Andrew Nathan at the London Review of Books looks at recent biographies of Mao and the continuing changes and developments of Mao studies inside and outside China.
Of course Mao deserves harsh moral judgment. Too many previous accounts of his life, awed by his achievements, have overlooked their human cost. But this portrayal impedes serious moral judgment. A caricature Mao is too easy a solution to the puzzle of modern China’s history. What we learn from this history is that there are some very bad people: it would have been more useful, as well as closer to the truth, had we been shown that there are some very bad institutions and some very bad situations, both of which can make bad people even worse, and give them the incentive and the opportunity to do terrible things.
Chang and Halliday’s white-hot fury no doubt represents the unpublished and anonymous Chinese sources that they have used. More authentically than the officially licensed propaganda, these as yet subterranean opinions reflect the current evaluation of Mao within the Party as well as outside. This book can thus be read as a report on the crumbling of the Mao myth, as well as a bombshell aimed at destroying that myth. That the Chinese are getting rid of their Mao myth is welcome. But more needs to take its place than a simple personalisation of blame.