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'Unknown Story' repeats Mao's brutal history

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Stalin and Hitler rank at the forefront of 20th-century genocidal madmen who brought death and despair to millions. But according to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's new biography of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese leader was just as evil, if not worse. They convincingly argue that Mao caused the death of more than 70 million Chinese in peacetime.

Mao: The Untold Story is mind-boggling. After finishing it, readers will cast a skeptical eye on the media's sympathetic presentation of Mao in his later years, U.S. foreign policy and the current Chinese regime's reverence for Mao.

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao deliberately chose to starve almost 38 million Chinese to death during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s.

While his people suffered in the worst famine in history, Mao mercilessly extracted food from his nation. He exported it to the U.S.S.R. and its satellite nations to fulfill his hunger for weapons and to expand his influence. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s also killed millions and virtually destroyed China's spirit, the authors say.

From the beginning, Mao employed terror, torture, slave labor, humiliation, brainwashing, public executions and the destruction of trust so he could advance himself. Chang and Halliday do not present Mao as mentally ill. According his biographers, he was clever, loved his mother, grasped people's emotional needs, and enjoyed women, food, swimming and books.

But at every turn, Mao chose self-interest. He abandoned or betrayed wives, friends, soldiers, colleagues, his own children, his country. To Mao, China's greatest asset was its enormous population, and he exploited it fully. It was acceptable for an estimated 400,000 Chinese soldiers to die in the Korean War if their deaths advanced Mao's goal of tying down the United States, Chang and Halliday say.

Moreover, the authors charge that everything we think we know about Mao is false. His family was affluent, and he despised peasants. No patriot, Mao was a puppet of Stalin and would have carved up China with Russia and Japan as long as he got a slice. Chiang Kai-shek, the authors say, allowed the Long March to succeed because Stalin held Chiang's son in Moscow as a hostage.

The background of the two writers serves the book well. Chang is the author of Wild Swans, the international best seller about three generations of women in China. Born in China in 1952, she was a Red Guard at age 14 and "barefoot doctor" before she moved to the U.K. as a graduate student.

Her co-author, Halliday, is a British scholar fluent in Russian.

The copiously researched book, brimming with interviews and facts, would have benefited from another year of editing and rewriting. The sheer mass of detail can overwhelm the lay reader.

Still, for anyone in search of a serious examination of Mao, his gruesome legacy and China, this astonishing book is a must-read.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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