sacrifice their ideals in order to survive.”
I went to China in 1978 as part of a National Film Board crew which made three films. Even so short a time after the death of Mao and arrest of the Gang of Four, the wheat-fields of the North China Plain were alive with healthy crops, a measure, perhaps, of the remarkable recuperative abilities of this great and ancient and still-multiplying people.