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Unmasking the Monster

But what we see in Dr. Li’s book goes well beyond an imperial court and a culture of submissiveness and beyond Pye’s insights. Here Mao is clearly a monster—egomaniacal, oblivious to twentieth-century science, technology, and language, paranoid, cruel, cunning, deceitful, and a sexual predator. His redeeming qualities, such as his occasional great charm and simplicity, were mostly used to instill false confidence, create gratitude, or extract information.

Dr. Li left a job in Australia to return to China in 1949. He was chosen as Mao’s doctor in 1954 when he was only thirty-four and he adored Mao during the first few years he treated him; but from the beginning he feared him and before long came to despise him. By 1959, he says, “My dreams for China and the party had been destroyed. My image of Mao had been shattered. My only hope was to save myself.” He had worked for Mao only a few years; there were to be seventeen more.

Dr. Li found that Mao’s determination to have his own way had no limits: Mao was convinced that he was China and China was his. This explains Mao’s passion for swimming in dangerous rivers in the face of alarmed advice not to do so. Taking to the water was Mao’s show of infantile insistence on having his way no matter what; he could not imagine anything within Chinese life that he could not change. Here again Lucian Pye’s early analysis is perceptive. When dealing with Mao as the charismatic leader who told Edgar Snow that in human affairs there is always “the desire to be worshipped and the desire to worship.” Pye sees both dependency and narcissism. In infancy, “when the self has not been differentiated from others or from the environment…there is a confusion of impotence and helplessness…[the] hero’s joy in being worshipped barely masks his anxieties over being ignored.”7 The best Dr. Li can say for Mao is that he may not have known what the worst effects were of some of his policies—but the policies themselves could have led to nothing but disaster, especially because Mao created an atmosphere in which everyone constantly lied to him.

Dr. Li does not portray himself heroically in this book, although his stamina was remarkable, nor does he see himself as a man who maintained his moral sense while others were losing theirs. For the first few years he worked for Mao, he writes, “I still revered him. I had no independent will or opinions. What Mao thought, I thought. It was not that I had contrary opinions that I had to suppress or keep to myself. Mao’s opinions were mine. The possibility of differing with the Chairman never crossed my mind.” But even during this period Dr. Li felt he was being forced to attack colleagues

for my own survival and for the survival of my family. I had to lie. It was the only way to save my job and be promoted. I wanted, above all, to survive…. I know I would behave that way again. I felt I had no other choice…. If I were to return today and be asked to support the atrocities committed by the Chinese army on June 4, 1989, I would do so. Even today, the Communist party continues to demand that people attack the innocent. It requires people to pledge public support for policies with which they do not agree. Survival in China, then and now, depends on constantly betraying one’s conscience.

There is much truth here—Deng Xiaoping warned his own children to testify against him once he realized that he was about to be purged by Mao in 1966. But it must be said that a significant number of Chinese did not, and do not, behave this way.

Dr. Li came from a long line of rich Chinese doctors, although he received his own medical education under Western doctors at a hospital in western China. He was flattered to be asked to care for the highest Party leaders, and although uneasy he was even more flattered to be asked to look after Mao. “My whole world had changed. The sky had opened up and the earth had embraced me. I was no longer a nobody…. I was Chairman Mao’s doctor. I was ecstatic!” This was more than simple ambition. Dr. Li was very eager to show himself to be a patriotic Chinese. He was ashamed of his father, a high official under Chiang Kaishek and a faithless husband. Because of this family history Dr. Li had undergone careful screening before he was allowed to join the Party in 1952. But having a “bad class background,” which in Mao’s China could be literally lethal, tormented Dr. Li throughout his time with the Chairman, who reminded him of it when they met and artfully earned his doctor’s groveling gratitude by assuring him—Mao often used forgiveness as a way of binding people to him—that it made no difference.

Almost immediately after joining Mao’s entourage he received a warning he never forgot. Ren Bishi, one of the top five officials in the Party, died in 1950, and soon after Dr. Li entered Mao’s entourage Ren’s widow told him that Mao “has a terrible temper and can turn mercilessly against you at the slightest provocation.” Even though she was the widow of a revolutionary hero, Dr. Li notes, for speaking to him like this “she could have been accused of being a counter-revolutionary, anti-party element….”

Dr. Li describes a dangerous psychopath. “…Mao had no friends and was isolated from normal human contact…. So far as I could tell, despite his initial friendliness at first meetings, Mao was devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth.” Dr. Li was sitting next to Mao at the Shanghai circus when a child acrobat fell and was badly hurt. The crowd was horrified, “Mao continued talking and laughing without concern, as though nothing had happened. Nor, to my knowledge, did he ever inquire about the fate of the young performer.”

Of course, Mao could be actively cruel, and on a large scale. At first, when Mao told Dr. Li that he didn’t believe in killing people, he thought the Chairman was a generous man who actually wanted his enemies to reform. Thus, for example, when Mao ordered “reform” for the “Rightists,” the intellectuals who in 1957 and 1958 had dared to criticize him when invited to do so, Dr. Li supported him. “Mao was good and the Communist party was good. They had saved China.” But he was to learn that 500,000 people had been “falsely accused” of being Rightists; and while “it is true that Mao did not kill his opponents right away,” the reforms—that is, backbreaking hard labor for long periods—“often meant a torturously slow and painful death.”

Later, Dr. Li heard Mao estimate that there were 30 million bad elements, counter-revolutionaries, rich peasants, and Rightists in China who would now be the objects of attack. “We have so many people,” Mao said. “We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?”

This was not mere hyperbole on Mao’s part. The historian of Party affairs, Dai Qing, told Perry Link of Princeton that at Yanan, Mao’s headquarters during the guerrilla period between 1936 and 1947, “Chinese communists numbering as many as ten thousand and including ‘many excellent, independent-minded people,’ were accused of being ‘Trotskyites’ or ‘Nationalist agents’ and ‘eliminated by drowning, burying alive, or death in squalid prisons.”’8 This was the purge in which the father of Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, was arrested. He was so terrified that he warned his wife not to weep while she was having a miscarriage. He gave her a handkerchief to stifle her sobs; if she did not her “comrades would say she was not worthy of ‘being in the revolution,’ even a coward.”9

In their remarkable new book on the meaning of Yanan to those who remember and survived it, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic, David Apter of Yale and Tony Saitch of the University of Leiden observe that in the four key inner-Party struggles that took place in Yanan while Mao was consolidating his power, “‘each…ended in the death or exile of Mao’s designated opponent. In each case his victory was complete.” As a result, “no one doubted where power lay and the consequences of standing up to it.” This created a culture of violence within the Party which Apter and Saitch argue dominates the thinking and feeling of the old men—Mao’s former comrades—who ordered the Tiananmen killings in 1989.

Locked into their historical memories they are plagued by guilty knowledge. For only they know what they have done to one another, both before Yan’an, when communist plotted against and killed communist as well as other enemies… and afterwards, when they came to power.” 10

The inner circle “spent their lives lying, saying things weixinhua, against their hearts.”

Andrew Nathan in his book China’s Crisis writes that Bo Yibo, a high Party official, “was the only leader to admit publicly to a guilty conscience for anything that happened in the years since 1949.”11 In the most telling passage in their book, which sums up the experiences of those who cast their lot with Mao, Apter and Saitch describe China as “a country of angry widows. Each shift in the party produced its own legacy of such widows whose husbands were pulled down, humiliated, subjected to trials, committed suicide or died of beatings, or were atrophied by long prison sentences.”12

What is particularly fascinating about this cruelty is the extent to which it was necessary to lie about it, either by denying that it happened at all, covering up the causes, or in some way explaining that it was both exaggerated and necessary (as with the Tiananmen repression). But the 1958 Great Leap Forward, which the Party’s official 1981 statement on Mao now condemns, and which caused vast suffering to millions because of its consequent famine (of which the document, however, makes no mention) was based on contemporary lies. One of the biggest had to do with the efficacy of the notorious backyard furnaces which were irrationally constructed because Mao was determined that China must catch up with Britain in steel production within fifteen years. According to another false claim, stupendous increases in the production of grain would result only if new and, as it turned out, crazy agricultural methods were employed.

History was being made,” Dr. Li recalls the mood of the time. “China had finally found the way from poverty to abundance. The salvation of the Chinese peasantry was at hand.”

Millions of Chinese were swept into melting household implements into nuggets which were arbitrarily called steel. “I was astounded,” recalls Dr. Li. “…I had no idea whether the ingots were of good-quality steel, but it did seem ridiculous.” Eventually even the scientifically ignorant Mao was forced to ask, “If these small backyard furnaces can really produce so much steel…why do foreigners build such gigantic steel mills. Are foreigners really so stupid?”

  1. 7

    Pye, Mao Tse-Tung: The Man in the Leader, pp. 12, 13.

  2. 8

    Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing (Norton, 1993), p. 145. For a recent description of the Yanan persecutions see Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and ‘Wild Lilies’: Rectification and Purges in the Chinese Communist Party, 1942–1944 (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).

  3. 9

    Wild Swans (Flamingo, 1993), p. 192.

  4. 10

    Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 35, 292, 29.

  5. 11

    Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 13.

  6. 12

    David Apter and Tony Saitch, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic, p. 20.

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