7 facts about Chairman Mao – The Unknown Story
In The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) some of the characters argue over which 20th century leader was responsible for the most deaths. Winnie says that Chairman Mao’s actions were responsible for more deaths than Stalin’s and Hitler’s combined. While the numbers seem to be irrefutable, discussions on this topic (on online forums) quickly degenerate into hysterical rants.
Taken from the amazingly well-researched Mao biography The Unknown Story: here are 7 things you probably didn’t know about Mao. I’ve left out the stuff about his sex life and delight in violence and torture. I think this short list is already colourful enough without it:
1. Atom bomb
Mao desperately wanted the Soviet Union to share the know-how so that China could have its own atom bomb. Payments to the Soviet Union (in exchange for arms and general military help) came from the export of foodstuffs, particularly grain. Even when millions of Chinese people were starving, grain harvests were being exported to far wealthier countries – or even worse – allowed to rot in state-guarded granaries
In 1960, 22 million people died of starvation – the biggest number in one year in any country… ever. Doctors were a particularly persecuted group as many had identified starvation as the true cause of the ‘tidal wave of illness and death’
3. Mass killing of sparrows
Ignoring pleas from scientists about the ecological consequences, Mao decided that one way to safeguard grain would be to eradicate sparrows, as they ate grain. People were mobilised to wave sticks to stop sparrows from landing so that they would be so fatigued they would eventually fall down and be easily killed. As sparrows declined (along with other birds caught up in the killing spree), the pests they fed on flourished. The Chinese government then sent an urgent request to the Soviet Union to send 200,000 sparrows ASAP
When Mao flew, all other planes in China were grounded
Mao considered getting rid of people’s names and replacing them with numbers. He wanted to completely dehumanise the workers
6. Khmer Rouge
Mao was instrumental in installing the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975 (under whom up to a quarter of the Cambodian population perished within a few years)
7. Suppression of culture
Although passionate about Chinese opera, Mao suppressed many of them, starting with ‘Ghost Dramas’ – a genre in which dead victims’ spirits took revenge on their persecutors. Possibly, having been ultimately responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, Mao found these operas too close to home
Some things we can be sure of: the myths surrounding Chairman Mao are so much a fabric of the modern Chinese identity that they won’t be changing in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, we are far more subject to Chinese propaganda than we realise (see https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/aug/21/cambridge-university-press-faces-boycott-over-china-censorship).