OF ALL THE TACTICS and stratagems used by Mao Zedong in his long and victorious career of warfare—overt and covert; military, political, and cultural—one stands out for its almost comical simplicity: The paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China would ask his comrades or underlings—or the general public—for advice. Helpful criticism. An honest appraisal of the current situation. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he declared in the spring of 1957, inviting critics of the Chinese Communist Party to freely speak their minds.
Then, when people took him up on the offer, he would smash them. They had revealed themselves as “venomous weeds,” as the People’s Daily put it in June of 1957, announcing the party’s sudden pivot from the Hundred Flowers Campaign to the Anti-Rightist Campaign. That was the canonical example, but somehow, Mao kept on repeating the trick, and people kept falling for it.
Even now, long after the breakdown of anything that a cadre from 1957 would recognize as communism, Mao’s two-step is still a fundamental rhythm of China’s political culture. A space seems to open for dissidence, and then it closes again. In 2008, a group of intellectuals judged it possible to post an online petition calling for reform; the government promptly rounded up and detained the leaders, sentencing one of them, the eventual Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, to eleven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
The mystery is whether Mao himself was ever sincere in the first place. Did he believe he genuinely wanted criticism, only to recoil when it arrived? Or was the initial offer always cynical? Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine, in Mao: The Real Story, take the Hundred Flowers Campaign to have been at least partially sincere—they write that Mao was hoping for certain specific criticisms he could use against his enemies, but “miscalculated” the actual range of complaints that his appeal would yield.
Maybe so. But if Mao: The Real Story conveys anything about Mao Zedong, it’s that there is no single real story of him to be had through biography or history. Despite Pantsov and Levine’s efforts, the Great Helmsman is an indigestible figure. His rise from life as an obscure Hunanese peasant in a disintegrating empire to his decades-long tenure as the ruler of a unified superpower defies explanation in terms of motive or opportunity. His achievements were too enormous, his character too opaque, and—yes—his methods too deceitful to have left the world with a reliable narrative of his life and work.
For instance: Pantsov and Levine claim to have cracked the nut based largely on their “exclusive access to major archives in the former Soviet Union.” From those files, they conclude that “Mao was a faithful follower of Stalin who took pains to reassure the Boss of his loyalty and who dared to deviate from the Soviet model only after Stalin’s death.” The Communist International thrived on deception and misrepresentation; Mao deceived and misrepresented; ergo, Mao was a faithful servant of the Comintern. That’s one way of reading it. An alternative reading of the Soviet files might be that Mao successfully presented himself before Stalin and the Communist International so that they believed that Mao was loyally on their side—as people usually believed, the book demonstrates over and over, when Mao wished them to do so.
So, in other words, we now have evidence that Mao refrained from antagonizing the most dangerous man in the world, while taking arms, money, and technological support from him. Or, to interpret things in a still simpler light: Mao wasn’t stupid. The authors sometimes seek to create the contrary impression—they point out, for instance, that Mao was wholly ignorant of economics, and that he “had absolutely no talent for languages,” to the point that he canceled plans to study anarchism in France in his youth, because (they speculate) he “simply couldn’t pass the French language exam.”
But just as is the case with handicapping the cunning, or lack thereof, behind Mao’s deeply unreliable relationship with the truth, there is something more than a little futile about the accumulation of unflattering details about Mao, the effort to cut him down to size. He was fickle. He kept irresponsibly late hours. Fighting guerrilla war in the Jinggang Mountains, he was plagued by constipation, which his (third) wife relieved with “warm, soapy enemas.” He was a debauched goat with endless teenage mistresses; he was absent and cold toward his children. The mind tries conjuring a chimera made of parts of Ronald Reagan, JFK, and a tin bedpan, then goes back, in resignation, to the old heroic painting gazing down on Tiananmen Square. Chairman Mao is Chairman Mao.
This obdurate Maoness is the chief reason, it seems, that Mao: The Real Story can never quite find a comfortable perspective on its subject. The reliance on Soviet and Chinese archives means that much of the biography focuses on the turbulent bureaucratic space around Mao, where allies and rivals and foreign emissaries tried to make sense of contradictory and incoherent information. The minutes of committee meetings get more attention than events of military battles: Pantsov and Levine spend twice as many pages on the Sino-Soviet negotiations over military intervention in Korea (“on September 28 the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party finally decided to send a letter to Beijing”) than they do on the actual fighting of the Korean War (“UN troops faltered and then started rolling south, but soon the situation stabilized”). In an accidental tribute to Mao’s own high-handedness, the four or five million war deaths in Korea are dealt with in a single paragraph.
Nor does it help that the book, as it flips through its source material, shuttles back and forth among time frames. Stalin dies in the middle of the Korean War, then revives at a later point so the story can focus on his death proper; Khrushchev gets purged, and then mysteriously unpurged, also in the service of the book’s blunt narrative directives. The chapter on the downfall of Lin Biao—the head of the People’s Liberation Army and at one point Mao’s designated successor—starts with Mao being interviewed in 1970, drops back to a reminiscence about 1963, returns to 1970, and then quotes a Soviet intelligence memo about conditions in 1967, before dropping back to 1928 to recount Mao’s first meeting with Lin in the mountains during wartime. And all this happens in three pages. The details bounce around so much that it becomes harder and harder to remember what they are supposed to be the details of.
The journalist Yang Jisheng, by comparison, knows exactly what details he is presenting: They are the details of the thing that killed his father, along with tens of millions of other Chinese people, over the span of four horrifying years. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962 is methodical and factual, and it amounts to a devastatingly clear account of Mao and his era.
Beginning in 1958—as Mao proclaimed the Great Leap Forward, in which the nation’s primitive industry and agriculture would swiftly catch up with and surpass the production levels of the West—the People’s Republic started to run out of food. The official histories blame this famine on natural disasters. Pantsov and Levine, following that lead, write that flooding and dryness plagued different parts of China in 1959, and that “in 1960 the entire country was in the grip of a terrible drought.”
But Yang studied decades’ worth of rainfall and temperature data, and conferred with a government meteorologist, who told him, “From 1958 to 1961, there were no large-scale droughts or floods within China. . . . Conditions in those three years were normal.”
Instead, what happened was that the system Mao had created went insane. In the name of building Communist utopia overnight, farmworkers were diverted to labor on industry and infrastructure; agricultural work was collectivized and thrown into disorder; high-ranking bureaucrats imposed useless and destructive pseudoscientific farming methods on the countryside. Local officials, vying to demonstrate the greatest commitment to progress, reported fraudulent crop yields, and the government requisitioned its due share of the nonexistent bumper crops.
Yang lists the ever-increasing fictitious returns from supposedly state-of-the-art fields, all dutifully reported in the People’s Daily in 1958. In June, a yield of 1,007.5 kilograms of wheat per mou (about one-sixth of an acre) was newsworthy; by September, one field claimed 4,292.8 kilos. Fantasies of rice grew even faster: 1,637 kilos per mou in July had burgeoned to 30,263.5 kilos in September. Mao wondered what China should do with the extra food, and the Central Committee advised leaving some land fallow in the future. Grain was exported to the Soviet Union in solidarity.
Yet when the government tried to collect its own percentage of the abundance, the grain wasn’t there. This proved not that there was something wrong with the crop figures, but that peasants who lacked the proper leftist mind-set were stealing and hoarding food—and thereby undermining the nation’s progress. “Concealing one kernel of grain was the same as concealing a bullet,” the authorities announced. So local officials beat every last piece of grain out of the people, tearing houses apart, harassing people to death. And still the grain didn’t show up.
The truth was contrary to Mao’s plans and directives, so the truth itself was subversive. Letters from starving peasants, begging for help, were intercepted and suppressed. Visiting inspectors were fed from officials’ private stock of food, and came back reporting that there was enough to eat. In 1959, Mao called a conference at Lushan, ostensibly to discuss difficulties with the Great Leap Forward. “When you hit a wall, you need to change directions,” he said. But it was the same old gambit. Peng Dehuai, the defense minister and the Chairman’s old comrade-in-arms, urged Mao to draw up “practical, realistic, safe and reliable” plans, and noted that there had been “both losses and gains.” Mao pounced on Peng’s criticism in spirit and letter—why had he put “losses” before “gains”?—and turned the meeting into a denunciation of Peng for “right opportunism,” leading to a swift purge.
Keeping up with the Chairman’s intentions required a nihilistic mind. Yang relates one particularly deranged episode in which Li Jingquan, the party secretary for Sichuan province, received orders from the central government to ease the excesses of the Great Leap Forward—and chose to ignore them, believing Mao hadn’t really meant it. “He told prefectural and municipal party secretaries that Mao’s letter had to be ‘understood from a positive angle,’” Yang writes. Li was correct; the reform movement evaporated. Sichuan would not falter on its path to starvation.
Given all these conditions, widespread, man-made famine was inescapable. The rural Chinese had surrendered even their household cooking utensils to the communal kitchens, or to backyard furnaces for worthless “iron production.” They were forbidden to cultivate any food crops on the side, and forbidden to flee their home villages. They ate bark, weeds, and dirt. Eventually they ate corpses. Eventually parents killed children and children killed siblings, to eat them. Fairy-tale horrors are rendered in real life: A woman accused of cannibalism was captured and brought in for mass criticism, only to have her accusers, in a frenzy of hunger, devour the bowl of cooked evidence. “There was nothing to do but adjourn the meeting,” Yang writes.
Yang also marshals accounts of Mao’s 1958 tour of the Hongguan Collective in Sichuan, where delighted peasants credited his visit with bringing much-needed rain, and resolved to pave the ground he’d walked and name it “Happiness Road.” Three years later, Yang writes, the population of the commune had dropped from 4,020 people to 2,750.
Even with such shocking stories driving the narrative, the true horror of Tombstone is that it’s not sensational. It is, rather, a meticulous accumulation of evidence and fact. Yang compares the caloric demands of farm labor, some 3,400 to 4,000 calories a day, to the 618 calories of the peasant’s average daily grain ration. He distinguishes the effects of prolonged partial starvation, with edema and damage to internal organs, from the rapid weight loss and euphoria of complete starvation. One full chapter is devoted to various methodologies and estimates for answering the still-open question of how many people died—17 million? Or 28.8 million, or 47.7 million? There are charts and tables, including a population graph with a notch in the demographic pyramid where the birthrate plunged, as uterine prolapse and testicular atrophy became epidemic. In the end, after weighing all the numbers and opinions, Yang concludes there were “about 36 million unnatural deaths, and a shortfall of 40 million births.”
Was Mao another Stalin? When Stalin starved the Ukraine, people could at least argue about whether it was an act of intentional murder. There was no doubt that he wanted to terrorize the Ukrainians. Mao, meanwhile, presided over the deaths of thirty-six million people out of no particular malice at all. The Great Helmsman is long dead; Pantsov and Levine note that the old barracks communism and the cult of personality have been utterly overthrown. The time has passed when a mob of young Red Guards could beat and abuse the nation’s reigning head of state, Liu Shaoqi, in Mao’s name, armed with the knowledge that the Chairman’s occult power transcended official authority and law.
What endures, though—even in the contemporary Communist state of Hermès stores and Maserati dealerships—is the invisible superstructure of paranoia and defensiveness, the besieged attitude of the party. Truth and facts are still subversion. The dictator and his dreams are gone; what’s left is the dictatorship.
Tom Scocca is the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future (Riverhead, 2011) and the managing editor of Deadspin.