Sex, Drugs and Mao Zedong

Two new books show that Beijing's leaders were more ruthless -- and corrupt -- than even their enemies imagined

  • In Moscow the crimes of Stalin have been reported and officially confirmed for years. The unrepentant Chinese government is still much more secretive and reluctant to provide ammunition for its critics. But two new books — The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng by Harrison E. Salisbury (Little, Brown; 544 pages; $24.95) and The Claws of the Dragon: Kang Sheng by John Byron and Robert Pack (Simon & Schuster; 560 pages; $27.50) — indicate that glasnost is coming, inexorably, to Beijing. They provide the most detailed and personal accounts so far of the chaos, cruelty and corruption that Mao Zedong's reign inflicted on the nation.

    Harrison Salisbury, the veteran New York Times correspondent and popular historian, comes right out and calls Mao an emperor — and not the first one to take power through a peasant rebellion. Precisely because Mao was a peasant, he was unprepared to govern China and modernize it. A "pseudo- Marxist" bored by statistics and budgets, Mao was interested mainly in class warfare and "mobilization of the masses," who he was convinced could do anything if properly exhorted.

    The New Emperors is based on dozens of interviews in China and scores of documents and memoirs. The reporting is set out so thoroughly that readers are prepared to believe its accounts not only of how Mao turned on his closest comrades but also that he was a satyr, pornography collector and drug addict.

    Salisbury writes soberly in staccato prose that "from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s" — the height of the bloody purges of the Cultural Revolution — "Mao's quarters sometimes swarmed with young women." The Great Helmsman staged nude water ballets in his swimming pool. "Art ensembles" and "dancing partners" were standing by wherever he went. One of Mao's doctors referred to him bluntly as "a sex maniac."

    The poet-guerrilla so idealized by "friends of China" had other, more public failings, and Salisbury charts them in detail. Impatient with the slow pace of economic development, Mao launched the catastrophic Great Leap Forward in 1958. The movement forced farmers into communes, abolished private property and set up backyard steel mills to speed China into the industrial age. By 1960 even seed grains were exhausted and millions were starving to death.

    When his old comrade Defense Minister Peng Dehuai told him the facts, Mao declared him an enemy, fired him and replaced him with Marshal Lin Biao (also apparently a drug addict). The country went bankrupt, and President Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, General Secretary of the Communist Party, took over day-to- day control to restore the economy.

    Mao concluded that Liu and Deng planned to force him into retirement — and he may have been right. In 1965 Mao decided Liu "had to go." The weapon he chose was the Cultural Revolution, "a revolution against his own revolution." It was conducted by his harridan wife Jiang Qing and plotted by his favorite ideologist, security specialist and pimp, Kang Sheng.

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