Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Private life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui

I read it perhaps way back in 2010 and these are old notes kept aside. 

First, it was an excellent foreword by Andrew J. Nathan - he said it correctly, this book is different from any other biographies written of other leaders. This is not an autobiography, yet Li Zhi Sui as Mao's private doctor has exceptional access to Mao's life for over 22 years. Yet, it is not a clinical assessment because Dr Li often keep Mao company other then treating his physical ailments. 

Hence it is a very unique biography -  it is not a autobiography which the author may paint a better picture of himself or herself, yet the biographer had both more intimate access as well as long period with the subject.

Perhaps, the biggest unhappiness I took away from this book is the flattery and servility that surrounded the Mao. Dr Li's description of Zhou Enlai as a complete servant to Mao really affected the deep respect that I had for Zhou Enlai. There was this episode that when Zhou Enlai heard that Mao is dying, he lost control of his bowels and had to change his pants before visiting Mao. This was at the end of the Cultural Revolution and I would think that wasn't it wonderful that Mao was dying and the chaos would stop?

I guess it didn't help that when you know that Zhou Enlai was ready to sacrifice his life when he was young and it just made you think why didn't he just finish off Mao when Mao was leading the country into a mess when they were both old in age. Perhaps, it is something at this age of mine that I will fail to appreciate the complexities that Zhou Enlai was going through.

One can't believe the power of Mao such that even when he is physically very ill, he was still looked upon to be the person in command – his speech was incomprehensible and he scrawled words that confirmed Hua Guo Feng as his successor. You can just can't comprehend why a dying man should have such power.

Other memorable things in the books include: reading from a ground-level what havoc did policies like Great Leap Forward resulted int:Able bodied men were transferred to work on the backyard furnaces.Women and children could not bring in the harvest – crops were left rotting. The furnaces which melted knives etc to make new knives did not make sense and provided useless quality of steel. Rural taxes were based on percentage of what was produced. Fake high production figures mean that some states had to deliver all they produced to the state.

Meanwhile, things were arranged so that when Mao's train pass, he will see villages of perfectly planted fields full of peasant women dressed in red and green, with village blast furnaces smoking everywhere. Dr. Li describes a leader who has lost touch with reality and confesses that he himself was caught up in enthusiasm.

Other paragraphs worth noting:
  • Mao led an isolated life – he had most of his interactions with the top leaders Zhou Enlai and Liu Shao Qi were through notes on the documents or at meetings. His other main companions are his bodyguards, but they are often young and uneducated, unable to hold conversations on topics that interested Mao most – history and philosophy.
  • The underlying cause for Mao 's insomnia was rooted in his continuing fear that other high ranking leaders were not loyal to him. His insomnia symptoms became more severe at the beginning of the political struggle and will only improve after he got his way.
  • Mao found that with the massive bureaucracy in place, onetime revolutionaries had become bureaucrats themselves. They were more devoted to their own comfort and social status quo than to quickly continuing the revolution. In fact the party bureaucrats preached caution, wanting to follow the Soviet Model of gradual development.. Institutions and organizational structures were copied without regard to the special circumstance of China. Mao thought such copying of the Soviet Model lack creativity and he was getting irritated with his lieutenants. Together with fact that some of them agreed with Khrushchev's attack on Stalin lead to disaffection by Mao and would fester to grow and lead to the Cultural revolution.
  • Mao believed that problems encountered in the course of rural collectization and urban economic restructuring were the result of incomplete preparation and not the policy of socialist transformation itself. If Mao can defy conventional wisdom by swimming in dangerous rivers and emerge triumphant, so can China could risk transforming the entire economic and social structure to reclaim China's glory. And if China's central leaders would not support him, he will go straight to provincial and local leaders.
Perhaps, the only one you came away with an good appraisal of was Peng DeHuai. Peng Dehuai was the frankest, most honest man on the poliburo, the only man who consistently dared to confront Mao – criticising Mao's use of the cultural Troupe once in 1953 and again in 1957 during the great Leap Forward. After that he is purged and placed under house arrest.

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