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3.0 out of 5 stars
Neither one story nor another, 18 Oct. 2005
This book stands to remain the tome of first resort for most casual readers seeking to learn more about Mao Zedong. It is impressively researched, and the authors have clearly gained access to many people whose intimate knowledge of Mao has thus far remained undocumented in the English language, and only to a small degree even in Chinese.
However, the ultimate flaw in this book is its failure to reconcile the differences between a personal biography and a political one: the approach that worked very well in the first half of the book, recounting his personal rise to prominence and leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, is inadequate in explaining the decisions made by 'Chairman Mao' once he had been installed at the head of the government of the most populous nation on the planet.
The narrative of 'Mao the self-serving and ruthless power seeker' gives way in 1949 to the narrative of 'Mao the ruthless tyrant'. While neither of these portrayals are wholly inaccurate, 'Mao the ruthless tyrant' is an inadequate framework within which to analyse the policy choices of the head of the most populous nation on earth. The tyrant's over-riding policy objective is laid out in vague terms as being 'to dominate the world' through massive investment and expenditure on the military in general and nuclear weapons in particular. The main effects of these policy choices are given as the irrefutable suffering that befell the Chinese populace as a result. However, 'world domination' while being an objective, is not in itself a policy; nor is massive military expenditure an end of any worth if it is not to be used to implement a coherent foreign policy. This is where the weaknesses in this book come to the fore. If the argument is that the tyrant's pursuit of a foreign policy objective was his main motivation over 25 years, then his foreign policy choices cannot be examined in isolation from each other and only detailed in terms of their effects on the general populace.
To use one example, when Sino-Soviet tensions reached such a peak in mid-1969 that the Russians seriously contemplated a pre-emptive nuclear strike against China's nuclear facilities, the effect of this is not given in terms of China's opening to the USA and Nixon's subsequent visit, but rather in terms of the number of Chinese who were corveed into building underground bomb shelters. Likewise, Nixon's visit is later portrayed as simply a 'P.R. stunt' of Mao's, whereby Nixon was, like so many others, duped by the dictator; the geopolitical import of this major reorientation in China's Cold War policy is not even given the most scant of treatment. Furthermore, like the distortion of the motives behind Sino-American rapprochement, Chang and Halliday's dating of the origins of this process is inaccurate.
Overall, this book is a useful insight into the personality and character of Mao Zedong, and also his most dangerous of accomplices, Zhou Enlai. However, for anyone seeking to gain an understanding or explanation of the policy choices made during Mao's 27-year regime, this book tells no story at all.