I distrusted this book the moment I opened it. The reason for this initial reaction was the routine hostility to Mao Zedong (毛澤東) evident on every page. I couldn't find a single point anywhere in his favor.
Human beings are not like this, I thought. I'd become accustomed to thinking of all people as a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, with even the worst kinds of tyrants motivated by what they believed, however misguidedly, were idealistic motives. The mass killer who has an affection for his mother or his pet canary is an established type. But nothing like that is allowed to Mao in this book. It credits him with no altruistic motives whatsoever, and indeed its hatred for the Great Helmsman is unrelenting.
I found this puzzling. The two writers -- the author of the hugely successful Wild Swans and her British husband -- researched this book for over a decade and, you would have thought, would want to succeed in it with their scholarly peers. But scholars don't usually write sentences such as this (the book's conclusion): "His mind remained lucid to the end, and in it stirred just one thought: himself and his power." Photo captions contain phrases such as: "... [Mao's] book-strewn bed, on which he also romped with his numerous girlfriends" and "congratulating the Khmer Rouge in 1975, for bringing about a slave society in one fell swoop."
I therefore decided the ultimate readership these authors had in mind was not fellow scholars at all, but rather China's own citizens. China, it could be argued, flourishes on myths, and it's little use offering to a mass readership a scrupulous narrative that weighs the pros and cons. The Chinese have been fed pro-Mao propaganda for decades, and what they needed, you can imagine this pair of writers thinking, was anti-Mao propaganda that was equally clear-cut and ruthless.
So -- what in essence do Chang and Halliday argue? The answer is one big thing and many incidental ones. The big thing is that Mao was always interested only in personal power, and to this end urged executions, terror and communal brutality. His crack-pot schemes causing millions of deaths were not misguided attempts to improve people's lives but deliberate sacrifices of Chinese citizens for his own strategic advantage. This is the main thrust of the book's argument.
Specific accusations include that the courage of the Long March was a myth, and that Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) let the Reds pass unresisted because his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), was a hostage in Moscow; that the Dadu Chain-Bridge Incident was a fiction; that Mao prolonged the Korean War, despite terrible Chinese casualties, simply to embarrass the US; that he encouraged raising cash by opium cultivation; and that he paid Moscow vast sums for military and other aid.
One of the problems is that the book claims to offer "the unknown story" of Mao. To know what's unknown you need to know what was previously known, and to do that you'd have to read all earlier biographies -- a near-impossible task. Clearly, then, it was necessary to defer to specialist historians of China and other China-watchers and find what they thought of the book.
So I looked at earlier reviews. One of the most controversial appeared in the London Review of Books. By the Columbia professor and writer on China Andrew Nathan, it insisted that "many of Chang and Halliday's claims are based on distorted, misleading or far-fetched use of evidence."