Finally, there is Mao’s place in history. I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao’s legacy is not all bad. Land reform in China, like the land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today. The emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea. Indeed, Mao’s entire assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon.
Perhaps the best comparison is with Qinshihuang, the first Qin emperor, who 2,200 years ago unified China, built much of the Great Wall, standardized weights and measures and created a common currency and legal system – but burned books and buried scholars alive. The Qin emperor was as savage and at times as insane as Mao – but his success in integrating and strengthening China laid the groundwork for the next dynasty, the Han, one of the golden eras of Chinese civilization. In the same way, I think, Mao’s ruthlessness was a catastrophe at the time, brilliantly captured in this extraordinary book – and yet there’s more to the story: Mao also helped lay the groundwork for the rebirth and rise of China after five centuries of slumber.
Kristof’s “Hitler did some good things too” excuse-making for Mao is unconscionable. As long as Communist China’s one-child policy exists (a policy the government says “must be permanent,” and has led to “Forty Million Missing Girls“), Kristof’s statement about “the emancipation” of Chinese women will remain a sick joke. And I guess the 70 million deaths attributed to Mao by the authors (which Kristof spends an inordinate amount of time quibbling with) merely represent unfortunate collateral damage–as if there was no other way to shake off the “slumber.”
In Kristof’s review, he notes Mao’s statement to the Soviets before the “Great Leap Forward” that “half of China may well have to die.” We should at least be relieved that the person who may be the “greatest” mass murderer in history fell far short of that.
UPDATE: Dean notes at Comment 1 below that there’s a debate as to whether it’s Stalin or Mao with the highest body count, and the last sentence above has been changed to reflect that.
UPDATE 2: Roger Simon notes very accurately that Deng Tsaio Peng, not Mao, was the economic architect (AFTER Mao’s death, I would add), and gets in these two good rips (and others):
- “Kristof’s blithe ‘the ends justify the means’ contempt for human life boggles the imagination.”
- “Kristof’s paying audience doesn’t want to believe that Mao was all bad. After all, many of them marched or chanted in his behalf. I know this full well, because I was one of them. I even went to China in the Seventies and wore, once upon a time, a Mao cap. Of course I was one of Lenin’s ‘useful idiots.’ So is Kristof.”