The Naked Dictator

by Russ Roberts on October 24, 2005

in Books

The NYT’s Book Review has a rave review of Mao: The Unknown Story, a bio of the great swimmer and murderer.  The reviewer, Nicholas Kristof, is a little surprised to discover that Mao may have been bad from the start:

Mao’s sins in later life are fairly well known, and even Chen Yun, one
of the top Chinese leaders in the 1980’s, suggested that it might have
been best if Mao had died in 1956. This biography shows, though, that
Mao was something of a fraud from Day 1.

Why is this surprising.  When it was "discovered" that Stalin was an evil murderer, the friends of communism argued for Lenin’s righteousness.  But it turned out he was a nasty fellow, too.  When the avuncular Castro dies, we’ll discover he was a monster from Day 1, too.  One reason for this bizarre romantic view of murderers is that until the murderer dies, those who know the truth are reluctant to speak out.  But part of it is simply romanticism about charisma.  No one who aims to rule China is going to be a normal person.  We may long to view him as one of us or just a normal Joe or even Zhou, but the aspiration to rule a nation tells us he isn’t normal.  Such folks have very large egos and getting power is unlikely to be a healthy food for those egos.  Instead you get the macro—the murder of millions, and the micro—the brutal treatment of those around you:

Some of the most fascinating material involves Zhou Enlai, the longtime
prime minister, who comes across as a complete toady of Mao, even
though Mao tormented him by forcing him to make self-criticisms and by
seating him in third-rate seats during meetings. In the mid-1970’s,
Zhou was suffering from cancer and yet Mao refused to allow him to get
treatment – wanting Zhou to be the one to die first. "Operations are
ruled out for now" for Zhou, Mao declared on May 9, 1974. "Absolutely
no room for argument." And so, sure enough, Zhou died in early 1976,
and Mao in September that year.

Maybe the book will get some restaurants renamed.

Then again, according to Kristof, even Mao’s legacy has a bright side.

I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and
this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But
Mao’s legacy is not all bad. Land reform in China, like the land reform
in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today.
The emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from
one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women
have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea. Indeed, Mao’s entire
assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for
China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon.

Yes, he was good for women.  Unless you were one of the 35 million or so women who he killed directly or indirectly.  Other than that, he was really good for Chinese women.  And take a nother look at that last sentence:

Indeed, Mao’s entire
assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for
China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon.

That’s like saying, true, he broke a lot of eggs.  But the Chinese people got an omelet!  It was a bad deal.


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