Based on a decade of research and on interviews with many of Mao’s close circle in China who have never talked before — and with virtually everyone outside China who had significant dealings with him — this is the most authoritative life of Mao ever written. It is full of startling revelations, exploding the myth of the Long March, and showing a completely unknown Mao: he was not driven by idealism or ideology; his intimate and intricate relationship with Stalin went back to the 1920s, ultimately bringing him to power; he welcomed Japanese occupation of much of China; and he schemed, poisoned and blackmailed to get his way. After Mao conquered China in 1949, his secret goal was to dominate the world. In chasing this dream he caused the deaths of 38 million people in the greatest famine in history. In all, well over 70 million Chinese perished under Mao’s rule — in peacetime.

Combining meticulous research with the story-telling style of , this biography offers a harrowing portrait of Mao’s ruthless accumulation of power through the exercise of terror: his first victims were the peasants, then the intellectuals and, finally, the inner circle of his own advisors. The reader enters the shadowy chambers of Mao’s court and eavesdrops on the drama in its hidden recesses. Mao’s character and the enormity of his behavior toward his wives, mistresses and children are unveiled for the first time.

This is an entirely fresh look at Mao in both content and approach. It will astonish historians and the general reader alike.





Other Books by This Author

About the Authors

Title Page


List of Illustrations

List of Maps

List of Abbreviations in Text

Note about Spelling in Text

PART ONE—Lukewarm Believer

1 On the Cusp from Ancient to Modern (1893–1911; age 1–17)

2 Becoming a Communist (1911–20; age 17–26)

3 Lukewarm Believer (1920–25; age 26–31)

4 Rise and Demise in the Nationalist Party (1925–27; age 31–33)

PART TWO—Long March to Supremacy in the Party

5 Hijacking a Red Force and Taking Over Bandit Land (1927–28; age 33–34)

6 Subjugating the Red Army Supremo (1928–30; age 34–36)

7 Takeover Leads to Death of Second Wife (1927–30; age 33–36)

8 Bloody Purge Paves the Way for “Chairman Mao” (1929–31; age 35–37)

9 Mao and the First Red State (1931–34; age 37–40)

10 Troublemaker to Figurehead (1931–34; age 37–40)

11 How Mao Got onto the Long March (1933–34; age 39–40)

12 Long March I: Chiang Lets the Reds Go (1934; age 40)

13 Long March II: The Power behind the Throne (1934–35; age 40–41)

14 Long March III: Monopolizing the Moscow Connection (1935; age 41)

PART THREE—Building His Power Base

15 The Timely Death of Mao’s Host (1935–36; age 41–42)

16 Chiang Kai-shek Kidnapped (1935–36; age 41–42)

17 A National Player (1936; age 42–43)

18 New Image, New Life and New Wife (1937–38; age 43–44)

19 Red Mole Triggers China — Japan War (1937–38; age 43–44)

20 Fight Rivals and Chiang — Not Japan (1937–40; age 43–46)

21 Most Desired Scenario: Stalin Carves up China with Japan (1939–40; age 45–46)

22 Death Trap for His Own Men (1940–41; age 46–47)

23 Building a Power Base through Terror (1941–45; age 47–51)

24 Uncowed Opponent Poisoned (1941–45; age 47–51)

25 Supreme Party Leader at Last (1942–45; age 48–51)

PART FOUR—To Conquer China

26 “Revolutionary Opium War” (1937–45; age 43–51)

27 The Russians Are Coming! (1945–46; age 51–52)

28 Saved by Washington (1944–47; age 50–53)

29 Moles, Betrayals and Poor Leadership Doom Chiang (1945–49; age 51–55)

3 °China Conquered (1946–49; age 52–55)

31 Totalitarian State, Extravagant Lifestyle (1949–53; age 55–59)

PART FIVE—Chasing a Superpower Dream

32 Rivalry with Stalin (1947–49; age 53–55)

33 Two Tyrants Wrestle (1949–50; age 55–56)

34 Why Mao and Stalin Started the Korean War (1949–50; age 55–56)

35 Mao Milks the Korean War (1950–53; age 56–59)

36 Launching the Secret Superpower Program (1953–54; age 59–60)

37 War on Peasants (1953–56; age 59–62)

38 Undermining Khrushchev (1956–59; age 62–65)

39 Killing the “Hundred Flowers” (1957–58; age 63–64)

40 The Great Leap: “Half of China May Well Have to Die” (1958–61; age 64–67)

41 Defense Minister Peng’s Lonely Battle (1958–59; age 64–65)

42 The Tibetans Rebel (1950–61; age 56–67)

43 Maoism Goes Global (1959–64; age 65–70)

44 Ambushed by the President (1961–62; age 67–68)

45 The Bomb (1962–64; age 68–70)

46 A Time of Uncertainty and Setbacks (1962–65; age 68–71)

PART SIX—Unsweet Revenge

47 A Horse-trade Secures the Cultural Revolution (1965–66; age 71–72)

48 The Great Purge (1966–67; age 72–73)

49 Unsweet Revenge (1966–74; age 72–80)

50 The Chairman’s New Outfit (1967–70; age 73–76)

51 A War Scare (1969–71; age 75–77)

52 Falling Out with Lin Biao (1970–71; age 76–77)

53 Maoism Falls Flat on the World Stage (1966–70; age 72–76)

54 Nixon: The Red-baiter Baited (1970–73; age 76–79)

55 The Boss Denies Chou Cancer Treatment (1972–74; age 78–80)

56 Mme Mao in the Cultural Revolution (1966–75; age 72–81)

57 Enfeebled Mao Hedges His Bets (1973–76; age 79–82)

58 Last Days (1974–76; age 80–82)



List of Interviewees

Archives Consulted


Bibliography of Chinese-language Sources

Bibliography of Non-Chinese-language Sources

Photo Insert


1. The room where Mao was born.

2. Mao with his mother and younger brothers, 1919.

3. Mao, his father, uncle and brother, Tse-tan, 1919.

4. Yang Kai-hui, Mao’s second wife, with their two eldest sons, 1924.

5. Grigori Voitinsky.

6. Maring.

7. Mikhail Borodin with Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Ching-wei.

8. Mao on the day he first became “Chairman Mao,” 1931.

9. The first formal meeting of the Red state, 1931.

10. The bridge over the Dadu River at Luding.

11. Mao in Yenan in 1937, with participants in the “Autumn Harvest Uprising.” 12. Mao with Zhu De, Lin Biao and other Red Army officers, 1937.

13. Shao Li-tzu.

14. General Zhang Zhi-zhong.

15. General Hu Tsung-nan.

16. General Wei Li-huang.

17. Chiang Kai-shek with Chang Hsueh-liang, the “Young Marshal.” 18. Mao with Chang Kuo-tao, 1937.

19. Mao with Wang Ming.

20. The Politburo in Yenan, 1938.

21. Red Army troops entering Yenan, 1937.

22. Yenan: the Congress Hall and cave dwellings.

23. The Spanish Franciscan cathedral, Yenan.

24. Jung Chang outside Mao’s official residence in Yenan.

25. Jon Halliday in Yenan.

26. Mao’s secret hide-out outside Yenan.

27. Mao with his third wife, Gui-yuan, 1937.

28. Mao’s sons in Russia.

29. Mao in 1939, reading Stalin.

30. A receipt signed by Mao for money received from the Russians.

31. Mao with US ambassador Patrick Hurley, 1945.

32. Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife, with General George C. Marshall, 1946.

33. Chiang Kai-shek visiting his ancestral temple for the last time, 1949.

34. Red troops entering Nanjing, 1949.

35. Mao proclaiming the founding of Communist China, 1 October 1949.

36 and 37. Mass executions in front of organized crowds.

38. Mao at Stalin’s 70th birthday, 1949.

39. Mao in a Russian cowshed.

40. Tiananmen Gate bedecked with a portrait of the dead Stalin, 1953.

41. Mao holding up a wreath to Stalin’s portrait.

42. Mao embracing Nikita Khrushchev, 1958.

43. Mao inspecting a jet fighter.

44. Mao with a gun at a military exercise.

45. Mao at a Japanese exhibition in Peking, 1956.

46. Mao’s bedroom.

47. Peasants in Henan during the Great Leap Forward.

48. A propaganda photograph.

49. A girl pulling a cart.

50 and 51. Liu Shao-chi visiting his home village during the famine, 1961.

52. Mao swimming.

53. Mao contemplating a map of the world.

54. The Panchen Lama being denounced.

55. Peng De-huai.

56. Peng De-huai being paraded during the Cultural Revolution.

57. Liu Shao-chi being struck inside the leaders’ compound.

58. Liu being trampled.

59. Liu’s wife, Wang Guang-mei, being manhandled.

60. The “jet-plane” position.

61. Brutal hair-cutting.

62. A rare picture of how the Chinese population really looked.

63, 64 and 65. Dissidents being shot outside Harbin.

66. Mao and Lin Biao on Tiananmen Gate, 1966.

67. Lin Biao, Mao, Prince Sihanouk and Princess Monique, 1971.

68. Lin Biao’s daughter, wife and son “Tiger.” 69. Mao with Che Guevara, 1960.

70. Mao with Imelda Marcos, 1974.

71. Mao with Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, 1975.

72. Mao and Chou En-lai with Nixon and Kissinger, 1972.

73. Chou banished to a hard chair.

74. Deng Xiao-ping and the Gang of Four.

75. Madame Mao at her trial.

76. Mao with Nixon, February 1976.

77. The last picture: Mao with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 27 May 1976.

Photograph no. 10, by Auguste François, is reproduced by permission of Réunion des Musées Nationaux; no. 14, by Cecil Beaton, by permission of the Beaton Estate; no.16, by permission of Getty Images; no. 19, by permission of Wang Dan-zhi; nos. 29 and 39, by permission of the Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Kinofotodokumentov (the Russian State Archive of Cine-photo Documents); nos. 34 and 49, by Henri Cartier-Bresson, by permission of Magnum Photos; no. 45, by Du Xiu-xian; no. 53, by Lu Hou-min; nos. 61, 63, 64 and 65, by Li Zhen-sheng; nos. 67, 72, 76 and 77, by Du Xiu-xian.


1. China

2. The area of Mao’s activities, 1927–34

3. The Long March, October 1934–October 1935

Maps by ML Design, London


CCP Chinese

Communist Party


Communist Information Bureau


Communist International


Communist Party


Eighth Route Army


Glavnoye Razvedyivatelnoye Upravleniye (Chief Intelligence Directorate), Soviet Military Intelligence


New Fourth Army


Zhang Zhi-zhong


Chinese personal names are given surname first. In some cases, where people have a very common surname, we refer to them by their given names after first mention. We have spelled the names so as to make them as distinctive and easily recognizable as possible. For those not in pinyin (the official Mainland system), the pinyin version is given in the index.

For place names, we have used pinyin, except for Peking (Beijing), Yenan (Yan’an), Canton (Guangzhou), and the islands of Quemoy (Jinmen) and Matsu (Mazu).


The area of Mao’s activities, 1927–34

The Long March, October 1934–October 1935




MAO TSE-TUNG, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader. He was born into a peasant family in a valley called Shaoshan, in the province of Hunan, in the heartland of China. The date was 26 December 1893. His ancestors had lived in the valley for five hundred years.

This was a world of ancient beauty, a temperate, humid region whose misty, undulating hills had been populated ever since the Neolithic age. Buddhist temples dating from the Tang dynasty (AD 618–906), when Buddhism first came here, were still in use. Forests where nearly 300 species of trees grew, including maples, camphor, metasequoia and the rare ginkgo, covered the area and sheltered the tigers, leopards and boar that still roamed the hills. (The last tiger was killed in 1957.) These hills, with neither roads nor navigable rivers, detached the village from the world at large. Even as late as the early twentieth century an event as momentous as the death of the emperor in 1908 did not percolate this far, and Mao found out only two years afterwards when he left Shaoshan.

The valley of Shaoshan measures about 5 by 3.5 km. The 600-odd families who lived there grew rice, tea and bamboo, harnessing buffalo to plough the rice paddies. Daily life revolved round these age-old activities. Mao’s father, Yi-chang, was born in 1870. At the age of ten he was engaged to a girl of thirteen from a village about ten kilometers away, beyond a pass called Tiger Resting Pass, where tigers used to sun themselves. This short distance was long enough in those years for the two villages to speak dialects that were almost mutually unintelligible. Being merely a girl, Mao’s mother did not receive a name; as the seventh girl born in the Wen clan, she was just Seventh Sister Wen. In accordance with centuries of custom, her feet had been crushed and bound to produce the so-called “three-inch golden lilies” that epitomized beauty at the time.

Her engagement to Mao’s father followed time-honored customs. It was arranged by their parents and was based on a practical consideration: the tomb of one of her grandfathers was in Shaoshan, and it had to be tended regularly with elaborate rituals, so having a relative there would prove useful. Seventh Sister Wen moved in with the Maos upon betrothal, and was married at the age of eighteen, in 1885, when Yi-chang was fifteen.

Shortly after the wedding, Yi-chang went off to be a soldier to earn money to pay off family debts, which he was able to do after several years. Chinese peasants were not serfs but free farmers, and joining the army for purely financial reasons was an established practice. Luckily he was not involved in any wars; instead he caught a glimpse of the world and picked up some business ideas. Unlike most of the villagers, Yi-chang could read and write, well enough to keep accounts. After his return, he raised pigs, and processed grain into top-quality rice to sell at a nearby market town. He bought back the land his father had pawned, then bought more land, and became one of the richest men in the village.

Though relatively well off, Yi-chang remained extremely hardworking and thrifty all his life. The family house consisted of half a dozen rooms, which occupied one wing of a large thatched property. Eventually Yi-chang replaced the thatch with tiles, a major improvement, but left the mud floor and mud walls. The windows had no glass — still a rare luxury — and were just square openings with wooden bars, blocked off at night by wooden boards (the temperature hardly ever fell below freezing). The furniture was simple: wooden beds, bare wooden tables and benches. It was in one of these rather spartan rooms, under a pale blue homespun cotton quilt, inside a blue mosquito net, that Mao was born.

MAO WAS THE third son, but the first to survive beyond infancy. His Buddhist mother became even more devout to encourage Buddha to protect him. Mao was given the two-part name Tse-tung. Tse, which means “to shine on,” was the name given to all his generation, as preordained when the clan chronicle was first written in the eighteenth century; tung means “the East.” So his full given name meant “to shine on the East.” When two more boys were born, in 1896 and 1905, they were given the names Tse-min (min means “the people”) and Tse-tan (tan possibly referred to the local region, Xiangtan).

These names reflected the inveterate aspiration of Chinese peasants for their sons to do well — and the expectation that they could. High positions were open to all through education, which for centuries meant studying Confucian classics. Excellence would enable young men of any background to pass imperial examinations and become mandarins — all the way up to becoming prime minister. Officialdom was the definition of achievement, and the names given to Mao and his brothers expressed the hopes placed on them.

But a grand name was also onerous and potentially tempted fate, so most children were given a pet name that was either lowly or tough, or both. Mao’s was “the Boy of Stone”—Shi san ya-zi. For this second “baptism” his mother took him to a rock about eight feet high, which was reputed to be enchanted, as there was a spring underneath. After Mao performed obeisance and kowtows, he was considered adopted by the rock. Mao was very fond of this name, and continued to use it as an adult. In 1959, when he returned to Shaoshan and met the villagers for the first — and only — time as supreme leader of China, he began the dinner for them with a quip: “So everyone is here, except my Stone Mother. Shall we wait for her?”

Mao loved his real mother, with an intensity he showed towards no one else. She was a gentle and tolerant person, who, as he remembered, never raised her voice to him. From her came his full face, sensual lips, and a calm self-possession in the eyes. Mao would talk about his mother with emotion all his life. It was in her footsteps that he became a Buddhist as a child. Years later he told his staff: “I worshipped my mother … Wherever my mother went, I would follow … going to temple fairs, burning incense and paper money, doing obeisance to Buddha … Because my mother believed in Buddha, so did I.” But he gave up Buddhism in his mid-teens.

Mao had a carefree childhood. Until he was eight he lived with his mother’s family, the Wens, in their village, as his mother preferred to live with her own family. There his maternal grandmother doted on him. His two uncles and their wives treated him like their own son, and one of them became his Adopted Father, the Chinese equivalent to godfather. Mao did a little light farm work, gathering fodder for pigs and taking the buffalo out for a stroll in the tea-oil camellia groves by a pond shaded by banana leaves. In later years he would reminisce with fondness about this idyllic time. He started learning to read, while his aunts spun and sewed under an oil lamp.

MAO ONLY CAME back to live in Shaoshan in spring 1902, at the age of eight, to receive an education, which took the form of study in a tutor’s home. Confucian classics, which made up most of the curriculum, were beyond the understanding of children and had to be learned by heart. Mao was blessed with an exceptional memory, and did well. His fellow pupils remembered a diligent boy who managed not only to recite but also to write by rote these difficult texts. He also gained a foundation in Chinese language and history, and began to learn to write good prose, calligraphy and poetry, as writing poems was an essential part of Confucian education. Reading became a passion. Peasants generally turned in at sunset, to save on oil for lamps, but Mao would read deep into the night, with an oil lamp standing on a bench outside his mosquito net. Years later, when he was supreme ruler of China, half of his huge bed would be piled a foot high with Chinese classics, and he littered his speeches and writings with historical references. But his poems lost flair.

Mao clashed frequently with his tutors. He ran away from his first school at the age of ten, claiming that the teacher was a martinet. He was expelled from, or was “asked to leave,” at least three schools for being headstrong and disobedient. His mother indulged him but his father was not pleased, and Mao’s hopping from tutor to tutor was just one source of tension between father and son. Yi-chang paid for Mao’s education, hoping that his son could at least help keep the family accounts, but Mao disliked the task. All his life, he was vague about figures, and hopeless at economics. Nor did he take kindly to hard physical labor. He shunned it as soon as his peasant days were over.

Yi-chang could not stand Mao being idle. Having spent every minute of his waking hours working, he expected his son to do the same, and would strike him when he did not comply. Mao hated his father. In 1968, when he was taking revenge on his political foes on a vast scale, he told their tormentors that he would have liked his father to be treated just as brutally: “My father was bad. If he were alive today, he should be ‘jet-planed.’ ” This was an agonizing position where the subject’s arms were wrenched behind his back and his head forced down.

Mao was not a mere victim of his father. He fought back, and was often the victor. He would tell his father that the father, being older, should do more manual labor than he, the younger — which was an unthinkably insolent argument by Chinese standards. One day, according to Mao, father and son had a row in front of guests. “My father scolded me before them, calling me lazy and useless. This infuriated me. I called him names and left the house … My father … pursued me, cursing as well as commanding me to come back. I reached the edge of a pond and threatened to jump in if he came any nearer … My father backed down.” Once, as Mao was retelling the story, he laughed and added an observation: “Old men like him didn’t want to lose their sons. This is their weakness. I attacked at their weak point, and I won!”

Money was the only weapon Mao’s father possessed. After Mao was expelled by tutor no. 4, in 1907, his father stopped paying for his son’s tuition fees and the thirteen-year-old boy had to become a full-time peasant. But he soon found a way to get himself out of farm work and back into the world of books. Yi-chang was keen for his son to get married, so that he would be tied down and behave responsibly. His niece was at just the right age for a wife, four years older than Mao, who agreed to his father’s plan and resumed schooling after the marriage.

The marriage took place in 1908, when Mao was fourteen and his bride eighteen. Her family name was Luo. She herself had no proper name, and was just called “Woman Luo.” The only time Mao is known to have mentioned her was to the American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936, when Mao was strikingly dismissive, exaggerating the difference in their ages: “When I was 14, my parents married me to a girl of 20. But I never lived with her … I do not consider her my wife … and have given little thought to her.” He gave no hint that she was not still alive; in fact, Woman Luo had died in 1910, just over a year into their marriage.

Mao’s early marriage turned him into a fierce opponent of arranged marriages. Nine years later he wrote a seething article against the practice: “In families in the West, parents acknowledge the free will of their children. But in China, orders from the parents are not at all compatible with the will of the children … This is a kind of ‘indirect rape.’ Chinese parents are all the time indirectly raping their children …”

As soon as his wife died, the sixteen-year-old widower demanded to leave Shaoshan. His father wanted to apprentice him to a rice store in the county town, but Mao had set his eye on a modern school about 25 kilometers away. He had learned that the imperial examinations had been abolished. Instead there were modern schools now, teaching subjects like science, world history and geography, and foreign languages. It was these schools that would open the door out of a peasant’s life for many like him.

IN THE LATER NINETEENTH CENTURY, China had embarked on a dramatic social transformation. The Manchu dynasty that had ruled since 1644 was moving from the ancient to the modern. The shift was prompted by a series of abysmal defeats at the hands of European powers and Japan, beginning with the loss to Britain in the Opium War of 1839–42, as the powers came knocking on China’s closed door. From the Manchu court to intellectuals, nearly everyone agreed that the country must change if it wanted to survive. A host of fundamental reforms was introduced, one of which was to install an entirely new educational system. Railways began to be built. Modern industries and commerce were given top priority. Political organizations were permitted. Newspapers were published for the first time. Students were sent abroad to study science, mandarins dispatched to learn democracy and parliamentary systems. In 1908, the court announced a program to become a constitutional monarchy in nine years’ time.

Mao’s province, Hunan, which had some 30 million inhabitants, became one of the most liberal and exciting places in China. Though landlocked, it was linked by navigable rivers to the coast, and in 1904 its capital, Changsha, became an “open” trading port. Large numbers of foreign traders and missionaries arrived, bringing Western ways and institutions. By the time Mao heard about modern schools, there were over a hundred of them, more than in any other part of China, and including many for women.

One was located near Mao: Eastern Hill, in the county of the Wens, his mother’s family. The fees and accommodation were quite high, but Mao got the Wens and other relatives to lobby his father, who stumped up the cost for five months. The wife of one of his Wen cousins replaced Mao’s old blue homespun mosquito net with a white machine-made muslin one in keeping with the school’s modernity.

The school was an eye-opener for Mao. Lessons included physical training, music and English, and among the reading materials were potted biographies of Napoleon, Wellington, Peter the Great, Rousseau and Lincoln. Mao heard about America and Europe for the first time, and laid eyes on a man who had been abroad — a teacher who had studied in Japan, who was given the nickname “the False Foreign Devil” by his pupils. Decades later Mao could still remember a Japanese song he taught them, celebrating Japan’s stunning military victory over Russia in 1905.

Mao was only in Eastern Hill for a few months, but this was enough for him to find a new opening. In the provincial capital, Changsha, there was a school specially set up for young people from the Wens’ county, and Mao persuaded a teacher to enroll him, even though he was strictly speaking not from the county. In spring 1911 he arrived at Changsha, feeling, in his own words, “exceedingly excited.” At seventeen, he said goodbye forever to the life of a peasant.

MAO CLAIMED LATER THAT when he was a boy in Shaoshan he had been stirred by concern for poor peasants. There is no evidence for this. He said he had been influenced while still in Shaoshan by a certain P’ang the Millstone Maker, who had been arrested and beheaded after leading a local peasant revolt, but an exhaustive search by Party historians for this hero has failed to turn up any trace of him.

There is no sign that Mao derived from his peasant roots any social concerns, much less that he was motivated by a sense of injustice. In a contemporary document, the diary of Mao’s teacher, Professor Yang Chang-chi, on 5 April 1915 the professor wrote: “My student Mao Tse-tung said that … his clan … are mostly peasants, and it is easy for them to get rich” (our italics). Mao evinced no particular sympathy for peasants.

Up to the end of 1925, when he was in his early thirties, and five years after he had become a Communist, Mao made only a few references to peasants in all his known writings and conversations. They did crop up in a letter of August 1917, but far from expressing sympathy, Mao said he was “bowled over” by the way a commander called Tseng Kuo-fan had “finished off” the biggest peasant uprising in Chinese history, the Taiping Rebellion of 1850–64. Two years later, in July 1919, Mao wrote an essay about people from different walks of life — so peasants were inevitably mentioned — but his list of questions was very general, and his tone unmistakably neutral. There was a remarkable absence of emotion when he mentioned peasants, compared with the passion he voiced about students, whose life he described as “a sea of bitterness.” In a comprehensive list for research he drew up in September that year, containing no fewer than 71 items, only one heading (the tenth) was about labor; the single one out of its 15 sub-heads that mentioned peasants did so only as “the question of laboring farmers intervening in politics.” From late 1920, when he entered the Communist orbit, Mao began to use expressions like “workers and peasants” and “proletariat.” But they remained mere phrases, part of an obligatory vocabulary.

Decades later, Mao talked about how, as a young man in Shaoshan, he cared about people starving. The record shows no such concern. In 1921 Mao was in Changsha during a famine. A friend of his wrote in his diary: “There are many beggars — must be over 100 a day … Most … look like skeletons wrapped in yellow skin, as if they could be blown over by a whiff of wind.” “I heard that so many people who had come here … to escape famine in their own regions had died — that those who had been giving away planks of wood [to make coffins] … can no longer afford to do so.” There is no mention of this event in Mao’s writings of the time, and no sign that he gave any thought to this issue at all.

Mao’s peasant background did not imbue him with idealism about improving the lot of Chinese peasants.

2. BECOMING A COMMUNIST (1911–20 AGE 17–26)

MAO ARRIVED IN CHANGSHA in spring 1911, on the eve of the Republican Revolution that was to end over two thousand years of imperial rule. Though Changsha seemed “just like a mediaeval town” to the British philosopher Bertrand Russell a decade later, with “narrow streets … no traffic possible except sedan chairs and rickshaws,” it was not merely in touch with new ideas and trends, it seethed with Republican activity.

The Manchu court had promised a constitutional monarchy, but the Republicans were dedicated to getting rid of the Manchus entirely. To them Manchu rule was “foreign” domination, as the Manchus were not Han Chinese, the ethnic group that formed the bulk — about 94 percent — of the population. The Republicans lit sparks through newspapers and magazines that had sprung up all over China in the previous decade, and through the entirely new practice of public debates, in what had hitherto been an almost totally private society. They formed organizations, and launched several — unsuccessful — armed uprisings.

Mao quickly caught up on the issues through newspapers, which he read for the first time now, at the age of seventeen — the start of a lifelong addiction. He wrote his first, rather confused, political essay expressing Republican views, and pasted it up on a wall at his school, in line with the latest trend. Like many other students in the school, he cut off his pigtail, which, as a Manchu custom, was the most obvious symbol of imperial rule. With a friend, he then ambushed a dozen others and forcibly removed their queues with scissors.

That summer, extremely hot and humid as usual in Changsha, students debated feverishly about how to overthrow the emperor. One day, in the middle of an impassioned discussion, a young man suddenly tore off his long scholar’s gown, threw it on the ground and yelled: “Let’s do some martial exercises and be prepared for war [against the emperor]!”

In October an armed uprising in neighboring Hubei province heralded the Republican Revolution. The Manchu dynasty that had ruled China for over 260 years crumbled, and a republic was declared on 1 January 1912. The child emperor, Pu Yi, abdicated the following month.

Yuan Shih-kai, military chief of the country, became the president, succeeding the interim provisional president, Sun Yat-sen. The provinces were controlled by army strongmen with allegiance to Yuan. When Yuan died in 1916, the central government in Peking weakened, and power fragmented to the provincial chiefs, who became semi-independent warlords. Over the following decade, they fought spasmodic wars, which disrupted civilian life in combat zones. But otherwise the warlords left most people relatively unaffected. Indeed, the rather loosely governed fledgling republic opened up all sorts of career opportunities. The young Mao faced a dazzling range of choices — industry, commerce, law, administration, education, journalism, culture, the military. He first enlisted in one of the Republican armies, but left within months, as he did not like the drilling, or chores like carrying water for cooking, which he hired a water vendor to do for him. He decided to go back to school, and scanned the array of advertisements in the papers (the ads, colorful and rather sophisticated, were also a new thing in China). Six institutions drew his attention, including a police college, a law college — and a school that specialized in making soap. He picked a general high school and stayed for six months before boredom drove him out to study by himself in the provincial library.

At last Mao found something he loved doing. He spent all day there, devouring new books, including translations of Western writings. He said later that he was like a buffalo charging into a vegetable garden and just gobbling down everything that grew. This reading helped free his mind of traditional constraints.

But his father threatened to cut him off unless he got into a proper school, so Mao entered a teacher-training college. It required no tuition fees and offered cheap board and lodging — like other such colleges in those days, as part of China’s efforts to promote education.

This was spring 1913, and Mao was nineteen. The college embodied the open-mindedness of the time. Even its building was European style, with romanesque arches and a wide columned porch, and was suitably called yang-lou—“Foreign Building.” The classrooms had smart wooden floors and glass windows. The students were exposed to all sorts of new ideas and encouraged to think freely and organize study groups. They turned out publications about anarchism, nationalism and Marxism, and for a while a portrait of Marx hung in the auditorium. Mao had earlier come across the word “socialism” in a newspaper. Now he encountered “communism” for the first time. It was a period of real “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom”—a phrase Mao invoked for a moment under his own rule later, but without allowing a tiny fraction of the freedom he himself had enjoyed as a young man.

Mao was not a loner, and, like students the world over, he and his friends talked long and hard. The college was situated near the Xiang River, the biggest river in Hunan. Swimming in the Xiang inspired Mao to write a rather flamboyant poem in 1917. In the evenings the friends would go for long walks along its banks, enjoying the sight of junks gliding by the Island of Oranges which was covered with orchards of orange trees. On summer evenings they climbed the hill behind the school and sat arguing deep into the night on the grass where crickets crooned and glow-worms twinkled, ignoring the summons of the bugle to bed.

Mao and his friends also traveled. There was complete freedom of movement, and no need for identity papers. During the summer vacation of 1917, Mao and a friend wandered round the countryside for a month, earning food and shelter from peasants by doing calligraphy to decorate their front doors. On another occasion, Mao and two fellow students walked along a newly built railway, and when dusk descended, knocked on the door of a hilltop monastery overlooking the Xiang River. The monks allowed them to stay the night. After dinner the friends followed the stone steps down to the river for a swim, and then sat on the sandy bank and expounded their views, to the lapping of the waves. The guest room had a veranda, and the friends went on talking in the quiet of the night. One was moved by the loveliness of the still night, and said he wanted to become a monk.

In this and other conversations, Mao poured scorn on his fellow Chinese. “The nature of the people of the country is inertia,” he said. “They worship hypocrisy, are content with being slaves, and narrow-minded.” This was a common enough sentiment among the educated at the time, when people were casting around for explanations for why China had been so easily defeated by foreign powers and was trailing so badly in the modern world. But what Mao said next was uncommon extremism. “Mr. Mao also proposed burning all the collections of prose and poetry after the Tang and Sung dynasties in one go,” a friend wrote in his diary.

This is the first known occasion when Mao mentioned one theme that was to typify his rule — the destruction of Chinese culture. When he first said it in that moonlit monastery, it had not sounded totally outlandish. At that time of unprecedented personal and intellectual freedom, the freest moment in Chinese history, everything that had been taken for granted was questioned, and what had been viewed as wrong proclaimed as right. Should there be countries? Families? Marriage? Private property? Nothing was too outrageous, too shocking, or unsayable.

IT WAS IN THIS ENVIRONMENT that Mao’s views on morals took shape. In the winter of 1917–18, still a student as he turned twenty-four, he wrote extensive commentaries on a book called A System of Ethics, by a minor late-nineteenth-century German philosopher, Friedrich Paulsen. In these notes, Mao expressed the central elements in his own character, which stayed consistent for the remaining six decades of his life and defined his rule.

Mao’s attitude to morality consisted of one core, the self, “I,” above everything else: “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others … People like me want to … satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.”

Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty. “People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.” “I am responsible only for the reality that I know,” he wrote, “and absolutely not responsible for anything else. I don’t know about the past, I don’t know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality of my own self.” He explicitly rejected any responsibility towards future generations. “Some say one has a responsibility for history. I don’t believe it. I am only concerned about developing myself … I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.”

Mao did not believe in anything unless he could benefit from it personally. A good name after death, he said, “cannot bring me any joy, because it belongs to the future and not to my own reality.” “People like me are not building achievements to leave for future generations.” Mao did not care what he left behind.

He argued that conscience could go to hell if it was in conflict with his impulses:

These two should be one and the same. All our actions … are driven by impulse, and the conscience that is wise goes along with this in every instance. Sometimes … conscience restrains impulses such as overeating or over-indulgence in sex. But conscience is only there to restrain, not oppose. And the restraint is for better completion of the impulse.

As conscience always implies some concern for other people, and is not a corollary of hedonism, Mao was rejecting the concept. His view was: “I do not think these [commands like ‘do not kill,’ ‘do not steal,’ and ‘do not slander’] have to do with conscience. I think they are only out of self-interest for self-preservation.” All considerations must “be purely calculation for oneself, and absolutely not for obeying external ethical codes, or for so-called feelings of responsibility …”

Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao’s outlook.

These attributes he held to be reserved for “Great Heroes”—a group to which he appointed himself. For this elite, he said:

Everything outside their nature, such as restrictions and constraints, must be swept away by the great strength in their nature … When Great Heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful, stormy and invincible. Their power is like a hurricane arising from a deep gorge, and like a sex-maniac on heat and prowling for a lover … there is no way to stop them.

The other central element in his character which Mao spelled out now was the joy he took in upheaval and destruction. “Giant wars,” he wrote, “will last as long as heaven and earth and will never become extinct … The ideal of a world of Great Equality and Harmony [da tong, Confucian ideal society] is mistaken.” This was not just the prediction that a pessimist might make; it was Mao’s desideratum, which he asserted was what the population at large wished. “Long-lasting peace,” he claimed:

is unendurable to human beings, and tidal waves of disturbance have to be created in this state of peace … When we look at history, we adore the times of [war] when dramas happened one after another … which make reading about them great fun. When we get to the periods of peace and prosperity, we are bored … Human nature loves sudden swift changes.

MAO SIMPLY COLLAPSED the distinction between reading about stirring events and actually living through cataclysm. He ignored the fact that, for the overwhelming majority, war meant misery. He even articulated a cavalier attitude towards death:

Human beings are endowed with the sense of curiosity. Why should we treat death differently? Don’t we want to experience strange things? Death is the strangest thing, which you will never experience if you go on living … Some are afraid of it because the change comes too drastically. But I think this is the most wonderful thing: where else in this world can we find such a fantastic and drastic change?

Using a very royal “we,” Mao went on: “We love sailing on a sea of upheavals. To go from life to death is to experience the greatest upheaval. Isn’t it magnificent!” This might at first seem surreal, but when later tens of millions of Chinese were starved to death under his rule, Mao told his inner ruling circle it did not matter if people died — and even that death was to be celebrated. As so often, he applied his attitude only to other people, not to himself. Throughout his own life he was obsessed with finding ways to thwart death, doing everything he could to perfect his security and enhance his medical care.

When he came to the question “How do we change [China]?” Mao laid the utmost emphasis on destruction: “the country must be … destroyed and then reformed.” He extended this line not just to China but to the whole world — and even the universe: “This applies to the country, to the nation, and to mankind … The destruction of the universe is the same … People like me long for its destruction, because when the old universe is destroyed, a new universe will be formed. Isn’t that better!”

These views, worded so clearly at the age of twenty-four, remained at the core of Mao’s thinking throughout his life. In 1918, he had little prospect of putting them into practice and they had no impact, though he seems to have been someone who made an impression. His teacher Yang Chang-chi wrote of him in his diary of 5 April 1915: “My student Mao Tse-tung said that … his … father was a peasant and is now turning into a merchant … And yet, he [Mao] is so fine and outstanding. Really hard to come by … As peasant stock often produces extraordinary talents, I encouraged him …” But Mao did not appear to have leadership qualities. Another teacher of his said later that he showed “no special talent for leadership” at school. When he tried to form a sort of club and put up notices, only a few people turned up and it did not come to anything. When a dozen friends formed a New People’s Study Society in April 1918, Mao was not elected its leader.

HE EVEN FOUND IT HARD to get a job after he graduated from the teacher-training college in June 1918. At the time, it was common for young graduates to aspire to go abroad to study. For those whose families could not afford to support them, as in Mao’s case, there was a scheme to go to France on a work-and-study program. France needed manpower after losing so many young men in the First World War (one of the jobs Chinese laborers had been brought in to do was to remove corpses from the battlefields).

Some of Mao’s friends went to France. Mao did not. The prospect of physical labor put him off. And another factor seems to have played a part — the requirement to learn French. Mao was no good at languages, and all his life spoke only his own local dialect and not even the putonghua—“common speech”—that his own regime made its official language. In 1920, when going to Russia was in vogue, and Mao fancied going (he told a girlfriend “my mind is filled with happiness and hope” at the thought), he was deterred by having to learn Russian. He made a stab at it, taking lessons from a Russian émigré (and agent), Sergei Polevoy. But according to Polevoy the other students teased Mao when he could not even master the alphabet, and he left in a huff. Unlike many of his radical contemporaries, including most of the future Chinese Communist leaders, Mao went to neither France nor Russia.

Instead, after leaving the college, Mao borrowed some money and set out for Peking, the capital, to try his luck. Peking in 1918 was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where in front of magnificent palaces camels strolled in the streets. The imperial gardens near where Mao took lodgings had just been opened to the public. When winter came, he and his friends — all southerners who had seldom seen snow or ice — would marvel at the frozen lakes, encircled by drooping willows heavy with icicles and wide-open winter plums.

But life in the capital was harsh. The great freedom and opportunities that modernization had introduced to China had brought little material advantage, and much of the country was still extremely poor. Mao stayed with seven other friends in three tiny rooms. Four of them squeezed onto one kang, a heated brick bed, under a single quilt, packed so tight that when one of them needed to turn, he had to warn the men on either side. Between the eight of them, they had only two coats, and had to take turns going out. As there was heating in the library, Mao went there to read in the evenings.

Mao got nowhere in Peking. For a while he found work as a junior librarian, earning 8 yuan a month — a living wage. One of his jobs was to record the names of people who came to read the newspapers, many of whom he recognized as leading intellectuals, but he made no great impression, and they paid him no attention. Mao felt snubbed, and he bore his grudges hard. He claimed later that “most of them did not treat me like a human being.” Less than six months after arriving, he left, so broke that he had to borrow money to travel home in stages. He returned to Changsha in April 1919, via Shanghai, where he saw his friends off to France. He had looked in from the outside at the intellectual and political life of cosmopolitan big cities, and now had to settle for a lowly job as a part-time history teacher in a primary school back in his home province.

Mao did not present himself as a model teacher. He was unkempt, and never seemed to change his clothes. His pupils remembered him disheveled, with holes in his socks, wearing home-made cotton shoes ready to fall apart. But at least he observed basic proprieties. Two years later, when he was teaching in another establishment, people complained about him being naked from the waist up. When asked to dress more decently, Mao retorted: “There wouldn’t be anything scandalous if I was stark naked. Consider yourself lucky I’m not completely naked.”

MAO HAD RETURNED to Changsha at a pivotal historical moment. At the time, there were a number of enclaves in China leased by foreign powers. These operated outside Chinese jurisdiction, with foreign gunboats often nearby to protect expatriates. Newly awakened public opinion in China demanded that these virtual mini-colonies be handed back. And yet, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which drew up the post — First World War settlement, and in which a Chinese delegation took part, allowed Japan to stay on in territory in Shandong which Japan had seized from Germany during the war. This infuriated nationalist sentiment. On 4 May 1919, for the first time in history, a big street demonstration took place in Peking, denouncing the government for “selling out,” and protesting against the Japanese holding on to Chinese territory. The movement ripped across China. Japanese goods were burned in cities and towns, and shops that sold them were attacked. Many Chinese were disappointed that a Republican government had not managed to obtain a better deal from foreign powers than its Manchu predecessor. The sentiment grew that something more radical must be done.

In Changsha, where there were now so many foreign interests that Japan, the US and Britain had opened consulates there, a militant student union was formed, which included teachers. Mao was actively involved as the editor of its magazine, the Xiang River Review. In the first number, he declared his radical views: “We must now doubt what we dared not doubt, employ methods we dared not employ.” It was a shoestring operation: Mao not only had to write most of the articles himself, in stifling heat, while bedbugs raced over the pile of soft-bound Chinese classics that formed his pillow, he had to sell the Review at street corners. Only five issues were published.

Mao continued to write occasional pieces in other journals. Among his output were ten articles dealing with women and the family. Mao was an advocate of women’s independence, free choice in marriage, and equality with men — views not uncommon among the radicals. These outpourings seem to have been inspired by the death on 5 October 1919 of his mother, whom he loved. He had been sending her prescriptions for her ailments, diphtheria and a lymph node condition, and had arranged for her to be brought to Changsha for treatment. There, in spring that year, she had her first and only photograph taken at the age of fifty-two, with her three sons, an image of inner peace. Mao wears an expression of quiet determination and aloofness. Unlike his two brothers, who are clad in farmers’ garments and look like gauche peasants, he has an air of grace in his long gown, the traditional attire for scholars and gentry.

In Mao’s relationship with his mother, while she seems to have shown unconditional love and indulgence for him, his treatment of her combined strong feelings with selfishness. In later life, he told one of his closest staff a revealing story: “When my mother was dying, I told her I could not bear to see her looking in agony. I wanted to keep a beautiful image of her, and told her I wanted to stay away for a while. My mother was a very understanding person, and she agreed. So the image of my mother in my mind has always been and still is today a healthy and beautiful one.” On her deathbed, the person who took priority in Mao’s consideration was himself, not his mother, nor did he hesitate to say so.

Less surprisingly, Mao treated his dying father coldly. Yi-chang died from typhoid on 23 January 1920, and before his death he longed to see his eldest son, but Mao stayed away, and showed no feeling of sadness for him.

In an article written on 21 November 1919, shortly after his mother’s death, and entitled “On Women’s Independence,” Mao claimed that “Women can do as much physical labour as men. It’s just that they can’t do such work during childbirth.” So his answer to “women’s independence” was that “women should prepare enough … before they marry so as to support themselves,” and even that “women should stockpile necessities for the period of childbirth themselves.” Evidently, as a man, Mao did not want to have to look after women. He wanted no responsibility towards them. Moreover, his insistence that women could manage the same kind of manual labor as men, which went against obvious reality, showed he felt little tenderness towards them. When he came to power, the core of his approach to women was to put them to heavy manual labor. In 1951 he penned his first inscription for Women’s Day, which went: “Unite to take part in production …”

AT THE END OF 1919, radical students and teachers in Hunan started a drive to oust the provincial warlord governor, whose name was Chang Ching-yao. Mao went with a delegation to lobby the central government in Peking, writing petitions and pamphlets on an altar in a Tibetan temple where he was staying. Although the delegation failed to achieve its goal, Mao was able as a leading Hunan radical to meet some famous personalities, including Hu Shih, a brilliant liberal figure, and Li Ta-chao, a prominent Marxist.

But it was on his way back via Shanghai that Mao had the crucial encounter that was to change his life. In June 1920 he called on a Professor Chen Tu-hsiu, at the time China’s foremost Marxist intellectual, who was in the midst of forming a Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao had written a long article calling him “a bright star in the world of thought.” Aged forty, Chen was the undisputed leader of Chinese Marxists, a true believer, charismatic, with a volatile temper.

The idea of forming this Communist Party did not stem from the professor, nor from any other Chinese. It originated in Moscow. In 1919 the new Soviet government had set up the Communist International, the Comintern, to foment revolution and influence policy in Moscow’s interest around the world. In August, Moscow launched a huge secret program of action and subversion for China, starting a commitment of money, men and arms three decades long, which culminated in bringing the Communists under Mao to power in 1949—Soviet Russia’s most lasting triumph in foreign policy.

In January 1920 the Bolsheviks took Central Siberia and established an overland link with China. The Comintern sent a representative, Grigori Voitinsky, to China in April. In May it established a center in Shanghai, with a view, as another agent reported to Moscow, to “constructing a Chinese Party.” Voitinsky then proposed to Professor Chen that a Communist Party be set up. By June Voitinsky was reporting home that Chen was to be made Party Secretary (i.e., the head) and was contacting “revolutionaries in various cities.”

This was exactly when Mao showed up on Chen’s doorstep. He had chanced upon the emergence of the CCP. Mao was not invited to be one of the founders. Nor, it seems, was he told it was about to be formed. The eight or so founding members were all eminent Marxists, and Mao had not yet even said that he believed in Marxism. The Party was founded in August, after Mao had left Shanghai.

But although not one of the founders, Mao was in the immediate outer ring. Professor Chen gave him the assignment of opening a bookshop in Changsha to sell Party literature. The professor was in the middle of making his influential monthly, New Youth, the voice of the Party. The July issue carried write-ups about Lenin and the Soviet government. From that autumn the magazine was subsidized by the Comintern.

Mao’s job was to distribute New Youth and other Communist publications (as well as selling other books and journals). Though not a committed Communist, Mao was a radical. He also loved books and welcomed a job. Soon after he returned to Changsha, an advertisement issued about the bookshop contained the bizarre declaration, penned by himself that: “There is no new culture in the entire world. Only a little flower of new culture has been discovered in Russia on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.” The bookshop immediately placed an order for 165 copies of the July issue of New Youth, by far its biggest order. Another large order, 130 copies, was for Labour World, a new Party journal for workers. Most other journals the bookshop ordered were radical and pro-Russia.

Mao was not risking his neck by undertaking pro-Communist activities, which were not a crime. For now, Communist Russia was actually in vogue. In Changsha, a Russia Study Society was being founded, with no less a personage than the county chief as its head. Russia’s popularity was in large part due to a fraud perpetrated by the new Bolshevik government — the claim that it was renouncing the old Tsarist privileges and territory in China, when in fact it retained them. Russian-controlled territory covered over a quarter of a million acres, and constituted the largest foreign concession in the country.

Mao was in charge of the bookshop, but he got a friend to run it. An important trait emerged at this time — he had a gift for delegating chores, and spotting the people to perform them. Mao gave himself the title of “special liaison man,” soliciting donations from the wealthy, and dealing with publishers, libraries, universities and leading intellectuals all over the country. Professor Chen and a number of luminaries were listed as guarantors for the bookshop, which hugely boosted Mao’s status, and helped him to win a creditable post as headmaster of the primary school attached to his old college.

There is no evidence that Mao formally joined the Party now, although by November, thanks to the bookshop, he counted as “one of us.” When Moscow decided to set up an organization in Hunan called the Socialist Youth League, to create a pool of potential Party members, Mao was contacted to do the job. The following month, in a letter to friends in France, he declared that he “deeply agreed” with the idea of “using the Russian model to reform China and the world.” This was his first expression of Communist belief.

APPROACHING TWENTY-SEVEN, Mao had become a Communist — not after an idealistic journey, or driven by passionate belief, but by being at the right place at the right time, and being given a job that was highly congenial to him. He had effectively been incorporated into an expanding organization.

His best friend at the time, Siao-yu, thought the cost of the Russian way was too high and wrote to Mao from France saying what he and some others felt:

We don’t think some human beings should be sacrificed for the welfare of the majority. We are in favor of a moderate revolution, through education, and seeking the welfare of all … We regard Russian-style — Marxist — revolutions as ethically wrong …

Mao summed up their approach as “using peaceful means to seek the happiness of all.” He argued against it not on idealistic grounds but invoking sheer realism: “I have two comments …: All very well in theory; but can’t be done in practice.” “Ideals are important,” said Mao, “but reality is even more important.”

Mao was no fervent believer. This absence of heartfelt commitment would result in a most unconventional and unusual relationship with his Party throughout his life, even when he was the head of that Party.

This has been a delicate point for Mao and his successors, and as a result official history dates the founding of the Party to 1921, as that was the first time Mao could verifiably be located at a Party conclave, the 1st Congress. This is duly commemorated with a museum in Shanghai which enshrines the myth that Mao was a founding member of the Party. That the Party was founded in 1920, not 1921, is confirmed both by the official magazine of the Comintern and by one of the Moscow emissaries who organized the 1st Congress.

3. LUKEWARM BELIEVER (1920–25 AGE 26–31)

AT THE SAME TIME as Mao became involved with the Communist Party, he developed a relationship with the daughter of his former teacher Yang Chang-chi. Yang Kai-hui, eight years Mao’s junior, was to become his second wife.

She was born in 1901 in an idyllic spot outside Changsha. A delicate and sensitive child, she was brought up by her mother, who came from a scholar’s family, while her father spent eleven years abroad, in Japan, Britain and Germany, studying ethics, logic and philosophy. When he returned to Changsha, in spring 1913, he brought back European ways, and encouraged his daughter to join him and his male students at meals, which was unheard-of in those days. Beautiful, elegant, wistful and articulate, she bowled over all the young men.

Her father was impressed with Mao’s brains, and gave him high recommendations to influential people. “I am telling you seriously,” he wrote to one of them, “these two people [Mao and another student, Cai He-sen] are rare talents in China, and will have a great future … you cannot but pay serious attention to them.” When he became a professor of ethics at Peking University in 1918, he welcomed Mao to stay with his family during Mao’s first — and fruitless — venture to Peking. Kai-hui was then seventeen, and Mao was very keen on her, but she did not respond. She wrote years later:

When I was about seventeen or eighteen, I began to have my own views about marriage. I was against any marriage that involved rituals. I also thought that to seek love deliberately would easily and inevitably lose true, sacred, incredible, the highest, the most beautiful and unsurpassable love!.. There is an expression which best expressed my thoughts: “Not to have if not perfect.”

In January 1920, her father died. Mao was in Peking on his second trip, and spent a lot of time with the family. It was then that she fell in love with Mao. She was to write:

Father died! My beloved father died! Of course I was very sad. But I felt death was also a relief for Father, and so I was not too sad.

But I did not expect to be so lucky. I had a man I loved. I really loved him so much. I had been in love with him after I had heard a lot about him, and had read many of his articles and diaries … Although I loved him, I would not show it. I was convinced that love was in the hands of nature, and I must not presumptuously demand or pursue it …

So she still held back. Then they were parted when Kai-hui escorted her father’s coffin back to Changsha, where she entered a missionary school. The distance only heightened her feelings. She later recalled:

He wrote me many letters, expressing his love. Still I did not dare to believe I had such luck. If it had not been for a friend who knew his [Mao’s] feelings and told me about them — saying that he was very miserable because of me — I believe I would have remained single all my life. Ever since I came to know his true feelings towards me completely, from that day on, I had a new sense. I felt that apart from living for my mother, I was also living for him … I was imagining that if there were a day when he died, and when my mother was also no longer with me, I would definitely follow him and die with him!

When Mao returned to Changsha later that year, they became lovers. Mao was living in the school where he was the headmaster, and Kai-hui would visit him there. But she would not stay the night. They were not married, and the year was 1920, when living together outside marriage was unthinkable for a lady. Nor did Mao want to be tied down. In a letter to a friend on 26 November, he inveighed: “I think that all men and women in the marriage system are in nothing but a ‘rape league’ … I refuse to join this rape league.” He broached the idea of forming a “Resisting Marriage Alliance,” saying: “Even if no one else agrees with me, I am my own ‘one-man alliance.’ ”

One night, after she was gone, Mao was unable to sleep, and wrote a poem that opened with these lines:

Sorrow, piled on my pillow, what is your shape?

Like waves in rivers and seas, you endlessly churn.

How long the night, how dark the sky, when will it be light?

Restless, I sat up, gown thrown over my shoulders, in the cold.

When dawn came at last, only ashes remained of my hundred thoughts …

Helped by this poem, Mao managed to persuade Kai-hui to stay overnight. The walls were just thin boards, and some of the residents complained when the pair made passionate love. One neighbor cited a rule saying that teachers’ wives were forbidden to sleep in the school, but Mao was the headmaster: he changed the rule, and started a precedent that teachers’ wives could stay in schools.

For Kai-hui, staying the night meant giving the whole of herself. “My willpower had long given way,” she was to write, “and I had allowed myself to live in romance. I had come to the conclusion: ‘Let Heaven collapse and Earth sink down! Let this be the end!’ What meaning would my life have if I didn’t live for my mother and for him? So I lived in a life of love …”

Mao’s feelings were no match for Kai-hui’s, and he continued to see other girlfriends, in particular a widowed teacher called Si-yung, who was three years his junior. She helped a lot with raising funds for the bookshop, as some of her pupils came from rich families. She and Mao traveled as a couple.

When Kai-hui found out, she was shattered: “Then suddenly one day, a bomb fell on my head. My feeble life was devastatingly hit, and was almost destroyed by this blow!” But she forgave Mao. “However, this was only how I felt when I first heard the news. After all, he is not an ordinary man. She [Si-yung] loved him so passionately she would give everything for him. He also loved her, but he would not betray me, and he did not betray me in the end.” Mao seems to have explained away his affair by claiming he felt unsure of Kai-hui’s love. She chose to believe him:

… now the lid on his heart, and on my heart, were both lifted. I saw his heart, and he saw mine completely. (We both have proud temperaments, me more so at the time. I was doing everything to stop him from seeing my heart — my heart of love for him — so that he came to doubt me, and thought I didn’t love him. And because of his pride, he wouldn’t let any feelings show. Only now did we truly understand each other.) As a result, we were closer than ever.

Kai-hui moved in with Mao, and they got married at the end of 1920. At the time, radicals shunned the old family rituals that cemented marriage, and a new registration system had yet to be adopted, so there was not even a formal certificate.

On account of her marriage, Kai-hui was expelled from her missionary school. Mao’s affairs continued, and he actually started two new relationships soon after his marriage. A close friend of his at the time told us this, writing the characters bu-zhen, “unfaithful,” on the table with his finger. One of these liaisons was with a cousin of Kai-hui’s. When Kai-hui found out, she was so distraught that she hit her cousin, but she rarely made scenes, and stayed faithful to Mao. She was later to write with resignation:

I learnt many more things, and gradually I came to understand him. Not just him, but human nature in all people. Anyone who has no physical handicap must have two attributes. One is sex drive, and the other is the emotional need for love. My attitude was to let him be, and let it be.

Kai-hui was by no means a conventional Chinese wife bound by tradition to endure her husband’s misconduct. In fact she was a feminist, and later wrote an essay on women’s rights: “Women are human beings, just as men are … Sisters! We must fight for the equality of men and women, and must absolutely not allow people to treat us as an accessory.”

AT THE TIME OF Mao’s second marriage, Moscow was stepping up its efforts to foment subversion in China. It began secretly training a Chinese army in Siberia, and explored armed intervention in China, as it had just attempted, unsuccessfully, in Poland. Simultaneously, it was building up one of its largest intelligence networks anywhere in the world, with a KGB station already established in Shanghai, and numerous agents, both civilian and military (GRU), in other key cities, including Canton, and, of course, Peking.

On 3 June 1921, new top-level Moscow representatives arrived, both under pseudonyms — a Russian military intelligence man called Nikolsky and a Dutchman called Maring, who had been an agitator in the Dutch East Indies. These two agents told the CCP members in Shanghai to call a congress to formalize the Party. Letters went out to seven regions where contacts had been established, asking each to send two delegates and enclosing 200 yuan to each place to cover travel to Shanghai. One lot of invitations and money came to Mao in Changsha. Two hundred yuan was the equivalent of nearly two years’ salary from his teaching job, and far more than the trip could require. It was Mao’s first known cash payment from Moscow.

He chose as his co-delegate a 45-year-old friend called Ho Shu-heng. They left quite secretively on the evening of 29 June in a small steamboat, under a stormy sky, declining the offers of friends to see them off. Although there was no law against Communist activities, they had reason to keep their heads down, as what they were engaged in was a conspiracy — collusion to establish an organization set up with foreign funding, with the aim of seizing power by illegal means.

The CCP’s 1st Congress opened in Shanghai on 23 July 1921, attended by 13 people — all journalists, students or teachers — representing a total of 57 Communists, mostly in similar occupations. Not one was a worker. Neither of the Party’s two most prestigious members, Professors Li Ta-chao and Chen Tu-hsiu, was present, even though the latter had been designated the Party chief. The two Moscow emissaries ran the show.

Maring, tall and mustachioed, made the opening speech in English, translated by one of the delegates. Participants seemed to recall its length — several hours — more than its content. Long speeches were rare in China at the time. Nikolsky was remembered as the one who made the short speech.

The presence of the foreigners, and the control they exercised, at once became an issue. The chair was allotted to one Chang Kuo-tao (later Mao’s major challenger), because he had been to Russia and had links with the foreigners. One delegate recalled that Kuo-tao at one point proposed canceling the resolution of the previous evening. “I confronted him: how is it that a resolution passed by the meeting could be canceled just like that? He said it was the view of the Russian representatives. I was extremely angry … ‘So we don’t need to have meetings, we just have orders from the Russians.’ ” The protest was in vain. Another delegate suggested that before they went along with the Russian plans they should investigate whether Bolshevism actually worked, and proposed sending one mission to Russia and one to Germany — a proposal that alarmed Moscow’s men, and was duly rejected.

Mao spoke little and made little impact. Compared with delegates from the larger cities, he was something of a provincial, clad in a traditional cotton gown and black cotton shoes, rather than a European-style suit, the attire of many young progressives. He did not strive to impress, and was content mainly to listen.

The meeting had started in a house in the French Settlement, and the police in these enclaves, known as “Concessions,” were vigilant about Communist activities. On the evening of 30 July a stranger barged in, and Maring, smelling a police spy, ordered the delegates to leave. The Chinese participants adjourned to a small town outside Shanghai called Jiaxing, on a lake strewn with water chestnuts. Moscow’s men stayed away from this final session for fear of attracting attention.

The wife of a Shanghai delegate hailed from the lakeside town, and she rented a pleasure boat, in which the delegates sat at a polished table where food, drinks and mahjong sets had been laid. A thick carved wooden screen separated this inner chamber from the open, but sheltered, front of the boat, where the delegate’s wife sat with her back against the screen. She told us how, when other boats passed, she would tap on the screen with her fan, and inside the mahjong tiles would click loudly as they were shuffled. Soon it started to pour, and the boat was enveloped in rain. In this dramatic setting, the Chinese Communist Party was proclaimed — somewhat inconclusively, as without Moscow’s men present no program could be finalized. The congress did not even issue a manifesto or charter.

The delegates were given another 50 yuan each as return fare. This enabled Mao to go off and do some sightseeing, in comfort, in Hangzhou and Nanjing, where he saw his girlfriend Si-yung again.

DEPENDENCE ON MOSCOW and Moscow’s money remained a sore point for many in the Party. Professor Chen, who came to Shanghai in late August to take up the post of Secretary, informed his comrades: “If we take their money, we have to take their orders.” He proposed, in vain, that none of them should be full-time professional revolutionaries, but instead should have independent jobs, and use them to spread the ideas of revolution.

Chen argued vehemently with Maring about the latter’s insistence that the CCP was automatically a branch of the Comintern, and particularly over the notion that Nikolsky had to supervise all their meetings. “Do we have to be controlled like this?” he would shout. “It simply isn’t worth it!” Often he would refuse to see Maring for weeks running. Chen would yell, bang his palm on the table, and even throw teacups around. Maring’s nickname for him was “the volcano.” On the frequent occasions when Chen exploded, Maring would go next door to have a smoke while Chen tried to simmer down.

But without Moscow’s funding the CCP could not even begin to carry out any activities such as publishing Communist literature and organizing a labor movement. Over a nine-month period (October 1921–June 1922), out of its expenditure of 17,655 yuan, less than 6 percent was raised inside China, while over 94 percent came from the Russians, as Chen himself reported to Moscow. Indeed, there were many other Communist groups in China at the time — at least seven between 1920 and 1922, one claiming as many as 11,000 members. But without Russian funds, they all collapsed.

Unlike Chen, Mao showed no qualms about taking Moscow’s money. He was a realist. Russian funding also transformed his life. After the congress he began to receive 60–70 yuan a month from the Party for the Hunan branch, soon increased to 100, and then 160–170. This large and regular income made a tremendous difference. Mao had always been short of money. He had two jobs, headmaster and small-time journalist, and he dreaded having to depend on these two occupations to make his living. In two letters written in late November 1920 to a friend, he had complained bitterly, saying: “a life just using the mouth and brain is misery to the extreme … I often go without a rest for 3 or 4 hours [sic], even working into the night … My life is really too hard.”

Then he had told some friends: “In the future, I most likely will have to live on the salaries of these two jobs. I feel that jobs that use only the brain are very hard, so I am thinking of learning something that uses manual labour, like darning socks or baking bread.” As Mao had no fondness whatever for manual labor, to volunteer such an idea showed he had reached a dead end.

But now he had a comfortable berth as a subsidized professional revolutionary. He gave up journalism, and even resigned his job as headmaster, able at last to enjoy the kind of existence he could hitherto only dream about. It seems to be now that he developed his lifelong habit of sleeping late into the day and staying up reading at night. In a letter to his old best friend Siao-yu written two months after the 1st Congress, he was almost ecstatic:

I am now spending most of my time nursing my health, and have become much fitter. Now I feel extremely happy, because, apart from getting healthier, I don’t have any burden of work or responsibility. I am busy having good food every day, both indulging my stomach and improving my health. I also can read whatever books I want to read. It is really “Wow, what fun.”

To be able to eat his fill and read to his heart’s content was Mao’s idea of the good life.

In October 1921 he was able to set up house with Kai-hui, in a place called Clear Water Pond, and had enough money to afford servants. It was a lovely spot, where water flowed into a large pond and changed from muddy to clear, giving the place its name. The house was a traditional building, with black wooden beams and motley brick walls, overlooking fields of vegetables and backing on to low hills.

In theory, the house was the office of the Hunan Party branch. As the provincial Party leader, one of Mao’s main tasks was to recruit members, but he did not throw much zeal into the cause. When he had first been asked to recruit for the Youth League in November 1920, he had delegated the job to someone else and gone off on holiday with his girlfriend Si-yung, claiming that he was off “to research education.”

Unlike most founding dictators — Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler — Mao did not inspire a passionate following through his oratory, or ideological appeal. He simply sought willing recruits among his immediate circle, people who would take his orders. His first recruit, his friend and bookshop manager Yi Li-rong, described how, soon after Mao came back from the 1st Congress, he called Yi out of the bookshop. Leaning against a bamboo fence in the yard, he told Yi that he ought to join the Party. Yi muttered some reservations about having heard that millions had died in the Russian Revolution; but, as he said, Mao “asked me to join and so I joined.” This was how Mao set up his first Party branch in Changsha. It consisted of just three men: himself, Yi, and the friend he had taken to the 1st Congress.

The next to join were members of Mao’s family — his wife and his brothers, whom he had sent for from the village. Tse-min had been running the family business and was smart with money. He took charge of Mao’s finances. Mao summoned more relatives from their village to Changsha, and doled out various jobs. Some entered the Party. Outside his circle of family and friends, his recruiting was sparse. Mainly, he trawled very close to home.

Actually, at the time, quite a lot of young people in Hunan were attracted to communism, including the man who was to become Mao’s No. 2 and president of China, Liu Shao-chi, and a number of other future Party leaders. But they were introduced to the Party not by Mao but by a Marxist in his fifties called Ho Min-fan, who had been county chief of Changsha. Min-fan sponsored Liu and others for membership in the Socialist Youth League in late 1920, and made the introductions for them to go to Russia. He himself did not get to go to the Party’s 1st Congress because the invitation was sent to Mao, who was extremely jealous of Min-fan, especially of his success at recruiting. When Liu Shao-chi returned from Moscow in 1922, Mao grilled him about how Min-fan had achieved this.

Once Mao became official CCP branch boss, he schemed to oust his unwitting rival. Min-fan ran a public lecture center which occupied a fine property, a grand clan temple called Boat Mountain. Claiming to need it for Party purposes, Mao moved in, together with his group, and made life so impossible for Min-fan that he ended up leaving both the premises and the Party milieu. Mao told Liu Shao-chi a year later that Min-fan, Liu’s mentor, had been “disobedient. So we drove him out of Boat Mountain.” By using the word “disobedient,” especially about someone much older, Mao was revealing his thuggish side. He had not behaved this way in his earlier persona. When he first met his friend, the liberal Siao-yu, Mao had bowed to show respect. He had been courteous to his peers and superiors alike. A taste of power had altered his behavior. From this time on, Mao’s friendships were only with people who would not challenge him, and these were largely apolitical. He was not friends with any of his political colleagues, and hardly ever socialized with them.

Removing Min-fan was Mao’s first power struggle. And he won. Under Mao, there was no Party committee. Meetings were rare. There was just Mao giving orders, though he took care to report regularly to Shanghai, as required.

MAO WAS DOING NOTHING about another major task, which was to organize labor unions. He felt no more sympathy for workers than he did for peasants. Writing to a friend in November 1920, in which he complained about his own conditions as an intellectual, he remarked: “I think labourers in China do not really suffer poor physical conditions. Only scholars suffer.”

In December 1921, workers in Anyuan, an important mining center straddling the Hunan — Jiangxi border, wrote asking the Communists for help, and Mao went up to the mine — the first time on record that he went near any workers. He stayed a few days and then left, delegating the practical work to someone else. After this brief dip in the grimy world of the coal miners, he told Shanghai that he had come “to his wits’ end” with “the workers organisation.”

There were effective labor organizers around, though, especially two non-Communists who founded a Hunan Labor Union and recruited more than 3,000 of the approximately 7,000 workers in Changsha. The two were arrested in January 1922 while leading a big strike. In the small hours, they were executed — hacked to death in the traditional manner, an event that gave rise to a storm of protest nationwide. When the governor who killed them was later asked why he did not target Mao, his answer was that he had not seen Mao as a threat.

IT WAS THANKS TO HIS ineffectiveness at organizing labor and recruiting that Mao was dropped from the Party’s 2nd Congress in July 1922. This was a most important occasion, as it passed a charter and endorsed joining the Comintern, thus formally accepting outright Moscow control. Later, Mao tried to explain away his absence by claiming that he “intended to attend” but “forgot the name of the place where it was to be held, could not find any comrades, and missed it.” In fact, Mao knew plenty of Party people in Shanghai, including some of the delegates, and there was no chance that he could have accidentally missed what was a very formal occasion. His absence from the congress meant that he might lose his position as the Party boss in Hunan. Russian funds would no longer come through him, and he would have to take orders from someone else. This prospect spurred him to act: first he visited a lead and zinc mine in April 1922, and in May he went back to Anyuan, the coal-mining center. He also led a number of demonstrations and strikes. On 24 October, when Kai-hui gave birth to their first child, a son, Mao was not with her, as he was away negotiating on behalf of the builders’ union. He gave their son the name An-ying: An was a generation name; ying meant “an outstanding person.”

Mao also finally set up a Hunan Party committee at the end of May, a year after being made Hunan boss. It had thirty members, most of them not recruited by himself. The future president, Liu Shao-chi, described on his deathbed how the committee worked under Mao. “I had many meetings at Chairman Mao’s house,” he wrote, “and apart from asking questions, I had no chance to speak at all. In the end, it was always what Chairman Mao said that went … the Party in Hunan already had its own leader and its own distinctive style — different from the Party in Shanghai.” Liu was putting on record as explicitly as he could that Mao had already started behaving dictatorially in the earliest days of the Party.

Meanwhile, as Mao worked to mend fences with the center of power, he had a lucky break. In January 1923 most of the CCP cadres working in Shanghai found themselves at odds with an order from Moscow to do something seemingly bizarre, and arbitrary: to join another political party, the Nationalists (also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT). Moscow needed provincial Communists who would support its position — and found Mao.

THE NATIONALIST PARTY had been founded in 1912 by the merger of a number of Republican groups. Its leader was Sun Yat-sen, who had briefly been the first provisional president of the Republic, before losing power to the army chief Yuan Shih-kai. Since then, Sun had been trying to form his own army and overthrow the Peking government.

This objective led Sun to embrace Moscow. The Russians shared his goal of subverting the Peking government, as it was refusing its consent to their occupation of Outer Mongolia, which was then Chinese territory. The CCP was far too small to topple the Peking government, so Moscow’s envoys looked round among various provincial potentates, and found that the only one willing to accept the Soviet presence was Sun.

Sun was based in Canton, the capital of the southern coastal province of Guangdong. He asked the Russians to help him build a force strong enough to conquer China. In September 1922 he told a Russian envoy that he wanted to establish “an army with arms and military matériel supplies from Russia.” In return, as well as endorsing the Soviet occupation of Outer Mongolia, Sun proposed that Russia occupy the huge mineral-rich province of Xinjiang in the northwest. Russia’s chief envoy, Adolf Joffe, reported in November that Sun “asks that one of our divisions should take Xinjiang … where there are only 4,00 °Chinese troops and there cannot be any resistance.” He suggested to the Russians that they invade from Xinjiang deep into the heartland of China, as far as Chengdu in Sichuan, on his behalf.

Not only did Sun have big ambitions and few scruples, he had a sizable party with thousands of registered members, and a territorial base with a major seaport at Canton. So in early January 1923 the Soviet Politburo decided: “Give full backing to the Nationalists,” with “money [from] the reserve funds of the Comintern.” The decision was signed by the up-and-coming Stalin, who had begun to take a close interest in China. Sun had thus become, as Joffe told Lenin, “our man” (italics in original). His price was “2 million Mexican dollars maximum,” roughly 2 million gold rubles. “Isn’t all this worth 2 million roubles?” Joffe asked.

Moscow knew that Sun had his own agenda, and was trying to use Russia, just as Russia was trying to use him. It wanted its local client, the CCP, to be right there on the spot to ensure that Sun toed Moscow’s line and served Moscow’s interest. So it ordered the Chinese Communists to join the Nationalist Party. In a secret session, Stalin spelled out: “we cannot give directives out of here, Moscow, openly. We do this through the Communist Party of China and other comrades in camera, confidentially …”

Moscow wanted to use the CCP as a Trojan horse to manipulate the much bigger Nationalist Party; but all CCP leaders, starting from Professor Chen, opposed joining Sun’s party, on the grounds that it rejected communism and that Sun was just another “lying,” “unscrupulous” politician out for power. Moscow was told that sponsoring Sun was “wasting the blood and sweat of Russia, and perhaps the blood and sweat of the world proletariat.”

Maring, the Comintern envoy, faced a revolt. This is almost certainly why Mao was brought to Party HQ. The pragmatic Mao embraced Moscow’s strategy. He promptly joined the Nationalist Party himself. A more fervent Communist, actually an old friend of Mao’s, Cai He-sen, told the Comintern that when Maring put forward the slogan “All work for the Nationalists,” “its [only] supporter was Mao.”

Mao did not believe in his tiny Party’s prospects, or that communism had any broad appeal. He made this crystal-clear at the CCP’s 3rd Congress in June 1923. The only hope of creating a Communist China, he said, was by means of a Russian invasion. Mao “was so pessimistic,” Maring (who chaired the congress) reported, “that he saw the only salvation of China in the intervention by Russia,” telling the congress “that the revolution had to be brought into China from the north by the Russian army.” This was in essence what happened two decades later.

His enthusiasm for the Moscow line shot Mao into the core of the Party, under Maring. There he exerted himself as never before, now that he could see hope in what he was doing. Moscow’s chief bagman in China, Vilde, who doubled as the Soviet vice-consul in Shanghai, singled out Mao and one other person in a report to Moscow as “most definitely, good cadres.” Mao was appointed the assistant to Party chief Professor Chen, with responsibility for correspondence, documents, and taking the minutes at meetings. All Party letters had to be co-signed by him and Chen. In imitation of Chen, Mao signed with an English signature: T. T. Mao. One of the first things Chen and he did was to write to Moscow for more money—“now that our work front is expanding.”

HAVING SHEPHERDED its local Communist clients into the Nationalists, Moscow now sent a higher-level operator to control both the CCP and the Nationalists and to coordinate their actions. Mikhail Borodin, a charismatic agitator, was appointed Sun Yat-sen’s political adviser at Stalin’s recommendation in August 1923. A veteran of revolutionary activities in America, Mexico and Britain, he was a good orator, with a powerful voice, a dynamic organizer and a shrewd strategist (he was the first person to recommend that the Chinese Communists should move to northwest China to get near the Russian border, which they did a decade later). He inspired descriptions like “majestic,” and radiated energy even when ill.

Borodin reorganized the Nationalists on the Russian model, dubbing their institutions with Communist names, such as Propaganda Department. At the Nationalists’ First Congress in Canton, in January 1924, Mao and many other Chinese Communists took part, and the tiny CCP secured a disproportionate number of posts. Moscow now started to bankroll the Nationalists in a big way. Most importantly, it funded and trained an army, and established a military academy. Set on a picturesque island in the Pearl River some ten kilometers from Canton, the Whampoa Academy was modeled on Soviet institutions, with Russian advisers and many Communist teachers and students. Planes and artillery were shipped in from Soviet Russia, and it was thanks to Russian-trained troops, backed in the field by cohorts of Soviet advisers, that the Nationalists were able to expand their base substantially.

Mao was very active in the Nationalist Party, and became one of sixteen alternate members to its top body, the Central Executive Committee. For the rest of the year, he did most of his work in the Nationalist office in Shanghai. It was Mao who helped form the Hunan Nationalist branch, which became one of the biggest.

Mao even went as far as seldom attending meetings of his own Party. His keenness about working with the Nationalists drew fire from his fellow Communists. His old — and more ideological — friend Cai later complained to the Comintern that in Hunan “our organisation lost almost all political significance. All political questions were decided in the Nationalist provincial committee, not in the Communist Party Provincial Committee.” Another dedicated labor organizer concurred: “Mao at that time was against an independent trade union movement for workers.”

Moreover, Mao suddenly found himself cold-shouldered by some of Moscow’s envoys, as his patron Maring had left China the previous October. Although Mao got on well with Borodin, he struggled to defend himself against the ideological purists. Moscow had ordered the Chinese Communists to keep their separate identity and independence, while infiltrating the Nationalists, but the ideologically woolly Mao could not draw the line between the parties. On 30 March 1924, one of these ideologue envoys, Sergei Dalin, wrote to Voitinsky:

What you would hear from CC [Central Committee] Secretary Mao (undoubtedly a placeman of Maring’s) would make your hair stand on end — for instance, that the [Nationalist Party] was and is a proletarian party and must be recognised by the Communist International as one of its sections … This character represented the Party in the Socialist Youth League … I have written to the Party’s CC and asked it to appoint another representative.

Mao was duly fired from this position. Criticized as “opportunistic” and “right-wing,” he found himself kicked out of the Central Committee, and was not even invited to attend the next CCP congress scheduled for January 1925. His health now took a downturn, and he grew thin and ill. A then house-mate and colleague told us that Mao had “problems in his head … he was preoccupied with his affairs.” His nervous condition was reflected in his bowels, which sometimes moved only once a week. He was to be plagued by constipation — and obsessed by defecation — all his life.

Mao was edged out of Shanghai at the end of 1924. He returned to Hunan, but not to any Party position, and the only place to go was his home village of Shaoshan, where he arrived on 6 February 1925 with over 50 kg of books, claiming he was “convalescing.” He had been with the Communist Party for over four years — years full of ups and downs. At the age of thirty-one, his lack of ideological clarity and fervor had landed him back in his family property. Mao’s setbacks during these initial years of the CCP are still kept tightly covered up. Mao did not want it known that he had been ineffectual at Party work, or extremely keen on the Nationalist Party (which became the main enemy for the Communists in the years to come) — or that he was ideologically rather vague.

Si-yung was to die of illness in 1931.

Siao-yu parted company with Mao around now, and later became a Nationalist government official. He died in Uruguay in 1976.

Total Party membership nationwide was 195 as of the end of June 1922.

The CCP at that point had 994 members.


FOR EIGHT MONTHS MAO LIVED in the family house in Shaoshan. He and his two brothers had inherited the house and a fair amount of land from their parents, and the property had been looked after by relatives. The two brothers had been working in Changsha for the Party, having been recruited by Mao. Now they both came home with him. In Changsha, only 50 km away, the Hunan Communists were organizing strikes, demonstrations and rallies, but Mao was not involved. He stayed at home, playing cards a lot of the time.

But he was watching out for a chance to return to politics — at a high level. In March 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the Nationalist leader, died. His successor was a man whom Mao knew, and who was favorably disposed towards him — Wang Ching-wei. Wang had worked with Mao in Shanghai the year before, and the two had got along very well.

Born in 1883, Wang was ten years Mao’s senior. Charismatic, and an eloquent orator, he also had film-star good looks. He had played an active part in Republican activities against the Manchus, and when the Revolution broke out in October 1911 was in prison under a life sentence for his repeated attempts to assassinate high officials of the Manchu court, including the regent. Released as the dynasty collapsed, he became one of the leaders of the Nationalist Party. He was with Sun Yat-sen in Sun’s last days, and was a witness to his will, which was a strong credential to succeed him. Most important, he had the blessing of Borodin, the top Russian adviser. With about 1,000 agents in the Nationalist base, Moscow was now the master of Canton, which had taken on the air of a Soviet city, decked out with red flags and slogans. Cars raced by with Russian faces inside and Chinese bodyguards on the running-boards. Soviet cargo ships dotted the Pearl River. Behind closed doors, commissars sat around red-cloth-covered tables under the gaze of Lenin, interrogating “troublemakers” and conducting trials.

The moment Sun died, Mao dispatched his brother Tse-min to Canton to reconnoiter his chances. Tse-tan, his other brother, followed. By June it was clear that Wang was the new Nationalist chief, and Mao began to spruce up his credentials by establishing grassroots Party branches in his area. Most were for the Nationalists, not the Communists. Having been shunted out of the CCP leadership, Mao was now trying his luck with the Nationalists.

At the top of the Nationalists’ program was “anti-imperialism.” The Party had made its main task the defense of China’s interests against foreign powers, so this became the theme of Mao’s activity, even though it was far removed from peasants’ lives. Not surprisingly, the reaction was indifference. One of his co-workers recorded in his diary of 29 July: “Only one comrade turned up, and the others didn’t come. So the meeting didn’t happen.” A few days later: “The meeting failed to take place because few comrades came.” One night, he and Mao had to walk from place to place to get people together, so the meeting started very late, and did not finish until 1:15 AM. Mao said he was going home, “as he was suffering from neurasthenia, and had talked too much today. He said he wouldn’t be able to sleep here … We walked for about 2 or 3 li [1–1.5 km] and just couldn’t walk further. We were absolutely exhausted, and so spent the night at Tang Brook.”

Mao did not organisze any peasant action in the style of poor versus rich. This was partly because he thought it was pointless. He had told Borodin and some other Communists before, on 18 January 1924:

If we carry out struggles against big landlords, we are bound to fail. [In some areas, some Communists] organised the illiterate peasants first, then led them in struggles against relatively rich and big landlords. What was the result? Our organisations were immediately broken, banned, and these peasants not only did not regard us as fighting for their interests, they hated us, saying that if we hadn’t organised them, there would not have been disasters, or misfortune.

Therefore, until we are confident that our grassroots branches in the countryside are strong … we cannot adopt the policy of taking drastic steps against relatively rich landowners.

Mao was being pragmatic. A Communist called Wang Hsien-tsung in Mao’s area was organizing poor peasants to improve their lot at the time when Mao was in Shaoshan. He was accused of being a bandit, and was arrested, tortured and beheaded by the local police.

Mao prudently decided to steer clear of any such dangerous and futile activities, but the Hunan authorities still viewed him with suspicion, as he had the reputation of being a major radical. That summer there was a drought and, as had often happened in the past, poor peasants used force to stop the rich shipping grain out for sale in the towns and cities. Mao was suspected of stirring things up. In the provincial capital there had also been large “anti-imperialist” demonstrations, following an incident in Shanghai on 30 May when British police killed ten protesters in the British Settlement. Although Mao played no role in the Changsha demonstrations, and was living quietly at home, miles away, he was still assumed to be an instigator, and this notion crops up in an early appearance in US government records. The US consulate in Changsha forwarded to Washington a report by the president of Yale-in-China about “Bolshevistic disturbances” in Changsha on 15 June, saying that the Hunan governor had “received a list of twenty leaders of agitation, including Mao Tse-tung, known to be the leading Communist propagandist here.” Mao was a name, even to an (unusually well-informed) American.

So an arrest warrant was issued in late August. Mao, who was leaving for Canton in any case, decided it was time to decamp. He did so in a sedan chair, heading first to Changsha and telling the bearers that if asked who their passenger was, they should say they were carrying a doctor. Some days later a few militiamen turned up in Shaoshan in search of Mao. Finding him absent, they took some money and left, but did not otherwise disturb Mao’s family.

On the eve of his departure from Changsha, Mao took a stroll along the Xiang River, and wrote a poem in which he looked to the future:

Eagles soar up the long vault,

Fish fly down the shallow riverbed,

Under a sky of frost, ten thousand creatures vie to impose their will.

Touched by this vastness,

I ask the boundless earth:

Who after all will be your master?

Mao’s nose did not fail him. Within two weeks of arriving in Canton, in September 1925, he was given a clutch of key jobs by the Nationalist chief. Mao was to be Wang Ching-wei’s stand-in, running the Propaganda Department, as well as editor of the Nationalists’ new journal, Politics Weekly. And to underline his prominence, he also sat on the five-man committee vetting delegates for the Nationalists’ second congress the following January, at which he delivered one of the major reports. Wang’s role in Mao’s rise is something which has been sedulously obscured by Peking, all the more so because Wang became the head of the Japanese puppet government in the 1940s.

Mao’s ability to work at full pitch in Canton was due in no small part to his discovery of sleeping pills at this time. He had previously suffered from acute insomnia, which left him in a state of permanent nervous exhaustion. Now he was liberated. Later he was to rank the inventor alongside Marx.

In November 1925, while working for the Nationalists, Mao voiced an interest in the question of the Chinese peasantry for the first time. On a form he filled out, he said that he was “currently paying special attention” to these many tens of millions. On 1 December he published a long article on peasants in a Nationalist journal, and he wrote another a month later for the opening issue of the Nationalist magazine Chinese Peasants. Mao’s new interest did not stem from any personal inspiration or inclination; it came on the heels of an urgent order from Moscow in October, instructing both the Nationalists and Communists to give the issue priority. The Nationalists heeded this call at once.

It was the Russians who first ordered the CCP to pay attention to the peasantry. Back in May 1923 Moscow had already referred to “the issue of peasants” as “the centre of all our policies,” and had ordered the Chinese revolutionaries to “carry out peasant land revolution against the remnants of feudalism.” This meant aiming to divide the Chinese peasants into different classes on the basis of wealth, and to stir up the poor against the better-off. At that time, Mao had been cool towards this approach, and when his reservations were reported to Moscow he had been stripped of one of his posts. Mao’s position, as Dalin wrote to Voitinsky in March 1924, was that: “On the peasant question, the class line must be abandoned, there is nothing to be done among the poor peasants and it is necessary to establish ties with landowners and shenshih [gentry] …”

But now Mao shifted with the prevailing wind, though he got into trouble with the Russians over ideological phraseology. In his articles, Mao had attempted to apply Communist “class analysis” to the peasantry by categorizing those who owned their small plot of land as “petty bourgeoisie” and farmhands as “proletariat.” A blistering critique appeared in the Soviet advisers’ magazine, Kanton, which reached a high-grade readership in Russia, where the first personal name on its distribution list of about forty was Stalin’s. The critic, Volin, a Russian expert on the peasantry, accused Mao of arguing as though the peasants were living in a capitalist society, when China was only at the feudal stage: “one very important error leaps sharply to the eye: … that Chinese society, according to Mao, is one with a developed capitalist structure.” Mao’s article was said to be “unscientific,” “indiscriminate” and “exceptionally schematic.” Even his basic figures were way out, according to Volin: he gave the population as 400 million, when the 1922 census showed it was actually 463 million.

Luckily for Mao, the Nationalist Party did not require such high standards of theoretical correctness. In February 1926 his patron Wang Ching-wei appointed him a founding member of the Nationalists’ Peasant Movement Committee, as well as the head of the Peasant Movement Training Institute, set up two years before with Russian funds.

It was only now, when he was thirty-two, that Mao — assumed by many to this day to have been the champion of the poor peasants — took any interest in their affairs. Under Mao, the Peasant Institute churned out agitators who went into the villages, roused the poor against the rich, and organized them into “peasant associations.” In Hunan they were particularly successful after July, when the Nationalist army occupied the province. The Nationalists had just begun a march north from Canton (known as “the Northern Expedition”) to overthrow the Peking government. Hunan was the first place on the 2,000-kilometer route.

The Nationalist army was accompanied by Russian advisers. The Russians had also just opened a consulate in Changsha, and the KGB station there had the second-largest budget of any of the fourteen stations in China after Shanghai. An American missionary wrote home later that year from Changsha: “We have a Russian Consul [now]. No Russian interests here at all to represent … it is plain … what he is up to … China may pay high for his genial presence …” With close Russian supervision, the new Nationalist authorities in Hunan gave peasant associations their blessing — and funding — and by the end of the year the associations had sprung up in much of the countryside in this province of 30 million people. The social order was turned upside down.

At this time, warlords had been fighting sporadic wars for ten years, and there had been more than forty changes of the central government since the country had become a republic in 1912. But the warlords had always made sure that the social structure was preserved, and life went on as usual for civilians, as long as they were not caught in the crossfire. Now, because the Nationalists were following Russian instructions aimed at bringing about a Soviet-style revolution, social order broke down for the first time.

Violence erupted as poor peasants helped themselves to the food and money of the relatively rich, and took revenge. Thugs and sadists also indulged themselves. By December there was mayhem in the Hunan countryside. In his capacity as a leader of the peasant movement, Mao was invited back to his home province to give guidance.

CHANGSHA, WHEN MAO returned, was a changed city, with victims being paraded around in dunce’s hats (a European invention) as a sign of humiliation. Children scampered around singing “Down with the [imperialist] powers and eliminate the warlords,” the anthem of the Nationalist Revolution, sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques.”

On 20 December 1926 about 300 people crowded the Changsha slide-show theater to listen to Mao, who shared the stage with a Russian agitator called Boris Freyer. (Like virtually every Russian agent in China at this time, he later disappeared in Stalin’s purges.) Mao was no orator; his speech was two hours long, and flat. But it was moderate. “It is not the time yet to overthrow landlords,” he said. “We must make some concessions to them.” At the present stage, “we should only reduce rents and interest rates, and increase the wages of hired hands.” Quoting Mao as saying “we are not preparing to take the land immediately,” Freyer told the Russians’ control body, the Far Eastern Bureau, that Mao’s speech was basically “fine,” but inclined towards being too moderate.

Though Mao did not address the issue of violence, his general approach was not militant. Shortly afterwards he went off on an inspection tour of the Hunan countryside. By the end of the tour, which lasted thirty-two days, he had undergone a dramatic change. Mao himself was to say that before this trip he had been taking a moderate line, and “not until I stayed in Hunan for over thirty days did I completely change my attitude.” What really happened was that Mao discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery. This gut enjoyment, which verged on sadism, meshed with, but preceded, his affinity for Leninist violence. Mao did not come to violence via theory. The propensity sprang from his character, and was to have a profound impact on his future methods of rule.

As he wrote in his report about his tour, Mao saw that grassroots peasant association bosses were mostly “ruffians,” activists who were the poorest and roughest, and who had been the most despised. Now they had power in their hands. They “have become lords and masters, and have turned the peasant associations into something quite terrifying in their hands,” he wrote. They chose their victims arbitrarily. “They coined the phrase: ‘Anyone who has land is a tyrant, and all gentry are bad.’ ” They “strike down the landlords to the ground, and stamp on them with their feet … they trample and romp on the ivory beds of the misses and madames. They seize people whenever they feel like it, put a high dunce’s hat on them, and parade them round. All in all, they thoroughly indulge every whim … and really have created terror in the countryside.”

Mao saw that the thugs loved to toy with victims and break down their dignity, as he described with approval:

A tall paper hat is put on [the victim], and on the hat is written landed tyrant so-and-so or bad gentry so-and-so. Then the person is pulled by a rope [like pulling an animal], followed by a big crowd … This punishment makes [victims] tremble most. After one such treatment, these people are forever broken …

The threat of uncertainty, and anguish, particularly appealed to him:

The peasant association is most clever. They seized a bad gentleman and declared that they were going to [do the above to] him … But then they decided not to do it that day … That bad gentleman did not know when he would be given this treatment, so every day he lived in anguish and never knew a moment’s peace.

Mao was very taken with one weapon, the suo-biao, a sharp, twin-edged knife with a long handle like a lance: “it … makes all landed tyrants and bad gentry tremble at the sight of it. The Hunan revolutionary authorities should … make sure every young and middle-aged male has one. There should be no limit put on [the use of] it.”

Mao saw and heard much about brutality, and he liked it. In the report he wrote afterwards, in March 1927, he said he felt “a kind of ecstasy never experienced before.” His descriptions of the brutality oozed excitement, and flowed with an adrenalin rush. “It is wonderful! It is wonderful!” he exulted.

Mao was told that people had been beaten to death. When asked what to do — and for the first time the life and death of people hung on one word of his — he said: “One or two beaten to death, no big deal.” Immediately after his visit, a rally was held in the village, at which another man, who was accused of opposing the peasant association, was savagely killed.

Before Mao arrived, there had been attempts by the leaders of the peasant movement in Hunan to bring down the level of violence, and they had detained some of those who had perpetrated atrocities. Now Mao ordered the detainees to be released. A revolution was not like a dinner party, he admonished the locals; it needed violence. “It is necessary to bring about a … reign of terror in every county.” Hunan’s peasant leaders obeyed.

Mao did not once address the issue that concerned peasants most, which was land redistribution. There was actually an urgent need for leadership, as some peasant associations had already begun doing their own redistribution, by moving boundary markers and burning land leases. People put forward various specific proposals. Not Mao. All he said at a Nationalist land committee meeting discussing this issue on 12 April was: “Confiscation of land boils down to not paying rent. There is no need for anything else.”

What fascinated Mao was violence that smashed the social order. And it was this propensity that caught Moscow’s eye, as it fitted into the Soviet model of a social revolution. Mao was now published for the first time in the Comintern journal, which ran his Hunan report (though without his name on it). He had shown that although he was ideologically shaky, his instincts were those of a Leninist. Some other Communists — especially the Party leader Professor Chen, who flew into a rage when he heard about mob atrocities and insisted that they had to be reined in — were ultimately not Communists of the Soviet type. Now, more than two years after casting him out, the CCP readmitted Mao into the leading circle. In April 1927 he was restored to the Central Committee, though only into the second tier without a vote (called an alternate member).

Mao was based at this time in the city of Wuhan, on the Yangtze, some 300 km northeast of Changsha, where he had moved from Canton with the Nationalist headquarters as the Nationalist army pushed north. Now even more prominent among the Nationalists as an overseer of the peasant movement, he stepped up the training of rural agitators so that they spread his violent line to new areas taken by the army. One text that Mao selected to guide his trainees described peasant association activists discussing ways to deal with their victims. If they were “stubborn,” “we’ll slit their ankle tendons and cut off their ears.” The author greeted the punishments, in particular this gruesome one, with rapture: “I had been listening so absorbedly as if in a drunken stupor or trance. Now I was suddenly woken up by the yelling of ‘Wonderful,’ and I too couldn’t help bursting out ‘Wonderful!’ ” This account was extraordinarily similar to Mao’s own report, both in style and language, and was most likely written by Mao himself.

AS VIOLENCE ACCELERATED under Mao’s tutelage, the Nationalist army turned against the Soviet model their party was following. A large part of the army was from Hunan, and the officers, who came from relatively prosperous families, found that their parents and relatives were being arrested and abused. But it was not just the better-off who suffered; the rank-and-file were also being hit. Professor Chen reported to the Comintern in June: “even the little money sent home by ordinary soldiers was confiscated,” and the troops were “repelled by the excesses,” seeing that the outcome of their fighting was to bring disaster to their own families.

Many in the Nationalist Party had been unhappy about their leaders adopting Moscow’s line right from the start, when Sun Yat-sen embraced the Russians in the early 1920s. Their anger had reached the boiling point after the Nationalists’ second congress in January 1926, when the much smaller CCP (with far fewer than 10,000 members) seemed to have hijacked the Nationalists, who had several hundred thousand members. Under Wang Ching-wei, one-third of the 256 delegates were Communists. Another third were “on the left,” among whom was a large contingent of secret Communists. Not only had Moscow planted its Trojan horse, the CCP itself, inside the Nationalists, it had also infiltrated a large number of moles. Now, over a year later, the mob violence condoned by their party led many prominent Nationalists to call for a break with Moscow’s control, and with the Chinese Communists.

The crisis quickly came to a head. One thousand kilometers to the north, on 6 April 1927 the Peking authorities raided Russian premises and seized a large cache of documents which revealed that Moscow was engaged in extensive subversion aimed at overthrowing the Peking government and replacing it with a client. The documents also showed secret Soviet links with the Chinese Communists. In fact, one important CCP leader, Li Ta-chao, and some sixty other Chinese Communists were arrested in the Russian compound, where they had been living. Li was soon executed by strangulation.

The raids received wide publicity, as did the documents. The proof of Soviet subversion on a massive scale outraged Chinese public opinion and alarmed Western powers. Unless the Nationalists took decisive action to dissociate themselves from the Russians and the CCP, they risked being seen as part of the conspiracy to turn China into a Soviet satellite. Many Nationalists might leave the party, the general public would be repelled, and the Western powers stiffened in their resolve to give full backing to the Peking regime. It was at this point that the commander-in-chief of the Nationalist army, Chiang Kai-shek, took action. On 12 April he gave orders to “cleanse” the Nationalist Party of Communist influence. He issued a wanted list of 197 Communists, headed by Borodin and including Mao Tse-tung.

CHIANG KAI-SHEK HAD been born into a salt merchant family in the east coast province of Zhejiang in 1887, six years before Mao. Later familiar abroad as “the Generalissimo,” he was a professional military man, and in public presented a stolid, rather remote and humorless appearance. He had trained in Japan, and in 1923, as Nationalist chief of staff, had headed a mission to Soviet Russia. At the time he was regarded by the Russians as on the “left wing of the Nationalists” and “very close to us,” but his three-month visit turned him profoundly anti-Soviet, particularly on the issue of class struggle: he was deeply averse to Moscow’s insistence on dividing Chinese society into classes and making them fight each other.

But Chiang did not breathe a word in public about his real views when he returned to China. On the contrary, he gave Borodin the impression that he was “extremely friendly to us, and full of enthusiasm.” He concealed his true colors for one simple reason — the Nationalists were dependent on Soviet military assistance for their goal of conquering China. Chiang, who meanwhile had risen to No. 2 in the Nationalist Party, had, however, been quietly preparing the ground for a split, and had already removed some Communists from key positions in March 1926. This caused the Russians to start plotting ways to get rid of him. According to one of their agents in Canton, their idea was “to play for time and prepare the liquidation of this general [Chiang].” A year later, in early 1927, Borodin had issued a secret order to have Chiang arrested, though the plan did not materialize.

The moment the Peking government published documents about Russian subversion, Chiang acted. On 12 April, he issued a notice which said, in essence: arrest Communists. He moved first in Shanghai, which had been the HQ of the CCP, and where he himself was. The Communists had armed pickets there. Chiang took steps to disarm them. Towards this end he enlisted gangsters to pick a fight with the pickets, to create an excuse for his army to descend and confiscate the arms. Communist strongholds were assaulted, many trade union leaders arrested, and some shot. Chiang’s troops opened fire with machine-guns on a subsequent protest march. In the space of a few days, there were probably more than 300 deaths on the Communist side. Chiang had broken the Communists as an organized force able to operate in public in Shanghai, though the CCP leadership remained largely intact — and, amazingly, Shanghai continued to be where the Party Center resided and operated, clandestinely, even in the middle of the purge. For the following five or six years, “Shanghai” was synonymous with the CCP leadership (and we use it in this sense).

After Chiang Kai-shek started killing Communists in Shanghai, Nationalist chief Wang Ching-wei, who was in Wuhan, some 600 km inland, broke with the CCP and submitted to Chiang. From now on, Chiang Kai-shek became the head of the Nationalist Party. He went on to build a regime that lasted twenty-two years on the mainland, until he was driven to Taiwan by Mao in 1949.

IN THE LEAD-UP TO Wang’s split, Mao faced a choice. He had been much more appreciated by Wang than by his fellow Communists and most Russians, and he had risen much higher among the Nationalists than in the CCP. Should he now go with Wang? He was later to say of this time: “I felt desolate, and for a while, didn’t know what to do.” It was in this rather torn state of mind that one day he ascended a beautiful pavilion on the bank of the Yangtze in Wuhan. Originally built in AD 223 the Yellow Crane Pavilion was a landmark. Legend had it that here a man had once beckoned to a yellow crane flying along the Yangtze, rode on its back to the Celestial Palace — and never returned. The Yellow Crane thus came to mean something gone forever. Now it seemed an apt metaphor for everything Mao had built up for himself in the Nationalist Party. It was a day darkened with heavy rain. As he stood by the carved balustrade of the pavilion, looking across the vastness of the Yangtze, “locked in,” as he wrote in a poem, between Mount Snake and Mount Tortoise on either side, but extended to the infinite by the deluge from the sky, Mao pondered his alternatives. In a traditional libation, he poured his drink into the torrent below, and finished his poem with the line: “The tide of my heart soars with the mighty waves!”

Mao made a bid to keep Wang on the Communists’ side by disowning the peasant association thugs whom he had previously hailed as wonderful, and casting them as scapegoats. On 13 June, Wang Ching-wei told other Wuhan leaders: “Only after Comrade Mao Tse-tung’s report did we realise that peasant associations are controlled by gangsters. They don’t know anything about the Nationalists or the Communists, they only know the business of killing and arson.” Mao’s attempt to pass the buck was futile. His Nationalist mentor was already planning to break with the Communists, and blame them for all the rural atrocities. As the most vocal promoter of this violence, Mao had to say goodbye to Wang and the Nationalists. He was already on the wanted list. But quite apart from this, to stay with Wang would mean having to become a moderate, and respect social order. Mao was not prepared to do this, not after he had discovered his fondness for brutality in rural Hunan. Nearly a decade before, as a 24-year-old, he had expressed his craving for violent and drastic social change: “the country must be … destroyed and then re-formed … People like me long for its destruction …” The Soviet model suited his impulse.

For the first time, Mao had to risk his neck. During the arrest scare two years before, he had had time to summon a sedan chair and make off in leisurely fashion to Changsha. But now escape was not so simple. There was no obvious safe haven and the killing of Communists had started. Professor Chen’s eldest son was arrested and beheaded on 4 July. By the end of the year, after the Communists had launched violent uprisings of their own and taken many lives, tens of thousands of Communists and suspects were slaughtered. Anyone could be arrested, and killed, simply on the charge of being a Communist. Many died proclaiming their faith, some shouting slogans, others singing the “Internationale.” Newspapers hailed executions with pitiless headlines.

Mao first had to ensure his personal safety. Then he decided to use the CCP and the Russians for his own ends. This decision, taken in summer 1927, when he was thirty-three, marked Mao’s political coming of age.



AT THE TIME Chiang Kai-shek broke with the Communists in April 1927, Stalin had emerged as the No. 1 in the Kremlin and was personally dictating policy on China. His reaction to Chiang’s split was to order the CCP to form its own army without delay and occupy territory, with the long-term aim of conquering China with the gun.

The military option — the use of force to bring the Chinese Communists to power — had been Moscow’s favored approach ever since the Comintern was founded in 1919. As long as the Nationalists were in play, Moscow’s strategy had been for CCP members to infiltrate and subvert the Nationalist armed forces. Once the break came, Stalin ordered the Communists to pull out those units they were able to control, and “form some new corps.”

Stalin sent a trusted fellow Georgian, Beso Lominadze, to China. Jan Berzin, the head of Russian military intelligence, the GRU, wrote to the commissar for war, Kliment Voroshilov, who chaired the China Commission in Moscow, that Russia’s top priority in China now was to establish a Red army. A huge secret military advice and support system for the Chinese Communists was set up in Russia. The GRU had men in all the main Chinese cities, providing arms, funds and medicine, in addition to intelligence that was often critical to the CCP’s survival. Moscow also sent top-level advisers to China to guide the Party’s military operations, while greatly expanding military training for CCP cadres in Russia.

The immediate plan, devised in Moscow, was for the Communist units pulled out of the Nationalist army to move to the south coast to collect arms shipped in from Russia, and set up a base. At the same time, peasant uprisings were ordered in Hunan and three adjacent provinces where there had been militant peasant organizations, with the goal of taking power in these regions.

Mao agreed with the military approach. On 7 August 1927 he told an emergency Party meeting presided over by Lominadze: “power comes out of the barrel of the gun” (a saying that later acquired international fame). But within this broad design, Mao harbored his own agenda — to command both the gun and the Party. His plan was to build his own army, carve out his own territory, and deal with Moscow and Shanghai from a position of strength. To have his own fiefdom would safeguard his physical survival. He would of course remain in the Party, as its association with Russia was his only chance of achieving anything more than being a mere bandit.

At this time, Professor Chen had just been dismissed as Party chief by Lominadze, and made the scapegoat for the Nationalist split. His replacement was a younger man called Chu Chiu-pai, whose main qualification was his closeness to the Russians. Mao was now promoted, from the Central Committee to the Politburo, though still as a second-level member.

It was now that Mao embarked on a series of steps that would take him to the top of the Communist ladder in the space of four years. As of summer 1927, he had no armed men at his service, and held no military command, so he set out to acquire an armed force by taking over troops that other Communists had built up.

AT THE TIME, the main force the Reds were able to pull out of the Nationalist army consisted of 20,000 troops stationed in and around Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, about 250 km southeast of Wuhan and 300 km east of Changsha. These troops had nothing to do with Mao. On 1 August they mutinied, on Moscow’s instructions. The main organizer of the mutiny was Chou En-lai, the Party man designated to run the military, with immediate supervision from a Russian military adviser, Kumanin. They then headed straight for Swatow (Shantou) on the coast, 600 km to the south, where the Russians were supposed to ship in arms.

Mao set out to lay his hands on some of these men. On their way to the coast they were scheduled to pass near South Hunan. In early August he proposed to the CCP leadership that he launch a peasant uprising in South Hunan, to establish what he called a big Red base, covering “at least five counties.” In fact, Mao had no intention of trying to start such a rising. He had never organized one, nor did he think it could be done. (The earlier peasant violence in Hunan had been carried out under the protection of the then radical government.) The sole purpose of the proposal was to set up his next request, which was for a large contingent of the mutineers to come to his aid on their way to the coast. Failing to realize that this Hunan initiative was only a ruse to angle for the troops, Shanghai approved Mao’s plan.

The leaders of the Hunan “uprising” were scheduled to meet on 15 August at the Russian consulate in Changsha, to launch the action. But Mao did not turn up, although he was on the outskirts of the city. As he was in charge of the mission, the meeting had to be postponed to the following day, when again he failed to show up. He only finally appeared on the 18th, when he moved into the consulate, for the sake of security. To his angry and frustrated comrades, he offered the excuse that he had been conducting “investigations into the peasantry.”

Mao concealed the true reason for his four-day absence — which was to give himself time to see how the mutineers were faring, and whether they would still be passing South Hunan and thus be available to him. If not, he had no intention of going to South Hunan.

The mutineers had got off to a bad start. Within three days of leaving Nanchang, one-third of them had deserted; many others had died drinking dirty water from rice paddies in humid 30-plus centigrade temperatures. The survivors had already lost nearly half their ammunition. The dwindling ranks were struggling just to survive and make it to the coast, and the chances of any making a detour to help him were nil.

So when Mao finally joined his comrades at the Russian consulate, he demanded that the plans for an uprising in South Hunan be canceled, even though it had been his proposal in the first place. Instead, he insisted on attacking just Changsha, the provincial capital, arguing that they should “narrow down the uprising plan.”

The aim of this new plan was exactly the same as before — to lay his hands on some armed men. At this point the only Red forces anywhere near him were outside Changsha. They consisted of three groups: peasant activists with weapons seized from the police; unemployed miners and mine guards from the mine at Anyuan, which had closed down; and one army unit that had been stranded en route to join the Nanchang mutineers. Altogether, the force totaled several thousand. Mao’s point in advocating an attack on Changsha was that these forces would be deployed for action, and he could maneuver to become their boss.

The ploy was successful. Mao’s proposal to go for Changsha was adopted, and he was put in control by being made head of a “Front Committee.” This made him the Party representative on the spot and thus the man with the final say, in the absence of higher authority. Mao had no military training, but he pitched hard for this job by staging a show of enthusiasm for Moscow’s orders in front of the two Russians at the meeting, who called the shots. “The latest Comintern order” about uprisings was so brilliant, Mao said, “it made me jump for joy three hundred times.”

Mao’s next move was to prevent the troops actually going to Changsha, and instead have them muster at a place where he could abduct them. This place had to be far enough away from Changsha that other Party or Russian representatives could not easily reach it. There was no telephone or radio communication with these forces.

On 31 August, Mao left the Russian consulate, saying that he was going to join the troops. But he did not do this. Instead, he made his way to a town called Wenjiashi, 100 km east of Changsha, and there he stayed. On the launch day set for 11 September, Mao was not with any of the troops, but lying low in Wenjiashi. By the 14th, before the troops had got anywhere near Changsha or suffered serious defeats, he had ordered them to abandon the march on Changsha and converge on his location. As a result, the Party organization in Changsha had to abort the whole design on the 15th. The secretary of the Soviet consulate, Maier, referred to the retreat as “most despicable treachery and cowardice.” Moscow called the affair “a joke of an uprising.” It does not seem to have realized that Mao had set the whole thing up solely in order to snare the armed units.

The operation appears in history books as “the Autumn Harvest Uprising,” portrayed as a peasant uprising led by Mao. It is the founding moment of the international myth about Mao as a peasant leader, and one of the great deceptions of Mao’s career (to cover it up he was to spin an elaborate yarn to his American spokesman, Edgar Snow). Not only was the “uprising” not an authentic peasant undertaking, but Mao was not involved in any action — and actually sabotaged it.

But he got what he was after — control of an armed force, of some 1,500 men. Due south about 170 kilometers from Wenjiashi lay the Jinggang Mountain range, traditional bandit country. Mao had decided to make this his base of operations. The lack of proper roads meant that many of China’s mountain areas were largely out of reach of the authorities. This particular place had an added advantage: it straddled the border of two provinces, and so was on the very outer edge of both provinces’ control.

Mao had a link with a successful outlaw in the area, Yuan Wen-cai. Yuan and his partner Wang Zuo had an army of 500 men and controlled most of one county, Ninggang, which had a population of 130,000. They lived by collecting rents and taxes from the local population.

Mao anticipated problems getting the commanders of the force he had hijacked to go to the bandit country without explicit Party orders, so at Wenjiashi he first sought out a few men he knew already and secured their support, before he called a meeting of the commanders on 19 September. He arranged for his supporters to serve tea and cigarettes so that they could come into the room and keep an eye on things. The argument was fierce — the main commander demanded that they proceed with the old plan and go for Changsha. But Mao was the only Party leader present (the others and the Russians were 100 km away in Changsha), and he prevailed. The force set off for Jinggang Mountain. At first, Mao was such a stranger to the troops that some thought he was a local and tried to grab him to carry guns.

Mao was dressed like a country schoolteacher, in a long blue gown, with a homespun cotton scarf around his neck. Along the way, he talked to soldiers, assessing their condition and gauging their strength—“as if counting family treasure,” one soldier recalled.

When Mao first told the troops that they were about to become “Mountain Lords”—bandits — they were dumbfounded. This was not why they had joined a Communist revolution. But, speaking in the name of the Party, he assured them that they would be special bandits — part of an international revolution. Banditry was also their best chance, he argued: “Mountain Lords have never been wiped out, let alone us.”

Still, many were depressed. They were exhausted, and malaria, suppurating legs and dysentery were rife. Whenever they stopped, they were swamped by their own thick stench, so foul it could be smelled a couple of kilometers away. Sick and wounded would lie down in the grass, and often never get up again. Many deserted. Knowing that he could not force his men to stay, Mao allowed those who wanted to leave to do so, without their guns. Two of the top commanders opted to leave, and went to Shanghai. Both of them later went over to the Nationalists. By the time he reached the outlaw land, Mao had only about 600 men left, having lost well over half his force in a couple of weeks. Most of those who stayed did so because they had no alternative. They became the nucleus from which Mao’s force grew — what he later called the “single spark that started a prairie fire.”

ARRIVING IN BANDIT COUNTRY at the beginning of October Mao’s first step was to visit Yuan, accompanied by only a few men, so as to reassure the bandit chief. Yuan had some armed men hidden nearby in case Mao brought troops. Finding Mao apparently no threat, Yuan had a pig slaughtered for a banquet, and they sat drinking tea and nibbling peanuts and melon seeds.

Mao got his foot in the door by pretending he was only pausing en route to the coast to join the Nanchang mutineers. A deal was struck. Mao could stay temporarily, and would feed his own troops by staging looting expeditions. But to start with, they would be looked after by the outlaws.

By February 1928, four months later, Mao had become the master of his hosts. The finale of this takeover took place after Mao’s men captured the capital of Ninggang county from the government on 18 February, in what was, by the bandits’ standards, a sizable military victory. This was also the first battle that Mao was involved in commanding — watching through binoculars from a mountain opposite.

Three days later, on the 21st, Mao held a public rally of an organized crowd of thousands of people to celebrate the victory. The climax was the killing of the county chief, who had just been captured. An eyewitness described the scene (in cautious language, as he was telling the story under Communist rule): “A fork-shaped wooden frame was driven into the ground … onto which Chang Kai-yang [the county chief] was tied. The whole place was ringed with ropes from one wooden pole to another for hanging slogans. People thrust their spears, suo-biao, into him and killed him that way … Commissar Mao spoke at the rally.” Mao had earlier expressed a special fondness for this weapon, suo-biao. Now, under his very eyes, it pierced the life out of the county chief.

Public execution rallies had become a feature of local life since Mao’s arrival, and he had demonstrated a penchant for slow killing. At one rally, staged to celebrate a looting expedition at the time of the Chinese New Year 1928, he had written couplets on sheets of red paper, which were pasted onto wooden pillars on both sides of the stage. They read:

Watch us kill the bad landlords today.

Aren’t you afraid?

It’s knife slicing upon knife.

Mao addressed the rally, and a local landlord, Kuo Wei-chien, was then put to death in line with the prescriptions of Mao’s poetry.

Mao did not invent public execution, but he added to this ghastly tradition a modern dimension, organized rallies, and in this way made killing compulsory viewing for a large part of the population. To be dragooned into a crowd, powerless to walk away, forced to watch people put to death in this bloody and agonizing way, hearing their screams, struck fear deep into those present.

The traditional bandits could not match Mao and his orchestrated terror, which frightened even them. Yuan and Zuo submitted to Mao’s authority; soon after this they allowed themselves and their men to be formed into a regiment under him. Mao had out-bandited the bandits.

AS SOON AS he had reached the bandit land, Mao had sent a messenger to Party headquarters in Changsha. Contact was established within days, in October 1927, by which time Shanghai had received reports about the events surrounding the Autumn Harvest Uprising. What could not have failed to emerge was that Mao had aborted the venture, and had then made off with the troops without authorization. Shanghai sent for Mao (along with others) to discuss the fiasco. Mao ignored the summons, and on 14 November he was expelled from his Party posts.

The Party made a determined effort to get rid of him. On 31 December, Shanghai told Hunan that “the Centre” considered that “the … army led by comrade Mao Tse-tung … has committed extremely serious errors politically. The Centre orders [you] to dispatch a senior comrade there, with the Resolutions [expelling Mao] … to call a congress for army comrades … to reform the Party organization there.” Clearly anticipating trouble from Mao, the message added: “assign a brave and smart worker comrade to be the Party representative.”

The banner of the Party was critical to Mao, as he had little personal magnetism. His solution to the Party order was simple: prevent the news of his expulsion from ever reaching his men.

A week after Shanghai issued its order, the entire Hunan committee was conveniently — some might say suspiciously — arrested by the Nationalists. Mao’s troops never learned that the Party had withdrawn its mandate from him. It was not until March 1928 that the first Party envoy was allowed to appear in Mao’s base, bringing the message that expelled him. But Mao outsmarted the Party by ensuring that the envoy could only deliver the message to a few hand-picked lackeys, and then pretending to submit by resigning his Party post, which he passed on to a stooge. He awarded himself a new title, Division Commander, and continued to control the army.

THIS BANDIT COUNTRY made an ideal base, well supplied with food. The mountains, though rising to only 995 meters, were steep, and gave excellent security, being ringed by precipices, with dense forests of fir and bamboo that were permanently shrouded in mist, and teemed with monkeys, wild boar, tigers and all sorts of poisonous snakes. It was easy to defend, and to get out of in an emergency, as there were hidden byways leading out to two provinces — narrow mud paths buried under masses of vegetation, impossible for strangers to spot. For outlaws, it was a safe haven.

Mao and his troops lived by staging looting sorties to neighboring counties, and sometimes farther afield. These forays were grandly called da tu-hao—literally, “smash landed tyrants.” In fact they were indiscriminate, classic bandit raids. Mao told his troops: “If the masses don’t understand what ‘landed tyrants’ means, you can tell them it means the moneyed, or ‘the rich.’ ” The term “the rich” was highly relative, and could mean a family with a couple of dozen liters of cooking oil, or a few hens. “Smash” covered a range of activities from plain robbery and ransom to killing.

These raids made frequent headlines in the press, and greatly raised Mao’s profile. It was now that he gained notoriety as a major bandit chief.

But his bandit activities garnered little support from the locals. One Red soldier recalled how hard it was to persuade the population to help them identify the rich, or to join in a raid, or even share the loot. Another described one night’s experience:

We usually surrounded the house of the landed tyrant, seizing him first and then starting to confiscate things. But this time as soon as we broke in, gongs sounded all of a sudden … and several hundred enemies [villagers] emerged … They seized over forty of our men, locked them up in the clan temple … beat them and trussed them up, the women stamping on them with their feet. Then grain barrels were put over them, with big stones on top. They were so badly tortured …

Although Mao claimed an ideological rationale — fighting the exploiting classes — the fact that his incursions were virtually indistinguishable from traditional bandit behavior remained a permanent source of discontent in his own ranks, particularly among the military commanders. In December 1927 the chief commander, Chen Hao, tried to take the troops away while on a looting expedition. Mao rushed to the scene with a posse of supporters, and had Chen arrested, and later executed in front of the entire force. Mao almost lost his army. In the space of the few months since he had snatched the force away, all its main officers had deserted him.

As a means to curry favor with the troops, Mao set up “soldiers’ committees” to satisfy their wish for a say in the proceeds of looting. At the same time, secret Party cells were formed, answering only to Mao as the Party boss. Even ranking military superiors did not know who was a member of the Party, which amounted to a secret organization. In this way Mao used the control mechanism of communism, as well as its name, to maintain his grip on the army.

But as his grip remained far from iron-clad, and he himself was certainly not popular, Mao could never relax his vigilance about his personal safety, and it was from now that he began to perfect the security measures that developed in later life into a truly awesome — if largely invisible — system. To begin with, he had about a hundred guards, and the number grew. He picked several houses in different places in bandit country, and had them fully rigged for security. The houses invariably had escape exits such as a hole in the wall, usually at the back, leading into the mountains. Later, on the Long March, even when he was on the move, most of his houses had one notable characteristic: a special exit leading to an emergency escape route.

Mao lived in style. One residence, called the Octagonal Pavilion, was of great architectural distinction. The spacious main part, opening onto a large courtyard set beside a river, had a ceiling consisting of three layers of octagonal wooden panels that spiraled into a little glass roof, like a glass-topped pagoda. It had belonged to a local doctor, who was now moved to a corner of the courtyard but continued to practice — most convenient for Mao, as he was never quite free of some ailment or other.

Another house that Mao occupied, in the big town of Longshi, was also a doctor’s, and also magnificent. It had a strange beauty that bespoke the former prosperity of the town. The enormous house was half a European masonry villa, with an elegant loggia above a row of Romanesque arches, and half a brick-and-timber Chinese mansion, with layers of upturned eaves and delicate latticed windows. The two parts were grafted together by an exquisite octagonal doorway.

Mao’s actual HQ in Longshi was a splendid two-story mansion set in 2,000 square meters of ground, once the best school for young men from three counties — until Mao came. The whole top floor was open on three sides and looked out onto a vista of rivers and clouds. It had been designed for the pupils to enjoy the breeze in the stifling days of summer. Mao’s occupation of this building was to set a pattern. Wherever he went, schools, clan temples and Catholic churches (often the sturdiest buildings in many parts of remote rural China) were commandeered. These were the only buildings large enough for meetings, apart from being the best. School classes, naturally, were shut down.

During his entire stay in the outlaw land, which lasted fifteen months, Mao ventured into the mountains only three times, for a total period of less than a month. And when he did go, he was not exactly traveling rough. When he went to call on bandit chief Zuo, he stayed in a brilliantly white mansion known as the White House, formerly owned by a Cantonese timber merchant. He was entertained lavishly, with pigs and sheep slaughtered in his honor.

The contours of Mao’s future lifestyle in power were already emerging. He had acquired a sizable personal staff, which included a manager, a cook, a cook’s help with the special duty of carrying water for Mao, a groom who looked after a small horse for his master, and secretaries. One errand boy’s “special task” was to keep him supplied with the right brand of cigarettes from Longshi. Another orderly collected newspapers and books whenever they took a town or looted a rich house.

MAO ALSO ACQUIRED a wife — his third — almost as soon as he settled in outlaw country. A pretty young woman with large eyes, high cheekbones, an almond-shaped face and a willowy figure, Gui-yuan was just turning eighteen when she met Mao. She came from the rich county of Yongxin at the foot of the mountain, and her parents, who owned a teahouse, had given her the name Gui-yuan (Gui: osmanthus, and yuan: round) because she was born on an autumn evening when a round moon shone above a blossoming osmanthus tree. She had attended a missionary school run by two Finnish ladies, but was not content with being brought up as a lady. Her restless, fiery temperament rejected the traditional claustrophobic life prescribed for women, and made her yearn for a wider world, enjoyment, and some action. So, in the stirring atmosphere of the Northern Expedition army’s entry into her town in summer 1926, she joined the Communist Party. Soon she was making speeches in public, as a cheerleader welcoming the troops. At the age of only sixteen, she was appointed head of the Women’s Department in the new government for the whole county, starting her job by cutting off her own long hair, an act that was still revolutionary and eyebrow-raising.

A year later, after Chiang Kai-shek’s split, Communists and activists were on the run, including her parents and younger sister, who had also joined the Party. Her elder brother, also a Communist, was thrown into prison, along with many others, but the outlaw Yuan was a friend of his, and helped to break him out of jail. Gui-yuan and her brother escaped with the outlaws, and she became best friends with Mrs. Yuan. Zuo, the other outlaw, who had three wives, gave her a Mauser pistol.

When Mao came, Yuan assigned her to act as his interpreter. Mao did not speak the local dialect, and he never learned it. Here, as in his later peregrinations, he had to communicate with the locals through an interpreter.

Mao at once began to court her, and by the beginning of 1928 they were “married”—with no binding ceremony but a sumptuous banquet prepared by Mrs. Yuan. This was barely four months after Mao had left Kai-hui, the mother of his three sons, the previous August. He had written to her just once, mentioning that he had foot trouble. From the time of his new marriage, he abandoned his family.

Unlike Kai-hui, who was madly in love with him, Gui-yuan married Mao with reluctance. A beautiful woman in a crowd of men, she had many suitors and considered Mao, at thirty-four, “too old” and “not worthy” of her, as she told a close friend. Mao’s youngest brother, Tse-tan, handsome and lively, also fancied Gui-yuan. “My brother has a wife,” he said. “Better to be with me.” She chose the elder Mao because she felt the “need for protection politically in that environment,” as she later conceded.

In a world of few women and a lot of sexually frustrated men, Mao’s relationship with Gui-yuan caused gossip. Mao was careful: he and Gui-yuan avoided appearing in public together. When the couple walked past the building that housed wounded soldiers, he would ask Gui-yuan to go separately.

By the end of a year of marriage, Gui-yuan had resolved to leave Mao. She confided to a friend that she was unlucky to have married him and felt she had “made a big sacrifice” by doing so. When Mao decided to leave the outlaw land, in January 1929, she tried desperately to stay behind. Gui-yuan may well have been thinking about more than just leaving Mao. She had been swept into a maelstrom while still only in her teens, and now her desire to quit was so strong that she was prepared to risk capture by the Reds’ enemies. However, Mao ordered her to be taken along “at any cost.” She cried all the way, repeatedly falling behind, only to be fetched by Mao’s guards with his horse.

MAO’S STANDING WITH the Party began to change in April 1928, when a large Red unit of thousands of men, the surviving Nanchang mutineers, the troops he had angled for right from the start, sought refuge in his base. They came to Mao as a defeated force whose much-depleted ranks had been routed on the south coast the previous October, when the Russians failed to deliver the promised arms. The remnants of the force had been rallied by a 41-year-old officer called Zhu De, a former professional soldier with the rank of brigadier, and something of a veteran among the mainly twentyish Reds. He had gone to Germany in his mid-thirties, and joined the Party before moving on to Russia for special military training. He was a cheerful man, and a soldier’s soldier, who mingled easily with the rank and file, eating and marching with them, carrying guns and backpacks like the rest, wearing straw sandals, a bamboo hat on his back. He was constantly to be found at the front.

Mao had always coveted the Nanchang mutineers, and when he first arrived in outlaw territory had sent a message urging Zhu to join him, but Zhu had declined. Shanghai’s orders had been to launch uprisings in the southeast corner of Hunan around New Year 1928, and Zhu, as a loyal Party man, had followed orders. The uprisings failed abysmally, thanks to the sheer absurdity and brutality of Moscow’s tactics. According to a report at the time, the policy was to “kill every single one of the class enemies and burn and destroy their homes.” The slogan was “Burn, burn, burn! Kill, kill, kill!” Anyone unwilling to kill and burn was termed “running dog of the gentry [who] deserves to be killed.”

In line with this policy, Zhu’s men razed two whole towns, Chenzhou and Leiyang, to the ground. The result was to foment a real uprising — against the Communists. One day, at a rally held to try to force peasants to do more burning and killing, the peasants revolted and killed the attending Communists. In village after village and town after town where Zhu’s men were active, rebellions sprang up against the Reds. Peasants slaughtered grassroots Party members, tore off the red neckerchiefs they had been ordered to wear, and donned white ones to demonstrate their allegiance to the Nationalists.

Once Nationalist troops began to apply pressure, Zhu had to run, and thousands of civilians went with him: the families of the activists who had done the burning and killing, who had nowhere else to go. This was what Moscow had intended: peasants must be coerced into doing things that left no way back into normal life. To “get them to join the revolution,” the Party had decreed, “there is only one way: use Red terror to prod them into doing things that leave them with no chance to make compromises later with the gentry and bourgeoisie.” One man from Leiyang recounted: “I had suppressed [i.e., killed] counter-revolutionaries, so I could not live peacefully now. I had to go all the way … So I burned my own house with my own hands … and left [with Zhu].”

After these people left, the cycle of revenge and retribution brought more casualties, among them a young woman who had been adopted by Mao’s mother, called Chrysanthemum Sister. She had followed Mao into the Party and married a Communist, and they had a young child. Although it seems she and her husband did not support the killings by the Reds, nevertheless her husband was executed after Zhu’s army left Leiyang, and his head exhibited in a wooden cage on the city wall. Chrysanthemum Sister was imprisoned. She wanted to recant, but her captors refused permission. She wrote to a relative that she was made to “suffer all the pains I had never imagined existed” and yearned for death: “I long to die and not go on being tortured … It would be such relief to leave this world. But my poor [baby], it’s so painful to think of him. I had so many plans about bringing him up. Never did I dream all this was going to happen … My baby must not blame me …” Chrysanthemum Sister was later executed.

Zhu came to Mao as a defeated man, while Mao could represent himself as the person who had in effect saved what was the largest detachment of Communist troops still functioning, at a time when other Red bases were crumbling. All the uprisings the Russians had ordered in the past months had ended in failure. The most famous Red base, Hailufeng, on the south coast, collapsed in late February 1928. During its two-month existence, the area, called “Little Moscow”—there was even a “Red Square,” with a gateway copied from the Kremlin — became a carnage ground under its leader Peng Pai, a man with a thirst for blood. Over 10,000 people were butchered; “reactionary villages were razed wholesale to the ground.”

These failed areas had carried out killing and burning on a much larger scale than Mao’s. Mao was not a fanatic. He would stop his men from burning down Catholic churches (which were often the best buildings in rural areas) and fine houses, telling them to keep them for their own use. Killing served its purposes, but it should not jeopardize his broader political interests.

By the time Zhu De came to Mao, Moscow had begun to stop the “aimless and disorderly pogroms and killings” which it termed, with the Communist penchant for jargon, “blind-action-ism” and “killing-and-burning-ism.” Shanghai ordered killing to be more targeted. This was exactly what Mao had been doing. He emerged as shrewd and far-sighted, and this dealt him back into the game — and into the Party’s good graces. And Stalin’s too. Even Mao’s disobedience vis-à-vis the Party now had a plus side, as Stalin badly needed a winner — someone with initiative, not just a blind subordinate. Moscow’s ability to operate in China, already weakened by Chiang Kai-shek’s policy switch in spring 1927, had been further impaired after Russian diplomats were caught red-handed in an attempted putsch in Canton (known as “the Canton Commune”) in December 1927. Some missions, including the one in Changsha, were shut down, and Moscow lost diplomatic cover for many of its operatives.

As soon as Zhu De arrived, Mao acted to retrieve his Party mandate, writing to Shanghai on 2 May demanding to form a Special Committee headed by himself. Without waiting for a reply, he had it announced at a rally to celebrate the Mao — Zhu link-up that Mao was the Party commissar — and Zhu the commander — of what was to become known as “the Zhu — Mao Red Army.” Mao then held a “Party congress” with delegates appointed by himself, and just set up the Special Committee, with himself as its head.

There was an extra reason why Mao required an urgent Party mandate. The contingent Zhu commanded was 4,000 strong, and far outnumbered Mao’s, which counted just over 1,000; moreover, half of Zhu’s men were proper soldiers, with battle experience. So Mao needed a Party mandate to secure his authority. To establish some martial credentials in the presence of Zhu’s army, Mao sported a pistol when he met them, one of the few times he was ever seen carrying one. He soon gave it back to a bodyguard. Mao believed in the gun, but he was not a battlefield man.

While waiting for endorsement from Shanghai, Mao began to behave like a good Party member, accepting Party orders and regular inspectors, and filing long reports. Till now he had not bothered to find out how many Party members there were in his territory, and had given vague — and exaggerated — answers to an inspector: this county had “over 100,” that one “over 1,000.” Now Party committees started to function.

He also began to carry out land redistribution, central to the Communist program. He had not bothered to do this before, as it was irrelevant to how he ruled, which was simply by looting.

MEANWHILE, MAO’S LETTER demanding a Party post, which, like all other correspondence, was carried by special messenger, was sent on by Shanghai to Moscow. It reached Stalin on 26 June 1928, right in the middle of the CCP’s 6th Congress, then meeting in secret just outside Moscow. That this was the only time any foreign party held a congress in Russia speaks for the exceptional importance Stalin ascribed to China, as does the fact that the Russians arranged and paid for over 100 delegates to travel clandestinely from China.

Stalin’s line was delivered by Comintern chief Nikolai Bukharin in an address that spanned nine buttock-numbing hours. Mao was not among those present. He had already adopted a tyrant’s golden rule, one to which he stuck for the rest of his life: not to step out of his lair unless he absolutely had to.

Moscow had reservations about Mao. Chou En-lai, the key figure at the Congress, said in his military report that Mao’s troops had “a partly bandit character,” meaning that Mao did not always toe the line. Yet, fundamentally, Mao was in favor with Moscow, and was cited at the Congress as a key fighting leader. The fact was that he was the most effective man in applying the Kremlin’s policy which, as Stalin reiterated to the Chinese Party leaders in person on 9 June, was to establish a Red Army. While in Russia, every delegate to the Congress received army training, and detailed military plans were drawn up. Stalin, the old bank-robber, got personally involved in the financing via a huge counterfeiting operation.

Mao fitted Stalin’s bill. He had an army — and a base — and was an old Party member. Moreover, he now had the highest profile, even if of a notorious kind, among all Chinese Communists. He was, as Stalin was later to say to the Yugoslavs, insubordinate, but a winner. And however disobedient he might be, Mao clearly needed the Party, and needed Moscow, and this made him essentially subject to control.

Mao’s demands were met in full. By November he had been told that he was in charge of the Zhu — Mao Red Army and its territory around the outlaw land. This was a key moment in his rise. He had faced down the Party — and Moscow itself.

This mutiny entered myth as a purely Chinese operation under the misleading name of “the Nanchang Uprising,” and 1 August was later designated the founding day of the Chinese Communist Army. But, as Stalin bluntly put it, the operation was “on the initiative of the Comintern, and only on its initiative.” These words were deleted from the published version of Stalin’s speech. The man in charge of delivering arms to the mutineers was Anastas Mikoyan.

One of Mao’s closest subordinates confirmed that by the time Mao turned up, “the Autumn Harvest Uprising had failed.”

One of the Russians in Shanghai told Moscow that “everything has been given over to fire and the sword and people were shot right and left.”

He praised Lenin, not inappositely, with these words: “His law has no detail. It just kills all opposition. His workers and peasants can just kill off all the landed tyrants, bad gentry, landlords, capitalists, with no need to report to anyone …” The regime called on people to “disembowel and slice off heads … slaughter on the spot with no hesitation. Have absolutely not a shred of feeling …,” “kill, kill freely. To kill is the topmost important work in an uprising.” Children were praised for “automatically killing reactionaries.”


MAO RECEIVED Shanghai’s endorsement as head of the Zhu — Mao Army in November 1928, and at once began planning to leave the outlaw land with the army, to take over new domains and new armed forces. He was also leaving because the region was about to be attacked. In June that year, Chiang Kai-shek had defeated the Peking government and brought much of China under his control, setting up his capital in Nanjing. Chiang’s troops were on their way to Mao’s territory. Mao set off on 14 January 1929. The bulk of the Zhu — Mao Army, now some 3,000 strong, left with him, as did Zhu De, whom Shanghai had appointed military supremo of the army.

Fifteen months after his arrival, Mao left behind a depleted land. In his first experience of running a base he had shown that he had no economic strategy but looting, tantamount to “slash and burn.” A Party inspector wrote to Shanghai:

Before the Red Army came … there was quite an atmosphere of peaceful and happy existence … the peasants … had quite enough to live on … Since the Red Army came, things were totally changed. Because the Red Army’s sole income was robbing the rich … because even petty bourgeois, rich peasants and small pedlars were all treated as enemies, and because after great destruction, no attention was paid to construction or to the economic crisis, the countryside is totally bankrupt, and is collapsing by the day.

Mao’s men had bled the place dry, and the locals loathed them. When he departed, he left behind his wounded and the civilian Communists. Those captured by the regular government army were lucky — they were merely machine-gunned to death. Those who fell into the hands of local forces were disemboweled, burned alive, or slashed slowly to death. Many hundreds were killed.

A report to Shanghai by the stay-behind Party committee revealed that the bitterness bequeathed by Mao’s regime was so intense that even the Nationalists “burning houses and killing ring-leaders did not generate hatred from the average masses for the reactionaries.” People were defecting when they could: those “under our Red power naturally do not dare to act reactionary,” the report stated. “But the masses outside [our control] are crossing over to the Nationalists en masse.” The report blamed the locals, saying that they “have always been no good.”

The original outlaws, who were mostly locals and stayed behind, fared much better. Most of them survived — including the two chiefs, Yuan and Zuo. However, these two met their deaths a year later, in March 1930—at the hands of Communists who returned to the area. Moscow had ordered the CCP to double-cross those it termed “bandits”—in effect, to use them and then kill them. “Alliance with bandits and other similar groups is only applicable before an uprising,” stated one resolution. “Afterwards you must disarm them and severely suppress them … Their leaders must be regarded as leaders of counter-revolutionaries, even if they helped uprisings. And these leaders must all be completely eliminated.”

Yuan and Zuo’s followers fled back into the depths of the mountains and became fiercely anti-Communist. A Red search unit reported that “the local population resented us, and did everything to protect the [outlaws].” Having lived under both the bandits and the Communists, the locals knew which they preferred.

ON THE JOURNEY out of the outlaw land, Mao loped along, cracking jokes to his entourage. He had cause to be cheerful. Shanghai and Moscow’s acceptance of his demands showed that he could get his way. Indeed, at that very moment, January 1929, in Moscow, GRU chief Jan Berzin and Stalin’s China apparatchik, Pavel Mif, were meeting to discuss how the Soviet army could give “practical help to Zhu — Mao,” whom Moscow was tracking closely. This is the first known occasion when Moscow was arranging military aid specifically for the Mao — Zhu force, now publicly described as “the most formidable among the Communists.”

Government forces were in hot pursuit, and Mao’s army had to fight pitched battles, in one of which Zhu De’s wife was captured. Later she was executed and her head stuck on a pole in Changsha. It was during this low point in Zhu’s fortunes that Mao mounted a power grab against him. Within two weeks of leaving the outlaw land, Mao had abolished Zhu De’s post as military supremo, awarded by Shanghai, and concentrated all power in his own hands. As the Red force was being attacked by the Nationalists, Zhu did not retaliate. He was no match for Mao in exploiting a crisis.

Mao did not inform Shanghai about his seizure of power. Instead he wrote to tell Shanghai how glad he was to submit to Party orders. “How should the Red Army proceed?” he wrote. “We particularly thirst for instructions. Please could you send them winging my way?” “The resolutions of the 6th Congress are extremely correct. We accept them jumping for joy.” “In the future, we hope the Centre gives us a letter every month.” Mao was currying favor with Shanghai hoping that when they got wind of his coup against Zhu De, they would be better disposed towards him.

Still, Zhu De refrained from exposing Mao. Zhu had no craving for power, nor any gift for intrigue. And since reporting to Shanghai was the job of the chief, to write himself would amount to declaring war on Mao.

In March, Mao had another lucky break, this time involving the Nationalists. Although a central government had been in place for nearly a year, Chiang Kai-shek faced powerful opponents, some of whom now started a war against him. Troops who were hot on Mao’s trail were pulled back to deal with the rebels. A delighted Mao informed Shanghai that the enemy, who had come within half a kilometer of his rearguard, had “suddenly turned back” and let him go.

By this time Mao had entered the southeast coastal province of Fujian, where he managed to capture Tingzhou — a sizable city, but weakly defended. Located on a navigable river teeming with cargo boats, it was a wealthy place, with strong overseas links. Grand European buildings stood next door to ornate bazaars selling wares from all over Southeast Asia. Mao filled his coffers by robbing the rich. “Our supply is no problem,” he told Shanghai, “and morale is extremely high.”

The army acquired a uniform for the first time, from a factory that had been making them for the Nationalists. Up till then Red soldiers had been wearing clothes of all kinds and colors, sometimes even women’s dresses and Catholic priests’ vestments. (One Italian priest was particularly worried about the Reds taking his fascist shirt.) The Communists’ new uniform, gray, was like the Nationalist one, but had a red star on the cap, and red insignia.

The city’s defender, Brigadier Kuo, had been captured alive on Mao’s specific orders, and then killed. A rally was held at which his corpse was hung upside down from a chestnut tree by the dais where Mao made a speech, and the corpse was then paraded through the streets. To show that the old order had been supplanted, Mao also had the city hall razed to the ground.

He set up headquarters in a magnificent old-style villa overlooking the river. But in May his new haven was disturbed when a man called Liu An-gong arrived, sent by Shanghai to take up the No. 3 position in the Zhu — Mao Army. An-gong was fresh from Russia, where he had received military training. He was appalled by what Mao had done to Zhu De, and the way he was running the army. Mao, he charged, was “power-grabbing,” “dictatorial”—and was “forming his own system and disobeying the leadership.”

Mao could no longer conceal his coup. On 1 June 1929, nearly four months after he had pushed Zhu De out, Mao wrote to Shanghai saying that “the Army” had “decided temporarily to suspend” Zhu’s post because “it found itself in a special situation.” He did his best to minimize the impact by tucking the information away as item 10 in his long 14-item report. The rest of the report was couched in a very obedient, even ingratiating tone, larded with professions of eagerness to receive Party instructions: “please … set up a special communications office,” he wrote, to make it possible to communicate directly with Shanghai, adding: “Here is opium worth 10,000 yuan as start-up funds for the office.” Mao was trying everything, even drug money, to coax Shanghai to endorse his seizure of power.

With An-gong on his side — and the Red Army no longer being pursued by the Nationalists — Zhu De now stood up to Mao. And he had most of the troops behind him. Mao was extremely unpopular, as an official report later told Shanghai: “the mass as a whole was discontented with Mao.” “Many comrades felt really bitter about him” and “regarded him as dictatorial.” “He has a foul temper and likes to abuse people.” For the sake of balance, Zhu was also criticized, but for trivial things like “bragging,” and lacking decorum—“when he was in full flow, he would unconsciously roll his trousers up to his thighs, looking like a hooligan, with no dignity.”

There was still a degree of democratic procedure among the Communists, and issues were frequently debated and voted on. Party representatives in the army met on 22 June and voted to dismiss Mao as Party boss of the army and reinstate Zhu as military supremo. Mao later described himself as having been “very isolated.” Before the vote he had threatened: “I have a squad, and I will fight!” But there was nothing he could do, as his followers were disarmed before the meeting.

Having lost control of his own force, Mao started jockeying to recover power. His plan was to take control of the region where he was, a newly occupied territory in Fujian near the southeast coast, complete with its own Red force. It was also the richest area the Communists had ever held, with a population of some 1.25 million. Mao told the new leadership of the army that now that he had been voted out, he wanted to go and “do some work with local civilians.” Nobody seems to have realized that this request was a cover to enable Mao to gatecrash on the local Reds and commandeer their Party organization.

Mao left HQ on a litter, with his wife and a few faithful followers. One of them remembered: “When we left … our horses were confiscated from us, so our entourage really looked rather crestfallen.” This bedraggled group headed for Jiaoyang, where Mao had got a local crony to call a congress. The Zhu — Mao Army had helped create the base, so Mao had clout, even though Shanghai had not assigned it to Mao, but to the Fujian Committee. Mao’s plan was to manipulate the congress and insert the followers who had left the army with him into the leading posts.

By 10 July some fifty local delegates had gathered in Jiaoyang, having been notified that the congress was to open next day. Instead, Mao sent them away for a whole week to conduct “all sorts of investigations,” in the words of a report written immediately afterwards. When the conclave finally opened, Mao feigned illness, and further delayed the meeting. In fact he was not ill, his secretary later disclosed. The report complained that the congress “lasted too long” and operated in a “slack” style, being strung out for “as long as twenty days”—by which time government forces were closing in. At this point, the report continued, “news came that [Nationalist] troops were coming … so the Front Committee … changed the plan … and the congress … was closed …”

The delegates left without voting for the key posts. As soon as their backs were turned, Mao assigned these posts to his cronies, passing off his action as the decision of the congress. One of his men was made de facto head of the regional Red Army force. Mao’s followers were all from Hunan, and could not even speak the local dialect.

When the local Reds discovered that Mao had deprived them of control of their own region, they were outraged. In the following year they were to rebel against Mao, which led him to unleash a bloody purge.

While the congress was still going on, the delegates had already shown that they feared and disliked Mao. The report said that when he was present “the delegates rarely spoke,” whereas in his absence “they began to debate passionately, and things improved tremendously.” Mao had no mandate over this civilian Party branch. That authority belonged to the Fujian Provincial Committee. The delegates had wanted this body to be represented at the congress, to protect them from Mao. However, the post-mortem noted, “our messenger was arrested, and our report was lost, so there was no one from the Provincial Committee to … guide the congress.” The post-mortem did not say whether anyone suspected foul play, but there was already a pattern of communications being suddenly broken at critical junctures for Mao.

Once he had seized control of this new territory, Mao set out to undermine Zhu De. An ally in this scheme was a man from Zhu’s staff called Lin Biao, a loner and a maverick in his early twenties, whom Mao had been cultivating ever since Lin had come to the outlaw land the year before.

Lin Biao had three qualities that caught Mao’s eye. One was military talent. Lin had wanted to be an army man ever since childhood, and had relished life at the Nationalists’ Military Academy at Whampoa. He was well versed in military strategy, and had proved his flair in battle. His second quality was that he was unconventional. Unlike many other senior military men in the CCP, he had not been trained in the Soviet Union and was not steeped in Communist discipline. It was widely known in Zhu De’s ranks that Lin had kept loot, including gold rings, for himself, and had contracted gonorrhea. The third quality, and the one most welcome to Mao, was that Lin bore a grudge against Zhu, his superior, for having reprimanded him; this was something that Lin’s extreme sense of pride could not take.

As soon as Lin appeared, Mao sought him out and befriended him, winning his favor by inviting him to lecture to his own (Mao’s) troops, an honor he accorded no one else. From here on, Mao built a special relationship with Lin. Decades later he was to make him his defense minister and second in command. In this long-lasting crony relationship, Mao took great care to massage Lin’s vanity and to let him act above the rules, in return for which Mao was able to call repeatedly on Lin’s complicity.

Their first collaboration occurred at the end of July 1929, when the Nationalists attacked. As the military supremo, Zhu drew up the battle plan, which called for all units to rendezvous on 2 August. But come the day, the unit Lin commanded was nowhere to be seen. He had stayed behind, together with Mao and the Fujian unit that Mao had just collected. Together, the two of them had control over about half of the Red forces, then totalling upwards of 6,000, and Zhu had to fight with only half the men he expected. Nonetheless, his under-strength force acquitted itself well.

But if half the army refused to obey his orders, Zhu could not command it effectively. With the army gridlocked, loyal Party members and Red Army men looked to Shanghai to sort the problem out.

AT THIS TIME, the mainstay of the Party leadership in Shanghai was Chou En-lai. The man who held the formal top post as general secretary, Hsiang Chung-fa, a sailor-dockworker, was a figurehead, appointed solely because of his proletarian background. But the real decision-makers were operatives sent by Moscow, who in those days were mainly non-Russians, mostly European Communists. The immediate bosses were a German called Gerhart Eisler (later Moscow’s intelligence chief in the US) and a Pole known as Rylsky. These agents controlled the Party budget, down to the slightest detail, as well as communications with Moscow. They made all policy decisions, and monitored their outcome. Moscow’s advisers supervised military activities. Their Chinese colleagues referred to them as mao-zi, “Hairy Ones,” as they had more body hair than the Chinese. “German Hairy,” “Polish Hairy,” “American Hairy,” etc., frequently cropped up in conversations among the Chinese. One probably stooped agent was known as “Hunchback Hairy.” The “Hairies” gave orders through Chou En-lai, who later won international fame as prime minister for a quarter of a century under Mao. But the real Chou was not the suave diplomat foreigners saw, but a ruthless apparatchik, in thrall to his Communist faith. Throughout his life he served his Party with a dauntless lack of personal integrity.

Chou first encountered communism in Japan, where he arrived in 1917 as a nineteen-year-old student just as the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. He made his choice while studying in Western Europe, joining the Chinese Communist Party branch in France in 1921. There he became a fervent believer, and his dedication was reflected in his asceticism. Good-looking and attractive to women, he was far from indifferent to beauty himself. When he first arrived in France, he was constantly heard admiring its women. “What beautiful girls!.. The women here [in Paris] are so attractive,” he wrote to a friend back home. Soon he acquired a sexy girlfriend, with whom he was very much in love, but once he converted to the Red faith he did what many missionaries had done: he chose a wife not based on love but on whether she could be a partner in the mission.

Many years later, in a rare moment of candor, Chou revealed to a niece how he had picked his wife. He mentioned the woman with whom he had been in love, and said: “When I decided to give my whole life to the revolution, I felt that she was not suited to be a lifelong partner.” He needed a spouse who would be as devoted as he was. “And so I chose your aunt,” he said, “and started writing to her. We established our relationship through correspondence.” He entered a loveless marriage at the age of twenty-seven, with a 21-year-old zealot called Deng Ying-chao, who was noticeably plain and ungainly.

Tenacious and indefatigable, even impervious to cold, Chou was a good administrator and a brilliant organizer. Moscow spotted him, and gave him the crucial task of creating the Chinese Communist army. In 1924 he was sent back to China, where he soon became director of the Political Department of the Whampoa Military Academy, the Nationalists’ officer-training base founded by the Russians. Chou’s secret responsibility was to plant Communist agents among the higher ranks, with a view to taking over part of the Nationalist army when the time came — which he did in the form of organizing the Nanchang Mutiny in August 1927, after Chiang broke with the CCP. By the time the mutineers were defeated on the south coast, Chou was delirious with malaria and kept yelling “Charge! Charge!” He was carried onto a small boat by colleagues, and escaped to Hong Kong through seas so violent they had to tie themselves to the mast to keep from being swept overboard.

After that, he proceeded to Shanghai, where he ran the Party’s daily business from the beginning of 1928. He proved to be a genius at operating in clandestine conditions, as people who worked with him testify. That summer he went to Russia, where he met Stalin before the 6th CCP Congress convened there. He was the dominant figure at the congress, delivering no fewer than three key reports, as well as serving as the congress secretary. His domain was vast: he set up the Chinese KGB, under Moscow’s guidance, and ran its assassination squad. But organizing the Chinese Red Army was his main job.

Among the qualities that made Chou an ideal apparatchik were discipline and unswerving obedience to Moscow’s line, as well as slavishness. He could absorb any amount of caning from his masters. In future years, as prime minister under Mao, he was willing to abase himself repeatedly, using such toe-curling language that his audiences would cringe with embarrassment. He had already begun producing humiliating self-criticisms decades earlier. “I … would like the whole Party to see and condemn my errors,” he said in 1930, and pledged to criticize his “serious systematic errors” himself in the Party press. Once, at a meeting he attended, one of Moscow’s German envoys, perhaps spotting a streak of masochism in Chou, said: “As for Comrade En-lai, we of course should smack him on the bottom. But we don’t want to kick him out. We must reform him … and see if he corrects his mistakes.” Chou just sat there and took it.

Chou does not seem to have aspired to be No. 1; he was not a program-setter, and seems to have needed orders from above. He could also be long-winded. One of his subordinates in the 1920s remembered: “Once he started talking, he could not stop. What he said was clear, but not punchy … he would talk as if teaching elementary school children.” He could talk for seven or eight hours non-stop, boring his listeners so thoroughly that they would doze off.

Chou’s loyalty, combined with undoubted ability, was the main reason Moscow picked him to be chief Party leader from 1928, so it fell to him to deal with the dispute in the Zhu — Mao Army. On Moscow’s instructions, he wrote to the army on 21 August 1929, giving Mao full backing and rejecting all the criticisms. Mao, he insisted, was “absolutely not patriarchal.” Mao’s abolition of Zhu De’s post was judged correct. An-gong, the Party envoy who had spoken up against Mao, was recalled. He was soon killed in battle.

Even though Mao had broken all the rules, Shanghai endorsed him. Mao was insubordinate, but a winner. His ambition demonstrated the kind of lust for power essential to conquer China, especially when the Communist forces numbered mere thousands, up against millions on the Nationalist side.

There were two added factors that came into play in Mao’s favor at this moment. Two thousand kilometers north of his location the Russians controlled the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria, which cut 1,500 km through northeast China from Siberia to Vladivostok. Along with this, Moscow had inherited from the Tsars by far the largest foreign concession in China, occupying well over 1,000 square kilometers. Communist Russia had initially promised to give up its extraterritorial privileges, but it never kept its promise, and the Chinese seized the railway in summer 1929.

Moscow formed a Special Far East Army, headed by its former chief military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, Marshal Blyukher, and prepared to invade Manchuria. Stalin also mooted organizing an uprising in Manchuria to occupy Harbin, the major city in northern Manchuria, “and establish a revolutionary government.” With characteristic brutality, Stalin listed one aim, almost casually, in brackets, as: “(massacre the landowners …).” In November Russian troops invaded, moving 125 km into Manchuria.

Moscow wanted the Chinese Communists to create some diversionary military pressure. It ordered the CCP to “mobilise the whole Party and the population to be ready to defend the Soviet Union with arms.” It was in this context of protecting Russia’s state interests that Mao’s drive assumed urgent importance. Chou’s letter reinstating Mao enjoined: “your first and foremost task is to develop your guerrilla area … and expand the Red Army …” On 9 October the Soviet Politburo, with Stalin present, named “the regions of Mao Tse-tung” (no mention of Zhu) as the key area for expanding partisan warfare in connection with the Manchuria railway crisis.

Moscow had another pressing reason to single out Mao, and this was to do with Trotsky, Stalin’s bête noire, whom he had just exiled. Trotsky had a small, but dedicated, following in China, and Professor Chen Tu-hsiu, the former head of the CCP, cast as the scapegoat by Moscow two years before, was showing signs of tilting towards Trotskyism. Chen also spoke out against the CCP supporting Russia over the railway — a stance, he said, that “only makes people assume that we dance to the tune of roubles.”

Stalin was worried that Chen might throw his considerable prestige behind the Trotskyists. Moscow’s agents in Shanghai were concerned that Mao, to whom Chen had once been a mentor, might side with him.

For all these reasons, the Russians backed Mao, and promoted him with zeal in their media. During the critical months of the Manchuria crisis there were no fewer than four items about Mao in the Soviet Party’s key organ, Pravda, which was soon describing him as the “leader” (yozhd—the same word as used for Stalin). No other Chinese Communist was ever so lavishly acclaimed — not even Mao’s nominal superiors, like the Party general secretary.

When Chou’s instructions to reinstate Mao reached them, Zhu De and his colleagues bowed to Shanghai’s edict, and forwarded the letter to Mao. At the time, Mao was staying in a picturesque village some distance away, in an elegant two-story villa with a palm tree in the courtyard. He had been taking his ease, consuming plenty of milk (a rarity for the Chinese), as well as a kilo of beef stewed into soup every day, with a whole chicken on top. He would describe how fit he was, applying his characteristic yardstick: “I can eat a lot and shit a lot.”

The letter elated Mao. Far from earning him a reprimand, his violation of Party rules and sabotage of his colleagues had brought him only reward. In triumph, he lingered in the village for over a month, waiting for the pressure from Shanghai to pile on Zhu De to kowtow.

At the time, Mao had his wife, Gui-yuan, staying with him, as well as a couple of acolytes. He did not talk politics with the women, preferring to relax with them. After dinner the two couples would walk to a little bridge to enjoy the twilight over a brook lush with water-grass. When darkness fell, peasants would light pine torches at the water’s edge. Shoals of fish would converge on the beacons, and the peasants would catch them with nets, or even bare-handed. Fish heads were Mao’s favorite morsel, and were said to enhance the brain. During the day he sat by his window reading English out loud in his heavy Hunan accent, to the amusement of his friends. This stumbling performance, without really striving to progress, was a kind of relaxation for Mao.

Zhu De and his colleagues “wrote again and again urging comrade Mao to return,” as they reported to an obviously anxious Shanghai. But Mao stayed put until late November, when Zhu sent troops to escort him back formally, as a show of submission.

On 28 November Mao wrote Shanghai a letter that delighted Chou En-lai with its “very positive” spirit and declaration that Mao “completely accepts the Centre’s instructions.” But Mao’s main act of deference was reserved for Moscow. He condemned his old mentor Professor Chen as “anti-revolution,” and proposed a “propaganda drive” against him. A point was made of denouncing Trotsky by name. The troops were given daily pep talks on “armed support for the Soviet Union.”

Having subjugated Zhu, Mao kept him on as a figurehead, and let the army continue to be called the Zhu — Mao Army. This way, Mao both satisfied Moscow and Shanghai, which specifically ordered “unity,” and exploited Zhu’s high prestige among the troops. Zhu went on performing as a front-man for Mao for almost half a century until the two men died within weeks of each other in 1976.

Yet sometimes Zhu gave vent to his anger and frustration. In February 1931 he grumbled to military leaders that he was “just a plaything in Mao’s hands, he had no power, Mao just toyed with him.” This was reported to Moscow, but the Russians did not lift a finger to restrain Mao.

MAO’S RETURN TO COMMAND was announced to a big meeting of army delegates gathered in the town of Gutian in December 1929. To forestall dissent, he employed a ruse. He knew that what the soldiers hated most was the practice of executing deserters. According to a contemporary report to Shanghai, “every time before setting off, a few deserters would be executed and placed along the road as a warning to others.” Incidentally, this demonstrates how hard it was to keep people in the Red Army, contrary to oft-recycled claims. The fact was that even executions did not always work, as the report continued: “But we still can’t stop deserters.”

At Gutian, Mao made much of introducing a resolution to abolish the practice. This move was tremendously popular with the soldiers. But a few months later, when the Gutian resolutions were circulated, this item was not among them. Once Mao had established himself, it disappeared. Deserters continued to be executed.

Having inveigled the delegates at Gutian into looking more favorably on him by showing specious tolerance towards the issue of desertion, Mao was able to get what he really wanted: resolutions to condemn whatever stood between him and absolute power, notably the authority of the professional military. Mao was not a professional army man. Zhu was. So Mao invented a Soviet-style pejorative tag, “purely military viewpoint,” to lay down the line that it was wrong to place too high a value on military professionalism. He loathed the convention of voting even more, as it was a free vote that had turfed him out of office. So he labeled holding a vote as “ultra-democracy,” and abolished the practice.

Mao was addicted to comfort, while Zhu lived like an ordinary soldier. Aversion to privilege was particularly strong in the army because many had originally been attracted to join by the lure of equality, which was the Party’s main appeal. To quell any protests about privilege, Mao now invented the term “absolute egalitarianism” to designate an offense, adding the word “absolute” to make it harder for opponents to disagree. It was from this time on that privilege was formally endorsed as an inalienable part of Chinese communism.

As 1930 dawned, Mao, having just turned thirty-six, could look back on the previous year with considerable satisfaction. The Party had handed him the biggest Red Army outside the Soviet bloc after he had broken all the rules. Moscow and Shanghai were palpably bribing him, which meant they needed him. Now he could further exploit the leverage this gave him.

“Where do I go now?” asked Mao, as he set off on horseback humming a poem along mossy woodland paths. Mao knew exactly where he was going: to carry out more takeovers.

Like its Russian counterpart, it changed names many times, and we shall call this apparatus “the Chinese KGB.”

Comintern chief Bukharin called the railway zone “our revolutionary forefinger pointed into China,” and it was serving as a major base for Russian funding and sponsorship of Chinese Communists.


AFTER CHIANG KAI-SHEK established a Nationalist government based at Nanjing in 1928, with nominal authority over the whole of China, he launched a drive to weld the many different armies controlled by provincial potentates into a unified national army under his control. This met ferocious resistance from an alliance of warlords, and by the beginning of 1930 each side had deployed hundreds of thousands of troops. The resulting internecine fighting presented the CCP with a chance to expand its own army and bases.

Moscow began to consider forming a Communist state in China. Chou En-lai set off for the Soviet Union in March 1930, bringing with him a detailed report on the Chinese Red Army, saying it had some 62,700 men, made up of 13 armed groups (called “armies”) spread over 8 provinces. The Zhu — Mao Army was the best-known of these, and accounted for almost one-quarter of the total, having expanded to nearly 15,000 men, thanks to its control of a large base. Bases were the key to expanding the army, as possession of a base enabled the Reds to acquire conscripts.

While Chou En-lai was away, the man in charge in Shanghai was Mao’s fellow Hunanese and former subordinate, Li Li-san. Li-san, who had made his name as a labor organizer, was an impulsive activist and passionate advocate of further expansion. Under him, a highly ambitious plan was devised to seize a large chunk of the interior, including big cities like Nanchang and Changsha, and form a Red government in the heart of China, at Wuhan, on the Yangtze. Mao was assigned to take Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi.

Mao was a realist. He knew that even given the infighting among the Nationalists, the Red Army had no hope of seizing and holding major cities. At first he expressed reluctance to carry out the plan, but within days of voicing doubts he was bursting with zeal. He still had no faith in the project, but he realized that he could exploit Shanghai’s fantasy for his own purpose, which was to take over the second biggest Red Army branch, run by Peng De-huai.

PENG, WHO WAS five years Mao’s junior, was born in a village in Mao’s own district in Hunan. He was to rise to be Communist China’s first defense minister, and also Mao’s fiercest and bravest critic within the regime — for which he would pay with a long-drawn-out and agonizing death.

Peng had a highly expressive mouth and eyes, which seemed to show a permanent sadness. He cared about the poor and the downtrodden. Unlike most Communist leaders, he had had a poverty-stricken childhood, which scarred him profoundly. When his mother died, his youngest brother, who was six months old, had starved to death. Decades later, Peng wrote of his childhood:

In bitter winter, when other people were wearing padded clothes and shoes, my brothers and I wore straw sandals on bare feet, and clothes made of palm leaves, like primitive men … When I was ten, there was nothing at all to live on. On New Year’s Day, when rich people’s homes let off firecrackers, my family had not a grain of rice. So I took my second brother to go begging, for the first time.

He described how he fainted from hunger after they got home. Out of pride, he refused to go begging next day, so his grandmother, who was over seventy, went hobbling on bound feet, pulling along his younger brothers, one of them only three years old. Watching them disappear into the snow, Peng said later that he felt sharp knives were cutting at his heart, and he went into the mountains and chopped some firewood which he sold for a small packet of salt. That evening he would not eat the rice his grandmother’s begging had brought home, and the whole family wept.

When he was fifteen, his village was hit by drought, which brought starvation for many. Peng became involved in an attempt to force a wealthy landlord to hand out some rice, by climbing onto the roof of the landlord’s granary and removing the tiles to reveal the grain the man had denied having stored. Peng was placed on a wanted list, and had to flee. In 1916 he joined the Hunan army and became an officer. He was sometimes invited by local dignitaries to banquets where young girls barely in their teens were available for their pleasure. One girl of thirteen told Peng she had been badly beaten by a pimp because she declined to sleep with officers. Peng bought her freedom, and thereafter turned down all invitations to banquets. He became attracted to communism “to find a way out for the poor,” as he put it.

Peng secretly joined the CCP just after New Year 1928. That July he mutinied against the Nationalists, taking 800 men with him. The Party told him to make contact with Mao, who was in the outlaw land nearby at the time. Peng arrived in December, just as Mao was making ready to quit the base. Mao needed someone to stay behind to hold the fort, as possession of a base was his main asset.

So Mao grabbed Peng and told him to stay and defend the territory — a doomed task. After Mao was gone, government troops came in force. Peng’s men had to break out through deep snow, climbing over precipices and inching along tiny tracks normally used only by wild animals.

From then on, Mao continued to treat Peng as his subordinate, and Peng made no objection. But Shanghai did not formally endorse this arrangement, and Mao’s mandate did not, officially, extend beyond the Zhu — Mao Army. In early 1930, when Moscow and Shanghai reorganized all Red Army forces nationwide in preparation for establishing a Communist state, Peng’s army, which had grown at an extraordinary rate to 15,000—the same number of troops as Mao’s — was made independent of Mao. Peng’s men were excellent soldiers, with a strong esprit de corps. A Party inspector told Shanghai that Peng’s army “has the highest morale. The troops obey orders, have strong discipline and a great spirit of camaraderie, and are brave soldiers … They are very loyal to Peng De-huai personally. The wounded in the rear hospitals, once recovered, absolutely insist on returning to [Peng’s] army … It has very few deserters.”

Mao was determined to control Peng and his crack force. This was why he suddenly expressed an eagerness to attack Nanchang. If he was there, rather than down south on the Jiangxi — Fujian border, this would bring him hundreds of kilometers closer to Peng, who was nearby. Mao’s secret plan was to go and physically join forces with Peng, as this was the only way he could exert control over Peng and his army.

Mao set off north, saying he was going for Nanchang, as the Party had ordered. But when he reached the outskirts of Nanchang, at the end of July, he fired only a few shots and then moved his army towards Changsha, which Peng had just captured on 25 July.

Changsha was the only provincial capital the Reds took, and Peng held it for eleven days, proclaiming a Communist government, with his HQ in the American Bible Institute. His success rang alarm bells in Western capitals, especially Washington, which now, for the first time, registered the Chinese Communists as a serious force. One reason was the death in combat of Seaman 1st Class Samuel Elkin, the first US serviceman to die fighting Chinese Communists, killed on the USS Guam on the Xiang River by shelling from Peng’s forces en route to Changsha — on the Fourth of July. Gunboats of four foreign powers, particularly the USS Palos, played a critical role in driving Peng out of the city on 6 August.

In mid-August, Peng received a message out of the blue saying that Mao was coming to “help” him. Mao wrote simultaneously to Shanghai, on 19 August, to say that he had abandoned his assignment to attack Nanchang in order to go to Peng’s rescue, claiming that Peng was in deep trouble—“suffering considerable deaths and losses.” Peng told Mao flatly that he was not in trouble and did not need help, but this was not enough to shake off Mao, who cunningly countered by telling Peng to come and help him, as he was about to attack a town called Yonghe, located in between them, about 100 km east of Changsha.

When Peng joined up with him, on 23 August, Mao announced that Peng’s corps was now merged with his own, under his own command, leaving Peng as mere deputy military commander, under Zhu De. Mao tried to blow smoke at Shanghai (and Moscow) by claiming that the goal in merging the armies was to attack Changsha a second time — a move opposed by both Peng and Zhu De, who argued that it had no prospect of succeeding, as the element of surprise, essential to Peng’s capture of the city, had been lost.

But Mao insisted, and assured Shanghai that together the two corps could easily “occupy Changsha … then attack Wuhan … to trigger a general uprising in the whole of China.” Mao stoked Shanghai’s delusions by suggesting that the occupation of Wuhan was imminent, and with it the establishment of a Red government: “Please could the Centre instruct on taking Wuhan,” he wrote in his most ingratiating style, “and start preparations for organising a government …” In fact, Mao had no intention of going anywhere near Wuhan.

Nor did he really think he could seize Changsha. Still, to cement his absorption of Peng, he ordered Changsha to be attacked. The result was “huge human losses,” Moscow was told. These were much greater for Peng’s units than for Mao’s, as Mao had avoided a genuine strike at Changsha, whereas Peng had faithfully carried out orders and attacked the city directly The GRU chief in China, Gailis, told Moscow that “Mao just looked on.”

At the end of three weeks, Mao called off the siege, insisting that Peng’s army should move off with him. This met with resistance from Peng’s officers, and some even tried to break away. (The Chinese Red Army, like Chinese forces in general at this point, was not like a modern army where orders were obeyed unconditionally and unquestioningly.) Mao soon launched a bloody purge against them.

Mao also used the siege of Changsha, which made headlines, to promote himself to the top job, and raise his profile further. When he started the siege, on 23 August, he proclaimed an All-China Revolutionary Committee, put it in command of all Red Armies, governments and Party branches, with himself as chairman, and sent an announcement to this effect to the press.

Two months before, on 25 June, Mao had already issued two press releases giving himself this title. No newspapers seem to have carried these, but Mao pasted them up as notices. Shanghai’s reaction had been to announce on 1 August that the post of chairman belonged to the Party’s (nominal) general secretary, Hsiang Chung-fa. Mao was now reiterating his self-appointment over Hsiang’s head, in defiance of Shanghai.

But Mao received no punishment. The new Red state that Moscow had decided to install in China needed power-hungry leaders, and Mao was the hungriest around. On 20 September his second-level membership of the Politburo was restored, paving the way to top jobs in the coming Red state. Moscow had rejected Wuhan as the location, ordering the state to be established in “the Red Army’s largest secure region”—which was Red Jiangxi.

The defeat and heavy casualties inflicted by Mao’s siege of Changsha were blamed on the impulsive Li Li-san. Li-san had told the Russians it was their “internationalist duty” to send in troops to help the Chinese Reds in their fight. During the Russian invasion of Manchuria the year before, he had gladly called for the Chinese Reds to “defend the Soviet Union with arms.” Now he proposed that Moscow should reciprocate, and this riled Stalin, who suspected Li-san of trying to drag him into war with Japan. Li-san had also incurred Stalin’s ire by saying that Mongolia, which Soviet Russia had annexed from China, should become part of Red China. The Comintern condemned Li-san on 25 August for being “hostile to Bolshevism, and hostile to the Comintern,” and in October a letter arrived ordering him to Moscow. There Stalin turned him into a kind of all-purpose scapegoat, and he was repeatedly called on to stand up and denounce himself. Li-san entered history books as the man responsible for all the Red losses in the early 1930s. High on the list of losses were those suffered during the siege of Changsha, which were in fact entirely Mao’s responsibility, incurred for his own personal power.

MAO’S QUEST FOR POWER also brought tragedy to his family. In 1930 his ex-wife Kai-hui and their three young sons, the youngest three years old, were still living in her family home on the outskirts of Changsha when Mao laid siege to the city.

Mao had left them exactly three years before, when he set off, ostensibly to take part in an “Autumn Harvest Uprising,” but actually to poach his first armed force. Barely four months after his departure, he had married somebody else.

Although Changsha was ruled by a fiercely anti-Communist general, Ho Chien, Kai-hui had been left alone, as she was not engaged in Communist activities. Even after Peng De-huai had taken Changsha and nearly killed him, Ho Chien took no reprisals against her. But after Mao turned up and subjected the city to a second lengthy assault, the Nationalist general decided to take revenge. Kai-hui was arrested together with her eldest son, An-ying, on An-ying’s eighth birthday, 24 October. She was offered a deal: her freedom if she would make a public announcement divorcing Mao and denouncing him. She refused, and was executed on the cloudy morning of 14 November 1930. Next day the Hunan Republican Daily reported her death under the headline “Wife of Mao Tse-tung executed yesterday — everyone claps and shouts with satisfaction.” This undoubtedly reflected more loathing of Mao than of Kai-hui.

When Kai-hui was brought into the “court” in army HQ, wearing a long dark blue gown, she showed no sign of fear. There on a desk were placed a brush, some red ink, and a sticker with her name on it. After asking a few questions, the judge ticked the sticker with the brush dipped in the red ink, and threw it on the floor. This was the traditional equivalent of signing a death warrant. At this, two executioners peeled off her gown as spoils. Another found a bonus—2.5 yuan wrapped in a handkerchief in one of the pockets.

And so she went to her death, on a winter day, wearing a thin blouse, at the age of twenty-nine. As she was taken through the streets, tied up with ropes, which was the normal treatment for someone about to be executed, an officer hailed a rickshaw for her, while soldiers ran along on both sides. The execution ground lay just beyond one of the city gates, among the graves of the people executed who had no one to take their bodies home. After they shot her, some of the firing squad took off her shoes and threw them as far as they could: otherwise, legend went, they would be followed home and haunted by the ghost of the dead.

As the executioners were having lunch afterwards at their barracks, they were told that Kai-hui was not dead, so seven of them went back and finished her off. In her agony her fingers had dug deep into the earth.

Her body was taken back to her village by relatives, and buried in the grounds of her family home. Her son was released, and early in 1931 Mao’s brother Tse-min arranged for the three boys to travel to Shanghai, where they entered a secret CCP kindergarten.

When Mao learned of Kai-hui’s death, he wrote in what seems to have been genuine grief: “The death of Kai-hui cannot be redeemed by a hundred deaths of mine!” He spoke of her often, especially in his old age, as the love of his life. What he never knew is that although Kai-hui did love him, she had also rejected his ideology and his killings.

IN THE YEARS between Mao deserting her and her death, Kai-hui wrote reflections on communism, and on her love for Mao, in eight intense, forgiving and occasionally reproachful pieces, which she concealed in her house. Seven were discovered in cracks in the walls in 1982, during some renovation work. The eighth came to light under a beam just outside her bedroom during repairs in 1990. She had wrapped them up in wax paper to protect them from damp. Mao never saw them, and most are still kept secret — so secret that even Mao’s surviving family were barred from seeing the most devastating passages.

The writings show the pain Kai-hui suffered from Mao’s desertion, her disappointment and bitterness at his heartlessness towards her and their sons — and, perhaps more damning, her loss of faith in communism.

The earliest piece is a poem, “Thoughts,” dated October 1928. Mao had been gone for a year, and had only written once. He had mentioned having trouble with his feet. In June, when a CCP inspector she referred to as “First Cousin” went off to Mao’s area, she gave him a jug of chili with fermented beans, Mao’s favorite dish, to take to her husband. But there was no reply. On a cold day, Kai-hui missed Mao:

Downcast day a north wind starts,

Thick chill seeps through flesh and bones.

Thinking of this Far-away Man,

Suddenly waves churn out of calm.

Is the foot trouble healed?

Is the winter clothing ready?

Who cares for you while you sleep alone?

Are you as lonely and sad as I am?

No letters are coming through,

I ask, but no one answers.

How I wish I had wings,

Fly to see this man.

Unable to see him,

Sorrow, it has no end …

The next piece, written to First Cousin in March 1929, and marked “not sent,” talks about her loneliness and her yearning for support:

I cower in a corner of the world. I am frightened and lonely. In this situation, I search every minute for something to lean on. So you take a place in my heart, and so does Ren-xiu who is staying here — you both stand side by side in my heart! I often pray: “Please don’t let these few people be scattered!” I seem to have seen the God of Death — ah, its cruel and severe face! Talking of death, I do not really fear it, and I can say that I welcome it. But my mother, and my children! I feel pity for them! This feeling haunts me so badly — the night before last it kept me half awake all night long.

Worrying about her children, and clearly feeling she could not count on Mao, Kai-hui wrote to her First Cousin:

I decided to entrust them — my children — to you. Financially, as long as their uncle [probably Mao’s brother Tse-min] lives, he will not abandon them; and their uncle really loves them deeply. But if they lose their mother, and a father, then just the love of an uncle is not enough. They need you and many others’ love for them to grow naturally as if in a warm spring, and not be destroyed by violent storms. This letter is like a will now, and you must think I am mad. But I don’t know why, I just can’t shake off the feeling over my head of a rope like a poisonous snake, that seems to have flown in from Death, and that binds me tightly. So I cannot but prepare!..

Kai-hui had this premonition because on the 7th of that month the Hunan Republican Daily reported that Zhu De’s wife had been killed and her head exposed in a street in Changsha. The paper carried two articles in which the writers said how much they enjoyed seeing the severed head. In April, Kai-hui wrote down some thoughts which she wanted to send to a newspaper but did not, entitled: “Feeling of Sadness on Reading about the Enjoyment of a Human Head”:

Zhu De’s wife I think most likely was a Communist. [words missing from original] Or even an important figure. If so, her execution is perhaps not to be criticised. [words crossed out] And yet her killing was not due to her own crime. Those who enjoyed her head and thought it was a pleasurable sight also did so not because of her own crime. So I remember the stories of killing relatives to the ninth clan for one man’s crime in the early Manchu period. My idea that killers are forced into killing turns out not to make sense here. There are so many people so exultantly enjoying it that we can see glad articles representing them in newspapers and journals. So my idea that only a small number of cruel people kills turns out not to be true here. So I have found the spirit of our times …

Yet I am weak, I am afraid of being killed, and so afraid of killing. I am not in tune with the times. I can’t look at that head, and my breast is filled with misery … I had thought that today’s mankind, and part of mankind, the Chinese, were civilized enough to have almost abolished the death penalty! I did not expect to see with my own eyes the killing of relatives to the ninth clan for one man’s crime … (To kill the wife of Zhu De, although not quite the ninth clan, basically comes to this.) … and the human head is becoming a work of art needed by many!

The abolition of the death penalty, and of torture, had been a very popular aim earlier in the century, and the Chinese Communist Party’s charter of 1923 had included these among its goals.

Kai-hui had naturally been reading about Mao’s own killings in the newspapers. He and his troops were always called “bandits,” who “burned and killed and kidnapped and looted.” Newspapers had also reported that Mao had been driven out of the outlaw land and “surrounded on three sides, Zhu — Mao will have no chance whatever to survive.”

Kai-hui still loved Mao, and above all wanted him to give up what he was doing and come back. On 16 May 1929, in a poem marked “To First Cousin — not sent,” she wrote eight agonized lines imploring Mao’s return:

You are now the beloved sweetheart!

Please tell him: Return, return.

I can see the heart of the old [probably referring to her mother] is being burnt by fire,

Please return! Return!

Sad separation, its crystallisation, chilling misery and loneliness are looming ever larger,

How I wish you would bring home some news!

This heart, [unclear in original], how does it compare with burning by fire?

Please return! Return!

Soon after this, a letter came from her First Cousin, saying that Mao was going to Shanghai (the Party had ordered him there on 7 February 1929). This meant she might be able to see him, and Kai-hui was rapturous. She opened her next letter, “to First Cousin,” with: “Received your letter. How happy and relieved I am!” She dreamed:

If the financial situation allows, I must get out of here to do a few years’ study … I want to get out, and find a job … I’m really in a great hurry to do some studies … Otherwise I can only feel the pains of emptiness, and feel I have nothing to lean on.

That letter like a will, I didn’t send. If you can come home once, that would be all I dare to hope.

Her thoughts then reverted to Mao, the possibility that he might not go to Shanghai, and his safety if he did:

Probably he wouldn’t be able to go to Shanghai? I’d rather he didn’t go. I’m worried for him again now. Oh, heaven! I’ll stop here …

She started to write to Mao, but changed her mind. There was a heading “To my beloved — not sent,” and the rest was torn out. Instead, she wrote down the story of her life, which she finished on 20 June 1929. Clearly, this was her way of telling Mao about herself, her thoughts and feelings. The memoir told two things: how passionately she loved him, and how utterly unable she was to tolerate violence and cruelty. The latter theme seems to have assumed an even larger place in her mind, as she began and ended her narrative with it.

She recalled that at the age of six, she began to see the world as a sad place:

I was born extremely weak, and would faint when I started crying … At the time, I sympathised with animals … Every night going to bed, horrible shadows such as the killing of chickens, of pigs, people dying, churned up and down in my head. That was so painful! I can still remember that taste vividly. My brother, not only my brother but many other children, I just couldn’t understand them at all. How was it they could bring themselves to catch little mice, or dragonflies, and play with them, treating them entirely as creatures foreign to pain?

If it were not to spare my mother the pain — the pain of seeing me die — if it were not for this powerful hold, then I simply would not have lived on.

I really wanted to have a faith!..

I sympathized with people in the lower ranks of life. I hated those who wore luxurious clothes, who only thought of their own pleasure. In summer I looked just like people from lower ranks, wearing a baggy rough cotton top. This was me at about seventeen or eighteen …

She wrote about how she fell in love with Mao, how totally she loved him, how she learned about his infidelities, and how she forgave him (these pages are in chapter 3). But at the end she showed that she was thinking of breaking away from him and the ideology to which he had introduced her:

Now my inclination has shifted into a new phase. I want to get some nourishment by seeking knowledge, to water and give sustenance to my dried-up life … Perhaps one day I will cry out: my ideas in the past were wrong!

She ended her memoir with:

Ah! Kill, kill, kill! All I hear is this sound in my ears! Why are human beings so evil? Why so cruel? Why?! I cannot think on! [words brushed out by her] I must have a faith! I must have a faith! Let me have a faith!!

Kai-hui had been drawn to communism out of sympathy for the deprived. Her crying out for “a faith” says unmistakably that she was losing her existing faith, communism. She did not condemn Mao, whom she still deeply loved. But she was letting him know how strongly she felt about the killing, something she had hated since childhood.

She wrote this piece primarily for Mao, thinking she might be able to see him in Shanghai. But as time wore on, it became clear that she would not, and in fact he was studiously avoiding the city. Kai-hui hid what she had written so far, twelve pages, between bricks in a wall.

It was in a mood of despair that she wrote her last piece on 28 January 1930, two days before the Chinese New Year, traditionally the time for family reunion. Four pages long, it described what she had been through in the past two and a half years since Mao left. She began by recalling her feelings in the days just after he went:

For days I’ve been unable to sleep.

I just can’t sleep. I’m going mad.

So many days now, he hasn’t written. I’m waiting day after day.

Tears …

I mustn’t be so miserable. The children are miserable with me, and Mother is miserable with me.

I think I may be pregnant again.

Really so wretched, so lonely, so much anguish.

I want to flee. But I have these children, how can I?

On the morning of the fiftieth day, I received the priceless letter.

Even if he dies, my tears are going to shroud his corpse.

A month, another month, half a year, a year, and three years. He has abandoned me. The past churns up in my mind scene after scene. The future I envisage also churns in my mind scene after scene. He must have abandoned me.

He is very lucky, to have my love. I truly love him so very much!

He can’t have abandoned me. He must have his reasons not to write …

Father love is really a riddle. Does he not miss his children? I can’t understand him.

This is a sad thing, but also a good thing, because I can now be an independent person.

I want to kiss him a hundred times, his eyes, his mouth, his cheeks, his neck, his head. He is my man. He belongs to me.

Only Mother Love can be relied on. I’m thinking about my mother …

Yesterday, I mentioned him to my brother. I tried to look normal, but tears fell, I don’t know how.

If only I can forget him. But his beautiful image, his beautiful image.

Dimly I seem to see him standing there, gazing at me with melancholy.

I have written to First Cousin, saying this: “Whoever takes my letter to him, and brings his letter to me, is my Saviour.”

Heaven, I can’t help worrying about him.

As long as he is well, whether or not he belongs to me is secondary. May heaven protect him.

Today is his birthday. I can’t forget him. So I quietly had some food bought, and made bowls of noodles [a special birthday meal, since long noodles symbolise long life]. Mother remembers this date, too. At night in bed, I think sad thoughts to myself.

I hear he has been ill, and it comes from overwork … Without me beside him, he will not be careful. He will simply tire himself to death.

His health is really such that he can’t work. He racks his brains too much. Heaven protect me. I must work hard, hard. If I can make 60 yuan a month, I can call him back, and ask him not to work any more. In that case, with his ability, his intelligence, he may even achieve immortal success.

Another sleepless night.

I can’t endure this now. I am going to him.

My children, my poor children hold me back.

A heavy load hangs on my heart, one side is him, the other is my children. I can’t leave either.

I want to cry. I really want to cry.

No matter how hard I try, I just can’t stop loving him. I just can’t …

A person’s feeling is really strange. San Chun-he loves me so much, and yet I don’t even look at him.

How I love him [Mao]! Heaven, give me a perfect answer!

Shortly after these heart-rending words were written, her First Cousin was arrested and executed. He was buried behind her house.

Months later, she herself was dead. During his assault on Changsha, Mao made no effort to extricate her and their sons, or even to warn her. And he could easily have saved her: her house was on his route to the city, and Mao was there for three weeks. Yet he did not lift a finger.

What we call “Red Jiangxi” does not include the base in northeast Jiangxi under Fang Zhi-min.

One day, a Chinese was present at a talk in Moscow by a man who denounced Li Li-san ferociously. Afterwards he asked the speaker who he was, and was astonished to get the answer, “I am Li Li-san.” In February 1938 Li-san was arrested, and he spent nearly two years in prison.

One of the people kidnapped by Mao’s force was an American Catholic priest, Father Edward Young, whom the Reds tried to ransom for $20,000. Young escaped. His Chinese fellow hostages and prisoners were killed.

The following words were mostly recalled from memory after reading this document in an archive, and some may therefore not be exact. Ellipses represent parts that cannot be recalled; most other punctuation has been added for clarity.


IN THE YEAR and a half since leaving the outlaw land at the beginning of 1929, Mao had seized total control over two major Red Armies, the Zhu — Mao Army and Peng De-huai’s, as well as one significant Red base, in Fujian. All along, he had also had another sizeable Red Army in his sights, this one in Jiangxi, the province between Fujian and Hunan.

Under a charismatic and relatively moderate leader called Lee Wen-lin, the Jiangxi Reds had carved out some quite secure pockets. They had been warm hosts to Mao when he had first descended on them straight from the outlaw land in February 1929. That stay had been brief, with Nationalist troops hot on Mao’s heels, but he had nonetheless promptly declared himself their boss, and when he departed had left behind his youngest brother, Tse-tan, as chief of Donggu District, the Jiangxi Reds’ center. Neither move was authorized by Shanghai, and the locals were not happy. But they did not resist Mao, as he was leaving.

Mao expected his brother to seize control for him, but Tse-tan lacked Mao’s aggressiveness and lust for power. A Party inspector described him as “working like someone suffering from malaria, suddenly hot and suddenly cold … rather childish, and afraid of making decisions.” So three months later Mao sent over a Hunanese crony, Lieu Shi-qi, with authority over his brother.

Lieu took away from Tse-tan not just his position but also his girlfriend, whom he himself married. The woman in question, Ho Yi, was the sister of Mao’s wife, Gui-yuan, so Lieu became Mao’s brother-in-law. Like Mao he was “foul-tempered and foul-mouthed,” according to his comrades, with as much elbow, and as few scruples, as Mao. By the time Mao returned to Red Jiangxi to try to consolidate his hold on it, in February 1930, Lieu had strong-armed himself into several leading posts.

Mao returned because he now had the military force to make a grab for power in Jiangxi, but once again he did so by chicanery. A grandly termed “joint conference,” supposedly comprising representatives of all the Reds in Jiangxi, was convened at a place called Pitou. Then at the last minute Mao juggled the timetable. Having announced that the conference was to open on the 10th of February, he suddenly advanced it to the 6th, so by the time key delegates arrived, including many locals who had been resisting Lieu’s power-grab, the conference was over.

The Pitou “joint conference” was in fact little more than a family affair between the two brothers-in-law, and it duly gave Mao the endorsement to be the overlord of Red Jiangxi, with Lieu as his man on the spot. The leader of the Jiangxi Reds, Lee Wen-lin, was demoted to a lowly office job.

Most Jiangxi Reds opposed these decisions, and Mao had to resort to terror to silence them. At Pitou he ordered the public execution of four well-known local Communists who were charged with being “counter-revolutionaries.” These were the first Communists murdered by Mao whose names are known.

Mao and Brother-in-law Lieu used executions to scare off potential dissenters. One Party inspector reported at the time that Lieu constantly “burst out with wild abuse … saying things like ‘I’ll have you executed!’ ” One particular charge used to send victims to their death was a phrase in vogue in Stalin’s Russia — that the subject was a “rich peasant,” or “kulak.” Mao claimed that in Jiangxi, “Party organisations on all levels are filled with landlords and kulaks,” on the sole ground that most Jiangxi Red leaders came from affluent families. In fact, Mao himself belonged to a “kulak” family.

The Chinese Communists had killed one another before, but hitherto most killings seem to have been settling clan or personal scores, using ideological labels. Mao’s killings were in order to further grander ambitions.

WHILE MAO WAS muscling in on Jiangxi, he did his utmost not to alert Shanghai, which had granted him no mandate to take over the Jiangxi Reds. On the contrary, it gave the Jiangxi Red Army the status of a separate army, on a par with the Zhu — Mao Army, and appointed a man called Cai Shen-xi as its commander.

When Cai arrived in Jiangxi, Mao refused to let him take up his post, and simply appointed his own brother-in-law Lieu to head the Jiangxi Army. Mao was able to conceal this from Shanghai because there was no telephone, radio or telegraph communication at the time. The only links were couriers, who took several weeks each way between Shanghai and the base. We have reason to believe that he and his brother-in-law Lieu murdered one uncooperative Party inspector called Jiang Han-bo, and then faked a report to Shanghai in Jiang’s name spouting Mao’s line.

Mao’s plan was to create a fait accompli. Till now he had been writing regular servile letters to Shanghai. Now he stopped completely, and he ignored repeated summonses to go to Shanghai. To get Shanghai off his back it seems he even went so far as to spread a rumor that he had died of an illness. As Mao was a famous “bandit chief,” the news received wide coverage in the Nationalist press, which was a convenient way to float a story for which he could plausibly disown responsibility.

The ploy was a success, in the short term. On 20 March an obituary framed in black appeared in Moscow in the Comintern magazine International Press Correspondence: “News has arrived from China that Comrade Mau Tze Dung … the founder of the Red Army, has died at the front in Fukien as a result of long-standing disease of the lungs.”

But within a fortnight, Moscow and Shanghai discovered that Mao was alive and kicking, and furthermore had seized control of the Jiangxi Army. On 3 April, Shanghai issued a sharp circular to all Red Armies telling them that they must obey no one but Shanghai. The circular made a point of criticizing Mao (without naming him) for taking over the Jiangxi Red Army without authorization.

When Shanghai’s document reached Jiangxi, the local Reds rose up against Mao in May. In some areas, cadres encouraged revolts by the peasants against the Mao — Lieu regime. Before Mao came, the Jiangxi Reds had paid attention to issues such as welfare and production, building a factory to make farm implements and household utensils. Mao and Lieu condemned these programs as “constructionism.” Lieu wrote that: “for the need of struggle, reducing production is unavoidable.” Deprived of the chance to raise output, and squeezed dry by taxes (which Lieu claimed they “jumped up with joy to pay”), the peasants rebelled in district after district, raising slogans like “Give us a quiet life and quiet work!” Lieu crushed the revolts mercilessly: “As soon as anyone is spotted wavering or misbehaving, they are to be arrested,” he ordered. “There must be no feelings for relatives or friends. Anyone who comes to your home or anywhere else who does not behave correctly … you must report … to the authorities so they can be seized and punished …”

Lieu claimed that the revolts were led by “AB elements [who] have become Party branch secretaries.” “AB,” standing for Anti-Bolshevik, was the name of a defunct Nationalist group, which Lieu spuriously resuscitated to condemn local dissenters. Within a month, thousands of peasants and Communists had been killed.

At this moment, an opportunity opened up for the Jiangxi Reds. At the beginning of August 1930, Mao and his army were hundreds of kilometers away, near Changsha, trying to take over Peng De-huai’s army. The Jiangxi Reds, led by their old chief Lee Wen-lin, seized the chance, convened a meeting and fired Lieu. A boisterous audience booed and barracked Lieu — and through him Mao — for “only thinking about power,” as Lieu later admitted to Shanghai, “becoming warlords” and “putting the Party in great danger.” Lieu was denounced for executing “too many” of their comrades, and for creating “an immense Red terror.”

The locals called on Shanghai to expel Lieu from the Party. But, lacking killer instinct, they let him go to Shanghai, which gave him a post in another Red base. There he met his match. The boss there, Chang Kuo-tao, was as baleful as Mao himself, and did his own slaughtering, during which Lieu was killed. After Lieu left, his wife, Mao’s sister-in-law Ho Yi, went back to Mao’s brother Tse-tan.

With the sacking of Lieu, Mao had lost his man in Jiangxi. After he wound up the siege of Changsha, he returned to Jiangxi to reassert control — and take revenge. En route, on 14 October, he denounced the Jiangxi Reds to Shanghai: “The entire Party [there] is under the leadership of kulaks … filled with AB … Without a thorough purge of the kulak leaders and of AB … there is no way the Party can be saved …”

It was just at this time that Mao learned that Moscow had given him the ultimate promotion — making him head of the future state. His aggressive pursuit of power had won him appreciation. Now that he had Moscow’s blessing, Mao decided to embark on a large-scale purge, get rid of all who had opposed him, and in the process generate such terror that no one would dare disobey him from now on. Shanghai was in no position to restrain him, as in mid-November a fierce power struggle broke out there among the leadership, brought about by a relative unknown called Wang Ming, who in future years would be a major challenger of Mao’s.

IN LATE NOVEMBER, Mao started his slaughter. He ordered all the troops to gather in the center of the Red territory, where it was hard to escape. There, he claimed that an AB League had been uncovered in the branch under Peng De-huai — which in fact contained people who had resisted being taken over by Mao. Arrests and executions began. One interrogator wrote in his unpublished memoirs how an officer who had led an attempt to leave Mao’s fold was tortured: “the wounds on his back were like scales on a fish.”

Mao had a score to settle with the Zhu — Mao Army too, since it had voted him out as its chief the year before. Quite a lot of Red Army officers had reservations about Mao, evinced in what an officer called Liou Di wrote to Shanghai on 11 January 1931: “I never trusted Mao,” he wrote. After one battle, “I met many officers in different army units … They were all very uneasy, and looked dejected. They said they did not know working in the Communist Party required them to learn sycophancy, and that it was really not worth it. I felt the same, and considered that the Bolshevik spirit of the Party was being sapped day by day …” Mao was accused of “the crime of framing and persecuting comrades,” and of “being a wicked schemer,” as he admitted to Shanghai on 20 December 1930.

To run the purge, Mao used a crony called Lie Shau-joe, deemed by his comrades to be “vicious and dirty.” “Lie is disliked by most of the troops,” one Party inspector had written, “because he is all bravado haranguing the men before a battle, but cowardly in battle.” People working under him had been begging the Party to “fire him and punish him.”

Lie proceeded by first arresting a few people, and then using torture to get them to name others; then came more arrests, more torture, and more of Mao’s foes scooped up. According to a senior officer, Lie and his men would “simply announce ‘You have AB among you,’ and would name people … no other evidence at all; these people … were tortured and forced to admit [they were AB], and also to give the names of a dozen or so other people. So those other people were arrested and tortured and they gave scores more names …”

Mao wrote to Shanghai himself on 20 December that in the space of one month “over 4,400 AB have been uncovered in the Red Army.” Most were killed — and all were tortured, Mao acknowledged. He argued that if victims were unable to stand torture and made false confessions, that itself proved they were guilty. “How could loyal revolutionaries possibly make false confessions to incriminate other comrades?” he asked.

Once he had tightened his grip on the army, Mao turned his attention to the Jiangxi Communists. On 3 December he sent Lie with a list of his foes to the town of Futian, where the Jiangxi leaders were living. Mao condemned the meeting in August which had expelled his ally Lieu as an “AB meeting” which “opposed Mao Tse-tung.” “Put them all down,” he ordered, and then “slaughter en masse in all counties and all districts.” “Any place that does not arrest and slaughter, members of the Party and government of that area must be AB, and you can simply seize and deal with them [xun-ban, implying torture and/or liquidation].”

Lie arrived at Futian on 7 December, arrested the men on Mao’s list and tortured them through the night. One method was called “striking landmines,” which slowly broke the thumb with excruciating pain. Another technique, also slow, so as to maximize the pain, was to burn victims with flaming wicks. Lie was particularly vicious towards the wives of the Jiangxi leaders. They were stripped naked and, according to a protest written immediately afterwards, “their bodies, particularly their vaginas, were burned with flaming wicks, and their breasts were cut with small knives.”

These atrocities ignited a mutiny, the first ever openly to challenge Mao. It was led by the above-mentioned senior officer, Liou Di, who actually came from Hunan and had known Mao for some years. Because of his Hunan origins, Mao had earlier wanted to enlist him on his side to help control part of the Jiangxi Army. Mao’s man Lie summoned Liou Di on 9 December, first claiming that he had been identified as AB, then promising to let him off the hook if he would collaborate.

In a letter to Shanghai after the revolt, Liou Di described what happened. He saw the torturers tucking in at a banquet of “drinks, meats and hams,” with their victims laid out at their feet, and heard Lie brag about his torturing “cheerfully, in high spirits,” to flattering noises from the others. Carried away, Lie let slip that the whole thing “was not a question of AB, but all politics.” “I arrived at the firm conclusion that all this had nothing to do with AB,” Liou wrote. “It must be Mao Tse-tung playing base tricks and sending his running dog Lie Shau-joe here to slaughter the Jiangxi comrades.”

Liou Di decided to try to stop Mao, but he had to employ subterfuge: “if I were to act as a Communist and deal with them honestly, only death would await me. So I shed my integrity … and switched to a Changsha accent [to assert his non-Jiangxi identity], and told Lie: ‘I’m an old subordinate of Your Honor … I will do my best to obey your political instructions.’ ” He also pledged allegiance to Mao. “After I said this,” he wrote, “their attitude changed straight away … They told me to wait in a small room next door …” Lying there in bed that night, with the screams of a tortured comrade coming through the wall, Liou Di planned his moves.

Next morning, he stepped up his flattery of Lie, and managed to gain his freedom. Lie told him to go back and “eliminate all the AB in your regiment at once.” When he got back, Liou Di told his fellow officers what he had seen and heard, and obtained their support. On the morning of the 12th, he gathered his troops, raided the prison at Futian and released the victims. Not being a killer, he did not pursue Mao’s cronies, all of whom, including Lie, got away. Lie, though, was later killed by an avenger.

That night, posters went up in Futian saying “Down with Mao Tse-tung!” and the next morning an anti-Mao rally was held. In the afternoon the Jiangxi men left town and moved across the River Gan to put themselves out of Mao’s reach. They sent out a circular with this description of Mao:

He is extremely devious and sly, selfish, and full of megalomania. To his comrades, he orders them around, frightens them with charges of crimes, and victimises them. He rarely holds discussions about Party matters … Whenever he expresses a view, everyone must agree, otherwise he uses the Party organisation to clamp down on you, or invents some trumped-up theories to make life absolutely dreadful for you … Mao always uses political accusations to strike at comrades. His customary method regarding cadres is to … use them as his personal tools. To sum up … not only is he not a revolutionary leader, he is not a … Bolshevik.

Mao’s goal, they said, was to “become Party Emperor.”

However, an envoy from Shanghai happened to be present, and told them to stop denouncing Mao in public, on the grounds that Mao had “an international reputation.” They obeyed at once, and entrusted their fate to Shanghai: “We must report Mao Tse-tung’s evil designs and his slaughter of the Jiangxi Party to the Centre, for the Centre to resolve it,” they told their troops.

The delegates they sent to Shanghai were all people who had been tortured by Mao’s men. There they presented the Party leadership with evidence hard to impugn — their torture scars. Moreover, they said, Mao “did not carry out the [leadership’s repeated] instructions. He … has ignored comrades sent by the Centre and deliberately created problems for them … The Centre wrote several times to try to transfer Mao Tse-tung, but he simply ignored the letters.”

But Moscow’s envoys and the Shanghai leadership, headed by Chou En-lai, backed Mao, even though they knew the charges against him were true, and had seen the marks of torture at first hand. Chou himself told Moscow’s man, the Pole Rylsky, that “the arrests and torture of members of our Party … did in fact take place.” But in the Stalinist world, a purger was always the victor, as Moscow was looking out for the hardest people. The Jiangxi Reds, though loyal to the Party, were labeled “counter-revolutionaries” and ordered to submit to Mao or face “ruthless armed struggle,” i.e., annihilation. Mao was “fundamentally correct,” Moscow said, adding that “this line of ruthless struggle against the enemies of the revolution must [be continued].” This was another milestone for Mao: he had won backing from Moscow for murdering his fellow Party members, who had done absolutely nothing wrong vis-à-vis their Party. They had not killed or wounded a single Party member, while Mao had trampled all over the Party’s rules.

Shanghai even sent the victims’ appeals against Mao back to him — a signal to Mao that he was at liberty to punish them in whatever way he desired. On these heart-rending reports, a spidery hand minuted the words: “After translation [into Russian], return to Mao.” Or, simply: “To Mao.” These words were in the hand of the head of the Organization Department, Kang Sheng. A lean, mustachioed man with gold-rimmed spectacles, a connoisseur of Chinese art and erotica, with an equally discerning eye for the range of pain produced by torture and torment, Kang was later to achieve infamy as Mao’s persecutor designate. Now, with these indifferent yet sinister words, he consigned the victims to Mao — and certain death.

With this encouragement from Shanghai, Mao had Liou Di and his fellow mutineers “tried” and executed. Before they died, they were paraded round the Red area as a deterrent to the locals. Representatives from all over the base were brought to watch the executions as a lesson.

Red Jiangxi was ravaged, as a later secret report revealed: “All work was stopped in order to slaughter AB.” “Everyone lived in fear … At the fiercest, two people talking together would be suspected of being AB … All those who were not demonic in striking AB were treated as AB …” Appalling torture was commonplace: “There were so many kinds … with strange names like … ‘sitting in a pleasure chair,’ ‘toads drinking,’ ‘monkeys holding a rope.’ Some had a red-hot gun-rod rammed into the anus … In Victory County alone, there were 120 kinds of torture.” In one, termed with sick inventiveness “angel plucking zither,” a wire was run through the penis and hung on the ear of the victim, and the torturer then plucked at the wire. There were also horrible forms of killing. “In all counties,” the report said, “there were cases of cutting open the stomach and scooping out the heart.”

Altogether, tens of thousands died in Jiangxi. In the army alone, there were about 10,000 deaths — about a quarter of the entire Red Army under Mao at the time — as revealed by the secret report immediately afterwards. It was the first large-scale purge in the Party, and took place well before Stalin’s Great Purge. This critical episode — in many ways the formative moment of Maoism — is still covered up to this day. Mao’s personal responsibility and motives, and his extreme brutality, remain a taboo.

Next door in Fujian, the local Reds had also rebelled against Mao, voting out his followers in July 1930 while he and his army were away. Many thousands were now executed; the figure, just taking those whose names are known and who were later officially cleared, is 6,352. In one county the victims were hauled through the streets to their execution with rusty wires through their testicles. Frightened and thoroughly disillusioned, the head of Red Fujian fled at the first opportunity, when he was sent to Hong Kong to buy medicine. He was only one of many senior Communists who deserted. Another was Peng De-huai’s de facto adopted son.

JUST AFTER THE mutiny against Mao, the Jiangxi Communists had appealed for support to Zhu De and Peng. “Comrades,” they pleaded, “is our Party going to be for ever so black and lightless?” These two had no love for Mao. One night after a good deal of rice wine, Zhu remarked to an old friend: “Many old comrades … have been killed in the purge. The man behind their killing is you know who.” The friend knew he meant Mao and said so in his memoirs. Then he quoted Zhu saying: “The Futian incident was also entirely caused by old Mao slaughtering AB. So many comrades have been killed …” Zhu “looked immensely sad.” However, he and Peng stuck with Mao. Shanghai and Moscow were behind Mao, and siding with the Jiangxi Reds would mean cutting themselves off from the Party. Mao had laid the groundwork for framing Zhu and Peng. He had been purging Zhu De’s staff, and had had two of Zhu’s five aides-de-camp executed. Nor would it be difficult for Mao to coerce some torture victim to make accusations against Zhu — and Peng. One message had reached Russia’s military intelligence chief in China suggesting that “Peng might be mixed up” in AB.

Not only did Mao blackmail the military commanders, he made sure they had the blood of their comrades on their hands. He ordered Zhu to sit on the panel that sentenced Liou Di to death.

Zhu and Peng did not stand up to Mao for another reason. At this time, in December 1930, Chiang Kai-shek had just won the war against his Nationalist rivals, and was launching an “annihilation expedition” against the Communists. Zhu and Peng cared about the Red Army, and feared that a split would doom it. Their attitude differed from Mao’s. During this and subsequent attacks by Chiang in 1931, Mao never halted the purge, and when the Generalissimo paused, Mao redoubled his internecine killings — even though the people he was killing had just been fighting Chiang at the front.

MAO’S RUTHLESSNESS PRODUCED an effective policy against Chiang. This was to “lure the enemy deep into the Red area and strike when it is exhausted.” Mao argued that as the Nationalists were not familiar with the terrain, the conditions must favor the Reds. Because there were so few roads, Nationalist troops would have to rely on local supplies, and since the Reds could control the population they could deprive the enemy of food and water. Mao’s plan was to force the entire population to bury their food and household goods, block every well with huge stones, and evacuate to the mountains so that Chiang’s army could not find water or food, or laborers and guides. The strategy turned the Reds’ base into a battlefield, imposing colossal hardships on the entire population, whom Mao forced into harm’s way.

Few Red leaders agreed with Mao, but his strategy worked. A Nationalist commander later lamented that everywhere “we saw no people, the houses were cleaned out as if by floods, there was no food, no woks, no pots … We couldn’t get any military information.” Chiang reflected in his diary: “The difficulty of annihilating the [Communist] bandits is greater than a big war, because they fight in their territory and can get the population to do what they want.”

Yet it was not Mao’s brutal strategy that clinched the Reds’ victory. What really tipped the scale was Russian assistance — though this remains virtually unknown. Moscow set up a top-level Military Advisory Group in the Soviet Union to plan strategy, and a military committee in Shanghai, staffed by Russian and other (especially German) advisers. The critical help came from Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, which had a network of more than 100 agents in China, mostly Chinese operating in Nationalist offices near the Red Army, whose main job was to provide information to the Chinese Communists. In early 1930, Moscow had dispatched a star officer, the half-German, half-Russian Richard Sorge, to Shanghai. Sorge’s main coup was to infiltrate the German military advisers’ group at Chiang’s forward intelligence HQ, where he worked on the disgruntled wife of one of the advisers, Stölzner, to steal the Nationalist codes, including those used for communications between the General Staff and units in the field. This information from Russian spies gave Mao an incalculable advantage. The CCP also had its own agents working in the heart of Nationalist intelligence. One, Qian Zhuang-fei, became the confidential secretary of the Nationalist intelligence chief U. T. Hsu, and played a big role in Mao’s success.

These intelligence networks provided Mao with precise information about the movements of Chiang’s army. Two weeks into the expedition, on 30 December 1930, Mao used 40,000 troops and civilians to lay an ambush against 9,000 Nationalist troops. The previous day he had learned exactly which units were coming, and when. Mao waited from dawn on a distant peak, while fog and mist shrouded the mountains, and then watched the action amidst maple leaves, some still blazing red on the trees and others fallen on the frosty ground. In the afternoon sunshine, excited cries from below announced victory. Most of the Nationalist troops had simply put up their hands, and the Nationalist commander was captured. The general was exhibited at a mass rally, which Mao addressed, and at which, under guidance, the crowd yelled: “Chop his head off! Eat his flesh!” His head was then sliced off, and sent down the river attached to a door, with a little white flag saying it was “a gift” for his superiors.

This ambush ended Chiang’s first expedition, from which the Red Army gained both arms and prisoners, as well as radios and radio operators. Mao’s prestige rose. Few had any idea about the critical role played by Russian intelligence, as well as by Russian money, medicine and arms. Mao had even asked for poison gas.

In April 1931, Nationalist troops came back for a second “annihilation expedition.” Again they were thwarted by the tactic of “luring the enemy deep into the Red area,” and again Moscow provided critical aid and intelligence, this time including a high-powered two-way radio acquired from Hong Kong, and Russian-trained radio technicians. For this campaign, Mao was able to intercept enemy communications.

But at the beginning of July Chiang Kai-shek himself led a vastly expanded force of 300,000 men for a third expedition, and modified his tactics so that it was much harder for Mao to use his intelligence advantage to lay ambushes. Moreover, this time the Generalissimo’s forces were ten times the size of Mao’s, and were able to stay and occupy the areas they were “lured” into. The Red Army found itself unable to return. Within two months the Red base had been reduced to a mere several dozen square kilometers, and Mao’s men were on the verge of collapse.

But Chiang did not press on. Mao was saved by the most unlikely actor — fascist Japan.

IN 1931, Japan stepped up its encroachment on Manchuria in northeast China. Faced with threats at opposite ends of his vast country, Chiang decided on a policy of “Domestic Stability First”—sort out the Reds before tackling Japan. But Tokyo torpedoed his timing. On 18 September Chiang boarded a ship from Nanjing to Jiangxi to give a big push to his drive against Mao’s shrunken base. That very night, at 10:00 PM, Japan invaded Manchuria, in effect starting the Pacific — and Second World — War. The Nationalist commander in Manchuria, Chang Hsueh-liang, known as the Young Marshal, did not fight back. Over sixty years later, he told us why: resistance would have been futile. “There was no way we could win,” he said. “We could only fight a guerrilla war, or have a shambolic go at it … The quality of the Chinese army could not compare with the Japanese … The Japanese army was really brilliant … ‘Non-resistance’ … was the only feasible policy.”

By the time Chiang Kai-shek arrived in Jiangxi next day, 19 September, Japan had already occupied the capital of Manchuria, Shenyang (aka Mukden), and other major cities, and he had to rush back to Nanjing on the 20th to cope with the crisis. He did not declare war on Japan, reasoning, like the Young Marshal, that armed resistance would be futile, given Japan’s overwhelming military power. Chiang’s tactic was to use China’s huge space, manpower and daunting terrain to buy time, knowing that it was virtually impossible for Japan to occupy and garrison the whole of China. For now, he sought intervention from the League of Nations. His long-term plan was to modernize his army, build up the economy, and fight Japan when there was some chance of winning.

“This misfortune might even turn out to be a blessing in disguise,” Chiang wrote in his diary, “if it gets the country united.” Nanjing immediately decided to “suspend the plan of … annihilating the Communists,” and proposed a United Front against Japan. The CCP spurned the idea, saying that any suggestion that it was willing to join a United Front was “ridiculous in the extreme.” The Communists’ attitude was that the Nationalists, not the Japanese, were their chief enemy, and their slogans made this pointedly clear, ordaining “Down with the Nationalists,” but merely “Oppose Japanese imperialists.” The Party’s “central task” was described as “defending the Soviet Union with arms” (following Moscow’s line that the Japanese invasion of Manchuria was a prelude to attacking the Soviet Union).

Since then, history has been completely rewritten, and the world has come to believe that the CCP was more patriotic and keener to fight Japan than the Nationalists were — and that the CCP, not the Nationalists, was the party that proposed the United Front. All this is untrue.

When he came up with the idea of a United Front against Japan, Chiang pulled his troops out of the war zone in Jiangxi. The Reds at once exploited this opportunity to recover lost territory, expand, and establish their own state.

On 7 November 1931, the fourteenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, this state was proclaimed. Although it was not recognized by any other country, not even its sponsor, the Soviet Union, it was the only Communist regime in the world outside the Communist bloc, which then consisted only of Russia and Mongolia.

This state was made up of several Red regions dotted around the heartland of the country, in the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei, Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang. At its maximum, the total territory covered some 150,000–160,000 square km, with a population of over 10 million. At the time of its founding the largest enclave was the “Central Base Area,” the region where Mao was operating, which consisted of Red Jiangxi and Red Fujian, covering some 50,000 sq. km, with a population of 3.5 million. Moscow had designated it as the seat of the Red government over a year before, with the town of Ruijin as its capital.

Moscow also appointed Mao head of the state, with the very un-Chinese title of chairman of the Central Executive Committee. He was “prime minister” as well, being chairman of the body called the People’s Committee. On the evening the posts were announced, a crony came to see Mao. This man had personally tortured Lee Wen-lin, the Jiangxi Red leader Mao most hated, and afterwards had reported the details to Mao. He now came to offer congratulations. “Mao Zhu-xi—Chairman Mao!” he called out. “You learn really fast,” Mao replied. “You are the first person.” This torturer was the first person to use the title that was to become part of the world’s vocabulary: “Chairman Mao.”

In the outlaw land, the first Communist county chief of Ninggang was killed, in September 1928, by his fellow-Communists, seven months after he had been installed at a rally where his Nationalist predecessor was speared to death. The man Mao left in charge of the area was also killed in a bloody vendetta nine months after Mao’s departure. He had apparently had the beautiful young wife of a Party official tortured and executed on the charge of being an enemy agent. He was then killed on the same charge.

Even when the purge had counterproductive effects. A 1932 report by the (Communist) Federation of Labor said workers were “simply scared” to join Communist unions: “They have seen that the majority [sic] of the workers [who were] members of the trade union were executed [i.e., by their own comrades] on the charge of belonging to ‘AB.’ ”

Subsequently famous as the spy who in 1941 provided Stalin with the vital intelligence that Japan was not going to attack the Soviet Far East when Hitler invaded European Russia. One of Sorge’s assistants was a woman called Zhang Wen-qiu, whose two daughters later married Mao’s two surviving sons. She had come to Sorge’s attention through Agnes Smedley, an American agent for the Comintern.

Thanks to the control of the Red territories, Party membership rose to 120,000 in 1931, from 18,000 at the end of 1926.

9. MAO AND THE FIRST RED STATE (1931–34 AGE 37–40)

RUIJIN, THE CAPITAL of the new Red state, was situated in southeast Jiangxi, in the middle of a red-earth basin cradled by hills on three sides. It was 300 roadless km from the Nationalist-controlled provincial capital, Nanchang, but only about 40 km from the large Red-held city of Tingzhou over the border in Fujian, which was linked to the outside world by river. Semi-tropical, the area was blessed with rich agricultural products, and endowed with unusual giant trees like camphor and the banyan, whose old tough roots rose overground, while new roots cascaded from the crown.

The headquarters of the Red government lay outside the town, at the site of a large clan temple 500 years old, with a hall spacious enough to hold hundreds of people for the inevitable meetings. Where the clan altar had stood, a stage was built in the Soviet Russian fashion. On it hung red woodcut portraits of Marx and Lenin, and between them a red flag with a gold star and a hammer and sickle. A red cloth above it was stitched in gold thread with the slogan: “Proletariat of all the world, unite!” Next to it, in silver, was the slogan: “Class Struggle.” Down both sides of the hall, makeshift partitions demarcated fifteen offices as the new state administration. They had names that were direct translations from Russian, and were a mouthful in Chinese, like “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.”

Behind the clan temple, a large square was cleared of trees and farmland to make room for the Communists’ staple activity: mass rallies. Later on, various monuments were built on this square. At one end was a timber-and-brick dais for holding Soviet-style military reviews. At the other was a tower to commemorate Red Army dead (called “martyrs”), shaped like a giant bullet, with numerous bullet-like stones sticking out of it. Flanking this were two memorials, one a pavilion, the other a fortress, named after two dead Red commanders. The whole set-up anticipated Tiananmen Square in Communist Peking, though the monuments were much more imaginative and colorful than the leaden architecture later to disfigure Tiananmen.

Nearby, deep in a wood, the Communists built a camouflaged auditorium with a capacity of 2,000, whose excellent acoustics were designed to make up for the absence of microphones. It was octagonal, shaped like the Red Army cap of the day. The façade was reminiscent of a European cathedral, only with shuttered windows, through which people could look out, but not in. Above the central gate was an enormous red star with a globe bulging out in the middle, firmly locked in by a hammer and sickle. Next to the auditorium was an air-raid shelter capable of holding over 1,000 people, with two access doors located just behind the stage, so that the leaders could reach it first.

The leaders lived in a mansion which had belonged to the richest person in the village, situated to one side of the clan temple now turned government office. Here Mao chose the best accommodation, a corner suite at the back with a window looking out onto the temple. This window was specially made for him, as the previous owner, out of deference for the temple, would not have any windows overlooking it. Mao also had a brick floor laid over the timber to keep out rats.

The land abutting the leaders’ residence was taken over to house guards and orderlies, as well as high-security installations like the gold store, the switchboard and the radio station. Apart from some villagers kept on to work as servants, the rest were evicted en masse, and the whole area was barricaded off from the outside. None of the Party bosses was able to speak the local dialect, and most made no effort to learn, so they needed interpreters to communicate with the locals, with whom they had little contact anyway. Cadres from the region acted as their links. It was the style and pattern of an occupying army.

ON 7 NOVEMBER 1931, Ruijin held a grand celebration to mark the founding of the Red state. That evening, tens of thousands of locals were organized to put on a parade, holding bamboo torches and lanterns in the shape of stars or hammers and sickles. The streams of lights simmered against the darkness of the night, producing quite a spectacle. There were drums and firecrackers and skits, one with a “British imperialist” driving before him prisoners in chains labeled “India” and “Ireland.” A generator, roaring in an air-raid shelter by the side of the temple, produced electricity, which shone in the numerous small bulbs arrayed along wires slung from pillar to pillar. They illuminated the endless banners and slogans of different colors that also hung from the wires — as well as giant red, white and black posters on the walls. Mao and the other leaders stood on the presidium, clapping and shouting slogans, as the procession passed below them. This was Mao’s first taste of future glories when up to a million people would hail him on Tiananmen.

But here there was one vital difference: Mao in Ruijin was not the supreme leader. Although Moscow made him the “president” and the “prime minister,” it did not make him the dictator. Instead it surrounded him with other men whom it could trust to obey its orders. At the top of the army was Zhu De, who was appointed chief of the Military Council. Zhu had been trained in Russia, and the Russians knew him — and knew that he was loyal. Moscow had earlier considered Mao for the post, but had changed its mind. He ended up as only one of the Council’s fifteen ordinary members.

Most importantly, Mao had a direct, on-the-spot Chinese boss: Chou En-lai, who was to arrive from Shanghai in December 1931, the month after the regime was established, and take up the post of Party chief. In the Communist system, Party boss was the highest authority, above the head of state. With Chou’s arrival, the center of the Party itself shifted to Ruijin, and Shanghai became little more than a liaison office with the Russians. Reliable radio communication was established between Ruijin and Moscow, via Shanghai, where a young man called Po Ku was in charge. The person controlling communication with Moscow was not Mao but Chou En-lai. It was Chou who built Ruijin into a Stalinist state. Mao was not the main person responsible for the foundation and operation of Red Ruijin.

Chou was a master of organization, and under him the whole society was dragooned into an all-encompassing, interlocking machine. He was instrumental in building a huge bureaucracy, whose job was not only to run the base, but also to coerce the population into executing Party orders. In any one village, the state set up dozens of committees—“recruitment committee,” “land committee,” “confiscation committee,” “registration committee,” “red curfew committee,” to name but a few. People first got enmeshed in an organization from the age of six, when they had to join the Children’s Corps. At the age of fifteen, they were automatically enrolled in the Youth Brigade. All adults except the very old and crippled were put into the Red Defense Army. In this way, the entire population was regimented, and a web of control was formed.

This machine was an eye-opener to Mao. Before Chou arrived, Mao had ruled the Red land in bandit style, with less regimentation of the population as a whole; but it did not take long for him to appreciate the advantages and potential of the new way. When he eventually took power nationwide, he inherited this totalitarian machine and made it even more seamless and intrusive than Ruijin — or Stalin’s Russia. And he retained Chou’s services till Chou’s last breath.

Chou had also founded the Chinese KGB, then called the Political Security Bureau, under Moscow’s supervision, in 1928. He and his assistants brought the system into Ruijin, and kept the state alive via terror. Whereas Mao had been using terror for personal power, Chou employed it to bolster Communist rule. The henchmen Mao used for his purges had been cynical and corrupt, and out for personal gain. Chou employed Soviet-trained professionals.

When Chou first arrived in Ruijin at the end of 1931, he had adjudged Mao’s purge methods as not altogether correct. Mao had “relied entirely on confessions and torture,” and “caused terror in the masses.” Chou rehabilitated some victims. One man recalled the process. An official

took out a notebook and began to read out names. Those whose names were read out were ordered to go and stand in the inner courtyard under armed guards. There were scores of names … Mine was called, too. I was so frightened I sweated all over. Then we were questioned one by one, and cleared one by one. In no time, all the detainees were released. And all the incriminating confessions were burned on the spot …

But within a matter of months Chou had brought this respite to an end. Even so short a period of rehabilitation and easing up had released a groundswell of dissidence. “Relaxing about purges caused counter-revolutionaries … to raise their heads again,” Chou’s security men noted aghast. And as people thought, wishfully, that there would be “no more killings,” “no more arrests,” they started to band together to defy Communist orders. It rapidly became clear that the regime could not survive without constant killings, and killing soon restarted.

THE RED STATE regarded its population as a source of four main assets: money, food, labor and soldiers, first for its war, and ultimately to conquer China.

There was a big money-spinner in the region — the largest deposit in the world of tungsten, an extremely valuable strategic mineral that had previously been mined by a consortium of foreign capital. The Red regime resumed mining at the beginning of 1932. With soldiers and slave laborers as miners, the tungsten was exported across the Reds’ southern border to the Cantonese warlords who, though White, were anti-Chiang, and eager to make money. The Red area was in theory under blockade, yet trade with the Cantonese boomed, even when they and the Red Army were sometimes fighting each other. Salt, cotton, medicine and even arms, were openly trucked in, in exchange for tungsten. The operation was run by Mao’s brother Tse-min, who was head of the state bank.

In spite of the vast profits it was making from tungsten and other exports, the regime never relaxed its schemes to extract the maximum from the local population. Although peasants now got their own land, and ground rent was abolished, they were in general worse off than before. Prior to this, most people had some possessions beyond those needed for sheer survival; now these extras were taken away, under various ruses. One was to coerce people to buy “revolutionary war bonds.” To pay for these, women were made to cut their hair so that they would hand over their silver hairpins, together with their last bit of jewelry — traditionally their life savings. The fact that people had such jewelry in pre-Communist days was a telling indication that their standard of living had been higher then. After people bought the war bonds, there would be “return bonds campaigns,” to browbeat purchasers to give back the bonds for nothing. The upshot was, as some daring inhabitants bemoaned, that “the Communists’ bonds are worse than the Nationalists’ taxes.”

The method was the same with food. After paying grain tax, peasants were pressured to lend more grain to the state, in drives with slogans like “Revolutionary masses, lend grain to the Red Army!” But the food “lent” was never returned. It was in fact food on which peasants depended for survival. Mao simply ordered them to cut down on their already meager consumption.

Most men of working age were drafted into the army or as conscript labor. After three years of Communist rule, there were hardly any men left in the villages aged between their early teens and fifty.

Women became the main labor force. Traditionally, women had done only fairly light work in the fields, as their bound and crippled feet meant that heavy manual labor caused great pain. Now they had to do most of the farm work, as well as other chores for the Red Army, like carrying loads, looking after the wounded, washing and mending clothes, and making shoes, for which they had to pay for the material themselves — no small extra burden. Mao, who had thought since his youth that women were capable of doing as much heavy labor as men, was the strongest advocate of this policy. He decreed: “Rely overwhelmingly on women to do farm work.”

The welfare of the locals was simply not on the agenda (contrary to the myth Mao fed to his American spokesman Edgar Snow). In some villages, peasants were not allowed any days off at all. Instead they got meetings, the Communists’ great control mechanism. “The average person has the equivalent of five whole days of meetings per month,” Mao observed, “and these are very good rest time for them.”

Standards of health did not improve either. There was a former British missionary hospital in Tingzhou which treated ordinary people. After Mao stayed there and liked it, he had it dismantled and relocated in Ruijin, and reserved it for the Communist elite. Mao himself was very careful about his health, always traveling with his own mug, which he used whenever he was offered a cup of tea. At one point he stayed in a village called Sand Islet, where the only drinking water came from a stagnant pond. To make sure he did not catch anything, he ordered a well to be dug. As a result, the villagers had clean drinking water for the first time. After this, Communist offices began to have wells dug where they were billeted, but there was no effort to provide the locals with clean water.

Education, Mao claimed via Snow, had brought about higher literacy rates in some counties “than had been achieved anywhere else in rural China after centuries.” In fact, education under the Reds was reduced to primary schools, called “Lenin schools,” where children were taught to read and write to a level at which they could take in basic propaganda. Secondary schools were mostly closed down, and commandeered as quarters for the leaders and venues for meetings. Children were used as sentries, and formed into harassment squads, called “humiliation teams,” to hound people into joining the army and to pressure deserters to return. Teenagers were sometimes encouraged to serve as executioners of “class enemies.”

ONE OF MAO’S main contributions to the running of the Red state was to start a campaign in February 1933 to squeeze out more from the population. He told grassroots cadres to uncover “hidden landlords and kulaks.” As the Reds had been targeting these “class enemies” for years, it was inconceivable that any such species could have remained undetected.

Mao was not a fanatic, searching for more enemies out of ideological fervor. His was a practical operation whose goal was to designate targets to be shaken down, and to create enemies who could be “legitimately,” according to Communist doctrine, dispossessed and worked to death — what Mao himself termed “to do limitless forced labour.” The other point was to scare the rest of the population into coughing up whatever the regime demanded.

Mao’s order to cadres was to “confiscate every last single thing” from those picked out as victims. Often whole families were turned out of their homes, and had to go and live in buffalo sheds, niu-peng. It was during this era that the miserable dwellings into which outcasts were suddenly pitched came to receive this name. Over thirty years later, in the Cultural Revolution, the term was widely used for detention, even though at that time people were not usually detained in rural outhouses, but in places like toilets, classrooms and cinemas.

Mao’s campaign produced many tens of thousands of slave laborers, but it turned up little for the state coffers, as peasants genuinely had nothing left to disgorge. The authorities reported that only two out of twelve counties in Jiangxi were able to produce any “fines” and “donations” at all, and the total amount was a fraction of the target set by Mao.

The plight of the victims was vividly portrayed by a Red Army officer called Gong Chu, who described passing by a place called Gong Mill near Ruijin, inhabited by people with the same family name as his, which meant they might share ancestors with him.

I went into a big black-tiled bungalow … I was struck by a tremendous air of sadness and desolation. There was no furniture at all, only one broken table and a bench. There were two middle-aged women and an old woman, plus three young children, all in rags, and looking famished. When they saw me come in with four bodyguards wearing pistols, they went into a tremendous panic …

Then they heard Gong Chu’s name, and they “went down on their knees in front of me, and begged me to save their lives.”

Between sobs the old woman said: “My old man had read some books [which meant the family had been relatively well off], and so had my two sons. We had over ten mu of land and my two sons tilled it … my old man and two sons were all arrested … and were beaten and hung up, and 250 yuan was demanded from us. We did all we could to make up 120 yuan, and also gave them all the women’s jewelery … But … my old man was still left there hanging till he died, and my two sons were killed as well. Now they are forcing us to pay another 500 yuan, otherwise all six of us will be imprisoned. Commander! We hardly have anything to eat, where can we find the 500 yuan? Please, think of our common ancestry and put in a fair word for us.”

The woman told Gong Chu her husband had wanted to go and look for him. But the authorities

“forbade us from setting one step outside the village. Today Heaven really opened its eyes, that you should have come into our family. Please Commander, save us!” After these words, she banged her head on the ground non-stop. Her two daughters-in-law and the children were all kowtowing and crying.

Gong Chu promised to help, but ultimately did nothing — as he knew that intervening could easily make things worse. Some months before, when he had tried to help a doctor in a similar situation, vengeful grassroots cadres had waited till he left and then “killed the doctor and confiscated his medicine shop. His widow and children became beggars.” It was events like these that drove Gong Chu to reject communism and flee at the first opportunity.

Mao was also resourceful in making people “volunteer” to join the Red Army. When one cadre had difficulty getting people to enlist, Mao told her to “find counter-revolutionaries within three days.” She did, and those scared of falling foul of the regime joined up. In one district, the man in charge of conscription failed to produce enough conscripts. Mao had this man, Cai Dun-song, brought to him, and had him worked over, most likely tortured, as Cai “confessed” to having formed an “anti-Communist brigade.” A mass rally was held at which Mao announced the confession, and Cai and a number of others were executed on the spot. A cadre who had worked with Cai said that afterwards “in less than half a month, I enrolled more than 150 people.”

CHINA’S FIRST RED STATE was run by terror and guarded like a prison. A pass was needed to leave one’s village, and sentries were ubiquitous round the clock. One person who did have a chance of getting away was the manager of state monument-building who had access to cash. He took 246.7 yuan — enough to buy a pass and pay contacts. But before he could make his getaway, he was arrested. He then managed to break out of jail, with the collusion of two senior cadres, one of them a man who had seen his brother killed as AB. The manager was caught and brought before a kangaroo court attended by hundreds of people, then executed. Old-timers recalled that not only was anyone “trying to flee to the White area” killed, but sometimes “if a prisoner escaped, the jailer was executed.”

In this prison-like universe, suicide was common — an early wave of what was later to grow to a flood throughout Mao’s reign. The number of suicides was so staggering, even among officials, that the regime had to tackle it publicly, as proclaimed by a slogan: “Suicides are the most shameful elements in the revolutionary ranks.”

Even a very high-ranking officer, Yang Yue-bin, a favorite of Mao’s, was desperate enough to flee and defect to the Nationalists. He gave away the location of Party leaders’ houses. The Nationalists bombed the site, and the leaders had to decamp wholesale.

Ordinary people had more chance to escape if they lived on the edge of the Red region, and some grassroots cadres who hated the regime organized mass escapes. Any cadre under the slightest suspicion of being unreliable would be transferred away from the outlying districts at once. Many waited until the Nationalists attacked and then tried to go over. In the last days of the Red state, when the Nationalists were closing in, whole villages rebelled, and started to attack the Red Army as it retreated, wielding the only weapons they had, knives and spears, as all firearms had been rounded up by the regime.

The state’s response was to be merciless and not to take the slightest chance. At its nadir, even everyday social intercourse and hospitality could bring death. “No family was allowed to have visitors to stay overnight,” veterans recalled. “Any family found to have done so was killed together with the visitor.”

The Ruijin base, the seat of the first Red state, consisted of large parts of the provinces of Jiangxi and Fujian. These two provinces suffered the greatest population decrease in the whole of China from the year when the Communist state was founded, 1931, to the year after the Reds left, 1935. The population of Red Jiangxi fell by more than half a million — a drop of 20 percent. The fall in Red Fujian was comparable. Given that escapes were few, this means that altogether some 700,000 people died in the Ruijin base. A large part of these were murdered as “class enemies,” or were worked to death, or committed suicide, or died other premature deaths attributable to the regime. The figure of 700,000 does not include the many deaths in the large areas the Reds occupied for intermittent periods, or the huge number of deaths in the five Red bases in other parts of China that came under Ruijin.

Years later, locals would point out to travelers mass graves and derelict villages. People who lived under China’s first Communist regime rejected it. When the first Russian intelligence officer visited the area immediately after the Communists took it in late 1949 the newly arrived Party chief told him that in all Jiangxi “there was not one member of the CCP.”

The nominal Party No. 1, Hsiang Chung-fa, had been executed by the Nationalists that June, after a tip-off which the Nationalist intelligence chief U. T. Hsu strongly suggested had come from the Communists themselves. At first Hsiang refused to admit he was the CCP No. 1. “And, seeing this rather stupid-looking man,” Hsu wrote, “we felt we could well be mistaken. But a colleague said that … when Hsiang was a sailor, he had been addicted to gambling, and once when he had lost every penny, he vowed to kick the addiction, and chopped off the tip of the little finger of his left hand … The man’s left little finger did indeed have a chunk missing …” After Hsiang was identified, he went down on his knees to beg for his life, “and at once gave us four top addresses.” Chou En-lai later remarked that Hsiang’s fidelity to communism could not be compared even to the chastity of a prostitute.

Gong’s devastating memoir was published in Hong Kong in 1954. The post-Mao president of China, Yang Shang-kun, himself a witness to the Ruijin time, acknowledged to a small circle that the memoir was true, though it was banned in China. However, Gong was allowed to go back and live in the Mainland in 1991, age ninety.

In 1983, after Mao was dead, 238,844 people in Jiangxi were counted as “revolutionary martyrs,” i.e., people who had been killed in wars and intra-Party purges.


WHEN MAO WAS inaugurated as president of the Red state, he had in fact lost his former absolute control over the area, and especially over the Red Army. Moscow had appointed Zhu De the army chief. Moreover, as Party secretary, Chou En-lai was the No. 1. Mao refused to fit into a collective leadership and tried intimidation. His colleagues fought back and accused him of a multitude of sins, even of adopting a “kulak line,” an accusation Mao himself had used to send many Jiangxi Reds to their deaths. Now he was up against a steel wall. At a meeting after Chou arrived, Mao took the chair and started behaving as though he were still in charge. The others intervened to unseat him, and put Chou in the chair. Very soon Mao asked for “sick leave,” which was happily granted, and he left Ruijin in a sulk at the end of January 1932.

He went off to a commandeered Buddhist temple called Donghua Hill, one of many giant rocks rising out of the plain round Ruijin. Covered with metasequoias, cypresses and pines, and dotted with smooth black stones, the hill sheltered the ancient temple in its luxuriant midst. Here Mao spent the days with his wife, Gui-yuan, and a detachment of guards. It was large and rang with echoes. Moss grew on the damp earthen floor. Outside Mao’s monastery room, leaves fell in the winter wind and rain sank into the cracks of the stone courtyard, bringing out more chill. It was a mournful scene.

Mao had brought with him two iron-clad cases filled with documents, newspaper cuttings, notes, and poems he had composed over the years. When it was sunny, the bodyguards would set out these cases in the courtyard, one on top of the other, and Mao would sit on a makeshift stool reading and rereading the contents, pondering how to reclaim his lost power.

He still received top-level documents daily, along with his beloved newspapers, both Nationalist and Communist. It was from these newspapers that he spotted a golden opportunity — which he may in fact have created himself. Between 16 and 21 February, a “recantation notice” appeared in major Nationalist newspapers, bearing Chou En-lai’s then pseudonym, renouncing communism and condemning the Communist Party, especially for its subservience to Moscow. The CCP office in Shanghai went to considerable lengths to counter the impact, and put it about that the notice was a fake, circulating leaflets to this effect and trying to place statements in the newspapers.

Although there is no doubt that the notice was a plant, Chou’s name and authority were undermined. Mao was thus able to exploit this vulnerability. His strategy was not to try to unseat Chou, which would have been unrealistic, but to get Chou to back him to sideline Zhu De and regain control of the army.

In early March, Mao was invited to a crisis meeting 125 km west of Ruijin, outside the city of Ganzhou, which the Red Army had been trying in vain to capture. The minute the invitation arrived Mao hurried off, even though it was raining hard. Gui-yuan tried to get him to wait until it stopped, but he insisted on leaving at once, and was drenched in an instant. He raced on horseback through the night, and when he got to the meeting weighed straight in to criticize the military command. Most other leaders were in no mood to listen to a lecture from him, and no one suggested he should be reinstated as head of the army.

But now that Mao was back with the army, he hung on there, and started to put his scheme into action. The Reds soon had to call off the siege of Ganzhou, and the majority agreed they should fight their way westwards to link up with another Red pocket on the Jiangxi — Hunan border. Mao, however, insisted they should go in the opposite direction. As he dug his heels in, it fell to Chou En-lai, as Party chief, to make a decision. Chou opted to endorse both plans, but to send only one-third of the army in the direction favored by the majority, while dispatching the greater part of the army with Mao in the direction Mao wanted. Chou thus allowed Mao to snatch back control of two-thirds of the army, against the wishes of most of the leadership.

The most likely explanation for this extraordinary decision is that Chou felt it was better, probably vital, to placate Mao. He knew that Mao had threatened to frame both Peng De-huai and Zhu De (plus another Party leader who had opposed Mao, Xiang Ying) with accusations of being “AB.” Mao had not batted an eyelid about slaughtering tens of thousands of loyal Reds who had stood in his way. Mao, in fact, was quite capable of having planted the recantation notice himself. He had displayed a penchant for manipulating the press; for example, creating the rumor of his own death. And why did the fake recantation come right at the time when Chou had just supplanted Mao as the No. 1 in the Red state? Chou could not afford to make an enemy out of Mao.

Chou’s fear of Mao dated from now and was never to leave him. Mao was repeatedly to dangle the planted recantation over Chou, right up to Chou’s death more than four decades later.

Mao had told Chou and the military leadership that he wanted to go northeast. After he set off, he suddenly changed route and led his two-thirds of the army to the southeast coast, only informing Chou when he was well on the way, making it impossible for Chou to say no. Later Mao’s colleagues condemned the excursion as an interruption that had “delayed our plans.”

In making this detour, Mao had the collaboration of his old accomplice Lin Biao, the man who had ganged up with him before to sabotage Zhu De. Lin was the core commander of the force assigned to Mao. On 20 April this force took the prosperous city of Zhangzhou, very near the coast, which was feebly defended and which Mao had targeted for personal reasons.

One was to gain prestige in the wider world, as Zhangzhou was well connected internationally. Very much with newspaper coverage in mind, Mao entered the city on a white horse, looking uncharacteristically smart in a Sun Yat-sen suit and topee. The army marched in four columns, with bugles blowing. Mao sent his colleagues press cuttings that he collected about himself, reporting his exploits in terms like: “Red Army in Zhangzhou; whole coast shaken; over 100,000 flee”; “28 foreign gunboats gathering in Amoy.” Mao was well aware that the higher his profile, the more obliging Moscow would be. Indeed, when his exasperated colleagues moved to oust him later that year, Moscow restrained them, citing this very reason. As their representative in Shanghai, the German Arthur Ewert, reassured the Russians, he had immediately stressed to Ruijin that “Mao Tse-tung is already a high-profile leader … And so … we have protested against Mao’s removal …”

But the key reason for Mao to go to Zhangzhou was to amass a private fortune. A large number of crates marked with huge characters, “To be delivered to Mao Tse-tung personally,” went back to Jiangxi. They filled a whole truck, and when the road ran out they were carried by porters. They were said to contain books Mao had bought or looted, and some did. But many contained gold, silver and jewels. They were secretly carried to the top of a mountain by porters, and stored inside a cave by two trusted bodyguards, supervised by Mao’s brother Tse-min. The entrance was sealed, and only these few knew about the haul. The Party leadership was kept in the dark. Mao had bought himself insurance in case he fell out with the Party — and with Moscow.

WHILE MAO HAD been lingering in Zhangzhou, in May 1932 Chiang Kai-shek was gearing up for another “annihilation expedition,” his fourth, deploying half a million troops. The setting up of the Red state had convinced him that the Communists were not going to unite with him against Japan. On 28 January that year, Japan had attacked Shanghai, China’s key commercial and industrial city, 1,000 km from Manchuria. This time, Chinese troops fought back, taking tremendous casualties. As Japan’s military objectives in the Shanghai area at this stage were limited, the League of Nations was able to broker a ceasefire. Throughout the crisis, which lasted till late April, the Reds worked single-mindedly to expand their own territory. After the crisis subsided, Chiang resuscitated his policy of “Domestic Stability First,” and geared up to attack the Red bases again.

When they received this intelligence, the CCP leadership cabled Mao to bring the army back to the Red base without delay. Mao replied that he did not believe Chiang would “launch an offensive like the third expedition last year,” and told the Party its “assessment and military strategy are utterly wrong.” He refused to leave Zhangzhou until nearly a month had elapsed and Chiang’s intention was made public — and Mao proven wrong.

On 29 May he had to return to Red Jiangxi. Thanks to Mao having led them into an isolated cul-de-sac, the tens of thousands of troops with him had to march back over 300 km, in searing heat, and a large number fell ill and died. En route, they had to fight an extra enemy — the Cantonese, who had previously avoided fighting the Reds. The Cantonese had adopted an independent position vis-à-vis Chiang — indeed, had been hatching a plot against him. But Mao’s foray into Zhangzhou had alarmed them: it was only about 80 km from their own province, and the proximity of the danger goaded them into action. Near a town called Water Mouth, the Red Army had to fight one of its few really tough battles, suffering unusually high casualties. The Red soldiers who fought most impressively were some recent mutineers from the Nationalist army, who went into battle stripped to the waist and brandishing giant knives.

In spite of causing all these unnecessary casualties and hardships for the Red Army, not only was Mao not reprimanded, he went on the offensive by demanding that he be given the highest post in the army, that of chief political commissar. Mao can only have been encouraged by Moscow’s unbelievably indulgent attitude towards him. While Mao was dallying in Zhangzhou, the Party leadership, Chou included, had collectively cabled Moscow, calling Mao’s actions “hundred percentage right opportunism” and “absolutely contrary to instructions of the C.I. [Comintern].” But Moscow’s response was that they must at all costs keep Mao on board, and maintain his profile and status. It was clear that Moscow regarded Mao as indispensable, and the Kremlin consistently showed a regard for him that it did not bestow on any other leader. If it came to a showdown, Moscow would most likely take Mao’s side.

On 25 July, Chou recommended meeting Mao’s demands, “in order to facilitate battle command at the front.” His colleagues wanted to give the job to Chou, but Chou pleaded: “If you insist that Chou is to be the chief political commissar, this would … leave the government Chairman [Mao] with nothing to do … It is awkward in the extreme …” On 8 August, Mao was appointed chief political commissar of the army.

MAO HAD REGAINED control of the army, but differences with his colleagues only deepened. In summer 1932, Chiang was focusing his attacks on two Red territories north of Jiangxi; on Moscow’s instructions the Party ordered all its armies to coordinate their movements to help these areas. Mao’s assignment was to lead his army closer to the two bases under assault and draw off enemy forces by attacking towns. He did this for a while, then when the going got tough simply refused to fight anymore. In spite of urgent cables asking for help, he basically sat by for a month while Chiang drove the Reds out of these other two bases.

Chiang’s next target was Jiangxi. Moscow had decided that the best strategy here was to meet Chiang’s attack head-on, but once again Mao just withheld his consent, insisting that it would be much better to disperse the Communist forces and wait and see. Mao did not believe that the hugely outnumbered Red Army could defeat Chiang, and seems to have set his hopes on Moscow bailing out the Chinese Reds. At the time, Moscow and Nanjing were negotiating to restore diplomatic relations, which Moscow had severed in 1929 over China’s attempt to take control of the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria. Mao’s calculation seems to have been that Chiang would have to allow the Chinese Reds to survive as a gesture to Moscow.

Mao’s colleagues regarded his passive delaying tactics as “extremely dangerous.” Mao would not budge. “Sometimes arguments became endless, endless,” as Chou put it; “it is impossible to know what to do.”

An emergency meeting had to be convened at the beginning of October, which turned into a showdown with Mao. All the eight top men in the Red base gathered in the town of Ningdu for a meeting chaired by Chou. The anger that flared against Mao can be felt through the jargon the participants used to describe the scene, where, as they put it, they “engaged in unprecedented two-line struggle [“two-line” means as if against an enemy], and broke the previous pattern of yielding to and placating” Mao, which was a reference to Chou’s kid-glove treatment of Mao.

Mao was denounced for “disrespect for Party leadership, and lacking the concept of the Organization”—in other words, insubordination. The tone would have been harsher still if it had not been for Chou, who, as some of his colleagues reported, “did not criticise Tse-tung’s mistakes unambiguously, but rather, in some places, tried to gloss over and explain away” his actions. The top cadres still in Shanghai, especially Po Ku, were so infuriated with Mao that they wired their colleagues in Ningdu without consulting Moscow’s representatives (which was most unusual, and a sign of how angry they were), calling his actions “intolerable” and saying he must be removed from the army. There was even a suggestion that he should be expelled from the Party.

Giving Moscow no time to intervene, the leaders in Ningdu dismissed Mao on the spot from his army post, although in deference to Moscow’s orders not to impair Mao’s public image, the troops were told that he was “temporarily returning to the central government to chair everything.” Moscow was told that Mao had gone to the rear “owing to sickness.”

During the conference, Mao cabled Shanghai twice from Ningdu, which was clearly an attempt to enlist Moscow’s help. But Ewert, Moscow’s man in Shanghai, who had also lost patience with Mao, chose to report to Moscow by courier, not cable, so the news of Mao’s dismissal did not reach Moscow until the conference was over. Ewert found himself having to explain his failure to save Mao to Moscow. The “decision … to remove and criticise” Mao had been taken “without prior agreement with us” and Ewert said he disagreed with it: “a decision like this [should not] be taken without exhausting all other possibilities …” Although “there is no doubt whatever that … Mao Tse-tung is wrong … friendly persuasion must be used with Mao.”

Moscow ordered the CCP: “Regarding your differences with comrade Mao Tse-tung, we repeat: Try to win him for the line of active struggle in a comradely way. We are against recalling Mao Tse-tung from the army at the present time if he submits to discipline.” On 2 November, Stalin was asked “urgently” for his opinion. Mao’s colleagues were then told to explain why they had pushed Mao out of the army. Moscow criticized Mao’s critics, and praised Chou’s gentle handling.

Russian backing came too late for Mao, who had left Ningdu on 12 October, his post as army commissar taken by Chou. Mao never forgave his opponents at Ningdu, and they were later made to pay, some of them dearly. The main butt of Mao’s resentment was Chou, even though he had tried to safeguard Mao, the reason being that he ended up with Mao’s job. In later life, Chou made more than 100 self-denunciations, and the fiercest self-flagellation was reserved for Ningdu. Forty years later, as prime minister, in spring 1972, right after being diagnosed with cancer of the bladder and in the middle of extremely demanding negotiations with the US, Japan and many other countries (at which he greatly impressed his foreign interlocutors), Chou was made to perform one groveling apology after another to groups of high officials. One topic that kept recurring was Ningdu.

CONFIDENT THAT HE mattered to Moscow, Mao adamantly refused to go and do his job in Ruijin, and went instead to “convalesce” in Tingzhou, where the former missionary Hospital of the Gospel provided the best medical care in the Red area (before Mao had it moved to Ruijin). He stayed in a sumptuous two-story villa which had formerly belonged to a rich Christian and had been commandeered for the Red elite. Cradled in a wooded hill and encircled on both levels by spacious loggias carved in dark wood, the villa afforded shade and breeze ideal for the southern heat, as well as scent and beauty from the orange trees and banana leaves in the subtropical garden.

From this elegant villa, Mao ran a competing HQ. He summoned various followers, and told them not to stand and fight when they came under attack from the Nationalists, but to evacuate front-line areas. The attitude he encouraged his coterie to adopt towards Party orders was: “carry them out if they suit you, and ignore them if they don’t.”

In January 1933, Po Ku, the 25-year-old who had been running the Party office in Shanghai (and who had just urged his colleagues at Ningdu to dump Mao), arrived in the Ruijin base. Po Ku was fourteen years Mao’s junior, and had only been in the Party seven years. He was extremely bright, and impressed Edgar Snow as having a mind “very quick and as subtle as, and perhaps more supple than Chou En-lai’s.” He spoke good Russian and English, and knew Moscow’s ways, having trained there for three and a half years (1926–30). Above all, he was exceptionally decisive, a quality much appreciated by his comrades, most of whom were exasperated by Chou, who was seen as far too accommodating towards Mao. Even though Po Ku was much younger and less experienced, the majority voted for him to take over the Party chair from Chou, who retained command of the military. Chou let this happen, as he had no thirst for personal power, nor did he yearn to be No. 1. In fact, he rather seems to have welcomed there being somebody above him.

Po was incensed by what Mao had been doing, and decided to act at once, as Ruijin faced an imminent onslaught from Chiang. In addition, Po was receiving a lot of other complaints about Mao. Peng De-huai described Mao as “a nasty character” who “had insulted” Zhu De. He “likes to stir up squabbles,” Peng said. “Mao’s methods are very brutal. If you do not submit to him, he will without fail find ways to make you submit. He does not know how to unite the cadres.”

Po’s hands, however, were tied. When he left Shanghai, Moscow’s agent Ewert had told him bluntly that he absolutely had to work with Mao. But this injunction did not extend to Mao’s followers, and here Po took action. From February 1933 on, a string of Mao’s acolytes — all low-level, including Mao’s brother Tse-tan — was criticized in the press, though only the top few knew that Mao was the real target, and his reputation among the rank and file was carefully preserved. Moreover, Po did not use Mao’s killer methods. Although the language was high-decibel (“smash into smithereens,” “cruelly struggle”), Mao’s followers were treated as comrades who had erred, not as “enemies,” and some were allowed to retain important posts.

Po Ku was able to dismantle Mao’s separate chain of command, and unite the Party to fight Chiang, with great success. For the first time, the Red Army defeated the Generalissimo’s crack troops in battles involving tens of thousands of men. Chiang’s latest annihilation expedition folded in March 1933.

DURING THIS FOURTH campaign, Chiang had to fight the Reds against the background of a deepening national crisis. In February 1933 the Japanese had thrust out of Manchuria across the Great Wall into north China proper, threatening Peking. That same month the Japanese set up a puppet state called Manchukuo in the northeast.

Ruijin also won this fourth campaign thanks to great help from the Soviet Union, which had just restored diplomatic relations with Chiang, in December 1932. Restoring formal ties allowed Russia to get more intelligence officers back into China under diplomatic and press cover, to help the Chinese Communists. The Russian military attaché, GRU Major-General Eduard Lepin, played a central role, as he regularly saw Chiang and top Nationalist officers, and could pass high-level up-to-date information to the Chinese Red Army, also acting as liaison between it and the military advisory group for the CCP in Moscow. Moscow’s secret military advisers in China also had a big hand in the war. When Mao later met one of them, the German Communist Otto Braun (the only one who got through to Ruijin), Mao paid him a compliment. After Mao greeted him “with stiff formality,” Braun recorded, “Mao acknowledg[ed] the successful counter-offensive … in the winter of 1932–33. He said he knew that the impetus for it came from me …”

The main military figure on the Chinese Red side during this fourth campaign was Chou En-lai, and the fact that the Reds were winning unprecedented victories under his leadership greatly boosted Chou’s status and confidence. Mao knew that Moscow recognized winners, and Chou’s military triumph could well tip Moscow in Chou’s favor — especially as Mao had opposed Moscow’s war strategy in the first place. So in February 1933 Mao moved back to Ruijin from his “convalescence,” and started to be cooperative. Moscow continued to accord him unique care and attention, repeatedly admonishing his colleagues that they “must incorporate Mao in work at all cost … Regarding Mao Tse-tung, you must try your utmost to adopt an attitude of tolerance and conciliation …”

Mao went on taking part in top meetings and chairing those to which his post entitled him. He was kept fully briefed and retained his elite privileges. But he knew that Moscow had reservations about him — not least from the way that his acolytes were denounced in the Red newspapers. He could also read the strength of the wind that was blowing against him in the startling degree of his own isolation. Hardly anyone came to visit him. His followers avoided him. Sometimes, his wife recalled, he did not exchange a word with anyone outside his family for days. Mao was to say decades later that it was as if he had been “soaked in a piss barrel, and been sloshed up and down several times, so I really stank.”

A further indication of the way he had slipped in Moscow’s favor came early in 1934, when he lost his position as “premier”—while retaining the grander one of “president.” The main duty of the premier was to run the administration, which Mao could not be bothered to do; and the Party wanted someone in the post who would actually do the job. An ambitious thirty-four-year-old called Lo Fu, who had been trained in Russia, took his place. Mao was compensated by being made a full member of the Politburo for the first time since 1923, but he did not get into the inner core of the Party, the Secretariat. He was not on the list approved by Moscow. Mao boycotted the Party plenum that implemented these decisions, claiming illness. Another “diplomatic disorder,” Po Ku remarked, but let him be.

Mao was still given a high profile and maximum exposure in CCP and Moscow publications. To the population in the Red area — and to the outside world, including the Nationalists — Mao was still “the Chairman.” But in private, Po Ku compared him to Russia’s figurehead president. “Old Mao is going to be just a Kalinin now,” he told a friend. “Ha, ha!”

On 15 April the Communists issued a “declaration of war on Japan.” This was a pure propaganda stunt, and it was more than five years before the Red Army fired a shot at the Japanese (except in Manchuria, where the Party organization came under the control of Moscow, not Ruijin) — making this one of the longest “phoney wars” in history. In fact, the CCP’s proclamation was more a declaration of war on Chiang Kai-shek than on Japan, as it asserted that “in order to … fight the Japanese imperialists, it is necessary first of all to overthrow the rule of the Nationalists.” In secret intra-CCP communications, there was not a single reference to Japan as the enemy.

The mutineers belonged to a unit of 17,000 men whose commander had brought them over to the Reds from Ningdu in December 1931. This was the only mutiny in the Communists’ favor since Nanchang in 1927—and for many years to come. These newcomers increased the Red Army’s strength in the Fujian — Jiangxi theater by one-third, to over 50,000 men. Their commander, Ji Zhen-tong, quickly realized what he had let himself and his army in for, and asked “to go to the Soviet Union for studies”—the only pretext he could give to get away. He was soon arrested, and later executed.

The Party was no longer able to operate underground in any city in the White areas, as a result of effective Nationalist policing plus massive defections. In history books this failure is blamed, unfairly, on Li Li-san, the all-purpose scapegoat.

Apart from Japan, the only states that recognized it were El Salvador, the Vatican and the Soviet Union, where the Manchukuo flag flew over consulates at Chita and Vladivostok. This was part of an attempt by Stalin to appease Tokyo, to try to prevent it turning north to attack the Soviet Union.


IN SEPTEMBER 1933, Chiang Kai-shek mobilized half a million troops for yet another “annihilation expedition”—his fifth — against the Ruijin base. In May he had agreed to a truce with the Japanese, acquiescing to their seizure of parts of north China, in addition to Manchuria, and this freed him to concentrate in strength against the Reds.

Over the previous months Chiang had been building solid roads that enabled his troops to mass in the area and bring up supplies. With this logistic preparation, Chiang was now able to close in on the Red area. The armies then pushed into the Red base slowly, pausing every couple of kilometers to construct small forts that stood so close together they could virtually be connected by machine-gun fire. The Reds were tightly encircled by these blockhouses. As their commander, Peng De-huai, described it, Chiang was forcing the Red area “to shrink gradually: the tactics of drying the pond and then getting the fish.”

The Red Army had only one-tenth of Chiang’s strength, and was far less well armed. Chiang’s army, moreover, was now much better trained, thanks to the work of a large group of German military advisers. In particular, the Generalissimo had obtained the services of the man who had played the key role in reconstituting the German army in secret after the First World War, General Hans von Seeckt. So Moscow built up a “German” network of its own to help the Chinese Reds to counter Chiang’s advisers. It dispatched a German-speaking military expert, Manfred Stern (later famous as General Kléber in the Spanish Civil War), to be the chief military adviser, based in Shanghai. And the German Otto Braun was sent to Ruijin in September, as de facto army commander on the spot.

In Ruijin, Braun settled in the barricaded area reserved for Party leaders, in a thatched house in the middle of rice paddies. He was asked to “stay inside my house as much as possible for my safety as a ‘foreign devil,’ and in view of the constant [Nationalist] clamour about ‘Russian agents.’ ” He was given a Chinese name, Li De—“Li the German”—and provided with a “wife,” whose one vital qualification was that “she had to be big,” and “of very strong physique,” the assumption being that foreigners needed strong women to cope with their sexual demands.

According to Mrs. Zhu De (successor to the one executed by the Nationalists), whose information reflected the gossip of the day, “no women comrades wanted to marry a foreigner who could not speak Chinese. So for a while they [the Party] could not find a suitable partner.” Eventually they lit on a good-looking country girl who had been a child bride and had escaped to join the revolution. However, in spite of high-level pressure, she refused. “A few days later, she received an order: ‘Li De is a leading comrade sent to help the Chinese revolution. To be his wife is the need of the revolution. The Organization has decided that you marry him.’ She obeyed, with great reluctance … they did not get on.”

In this, her second arranged marriage, this woman bore Braun a son. The boy had dark skin — closer in color to that of a Chinese than a white person’s, which prompted Mao to crack a joke: “Well, this defeats the theory of the superiority of the Germanic race.”

The man closest to Braun was Po Ku, the Party No. 1, who had worked with him in Shanghai, and could talk to him in Russian. They played cards with the interpreters and went horse-riding together. Chou En-lai, as the No. 2 and the senior military man, also saw Braun a lot. But Braun had little to do with Mao, whom he met only at official functions. On such occasions, Braun wrote, Mao “maintained a solemn reserve.” Mao spoke no Russian, and kept his guard up with Braun, regarding him as a threat.

BY SPRING 1934, Chiang’s expedition had been pressing in on the base for about six months. Neither Moscow’s advisers nor any of the CCP leaders had a solution for countering Chiang’s blockhouse war and overwhelming military superiority. Red leaders in Ruijin knew the base’s days were numbered, and began to plan a pull-out. On 25 March, Moscow sent Ruijin a cable which was intercepted by British intelligence, saying that the prospects for the base were dire — even more dire, it said, than the CCP itself seemed to appreciate. As soon as Po Ku received this message, he started trying to get Mao out of the way. On 27 March, Shanghai wired Moscow to say that Ruijin “communicates that Mao has been ill for a long time and [it] requests that he be sent to Moscow.” But Mao was not ill at all. Po Ku and his colleagues did not want him around, in case he made trouble again.

Ruijin’s request to evacuate Mao was rejected. On 9 April Moscow cabled that it was “against visit of Mao” because the journey, which would involve passing through White areas, would be too risky. “He absolutely must be treated in the soviet region [i.e. Red area in China], even if that necessitates large costs. Only in the case of total impossibility of treating him on the spot and of danger of fatal outcome of illness can we agree to him coming to Moscow.”

Mao had no wish to be evicted. “My health is good. I’m not going anywhere,” he rejoined to Po Ku, who controlled communications with Moscow. But Po soon came up with another solution — to leave Mao behind to hold the fort. Keeping the head of state in situ would be a perfect way of proclaiming that the Red state lived on.

No one wanted to be left behind. Many who stayed lost their lives, either in battle, or captured and executed. Mao’s youngest brother Tse-tan was one of them. Another was the friend Mao had brought to the CCP’s 1st Congress, Ho Shu-heng. Yet another was the former Party No. 1, Chu Chiu-pai. And resentment was strong among those who survived. The No. 2 stay-behind, Chen Yi, had a serious shrapnel wound in the hip. He had himself carried on a stretcher to Zhu De, and pleaded, in vain, to be taken along. Two decades later he recalled with anger how the decision was broken to him (incidentally giving a rare insight into how CCP leaders viewed their colleagues’ sophistry): “I was given hot air: ‘You are a senior official, so we ought to carry you along on a stretcher. But because you have been working in Jiangxi for well over ten years [sic], you have influence and prestige … Now that the Centre is going, we can’t face the masses if we don’t leave you behind.’ ” The man spouting this hot air was Chou En-lai.

Mao knew that if he were left behind he would be far removed from the Party’s center and from the army — even if he happened to survive. He did not intend to be got rid of so easily. At this point, having been deprived of military command, Mao was not with any army. But as government chairman he was his own master and could choose what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be. Over the next half a year, he devoted himself to making sure that Po Ku and Co. could not leave him marooned when they left.

So he staked out a position on the escape route. The first place he camped out was the southern front, which at the time was the envisaged exit point. Here the Communists faced the Cantonese warlord who had been doing a lucrative trade with them in tungsten, and who hated Chiang. Unlike other fronts, where the Nationalists were pressing in deeper and deeper, here there was not much fighting. In late April, the Cantonese warlord began talking to the Reds about providing a corridor through which they could move out, and then on. As soon as Mao learned this, he descended on the HQ of the southern front in Huichang, right on the main road out of the Red area.

It was clear to local leaders that Mao had no official business to explain his presence, and moreover that he had time on his hands. He went hill-climbing for leisure, and would drop in on commanders, settling himself comfortably on their beds and chatting on and on. He even did things like correcting training programs for local units, sometimes taking hours to correct one document.

In July, he left as abruptly as he had descended. He had learned that the exit point had been shifted to the west. That month, a unit 8,000-plus strong was dispatched to scout the route. Mao returned to Ruijin. A month later, as soon as the new exit point was confirmed — Yudu, a town 60 km west of Ruijin — Mao turned up at local Party HQ with an entourage of some two dozen, including a secretary, a medic, a cook, a groom, and a squadron of guards. The HQ lay a stone’s throw across the street from a river crossing which was just beyond a Sung-dynasty archway in the city wall, and this was the chosen breakout point. Mao squatted here to make sure he was taken along with the main force when the leadership left.

Before he left Ruijin, Mao decided to hand over to the Party his treasure hoard, the gold, silver and jewelry he had kept hidden in a cave for the past two years. He told his bank-manager brother Tse-min to give it to Po Ku. By concealing his haul until the eleventh hour, Mao had displayed a major lack of commitment to the Party, and to Moscow, and this level of disloyalty might be held against him by the Kremlin. Mao had broken many rules, including all three of the cardinal principles he himself had codified: always obey orders, do not take a needle or thread from the masses (i.e., no unauthorized looting), and, particularly, hand in all captured goods. But “privatizing” loot was uniquely unacceptable, as it showed that he had contemplated splitting from Moscow.

As the Nationalists were coming, it made no sense to leave the haul buried in a cave. Now was the time to cash it in — for a ticket on the evacuation. The Party was desperate for funds for the journey, and had been begging Moscow to send more money. Mao delivered his cache and also promised Po Ku that he would behave. Po agreed to take him along. He may not have had much choice, as Mao had physically planted himself astride the departure point.

At the last minute Xiang Ying, the relatively moderate “vice-president” of the Red state, was designated to head the stay-behinds. Xiang was the only person in the leadership from a working-class background, and he accepted the job without demur, demonstrating a spirit of self-sacrifice rare among his peers. He did, however, express grave concern about Mao going with the leadership. Xiang had had ample experience of Mao’s character in the Red base, where he had arrived in 1931 at the height of Mao’s slaughter of the Jiangxi Communists, and was convinced that Mao would stop at nothing in his pursuit of personal power. Xiang had tried, unsuccessfully, to protect the Jiangxi Reds. Mao loathed him, and had forced torture victims to denounce him. Chou En-lai told the Comintern that “people arrested testified that [Xiang Ying] … belonged to AB.” Aleksandr Panyushkin, later the Russian ambassador to China, said straight out that Mao had tried to get rid of Xiang Ying by labeling him “AB”: “Only the intervention of the Politburo prevented Mao from doing away with Xiang Ying.” At Ningdu in 1932, Xiang had been one of those most insistent on having Mao sacked from his army command. Mao’s intense hatred was to lead to Xiang’s death ten years later.

Xiang argued strongly against taking Mao along. Otto Braun recalled that Xiang “made distinct allusions to the terrorist line of Mao Tse-tung and his persecution of loyal Party cadres in about 1930. He warned against underestimating the seriousness of Mao’s partisan struggle against the Party leadership. His [Mao’s] temporary restraint was due only to tactical considerations. He … would avail himself of the first opportunity to seize exclusive control of Army and Party.” But Po Ku, according to Braun, seemed optimistic: “He said … [he] had talked this over with Mao and was positive that he would not consider provoking a crisis of leadership …”

Mao had indeed begun to behave. Until July, when he was camping at the southern front, he had carped at the leadership’s instructions at every turn, telling officers to disobey orders and issuing his own, countermanding the Party’s. When one of Mao’s acolytes told him that he had been appointed land minister in one place, Mao told him to go to a quite different place and do a different job: “You are not going to be the land minister there. Go to Huichang County to be government chairman there.”

But, come September, everything changed. When Lin Biao, who had been used to Mao running down the leadership, paid him a visit, Lin’s companion noticed that far from “being engaged in factional activities on the sly,” Mao was “very disciplined.”

WHEN THE NEWS reached him in Yudu that he was definitely going to be taken along, Mao sent for his wife. No children could go, so their two-year-old son, Little Mao, had to be left behind. Mao never saw him again.

Little Mao had been born in November 1932, and was Mao’s second child with Gui-yuan. Their first child, a daughter, had been lost. She had been born in June 1929, in the city of Longyan in Fujian, in a particularly lovely house. When the baby was shown to him, Mao had produced one of his characteristic cracks: “Hey, this girl knows how to pick a good date: she wouldn’t come out till she found a nice place!” Less than a month after she was born, Gui-yuan had to leave the town with Mao, and the baby was left with a local wet nurse. Mao’s path then took the couple away from the city for nearly three years. When Gui-yuan finally returned, she was told the girl had died, but she could not bring herself to believe this, and after the Communists took power two decades later she began to look for her. The quest went on obsessively for decades until near the end of her life in 1984.

As Gui-yuan could not bring Little Mao along on the evacuation, she entrusted the boy to her sister, who was married to Mao’s brother Tse-tan. The couple, as well as her brother and parents, were left behind. Gui-yuan wept bitterly at being parted from her son. (Her third child, a son, had died a few months earlier within days of being born.) Little Mao stayed with his wet nurse for a while. After the Nationalists took the Red territory, Tse-tan moved him secretly. But Tse-tan was killed in battle in April 1935 before he could tell his wife where.

Once Mao came to power, Gui-yuan, who had by then long ceased to be Mao’s wife, tried desperately to find Little Mao, with tragic results. Her sister, who felt guilty about Little Mao being lost while in her care, was killed in a car accident in November 1949 as she set off one night to chase a lead, within days of the Reds taking the area. In 1952 a young man was found who might possibly have been Little Mao. Gui-yuan’s brother recalled that Gui-yuan “rushed to identify him. She mainly checked two things, whether the boy had oily ears, and whether he had armpit odour [uncommon for Chinese]. She was convinced her children all inherited these characteristics of Mao Tse-tung’s. After inspecting him, she was convinced it was her Little Mao.”

But many other Communist women who had had to abandon their children had embarked on the same kind of quest, and one Red Army widow had already identified the boy as her son. The Party adjudicated that the boy belonged to this other woman. Gui-yuan’s brother went to see Mao, who had not been involved up to now, and showed him a photograph of the teenage boy, hinting that Gui-yuan would like Mao to intervene. But Mao declined, saying: “It’s awkward for me to interfere.” Mao told him to do what the Party decreed. Gui-yuan did not give up, and fought a painful — and tragic — battle for years. She and her brother kept in touch with the young man until his death from liver cancer in the 1970s, even taking care of his wedding arrangements.

MAO SHOWED NO particular sadness about leaving Little Mao behind, and did not even say goodbye to his son. His sorrow was reserved for himself. Gong Chu, the commander of the Red Army at Yudu, left a telling account of the last weeks before Mao departed, when Mao was staked out in his HQ. In early September Gong was studying a map when

suddenly my bodyguard came in and announced: “Chairman Mao is here!” I … ran to the front gate, and saw Mao Tse-tung with two bodyguards dismounting … He looked yellow and drained. I asked him: “Is the Chairman not well?” He answered: “You are right. I have recently been suffering from ill health, but more of a pain is that I feel extremely down …”

After he washed his face, he lit a cigarette and said: “… I’ll be here for quite a while.”

Mao said to Gong that as they were old friends from the outlaw land, “ ‘I hope you can come and have a chat whenever you have the time in the evenings.’ … Mao Tse-tung liked talking.” Gong took Mao up on his invitation, and after Gui-yuan joined Mao, she would “prepare delicious suppers. And the three of us would chat and drink and smoke, often … till midnight … From my observation, Mao’s place was not visited by other people except me … It really felt as if he was isolated and miserable.”

One day Gong bought a hen and some pigs’ trotters for dinner. Mao was “cheerful, and drank a lot.” He complained about the leadership, but more as a heart-to-heart between old friends than as sabotage. When Gong mentioned he had been given a reprimand for something, Mao “said he had not been in agreement with the reprimand. It was all because Chou En-lai was too harsh … Also, he said, [his Party foes] wanted all power in their hands … He seemed deeply resentful of them.”

Mao became doleful from drink, and recounted the various punishments visited on him. At one point, lamenting that he was no longer the big boss, “tears ran down his cheeks. He was coughing from time to time, and his face looked drawn and dried and sallow. Under the flicker of a tiny oil lamp, he was quite a picture of dejection.”

Neither the collapse of the Communist state nor the separation from his son could wound Mao like his loss of personal power.

Then, just when everything seemed set, Mao’s plans nearly fell apart. Days before the planned departure, his temperature shot up to 105.8°F and he grew delirious with malaria. It was the malaria season, and the mosquitoes in Yudu were so thick in the air that they flew right into people’s nostrils. Even quinine failed to do the trick. It was vital for him to recover — and recover fast, so that he could leave with the others. The best doctor in the Red area, Nelson Fu, who had looked after Mao in the missionary hospital in winter 1932–33, raced over from Ruijin and got him into good enough shape to travel. Patient and doctor both knew Fu had saved Mao’s life — and his political fortunes.

Dr Fu became the overseer of Mao’s physicians for decades. In 1966, in Mao’s Great Purge, he wrote to Mao and brought up this episode in Yudu. “I saved your life,” he said, “I hope you can save mine now.” The then 72-year-old had been savagely beaten, his ribs broken and his skull fractured. Mao did lift a finger, but not very forcefully, by minuting on Fu’s letter: “This man … has not committed big crimes, perhaps he should be spared.” But then he heard that Fu had allegedly talked to other Party leaders about his (Mao’s) health, which was a big taboo for Mao. Mao let Fu be thrown into prison. The septuagenarian doctor did not last two weeks, and died on the floor of his cell.

MEANWHILE THE RED ARMY kept up a fighting retreat as Chiang’s army advanced, while preparations for the evacuation went on in secret. The move was forced, but it enabled the Reds to carry out a strategic shift towards the northwest, with the ultimate goal of reaching Russian-controlled borders, in order to receive arms — an operation later known as “to link up with the Soviet Union.” It had been planned for years. Back in 1929 GRU chief Berzin had briefed Sorge that his mission was to try to get the Chinese Red Army to the Soviet border.

In July, one unit of 6,000 men was sent out in the opposite direction as a decoy. It carried 1.6 million leaflets, which filled 300 shoulder-pole loads, and adopted the grandiose name of “Red Army Vanguard Northbound to Fight the Japanese.” Its movements were given maximum publicity, and the unit came to realize that it was a decoy, something that even its leaders had not been told. The men felt bitter, and doubly so because the task assigned was pointless: a small unit like theirs could not possibly fool the enemy or draw them away from Ruijin. Instead, they found themselves being relentlessly pursued by other Nationalist forces. Within a few months, virtually the entire decoy force was wiped out.

Part of the preparation for the evacuation was screening all proposed evacuees, a process run by Chou En-lai. Those rated unreliable were executed. They totaled thousands. Among those killed were most of the teachers in army schools, who were often captured former Nationalist officers. The executions took place in a sealed-off mountain valley, where a huge pit was dug. The victims were hacked to death with knives, and their bodies kicked down into the pit. When this pit was full, the rest were made to dig their own holes in the ground, and were then hacked to death, or buried alive.

The massacre was carried out by the state security system — although many security men had themselves by now lost faith in the regime and were being killed in their turn. One of those who had lost faith was the head of the team guarding the Military Council. In the confusion of leaving, he slipped away and hid in the hills. But the authorities found his hiding-place by arresting his girlfriend, a local peasant. After a gun battle, this expert marksman shot himself.

IN OCTOBER 1934, the rule of this brutal regime came to an end. At Yudu, pontoon bridges were set up across the river. At the prow and stem of each boat hung a barn lantern, and more lanterns and torches shone on both banks, glowing in the water’s reflection. Families of the soldiers and organized peasants lined the banks to say goodbye. The badly wounded had been billeted on local families. As troops padded past on the cobblestone path underneath the city wall, down to the crossing point, in a corner house near the wall a twelve-year-old boy had his eyes glued to a crack in the door, holding his breath. His father, a small shopkeeper, had been killed four years before, at the height of Mao’s AB slaughter, when people were being executed even for being “active shop-assistants.” Like many others, he was glad to see the back of the Reds, as he made abundantly clear when we met him sixty years later.

At about 6:00 PM on 18 October, looking gaunt but composed, with his long hair combed back, Mao left the local Party HQ surrounded by bodyguards, crossed the street, passed the Sung-dynasty archway and stepped onto the pontoon bridge.

This rickety bridge did not just carry Mao across the water, it bore him into legend. His murderous past and that of the CCP regime were about to be left behind. And Mao himself was about to create the most enduring myth in modern Chinese history, and one of the biggest myths of the twentieth century—“the Long March.”

Moscow’s monthly subsidy to the CCP for 1934 was 7,418 “gold dollars.” The Russians tried to send in arms direct, but the Chinese Red Army was unable to fulfill Moscow’s recommendation to establish a foothold at a port, where “contraband munitions and medicine could be transported.”

This sort of tragedy was by no means uncommon. The revolution brought much heartache to its adherents. Before they took power, Communists were expected not just to make sacrifices vis-à-vis their children, but literally to sacrifice them, and selling one’s children — or having them sold — to raise funds for the Party was not uncommon. The Party cell of Gui-yuan’s friend Zeng Zhi in Amoy sold her baby son for 100 yuan; the buyer paid in advance and the Party spent the money before presenting her with a fait accompli. More than half a century later, she said: “Of course, it was extremely painful. Before my son was delivered to [the buyer’s] house, my husband and I carried him to Sun Yat-sen Park to play. He was such a cute baby, over 40 days, he smiled all the time. We gave him the name Tie-niu (Iron Ox). He never cried without a good reason, and rarely passed stool or water on himself. So we carried him there to play. He was really really happy. Then he was gone. And it was just unbearable. I managed to overcome the hurt. But my baby died 26 days later … Our Party Secretary didn’t dare to tell me, although I had heard. He kept quiet as I didn’t say anything. Sometimes at night, it hurt so much I wept, but quietly, because it was embarrassing to let others know [that she was crying for her child]. Then one day, he saw I had been crying, and he guessed I knew, and he apologised to me.”

Red leaders acknowledged later that the name was only for propaganda. “No one dreamed of a march north to fight the Japanese,” Braun observed.


SOME 80,000 PEOPLE set off on the Long March in October 1934. The procession moved out over a ten-day period in three columns, with the two oldest and core units, under Lin Biao and Peng De-huai respectively, on each side of the HQ. The 5,000-strong HQ consisted of the handful of leaders and their staff, servants and guards. Mao was with the HQ.

They moved slowly due west, burdened by heavy loads. Arsenal machinery, printing machines and Mao’s treasure were carried on shoulder-poles by thousands of porters, most of them recently press-ganged conscripts, watched over by security men. The chief of the administrators revealed that the heaviest burdens were carried by people “who had just been released from the hard labour teams, and they were very weak physically … some just collapsed and died while walking.” Numerous marchers fell sick. One remembered:

The autumn rain went on and on, making our paths nothing but mud … and there was nowhere to escape the rain, and no good sleep to be had … some sick and weak fell asleep and never woke up. Many suffered infected feet, which had to be wrapped in rotten cloth and produced unbearable pain when stepping on the ground … As we left the base area further and further behind, some labourers deserted. The more obedient ones begged in tears to be let go …

The bolder ones simply dropped their loads and fled when their minders were distracted. Soldiers, too, deserted in droves, as the vigilance of their increasingly exhausted bosses wavered.

The marchers faced the daunting prospect of four lines of blockhouses — the same blockhouses that had doomed their Red base. Yet these turned out to be no obstacle at all — seemingly inexplicably.

The first line was manned by Cantonese troops, whose warlord chief had been doing profitable business with the Reds and had promised to let them through. Which he did. This combat-free breakout, however, was not due just to the anti-Chiang Cantonese. The Generalissimo was well aware that the Reds intended to pull out by way of the Cantonese front, and moreover he knew that they were going to be let through. On 3 October, shortly before the breakout began, he had told his prime minister that the Cantonese were going to “open up one side of the net” to the Reds. And yet Chiang explicitly rejected the idea of sending forces loyal to himself to the breakout sector. A close aide argued with him that to get Canton “to carry out orders, we have to have our men on the spot.” Chiang told him not to worry.

The marchers reached the second line of blockhouses at the beginning of November. Although the columns offered an easy target, extending over tens of kilometers, they were not attacked. The Cantonese again made no trouble. And neither did the other force defending part of this second line, which was under General Ho Chien, the fiercely anti-Communist Hunanese who had executed Mao’s ex-wife Kai-hui.

It was the same story at the third fortified line; yet Chiang not only did not reprimand Ho Chien for his apparent dereliction, on 12 November he promoted him to commander-in-chief of operations against the marchers. So it was this fierce anti-Communist who manned the fourth fortification line, situated at an ideal place to wipe out the Reds, on the west bank of the Xiang, the largest river in Hunan (which had inspired Mao’s poetry in his youth). There were no bridges, and the Reds, who had no anti-aircraft guns, had to wade across the wide river, easy targets from land and air. But again they went completely unmolested while they took four days to trudge across, spread along a stretch of river 30 km long. The commanding points on the banks were unmanned, and the troops under Ho Chien just looked on. Chiang’s planes circled overhead, but only to reconnoiter, and there was no aerial bombing or even strafing. Mao and the HQ forded the river undisturbed on 30 November, and by the next day, 1 December, the 40,000-strong main Red force was over.

Only now did Chiang, who had been monitoring the crossing “with total concentration,” his aides observed, seal off the river and order heavy bombing. Part of the Red rear guard was cut off on the east bank. The marchers who got across were down to half their original number, but included the main combat troops and the HQ. Chiang knew this. His commander Ho Chien wrote the following day: “The main force of the bandits have all [crossed the river], and are fleeing to the west.”

There can be no doubt that Chiang let the CCP leadership and the main force of the Red Army escape.

WHY SHOULD CHIANG have done this? Part of the reason soon emerged when, after the crossing of the Xiang, Chiang’s army drove the marchers farther westward towards the province of Guizhou, and then Sichuan. Chiang’s plan was to use the Red force for his own purposes. These two provinces, together with neighboring Yunnan, formed a vast southwestern region covering well over 1 million sq km, with a population of about 100 million; they were virtually independent of the central government, as they kept their own armies and paid little tax to Nanjing. Sichuan was particularly important, being the largest, richest and most populous, with some 50 million people. It was shielded on all sides by almost inaccessible mountains, which made access “more difficult than ascending to the blue sky,” in the words of the poet Li Po. Chiang envisaged it as “the base for national revival,” i.e., a safe rear for an eventual war against Japan.

Chiang could effect control only if he had his own army actually in the provinces, but they had rejected his army, and if he were to try to force his way in, there would be war. Chiang did not want to have to declare war openly on the warlords. His nation-building design was more Machiavellian — and cost-effective. He wanted to drive the Red Army into these hold-out provinces, so that their warlords would be so frightened of the Reds settling in their territory that they would allow Chiang’s army in to drive the Reds out. This way, Chiang figured, his army could march in and he could impose central government control. He wanted to preserve the main body of the Red Army so that it would still pose enough of a threat to the warlords.

Chiang spelled out his plan to his closest secretary: “Now when the Communist army go into Guizhou, we can follow in. It is better than us starting a war to conquer Guizhou. Sichuan and Yunnan will have to welcome us, to save themselves … From now on, if we play our cards right … we can create a unified country.” On 27 November, the very day the Reds started crossing the Xiang River and headed for Guizhou, Chiang issued his blueprint for nation-building, a “Declaration on the division of powers between the central government and the provinces.”

This agenda remained secret throughout Chiang’s life, and is still concealed by both Nationalist and Communist official histories. Both attribute the Communists’ escape to regional warlords, with Chiang blaming the warlords, and the Communists praising them. Both share the same concern: not to reveal that it was the Generalissimo himself who let the Reds go. For the Nationalists, Chiang’s methods for establishing his sway over the wayward provinces were too devious, and his miscalculation about using the Reds — which ultimately led to their triumph — too humiliating. For the Communists, it is embarrassing to acknowledge that the famed Long March was to a large extent steered by Chiang Kai-shek.

LETTING THE REDS go was also a goodwill gesture on Chiang’s part towards Russia. He needed a harmonious relationship with the Kremlin because he was under threat from Japan. And the CCP was Moscow’s baby.

But there was another, more secret and totally private reason. Chiang’s son Ching-kuo had been a hostage in Russia for nine years. Ching-kuo was Chiang Kai-shek’s sole blood descendant, not by the famous Mme Chiang, but by his first wife. After Ching-kuo was born, Chiang seems to have become sterile through contracting venereal disease several times, and he adopted another son, Weigo. But Ching-kuo, as the only blood heir, remained the closest to his heart. Chiang was steeped in Chinese tradition, in which the central concern was to have an heir. To fail to carry on the family line was regarded as the disgrace, the greatest hurt one could inflict on one’s parents and ancestors, whose dead souls could then never rest in peace. One of the worst curses in China was: “May you have no heir!” And respect for one’s parents and ancestors, filial piety, was the primary moral injunction dictated by tradition.

In 1925, Chiang had sent Ching-kuo, then fifteen years old, to a school in Peking. This was a time when Chiang’s star was ascending in a Nationalist Party that was sponsored by Moscow. In no time, the Russians were on to Ching-kuo, and invited him to study in Russia. The young man was very keen. A few months after he arrived in Peking, Ching-kuo was taken to Moscow by a little-known but pivotal figure called Shao Li-tzu, who was a key Red mole inside the Nationalist Party.

Planting moles was one of the most priceless gifts that Moscow bequeathed to the CCP. Mostly these moles joined the Nationalists in the first half of the 1920s, when Sun Yat-sen, who was courting the Russians, opened his party to the Communists. Infiltration worked on several levels. As well as overt Communists working inside the Nationalist movement, as Mao did, there were also secret Communists, and then a third group, those who had staged fake defections from the CCP. When Chiang split from the Communists in 1927, a large number of these secret agents stayed as “sleepers,” to be activated at the appropriate time. For the next twenty years and more, they were not only able to give the Reds crucial intelligence, they were often in a position to have a substantial influence on policy, as many had meanwhile risen very high in the Nationalist system. Ultimately, the agents played a gigantic role in helping deliver China to Mao — probably a greater role in high-level politics than in any other country in the world. Many remain unexposed even today.

Shao Li-tzu was one of them. He was actually a founding member of the CCP, but on Moscow’s orders he stayed away from Party activities, and his identity was kept secret even from most Party leaders. When Chiang turned against the Communists in Shanghai in April 1927, Shao wrote the Russians a telegram that was instantly forwarded to Stalin, asking for instructions: “Shanghai disturbs me very much. I cannot be the weapon of counter-revolution. I ask for advice how to fight.”

For the next twenty-two years, Shao stayed with the Nationalists, occupying many key posts — until the Communist victory in 1949, when he went over to Mao. He died in Peking in 1967. Even under Communist rule, his true face was never revealed, and he is still presented today as an honest sympathizer, not a long-term sleeper.

It was undoubtedly on Moscow’s instructions that Shao had brought Chiang’s son to Russia in November 1925. When Ching-kuo completed his studies there, in 1927, he was not allowed to leave, and was forced to denounce his father publicly. Stalin was keeping him hostage while telling the world that he had volunteered to stay. Stalin liked to hold hostages. Peggy Dennis, the wife of the US Communist leader Eugene Dennis, described a visit from the Comintern éminence grise Dmitri Manuilsky as she and her husband were about to leave Russia to return to America in 1935: “The bombshell was dropped quietly … Almost casually, Manuilsky informed us that we could not take Tim [their son] back, ‘… We will send him at some other time, under other circumstances.’ ” The Russians never did.

The fact that Ching-kuo was a hostage was spelled out to his father in late 1931—by none other than his own sister-in-law, Mme Sun Yat-sen (née Soong Ching-ling), who was another Soviet agent. Speaking for Moscow, she proposed swapping Ching-kuo for two top Russian agents who had recently been arrested in Shanghai. Chiang turned the swap down. The arrest of the two agents was a public affair, and they had been openly tried and imprisoned. But Moscow’s offer unleashed a torrent of anguish in Chiang, who thought his son might now be “cruelly put to death by Soviet Russians.” On 3 December 1931 the Generalissimo wrote in his diary: “In the past few days, I have been yearning for my son even more. How can I face my parents when I die [if Ching-kuo is killed]?” On the 14th: “I have committed a great crime by being unfilial [by risking the death of his heir] …”

Chiang continued to be consumed by anxiety about what might happen to his son, and his anguish and bitterness almost certainly explain an event that happened thousands of kilometers away. At exactly this time, December 1931, Shao Li-tzu’s son was found shot dead in Rome. This son had been taken by Shao to Russia in 1925 as Ching-kuo’s traveling companion. But, unlike Ching-kuo, Shao junior was later allowed to return to China. The Italian press covered this death as a lovers’ tragedy, one paper running the story under the headline “The tragic end of a Chinese who had wounded his lover”—a woman reported as Czech. But Shao and his family were convinced that the murder of his son, which has been covered up by both Nationalist and Communist parties, was carried out by Nationalist agents, and this could only have been done with Chiang’s authorization, as personal vengeance: a son for a son.

By the time the Long March began, Chiang had devised a carefully crafted swap: the survival of the CCP for Ching-kuo. It was not an offer that could be spelled out. He executed his plan in subtle ways. His scheme was to keep the Reds temporarily confined, and then use the Japanese to break them. Chiang regarded war with Japan as inevitable, and was well aware that Russia wanted this war. Stalin’s most dreaded scenario was that Japan would conquer China, and then, with China’s resources and a porous 7,000-kilometer border, would attack the Soviet Union. Chiang reckoned that once the Sino-Japanese war started, Moscow would be bound to order its Chinese clients to get active against Japan. Until that day, Chiang would allow the Reds to survive, which he hoped would be a big enough quid pro quo to get his son back.

Chiang did not want the Reds to cling on in the rich heartland of China. His aim was to drive them into a more barren and sparsely populated corner, where he could box them in. The prison he had in mind was the Yellow Earth Plateau in northwest China, mainly the northern part of Shaanxi province. To make absolutely sure that the Reds would walk into his fold, Chiang allowed a Communist base to flourish there, while vigorously stamping out the others elsewhere in China.

The main person Chiang used to implement this scheme was none other than Shao Li-tzu, the man who had taken Chiang’s son to Russia. Shao was appointed governor of Shaanxi in April 1933. Though Chiang certainly knew Shao’s true colors, he never exposed him, and continued to use him as if he were a bona fide Nationalist. Chiang’s relationship with Shao, as with many other key moles, was an almost unbelievably complex web of intrigue, deceit, bluff and double-bluff that eventually was to spin out of his control and contribute to his downfall.

Chiang’s calculation was that only a mole could foster a Red pocket, as any authentic Nationalist would destroy it. And, indeed, it was only after Shao was appointed to the area that what had hitherto been a tiny Red guerrilla operation began to grow in Shaanxi (and the edge of Gansu immediately to the west). At the exact moment the Long March began, in mid-October 1934, Chiang came to Shaanxi province for a visit. While publicly calling for the Red “bandits” to be “wiped out,” he allowed the Red base to expand in an unprecedented manner; inside a few months, it had grown to cover 30,000 sq km, with a population of 900,000.

What Chiang had created was a corral into which he would herd all the different detachments of the Red Army as he drove them out of their various pockets in the heartland of China. His plan was to weaken them significantly along the way, but not kill them off entirely. Chiang later told an American emissary: “I drove the Communists from Jiangxi to … northern Shaanxi, where their number was reduced to a few thousands and they were left unpursued.”

The way he steered them was by communicating his own deployments by radio, which he knew would be intercepted. The Reds found that “enemy telegrams were constantly intercepted and decoded by us, and our army knew the intentions and movements of the enemy like the back of our hand.” But Chiang declined to change his codes. And the Reds went where there were no enemy troops, or very few.

In order to make sure that the Reds followed the route he had mapped out, and to rule out any change in their instructions, Chiang decided the eve of the Reds’ departure was the moment to cash in a huge intelligence coup. In June the Nationalists had covertly raided the CCP’s Shanghai radio station, which had been the link between Ruijin and Moscow. For several months, the Nationalists kept the station operating under their control, and then in October they shut it down altogether. The CCP tried to re-establish a link by sending a top radio operator to Shanghai, but he defected as soon as he arrived. Assassins were sent after him. They missed the first time, but managed to kill him in his bed in a German hospital at the second attempt. From now on, Shanghai became largely irrelevant to the CCP, although it remained an important base for Moscow’s secret services.

THE LONG MARCH was used by Chiang to initiate his Reds-for-son swap. Just before the breakout from the Ruijin base, he sent a request through diplomatic channels asking for his son to be returned. On 2 September 1934 he recorded in his diary that “a formal representation has been made about getting Ching-kuo home.” During the crucial period of the breakout in October — November, Chiang found a way of emphatically telling the Russians he was closing his eyes and letting the Reds go, by not merely absenting himself from the front line, but heading off a thousand kilometers in the opposite direction for a very long forty-day public tour of North China.

Moscow understood the message. During the precise period between Chiang requesting his son’s release and the day Mao and Co. crossed the Xiang River and were free of Chiang’s blockhouses, Moscow dramatically increased surveillance of its hostage. Ching-kuo, who had previously worked in a village and a Siberian gold mine, was now working in a machinery plant in the Urals. Then, as he later recounted, “from August to November 1934, I was suddenly … placed under the close surveillance of the Russian NKVD [KGB]. Every day I was shadowed by two men.”

At the beginning of December, just after the Chinese Reds walked past the last blockhouses, Chiang asked for his son again (as the KGB informed Ching-kuo). But the Russians told Chiang that his son did not wish to return. “There is no end to the Russian enemy’s revolting deceit,” Chiang wrote in his diary, although he said he could “cope with it calmly.”

“I feel I have indeed made progress since I can even shrug off this family calamity.” Chiang knew his son would be safe — if he did more for the Reds.

Of the other half (amounting to some 40,000), who did not make it past the river, “over 3,000” were killed at the Xiang. The rest were either scattered at the Xiang, or had perished during the preceding six weeks’ trek from illness or exhaustion, or had been casualties of small skirmishes, or had deserted.

She was the sister of Mme Chiang Kai-shek. The fact that she was a Russian agent remained a secret throughout her long life, and remains little-known to this day. But a secret letter she wrote on 26 January 1937 to Wang Ming, the head of the CCP delegation in Moscow, and her controller, shows her role beyond any doubt. The letter opens: “To Comrade Wang Ming. Dear Comrade: It is necessary for me to inform you the following facts since they may endanger my activities … in China in the near future. I place them before your consideration in the hope that you will advise me as to what course to pursue …” One of the points in her letter was complaints about the American Comintern agent Agnes Smedley, who, Mme Sun said, brought “foreign sympathizers home, with the result that this special house which has been used for important purposes now has been ruined … I forwarded your instructions to isolate her” to the CCP.

The Nationalist army commander in Shaanxi was a fellow traveler called General Yang Hu-cheng, who had earlier asked to join the Communist Party, and whose relationship to the Reds was known to Chiang. He collaborated well with Shao.


BY MID-DECEMBER, Chiang had steered the Long March into Guizhou, the first province he wanted to bring under control. As he had foreseen, the arrival of a Red Army 40,000 strong threw the local warlord into a panic. Chiang “has long wanted to take over Guizhou,” the warlord recalled feeling at the time. “Now, the Central Government Army is coming hot on the heels of the Red Army, and I could not possibly turn him down … I was really in turmoil. Under the circumstances, I decided to place myself under Chiang’s command.” On 19 December, eight divisions of the Central Government Army marched into the provincial capital and at once started building an airport and roads. Soon afterwards, they took over key positions and, as the warlord put it, “turned themselves from guests into masters.”

Chiang then funneled the Red Army northward to his next target, Sichuan, by blocking off other routes while leaving this passage wide open. Chiang’s plan was to repeat his Guizhou takeover here, and then propel the Reds farther north into Shaanxi. But here things began to deviate from the planned scenario, as Mao started to behave in ways Chiang could not have predicted. Mao was determined not to move into Sichuan. His motive, however, had nothing to do with Chiang, but with his struggle for power within his own Party.

Mao had started taking active steps to seize the leadership of his Party once the marchers entered Guizhou. This required splitting his Party foes from within. In particular, he had been cultivating two key men with whom he had not previously been on the best of terms: Wang Jia-xiang, nicknamed the “Red Prof,” and Lo Fu, the man who had taken away his job as “prime minister.” Mao had crossed swords with them in the past, but now he buttered them up, as they both had grudges against Party No. 1 Po Ku.

The two had been students in Moscow with Po, who was the younger man but had leapfrogged over both of them to become their boss, and had sometimes excluded them from decision-making. Po “sidelined me,” Lo Fu said years later, and this drove Lo into Mao’s arms. “I felt I was put in a position completely without power, which I resented bitterly,” Lo recalled. “I remember one day before the departure, comrade Tse-tung had a chat with me, and I told him all my resentment without reserve. From then on, I became close to comrade Tse-tung. He asked me to stick together with him and comrade Wang Jia-xiang — so that way a trio was formed, headed by comrade Mao.”

The trio traveled together, usually reclining on litters. Bamboo litters were authorized for a few leaders, each of whom was also entitled to a horse, and porters to carry their belongings. For much of the Long March, including the most grueling part of the trek, most of them were carried. Mao had even designed his own transportation. Mrs. Lo Fu recalled him making preparations with the Red Prof, and showing off his ingenuity. “He said: ‘Look, we have designed our own litters … we will be carried.’ He and Jia-xiang looked rather pleased with themselves showing me their ‘works of art’: their kind of litter had very long bamboo poles so it would be easier and lighter to carry climbing mountains. It had a tarpaulin awning … so [the passenger] would be shielded from the sun and the rain.”

Mao himself told his staff decades later: “On the March, I was lying in a litter. So what did I do? I read. I read a lot.” It was not so easy for the carriers. Marchers remembered: “When climbing mountains, the litter-bearers sometimes could only move forward on their knees, and the skin and flesh on their knees were rubbed raw before they got to the top. Each mountain climbed left a trail of their sweat and blood.”

Wafted on other men’s shoulders, Mao plotted a coup with Po Ku’s two jealous colleagues. When the road was wide enough, they talked side by side; and on narrow paths, when they had to go in single file, they arranged their litters so that their heads were together. One meeting was held in an orange grove, golden with ripe fruit hanging among bright green leaves. The litter-bearers were taking a break, and had laid down their burdens next to each other. The trio decided to work together to “throw out” Po, along with Braun, the German adviser, and give Mao control of the army. As Mao was still very unpopular, and was not even a member of the Secretariat, the core body, he did not shoot for the top Party slot at this stage. That position was earmarked for Lo Fu, the only member of the trio who was in the Secretariat. The Red Prof’s reward would be full Politburo membership. The trio started to lobby for a meeting to discuss how the Reds had lost their state.

Po Ku consented to a post-mortem. In fact, he had been feeling so bad about the Reds’ failure that his colleagues thought he might commit suicide, after seeing him repeatedly pointing a pistol at himself.

So a gathering of twenty men, the Politburo and selected military commanders, convened on 15–17 January 1935 in the city of Zunyi in north Guizhou. Much of the meeting was taken up with rehashing the question of responsibility for the collapse of the Red state. Mao’s trio blamed everything on the key pre — Long March leaders, especially Po and Braun.

It is commonly claimed that Mao became the leader of the Party and the army at the Zunyi meeting — and by majority mandate. In fact, Mao was not made chief of either the Party or the army at Zunyi. Po Ku remained Party No. 1, endorsed by the majority; the consensus was that losing Ruijin could not be blamed on him. Braun, as the only foreigner, provided a convenient scapegoat and was removed from military command. But although Mao’s two co-conspirators proposed that Mao take over, no one else seems to have supported this, and Chou En-lai was reconfirmed as military boss, with “responsibility for final decision-making in military matters.”

However, Mao did achieve one critical breakthrough at Zunyi: he became a member of the Secretariat, the decision-making core. The previous make-up of this group had been established by Moscow in January 1934. It had seven members, of whom four were on the March: Po Ku, Chou En-lai, Lo Fu, and a man called Chen Yun. The other three were Xiang Ying, Wang Ming, the CCP’s representative in Moscow, and Chang Kuo-tao, leader of what was then the second-largest Red base. At Zunyi, the Red Prof proposed that Mao be brought into the Secretariat. Actually, the Red Prof had no right to make this nomination, as he was not a full Politburo member. But Po Ku was too guilt-ridden and demoralized to oppose Mao’s promotion, and it went through. Moscow was not consulted, as radio contact had been severed.

Once inside the Secretariat, Mao was in a position to manipulate it. Of the four other members on the March, Lo Fu was already an ally, and Chen Yun took no interest in power, and was often physically absent, coping with logistics. That left Chou and Po. Mao’s strategy towards Chou was to split him off from Po with a combination of carrots and sticks, of which the foremost was blackmail, by threatening to make him co-responsible for past failures. At Zunyi it was decided that a resolution should be produced about how the Red state had been lost, and Mao’s co-conspirator Lo Fu contrived to get himself the job of drafting it, which would normally be done by the Party No. 1.

This document would be the verdict. It would be conveyed to the Party, and reported to Moscow. Lo Fu first produced a draft with the subtitle “Review of military policy errors of Comrades Po Ku, Chou En-lai and Otto Braun” and naming Chou as a co-culprit in the loss of the Red state. After Chou agreed to cooperate, his name was dropped and the blame deleted.

As Braun drily put it, Chou “subtly distanced himself from Po Ku and me, thus providing Mao with the desired pretext to focus his attack on us while sparing him.” That left Po as the only problem, and Mao could always put him in the minority. Indeed, as soon as the Zunyi meeting was over and most of the participants had rejoined their units, Mao secured from this new core group the unheard-of and decidedly odd-sounding title of “helper to comrade En-lai in conducting military affairs.” Mao had shoved a foot back inside the door of the military leadership.

This new core then elevated the Red Prof to full Politburo membership, and before long awarded him a high military post, even though he knew nothing about military matters. Most importantly, three weeks after Zunyi, on 5 February, in a village where three provinces met called “A Cock Crows Over Three Provinces,” Lo Fu was catapulted into the No. 1 Party post in place of Po Ku. Mao and Lo Fu first got Chou to capitulate and then confronted Po Ku with a “majority” in the core. Po agreed to surrender his post “only as the result of numerous discussions and pressure,” as he described it.

Lo Fu’s rise to Party No. 1 was an underhand coup, and so it was kept secret from both Party members and the army for weeks. The change at the apex was only revealed when a military victory put the plotters in a stronger position. Po was now excluded from decision-making, and as Lo Fu was a rather feeble character, Mao called the shots.

THE ZUNYI MEETING decided to move into Sichuan. Sichuan lay just north of Zunyi, and was the obvious place to head for, being large, rich and populous — and long since recommended by the Russians to the force from Ruijin. It was much closer to Soviet-controlled Mongolia, and to Xinjiang (which had by now become a virtual Soviet colony, garrisoned by Russian forces), two places to which Moscow had been preparing to ship arms for the CCP. The former chief Soviet military adviser in China, Stern, had been investigating ways to link Sichuan with locations where the Russians could even supply “aeroplanes and artillery … and enough weapons to arm 50,000 people.”

But Mao did not want to go to Sichuan. To do so would mean joining up with Chang Kuo-tao, a veteran who headed a much stronger force numbering 80,000-plus. Once they linked up with this powerful army, there would be no hope of Lo Fu becoming Party leader — or of Mao becoming the power behind the throne.

Chang Kuo-tao had chaired the Party’s 1st Congress in 1921, when Mao was a marginal participant and Lo Fu not even a Party member (Lo joined in 1925). He was a bona fide member of the Secretariat — unlike Mao, who had just squeezed his way in against the rules. In addition, Kuo-tao was a full member of the Comintern Executive Committee, which gave him considerable prestige, and he had influence in Russia, where he had lived for years, and met Stalin. After he returned from Moscow to China in January 1931, he was sent by Shanghai to head a Red enclave called Eyuwan, on the borders of the provinces of Hubei, Henan and Anhui in east-central China. There he built up a base comparable to Ruijin, which by summer 1932 had an area of over 40,000 sq km and a population of 3.5 million, with an army of 45,000 men. After he was driven out that autumn by Chiang Kai-shek, he moved to northern Sichuan, where he built a new and bigger base within a year, and expanded his army to over 80,000. Kuo-tao was undoubtedly the most successful of all the Communists. Once he joined the rest of the leadership, it seemed inevitable that he would be elected the new boss.

Nor could Mao expect to turn him into a puppet. Kuo-tao had no compunction about killing for power. In his bases he had carried out bloody purges of the original local commanders, who had opposed him. Like Mao, he personally chaired interrogations involving torture. His victims were usually bayoneted or strangled to death; some were buried alive. As his military commander Xu put it, he would readily “get rid of people who stood in his way, to establish his personal rule.”

With this daunting figure to contend with, Mao’s prospects of coming out on top would be dim. Moreover, if he waged a power struggle against Kuo-tao, he might well be risking his own life. So far, Mao had been dealing with Party leaders whose devotion to the Party meant they would kill on its behalf but not for personal power. He had been perfectly safe with Po Ku or Chou En-lai even if he made trouble for them. He could not count on that much forbearance from Kuo-tao, so his overriding goal was to delay any move into Sichuan until he had an unbreakable grip on the Party leadership.

But Mao could not spell out this goal. He had to go along with the plan to head for Sichuan. On 19 January 1935 the force with him set off from Zunyi, and on the 22nd they cabled Chang Kuo-tao, who was in north Sichuan, announcing they were coming and telling him to move south to link up with them. But Mao had a trick up his sleeve. Four days later he insisted that the Red Army should ambush an enemy force that was tailing their group. This force was from Sichuan, and had a tough reputation. Mao’s unspoken private calculation was that the Red Army might well suffer a defeat, in which case he could argue that the Sichuan enemy was too fierce, and then demand to stay in Guizhou.

The idea of the ambush was absurd, as the enemy unit Mao picked to attack was not barring the way into Sichuan, but was behind the Reds, and was not even harassing them. In fact the original plan which had designated Sichuan as their destination had specifically ordered: “keep well away from” pursuers, and “not to tangle” with them. But Mao managed to win consent from Chou En-lai, who had the final say in military decisions, most probably by threatening Chou that if he failed to go along he would be named as co-responsible for losing the Red state in the “resolution” Lo Fu was writing. It seems Chou had a mortal fear of disgrace — a weakness that Mao was to exploit repeatedly in the decades to come.

ON 28 JANUARY, Mao ordered his ambush set up to the east of a place called Tucheng, with a devastating outcome for the Reds. The enemy lived up to its fearsome reputation, and quickly seized the advantage, shattering the force that Mao had stationed with their backs against the turbulent Red River where it rushed between steep cliffs. Mao stood on a peak in the distance watching his troops being decimated, and only at the end of a whole day’s bloody battle did he permit a withdrawal. It was raining hard and the retreating troops panicked, jostling to get ahead on the slippery mountain paths. The women and wounded were pushed to the back. The enemy was so close behind that one pursuer grabbed Mrs. Zhu De’s backpack with one hand, while pulling at her gun with the other. She let go her backpack and ran. It was the only battle on the March when people in the HQ had had such a close brush with the enemy.

Four thousand Red Army men were killed or wounded—10 percent of the total. Tucheng was the biggest defeat on the Long March, and was remembered as such in private, while being completely suppressed in public — because Mao was responsible, having picked both the ground and the moment. In one day he brought about far greater casualties than had been incurred in the previous biggest loss, at the Xiang River (just over 3,000). The myth is that Mao saved the Red Army after Zunyi. The truth is the exact reverse.

The Communists crossed the Red River to the west in disarray over hastily constructed pontoons, abandoning heavy artillery and equipment like the X-ray machine. Zhu De personally covered the retreat, Mauser in hand. Normally calm, this day he lost his temper and yelled at his officers in frustration. The exhausted men had to carry or pull their wounded comrades along winding paths above vertiginous cliffs. Heavy snowfalls blanketed the dense forests and the valleys. The bitter cold, hunger, exhaustion, and the cries of pain from the wounded haunted many survivors for decades to come.

THIS TRAGIC SCENE was exactly what Mao wanted in order to argue that the Sichuan army was too grim to tangle with, and that therefore the Reds should not make for Sichuan as the original plan had laid down. But they were already inside the southeast corner of Sichuan, and many felt they had to push on northward.

The main military commanders, even Mao’s old crony Lin Biao, supported pressing deeper into Sichuan. Furthermore, they all felt very unhappy about having let Mao dictate the Tucheng ambush. When Mao turned up at Lin Biao’s to justify himself (and lay the blame on others), Braun noticed that Lin looked “decidedly sour.” But Mao prevailed, with the backing of Lo Fu. Lo shared an interest with Mao in avoiding — or postponing — joining up with Chang Kuo-tao, as his own newly acquired position as Party No. 1 would be seriously endangered if they linked up with Kuo-tao this soon. On 7 February 1935 the new Lo Fu leadership announced that the original plan — to go into Sichuan — was scrapped, in favor of Mao’s proposal to stay put in Guizhou.

The Communists turned around and crossed the Red River again. The thousands of wounded were dumped in the wintry wilderness, with little food and medicine. Within a few months most were dead.

Mao’s force reoccupied Zunyi on 27 February. Chiang wanted to harry the Reds into Sichuan, so he sent a feisty general with two divisions to retake the city, which he also bombed. The Reds managed to fend these troops off. Mao was hugely delighted, especially as these were crack troops, and this meant he might be able to stay — at least for time enough to enable him and his puppet Lo Fu to consolidate their power. He penned a poem to voice his satisfaction:

Idle claim that the strong pass is a wall of iron,

Today I crest the summit with one stride.

Crest the summit,

The rolling mountains sea-blue,

The dying sun blood-red.

It was only now that Mao and Lo Fu informed the army, including Chang Kuo-tao, that Lo Fu was the new No. 1, and that Mao had joined the Secretariat. There was nothing Kuo-tao could do. Mao and Lo Fu had deliberately waited until they had a “victory” under their belts before disclosing the changes. Once these were announced, and there was no open protest, Lo Fu appointed Mao as “General Front Commander,” a new post created specially for him, and his first formal military position for two and a half years.

The “win” was in fact a Pyrrhic victory. Peng De-huai recorded “great losses” in his corps. “Only one regiment can maintain … 50 to 60 men per company … Now all the regiment headquarters and the corps HQ were empty as if they had been cleaned out by floods.” Another “deeply worried” senior officer counseled: “We have not many troops left; we should avoid having tough battles … the Red Army can no longer stand such cost.”

Mao, however, was bent on taking on more of Chiang’s forces. They now controlled Guizhou, and he needed to tackle them if he was to stand a chance of establishing a base in the province — essential for his plan to stay out of Sichuan. On 5 March he issued an order to “eliminate two Central Government divisions.” This touched off a barrage of protest from the field commanders who had been infuriated by the way Mao had been squandering their troops. Lin Biao cabled “most urgently” on the 10th against taking on these hard-bitten enemies.

At dawn that day Lo Fu called some twenty people to a council of war, with the field commanders present. Mao found himself completely isolated on the issue of attacking Chiang’s crack forces. Even his ally Lo Fu disagreed. When Mao misplayed his hand and threatened to resign as Front Commander, the majority jumped at the offer. Peng De-huai was appointed in his place, and the council voted to steer clear of Chiang’s forces.

This time it seemed that Mao was really out. But he lost no time in plotting to reverse the decisions. That night, kerosene lamp in hand, he walked over to see Chou En-lai, who theoretically still had the final say in military matters, and talked him into holding another meeting in the morning — crucially, without the field commanders, who had returned to their units.

Mao offered Chou an inducement. With the creation of the post of General Front Commander, Chou had become somewhat redundant. Mao now suggested scrapping the post of Front Commander and setting up a new body to be called the Triumvirate, consisting of Chou, himself and the Red Prof.

With the field commanders absent, Mao was able to manipulate the second meeting. The decisions to appoint Peng in Mao’s place and to avoid Chiang’s forces were both annulled. A clear ruling by a quorum was thus overturned by a rump, with the crucial complicity of Chou. Moreover, as a result of these underhand changes, from 11 March 1935 on, the top army command did not contain a single genuine officer.

The new Triumvirate immediately ordered an attack on Chiang’s forces near Maotai, the home of the most famous Chinese liquor, where the enemy was well dug in. “Disengage fast,” Peng pleaded. “Enemy fortifications are solid, and geography is bad for us. There is no possibility of breaking [this Chiang unit].” But the Triumvirs insisted: “Throw in all our forces tomorrow … absolutely no wavering.”

When the Reds launched a frontal offensive, Chiang’s army was ready with heavy machine-guns, and routed the attackers, who suffered well over a thousand casualties. The routed Communists crossed the Red River once again and were forced into Sichuan.

Having got them where he wanted, Chiang blocked their way back into Guizhou. But Mao still spurned the obvious best option — to go on north — and ordered the Red Army to turn around and cross the river again and force its way back into Guizhou. This was so unreasonable and so unpopular that an unusual order was issued, for the eyes of the top commanders only, specially enjoining: “This crossing to the east must not be announced and must be kept secret.”

For two months, the Red Army had been “circling in an ever-contracting area, so that it passed through some districts two or three times,” in “exhausting and fruitless wandering,” a perplexed Braun observed, taking the whole thing to be “erratic.” It had fought seemingly gratuitous battles, at horrendous cost. Moreover, Mao had not just brought disasters on the army under him, he was also placing Chang Kuo-tao’s army in jeopardy, by obliging it to hang around and wait for him. Mao later shamelessly called this fiasco his “tour de force.” The fact that these huge losses were due to his jockeying for personal power remains unknown to this day.

CHIANG KAI-SHEK, TOO, was baffled to see the enemy “wandering in circles in this utterly futile place.” Unaware of Mao’s private agenda, Chiang had expected the Reds to go to Sichuan. Assuming that his own army would be following them in, on 2 March he had flown to Chongqing, the largest city in the province, to enforce central government rule. Chiang tried to terminate the quasi-independent fiefs, but the warlords put up dogged, though non-martial, resistance. He found himself powerless to subdue them, as his army was not on hand.

Chiang now redoubled his efforts to drive the Reds into Sichuan, subjecting them to heavy aerial bombardment, making it impossible for Mao to establish a foothold in Guizhou. At the same time Chiang very publicly transferred army units away from the Sichuan border as a way of signaling: There are no troops on that border. Go to Sichuan! But Mao determinedly led the exhausted Red Army in the opposite direction, southward.

Under non-stop aerial attack, “forced marches of 40 to 50 km were the rule,” Braun wrote.

The troops were showing increasing symptoms of fatigue … When planes buzzed over us, we simply threw ourselves down on the side of the road without looking for cover as we used to do. If bombs began falling in a village or farm where we slept, I no longer woke up. If one landed close to me, I just turned over …

The number of deaths, more from disease and exhaustion than battle wounds, increased daily. Although several thousand volunteers had been enlisted since the beginning of the year, the ranks had visibly dwindled.

During this headlong rush, the Reds had to abandon more of their medical equipment and disband the medical corps. Henceforth the wounded got virtually no treatment. As well as bullet and shrapnel wounds, many suffered severe and agonizingly painful foot infections.

The folly of Mao’s maneuvers is brought into focus by the experience of one unit, the 9th Corps, that got cut off at the River Wu, leaving its 2,000 men stranded north of the river. As a result, they were forced to move on into Sichuan. And, lo and behold, except for one or two skirmishes, they were totally unmolested. Unlike Mao’s contingent, who had to go through weeks of depleting forced marches and bombing, these men strolled in broad daylight on main roads, and could even take days off to rest.

ONE VICTIM OF Mao’s scheming was his wife. She had been traveling with the privileged wounded and sick in a special unit called the Cadres’ Convalescent Company, which included thirty women, mainly top leaders’ wives. After the battle at Tucheng, the Red Army had marched all day, about 30 km, in a downpour. At a place called White Sand, Gui-yuan left the litter which had been allocated to her two months before when she was too heavily pregnant to get on a horse, and lay down in a thatched hut. Several hours later she gave birth to a baby girl, her fourth child with Mao, on 15 February 1935. She was shown the baby, wrapped in a jacket, by her sister-in-law, Tse-min’s wife. The army spent only one day in White Sand. As she had done twice before, Gui-yuan had to leave her baby behind. She wept when the litter carried her away and Mrs. Tse-min took the baby, with a handful of silver dollars and some opium, which was used as currency, to find a family to take it in. Mrs. Tse-min had asked Gui-yuan to give the girl a name. Gui-yuan shook her head: she did not think she would ever see the girl again. Her instinct was right. The old lady to whom the baby was entrusted had no milk. Three months later, boils erupted all over the baby’s body, and it died.

In later life, when Gui-yuan spent a great deal of time looking for the babies she had been forced to abandon, she never seriously tried to look for this daughter. She would say to people close to her: “The girl born on the Long March, I didn’t even get a good look at her. I wasn’t even clear where exactly she was born, and who we gave her to …” But the child stayed on her mind. In 1984, the year of Gui-yuan’s death, her former chief on the March visited her in hospital. He told us that while they were talking about something else, she suddenly asked him, out of the blue: “Where, but where was it that I had that baby, do you remember?”

Mao did not come to see Gui-yuan, although they were in the same town. It was not till later, when their paths happened to cross, that she told him she had left the baby behind. Mao said blandly: “You were right. We had to do this.”

Deep down, Gui-yuan was wounded by Mao’s indifference. She would tell friends that the remark of his that pained her most was when he would say to other women with a grin: “Why are you women so afraid of giving birth? Look at [Gui-yuan], giving birth for her is as easy as a hen dropping an egg.” Two months after giving birth, while Mao led the Red Army on the hellish march southward away from Sichuan, Gui-yuan was hit by a bomb and nearly died. Early one evening in mid-April, three planes appeared between terraced rice paddies on mountain slopes, flying so low that people on the ground could make out the pilots’ faces. Machine-guns rattled, and bombs dropped along the path where Gui-yuan and her comrades were catching their breath. Limbs flew into trees, and blood and brains puddled the ground in crimson.

More than a dozen shrapnel splinters sliced into Gui-yuan’s skull and back, one ripping the right side of her back wide open. She was soaked in blood. A doctor picked out shrapnel splinters with tweezers and applied the wound-salve baiyao to stem the bleeding. Gui-yuan lay unconscious, with blood pouring out of her nose and mouth. The doctor who gave her an injection of cardiotonic thought that she might have two hours to live. Her company leaders decided to leave her behind with a local family. Mao, who was in the next village, was informed about her condition. He did not come to see her — he was “tired.” He just said he did not want her left behind, and sent over a doctor and two of his own litter-bearers. Mao did not come to see her until the third day. By then she had recovered consciousness, but was still unable to speak, or even cry. Continuing the journey was agony; Gui-yuan kept on fainting, only to be woken up by stabs of excruciating pain. She begged her comrades to shoot her.

AFTER TWO MONTHS of rushing farther and farther south with no end in view, everybody was asking: “Where are we going?” Among the top echelon who knew about the plan to link up with the Red Army branch in Sichuan, and the long-term strategy of getting closer to Russia, a deep resentment grew towards Mao. Lin Biao clamored: “This way, the troops will be dragged to ruination! We absolutely cannot have him in command like this!” Lin wrote to the Triumvirate in April, calling on Mao to hand over command to Peng De-huai, and for the whole force to go straight to Sichuan. Everyone was furious with Mao, even Lo Fu, who had at first acquiesced in his scheme. The sacrifices were just too horrendous. Braun recalled: “One day Lo Fu, with whom I normally had little contact … began talking of what he termed the catastrophic military predicament engendered by Mao’s reckless strategy and tactics ever since Tsunyi [Zunyi].” Lo argued that if they were to avoid annihilation, the Triumvirate “had to be replaced by competent military leaders.”

Mao was livid about the change in Lo Fu. Braun noticed that when Mao once struck up a conversation with him, “the name of Lo Fu brought a sharper tone to his voice. Lo Fu, he said, had panicked and was intriguing against him.” But Lo was no real threat, as he had laid himself open to blackmail by Mao from the moment he agreed to delay meeting up with Chang Kuo-tao to preserve his own position as Party No. 1. Mao also appealed to Lo’s personal feelings: knowing that Lo was in love with a young woman, Mao arranged to have her transferred so that she could be with him.

In mid-April 1935, the Reds, still being pursued, entered Yunnan province, in the southwest corner of China. Mao ordered them to stay put and even to “expand southwards”—i.e., even farther away from the direction of Sichuan. But southward lay Vietnam, which was occupied by the French, who were extremely hostile to the Reds. Besides, this corner of China was mainly inhabited by an ethnic group called the Miao, who had given the Reds some very hard times at the beginning of the March, and were extremely warlike. Everyone could see that this was a dead end.

The field commanders were enraged by Mao’s order. The night they received it, 25 April, Lin Biao cabled to demand that they “go immediately … into Sichuan … and be ready to join up” with Chang Kuo-tao. Peng concurred.

Mao could not drag his feet any longer. On 28 April he finally consented to head for Sichuan. Once the Red Army started northward, their path was trouble-free. Even facilitated. That day they found a truck carrying twenty very detailed maps (scale 1:100,000), as well as a load of local goodies — tea, ham and the famed baiyao—parked by the roadside waiting to be captured. Chiang or the Yunnan authorities had clearly organized this bounty to hasten the Reds out of Yunnan into Sichuan. When the Reds got near the provincial border, the Golden Sand River (the name of the Yangtze in these upper reaches), three crossing towns opened their gates, offering zero resistance, even handing over money and food.

It took the Reds seven days and nights to cross the Golden Sand River at the beginning of May. Chiang’s troops stood close, but did not interfere. None of the ferry points was defended. Spotter planes wheeled overhead, but this time dropped no bombs. Long Marchers remembered “a frightening number” of flies being more of a nuisance.

But once across the river, Mao tried to avoid going farther north. He ordered a siege to be laid to a town just inside Sichuan called Huili, so it could be the center of a new base. Surrounded by a moat, and with thick walls and battlements dating from the fifteenth century, Huili was held by a local warlord, whose home it was, and who was prepared to go to any lengths to keep it. He burned down all the houses outside the city walls so as to leave no shelter for the besiegers, and killed scores of his own soldiers suspected of harboring Red sympathies. Chiang’s planes now began bombing again, to drive the Reds on. Casualties were very high, and the Red Army, with no medicine, was unable to take care of them. Mao was indifferent, and never once visited the wounded.

For Peng De-huai, the level of casualties and failure to treat the wounded were the last straw. He decided to challenge Mao for the military leadership. Peng had wide support from other field commanders, not least Lin Biao, who pointed out that Mao had dragged the Red Army on a huge detour, and that they could have gone straight into Sichuan well over three months before. Lo Fu convened a meeting on 12 May, in a makeshift thatched shed.

With his back to the wall, Mao fought with fearsome willpower and enormous rage, condemning Peng with political labels like “right-wing,” and accusing him of stirring up Lin Biao. When Lin tried to reason, Mao just bellowed: “You are a baby! You don’t know a thing!” Lin could not compete with Mao in a shouting match, and was bludgeoned into silence. Peng was doomed by his own decency and decorum. Unlike Mao, he was shy about fighting for power for himself, even though his cause was good. Nor could he match Mao in mud-slinging and “political” smearing.

Mao got support from the deeply compromised Party No. 1, Lo Fu, who stigmatized Peng and Peng’s supporters as “right-wing opportunists.” In doing so, he acted against his own feelings, under the shadow of blackmail by Mao. Others were silent. Taking on Mao was no small thing. Apart from the terrifying atmosphere he created on the spot, and the sense of urgency and demoralization created by being on the run for some eight months, a sustained fight could well have led to the Party and the army being split. So Mao kept his job. His hatred for Peng because of Huili lasted for the rest of Peng’s life, and he started to take revenge immediately. After the meeting, a close friend of Peng’s, who had also brought up the tremendous casualties in the battles initiated by Mao, and had opposed marking time in Guizhou, found himself denounced. He understood that Peng was the implicit target: “it was inconvenient to denounce Peng De-huai by name, so I was denounced instead.”

Mao was astute enough to agree to a trade-off. He withdrew the order to take Huili, and agreed, finally and explicitly, to “go north at once to join up with” Chang Kuo-tao. He had been putting this off for four months, and in doing so had lost some 30,000 men, more than half of the force with him. Because of him, the soldiers under him had walked at least an extra 2,000 km, often on lacerated feet.

But Mao had made tremendous headway towards achieving his goal. Not only did he now have a formal top military job, but his puppet Lo Fu had established himself as the de facto Party No. 1. These four months of ruthless sacrificial procrastination had made a critical difference. Mao had not entirely averted a power struggle with Chang Kuo-tao, but he had vastly improved his chances.

Mao at once began making preparations, and his most important step was to dispatch a reliable envoy to Moscow to establish his status. (Someone had to go in person as there was no radio communication.) The man he chose had no political ambitions of his own, was obliging, and senior enough to deal with any problems that might come up in Moscow. This was Chen Yun, a member of the Secretariat. Mao chose his spokesman well. In Moscow, Chen delivered a carefully crafted message which gave the impression that the majority of the high command had elected Mao as their leader at a proper meeting: “an enlarged Politburo meeting … removed the [old] leadership and put comrade Mao Tse-tung in the leadership.”

MAO’S GROUP HAD now reached west-central Sichuan, near Tibet, marching straight north towards Chang Kuo-tao. This next stretch provided the backdrop for the primal myth about the Long March — the crossing of the bridge over the Dadu River. This river constituted a formidable natural barrier. In late May, swollen with the Himalayan snows, it was a raging torrent, trapped between towering cliffs. Its rock-strewn bed concealed treacherous whirlpools that made wading or swimming across impossible.

There was no way around, and only one bridge, which had been built in the early eighteenth century as part of the imperial road connecting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. It was a magnificent suspension bridge, 101 meters long and over 3 meters wide, carried by 13 thick iron chains, 9 on the bottom, with gaps a foot wide between each chain. Wooden planks paved the surface, and covered the gaps.

This bridge is the center of the Long March myth, fed to the journalist Edgar Snow in 1936. Crossing the bridge, Snow wrote, “was the most critical single incident of the Long March.” As he describes it:

half this wooden flooring had been removed [by the Nationalists], and before them [the marchers] only the bare iron chains swung to a point midway in the stream. At the northern bridgehead an enemy machine-gun nest faced them, and behind it were positions held by a regiment of White troops … [W]ho would have thought the Reds would insanely try to cross on the chains alone? But that was what they did.

He described men being shot and falling into the river.

Paraffin was thrown on the [remaining] planking, and it began to burn. By then about twenty Reds were moving forward on their hands and knees, tossing grenade after grenade into the enemy machine-gun nest.

This is complete invention. There was no battle at the Dadu Bridge. Most probably the legend was constructed because of the site itself: the chain bridge over the roiling river looked a good place for heroic deeds. There were no Nationalist troops at the bridge when the Reds arrived on 29 May. The Communists claim that the bridge was defended by a Nationalist regiment under one Li Quan-shan, but cables to and from this regiment locate it a long way away, at a place called Hualinping. There had been a different Nationalist unit headquartered in Luding, the town at one end of the bridge, but this unit had been moved out of town just before the Reds arrived. The numerous Nationalist communications make no mention of any fighting on the bridge or in the town, while they do mention skirmishes en route to the bridge, and after the Communists crossed over it. Chiang had left the passage open for the Reds.

When the Red advance unit reached the area, it set up HQ in a Catholic church near the bridge, and shelled and fired across the river at Luding on the opposite side. A local woman, who was a sprightly 93-year-old when we met her in 1997, described to us what happened. In 1935 her family — all Catholics, like most locals in those days — was running a bean-curd shop right by the bridge on the side held by the Reds, and Red soldiers were billeted in her house. She remembered the Communists firing as “Only Yin a shell, and Yang a shot”—a Chinese expression for sporadic. She did not remember her side of the river being fired on at all.

Some planks of the bridge may have been removed or damaged. The 93-year-old remembered that the Reds borrowed her doors and those of her neighbors to put on the bridge, and after the troops had crossed over, the locals went to collect their doors. But the bridge was not reduced to its bare chains: the only time this happened was when Mao’s regime made a propaganda film. Nor was the bridge set on fire. This claim was explicitly denied by the curator of the museum at the bridge in 1983.

The strongest evidence that there was no battle is that the Red Army crossed the bridge without incurring a single casualty. The vanguard consisted of twenty-two men, who, according to the myth, stormed the bridge in a suicide attack. But at a celebration immediately afterward, on June 2, all twenty-two were not only alive and well, they each received a Lenin suit, a fountain pen, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. Not one was even wounded.

No one else died under fire. Chou En-lai’s bodyguard described how Chou, having been upset when he heard that a horse had fallen into the river, went to check on human losses. “No men lost?” Chou asked the commander of the unit that had taken the bridge, Yang Cheng-wu, to which Yang replied: “None.”

In 1982, no less an authority than China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiao-ping, himself a Dadu Bridge participant, confirmed that there was no battle. When a U.S. interlocutor described the crossing as “a great feat of arms,” Deng smiled and said, “Well, that’s the way it’s presented in our propaganda.… In fact, it was a very easy military operation. There wasn’t really much to it. The other side were just some troops of the warlord who were armed with old muskets and it really wasn’t that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatize it.” (Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security adviser, speech at Standford 2005, p. 3)

MAO WALKED ACROSS the Dadu bridge on 31 May 1935. He was now only about 300 km away from the dreaded meeting with Chang Kuo-tao. Between him and Kuo-tao’s advance unit coming to meet him was a mountain called the Big Snowy, in a largely Tibetan area. In spite of its name — and myth — there was no snow where they climbed, locals told us. But it was cold, with sleet and biting winds, made worse by the fact that many men had abandoned their warm clothes in the semi-tropical lowlands, in an effort to shed some weight. All they had to provide some warmth was boiling chili water which they drank before they set off. Although it took only one day to cross, the mountain claimed many lives, partly because of the altitude (the pass was 10,000 feet high) but mainly because the marchers had been weakened by their privations.

They had been walking virtually non-stop for nearly eight months, half the time totally pointlessly from a military or survival point of view — though not from the point of view of Mao’s ascent to power. In addition to being attacked by their enemies, they had been assailed by innumerable ailments. “All of us were unbelievably lice-ridden,” Braun remembered. “Bleeding dysentery was rampant; the first cases of typhus appeared … More and more, our route was lined with the bodies of the slain, frozen or simply exhausted.” It was hardest for those who had to carry the leaders in their litters and heavy loads. Some porters never got up again after they sat down to rest.

Mao climbed the mountain on foot, using a walking-stick. He fared far better than his young bodyguards, as he was much better nourished and rested.

Kuo-tao’s men were waiting for them on the far side, in a Tibetan town of about 100 households, with a cornucopia of supplies — not only food, but clothes, shoes, woolen socks, blankets, gloves and delicacies like preserved yellow peas, tea and salt. This army was well fed and well kitted-out, and even had supplies to spare. Mao and the other leaders got extra food, horses or donkeys, and woolen suits. A docile horse was chosen for Mao, who was also given a male doctor to serve as his nurse.

A week later, on 25 June, Kuo-tao, having ridden over three days through virgin forests and rocky gorges, arrived to meet Mao and his companions at a village called Fubian. The two biggest Red armies were now formally linked up.

DAYS LATER, on 4 July, Chiang Kai-shek’s brother-in-law, H. H. Kung (vice-premier and finance minister), called on Soviet ambassador Dmitri Bogomolov, ostensibly to discuss Japan’s moves in northern China. At the very end, Kung remarked that the Generalissimo very much wanted to see his son. This was Chiang saying to Stalin: I have allowed two major Red armies to survive and join forces, would you please let me have my son? “We are not putting any obstacles in the way of him leaving,” Bogomolov replied, lying smoothly, “but as far as I know, he does not want to go anywhere.”

Although he did not get his son back now, Chiang had achieved his goal of bringing the three southwestern provinces under the central government. The Guizhou warlord had been forced to resign, and left the province after being lavishly bought off. The Yunnan governor stayed on and maintained a good relationship with Chiang (for the time being). With his own army now in Sichuan, following at Mao’s heels, Chiang returned there in May to assume control of this strategically important — and most populous — province. Here he spent months of intensive activity to build up Sichuan as his base for war against Japan.

Mao too had succeeded in his goal. The 2,000-kilometer detour he had forced upon the Red Army had bought the time to establish his puppet Lo Fu as de facto Party chief, and Mao had secured his grip on the Party leadership as the man behind the throne. Chang Kuo-tao’s chances had been critically reduced. Mao’s machinations had reduced the ranks under him by tens of thousands, to around 10,000 hungry and exhausted men in rags. But no matter to him. The army could be rebuilt.

As always, Mao regarded the Kremlin as his only hope if he was to conquer China. Now that he was nearer than ever to Russian-controlled territory, he began to talk about requesting “matériel and technical assistance” from Soviet Central Asia. His paramount aim now was to ensure that Chang Kuo-tao, who outgunned him by about 8 to 1, did not gain access to Soviet arms — or the Kremlin’s ear — before he did.

Lack of majority support for Mao is also clear from the fact that when he later referred to those who had supported him at Zunyi, he never produced more than two names — those of his two co-conspirators.

Soviet military attaché Lepin secretly advised on the best supply routes. The former CCP leader Li Li-san was sent from Moscow to a secret GRU base on the Chinese border, to try to establish radio contact. The US vice-consul in Yunnan, Arthur Ringwalt, spotted the danger, and warned Washington in early January 1935: “The situation appears to be increasingly serious for China. Unless a miracle happens, the Communists will force an entry into Szechwan [Sichuan] by one route or another. [Then] it will be only a matter of time before the well-known plan … to establish communications with Soviet Russia will have been carried out. Then it will be useless to talk further about communist suppression.”

Another person who made the point was, surprisingly, a very important British spy for Russia, Kim Philby. In an article about Tibet published in Nazi Germany in 1936, Philby emphasized the strategic significance of the Chinese Reds linking up with the Russians in the northwest.

Chang Kuo-tao was so successful mainly because the part of Sichuan he entered was in the grip of some exceptionally heartless warlords who squeezed the population so hard that even in towns there were many people who could not afford clothing, and were walking round completely naked. There had been several peasant uprisings just before Kuo-tao’s army arrived, and his forces had been able to enlist recruits en masse. He also had a military chief, Xu Xiang-qian, who was arguably the most talented of the Chinese Communist commanders.

Normal procedure on the March was to leave the wounded with local families, with some money. The fate of those left behind was a matter of luck. Chang Kuo-tao’s branch left behind some women soldiers who were too ill and weak to go on. When Party historians went looking for them half a century later, they found they had endured atrocious experiences. The locals, whose families had suffered at the hands of the Reds, took it out on them, and tortured some of the women to death by driving wooden stakes into their vaginas and cutting off their breasts. To survive, some women married more affluent peasants. But when their own Party came to power they were designated as “landlords,” and denounced, humiliated and discriminated against for life. In 1985, in bitter November cold, the few seen by Party historians, by then in their sixties and seventies, were so poor that they did not wear shoes to the encounter, as these were considered too valuable to endanger for such a non-essential occasion.

Chiang and his officers were so mystified that they thought Mao wanted to attack the capital of Guizhou, where Chiang was, to try to get Chiang himself. But the Reds sped past without stopping.

In Guizhou, where the population was dirt-poor, the Reds had recruited many thousands of young men.

Giving birth on the March was a nightmare. One woman who had gone into labor had to walk to the night’s destination with the baby’s head dangling out. Next day before dawn, weeping at leaving her baby in a bundle of straw in the empty hut, she had to walk on, and fainted wading through an icy river. Her women comrades found a table to carry her on. The wife of Teng Fa, the then head of the Chinese KGB, had a most painful delivery. Writhing in agony, she cursed her husband for making her pregnant. Teng Fa was fetched, and stood uncomfortably in the little hut, hanging his head. Mrs. Po Ku would say half jokingly: “On the march, I prefer a donkey or a horse to an old Male!”

A picture of it features on the cover of the 1985 book The Long March, by Harrison Salisbury, which purveys the official post-Mao version.

Nationalist plans on the 28th described the task of the unit, under Yu Song-lin, as “to defend Kangding,” a city about 50 km away as the crow flies. The fact that Yu’s troops were not at or near the bridge is demonstrated in a report of 3 June by the governor of the region.

When Peng De-huai, the most honest of all the Communist leaders, was asked about the Dadu crossing by a British writer in 1946, he gently, but very clearly, refused to endorse the myth. “It’s a long time ago, and I cannot remember all of it. There were so many rivers — the Gold Sand river, the Hsiang river, the Wu and the Yangtse … I cannot remember very much, but I remember the people falling into the water …” He did not say one word about fighting, or a burning bridge. It seems that two or three people did die at the bridge, but only when they fell off while repairing it, when one old plank suddenly snapped, as Mrs. Zhu De and the 93-year-old local we interviewed remembered. For good measure, the Reds constructed an ancillary myth about more heroism around the other crossing of the Dadu River, at Anshunchang, some 75 km to the south. Although this ferry crossing was extremely exposed and it took the troops a whole week to cross, with spotter planes circling overhead, there was not a single battle casualty here, either.


WHEN THE TWO Red armies joined up in June 1935, Mao’s force — known as the Central Red Army, as it came directly under the Party leadership — was in a state of ruin. It had started the Long March with 80,000 men. Now it was down to some 10,000—one-eighth its original strength. The surviving remnant was on the verge of collapse. It had lost nearly all its heavy weapons, and its rifles had an average of only five bullets each. As Zhu De lamented to Chang Kuo-tao, who was an old friend, this army “had been a giant before, but now it’s only a skeleton. It can no longer fight.”

In contrast, Kuo-tao’s army, 20,000 at the outset of their own march, had quadrupled to an impressive 80,000. They were well fed, well equipped with machine-guns and mortars and ample ammunition, and superbly trained.

It was thus from a position of considerable strength that Kuo-tao met his colleagues. He was “a tall, stately man about forty,” Otto Braun recalled, who “received us as a host would his guests. He behaved with great self-confidence, fully aware of his military superiority and administrative power … His cadres … controlled most of the area’s meager resources, which were essential for the care of tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers … He was every bit as ambitious as Mao …”

The moment had arrived when Kuo-tao had to be given a job, and he had an extremely strong case for being made head of either the Party or the army. Mao did not want him to have either. It was showdown time. Mao seemed to be at an overwhelming disadvantage, and yet he emerged from the link-up with Kuo-tao as the victor, thanks to the three political figures who had been with him and formed the core Party leadership, the Secretariat — Lo Fu, Chou En-lai and Po Ku.

As far as Lo Fu was concerned, he had no hope of holding on to his position as Party No. 1 without Mao. Moreover, when Mao had decided to drag the army off on a detour, Lo had given his consent rather than risk losing his newly won position. Chou En-lai had colluded with Mao all the way. The one who on the face of it might seem to have had the least to lose by switching sides was Po Ku, who had been elbowed out of his No. 1 position by Mao and Lo Fu. But he too was heavily compromised in the destruction of the army; he had put up no effective struggle on its behalf, and was now very much a broken man.

So, although there was now a chance to gang up with Kuo-tao and ditch Mao, the top men chose not to do so, out of personal interest. If they now blamed Mao for everything that had gone wrong, this was bound to raise the question: Where were you? This would imply that there had been a better alternative which they had failed to grasp. It would make them seem unfit to be leaders. Out of self-protection, they stuck with a simple story-line: that the Central Army had been wrecked by more powerful Nationalist forces. To bolster the image of their own resilience, they tried to denigrate Kuo-tao’s army, which had been highly successful, in spite of the heavy fighting it had faced. As they could hardly fault its military performance, they resorted to political smear tactics, saying it suffered from “warlordism” and “political backwardness,” and had “a bandit style.”

These accusations enraged Kuo-tao’s army. The two camps descended into a mud-slinging contest, in which Kuo-tao’s men had a virtual walkover. The wretched state of the Central Red Army was plain for all to see, and the scorn poured on it clung to the whole of the leadership.

“How can such a Centre and Mao Tse-tung lead us?” was the widely voiced sentiment. This resentment was directed against the entire Center, not just Mao, and this was a key factor in throwing the three core leaders — Lo Fu, Chou En-lai and Po Ku — together with Mao, which gave him a majority in the Secretariat of 4 to 1 against Kuo-tao.

The trio felt it was “sink or swim” with Mao as their own officers and soldiers started to vent their outrage as well. There was a flood of complaints about military “incompetence” and indifference to the welfare of the rank-and-file. “They didn’t know where they were running … so aimlessly,” officers told Kuo-tao, and “should have let the army rest and recover.” The rank-and-file, in turn, voiced bitter feelings about the way their leaders had abandoned the wounded, and turned ordinary soldiers into “sedan-chair bearers” for the VIPs and their wives.

This charge — that Mao and the other leaders had “sat in sedan chairs” all through the March — was the sorest issue of them all. A Long Marcher told us how angry the ordinary soldiers had felt: the leaders “talked about equality, but they lounged about in litters, like landlords. We talked in whispers …” The soldiers were told that “the leaders have a very hard life. Although they don’t walk, nor carry loads, their brains and everything have it much rougher than we do. We only walk and eat, we don’t have cares.” Not surprisingly, this low-level sophistry failed to assuage the rank-and-file.

Not having to walk made the difference between life and death. Not a single one of the wounded or the weak with a high enough rank to qualify for the Cadres’ Convalescent Company died on the March. Nor did any of the leaders who were carried, even those who were badly wounded. While the elite all survived, sheer exhaustion killed many of their much younger litter-carriers, nurses and bodyguards, who were often in their teens — and some as young as twelve or thirteen. One statistic reveals the stony-hearted hierarchy and privilege under Mao’s dominion: the Central Red Army now had almost more officers than soldiers.

WITH THE CONNIVANCE of his three Party allies, Mao offered Kuo-tao only the token position of deputy chairman of the Military Council, which was now a hollow shell, not even a rubber stamp. Kuo-tao and his subordinates demanded that he must lead the army. Mao responded with a stony silence. During the stand-off, the troops began to run out of food. The two armies, totaling about 90,000 men, were crowded into a Tibetan highland region that was just able to sustain its own population, but whose economy was completely thrown out of kilter by the advent of this huge force. “We were reduced to fighting for food with the local population,” one Red Army officer recalled. Marchers cut down fields of barley, depriving the locals of their livelihood for the coming year. Mao, characteristically, treated this plundering — which probably made the difference between life and death for many thousands — as a joke: “This is our only foreign debt,” he said to his American spokesman Edgar Snow, in a manner that Snow described as “humorous.”

The Tibetans, not surprisingly, hated the Reds. Excellent marksmen, they launched guerrilla attacks from the forests. Long March diaries recorded: “There were a lot of corpses along the way, mostly stragglers killed by the barbarians.” “Came across three stragglers (cut down by barbarian cavalry).”

In the end, Mao had to let Kuo-tao have the top army job. On 18 July, Kuo-tao was appointed Chief Commissar of the Red Army, “directly commanding all the armies.” But Mao kept control of the Party leadership.

AT THE BEGINNING of August 1935, a detailed plan was agreed for going north — in order, as Mao put it, to be “close to the Soviet Union, where we can receive help … planes and artillery.” The plan envisaged going first to Gansu, and then sending a unit on to Xinjiang, which was a Soviet satellite, “and building airports and arsenals.” It was during this operation to move north that Mao machinated to scupper Kuo-tao’s chances of making contact with the Russians before he himself did.

The agreed plan involved dividing the army: the main force under Kuo-tao and Zhu De would seize the town of Aba and then go on north, while a smaller force, known as the Right Column, was to take a different route farther east, via Banyou. By Mao’s choice, he and the Center went with the Right Column, which contained the bulk of his old troops, under Lin Biao and Peng De-huai, though these now answered to two of Kuo-tao’s commanders. Nine days after Kuo-tao and his force had departed, on 15 August, Mao cabled Kuo-tao in the name of the Politburo, dictating a total change of course: “the main force must go via Banyou,” i.e., follow the same route as the Right Column. Mao was thus tearing up the agreed plan and demanding that Kuo-tao and the many tens of thousands of troops in the other column reverse course and come to him.

Kuo-tao replied on 19 August that he was very near Aba, where there was plenty of food, and that he planned to take the town in a couple of days. He argued hard for sticking to the Aba route, pointing out that there were “three or four parallel roads to the north, with plenty of people and food,” whereas “the road to Banyou is totally unknown.”

Mao used his control of the political leadership to put pressure on Kuo-tao. Next day he sent Kuo-tao a resolution in the name of the Politburo, saying that his forces were too far to the west. The route Kuo-tao had taken by a unanimous decision was suddenly described as “extremely disadvantageous,” and Kuo-tao himself was accused of being “opportunist”—for “choosing the road with fewest obstacles.” Using a label like “opportunist” was a way of threatening to condemn him with a political charge.

Mao’s aim in all this was to keep himself always ahead of Kuo-tao. This would also mean that Kuo-tao and his army would be dragged through calamitous conditions. By now Mao had discovered that, whilst Kuo-tao’s route was plain sailing, his own route, via Banyou (which he had chosen himself), was actually a dire one. It went through the most murderous terrain, a huge swampland that would take at least a week to cross and whose hazards included: no inhabitants — and therefore no food and shelter; an atrocious climate — dark fogs, lashing storms and hail; few trees, so really hard to make a fire; and treacherous, quicksand-like, and often poisonous mud that could swallow a person up with one false step. All this at an altitude of over 3,000 meters, and a night-time temperature below zero even in August.

Instead of trying to conserve the strength of the Red Army, Mao insisted that Kuo-tao must face the same evil conditions — after him. Having fired off his menacing ultimatum, Mao floated into the swamps on his litter, sacrificing a huge pile of books, including the complete set of his favorite Twenty-four Histories, before departing. By the end of the first day, Long March records show that the troops had trudged “with not a single person in sight, crossed 5 rivers, 3 of which had no bridges,” and were “soaked to the skin … sitting huddled in the rain for the night.” Braun has left a vivid description of what most endured:

A deceptive green cover hid a black vicious swamp, which sucked in anyone who broke through the thin crust or strayed from the narrow path … We drove native cattle or horses before us which instinctively found the least dangerous way. Grey clouds almost always hung just over the ground. Cold rain fell several times a day, at night it turned to wet snow or sleet. There was not a dwelling, tree, or shrub as far as the eye could see. We slept in squatted positions on the small hills which rose over the moor. Thin blankets, large straw hats, oil-paper umbrellas or, in some cases, stolen capes, were our only protection. Some did not awaken in the morning, victims of cold and exhaustion. And this was the middle of August!.. Outbreaks of bloody dysentery and typhus … again won the upper hand.

Another Long Marcher remembered: “I once saw several men under a blanket and thought they were stragglers. So I tried to rouse them.” The men were dead. There was little to eat: “When a horse died, we ate it: the troops at the front ate the meat, the ones at the back gnawed the bones. When everything ran out, we ate the roots of grass, and chewed leather belts.”

Mrs. Lo Fu saw the corpses of friends all the time … On the sixth day, I got dysentery. I couldn’t worry about embarrassment and just squatted down and shat all the time. Then I would tie my trousers and rush to catch up. I spent two days like this, and gritted my teeth to get through. For seven days and nights, it was a world of no human beings. On the eighth day, when I walked out of the swamp and saw villages, people, cattle, and smoke coming out of chimneys, when I saw turnips in the fields, my happiness was beyond words … Those seven days and nights were the hardest time in the Long March. When I arrived in Banyou, I felt as if I had just returned to the human world from the world of death.

A night at Banyou, in a hut made of dried yak droppings plastered over wicker, able to dry one’s clothes by a bonfire of the all-purpose dung, was the lap of luxury for those who survived. In Lin Biao’s corps alone, 400 had died — some 15 percent of its complement.

This was the ordeal that Mao was demanding that Kuo-tao’s tens of thousands of troops should go through, instead of marching along proper roads on the route first assigned. Invoking the name of the Politburo, Mao kept piling on the pressure, urging Kuo-tao to “move fast to Banyou.” In one cable written after he had emerged from the swampland and knew full well what it was like, Mao lied through his teeth: “From Maoergai [where he had started] to Banyou, it is short in distance and plentiful in shelter.” He then advised Kuo-tao: “Suggest you … bring all the wounded and sick who can manage to walk, plus the matériel and equipment …” On the surface, this seemed to be telling Kuo-tao: Don’t abandon your wounded, but its real intention was to cause maximum suffering.

If Kuo-tao refused to obey, Mao could get him formally condemned and removed from command. Reluctantly, Kuo-tao agreed to come to Mao, and directed his huge army into the swampland. A couple of days’ taste of what lay ahead made him even less keen than before. On 2 September his force reached a river in spate. He cabled Mao: “We have reconnoitred 30 li [15 km] up and down the river, and cannot find anywhere we can ford. Difficult to find bridge-making material. Have food for only 4 days …”

A day later, he decided to go no further. “Have reconnoitred 70 li [35 km] upstream, and still cannot ford or build a bridge,” he told Mao. “There is food for only 3 days for all the units … The swampland looks boundless. Impossible to go forward, and seem to be waiting for our death. Cannot find guide. Sheer misery. Have decided to start back to Aba from tomorrow morning.” He barely hid his fury against Mao: “The whole strategy is affected. Last time … the troops ran out of food and suffered great damage. This time, you force us to move to Banyou, and get us into this …” Kuo-tao turned back.

By now, Kuo-tao and the main body of the army had been shunted around for a month, thanks to Mao. Moreover, in these highlands, murderous weather was setting in. Kuo-tao now made a decision that was just the one Mao had been angling for: to suspend the journey north and stay put until spring the next year. “The window of opportunity to go north has been lost,” he told Mao. Two-thirds of his troops had contracted foot infections and could hardly walk. If they were to embark on the long march north, nearly all the wounded and sick would have to be abandoned.

Mao, of course, knew all this; indeed, the whole point of hustling Kuo-tao’s army from pillar to post was to reduce it to this state. Mao had now achieved his key objective: he had made sure he would get to the Russians first, knocking Kuo-tao out of the running by penning him up in the south till the following year.

ONCE KUO-TAO GAVE the order not to go on north, Mao faced a major problem. Kuo-tao had issued this order as military supremo. Mao could issue orders in the name of the Party, but he was not at all sure that he could take any of the army, even his own troops, with him, if they were allowed a choice. Crisis time came on 8 September when Kuo-tao ordered his two commanders with Mao to bring the Right Column down south to him.

Aware that he lacked prestige among the troops, Mao ducked a straight confrontation. He did not dare challenge Kuo-tao’s order openly, even in the name of the Party. Instead, he kidnapped his own troops, using false pretenses. On the night of 9–10 September, he and Lo Fu told a select few an egregious lie — that Kuo-tao had ordered his men to harm the Party leaders; so, Mao said, they must secretly muster their subordinates and decamp that night. Mrs. Lo Fu remembered being woken up in the middle of the night and told: “ ‘Get up! Get up! Set off at once!’ We asked: ‘What happened?’ ‘Where are we going?’ [and were told]: ‘No questions, just get a move on and go!.. No noise, no torches … follow me!’ We rushed for about 10 li [5 km] and did not pause to catch our breath until after we crossed a mountain pass.”

At the same time as he was abducting his own troops, Mao got one of his top men to extract the 2nd Bureau, which handled radio communications, from HQ, and steal the detailed maps.

On this occasion, Mao had help from a crucial new ally — Peng De-huai. Just over three months before, Peng had challenged Mao for the military leadership, and had been friendly towards Kuo-tao, who had tried to cultivate him. But now Peng sided with Mao. The reason was not only that Mao controlled the Party leadership, but that he had also grabbed pole position for the Russian connection.

At dawn on 10 September, Kuo-tao’s commanders with the Right Column woke up to find Mao and Co. gone, as well as the maps. Moreover, they were told that the rear guard of Mao’s escape party had their guns cocked and would open fire on any pursuers. Officers stationed along the route the escapers were taking rang to ask whether they should use force to stop Mao and his band, as it was obvious that they were leaving surreptitiously. Kuo-tao’s commanders decided that “Red Army must not shoot Red Army,” so Mao was allowed to get away.

As Mao and his men went on their way, a propaganda team from Kuo-tao’s army appeared and began to wave and shout: “Don’t follow Big Nose! Please turn back!” “Big Nose” meant foreigner, in this case Otto Braun. Braun had also been told the lie that Kuo-tao had given an order “to break the resistance of the Central Committee, by force if necessary.” The shouting disclosed for the first time to the rank-and-file that there was a split in the army, and caused great confusion and anxiety. Mao’s political department immediately sent staff to urge the soldiers on, in case some took the opportunity to go with Kuo-tao.

At this point, Mao had fewer than 8,000 troops, and they were desperately bewildered men, who had not chosen to take his side. Most unusually for him, he now appeared in front of the troops. He did not address them, but just stood in silence by the roadside, watching them go by, counting their strength, trying to gauge their mood. He made sure to have Peng stand beside him, to lend authority. For most, even quite senior officers, this was the only time they got this close to Mao, who preferred to wield power in the shadows.

Mao’s next move was to make sure that Chiang Kai-shek gave his contingent no trouble. By now there could be no doubt that Chiang had been letting him through, but would allow only a weakened army to reach its destination. During the Long March, while Mao’s force had been given little trouble, Kuo-tao’s had had to fight every inch of the way — and the reason was that it was too large and too powerful.

It was thus to Mao’s advantage for Chiang to know that only a small branch was now going north, and that the CCP leadership was with it. Sure enough, within hours of Mao’s splitting, the Nationalists knew both these facts, and exactly which troops had gone with Mao, and how debilitated they were. On 11 September, the day after Mao bolted, Chiang told his governor in the area that he had “received information that Mao, Peng, Lin and their bandits are fleeing north, and they are all totally starved and worn out …”

Kuo-tao seems to have had no doubt that the information was deliberately leaked by Mao, as a cable he sent to Mao and Co. next day read: “The morning after you left, [the enemy] knew straight away that Peng De-huai’s unit had fled northward. Please beware of reactionaries … leaking secrets. No matter what differences we have, we must not reveal military movements to our enemy.”

This leak ensured Mao a smooth run for himself all the way to his destination — the Yellow Earth Plateau. There in North Shaanxi the only secure base in the whole of China awaited him, courtesy of Chiang Kai-shek. Mao and the core leaders had known about this base before the Long March, and Moscow had told them to expand it as far back as 3 May 1934, well before the March set off.

MAO ENJOYED A helping hand from Chiang, and the next thousand kilometers were virtually obstacle-free, militarily. “Except for native snipers,” Braun recorded, “this stretch was void of enemies.” Chiang’s forces shadowed them, but only to prevent Mao straying back into the heartland of China.

This final stretch was a cakewalk compared with before. Instead of snow and hail, and Tibetans sniping from the woods, here in south Gansu the Reds saw golden ears of grain in glorious sunshine, sheep at pasture and farmers tending fields. The locals were friendly, and Mao made an effort to keep them that way. He did not want another reception like the one from the Tibetans, and enjoined “strict discipline.” Muslims made up 60 percent of the population, and the Red Army was forbidden to slaughter or eat pigs, and ordered not to rob any Muslims, even the rich.

The locals allowed the Red Army into their homes, where the men had a hot bath for the first time in months, enjoyed a shave and a haircut, and ate hearty Muslim meals, with pancakes and noodles, mutton and chicken, garlic and pepper. The hospitality, Braun remembered, “astonished me greatly.”

But this friendly atmosphere became the cause of a major headache for Mao, as desertions soared. A Nationalist report showed that while Mao’s troops were in one county alone, Minxian, over 1,000 Red Army men gave themselves up. On 2 October Mao ordered the security forces to “collect” stragglers. “Collect” often meant execution. One senior officer (later army chief of staff in Communist China) recalled: “During the march to north Shaanxi, there were continual stragglers. The army political security organization … adopted cruel means of punishment again.” He was scared: “I followed the troops carefully, worried all the time that I might fall behind and be dealt with as a straggler.” “Deal with” was akin to the Mafia’s “take care of,” a euphemism for killing. One day, “on the verge of collapse,” he thought he might not make it: “my heart only settled back to its place when I got to quarters at 11 o’clock at night.”

When Mao finally arrived at the Red area in north Shaanxi that was to be his base, his army was down to well below 4,000. In the last — and easiest — month of the journey, he actually lost more than half his remaining men, between deserters, stragglers, and deaths both from illness and at the hands of his own security men. His force was just about the same size as when he had left the outlaw land back in January 1929, seven years earlier. And the troops were in the worst possible shape. One officer recalled:

We were famished and exhausted. Our clothes, in particular, were in shreds. We had no shoes or socks, and many people wrapped their feet with strips of blanket … Wuqi [where they arrived] was already a very poor place, but even the … local comrades kept questioning me: how come you got into such a sorry state? You really looked like nothing but a bunch of beggars.

But Mao was not feeling at all defeated when he set foot in the Red territory on 18 October 1935. “The darkest moment” in his life — as he described the threat from Kuo-tao — was over, and he was the winner. The Red Army might be on its last legs after a trek of some 10,000 km, lasting an entire year, of which four months were extra, thanks to him, but the Party was now, to all intents and purposes, his.

HIS ENVOY, Chen Yun, had reached Moscow, and delivered his message to the Comintern on 15 October. With Mao the clear winner on the ground, Moscow accepted, for the first time, that he was now the boss of the CCP. In November the Russians published a carefully edited version of Chen Yun’s report, proclaiming Mao by name as “the tried and tested political” leader of the Chinese Party. Two weeks later, Pravda published a feature article entitled “The leader of the Chinese people, Mao Tse-tung,” which portrayed Mao in florid, tear-jerking language as an almost Chekhovian invalid struggling heroically against illness and privation.

In mid-November a messenger arrived in North Shaanxi from Moscow, the first direct liaison for well over a year. He had traveled through the Gobi Desert disguised as a trader wearing a sheepskin coat. In his head he carried codes for resuming radio contact with Moscow, and he brought a radio operator with him. Within a matter of months, the radio link with Moscow was restored, and the person who controlled it at the Chinese end was Mao.

The messenger brought Stalin’s word that the Chinese Reds should “get close to the Soviet Union” by making for the border with Russia’s satellite, Outer Mongolia. The move “to link up with the Soviet Union” could now start.

CHIANG KAI-SHEK WAS less successful in achieving his private agenda. On 18 October, the day the Long March ended for Mao, Chiang saw Soviet ambassador Bogomolov for the first time since just before the March had started. Chiang proposed a “secret military treaty” with Russia. This could only be aimed against Japan, which had stepped up its efforts to detach five provinces from northern China by offering them bogus “independence.” The Russian response was that Chiang must first “regulate relations with the CCP.” The Generalissimo’s close associate and founder of the Chinese FBI, Chen Li-fu, began secret talks straightaway with Bogomolov and Soviet military attaché Lepin on the nuts and bolts of a deal with the CCP — even referring to “cooperation” with the Reds.

During these talks Chen Li-fu asked Bogomolov for the release of Chiang’s son Ching-kuo. Chen told us: “I said to him: We two countries are signing a treaty now, and we are on very good terms. Why do you still detain our leader’s son? Why can’t you release him?” (Loyally, Chen added that he was acting without telling Chiang—“He would not have wanted me to make this request.” This remark reflects the understanding among the few people in on Chiang’s Reds-for-son exchange that the deal must never be attributed to him, or allowed to leak out.)

But Stalin still refused to free his hostage. Ching-kuo had by now been separated from his parents for exactly ten years. In March that year, in his heavy machinery plant in the Urals, love had softened the young man’s bleak life when he married a Russian technician called Faina Vakhreva. In December they were to have their first child, born into the same captivity that Ching-kuo himself would endure for many more moons, as Mao’s fortunes rose, and rose again.

At the time, the lie was told in very vague words to only a few people. Mao later embellished it into a vivid story about how Kuo-tao had sent a cable to his men ordering them to “liquidate” him and the Center. And this became the official version. But Mao did not produce this claim until eighteen months later, on 30 March 1937, when he was trying to purge Kuo-tao. Until then, although there had been a Party resolution denouncing Kuo-tao for “splitting the Red Army,” it did not include this charge. Nor was the accusation mentioned in any of the many subsequent telegrams to Kuo-tao from Mao and his armies. Even Mao’s cable to Moscow denouncing Kuo-tao as soon as radio links were restored in June 1936 did not have a word about it. All this proves that there was no order from Kuo-tao to harm Mao.

There was one small skirmish at a pass called Lazikou, on 17 September. Although this involved only a handful of men, it was later blown up into a major battle — and a major victory. The reason for this fabrication was that, for Mao to validate his split from Kuo-tao, he had to show at least one feat of arms in the period after he broke away from him. In fact, Mao was simply let through at Lazikou.


15. THE TIMELY DEATH OF MAO’S HOST (1935–36 AGE 41–42)

MAO’S HOME for the next decade was the Yellow Earth Plateau in northwest China, near the Yellow River, the second biggest in China after the Yangtze, and the cradle of Chinese civilization. The base had a population of nearly one million, occupying well over 30,000 sq km, mainly in northern Shaanxi, and straddling the border with Gansu province to the west. Far from the country’s heartland, in those days it was the only secure Red territory in the whole of China.

The landscape was dominated by vast stretches of loess, yellow earth, that looked bleak and barren, broken only by long jagged gorges, often hundreds of meters deep, slicing dramatically through the soft substrate formed with the passage of time by minuscule particles of dust blown in from the nearby Gobi Desert. Most of the dwellings were carved into the yellow hillsides. One could gaze far into the distance and often not see a single soul. Wuqi, the first “town” Mao saw on arrival, had only some thirty residents. This area was unique in being relatively underpopulated, and enjoyed something unheard-of elsewhere in China — arable land to spare. Chiang Kai-shek had picked the locality to keep the Red Army alive, but small.

The founder of the base was a local Communist called Liu Chih-tan, who had an army of 5,000 men — more than Mao. For the local Red sympathizers, Chih-tan was a hero. For the Spanish Catholic bishop of the area, whose brand-new cathedral and other properties were seized by Chih-tan’s men in July 1935, he was “daring, and a conspirator in everything that was subversive.”

As Mao approached Chih-tan’s base, he pointedly remarked that Chih-tan’s leadership “does not seem to be correct,” meaning Chih-tan was politically unsound. And it seems that Mao gave secret orders to the Party bureau whose jurisdiction covered Chih-tan’s area (the Northern Bureau) to carry out a purge there. In mid-September Party envoys descended on the base, where they were joined on the 15th by a Red Army unit 3,400 strong which had been driven there from a different part of China. Together, these new arrivals struck out in a savage purge. Although Chih-tan’s forces were superior in strength, he offered no resistance either to the takeover or to the purge. When he was recalled from the front, and discovered on the way that he was going to be arrested, he turned himself in.

The Party envoys condemned Chih-tan for being “consistently right-wing” (newspeak for moderate), and charged him with being an agent of Chiang’s who had “created a Red Army base in order to wipe out the Red Army.” His willingness to submit to Party authority, far from being appreciated as an act of loyalty, was twisted against him, and he was accused of being “cunning, in order to deceive the Party into trusting him.” Hideous torture was applied. A colleague of Chih-tan’s had his right thigh pierced to the bone by a red-hot wire. Many were buried alive. One survivor wrote in 1992: “We were imprisoned in heavy leg-irons … We heard that the pit to bury us alive had already been dug …” Between 200 and 300 people are estimated to have been killed.

It was at this moment that Mao arrived — in time to play the benign arbiter. He ordered arrests and executions to be suspended, and released Chih-tan and his comrades at the end of November. The purge against them was ruled to have been “a serious error.” Two scapegoats were reprimanded.

Mao thus managed both to sabotage the local Red leadership and to present himself as the man who saved them. This put him in a position to take over their base. Thanks to the purge, Chih-tan and his comrades were already sufficiently intimidated by the time Mao turned up (Chih-tan could barely walk after being heavily shackled), and Mao was able to exclude them from decision-making positions and from key military jobs without prompting major resistance. Chih-tan, the founder of the base, was given a lowly post as commander of a detachment titled “the 28th Army,” which was really just a bunch of new recruits, onto whom Mao foisted a trusted man of his own as commissar, and therefore Chih-tan’s boss. Chih-tan did not demur; he endorsed Mao’s authority publicly, and asked his comrades who had been victimized to put the interests of the revolution before their personal sufferings.

Mao did not want to be seen to be purging Chih-tan, as he meant to exploit his name to lend legitimacy and prestige to his own rule. But nor did he intend to retain him — because he was a local. Mao was going to be involved in extorting food, money, soldiers and laborers out of the population, as the CCP had done in other bases before; and, as in the case of virtually all other Red bases, he knew that these policies were sure to meet resistance from local leaders, who might well lead a popular uprising against the Party. Mao had a different method for dealing with Chih-tan from those he used against other potential threats.

AS SOON AS he settled down, Mao went ahead with his project of trying to open a passage to a Russian-controlled border where he could pick up supplies, and especially arms. His plan involved crossing the Yellow River into the much richer province of Shanxi to the east, to acquire new manpower and provisions, even possibly to build a base, before turning north towards Russian-controlled Outer Mongolia.

The expedition began in February 1936. It garnered some spoils and recruits, but was rapidly driven back west of the Yellow River by Chiang’s troops, without getting anywhere near the Mongolian border. During this brief operation Chih-tan met his death, at the age of thirty-three. According to history books, he died in combat, but the overwhelming evidence points to murder.

Chih-tan was shot on 14 April 1936, at a place called Sanjiao, a ferry town on the Yellow River. The official account claimed that an enemy machine-gun that had engaged an advancing Red Army unit put a round in his heart. Chih-tan was not with the assaulting unit, nor caught in cross-fire. He was about 200 meters away, up a small hill from which he was observing through a telescope. The machine-gun that reportedly killed him was firing in a totally different direction, and if the official story is to be believed, it suddenly swiveled round and loosed a single burst that miraculously hit Chih-tan in the heart — at 200 meters. This machine-gun seems to have had a sniper’s accuracy.

Only two people were with Chih-tan when he was hit. One was the Political Security man in his unit, whose name was Pei, a star of the Chinese KGB. On the Long March, he had been given the crucial job of watching over the porters carrying the assets of the regime’s bank. The other man present was a bodyguard. After Chih-tan was shot, Pei sent the bodyguard to “fetch a doctor,” according to his own account, leaving himself the only man around when Chih-tan “completely stopped breathing.” There seems little doubt that Chih-tan was killed by Pei.

The sequence of events surrounding Chih-tan’s death strongly suggests that it was choreographed by Mao. A week before, Mao cabled Chih-tan that the 28th Army unit, “from now on comes directly under this HQ.” There was no discernible reason for this order — except, of course, that this way whatever happened to Chih-tan from then on would not be reported through the normal chain of command, but directly to Mao. Two days after that, Mao appointed Chih-tan to the Military Council, from which he had previously been excluded. This amounted to Chih-tan’s elevation to a major military position. If he died now, he would have the status of a hero and his men would be kept happy. Finally, on the 13th, it was Mao himself who ordered Chih-tan to go to Sanjiao, where he was killed the very next day.

When Chih-tan was buried, his widow was kept away from the interment. “You are not well,” Chou En-lai told her, “and seeing him will make you sadder.” This was an order. Seven years were to pass before she was allowed to have him exhumed, by which time the corpse had decomposed. The coffin was opened, at her request, when Chih-tan was given a public burial in a special shrine. Mao wrote an inscription, calling Chih-tan’s death “a surprise.” This was at a time when Mao particularly needed to ensure that there would not be any trouble in the base, and he was using the dead Chih-tan to lend himself authority.

Chih-tan was the only top leader of a Red base ever to die at the front. In addition, his former left-and right-hand commanders both fell dead in quick succession within weeks of him being killed — Yang Qi in March, and Yang Sen at the beginning of May. Within a few months of Mao arriving, all three top Shaanxi commanders were killed — a fate that befell none of the commanders from any other Red Army unit.

With the deaths of Chih-tan and these two top colleagues, any serious potential danger of rebellion against Mao’s rule over the base was removed. Thereafter, although there were small-scale revolts among the locals, there was no uprising big enough to threaten Mao’s regime.

As with the Long March, the Reds pretended that the goal was to fight the Japanese, and called it the “Anti-Japanese Vanguard,” with slogans like “Going east to fight Japan.” But this was pure propaganda. Mao’s force did not even try to get near the Japanese.


WHEN MAO arrived in the northwest at the end of the Long March in October 1935, his aim, other than sheer survival, was to open up a passage to the border of a Russian-controlled territory so as to receive the arms and other supplies that would enable him to expand. Chiang Kai-shek wanted the Reds kept penned in their corral. The man he assigned to the task was the former warlord of Manchuria, Chang Hsueh-liang, “the Young Marshal,” who had his HQ in the city of Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province. Mao was in the same province, some 300 km to the north.

There were two Russian-controlled territories through which arms could be delivered: Xinjiang, over 1,000 km to the west-northwest, and Outer Mongolia, more than 500 km due north. The Young Marshal’s vast army of some 300,000 was stationed in the provinces giving access to both of these.

The Young Marshal’s American pilot, Royal Leonard, has left a description of a worldly man: “My first impression … was that here was the president of a Rotary Club: rotund, prosperous, with an easy, affable manner … We were friends in five minutes …” After inheriting Manchuria when his warlord father (“the Old Marshal”) was assassinated in June 1928, the Young Marshal placed his domain under Chiang’s central government, while remaining its chief until Japan invaded it in 1931. He then retreated into China proper with 200,000 troops, and was subsequently given various important posts by Chiang. He had an apparently intimate relationship with Chiang and his wife. Thirteen years the Generalissimo’s junior, he was fond of saying that Chiang was “like a daddy to me.”

But behind the Generalissimo’s back, the Young Marshal plotted to supplant him. Having governed a land larger than France and England together, it irked him to be Chiang’s subordinate. He aspired to rule all of China. To this end, he had earlier made approaches to the Russians and had tried to visit the Soviet Union when he was in Europe in 1933, but the Russians were very wary and turned him down. Only four years earlier, in 1929, Stalin had invaded Manchuria and fought a brief war against him after he had seized the Russian-controlled railway in Manchuria. Moreover, the Young Marshal had expressed admiration for fascism, and was friendly with Mussolini and his family. In August 1935 a statement put out from Moscow under the name of the CCP called him “scum” and a “traitor.”

But once he was appointed Mao’s warden later that year, Moscow performed a U-turn. The Young Marshal had become worth courting. He could make the CCP’s life easier and, more importantly, help them link up with Russian supplies. Within weeks of Mao arriving in the northwest, Russian diplomats were deep in talks with the Young Marshal.

He traveled to Shanghai and Nanjing, the capital, to meet the Russians in secret. To cover his tracks, he wove a camouflage of frivolity. He had a reputation as a playboy, and happily played up this image. One day, his American pilot recalled, the Young Marshal got him to “fly the plane in a vertical bank, one wing in the street, past the windows of the Park Hotel where his friends lived. We passed within ten feet of the façade, the noise of the motor rattling the panes like castanets.” This flamboyant show was staged outside the hotel room where one of the Young Marshal’s girlfriends was staying. “Perhaps this will make you smile,” the Young Marshal, aged ninety-one in 1993, chuckled to us. “At that time, Tai Li [Chiang’s intelligence chief] tried everything he could to find out my whereabouts, and he thought I went to have a good time with my girlfriends. But in fact, I was doing deals …”

The Young Marshal made clear to the Russians that he was ready to form an alliance with the Chinese Reds and engage in “decisive struggle against the Japanese”—i.e., declare war on Japan, which Chiang had not done. In return, he wanted Moscow to back him to replace Chiang as the head of the country.

This package contained extremely attractive features for Stalin, including the one thing the Kremlin boss most wanted — for China to wage all-out war against Japan. Japan had been encroaching on China since 1931, and had been nibbling away ever since. After annexing Manchuria, Tokyo set up another puppet regime in part of northern China in November 1935, but Chiang had been avoiding all-out war. Stalin was anxious that Tokyo might turn north and attack the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s goal was to use China to steer Tokyo away from the Soviet Union by dragging the Japanese into the vast interior of China and bogging them down there. Moscow worked hard to fan sentiment in China for such an all-out war with Japan, while keeping its own agenda under wraps. It took a hand in major student demonstrations; and its many agents, particularly Mme Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek’s sister-in-law, formed pressure groups to lobby Nanjing for action.

Chiang did not want to surrender to Japan, but nor did he want to declare war. He thought that China had no realistic chance of winning, and that taking on Tokyo would lead to his country’s destruction. He opted for a very unusual limbo — neither surrendering nor fighting a full-scale war. He was able to hang on in this state thanks to China’s size, and the fact that the Japanese were only encroaching gradually. Chiang may even have harbored the hope that Japan would soon turn on Russia and leave the rest of China alone.

The Young Marshal’s proposal suited Stalin, but Stalin did not trust him. Nor did he believe that the former Manchurian warlord was capable of holding China together to fight such a war. If China lapsed into internecine strife, it would facilitate the Japanese conquest — and, a fortiori, redouble the Japanese threat to the Soviet Union.

Moscow was too canny to reject the Young Marshal’s offer outright. The Russians led him on, deluding him that they were considering it — so that he would help the Chinese Reds. Russian diplomats told him to establish direct contact with the CCP in secret. The first talks between a CCP negotiator and the Young Marshal took place on 20 January 1936.

WHILE THE RUSSIANS were merely stringing the Young Marshal along, Mao was happy to support him to replace Chiang, and wanted a real alliance with him. This was an ideal scenario for Mao. As the Young Marshal would be dependent on the Soviet Union, the CCP would have a pivotal role, and Mao might even become the power behind the throne for the whole of China. He instructed his negotiator, Li Ke-nong, to propose an anti-Chiang alliance with the Young Marshal, and to promise to back him as head of a new national government in place of Chiang. The negotiator was told to “hint” that the offer had Moscow’s authorization, by suggesting that funds and arms would be no problem.

The Young Marshal naturally wanted to have Mao’s promises nailed down by the Russians themselves. And it seemed this was very much on the cards when a scheme was soon put to him to get a senior envoy of his to Moscow. In January, a certain “Pastor Dong” arrived at the Young Marshal’s HQ from Shanghai. Dong, who had once been a pastor at St. Peter’s in Shanghai in the 1920s, was a Communist intelligence operative. The lapsed Pastor told the Young Marshal that Mao’s sons were secretly in his care in Shanghai, and that there was a plan to send them to Russia, to the special school for the children of foreign Communist leaders run by the Comintern. He proposed that the Young Marshal assign an envoy to accompany them there.

Mao had three sons by his second wife, Kai-hui, who had been executed by the Nationalists in 1930. After their mother’s death, the boys had been taken to Shanghai and looked after by the Communist underground.

The children had been having a tough time. The youngest, An-long, died at the age of four soon after he came to Shanghai. The other two, An-ying and Anching, had to live a secret life, unable to go to school or to make friends outside the Dong family, where there was constant tension. Dong had deposited them with his ex-wife, whose life was thrown into danger and upheaval by their arrival, and who had no particular affection for these boys anyway. Sometimes they would run away and live as street urchins. Years later, watching a film about an orphan in Shanghai, An-ying became very emotional and told his wife that his brother and he had led a similar life, sleeping on the pavements and scavenging through rubbish dumps for food and cigarette stubs. During all these years, Mao had never sent a word to them.

Moscow now decided to bring Mao’s sons to Russia, where they could be looked after and put through school. As in the case of Chiang Kai-shek’s son when Chiang was rising to the top, the aim was also to keep the boys as hostages. Stalin was personally involved with this decision. Mao had no objection.

Moscow’s offer to the Young Marshal to have an envoy of his escort the boys to Soviet Russia thus killed two birds with one stone. This way, the Young Marshal would guarantee the boys’ safety during the journey and look after all the logistics, as well as footing the considerable bill for an entourage, which included a nanny. And, most important, the Young Marshal would see the invitation to send an envoy as a sign that Moscow was seriously interested in doing a deal, which could not be done under Chiang Kai-shek’s surveillance in China.

The Young Marshal was delighted, and quickly made all the arrangements. His representative and the boys sailed from China for Marseille on 26 June. Moscow had told the Young Marshal they could collect their Russian visas in Paris.

THAT JUNE, two provinces in southern China, Guangdong and Guangxi, formed an alliance and rebelled against Chiang’s government. Mao tried to persuade the Young Marshal to seize this opportunity to do likewise and turn the northwest into a breakaway state in alliance with the Reds. His aim, he told his Politburo, was to create an entity “like Outer Mongolia”—i.e., a Russian satellite.

But the Young Marshal was not keen. He wanted to run the whole of China, not just part of it. And Moscow was downright hostile to the plan. At this time, in late June, the CCP’s radio links with Moscow were reestablished after a gap of twenty months. In the first telegram to the Comintern after the break, Mao requested endorsement for a breakaway northwest state. The plan was sent to Stalin, who was not pleased. He wanted a united China that would drag the Japanese into an all-out war, not a dismembered China.

Within days of Mao sending his telegram, the rebellion by Guangdong and Guangxi collapsed, ignominiously, not least because popular opinion was vehemently against any separatist movement. Stalin was confirmed in his belief that Chiang was the only person who could hold China together. On 15 August Moscow sent the CCP a milestone order, telling them to stop treating Chiang as an enemy, and count him as an ally. “It is incorrect to treat Chiang Kai-shek the same as the Japanese … You must work for the cessation of hostilities between the Red Army and Chiang Kai-shek’s army, and for an agreement … to struggle jointly against the Japanese …”; “everything must be subordinated to the anti-Japanese cause.” Stalin now wanted the CCP to support Chiang as the head of an undivided China, at least for the time being.

Moscow brusquely ordered the CCP to enter serious negotiations with Chiang for an alliance. Mao had to accede, and talks about a “United Front” began in September between the CCP and Chiang’s representatives. Chiang had initiated the rapprochement. At the time the Long March ended, he had made overtures to Moscow, but the Russians told him he had to talk “directly with the Chinese [CP],” as a way of promoting the CCP.

Both Moscow and Mao kept the Young Marshal in the dark about this policy shift, and continued to mislead him on the issue that most concerned him — replacing Chiang. When the Young Marshal told Soviet ambassador Bogomolov in late July that he “hoped” that his “bloc with the [CCP], directed against Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese, would be supported by the USSR,” the ambassador said absolutely nothing to suggest that Moscow was dead set against this notion. For his part, Mao encouraged the Young Marshal to go on thinking that Moscow might back him.

ALTHOUGH HE HAD decided to back Chiang as the head of China, Stalin was in no way cutting back on his clandestine efforts to build up the Chinese Red Army. In early September 1936 he endorsed a plan to ship a large cargo of arms to the CCP through Outer Mongolia. Mao’s wish list had included “monthly aid of 3 million dollars,” as well as “planes, heavy artillery, shells, infantry rifles, anti-aircraft machine-guns, pontoons,” together with Soviet personnel to fly the planes and operate the artillery. On 18 October he heard from the Comintern that “The goods are not as many as you requested in your cable of the 2nd [October] … and there are no planes or heavy artillery …” Still, the “foreign company” handling the shipment, a GRU dummy, would “supply 150 vehicles and provide drivers and gasoline; they can make two return trips … with about 550 tons to 600 tons” each trip. The number of rifles was almost exactly the same as the Russians sent to Spain, where the civil war had just broken out.

In October the Chinese Red Army began its operation to smash through to a delivery point in the desert near the Outer Mongolian border. At this stage, Mao had 20,000 troops in the base, and the other Red Army branches were about to converge there in response to his summons to join him. They included the troops led by his now disabled rival Chang Kuo-tao, who had spent the winter on the Tibetan border, at the mercy of Nationalist bombing. Thousands froze to death, and many others developed snow blindness. During the previous year, Kuo-tao had lost half the 80,000 troops he had commanded when he met up with Mao in June 1935.

Although he still had twice as many men, Kuo-tao now came as a junior partner. Sensing that he was done for, he became “very emotional,” as his colleagues witnessed. “He even shed tears. He said: ‘I’m finished. When we get to North Shaanxi, I’m going to prison …’ ” Though Kuo-tao was not exactly imprisoned, Mao was eventually to wreck his army further — and then purge him. But for now, Mao needed Kuo-tao’s large and efficient force to fight to the Outer Mongolia border.

The other branch of the Red Army that came to Mao now was headed by Ho Lung, a tough former outlaw. He had been herded to North Shaanxi by Chiang Kai-shek from his base on the Hunan — Hubei border. The three branches of the Red Army joined hands on 9 October 1936, making Mao the chief of an army of almost 80,000 men, twenty times the number he had fielded just a year before.

This was a formidable force, but in order to get to the Russian arms the Reds had to break through a powerful Nationalist army, and Chiang was determined to stop them. On 22 October he flew to Xian to take personal command, and this put the Young Marshal in a jam. The Young Marshal duly alerted the Reds about Chiang’s plans, as well as giving them cash and winter clothes, but that was his limit: he could not defy Chiang’s orders openly. So his men ended up fighting the Reds. Within a week, Mao’s push for the Russian supplies had been thwarted. A contingent 21,800 strong that had crossed the Yellow River was stranded on the other side. The main body of the Red Army pulled back to its corral in North Shaanxi, and was hemmed in again.

Mao asked Moscow for money urgently: “Be quick,” he cabled. The Comintern immediately sent US$550,000, but it could not solve the long-term problems. For food, there was just coarse black beans. Housing in this region was mainly yao-dong, quarters dug into hills, like grander caves, and many of the troops lacked even these. It had started to snow, and the soldiers had threadbare clothes and straw sandals. At the front, Peng De-huai, the chief commander, was living in a shepherd’s shelter, a hole in the ground one meter deep and two meters wide, on the edge of the desert, battered by furious sandstorms. Even Mao was enduring discomfort, as the Party Center had been forced into the small town of Baoan, where he and his heavily pregnant wife were living in a dank cave, with water dripping from the roof. Once, when a bodyguard tried to push the door open, he was stung by an outsize scorpion. Plague-bearing rats abounded, half the size of house cats, and so bold that they would sit on people’s chests while they slept and flick their tails across their faces, waking them up with a start.

BY THE END OF October 1936, the Reds were desperate. The Young Marshal saw an opportunity to rescue them, and gain favor with Moscow. His plan was simple, and extreme: to kidnap Chiang, who was about to step onto his turf. Even though the Young Marshal had not received the explicit commitment from Moscow that he had been seeking (his envoy had been given the runaround about his Russian visa), he calculated that saving the Chinese Red Army and having Chiang in his custody would change the whole equation for Stalin. This was a gamble, but the Young Marshal was a gambler. “My philosophy is gamble,” he had once said to his inner circle. “I might lose once or twice, but as long as the game goes on, the time will come when I get all my stakes back.” Having Chiang on his own turf was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Young Marshal discussed his plan with Mao’s secret liaison, Yeh Jian-ying, telling Yeh he intended to stage a “coup d’état,” using this term (which in Chinese is transliterated as ku-die-da). On 29 October, Yeh cabled Mao, using veiled language, that “there is a proposal to stay Chiang.” On 5 November, Yeh left for Mao’s place, carrying the coup plan.

The idea of kidnapping Chiang was the Young Marshal’s — but it was undoubtedly spurred on by Mao through his envoy, Yeh. The Soviet intelligence insider Aleksandr Titov records that “the question of arresting Chiang Kai-shek was discussed by … Yeh Jian-ying and Chang Hsueh-liang in November 1936.” And Mao very deliberately concealed the plan from Moscow, knowing that Stalin would be dead set against it. Mao was now acting directly contrary to Stalin’s interests. Chiang was more crucial to Stalin than ever. On 25 November Germany and Japan had signed a treaty known as the Anti-Comintern Pact, confronting the USSR with its worst nightmare — belligerent enemies on both flanks in an alliance, with Japanese-backed forces on the move westward along the southern flank of Mongolia, towards Soviet Central Asia. The very day the pact was announced, Stalin urgently ordered the Comintern chief Georgi Dimitrov to impress yet more strongly on the CCP that it had to abandon its anti-Chiang position and support a united government: “We need … a government of national defence” in China, Stalin told Dimitrov. “Work out a plan …”

Mao was running a considerable risk of infuriating Stalin by endangering Chiang. He tried to play safe by keeping his distance from the kidnap. Before taking the plunge, the Young Marshal cabled Yeh to return: “Vital thing to discuss. Please come instantly.” Mao held Yeh back, while pretending to the Young Marshal that Yeh was on his way. Then he spurred the Young Marshal on by wiring him that there was no prospect of the Communists reaching any compromise with Chiang, and saying the Reds were determined to continue their war against the Generalissimo. Mao gave the Young Marshal the impression that he, the Young Marshal, was their only possible partner, implying that Moscow would accept this.

WHEN HE GOT to Xian on 4 December, Chiang made no exceptional arrangements for his personal security. His immediate quarters were guarded by several dozen of his own staff, but the gate and outer perimeter of the residence were patrolled by the Young Marshal’s men. The Young Marshal was even able to bring the kidnappers to reconnoiter Chiang’s residence, at a hot spring on the outskirts of town, and to check out the Generalissimo’s bedroom.

At dawn on 12 December, Chiang was kidnapped. He had just finished his morning exercises, part of his strict routine, and was getting dressed when he heard gunfire. His quarters were attacked by some 400 of the Young Marshal’s men. Chiang’s guards resisted, and many were shot dead, including his chief of security. Chiang managed to escape into the hills behind, where he was found hours later hiding in a crevasse, clad only in his nightshirt, barefoot and covered with dust, and with an injured back.

Just beforehand, the Young Marshal had informed Mao that he was about to act. When Mao received the cable from his secretary, he beamed: “Go back to bed. There will be good news in the morning!”

This assassination is generally attributed to the Japanese, but Russian intelligence sources have recently claimed that it was in fact organized, on Stalin’s orders, by the man later responsible for the death of Trotsky, Naum Eitingon, and dressed up as the work of the Japanese.

This base also went through bloody purges conducted by the Reds between 1932 and 1934. Ho Lung himself said later: “in this one purge alone, over 10,000 were killed. Now [1961] there are only a few women comrades alive, and this is because men were killed first … and then the enemy came before [the purgers] got around to the women …” “Even today in the area … they dig out bones from one big pit after another.” Survivors recalled that many had been “put in jute sacks and thrown into Lake Hong with big stones tied to them. Fishermen did not dare to go fishing in the lake, because so many corpses came up, and the color of the lake changed.”

These funds, as well as some further transfers, were sent through Mme Sun Yat-sen, from America.

17. A NATIONAL PLAYER (1936 AGE 42–43)

WHEN THE NEWS reached Party HQ that Chiang Kai-shek had been kidnapped, jubilant leaders crowded into Mao’s cave. Mao was “laughing like mad,” a colleague recalled. Now that Chiang was caught, Mao had one paramount goal: to see him dead. If Chiang was killed, there would be a power vacuum — and therefore a good opportunity for Russia to intervene and help to bring the CCP, and himself, to power.

In his first cables to Moscow after the event, Mao implored the Russians to get seriously involved. Choosing his words with care, he solicited their consent to killing Chiang, saying that the CCP wanted to “demand that Nanjing sack Chiang Kai-shek and deliver him to the people for trial.” This was a euphemistic expression, unmistakably implying a death sentence. Knowing that his own goals were different from Stalin’s, Mao pretended not to have heard about the kidnapping until after it had happened, and promised that the CCP “would not issue public statements for a few days.”

Meanwhile, he was maneuvering busily behind Moscow’s back to get Chiang killed. In his first cable to the Young Marshal after the kidnapping, on 12 December, Mao urged: “The best option is to kill [Chiang].” Mao tried to dispatch his ace diplomat, Chou En-lai, to Xian at once. Chou had negotiated with the Young Marshal earlier in the year, and they seemed to have hit it off. Mao wanted Chou to persuade the Young Marshal “to carry out the final measure” (in Chou’s words), i.e., to kill Chiang.

Without spelling out the real purpose of Chou’s mission, Mao solicited an invitation for Chou from the Young Marshal. At the time, the Reds’ HQ was several days’ ride on horseback from Xian, at Baoan, nearly 300 km to the north; so Mao asked the Young Marshal to send a plane to collect Chou at the nearby city of Yenan (then held by the Young Marshal), where there was an airstrip which Standard Oil had built when it was prospecting in the area earlier in the century. To encourage the Young Marshal to act quickly, Mao made him a spurious promise on the 13th: “We have made arrangements with the Comintern, the details of which we will tell you later.” The clear implication was that Chou would be bringing news of a plan coordinated with Moscow.

What the Young Marshal needed was not off-the-record promises relayed by the CCP, but Russia’s public endorsement. Yet on the 14th, front-page articles in the two main Soviet papers, Pravda and Izvestia, strongly condemned his action as helping the Japanese, and unambiguously endorsed Chiang. Two days into the kidnapping, the Young Marshal could see that the game was up.

He turned a deaf ear to Mao’s suggestion to send Chou. But Mao dispatched Chou anyway, telling the Young Marshal on the 15th that Chou was coming, and asking for a plane to pick him up in Yenan. When Chou reached Yenan, there was no plane, and the city gate was closed to him; he had to wait all night outside the walls, in sub-zero temperatures. “The guards refused to open the gate and refused to listen to reason,” Mao wired the Young Marshal, exhorting him to do something. The Young Marshal was literally freezing Chou out, an indication of how bitter he felt about the Reds misleading him over Moscow’s attitude.

On the 17th he relented. He was looking for a way to end the fiasco, so he sent his Boeing to fetch Chou. His American pilot, Royal Leonard, was shocked to find he was carrying Reds (who had only recently been peppering his plane). En route back that snowy afternoon, he played a trick on his passengers. “I deliberately picked rough air,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Occasionally, I peeked back into the cabin and enjoyed watching the Communists … holding their black beards aside with one hand and vomiting into a can held in the other.”

The Young Marshal accepted Chou through gritted teeth, though he presented an amicable façade and played along with his guest. When Chou urged him to kill the Generalissimo, he pretended he would do so “when civil war is unavoidable and Xian is besieged” by government forces.

Mao had in fact been trying to provoke a war between Nanjing and Xian. He hoped to trigger this off by moving Red troops towards Nanjing. On the 15th he secretly ordered his top commanders to “strike at the enemy’s head: the Nanjing government …” But he had to scrap the plan, as it would have been suicidal for the Red Army, and there was no guarantee it would set off a Nanjing — Xian war. To his delight, on the 16th Nanjing declared war on the Young Marshal, moving armies towards Xian and bombing the Young Marshal’s troops outside the city. Mao urged the Young Marshal not just to fight back, but to broaden the fighting into a major war by striking out towards Nanjing. The following day, Mao cabled him, saying: “The enemy’s jugulars are Nanjing and [two key railway lines]. If 20 to 30 thousand … troops can be dispatched to strike these railway lines … the overall situation will change at once. Please do consider this.” Mao’s hope was that by taking such action, the Young Marshal would burn his bridges with Nanjing and thus be more likely to kill Chiang.

WHILE MAO WAS maneuvering to have Chiang killed, Stalin put his foot down to save the Generalissimo. On 13 December, the day after Chiang was seized, the Soviet chargé d’affaires in Nanjing was summoned by acting prime minister H. H. Kung (Chiang’s brother-in-law) to be told that “word was around” that the CCP was involved in the coup, and that “if Mr. Chiang’s safety was endangered, the anger of the nation would extend from the CCP to the Soviet Union and could put pressure on [the Chinese government] to join with Japan against the Soviet Union.” Stalin understood that the kidnapping might pose an urgent threat to his strategic interests.

At midnight on the 14th, the phone rang in the office of Comintern chief Dimitrov. Stalin was on the line. “Was it with your permission that the events in China took place?” he asked. Dimitrov hastily answered: “No! That would be the greatest service anyone could possibly render Japan. Our position on these events is the same.” Using ominous language, Stalin went on to question the role of the CCP’s delegate at the Comintern, who had submitted to Stalin the draft of a cable to be sent to the CCP in favor of executing Chiang: “Who is this Wang Ming of yours? Is he a provocateur? I hear he wanted to send a telegram to have Chiang killed.” At the time, Dimitrov’s Chinese assistant recalled, “you could not find anyone” at Comintern HQ who did not think that “Chiang must be finished off.” Even Stalin’s top man at the Comintern, the normally cool Manuilsky, “rubbed his hands, embraced me, and exclaimed: ‘Our dear friend has been caught, aha!’ ”

Wang Ming pleaded that the draft cable had been suggested by the deputy head of the GRU, Artur Artuzov. Artuzov was soon arrested and accused of being a spy. Before he was shot, he protested his innocence in a letter written in his own blood, which, his jailer noted icily, had come “from his nose.” Stalin spared Wang Ming. And Dimitrov scrambled to clear himself and lay the blame on Mao. He wrote to Stalin: “in spite of our warnings, the … Chinese Party in fact entered into very close, friendly relations with [the Young Marshal].” More damningly, Dimitrov told Stalin: “it is hard to imagine [the Young Marshal] would have undertaken his adventurist action without coordination with them [Mao and his colleagues] or even without their participation.” This was clearly suggesting that Mao was lying about having no prior knowledge of the event, and that Mao had flouted Moscow’s orders.

Stalin was suspicious that Mao might be in cahoots with the Japanese. Stalin had already begun to have almost all the Soviet “old China hands” denounced and interrogated under torture. Four days after Chiang was kidnapped, a leading detainee “confessed” to being involved in a Trotskyist plot to provoke an attack by Japan (and Germany) on Russia. Mao’s own name soon surfaced in confessions, and a hefty dossier on him was compiled, with accusations that he was an agent of the Japanese, as well as a Trotskyist.

Dimitrov sent a stern message to Mao on the 16th. It condemned the kidnapping, saying that it “can objectively only damage the anti-Japanese united front and help Japan’s aggression against China.” Its key point was that “the CCP must take a decisive stand in favour of a peaceful resolution.” This was an order to secure the release and reinstatement of the Generalissimo.

WHEN THE CABLE arrived, Mao reportedly “flew into a rage … swore and stamped his feet.” His next move was to pretend that the message had never reached him. He kept it secret from his Politburo, from the Young Marshal, and also from Chou En-lai, who was en route to Xian to try to persuade the Young Marshal to kill Chiang. Mao went on maneuvering for Chiang to be killed.

This was a high-risk tactic vis-à-vis Moscow. Mao was not simply withholding from the Kremlin the fact that he had encouraged the kidnap plot, he was also suppressing — and defying — a direct order from Stalin. But for Mao, the vistas opened up by the elimination of Chiang outweighed the risks.

But the Generalissimo was not about to disappear off the map. Once the Young Marshal knew he had no Moscow backing, which was immediately after the kidnap, he decided to keep Chiang safe. Mao had proved worthless. In spite of all its posturing in private communications, the CCP kept a public silence for three long days after the kidnapping, voicing no support for the Young Marshal. Its first official statement did not emerge till the 15th. It made no mention of backing the Young Marshal to be head of China, as Mao had specifically offered earlier. Instead, it recognized the authority of Nanjing.

The Young Marshal’s only option was to stick with Chiang. That meant he had to set Chiang free. Moreover, he realized that the only way he himself could survive was to leave Xian with Chiang and place himself in Chiang’s hands. There were many in Nanjing who wanted him dead and who were sure to send assassins after him. Chiang’s custody was the only place where he could be safe. And by escorting Chiang out of captivity he could also hope to win the Generalissimo’s goodwill. His gamble that Chiang would not kill him turned out to be a good bet. After house arrest under Chiang and his successors for over half a century, when he was both detained and protected, he was released, and died in his bed in Hawaii, aged 100, in 2001, having outlived Chiang and Mao by over a quarter of a century.

On 14 December, the day Moscow publicly condemned the coup, the Young Marshal went to see Chiang, and stood in front of him in silence, weeping. Chiang registered that his captor showed “considerable remorse.” Later that day the Young Marshal told Chiang he realized that the kidnap was “a foolish and ill-considered action” and wanted to release him, secretly. Chiang gave him active cooperation by making sure Nanjing did not rock the boat. When Nanjing declared war on the Young Marshal on the 16th, Chiang got a message out at once telling Nanjing to hold its fire. Nanjing suspended military operations, and sent Chiang’s brother-in-law T. V. Soong (known as T.V.) “as a private citizen” to negotiate a deal, as Chiang himself could not be seen to be negotiating with his captors. T.V. arrived in Xian on the 20th, followed two days later by Mme Chiang.

On the 20th, Moscow repeated its cable to the CCP, which Mao had been suppressing, ordering a “peaceful resolution.” Now, Mao had to forward the cable to Chou En-lai, with instructions to help “restore Chiang Kai-shek’s freedom.”

MAO THUS BROUGHT his goals back into alignment with Stalin’s. The CCP demanded that Chiang promise to “stop the policy of ‘exterminating Communists.’ ” It also insisted that Chiang meet Chou, who was right there in Xian. For Chou to talk to Chiang would accord the CCP the status of a major player in national politics, an act whose modern-day equivalent would be for the top man in some notorious terrorist group suddenly to be received by the US president.

At a talk on the 23rd between T. V. Soong, the Young Marshal and Chou, T.V. said he personally agreed to what Chou asked, and would convey the CCP’s demands to the Generalissimo. But Chiang refused to talk to Chou directly, even though he was told he would not be released unless he saw Chou. The talks deadlocked.

Moscow knew what would get the Generalissimo to see Chou. Chiang’s most recent signal to Moscow had been just before the kidnap, in November, when the Chinese Red Army had its back to the wall after failing to reach the Russian arms supplies. On that occasion, Chiang’s ambassador in Moscow had asked for the return of Chiang’s son, Ching-kuo, and Moscow had said “No.” Now it was ready to respond. Late on 24 December the former Party leader, Po Ku, arrived in Xian, bearing special news. This piece of news got Chou into Chiang’s bedroom on Christmas Day. Chou told Chiang that his son Ching-kuo “would return.” It was only after receiving this promise from Stalin that Chiang agreed to the Reds’ demands, and invited Chou “to come to Nanjing for direct negotiations.” From this moment on, the CCP stopped being officially regarded as bandits, and was treated as a proper political party.

The Chiang — Chou meeting in Xian was brief, but it wrapped up the Reds-for-son deal that Chiang had been working on for years. This marked the end of the civil war between the CCP and the Nationalists.

THAT AFTERNOON the Chiangs left Xian. So did the Young Marshal, flying voluntarily into house arrest. Chiang was at the peak of his popularity. When his car drove into Nanjing, spontaneous crowds lined the streets to hail him. Fireworks crackled all night long. People who experienced those days say that Chiang’s prestige shone like the midday sun. Yet his triumph was short-lived, and the deal that regained his son rebounded against him. His calculation that he could contain Mao and outsmart Stalin was wishful thinking. Mao was uncontainable — and the small CCP had just been promoted to a major “opposition party.”

The Young Marshal’s bitterness against Moscow and the CCP flared briefly during our otherwise very friendly meeting with him fifty-six years later. When we asked him whether the Chinese Communists had told him about the real Soviet attitude towards him before the coup, he snapped back with sudden hostility: “Of course not. You ask a very strange question.”

Mao later tried to claim that the Comintern’s cable of 16 December “was garbled, and could not be decoded,” and that the CCP asked Moscow, on the 18th, to retransmit it. This has to be a fabrication. Radio operators at the core of CCP operations told us that the standard procedure was that if a cable was illegible, they would instantly ask Moscow to retransmit and would definitely not wait for two days — least of all at a time of crisis. Mao told his Politburo on the 19th: “Comintern instructions have not arrived.”

Since then, he has become one of the biggest legends in Chinese history, the subject of endless books and articles, and both admired and denounced. But even his adversaries hardly mention his machinations with the Russians, or that these were the result of personal ambition. To the end of his long life he claimed that the kidnapping was inspired by “pure motives.” To us in 1993, he said: “Mme Chiang understood me well … she said I didn’t want money, I didn’t want territory, I only wanted sacrifice [sic].”

18. NEW IMAGE, NEW LIFE AND NEW WIFE (1937–38 AGE 43–44)

AS SOON AS the dust from the kidnapping settled, in January 1937 Moscow told Mao exactly how it viewed the next stage. The CCP was to abandon its policy of trying to overthrow the government by violence, and stop confiscating land and robbing the rich; instead, it would in effect recognize Nanjing as the legitimate government, and put the Red territory and Red Army under Chiang. Mao accepted the shift as a purely tactical expedient, and the CCP made a public pledge to Nanjing that embodied the policy changes willed by Moscow. This opened a new phase for the Party.

As a quid pro quo, Chiang was to assign some territory to the Red Army, and fund the Communist administration and army. Mao naturally went all out to get the largest possible swath of territory and the highest level of funding. In the end, the Reds were allocated 129,600 square kilometers of ground, with a population of about 2 million, and Yenan as their capital. This settlement brought substantial government funding. Chiang also armed and paid for over 46,000 regular Red troops (the number he officially recognized).

In order to help Mao achieve these gains, Stalin held on to Chiang’s son. Not until he was satisfied about Chiang’s concessions did he deliver. On 3 March the Soviet Politburo decreed, in its peculiar crabbed idiom, “Not to oppose the return to China of Chiang Kai-shek’s son.” Ching-kuo returned to China on 19 April, and was reunited with his father after more than eleven years as a hostage.

During the week-long train journey across Siberia, Ching-kuo was in the custody of the future CCP intelligence chief, Kang Sheng. Only a few weeks before, Kang Sheng had brought Mao’s sons from Paris to Moscow. An-ying and An-ching, aged fourteen and twelve, had been waiting for Russian visas in Paris for months. The Russians had not wanted to admit the Young Marshal’s envoy, who was escorting them, but had not wanted to give a straightforward refusal, so they withheld visas for the whole group. After the Xian kidnap was over, the envoy was told he would not get a visa. The Mao boys arrived in Moscow at the beginning of 1937, and became boarders in the special school for children of foreign Communist leaders. They wrote to their father, sending photos. He rarely replied.

WHILE MAO’S ATTITUDE to his sons was one of indifference, Chiang Kai-shek’s amounted to obsession. In February 1937, when Stalin was still holding Ching-kuo, and Chiang was impatiently waiting for him to be returned, the Generalissimo did another favor to the CCP, which had far-reaching repercussions. He appointed the mole Shao Li-tzu (who had taken Chiang’s son to Russia in 1925) as head of the Nationalists’ Propaganda Department, in charge of the media. Shao’s job was to bring about a change of attitude in the press and in public opinion, which were both fiercely anti-Communist. It was an enormous gesture of good will to Moscow.

Soviet Russia henceforth received wide and enthusiastic coverage. A benign and positive image of the Chinese Communists began to emerge. By summer, Shao and Mao had concocted the idea of publishing a Mao autobiography portraying Mao as a good and kindly man, complete with an appendix of his pronouncements on war with Japan that depicted him as committed to fighting the Japanese. Mao wrote an inscription in the tone of an ardent patriot: “Fight the Japanese imperialists unwaveringly through to the end …” The book came out on 1 November and was a hit. It was this period that gave birth to the myth, which was vital to Mao’s success, that the CCP was the most dedicated anti-Japanese force. It was thanks to this myth that many tens of thousands joined the Communists, including many of those who were later to staff Mao’s regime.

The Mao Tse-tung Autobiography consisted largely of interviews Mao had done with the American journalist Edgar Snow in summer 1936—the only extensive account of his life Mao ever gave. Snow also produced his own book, Red Star Over China, which relied overwhelmingly on interviews with Mao and other Communists, and laid the foundation for the rehabilitation of the Reds, not least by brushing out their blood-soaked past.

The encounter with Snow was no accident. That spring, Mao had asked the Shanghai underground to find a foreign journalist who could publicize his story, plus a doctor. After careful vetting, Mao invited Snow, who combined all the necessary qualities: he was American, wrote for the influential Saturday Evening Post and New York Herald-Tribune, and was sympathetic. Snow arrived in the Red area in July, with a Lebanese-American doctor, George Hatem, who brought top-secret documents from the Comintern in his medicine case. Snow stayed for three months, while Hatem remained with the Reds for the rest of his life, becoming one of Mao’s doctors, and working in the CCP’s foreign intelligence apparatus.

Mao left nothing to chance, and dictated detailed instructions on handling Snow’s visit: “Security, secrecy, warmth and red carpet.” The Politburo carefully coordinated answers to a questionnaire Snow had to submit beforehand. Mao offered Snow a mixture of valuable information and colossal falsification, which Snow swallowed in toto, calling Mao and the CCP leadership “direct, frank, simple, undevious.” Mao covered up years of torture and murder, such as the AB purges, and invented battles and heroism like the crossing of the Dadu bridge in the trek across China, astutely now titled “the Long March.” He led Snow to believe that, except when he was ill, he had “walked most of the 6,000 miles of the Long March, like the rank and file.” Mao also completely suppressed his links with Moscow, and claimed he wanted friendship with America — a claim that fooled many.

Mao took the added precaution of checking everything Snow wrote afterwards, and amending and rewriting parts. On 26 July 1937 (before Red Star came out) Snow wrote to his wife Helen, who was then in Yenan: “Don’t send me any more notes about people reneging on their stories to me … As it is, with so many things cut out it begins to read like Childe Harold.” Snow omitted to mention this background in Red Star, and instead alleged that Mao “never imposed any censorship on me.” The Chinese edition even gilded Snow, and had him say that he found Mao’s words “honest and true.”

Red Star was published in English in winter 1937–38, and played a big role in swaying Western opinion in favor of Mao. The CCP organized its publication in Chinese, under the title Stories of a Journey to the West, to make it appear impartial. In addition to this book and the Mao Tse-tung Autobiography, a third book was produced out of the Snow material, under another neutral-sounding title, Impressions of Mao Tse-tung.

Red Star—and the two books of edited excerpts — profoundly influenced radical youth in China. Many, like one of the first Tibetan Communists, joined the Communists as a result of reading Snow. It was the beginning of the CCP’s renaissance. Mao was to say that its publication “had a merit no less than the Great Yu controlling floods.” The Great Yu was the mythical emperor who had brought floods under control, thus starting Chinese civilization.

As Chiang Kai-shek’s media chief, Shao played an indispensable role in assisting Snow and promoting Mao and the Reds. By the time Chiang removed Shao from the post after nearly a year, Mao and the Reds had sanitized their image.

FOR THE NEXT DECADE, Mao lived in Yenan, the capital of the territories Chiang assigned to the Reds. He moved into the city on New Year’s Day 1937, through a huge gate, which majestically and silently opened up to columns of Red Army soldiers, marching along the broad dirt road that stretched into the infinity of yellow earth. This ancient city (whose name means “extending peace”) was enclosed by high thick walls that mounted the chain of loess hills far above the city, with battlements exuding warrior stateliness. In dry, crisp air beneath a high blue sky, it was dominated by a nine-story pagoda, built 1,000 years before. Beneath the pagoda was a complex of temples, many appearing to be clinging to the cliffs. Further down, the heavily silted River Yan was joined by the Tu Fu River, named after the great eighth-century poet, who reputedly came here to admire the peonies, a local claim to fame.

Yenan was not only a cultural center, but also a hub of commercial activities. Oil had been discovered in the region. Living quarters built by Standard Oil were now taken over by the Reds, who also appropriated substantial buildings owned by the Spanish Franciscans, including a just-completed cathedral, in which many key Party meetings were to take place. The problem of housing was further eased by the fact that many locals had fled, particularly the relatively wealthy, leaving empty hundreds of houses, some large and beautiful. Mao occupied one such mansion in a place called Phoenix Village. The big courtyard was by local standards grand, with a decorated wall immediately inside, facing the gate, to ward off evil spirits — and for privacy. For the first time in over two years, he settled into some comfort.

One considerable luxury for its place and time was wall heating, which Mao had installed. The usual way of heating a house in northern China was to heat the brick bed, the kang, from underneath, but Mao preferred his proper wooden bed, and for heating, he selected this most deluxe form. Another indulgence was to have several residences. When he later moved to an area called Yang Hill, he kept the house in Phoenix Village, and he kept both when he settled in the compound of the Chinese KGB, the picturesque area known as the Date Garden. In addition to these publicly known residences, Mao had secret dwellings built in secluded valleys, one behind Yang Hill and another behind the Date Garden. Few knew of their existence, then or now.

The most public residence was Yang Hill, which was also the least grand, and closest to the local peasants. Ten households lived in the face of a ravine, against a hill thickly wooded in those days with elms, cypresses and redwood poplar. The houses were yao-dong, unique to this part of the country, which looked like caves hollowed out of the loess slopes. Mao had a row of yao-dong in a courtyard with a small gate surmounted by a tiled roof. One of his neighbors, a peasant family, did the laundry for him. Mao’s cook he had brought with him, for security — as well as culinary — reasons. He also declined to share the peasants’ stone roller for grinding his grain: “Chairman Mao considered things from a safety point of view,” the locals told us. He was surrounded by very tight security, some visible, some not.

For Mao, Yenan provided the first relatively stable and non-violent period for nearly a decade. With peace and a rather good life — and the sudden availability of glamorous, educated young women, who were beginning to trickle into Yenan to the lure of the Reds’ benign new image — Mao started to womanize more or less openly. He confided to a fellow-philanderer that he could only go without sex “for forty days at the most.”

ONE OF THE FIRST young women on the scene was a beautiful (and married) 26-year-old actress, Lily Wu, who arrived in early 1937 and became the star actress of Yenan. Her elegant clothes and manners turned heads in this back-country region, and her flowing, shoulder-length hair, in particular, was the symbol of desirability. Communist women mostly wore bulky uniforms and had shaved off their hair to get rid of lice. Mao started a relationship with her.

Lily struck up a friendship with a visiting American writer, Agnes Smedley, who was an outspoken radical feminist. Smedley had worked for the Comintern, but was something of a loose cannon, and Moscow had sent instructions “to isolate her.” Even so, and although she found that Mao had a “sinister quality,” both “feminine” and “physically repulsive,” Mao cultivated her, and gave her a long interview, because she was American. Mao sent a copy of the interview to Snow, asking him to give it “wide publicity.”

While Lily Wu’s good looks stirred Mao’s lust, the much less good-looking Smedley caused a tornado by organizing square-dancing, accompanied by phonograph records. The dances were swamped. At first, Smedley observed, “Pride prevented him [Mao] from trying to dance. He had no rhythm in his being.” He basically just “walked the floor,” the women who danced with him noted. But he soon came to see the advantage of the dances as a form of exercise — and as a way to pick up women. Weekly dances were organized, some in the open air, others in a former church. Yenan went wild about dancing.

Together with other Long March women, Mao’s wife, Gui-yuan, at first refused to attend. According to Snow, “The close embrace of bodies involved seemed positively indecent to the old guard.” Jealousy seems to have played a big — if unavowed — role. Also repressed was their secret fondness for this pleasure: Gui-yuan later came to love dancing and was good at it.

She found Mao’s womanizing intolerable. One night in June, Smedley heard Gui-yuan screaming from the adjacent cave, where Lily lived. “Son of a pig, turtle’s egg, whoremongering no-good! How dare you sneak in here to sleep with the little bourgeois bitch!” Smedley went next door and found Gui-yuan lashing out at Mao with a flashlight, while his bodyguard looked on. Mao’s protestations that he had only been talking to Lily cut no ice. Gui-yuan turned on Lily, scratching her face and pulling her hair, while Mao stood by.

Gui-yuan then rounded on Smedley. “Imperialist bitch!” she cried. “You who are the cause of it all, get out of here!” She hit Smedley, who hit her back. Gui-yuan was felled to her knees, and appealed to Mao: “What kind of man are you, what kind of husband and Communist? You let an imperialist whore beat me before your very eyes!” When Mao told his bodyguard to lift her up, Gui-yuan tripped the bodyguard and knocked him down, and in the end it took three bodyguards to carry her off, trailed by a silent Mao.

Smedley was soon sent packing. Lily was not simply banished from Yenan, but written out of Chinese Communist sources, and disappeared off the map forever.

Mao conducted other flirtations, including one with the writer Ding Ling. Though boyish and stout and not exactly a beauty, she had talent and character. Mao sent her a very complimentary poem which included the lines: “To what do I compare your slender pen? Three thousand Mausers and best men.” She recalled in later years how she often visited Mao. One day he half-jokingly compared Yenan to a small imperial court, and started writing down his colleagues’ names under the various imperial titles, which she shouted out to him. “After we finished this, he suddenly said to me: ‘Ding Ling, we have got the Hundred Civil and Military Courtiers sorted out. Now that we are a royal court, no matter how small, we’ve got to have the imperial concubines in Three Palaces and Six Courtyards! Come on, give me some names, and I will bestow titles on them.’ ”

For Gui-yuan, Mao’s flagrant womanizing was the last straw. Over their marriage of nearly ten years, she had had to live with her husband’s heartlessness. She was particularly hurt by his callousness towards her painful pregnancies and childbirth — including one on the Long March — and by his crack that she gave birth to babies “as easily as a hen dropping eggs.” And she was bitter that although he was indifferent to children, and had not cared when four of theirs had died or been abandoned, he repeatedly made her pregnant. Their fifth child, a daughter called Chiao-chiao, was born in 1936 in Baoan, where conditions were appalling, with scorpions and rats running all over the place. A year later, Gui-yuan was pregnant again, which plunged her into depression. Repeated child-bearing in harsh circumstances had severely damaged her health, without the compensation of family life. Now, on top of this, her husband was openly sleeping with other women.

After the Communists settled in Yenan, some senior Reds who had been wounded were able to go to Russia for treatment. Ostensibly to get rid of the painful shrapnel still lodged in her body, Gui-yuan left for Russia in early October 1937. Their one-year-old daughter remained in Yenan.

Gui-yuan reached Moscow in the depths of winter. She and the other new arrivals were immediately warned by fellow Chinese there not to get in touch with anyone they had known previously. A great purge was sweeping Soviet Russia, and many Chinese were being arrested. It was in this freezing world of isolation and fear that she gave birth to a boy, to whom she gave the Russian name Lyova. He died of pneumonia after only six months, and Gui-yuan sank into inconsolable grief. For days she sat on a bench facing the tiny mound where he was buried in the back garden, murmuring his name, weeping.

There was no warmth from her husband. When the baby was born, she had written to Mao to say that the boy looked just like him. Mao did not reply. No word either for his son’s death. Then, in summer 1939, nearly two years after they had parted, Gui-yuan learned by chance that Mao had remarried. She and a group of non-Russian-speaking Chinese met regularly to have items from the Soviet press read out to them in Chinese. On this occasion, the translator was reading an article by a famous Russian film-maker, Roman Karmen, about meeting Mao. Karmen mentioned that Mao and “his wife” had seen him off outside their cave in moonlight. The phrase “Mao’s wife,” so casually mentioned, set Gui-yuan’s stomach churning. In the following days, people who shared a room with her said she was tossing and turning all night. She was already suffering from severe insomnia. Now she came to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Her condition worsened further when she received a brief letter from Mao. It was dry stuff: hope you will study hard and make progress politically. In one lapidary sentence Mao announced the dissolution of their marriage: From now on, we are only comrades.

Because he had remarried, Mao did not want Gui-yuan back in China. When the friends with whom she had traveled to Russia were returning to China in 1939, a cable from Yenan specifically ordered her to stay behind. As a result, the infant daughter she had left in Yenan spent her first few years as a virtual orphan. Chiao-chiao had had to live as a boarder in the elite’s nursery. When the other children were taken home by their parents at the end of the day, nobody came for her. Later in life she recalled that there was also a boy who always stayed behind. He would cry and shout: “I want Papa! I want Mama! I want Home!” Chiao-chiao had no idea what these words meant. As a grown-up, she told a friend, quietly but not without an edge: “In those days, I was an ‘orphan’ who was not exactly an orphan!”

When she was four, Chiao-chiao was taken to Russia to join her mother. Gui-yuan hugged her daughter long and hard when they were reunited, in streams of tears, which made Chiao-chiao extremely happy. She was also fascinated by her mother’s permed hair, skirts, and leather shoes with heels, all very different from the women in Yenan, who wore baggy pants and un-smart cotton shoes, attire that even those who came to Yenan from Nationalist cities had to adopt. But Gui-yuan was already crushed by poor health, the result of frequent pregnancies, injuries suffered during the Long March, and painful memories of her dead and abandoned children, as well as years of grinding loneliness. The horrors she had experienced in the revolution may also have haunted her mind. Soon she had a breakdown, and the brunt of her rage was borne by her daughter; other children often heard Chiao-chiao screaming as her mother beat her. Gui-yuan was put in a mental institution, howling as she was torn away from her room and bundled into a car. Her terrified seven-year-old daughter ran away and hid in the woods, and grew into an introverted and silent girl.

IN SUMMER 1937, before Gui-yuan left for Russia, Mao had spotted a young actress called Jiang Qing, who was to become his fourth wife. Jiang Qing cut a stylish figure even in Communist garb, her belt tightly cinching her svelte waist, and her rakishly tilted army cap exposing waves of shining black hair. She exuded femininity and sexiness. She had a soft and pliant posture and a very sweet — to some an affected — voice.

Born in 1914, Jiang Qing was the daughter of a concubine to an alcoholic inn-owner. Her mother let her grow up willful, even allowing her to unbind her feet, after the bones had been broken when she was six. Jiang Qing was tough, and in the frequent fights between her parents she would help her mother by clinging to her father’s legs and biting his arms. In one of these fights she lost part of a front tooth. Her fellow pupils recalled her as a bully, and she was expelled from school at the age of twelve after she spat at a teacher. She ran away from home at fourteen to join a traveling opera troupe, fetching up in Shanghai, where she made her name as an actress. But acting was a precarious career, and in summer 1937, out of work and unable to stand her lover’s seven-year-old son, she came to Yenan, which also appealed to her radical chic side.

She knew how to get herself noticed, sitting in the front row at Mao’s lectures, and asking wide-eyed questions. One day, Mao came to a Peking opera — a genre he loved — in which she was starring. Afterwards, he went backstage and put his coat around her shoulders. Next day she went to Mao’s place to return the coat, and stayed the night.

The couple began to appear in public together. This caused a scandal, as she was a woman with a past. She had already been married to, or lived with, four men, and had left a trail in the Shanghai gossip columns. Her stormy relationship with one of her husbands had provided fodder for the tabloids, especially after he tried to commit suicide by gulping down a bottle of surgical spirit with crushed match heads in it.

If cosmopolitan Shanghai found her difficult to stomach, puritanical Yenan positively gagged. On top of that, there was also tremendous sympathy for the woman she supplanted. One of Gui-yuan’s former Long March companions recalled: “The students in my college were all upset. Some wrote to Mao openly, some wrote secretly … I wrote three letters. They went roughly like this: Chairman Mao, we hope you won’t marry Jiang Qing. [Gui-yuan] is in very poor health, and you have had five or six children together … Jiang Qing’s reputation is pretty bad.”

For the Party, there was a more serious concern. Jiang Qing had once been imprisoned by the Nationalists as a Communist suspect, and had got out by signing a recantation — an act that the Party considered as “betrayal.” Moreover, there were allegations that she had entertained her jailers by being their dinner — and even their bed — companion. Underground organizations in Shanghai and other areas wired Yenan with formal complaints that she was “unsuitable to marry Chairman Mao.” Nominal Party chief Lo Fu wrote to Mao with his own objections and those of many others. When Mao received the letter, he tore it up on the spot and announced to the messenger: “I will get married tomorrow. Everyone else can mind their own business!” Next day he gave a “wedding” banquet to two dozen of Yenan’s elite, to which Lo Fu was not invited.

Mao got security chief Kang Sheng to vouch for Jiang Qing. While working in Russia, Kang had been the escort for Mao’s sons to Moscow, and for Chiang Kai-shek’s son on his way out of Russia. He had come to Yenan in November 1937, and quickly attached himself to Mao, who made him the head of his KGB. In this world of yellow earth, Kang stood out as he was often dressed completely in black, from head (black cap) to toe (unusual leather riding boots). His horse was black, and he was frequently seen cuddling a black dog, which was about the only pet around. Although Kang had proof that Jiang Qing’s conduct while in prison had been dubious, he provided Mao with an official verdict which cleared her by saying that “her past is no problem politically.” In fact, Mao knew that the charges were true, as he acknowledged near his death. But he did not care. He wanted her.

Mrs. Mao number 4 was to become the notorious Mme Mao.

Before Ching-kuo left Russia, he was worked on by Stalin in person, as well as being subjected to a blitz of blandishments and threats by Dimitrov. Ching-kuo played along, cabling Dimitrov en route that: “All your instructions will be fulfillled.” When he reached Vladivostok he was taken to the KGB office, where he performed his last formal act of obeisance to Moscow, promising: “I will strictly follow Party discipline.”


ON 7 JULY 1937, fighting broke out between Chinese and Japanese troops at a place just outside Peking called the Marco Polo Bridge. By the end of the month the Japanese had occupied the two main cities in northern China, Peking and Tianjin. Chiang did not declare war. He did not want a full-scale war — not yet, anyway. And neither did the Japanese.

At this point Japan did not aim to extend the fighting beyond northern China. Yet, within a matter of weeks, all-out war had broken out 1,000 km to the south, in Shanghai, a place where neither Chiang nor Japan wished, or planned, to have a war. Japan had only some 3,000 marines stationed near Shanghai, under the 1932 truce agreement. Tokyo’s plan until mid-August remained: “Army to North China only.” It added specifically: “There is no need to send the Army to Shanghai.”

The well-informed New York Times correspondent H. Abend wrote afterwards:

It was a commonplace … to declare that the Japanese attacked Shanghai. Nothing was further from their intentions or from the truth. The Japanese did not want and did not expect hostilities in the Yangtse Valley. They … had so small a force there even as late as August 13th … that they were nearly pushed into the river on the 18th and 19th.

ABEND REALIZED that there were “clever plans to upset the Japanese scheme for confining the hostilities entirely to North China.” He was right about there being “clever plans”—he was only wrong about one thing: the plans were not Chiang’s (as Abend thought), but almost certainly Stalin’s.

Japan’s swift occupation of northern China in July posed a very direct danger to Stalin. Tokyo’s huge armies were now in a position to turn north and attack Russia anywhere along a border many thousands of kilometers long. The year before, Stalin had publicly identified Japan as the principal menace. Now, we believe, he activated a long-term Communist agent in the heart of the Nationalist army, and detonated a full-scale war in Shanghai, which drew the Japanese inextricably into the vast heartland of China — and away from Russia.

The “sleeper” now wakened was a general called Zhang Zhi-zhong (whom we shall refer to as ZZZ), commander of the Shanghai — Nanjing garrison. In 1925 he had been a teacher at Whampoa, the Russian-funded and Russian-staffed military academy near Canton. From the day of its founding, Moscow made a determined effort to plant high-level agents in the Nationalist military. In his memoirs, ZZZ acknowledged that: “In summer 1925 I was completely in sympathy with the Communist Party, and … was called ‘red teacher,’ ‘red regiment commander’ … I wanted to join the CCP, and told Mr. Chou En-lai.” Chou told him to stay in the Nationalists and collaborate “covertly” with the CCP. During the mid-1930s, ZZZ kept in close contact with the Soviet embassy.

At the time of the Marco Polo Bridge clash, ZZZ held the pivotal job of chief of the Shanghai — Nanjing garrison. He tried to talk Chiang into launching a “first strike” against Japan — not in northern China, where the fighting was, but 1,000 kilometers to the south, in Shanghai, where the small Japanese garrison was not involved in any military action at this stage. Chiang did not reply to this proposal, even though ZZZ repeated it many times. Shanghai was the industrial and financial heart of China, an international metropolis, and Chiang did not want to see it turned into a battleground. Moreover, it was very close to his capital, Nanjing. He had even transferred troops and artillery away from the Shanghai area, to give Japan no excuse for war there.

At the end of July, right after the Japanese occupied Peking and Tianjin, ZZZ cabled Chiang again, arguing strongly for “taking the initiative” to start a war. After ZZZ said he would only do so if the Japanese showed unmistakable signs of attacking Shanghai, Chiang gave his conditional consent, stressing: “You must wait for orders about when this should happen.”

But on 9 August, at Shanghai airport, an army unit hand-picked by ZZZ killed a Japanese marine lieutenant and a private. A Chinese prisoner under sentence of death was then dressed in Chinese uniform and shot dead at the airport gate, to make it seem that the Japanese had fired first. The Japanese gave every sign of wishing to defuse the incident, but ZZZ still bombarded Chiang with requests to launch an offensive, which Chiang vetoed. On the morning of the 13th, the Generalissimo told ZZZ not to launch a war “on impulse,” but to “study and discuss” all the angles again, and then submit his plan. ZZZ pressed the next day: “This army is determined to start the offensive against the enemy at 5:00 PM today. Here is the plan …” On the 14th, Chinese planes bombed the Japanese flagship Izumo, as well as troops and navy planes on the ground, and ZZZ ordered a general offensive. But Chiang stopped him: “You must not attack this evening. Wait for order.”

When no order arrived, ZZZ outflanked Chiang by issuing a press release next day, claiming, falsely, that Japanese warships had shelled Shanghai and that Japanese troops had started attacking the Chinese. With anti-Japanese feeling running high, Chiang was put on the spot. The following day, 16 August, he finally gave the order: “General assault for dawn tomorrow.”

But after one day’s fighting, Chiang ordered a halt, on the 18th. ZZZ simply ignored the order and expanded his offensives. All-out war became unstoppable as large Japanese reinforcements began to arrive on 22 August.

The Japanese inflicted tremendous casualties. In Shanghai, 73 of China’s 180 divisions — and the best one-third — over 400,000 men, were thrown in, and all but wiped out. The conflict here consumed virtually all of China’s nascent air force (which Chiang so treasured that he had not sent a single plane to the northern front), and the main warships. It significantly weakened the military force Chiang had been painstakingly building up since the early 1930s. The Japanese suffered much fewer, though still heavy, casualties: about 40,000.

Once Chiang was forced into all-out war, Stalin moved with alacrity to bolster Chiang’s capability to sustain a war. He signed a non-aggression treaty with Nanjing on 21 August, and started to supply Chiang with weapons. China could not manufacture any weapons except rifles. Stalin advanced Chiang US$250 million for arms purchases from Russia, which included some 1,000 planes, plus tanks and artillery, and committed a sizable Soviet air force contingent. Moscow sent hundreds of military advisers, headed for a time by the Chinese-speaking General Vasili Chuikov, later of Stalingrad fame. For the next four years, Russia was not only China’s main supplier of arms, but virtually its only source of heavy weapons, artillery and planes.

Moscow was exhilarated by the turn of events, as the Soviet foreign minister, Maksim Litvinov, admitted to French vice-premier Léon Blum. According to Blum, Litvinov told him that “he [Litvinov] and the Soviet Union were perfectly delighted that Japan had attacked China [adding] that the Soviet Union hoped that war between China and Japan would continue just as long as possible …” Both of the Russians who dealt with ZZZ, the military attaché Lepin and Ambassador Bogomolov, were immediately recalled and executed.

ZZZ was quickly forced to resign, in September, by an angry, frustrated and undoubtedly suspicious Chiang. But the Generalissimo continued to employ him. When the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, ZZZ stayed with the Communists, as did super-mole Shao Li-tzu.

The outbreak of full-scale war between Japan and China brought Mao immediate benefits. Chiang Kai-shek finally acceded to the Communists’ key demand, which he had till now refused to consider — that the Red Army could keep its autonomy. Mao thus kept control of his own army, even though it was supposed to be part of the armed forces of the central government. Though Chiang was supreme commander of the Chinese army, he could not give orders to the Red Army, and had to couch his commands in the form of “requests.” In addition, the CCP was now, in effect, legitimized. Communist prisoners were released and the CCP was allowed to open offices in key cities, and to publish its own papers in Nationalist areas.

And yet this was just the beginning of Mao’s gains from the Sino-Japanese War, which lasted eight years and took some 20 million Chinese lives. It ended up weakening Chiang’s state enormously, and enabling Mao to emerge in possession of a giant army of 1.3 million. At the beginning of the war, the ratio of Chiang’s army to Mao’s was 60:1; at the end, it was 3:1.

HAVING MASTERMINDED the detonation of all-out war between China and Japan, Stalin ordered the Chinese Red Army to get actively involved, telling the CCP in no uncertain terms that it must cooperate properly with the Nationalists, and not do anything to give Chiang the slightest excuse not to fight Japan.

At this time, the Chinese Red Army had some 60,000 regular troops. Of these, 46,000 were in the northwest Red region, with Yenan as its capital. These were now renamed “the 8th Route Army” (8RA), led by Zhu De, with Peng De-huai as his deputy. Ten thousand were in the Eastern Yangtze valley in the heartland of China. These were guerrillas who had been left behind by the Long March, and they now became the “New 4th Army” (N4A). Xiang Ying, the head of the stay-behinds (and Mao’s old nemesis, who had argued vigorously against Mao being taken along on the Long March), became the head of the N4A.

From late August, the three divisions that made up the 8RA began to cross the Yellow River towards the front, which lay several hundred kilometers to the east, in Shanxi province. Red Army commanders as well as soldiers were very keen to fight the Japanese. So were most of the CCP leaders.

But not Mao. Mao did not regard the Sino-Japanese War as a conflict in which all Chinese would fight together against Japan. He did not see himself as on the same side as Chiang at all. Years later, he was to say to his inner circle that he had regarded the war as a three-sided affair. “Chiang, Japan and us — Three Kingdoms,” he said, evoking the period in Chinese history known as the Three Warring Kingdoms. The war was to him an opportunity to have Chiang destroyed by the Japanese. In later years he more than once thanked the Japanese for “lending a big hand.” When after the war some Japanese visitors apologized to him for Japan having invaded China, he told them: “I would rather thank the Japanese warlords.” Without them occupying much of China, “we would still be in the mountains today.” He meant every word.

Mao had no strategy to drive the Japanese out of China without Chiang. Nor could he dream that the CCP could cope with the Japanese occupying army once Chiang was defeated. All his hopes hinged on Stalin. Mao had made his calculation clear in an interview with Edgar Snow in 1936, saying that Soviet Russia

cannot ignore events in the Far East. It cannot remain passive. Will it complacently watch Japan conquer all China and make of it a strategic base from which to attack the USSR? Or will it help the Chinese people …? We think Russia will choose the latter course.

Mao’s basic plan for the Sino-Japanese War, therefore, was to preserve his forces and expand the sphere of the Chinese Reds, while waiting for Stalin to act. So when the Japanese pushed deeper into the interior from northern China as well as from the Shanghai area, Mao got Chiang to agree that the Red Army would not be put into any battles, and would operate only as auxiliaries to government troops. Mao did not want the Red Army to fight the invaders at all. He ordered Red commanders to wait for Japanese troops to defeat the Nationalists, and then, as the Japanese swept on, to seize territories behind the Japanese lines. The Japanese could not garrison the vast areas of China they conquered — which were eventually much larger than Japan itself. They could only control the railways and the big cities, leaving the smaller towns and the countryside up for grabs. Mao also ordered his men to round up defeated Nationalist troops in order to expand the Red ranks. His plan was to ride on the coat-tails of the Japanese to expand Red territory.

He bombarded his military commanders with telegrams such as: “Focus on creating base areas … Not on fighting battles …” And when the Japanese were sweeping across the province of Shanxi, he ordered: “Set up our territory in the whole of Shanxi province.” He said years later that his attitude had been: “The more land Japan took, the better.”

Mao’s approach met with resistance from his own commanders, who were keen to fight the Japanese. On 25 September the Red Army had its first engagement with the Japanese, when a unit under Lin Biao ambushed the tail end of a Japanese transport convoy at the pass of Pingxingguan, in northeast Shanxi, near the Great Wall. Although this was a minor clash — and against a non-combat unit, which, according to Lin, was mainly asleep — it was the first time Communists had killed any Japanese (outside Manchuria). If Mao had had his way, this fight would not have happened at all. According to a report Lin Biao wrote in 1941 in Russia (where he was receiving treatment for bullet wounds), Mao had repeatedly refused to authorize the action: “When battles started between the Japanese army and the Nationalist army, I more than once asked the CC [Central Committee: i.e., Mao] for a decision to organise a powerful strike against the Japanese. I never received an answer, and I ended up giving battle near Pingxingguan on my own initiative.”

Mao was furious about Pingxingguan. This fighting, he said, was “helping Chiang Kai-shek,” and had done nothing to advance his goal — which was to establish Red territory. But for propaganda purposes, Mao had Pingxingguan inflated out of all proportion in an effort to demonstrate that the CCP was more committed to fighting the Japanese than the Nationalists were. One reason the Communists kept citing it was because it was, literally, the only “battle” they had with the Japanese for years, one that killed a couple of hundred Japanese at the very most.

The Red Army had a few other small successes, as minor players in collaboration with Nationalist troops. But all the time, Mao was urging them to stop fighting the Japanese and concentrate on taking over territory. By mid-November, the first new Communist base in the Japanese rear was formed, near Peking, called Jinchaji, with a population of some 12 million, making it many times larger than the Yenan base. This and other huge Red territories “created the condition for our victory” in conquering China, Mao told a Japanese visitor years later.

STALIN, HOWEVER, wanted the Chinese Reds to fight Japan, and to get his policy enforced he flew his most loyal Chinese acolyte to Yenan in a special plane in November 1937. This was Wang Ming, who had been working for years in the Comintern as the CCP representative. Just before he left, Stalin called him in and laid down the line: “The main thing now is the war [i.e., to fight Japan] … when that is over we will face the question of how to fight each other [i.e., Reds fighting Chiang].”

Most CCP leaders agreed with Stalin’s line. When the Politburo met in December for the first time after Wang Ming’s return, Wang Ming became the champion of the “fight Japan first” policy. The Politburo decided that the Red Army must take orders from the national military HQ, of which Chiang was the head and the CCP a part. Mao argued against this. But faced with a clear order from Stalin, he had to accept.

Mao’s colleagues showed their disapproval of his agenda by making a decision that would oust Mao from his No. 1 position. Moscow had told the CCP to convene a congress, which was long overdue (the last had been in 1928). The person the Politburo chose to deliver the political report at the congress, which by strict Communist protocol devolved on the Party No. 1, was not Mao but Wang Ming. This was the Party leadership saying they wanted Wang Ming to be the future chief.

Although Mao was de facto leader of the Party, and was recognized by Moscow as such, his position was not formalized, most unusually for the ritual-obsessed Communist world. The Party chief was still nominally Lo Fu. Nor did Mao command the kind of unchallengeable awe that Stalin did.

Mao had also lost control of the core decision-making group, the Secretariat. For the first time since the break with the Nationalists in 1927, all of its nine members had come together in one place, and five of them did not support Mao. The leader of the majority opposition was Wang Ming. Xiang Ying, head of the N4A, had long been an outspoken opponent of Mao. Chang Kuo-tao, the man Mao had so massively sabotaged on the Long March, hated Mao. And Chou En-lai and Po Ku both backed Wang Ming. Chou was in favor of fighting Japan actively, and gladly went along with the majority. Mao was in the minority.

Wang Ming had Moscow’s authority, and the credentials of having been the Party’s representative there, of having met Stalin, and of having hobnobbed with international Communist leaders. Fluent in Russian, and wise to the Kremlin’s ways, he was also ambitious and ruthless. During the great purge in Russia, he had sent many Chinese Communists to prison or death. Though baby-faced, short and fleshy, this super-confident 33-year-old posed an acute threat to Mao.

Mao would often hark back with great bitterness to that December 1937 when Wang Ming prevailed. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that not once in his long life did he mention another event that took place at exactly the same time — a huge massacre in Nanjing, in which an estimated up to 300,00 °Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were slaughtered by the Japanese. Mao never made any comment, then or later, about this, the single biggest human tragedy of the Sino-Japanese War for his fellow countrymen.

After Nanjing fell on 13 December, Chiang Kai-shek established his temporary capital farther inland, at Wuhan on the Yangtze. Wang Ming went there as CCP liaison on 18 December, with Chou and Po Ku as his deputies. They formed a good working relationship with Chiang. Red Army commanders were going there too, to liaise with the Nationalists. Mao was marginalized in Yenan. He referred resentfully to his peripheral position as “house-sitting,” although this complaint masked a critical reality: he used this time and the fact that the others were deeply involved in the war, to build up Yenan as his fiefdom.

From Yenan Mao waged an unrelenting struggle to prevent the Red Army from acting on the plans made in the national HQ headed by Chiang. When Zhu De wired on 19 February 1938 to say that the 8RA HQ was moving east in line with the general plan, Mao tried to turn the army back, by claiming that the Japanese were about to attack Yenan. In fact, Japan never attempted to attack Yenan, apart from occasional bombing.

Zhu declined to turn back, saying that Mao was probably falling for a ruse whose purpose was precisely to entice the 8RA away from the front. Mao persisted, showering Zhu with telegrams ordering him and Peng back to Yenan: “In particular, you two must return.” Zhu and Peng replied with a definitive “No” on 7 March and continued east with their troops.

To stop Mao from constantly issuing orders that countermanded agreed strategy, the Politburo met again at the end of February. Wang Ming had demanded the meeting for this purpose — and to sort out another urgent matter. In January, under Mao’s aegis and without Chiang Kai-shek’s consent, the new Red territory of Jinchaji had been publicly proclaimed as a Red base. This had triggered off a wave of anti-communism in the country, with many asking: “What are we fighting the Japanese for? After Japan is defeated all we will get is a Communist takeover!” Wang Ming and his group in Wuhan were extremely unhappy about this in-your-face act by Mao.

Once again the majority of the Politburo sided with Wang Ming (and confirmed that he would deliver the political report at the forthcoming Party congress). The summary of the meeting, written by Wang Ming, said that the Red Army must be subject to “the supreme commander,” i.e., Chiang Kai-shek, with “completely unified command … unified discipline, unified war plans and unified operations.” Any new Red bases “must obtain the consent and authorisation of … the Nationalist government beforehand.” Wang Ming also said, most ominously for Mao, that: “Today, only the Japanese Fascists … and their running-dogs … and the Trotskyists are attempting to overthrow the Nationalists …”

These were Moscow’s words, and the charge was potentially deadly. So Mao pretended that he accepted the “fight Japan first” policy. He told Red commanders that they could take orders from the national HQ, and promised not to “interfere” in the future.

Mao was so nervous that he had been taking steps to prevent Moscow learning his real position. At the end of the December 1937 Politburo meeting, he had had all the participants’ notes confiscated under the pretense of “safe-keeping,” so that no one could cite him if they decided to report him. When a new envoy was sent to Moscow, Mao engineered for an ally of his, Ren Bi-shi, to get the job. Ren told the Russians that Mao’s policy was no different from Moscow’s.

In late January 1938 an emissary from the Soviet General Staff, V. V. Andrianov, had secretly visited Yenan — the highest-ranking Russian ever to do so. He had brought the huge sum of US$3 million (equivalent to roughly US$40 million today) for the specific purpose of building up the Red Army to fight the Japanese. Stalin had said he wanted the Chinese Red Army to have “not three but thirty divisions.” Moscow was ready to bankroll this huge expansion — for fighting Japan.

Andrianov asked Mao what his plans were for the war. Mao gave him a detailed, but false, account, saying that he intended to concentrate large contingents to strike the Japanese through “mobile warfare,” and claiming that the Nationalists were spurning his efforts to cooperate with them. He even tried to demonstrate his enthusiasm by suggesting that the Japanese — whom he portrayed as ineffective and suffering from low morale — were an easier foe to fight than the Nationalists.

This was a most precarious time for Mao. He could not have failed to register that Moscow had noticeably scaled down public praise of him in the previous year, and had criticized the CCP in a key text on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. His complicity in the kidnapping of Chiang was bound to make Stalin suspect him. Indeed, Stalin had been nursing suspicions that Mao might be “a Japanese agent.” Comintern officials who had had dealings with Mao were arrested and interrogated under torture. Comintern intelligence chief Osip Piatnitsky was one of them, and in April 1938, he named Mao as a conspirator in an alleged “Bukharin group.” Bukharin, the former head of the Comintern, was alleged to have spied for Japan.

The dossier on Mao included a denunciation of him as “the leader of Trotskyism in the inmost depths of the CCP”—a doubly menacing accusation, as Chinese Trotskyists were deemed to be Japanese spies. Moscow’s former top agent in China, Boris Melnikov, was accused of having recruited Mao and then gone over to the Japanese, along with other top CCP leaders. Stalin had Melnikov brought to the Kremlin for a face-to-face debriefing, and Melnikov’s execution was delayed for eight months while he was grilled about the CCP. It was during this period that a huge number of former Soviet agents in China were executed on the charge of being Japanese spies. Mao’s fate was in the balance.

From December 1937 to the end of 1939 more than 2,000 Russian pilots flew combat missions, destroying about 1,000 Japanese planes, and even bombing Japanese-occupied Taiwan.

Confirmed by Lin Biao himself in his report for the Russians of February 1941. The CCP “to this day exploits this battle for agitational [propaganda] purposes. In all our documents this is the only important battle cited …”

The other three members of the Secretariat were Lo Fu, Chen Yun and Kang Sheng.

When Wang Ming was still in Moscow, he told the Comintern that Mao “wired me repeatedly that they need money terribly [and] asked that you continue to send money every month.”

Piatnitsky was arrested on 7 July 1937, the day the Marco Polo Bridge incident occurred, leading to Japan’s attack on northern China and threat to Russia. The first recorded interrogation of him is dated 11 November 1937; that same day Stalin saw Wang Ming before the latter left for Yenan to press the CCP and Mao to fight Japan. These were unmistakable indications that the arrest of Piatnitsky had to do with the war with Japan, the CCP — and Mao.


ONE MAN who sought to exploit Mao’s vulnerability was Chang Kuo-tao. He had met up with Mao in June 1935 during the Long March, with an army 80,000-strong in contrast to Mao’s battered 10,000. He also had solid credentials to be the leader of the CCP. Over the next few months, however, Mao had methodically sabotaged his army, and monopolized the route north to link up with the Russians, leaving Kuo-tao to languish on the Tibetan border. By the time Kuo-tao reached Party HQin northern Shaanxi in October 1936, his army had been halved in strength and he had become very much the junior partner. Even so, Mao was bent on further weakening Kuo-tao, because his army was still twice the size of Mao’s, and he was still a potential rival.

That month, October 1936, when Mao dispatched the Red Army to try to open the way to the Russian arms supplies near the Outer Mongolia border, he designated Kuo-tao’s combat-hardened units to break through the Nationalist force blocking the route. When this operation failed, 21,800 of Kuo-tao’s troops — half of his remaining men — were cut off on the far side of the Yellow River. Moscow then floated the idea that the CCP might collect arms in another Soviet-controlled region, Xinjiang. The mission was hopeless, given that it involved crossing more than 1,500 kilometers, through uninhabited desert and territory held by a fierce anti-Communist Muslim army. But Mao jumped at this idea and assigned Kuo-tao’s stranded force to this doomed mission. The force was named the Western Contingent.

Mao managed to make the journey even more futile by issuing a stream of contradictory orders that drove the Contingent from one hellish locale to another, continually plunging it into pitched battles. Its commander recorded bitterly that the tasks assigned him by Yenan were “elusive and changeable.” When the Contingent cabled early in February 1937 from the middle of the desert that it could not hold out much longer, nor go on, and asked for permission to come to Yenan, Mao ordered it to hold on where it was, telling it to “fight to the last person and the last drop of blood.”

By mid-March the Contingent, once the backbone of Kuo-tao’s army, had been all but killed off. Those captured met horrible deaths. After one climactic battle in western Gansu, more than 1,000 were buried alive. Heart-rending photos were taken of a large group of unsuspecting prisoners before they were slaughtered. The 2,000 women were raped, some tortured and killed, others sold in the local slave markets. Of the original 21,800 men and women, only around 400 eventually made it to Xinjiang at the end of April, more dead than alive.

The extermination of this force allowed Mao to slam the lid on the coffin of Kuo-tao. Mao turned Kuo-tao, who was in Yenan, into the scapegoat, asserting that the Contingent had been following “the Chang Kuo-tao line.” But Moscow refused to support Mao’s attempt to get Kuo-tao kicked out of the Politburo. Still, Kuo-tao was denounced in front of his own officers.

Mao not only ended Kuo-tao’s political prospects, he ended the lives of the few of the Western Contingent who eventually made it to Yenan. A local official described what happened:

When they were chased into our [area], we first of all gave them a welcome party and took over their arms. Then we said to them: “Comrades, you have been through a lot. You are transferred to the rear to have a good rest.” We took them in batches into the valleys, and buried all these grandsons of turtles [i.e., bastards] alive.

It was such fun burying them. At first, we said to them with smiles: “Comrades, dig the pits well, we want to bury Nationalist troops alive.” They really worked hard, one spade after another, wiping sweat from their faces … After they finished, we shoved them and kicked them all in. At first, they thought we were joking. But when we began to shovel earth in, they started shouting: “Comrades, we are not Nationalist troops!” We cursed: “Sons of bitches. We don’t care whether you are Nationalist troops or not. We want you to die, and you die …”

At this point, the bragger was challenged: “I absolutely refuse to believe this was the order of the Party.”

But the man went on: “What! It was our regimental commander who ordered us to do this. And he said it was the order of Comrade Gao Gang [local Communist leader], who of course was carrying out the order of Chairman Mao. We only recognise Chairman Mao’s authority. Whatever Chairman Mao asks us to do, we do.”

Kuo-tao himself was subjected to multiple “torments … masterminded by Mao,” he later wrote. He was thrown out of his house by Mao’s secretary so that Mao could take it over, and his orderly was arrested. Mao even tormented Kuo-tao’s young son, who was cast as the leading Trotskyist Chang Mu-tao in a school play. Kuo-tao described arriving at the school to find “a group of people were ridiculing my son. Mao Tse-tung was also there, having fun. He cackled maliciously: ‘It fits perfectly to have Chang Kuo-tao’s son play the role of Chang Mu-tao.’ … I tore away the mask my son was wearing and led him away from the scene. I shouted in anger as I left: ‘Barbarians!.. Worse than beasts!’ ”

BY SPRING 1938, Kuo-tao was at the end of his tether. This was right at the moment when Mao’s own position was unusually weak, as he was out of line with Moscow’s orders to fight Japan. Kuo-tao spotted a chance to join hands with Wang Ming, who represented Moscow’s viewpoint. At the time, Wang Ming was in Wuhan, Chiang’s temporary capital, with Chou En-lai and Po Ku. On 4 April, in his capacity as chairman of the Red region, Kuo-tao left Yenan for a joint Nationalist — CCP ceremony at the tomb of the mythical Yellow Emperor, outside the base area. After the ceremony he drove off to Xian, and from there he went on to Wuhan to see Wang Ming and his colleagues.

This was the rarest of rare opportunities, with the majority of the core Party leadership, all in disagreement with Mao, out of Yenan at the same time, and thus out of Mao’s clutches. (Xiang Ying, Mao’s fiercest critic and the head of the N4A, was near Wuhan.) The content of Kuo-tao’s confabulations in Wuhan is one of the CCP’s most closely guarded secrets. Almost certainly, Kuo-tao argued for ousting Mao. Yenan later told Moscow that Kuo-tao had “tried to break the unity of the Party” when he was in Wuhan. But he left empty-handed, probably because the Wuhan trio did not believe that Moscow would stand for dumping Mao. Whereas Kuo-tao was desperate, Wang Ming was at the peak of his confidence, and it may have been hard for him to appreciate that Mao’s apparent acceptance of majority decisions masked a ferocious determination to claw his way back into control.

The talks went on for about a week. When Kuo-tao realized that he was getting nowhere, he decided to leave the Party for the Nationalists, which he did on 17 April. The Wuhan trio let him go. He then wrote to his wife, whom he had left behind in Yenan, pregnant, asking her to join him, with their twelve-year-old son. Mao stalled for two months, to make sure that Kuo-tao did no drastic damage, and then allowed them to leave.

These words of Mao’s reveal why he maneuvered so relentlessly to avoid entering Sichuan after the Zunyi Conference. They also show that he was prepared to kill huge numbers of fellow-Communist troops for his own ends. When Kuo-tao’s wife came to Wuhan, Chou advised her to tell her husband “not to burn his bridges with the Party.” Kuo-tao took notice. He had once been the head of the CCP’s Military Department, in charge of planting high-level agents in the Nationalist military, but he never revealed a single name to the Nationalists. In fact, he did little for them, and they were disappointed with him. His thousand-page-plus autobiography conspicuously failed to spill many beans. A sign that he kept his mouth shut was that after he fled the Mainland on the eve of Mao’s conquest of China, one of his sons was allowed back to go to university in Canton in the mid-1950s. He outlived Mao and died in an old people’s home in Toronto, Canada, in 1979, aged eighty-two, having converted to Christianity the year before.

Kuo-tao’s defection to the Nationalists allowed Mao to discredit him in the eyes of his army; he was promptly expelled from the Party. Some of his old followers in Yenan were “extremely dissatisfied,” Nationalist intelligence chief Tai Li reported to Chiang Kai-shek. They met in secret, whereupon Mao’s forces “liquidated them all there and then. About 200 were buried alive.”

Moscow waited two months before endorsing the expulsion. During this time, something most crucial for Mao happened: Stalin brought the Comintern purge to an end. Piatnitsky and Melnikov, who had implicated Mao as a Japanese spy, were executed (on the same day), along with a host of others connected to China. Mao’s dossier remained on file, ready to be resuscitated when Stalin needed it again a decade later. But for now Mao was off the hook.

As soon as Mao learned that the Kremlin had approved the expulsion of Kuo-tao, and that he himself was in the clear, he turned to tackle Wang Ming.

AT THIS POINT Mao had a major ally in Moscow, his old fellow plotter on the Long March, Wang Jia-xiang, the Red Prof. Mao had pushed hard and bombarded Moscow with requests for the Red Prof to go to Russia, ostensibly for medical treatment, ever since radio contact with Moscow had been established in June 1936. The Red Prof arrived there in July 1937, and became the CCP’s representative once Wang Ming returned to China. Now, in June 1938, Mao cabled the Red Prof to return. He was in the position to perform a signal service for Mao. Before he left, he saw Comintern leader Dimitrov, and in a conversation about Party unity, Dimitrov said that the CCP needed to solve its problems “under the leadership headed by Mao Tse-tung.” Mao was to use this single expression to reverse his personal fortunes — and Party policy.

The Red Prof returned to Yenan in late August. Mao immediately had him summon Wang Ming and the others to a Central Committee plenum “to hear the Comintern’s instructions.” This was the first time the Central Committee had been convened since before the Long March, well over four years before. Wuhan, the temporary capital, was under fierce attack by the Japanese. Yet Mao recalled the field commanders and top men to Yenan, which was a backwater. Wang Ming objected, saying this was no time for the entire Party leadership to be absent from the nation’s capital, and suggested holding the meeting in Wuhan. “I’m not going anywhere!” Mao declared. The Red Prof cabled Wang Ming threateningly: “Obey the Centre, or else.”

Wang Ming came reluctantly, on 15 September. The Red Prof first addressed the Politburo, quoting the remark Dimitrov had made, upon which Mao said that he would deliver the political report at the plenum — thus re-establishing his position as No. 1. Wang Ming offered no resistance. When the plenum opened on the 29th in Yenan’s Franciscan cathedral, the Red Prof, seated beneath Lenin’s picture on the altar, repeated Dimitrov’s words to the larger audience. Thus was planted in the minds of the CCP high command the idea that Moscow had explicitly endorsed Mao as their leader.

As a reward to the Red Prof, Mao gave him a slew of key posts, including vice-chairman of the Military Council. Mao also found the 32-year-old bachelor a pretty and coquettish bride, a 23-year-old medical graduate whose father had been an old friend of Mao’s. So, having made nominal Party chief Lo Fu a happy man with a petite and vivacious spouse, Mao had spun the “red thread” around another useful heart, locking two vital allies to his belt. Mao enjoyed matchmaking, and was shrewd about the ways of the heart, particularly in sexually inhibited men.

Mao now set about discrediting Wang Ming. However, shattering Party unity was something Moscow had specifically vetoed — and Wang Ming could be expected to fight back if attacked to his face. So Mao resorted to his old trick of dragging the meeting out until Wang Ming and other key opponents had left before he set upon them.

Mao strung the plenum out for almost two months, making it the longest ever, even though it took place in the midst of a national crisis during which not only Wuhan but also the Nationalists’ last major port, Canton, fell to the Japanese. Communist bases behind Japanese lines were threatened as well. Urgent pleas came flying in—“Emergency situation here. Please could Peng De-huai return soonest …”—but Mao refused to release the military commanders until he had achieved his goals.

Chiang Kai-shek moved his capital to Chongqing, further inland, where he was convening a new National Assembly for 28 October which Wang Ming was due to attend. Mao made sure that his plenum was still in session when Wang Ming had to depart for Chongqing — the same ploy he had used in 1929 to lay his hands on Red Fujian.

In order to prolong things, Mao insisted that every Politburo member make two virtually identical speeches — one to the Politburo and one to the plenum. He himself stalled his Political Report for two weeks, during which time participants were kept hanging around. When he finally spoke he was massively long-winded, and what with his habit of sleeping in the morning, he took up no less than three days.

By the end of October, all Mao’s most powerful opponents — Chou, Xiang Ying, Po Ku and Wang Ming — had left town. Once they had gone, Mao launched an onslaught on them, and especially on Wang Ming, for “following Chiang Kai-shek’s orders,” and even for the bloody purges in the Red areas before the Long March, when Wang Ming was not even there.

With his opponents absent, Mao imposed his policy on the plenum: to expand Red bases aggressively, and wage war on Nationalist troops if necessary. This was the first time that Mao spelled out his real intentions. There were many Nationalist troops behind Japanese lines, and they were competing with the Communists for territory. Hitherto, the policy had been to avoid fighting them and make unity with Chiang the priority. Mao had expressed complete agreement while Wang Ming was present, called Chiang Kai-shek a “great leader,” committed himself to placing new Red bases under the central government, and promised to “aim every gun at the Japanese.” He even proclaimed: “The Chinese nation has stood up! The state of being bullied, insulted, invaded and oppressed for 100 years … is over.” These words are almost identical to those he used at the time of the founding of Communist China in 1949, when he said: “the Chinese have stood up.” The 1949 remark is much quoted as — and widely assumed to be — a first. In fact, it was not. Moreover, when Mao originally used the phrase, China, in his words, was “under Mr. Chiang’s leadership”!

With Wang Ming gone, Mao told the top men that the Generalissimo was their ultimate enemy, and that they must start now preparing to seize power from him. The Red Army must strike Nationalist troops who stood in the way of its expansion. This was a milestone order to the top echelon: Chiang remains your enemy No. 1. You can open fire on Chiang’s army.

A KEY SUPPORTER of this approach was the future president, Liu Shao-chi, who had been running the underground network in northern China. Liu had spent two long periods in Russia, had met Lenin in 1921, and had had an affair with one of Lenin’s closest friends, Larisa Reysner. A man of considerable far-sightedness, Liu shared Mao’s hard-nosed strategy for seizing power. Immediately after the plenum, Mao made him Party chief of a large area in east central China where the N4A was operating — and thus the boss over Xiang Ying and the N4A.

Mao also had the support of Peng De-huai, the deputy chief of the 8RA, who could see that civil war was inevitable if the Reds were to expand — or even to stay on at all in some places. Zhu De, the 8RA chief, went along. Mao had secured the support of the chiefs of all the Red forces for his policy.

As his strategy directly contravened Stalin’s instructions, Mao was afraid that the news might be leaked to Wang Ming, and through him to Moscow. So he ordered his speeches to be kept absolutely secret. To seal the mouths of his audience, Mao produced two cautionary “Resolutions on discipline,” which banned anyone from “revealing secrets” to “anyone else inside or outside the Party.” This meant that participants could not tell their colleagues, even those who had attended the early part of the plenum, that Mao had just ordered civil war against the Nationalists. And no one dared tell Wang Ming the full story about Mao’s attacks on him.

To weave a blanket of fear, Mao relied on the later infamous security chief Kang Sheng. In Russia, Kang had supervised the purges of hundreds of Chinese, many of whom were tortured, executed, or worked to death in the gulag. He had been Wang Ming’s deputy on the CCP delegation to the Comintern, and had followed him closely. When the two first arrived in Yenan, Kang had led the shouting of “Long live our Party’s genius leader comrade Wang Ming!” at the security apparatus’s training sessions. But Kang had quickly realized Mao was the winner, and switched allegiance. It was now that Kang vouched for Jiang Qing, enabling Mao to marry her, forming a further bond between him and Mao. Mao made him the head of the CCP’s KGB, even trusting him to select his personal guards.

It was to this closely controlled Yenan that Wang Ming was ordered to return after the National Assembly session in Chongqing. He was made head of the United Front Department, nominally an important post, but was soon reduced to a figurehead. An eyewitness recalled seeing him in the street, “his head bent, his steps heavy … buried in his own thoughts.” But Wang Ming was not openly denounced, as his link with Moscow was strong. So, for the average Party member, he was still one of the leaders — and popular. Many recalled him being “a good orator whose speeches were very lively and rousing. Young people liked him.” Mao was no orator. Wang Ming remained his unfinished business.

FROM 1939, after Mao ordered the Party to adopt an aggressive stance towards the Nationalists, large-scale engagements were fought behind Japanese lines between Communist and Nationalist forces over territory, in which the Communists usually came off best. By January 1940 the 8RA, under Zhu De and Peng, had grown to at least 240,000 (from 46,000 at the beginning of the war). And the N4A, operating under Liu Shao-chi near Shanghai and Nanjing, had tripled, to 30,000. A score of sizable bases sprang up in the Japanese rear. The base of Jinchaji alone, only some 80 km from Peking, expanded to control a population of 25 million. At this point, with the war more than two years old, when realism had replaced initial patriotic ardor, many Red leaders came to admire the brilliance of Mao’s cold vision. Peng De-huai described Mao in a speech in February 1940 as “a wise leader with political foresight, who can foresee developments and is good at dealing with them.” And it was in this period that Chou En-lai made a total conversion to Mao.

Mao had done well for the CCP. But he had to keep Stalin on board. For many months, he concealed the clashes with the Nationalists from Moscow. He only owned up when the fighting had grown conspicuous and serious in June 1939, and then he claimed that it was purely self-defensive, portraying the Nationalists as intent on wiping the Communists off the face of the earth.

Mao knew how to play to his audience in Moscow. In spring 1939, Stalin had sent his top documentary film-maker, Roman Karmen, to Yenan to film Mao. Mao left a book of Stalin’s open in his study when Karmen arrived and then posed for a long take holding a text by Stalin, with a picture of the author prominent on the front cover. He toasted Stalin, saying that the only place abroad he wanted to go was Moscow, to see Stalin. When he bade farewell to Karmen at the entrance to his cave, in the dark, he made a point of asking which way Moscow lay, sighing deeply and then falling into a long silence. “With what warmth Mao talks of comrade Stalin!” Karmen wrote.

Most crucially, Mao had his men in Moscow to bolster his position — and to denigrate his foes. He had made sure that the CCP’s envoys in Moscow were his allies — first, the Red Prof, then Ren Bi-shi. As he embarked on a course of action towards Chiang that was in defiance of Stalin’s orders, he sent a string of additional emissaries, starting with Lin Biao, who went to Russia at the end of 1938 for treatment for bullet wounds. Lin had been shot by Nationalist troops while he was wearing a captured Japanese coat, and was mistaken for a Japanese.

Lin took with him only documents that Mao wanted Moscow to see, so Stalin was kept in the dark about Mao’s machinations and real policies. Lin built Mao up as “the solid, decisive and principled leader of the CCP,” badmouthing Chou as a “swindler” and Zhu De (“the former gendarme”) as “not one of us.”

Lin was followed in June 1939 by Mao’s brother, Tse-min, ostensibly also for “health” reasons — although, as the Russians observed, he did not spend a single day in the hospital. Tse-min’s main task was to undermine Wang Ming, whom he called “a scoundrel,” denouncing him for, amongst other things, exaggerating the strength of the Chinese Red Army in the presence of Stalin — a potentially deadly accusation. Another aim of Mao’s was to have Wang Ming’s role downgraded at the forthcoming Party congress. Wang Ming was scheduled to deliver the second report, on organization. But Tse-min told Moscow that Wang Ming was not the right person, making the false allegation that he “had never run practical org[anisation]work.” Tse-min also threw mud at other foes of Mao, like Po Ku and Li Wei-han, an old Hunan Communist leader, both of whom he accused of “major crimes,” saying they should be kept out of all leading bodies. He likened Po Ku to “opportunists, Trotskyists and bandits.”

Mao’s third “extra” emissary, Chou En-lai, arrived just as the war in Europe started, checking into the Kremlin hospital on 14 September for an operation on his right arm, which had been badly set after he broke it in a fall from a horse. Chou had just converted to Mao — an unconditional conversion that made him Mao’s very faithful servant from then on. He worked assiduously to build up Mao, and told the Russians that the CCP leadership “considered that he [Mao] must be elected GenSec [General Secretary].” He assured Moscow that the CCP’s policy remained that “the anti-Japanese war comes above everything else,” and that the Party was committed to “the united front” with Chiang. He detailed the expansion of Red forces and territory, larding his account with a number of exaggerated claims, such as that the 8RA had fought no fewer than 2,689 battles against the Japanese. CCP membership, he stated, had “increased sevenfold [to] 498,000” since the war had started.

While using Chou, Mao also made sure he was cut down to size. After visiting Chou in the hospital, Tse-min told the Russians that Chou held “unhealthy” views on relations with the Nationalists, and claimed Chou had opposed shooting the prominent Trotskyist Chang Mu-tao.

Mao was also worried about Otto Braun, Moscow’s adviser in China since before the Long March, who had come to Russia with Chou, and might tell the Russians things Mao did not want them to hear. Tse-min made a point of calling Braun’s tactics “counter-revolutionary”—an accusation that could well have got Braun shot. Braun, who survived, claims that this was the intention. Chou also weighed in, calling his former friend and close colleague “an enemy of the Chinese revolution.” (Braun described Chou as his “chief prosecutor.”)

Mao later accused his rivals of “running others down to foreign daddies.” But none of them engaged in anything remotely like the character assassination that Mao practiced.

According to a Russian archive source declassified in 2005, Mao told Stalin’s envoy Mikoyan on February 3, 1949 that the situation around the Zunyi Conference was “most unfavorable.” The reason Mao gave (which was false) was that Chang Kuo-tao, with an army of 60,000 men, “was on the offensive against us.” “But,” Mao said, “we annihilated over 30,000 of his troops.” (Tikhvinsky 2005, page 65)

Mao’s first celluloid image shown in Moscow seems to have been in 1935, when a news-reel of CCP leaders was screened before the 7th Comintern Congress. Comintern No. 3 Piatnitsky, later executed by Stalin, said he thought Mao looked like a “hooligan.”


ON 23 AUGUST 1939 the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, and the following month the two countries invaded Poland and divided it up between them. Many in China were outraged by Stalin’s deal with Hitler. These feelings were perhaps best articulated by the founding father of the CCP, Chen Tu-hsiu, the man who had set Mao on the path of communism, but had been expelled from the Party for being too independent. After years imprisoned by the Nationalists, he had been released with other political prisoners when the Nationalist — Communist “United Front” was formed in 1937. Now he penned a poem expressing his “grief and anger,” comparing Stalin to “a ferocious devil,” who

strides imperiously into his neighbouring country

… And boils alive heroes and old friends in one fell swoop …

Right and Wrong change like day and night,

Black and White shift only at his bidding …

The Stalin — Hitler Pact opened up the prospect that Stalin might do a similar deal with Japan, with China a second Poland. Indeed, at this very moment, the Kremlin signed a ceasefire with Japan, bringing to a halt fighting that had been going on between the Soviet Red Army and the Japanese on the border of Outer Mongolia and Manchukuo. The Poland scenario caused Chiang Kai-shek acute concern, which he raised with Moscow. Mao’s reaction, however, was one of delight. His whole strategy for the war with Japan was aimed at prevailing on Russia to step in. Now a real chance appeared that Stalin might occupy part of China, and put Mao in charge.

In late September that year, when Edgar Snow asked Mao how he felt about a Soviet — Japanese pact, Mao’s reply was enthusiastic. He said that Russia might sign such a pact “as long as this does not hinder its support for … the interest of the world liberation movement [i.e., Mao himself and the CCP].” Asked whether “Soviet help to China’s liberation movement may take a somewhat similar form” to Russian occupation of Poland, Mao gave a very positive reply: “It is quite within the possibilities of Leninism.” The Poland scenario was now Mao’s model for China.

Similarly, Mao hailed Russia’s seizure of eastern Finland in early 1940, though not for public consumption. In a secret directive on 25 June, he claimed that the Soviet — Finnish peace agreement, under which Moscow annexed large swaths of Finnish territory, “guarantees the victory of the world and the Chinese revolution” (italics added). After France was divided between a German-occupied half and a puppet regime based at Vichy, Mao again drew a comparison. He wrote in coded language in a circular issued to top commanders on 1 November 1940: “There is still the possibility of the Soviet Union stepping in to adjust China — Japan relations.” Referring to a partition of the kind imposed on France, he went on to talk about the Reds “getting a better deal [relying on] the Soviet Union stepping in to do the adjustment, and us keeping trying.” Again, Mao was hoping that Russia would partition China with Japan.

Mao even had an ideal demarcation line, the Yangtze, which flows across the middle of China. To his inner circle, Mao dreamed of “drawing a border … at the Yangtze, with us ruling one half …”

Replicating the Poland scenario was indeed at the front of Stalin’s mind, and Russia began talks with Japan in September 1939, right after the signing of the Nazi — Soviet Pact, with the future of China very much at the center of the negotiations. Stalin thus had a very direct interest in the expansion both of the Chinese Red Army and of Red territory, as that would strengthen his bargaining position vis-à-vis Japan, and further his long-term goals for the postwar period.

Over the winter of 1939–40 there was a marked shift in what Mao told Moscow about the armed clashes between the Chinese Reds and Chiang’s forces. He became much more candid about the level of fighting. Before Stalin’s pact with Hitler, Mao had been presenting the clashes as the result of Nationalist attempts to wipe out Communist forces, claiming that the Reds were acting in self-defence. After the Nazi — Soviet Pact, he began to seek Stalin’s approval for expanding aggressively at Chiang’s expense. On 22 February 1940 he sent a highly belligerent report to Moscow, saying that in fighting Chiang’s forces, “victory is generally ours.” “We wiped out 6,000 [Nationalists] in Hebei, 10,000 … in Shanxi,” he reported.

Stalin did not say “Stop!” On the contrary, three days later he authorized the huge sum of US$300,000 per month for the CCP. When Chou En-lai left Moscow shortly afterwards, he brought with him a new radio system for communicating with Moscow, which he delivered to Mao. Mao’s Russian-language aide noted: “Chairman Mao alone had the right to use it. He kept all communications personally, and decided to whom he would show the information.”

AFTER THE Nazi — Soviet Pact and the prospect that Stalin might do a similar deal with Japan, in September 1939 Mao initiated a long, close and little-known collaboration with Japanese intelligence, in the hope of further sabotaging Chiang — and preserving his own forces. The CCP operation was headed by a man called Pan Hannian, who worked with the Japanese vice-consul in Shanghai, Eiichi Iwai, a senior intelligence officer. Pan was given a special Japanese ID, addressed: “To all Japanese military, gendarme and police personnel: any enquiry regarding the bearer, please contact the Japanese Consul-General.” A radio operator from Yenan was installed in Iwai’s house, for direct contact with Yenan, though in the end this channel was not used, as it was considered “too risky.”

Pan supplied Iwai with information about Chiang’s ability to resist the Japanese, his conflicts with the CCP and his relations with foreign powers, as well as about US and British agents in Hong Kong and Chongqing. This intelligence rated high with the Japanese: one item reportedly sent the Japanese ambassador to China “wild with joy.” Before Japan invaded Hong Kong in December 1941, Iwai helped arrange the evacuation of CCP agents. As Pan assured Iwai, some of the agents would continue to collect intelligence for the Japanese, while others would come to Shanghai to “help with our ‘peace movement.’ ” The “peace movement” was Japan’s chief non-military drive to force China to surrender. One prominent organization in this scheme was the “Revive Asia and Build the Country Movement,” which Pan helped to start, funded by Tokyo and largely manned by secret Communists.

The Reds used the Japanese to stab the Nationalists in the back. “At the time,” one CCP intelligence man recalled,

our Party’s tactic with the Japanese and collaborators was: “Use the hand of the enemy to strike the other enemy …” Comrade Kang Sheng told us this many times … Collaborators’ organisations were filled with our comrades, who used the knives of the Japanese to slaughter Nationalists … Of the things I knew personally, the Japanese annihilation of the [Nationalist underground army] south of the Yangtze [was one of the] masterpieces of cooperation between the Japanese and our Party.

Apart from sabotaging Chiang, Pan’s other task was to get the Japanese to allow the Reds to operate unmolested, and this went as far as floating the idea of a secret ceasefire in northern China to Japan’s highest intelligence officer in China, Major-General Sadaaki Kagesa.

In east central China, a deal was struck under which the Communist New 4th Army left the railways alone in return for the Japanese leaving the N4A alone in the countryside. For years, Japanese trains ran smoothly, and the N4A expanded quietly. The underlying reasoning behind leaving the Reds in peace was spelled out to us by Emperor Hirohito’s brother, Prince Mikasa, who was an officer in China at the time. He told us that the Japanese view was that while the Communists could be a nuisance, they had no strategic importance. The Japanese considered Chiang Kai-shek to be their main enemy.

BY SPRING 1940, huge tracts of countryside in northern China were in Communist hands. In one series of battles in March, immediately after Stalin’s tacit go-ahead, the Communists concentrated 30,000–40,000 troops, and destroyed over 6,000 Nationalists. Having established a strong position in northern China, 8RA commanders Zhu De and Peng De-huai felt it incumbent on them to do something against the Japanese, and on 1 April they ordered preparations for large-scale sabotage operations against Japanese transportation lines. Mao refused to permit the attack. Instead, he ordered all available troops to be moved to east central China to seize more territory there. Zhu and Peng were forced to abandon their plan.

At this point, Chiang invited Zhu, who minded about the continuing internal strife, to Chongqing to discuss a solution. En route, Zhu stopped in Yenan, as Mao had told him that a Party congress was about to convene. Zhu found no congress — and no sign of one. Nonetheless, he was prevented from proceeding to Chongqing, and was in effect detained in Yenan for the rest of the war. Even though he was the C-in-C of the 8RA, he played no role in the war, and Mao basically used him as a rubber stamp.

Mao sent someone else to Chongqing — Chou En-lai, who was now the exclusive channel with Chiang. Mao had completed his stranglehold on communications with the two places that counted — Moscow and Chongqing.

At this time, in May 1940, the Sino-Japanese war entered a critical phase. The Japanese began to intensify their bombing of Chongqing, which soon became the most heavily bombed city in the world to date; over the next six months, the tonnage dropped on it equaled one-third of what the Allies dropped on all Japan throughout the Pacific War; up to 10,000 civilians died in one raid. The Japanese army meanwhile advanced up the Yangtze towards Chongqing. Tokyo demanded that France close the railway from Vietnam, and that Britain shut down the Burma Road — the only routes into now landlocked China other than from Russia. Both Western states acquiesced, on 20 June and 18 July, respectively (although Britain’s closure was only for three months). In Chongqing, sentiment strengthened for a deal with Japan. Chiang — and China — were facing a momentous crisis.

To Mao the crisis was a godsend — the worse the better. He said later that he “had hoped they [the Japanese] would go as far as … Chongqing.” That way, he reckoned, Russia would have to intervene.

But Peng De-huai, now de facto chief of the 8RA after Zhu’s quasi-detention in Yenan, wanted to take some of the heat off Chongqing, and resuscitated his plans for a large operation to sabotage Japanese transportation lines in northern China, calling it by the resounding name of “Operation 100 Regiments.” On 22 July he ordered the 8RA to get ready to launch on 10 August, and radioed the plan to Mao, twice. There was no reply. When Peng got no answer to a third cable, he gave the go-ahead for the 20th.

Peng knew that Mao would dislike his operation. Not only would it help Chiang, it would also hurt the Reds, as Tokyo was bound to retaliate against Red territories. Peng was putting country before Party.

The operation, which lasted about a month, mainly involved attacks on installations, not on Japanese troops. It took the Japanese “totally by surprise,” in their own words. Damage to railways and highways in some sections was reported as “extremely serious” and “on an indescribably large scale” (the sabotage work was carried out partly by corvée labor). The Jingxing coal mines, which supplied the key Anshan iron and steel works in Manchuria, were badly hit, and the main mine put out of action “for at least half a year.” The Japanese had to pull back one division from the front against Chiang, and briefly delay plans to capture two railways into southern China.

The main effect was on Chinese morale, especially in heavily bombed Nationalist areas. The Nationalist press there praised the 8RA for taking the offensive, and for “dealing a deadly blow to enemy rumours that we are split and sunk in internal strife.” From Chongqing, Chou cabled Mao that the operation had had “an extremely big impact.” “We are publicising it and propagating it everywhere … now is the time to spread our Party’s influence …” Mao milked the fall-out to the hilt.

But in private he was seething, partly because the operation led to heavy Red casualties—90,000, according to Zhu De. The Japanese took extremely harsh reprisals against Red-controlled territory, which was soon reduced by about half; the population under Red rule fell from about 44 to some 25 million. But Peng soon got the 8RA and the bases back on their feet. In slightly over two years, the 8RA more than recovered its pre-1940 strength, to 400,000 men, and Peng had rebuilt its base areas.

But what most infuriated Mao was that the initiative lessened the chances of Chiang’s defeat — and hence of Russia intervening. In future years, Mao was to make Peng pay dearly for this, the only large-scale operation carried out by any Communist forces during the whole eight years of the Japanese occupation.

MEANWHILE, IN SPITE of Japanese bombing, Chongqing still stood, and Chiang did not collapse. Mao had to find another way to try to draw the Russians in. Chiang now came up with a plan to end the Nationalist — Communist fighting by separating the two forces physically. By this time, the 8RA had control over most of the territories they could expect to lay their hands on in northern China, so fighting there had died down. The main theater of civil war had moved to the Yangtze Valley in east central China near Shanghai and Nanjing. Chiang’s plan called for the Red N4A to move out of the Yangtze region and join the 8RA in the north, in return for letting the Reds keep virtually all of the territory seized in northern China. On 16 July 1940, Chiang offered this trade-off, couched in the form of an “order,” and gave the N4A a deadline of a month.

Mao had no intention of giving up the rich and strategic heartland. He turned Chiang’s order-offer down flat. Actually, he positively hoped that Chiang would use force to remove the N4A, and that there would be all-out civil war. “Mao’s calculation,” Russian ambassador Panyushkin wrote, was that “if there is a civil war, the Russians would back the CCP,” and Mao wanted to “nudge such a development.”

In his many cables to Moscow that summer, Mao kept urging the Russians to help him deal “serious blows” to the Nationalists. Instead of moving north, the N4A launched its biggest-ever attack on the Nationalists at the beginning of October, at a place called Yellow Bridge, wiping out 11,000 Nationalist troops and killing two generals. Chiang did not order any retaliation, and kept quiet about the defeat, as he had after many other defeats at the hands of the Reds. Unlike Mao, Chiang was afraid of igniting an all-out civil war, which would doom China’s chances against Japan. He only reiterated on 19 October that the N4A must move to the “appointed areas” within one month.

Mao met this second deadline with silence. He wanted to goad the Generalissimo into resorting to force, so that an all-out civil war could start and, as Mao told Chou, “the Soviet Union would step in.” Again Chiang took no action. Mao knew the Generalissimo’s weak spots. He wrote to Chou on 3 November: “What Chiang fears most is civil war, and the Soviet Union. So we can bully him on this.”

On 7 November 1940, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mao appealed to Moscow with his most overtly bellicose proposition yet. Signed by himself, the cable was addressed to Dimitrov and Manuilsky, Mao’s main backer in the Comintern. Copies were sent to Stalin and defense minister Semyon Timoshenko. Mao’s plan was to dispatch 150,000 soldiers “to deliver a blow” at Chiang’s rear. He called this a “preventive counter-offensive,” i.e., he would fire the first shot.

Mao was asking Moscow to endorse his starting a full-scale civil war, in the thick of the Sino-Japanese War. The reason he felt able to venture this far now was his perception that the latest developments might cause Stalin to favor a strike at Chiang. The Kremlin was considering joining the Tripartite Pact of which Japan was a member, together with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. If Mao struck now, in effect forming a pincer attack with Japan on Chiang, Chiang might well collapse. If Mao contributed to the defeat of Chiang, this would greatly strengthen Stalin’s hand at the negotiating table with Tokyo.

Mao’s entreaty to Moscow to allow him to enter this unholy de facto alliance with Japan arrived as Soviet foreign minister Molotov was about to set off for Berlin, where one of his goals was to get Hitler to help Moscow muscle in as a major interested party in the Sino-Japanese War. Molotov’s agenda stated: “Discuss the necessity of reaching an honorable [sic] peace for China (Chiang Kai-shek), in which the USSR may with the participation of G[ermany] and I[taly] be ready to take on mediation … (Manchukuo stays for J[apan]).” Molotov then told the Führer: “[We] must find a compromise exit from the situation prevailing between China and Japan … in this regard the USSR and Germany could play an important role.” But the Führer was not interested.

The terms Japan offered on China did not begin to match Stalin’s expectations. Tokyo would agree only to “a Russian sphere of influence in Outer Mongolia and Xinjiang,” which was hardly alluring to Stalin, as these two places were already in his pocket. Japan also considered “recognising and accepting the three northwestern provinces (Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia) remaining a Chinese Communist base”—on condition that Russia agreed to “restrain the anti-Japanese activities of the Chinese Communists.” But this idea was again not nearly enough for Stalin, as the CCP was already occupying a much larger territory than these three provinces.

Moscow’s failure to strike a deal with Tokyo meant that Stalin’s priority remained staving off the possibility of a Japanese attack on Russia — and that meant Mao could not have his all-out war on Chiang yet. Stalin wanted a united China which could continue to bog down the Japanese. When Stalin dispatched General Chuikov as his new military adviser to Chongqing at this time, Chuikov asked why he was being sent “to Chiang Kai-shek, not the Chinese Red Army.” Stalin answered: “Your job is firmly to tie the hands of the Japanese aggressor in China.”

So the Kremlin line to Mao was: hold your fire. An order went off to him on 25 November: “for the time being, play for time, manoeuvre, and bargain with Chiang Kai-shek in every possible way over removing your forces from Central China … It is essential you do not initiate military action [i.e., against Chiang] …” But Moscow did authorize Mao to fight back if attacked: “However, if Chiang Kai-shek … attacks [you], you must strike with all your might … In this case, the responsibility for the split and civil war will fall entirely on Chiang …”

This left Mao with one hope: that Chiang would fire the first shot. But as deadlines for the N4A to move north came and went, Mao reached the conclusion that “Chiang launching a big assault is not a possibility …”

Having failed to provoke Chiang into firing the first shot, Mao now set up a situation in which Chiang’s finger would be forced to pull the trigger.

Mao’s remarks about the Polish model and a Soviet-Japanese pact did not go down well in Moscow. They were too unvarnished, and a harsh reproof ensued. “The provocative essence of this statement must be unmasked,” Comintern chief Dimitrov cabled Mao. “We urgently request that Mao Tse-tung and other Chinese comrades refrain from giving interviews to foreign correspondents like the interview with Edgar Snow, as this is being used for provocative purposes.” Mao kept his mouth shut in public, and Snow was barred from Red-held China until the Sino-Soviet split, in 1960.

The new system was highly effective. The Japanese could not even locate the radios, much less break the codes.

Mao’s deal does not seem to have extended to actual military cooperation in the field, though the Russian GRU chief in Yenan reported one occasion when Communist troops attacked Nationalist forces in Shandong in summer 1943 “in coordination with Japanese troops.”

Chuikov’s other role, which he did not mention in his memoirs, was to give Moscow an expert assessment of whether the Chinese Reds could take power after Japan was defeated.

22. DEATH TRAP FOR HIS OWN MEN (1940–41 AGE 46–47)

THE POLITICAL commissar of the New 4th Army, the Red Army based in east central China, was an old nemesis of Mao’s, Xiang Ying. A decade before, Mao had tried to have him eliminated when he opposed Mao’s torturing and killing in the AB purge. And Xiang Ying had warned against taking Mao along on the Long March, predicting that he would scheme to seize power. He had remained outspoken about Mao, sometimes even mocking him.

Xiang Ying’s HQ of about 1,000 staff and 8,000 escort troops was situated in a picturesque place called Cloud Peak, near perhaps the most strangely beautiful mountain in China, Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain, where, before one’s astonished eyes, the clouds run, dance, storm and melt at dazzling speed around Gothic-looking rocks. By December 1940, Xiang Ying’s group was the only part of the N4A south of the Yangtze, as Mao had sent 90 percent of the N4A north of the river, and put them under a separate headquarters run by his ally Liu Shao-chi.

That month, Mao set Xiang Ying’s group up to be killed by the Nationalist army, in the hope that the massacre would persuade Stalin to let him off the leash against Chiang. Months before, in July, the Generalissimo had ordered the N4A to move to northern China, an order Mao had defied. In December, however, Mao told Xiang to decamp, and cross to the north of the Yangtze.

There were two routes Xiang could take. The shortest ran due north (the North Route). The second would take him southeast, and then over the Yangtze much farther downstream (the East Route). On 10 December the Generalissimo designated the North Route, and Mao confirmed it to Xiang on the 29th.

The next day, Mao suddenly told Xiang to take the East Route, the one the Generalissimo had vetoed, but did not tell Chiang this, so Chiang thought the Reds would take the route agreed. On 3 January 1941 a cable arrived at Xiang’s HQ from the Generalissimo himself, specifying the itinerary and adding: “I have ordered all the armies along the way to ensure your safety.”

Xiang replied at once, saying he would not be taking the route Chiang had designated, and asking to have the East Route cleared instead. But this crucial message never got to Chiang — thanks to Mao. Mao had banned all Communist commanders from communicating with the Generalissimo direct, and had ordered all contacts channeled through himself. Xiang sent the message via Mao, and Mao did not send it on. So Xiang set off in wintry chill and rain on the night of 4 January 1941 along Mao’s chosen East Route not knowing that Chiang had never seen his cable.

Xiang and his troops walked right into a much larger Nationalist force, who had not been told that Xiang’s unit was coming, much less that it was only passing through, and thought this was an attack. Fighting broke out on the 6th. That day the local Nationalist commander, General Ku, gave orders to “exterminate” the Reds.

Xiang sent frantic telegrams to Yenan pleading for Mao to tell the Nationalists to hold their fire. But Mao did nothing. When Liu Shao-chi, who was with the main N4A force north of the Yangtze, wired Yenan on the 9th about the situation, Mao pretended ignorance, claiming that the last he had heard from Xiang was on the 5th, and “after that we do not know anything.”

During the most critical period of bloody fighting, the four days from 6 to 9 January, Mao claimed he received no communication. During those days, Xiang’s radio operators were sending out repeated, desperate SOS messages, and Liu Shao-chi had no problem receiving them. It is hard to believe that Mao’s communications had conveniently “broken down” just for the four days when the N4A HQ was being massacred. And even if there was some glitch, this cannot explain how Mao did nothing — for days — to resume contact. Mao had a history of using “radio trouble” as an excuse to suppress information (after the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek in 1936, Mao had claimed he was unable to receive a vital message from Moscow). For Mao, the greater the bloodshed, the greater his excuse to turn on Chiang; and he was sacrificing someone he was glad to get rid of anyway, Xiang Ying.

After Liu brought up the subject of the N4A’s plight on the 9th, Mao’s radio miraculously started functioning again. From that day, urgent pleas from N4A HQ began to be recorded. On the 10th the HQ entreated Mao: “on the brink of doom …” “Please could you quickly make representations to Chiang and Ku to call off the encirclement. Otherwise the entire force will be wiped out.” Mao sat still.

That same day, Xiang Ying again tried to cable Chiang, again via Mao. That plea too was withheld from the Generalissimo, as Mao revealed to his liaison Chou (on the 13th): “I did not send it on to you … This cable must absolutely not be passed on.”

On the evening of the 11th Chou was attending a reception in Chongqing to celebrate the third anniversary of the CCP’s New China Daily when a message arrived from Mao. Chou announced to the assembled throng that N4A HQ had been surrounded and attacked. But even now the telegram Mao sent was not an order to act; it was merely “for your information.”

It was only the next day that Mao finally instructed Chou to “make serious representations to have the encirclement called off.” But the level of crisis was carefully toned down (“they say they can still hold out for seven days” was a distortion of much more desperate reports days before). Chou did not make any serious protest until the 13th. By that time Chiang had stopped the killing on his own initiative, on the 12th.

On 13 January, after the massacre had ended, Mao suddenly came to life, telling Chou to crank up a PR campaign for a righteous all-out war against Chiang. “Once the decision is made,” Mao said, “we will strike all the way to Sichuan [Chiang’s base].”

“Now it is a matter of a total split … of how to overthrow Chiang.”

AS HIS ARMY was no match for Chiang’s, Mao could not possibly achieve these goals without Stalin’s intervention. Chou saw the Russian ambassador on 15 January to impress on him that the Reds needed bailing out. He was given the cold shoulder. In his classified memoirs, Panyushkin recorded his suspicion that Mao had set Xiang Ying up — and that Chou had been lying.

Mao, meanwhile, appealed directly to Moscow for all-out war against Chiang, with what a Russian intelligence source calls “one hysterical telegram after another,” claiming that Chiang’s plan was to wipe out first the N4A, then the 8RA, and then “crush the CCP.”

“There is a danger our army will be completely annihilated,” Mao told Moscow.

“Danger of civil war,” noted Comintern chief Dimitrov in his diary the day this cable arrived, 16 January, calling the N4A “our troops.” Moscow did not believe Mao’s claim that Chiang was about to try to “annihilate” the CCP, and told Mao so. Mao responded with another alarmist cable, specifically asking that it go “to cde. [comrade] Stalin so that he could weigh the situation in China, and see whether he could not give us concrete military help soon.” “Help” meant direct intervention, not just arms and aid. This importuning seems to have annoyed Stalin. At a ceremony for the anniversary of Lenin’s death on 21 January, he talked disparagingly about the N4A’s nominal commander, Ye Ting, whom the Russians had once considered sending to the gulag, calling him “an undisciplined partisan.” “Need to check whether he did not provoke this incident. We, too, had a number of good partisans whom we were obliged to shoot because of their lack of discipline.” Dimitrov told Mao again more firmly than before: “Don’t take the initiative to break …”

Writing to Stalin, Dimitrov pinned the responsibility on Mao personally: “the Chinese comrades … are thoughtlessly pursuing the split; we have decided … to draw C[omrade] Mao Tse-tung’s attention to his incorrect position …” On 13 February, Stalin endorsed Dimitrov’s order to the CCP, marked for Mao personally. It was peremptory: “We consider that a split is not unavoidable. You should not strive for a split. On the contrary, you should … do everything possible … to prevent civil war erupting. Please reconsider your current position on this issue …” A cable from Mao that same day toed Moscow’s line, but vibrated with determination to get Chiang: “the split,” Mao insisted, “is inevitable in the future.”

Mao had seen Moscow’s decision coming days before. It had greatly depressed him, and led him to write a most unusual letter to his sons in Russia (to whom he very seldom wrote) on 31 January:

My sons An-ying and An-ching:

… Seeing what progress you have made, I am very happy. An-ying writes well, the Chinese characters are not bad at all, and you have aspiration for achievements: all this is very good. I have only one thing to suggest to you both: while you are young, study natural science more, and talk less politics. Politics needs to be talked about, but at the moment you should set your mind on studying natural science … Only science is real learning, and will have boundless use in the future …

Compared with his previous few rather dry and note-like letters to his sons, this one was long and intimate, even wistful. It reeked of fatigue. What was most extraordinary and absolutely unique was that Mao told his children to avoid politics!

MAO MIGHT HAVE failed to provoke full-scale war against Chiang, but he had won a number of far from negligible victories. Not the least gratifying was the death of his most outspoken critic. Xiang Ying had escaped after Chiang ordered the Nationalist army to stop fighting, but in the small hours of 14 March, while asleep in a mountain cave, he was shot dead by his aide-de-camp, who had turned against the Communists some time before. The aide took the gold and valuables Xiang Ying had in his pockets and gave himself up to the Nationalists.

Two months before Xiang Ying died, when he had just broken out of the death trap, Mao wrote a fierce condemnation of him to senior Party officials, insinuating that Xiang was “an enemy agent.” (Even today, Xiang Ying is still often blamed, along with Chiang Kai-shek, for the deaths of the N4A men and women.)

Getting rid of Xiang Ying was only one of Mao’s gains. Another was that the N4A was allowed to stay where it was. Chiang was desperate to avoid a total civil war in the middle of the war against Japan. The Russians now put tremendous heat on the Generalissimo not to impede — much less roll back — Red expansion. General Chuikov made an explicit link between Chiang agreeing to fall into line and the continuation of Russian aid to the Nationalists. The Russian ambassador noted how Chiang was beside himself with anger. He “received my statement very nervously,” wrote Panyushkin. “He paced up and down the study and … I had to repeat my question three times.”

Chiang was also highly vulnerable to pressure from America, which was his only hope of freeing himself from dependence on the Russians for arms. US president Franklin Roosevelt, whose overriding concern was (like Stalin’s) to get China to do as much fighting against Japan as possible and bog Japan down, had no leverage with the Communists, so he put all the pressure on Chiang, linking the issue of aiding his government with an end to civil conflict — in effect, regardless of who was causing it. In the wake of the N4A incident, US media announced that Washington was discussing withholding a US$50 million loan because of the civil strife. This news came just when American aid could have played a big role, as the air route over the Himalayas, known as “the Hump,” opened on 25 January.

Roosevelt leaned heavily for information about China on a private network that included Edgar Snow, largely bypassing the State Department, which he distrusted. His chief private informant on China was a Marine officer called Evans Carlson, who filed starry-eyed reports to the White House lauding the Reds, which Roosevelt recycled uncritically to members of his inner circle, one of whom told him that Carlson’s version of events was corroborated by Snow’s Red Star. Carlson was in Chongqing at the time of the N4A Incident, and immediately after it he returned to Washington to convey the Reds’ version to Roosevelt in person.

Britain did not count as far as aid was concerned, but Chiang aspired to be close to the AngloUS bloc, and so was susceptible to British pressure. Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill disliked Chiang, regarding him as militarily useless, and a potential menace to British interests in China. The British ambassador, Clark Kerr, told Chiang that in the event of civil war Britain would not support him, regardless of who started the fighting. In the period covering the N4A Incident, his advice to London heavily favored the Communists. He openly said that Chou En-lai was worth all the Nationalists rolled into one.

In the aftermath of the N4A Incident, Moscow organized an immense publicity campaign against Chiang in the West. Communist propaganda claimed that up to 10,000 were massacred. In fact, the total casualty figure was around 2,000. Three thousand had managed to escape back to their own side by turning around and taking the North Route across the Yangtze, the one designated by Chiang. They were unmolested along the way.

Chiang had not set a trap, but he presented his case poorly. His government unwisely announced the disbanding of the N4A, leaving the impression that the Nationalists had intentionally wiped it out. Chiang was also hampered by the fact that he had not protested publicly about the many earlier and much larger clashes in which his troops had been the victims, and had even suppressed news of them, on the grounds that civil strife was bad for domestic morale — and for international aid (which all the foreign powers had made conditional on there being no civil conflict). This silence on the Generalissimo’s part had suited the Communists very well. As Red C-in-C Zhu De put it: “They [Nationalists] keep quiet, and we keep quiet, too. They are defeated and keep quiet; we win, so why should we publicise it?” As a result of all these factors, many in the West only knew about the N4A Incident, and saw it as a treacherous large-scale attack by the Nationalists on innocent Reds.

The Communist propaganda machine was effective. In Chongqing, Mao’s disinformation symphony was conducted by Chou En-lai, who alone knew Mao’s murderous role in the killing of their own men and women in the N4A. This accomplice of Mao’s was extremely successful in spreading the lie, thanks to his charm. The American journalist Martha Gellhorn, who met him at this time, told us she would have followed Chou to the ends of the world had he beckoned. But the summing up by her husband, Ernest Hemingway, catches Chou’s main attribute: “he does a fine job of selling the Communist standpoint on anything that comes up.”

In America, on 22 January the New York Herald-Tribune carried a report highly favorable to the Reds’ version of events by Edgar Snow, which opened with the words: “The first reliable account of the recent clashes …” Yet Snow’s account was based entirely on a CCP intelligence man in Hong Kong.

While the Communists’ version traveled all over the world, other observations were sidetracked by friends that Moscow and the CCP had in America. Hemingway, who was in China just after the N4A Incident, made some sharp observations about the Reds: “… as good Communists they will attempt to expand their sphere of influence … no matter what territorial limits they may accept on paper.” Thanks to the Reds’ “excellent publicity,” he wrote, “America has an exaggerated idea of the part they have played in the war against Japan. Their part has been very considerable but that of the Central Government troops has been a hundred times greater.”

“Communists,” Hemingway noted, “in my experience in Spain, always try to give the impression that they are the only ones who really fight.”

Given Hemingway’s name, his assessment might have made a considerable impact on public opinion, but it did not see the light of day until 1965. He was dissuaded from publishing his views in 1941 by a Roosevelt aide called Lauchlin Currie, who told him “our policy was to discourage civil war.”

Currie, chief White House economic adviser, visited China right after the N4A Incident. US intercepts of Soviet intelligence traffic (Venona) name Currie as helping the Russians, and some consider that he was a Soviet agent. A judicious recent study of Roosevelt and intelligence describes Currie as “a manipulable sympathizer,” concluding that he was not a spy, but a “friend” of the Russians in the White House. On this trip to China, he certainly did the Reds sterling service. In Chongqing, he told Chiang that he had brought a verbal message from Roosevelt (as well as a written one). Currie opened the verbal message with this sentence: “It appears at ten thousand miles away that the Chinese Communists are what in our country we would call socialists. We like their attitude towards the peasants, towards women and towards Japan.”

In his report to Roosevelt, Currie mainly spoke ill of Chiang, and painted an extremely rosy picture of the Reds. He claimed that “the Communists have been the only party which has been able to attract mass support,” suggesting that this was the reason they had expanded. Currie gave Roosevelt the Communists’ version of the N4A crisis.

International pressure on Chiang was so strong that on 29 January he told his ambassador in Moscow to ask the Kremlin to intervene to help resolve the crisis with the Reds, effectively asking the Russians to dictate terms. Three days later, a jubilant Mao told his army chiefs: “No matter how hard Chiang Kai-shek tries to rebel, he can try this and that, but in the end will only get himself toppled.” Mao was using the word “rebel” as if Chiang were the outlaw and he himself already on the throne. Chiang acceded to Russian demands to let Mao’s men hang on to their territorial gains and stay in the heartland of China near Nanjing and Shanghai.

Mao had been quick to see how helpful Western journalists like Snow could be to his cause, but slow to appreciate how useful the British and American governments could be in tying Chiang’s hands. His hostility to both states had been extreme. On 25 October 1940 he had told his top brass how he hoped Britain could be occupied by the Nazis, and the Japanese would continue to occupy China: “the most difficult, most dangerous and darkest scenario,” he said, was Chiang “joining the AngloUS bloc”:

We must envisage this: that the Japanese are unable to take Singapore … which will be taken by the US navy; London does not fall … Japan surrenders to America; Japanese army leaves China; America finances and arms the pro-Anglo-American Chinese … It can’t be darker than this.

This scenario was to Mao worse than Japanese occupation. But all of a sudden there was a spectacular change in his attitude. On 6 November he wrote to Chou En-lai: “I have this morning just read the important intelligence in your cable of the 3rd. So Chiang joining the AngloUS bloc is only to our advantage … Let us oppose this no more … We must forge more links with Britain and America …”

Chou En-lai had clearly enlightened Mao about how useful the West could be to him. From now on, Chou devoted more energy to cultivating Westerners, particularly Americans. And his charm offensive intensified after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America’s presence in China greatly increased.

ON 13 APRIL 1941 Russia signed a Neutrality Pact with Japan, which freed large numbers of Japanese troops to attack Southeast Asia and Pearl Harbor. But it did not include a carve-up of China between Russia and Japan. Mao did not get his Poland scenario.

We know that Mao suppressed this cable because he told Chou En-lai, his liaison with Chiang, on 13 January, nine days and many deaths later: “I have sent you the cable of the 4th from … Xiang to Chiang. Its wording is inappropriate, so if you haven’t passed it on, please don’t.” The fact that Mao felt he still had time to withdraw the cable indicates he had only just recently sent it to Chou.

Chou told the Russians that radio links between N4A HQ and Yenan had been broken from the afternoon of the 13th—different from the dates Mao gave: 6th-9th. Clearly, Mao’s dates would have been bound to arouse suspicion in the Russians.

Another thing Currie did which was to Mao’s great advantage was to thwart Chiang’s attempt to establish a sympathetic channel to Roosevelt. Chiang requested Currie to ask Roosevelt to send him a political adviser who had access to the president. Chiang named his own choice, William Bullitt, the first US ambassador to the Soviet Union, whom Chiang knew personally, and knew to be anti-Communist. Currie rejected Chiang’s request outright, off his own bat, and there is no sign he even told Roosevelt that Chiang wanted Bullitt. When Currie got back to America, he recommended an academic, Owen Lattimore, who had not even met Roosevelt, much less had the sort of access to the President that Chiang had specified. The upshot was that Currie had a tight grip on communications between Chiang and Roosevelt.


ON 22 JUNE 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This event radically altered Mao’s calculus. Soviet Russia was his sponsor and his hope; a seriously weakened — or diverted — Russia was unlikely to offer much help. Mao could not sleep for days.

To start with, there was absolutely no chance now that Russia would step in and bail him out if fighting with Chiang’s troops turned perilous. Mao immediately halted attacks. “Stop any assaults on all Nationalist units,” he ordered his armies.

Self-preservation dominated his relationship with newly weakened Russia. As a result of the German invasion, Moscow wanted the CCP to commit to engage militarily with Japanese troops if Japan should attack the Soviet Union. Stalin’s nightmare was a giant pincer assault by Japan from the east coordinated with Hitler’s attack from the west. How many Japanese troops could the CCP “divert” if that happened? Moscow asked Mao. To encourage Mao to act, Dimitrov cabled on 7 July that he was sending US$1 million in installments. Two days later, the Comintern told the CCP to draw up “concrete steps.”

Most of Mao’s colleagues thought they should take some action if Tokyo invaded the Soviet Union. The normally circumspect Liu Shao-chi wrote to Mao that if Japan attacked Russia, the CCP must launch offensives to tie up Japanese forces. Mao, however, was determined not to risk troops under any circumstances. On 18 July he told Liu that if Japan attacked Russia (which Mao had said on 2 July was “extremely likely”): “It is not a good idea … to undertake large-scale action … our armies are weak. Action will inevitably do irreparable damage.” His approach was to let the Russians do the fighting: “Everything depends on victory by the Soviet Union.”

Mao spelled this out to Peng De-huai, the acting commander of the 8th Route Army. Any coordination with the Russians was to be purely “strategic [i.e., in name only] and long-term — not in battles.” To his troops Mao repeatedly cautioned: “Do not excessively upset the [Japanese] enemy.”

To Moscow, Mao protested that his forces were too weak to be counted on: “our human and material resources [are diminishing], regions of operation [are contracting], ammunition is running out — and the situation is becoming more difficult by the day.” If his army acted, Mao argued, “there is a possibility that we will be defeated and will not be able to defend our partisan bases for long … Such an action will not be good for either of us …” He told Moscow not to expect much: “if Japan attacks the Soviet Union, our abilities in terms of coordinating military operations will not be great.”

Mao virtually admitted that his army had not been fighting the Japanese and would not start now. Only recently he had been telling Moscow he had a huge army, with 329,899 men in the 8RA alone; now he was saying his troops could hardly fire a shot.

Stalin personally cabled Mao several times asking him to keep the Japanese occupied, when the Germans were at the gates of Moscow in late 1941 and just before the battle of Stalingrad, in July 1942—in vain. Mao’s refusal to help infuriated Moscow, and he further riled his patrons by advising them to retreat to the Urals and fight a guerrilla war. Some Russians claim that Mao’s behavior was also motivated by lack of confidence in the Soviet Union, and even (according to General Chuikov) by the desire to exploit Hitler’s attack to supplant Russia. Word got around that Mao said: “Stalin cannot beat Hitler” and “24-year-old socialism cannot compete with eight-year-old fascism.”

Years later, Molotov was asked: “We knew [what Mao was doing to us] and we still helped Mao?” To which Molotov mumbled: “Right. Yes, yes. I know that is hard for you to understand. But you must not look at things in such a stark way.” “We looked like fools, but, in my opinion, we were not fools.”

Indeed, even though they were at odds, Stalin and Mao understood each other perfectly. Their relationship was based on brutal self-interest and mutual use, and they shared the same long-term goals. However much Mao’s actions displeased the Kremlin, Stalin never for one moment ceased doing business with him.

WITH NO FIGHTING against either the Japanese or the Nationalists, and with Russia in trouble and in no position to intervene, Mao seized the opportunity to go to work on his Party and mold it into an unquestioning machine in preparation for the forthcoming all-out civil war against Chiang Kai-shek.

By late 1941, Party membership had grown to some 700,000. Over 90 percent of these were people who had joined up since the start of the war against Japan, and many were young enthusiasts who had come to the Communist bases from Nationalist areas. These young volunteers were vital to Mao because they were relatively well educated, and he needed competent administrators to staff his future regime. Most of the Long Marchers and rural recruits from within the Communist bases were illiterate peasants. It was the young volunteers who were Mao’s target.

These volunteers had almost all joined up in the late 1930s as the mood among the younger middle class swung significantly to the left. This was a time when Red Russia was China’s main — and virtually only — ally and supplier of arms against Japan. Goodwill towards Russia rubbed off on the CCP. Many thought the Chinese Communists were truly dedicated to fighting Japan.

There was also widespread disenchantment with the Nationalists, who were seen as incapable of eradicating China’s widespread poverty and injustice. The CCP’s atrocities before the Long March were either unknown or forgotten, or dismissed as Nationalist propaganda. Some also believed the Party when it proclaimed that it had changed, and abandoned its old policies. And for awhile the Communists’ behavior seemed to confirm that this change was real. Many foreigners, and even some missionaries, accepted Red claims. The mole Shao Li-tzu, the Nationalists’ media overlord during the crucial period 1937–38, did much to erase the Party’s bloody past and project a benign image of the Reds. So too did Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China. Mao assiduously peddled the line that the Communists had been slandered. The CCP “has always been pretty,” he told a group of new arrivals in Yenan; “it is just that it was painted badly …”

A large number of the young volunteers congregated in Yenan, Mao’s capital. By the time Mao started his drive to condition them, some 40,000 had come there. Most were people in their late teens and early twenties who had joined the Party in the Nationalist areas, and then been sent on to Yenan.

They were tremendously excited when they first reached what had been portrayed as a revolutionary Mecca. One young volunteer described his feelings when he arrived: “At last we saw the heights of Yenan city. We were so excited we wept. We cheered from our truck … We started to sing the ‘Internationale,’ and Russia’s Motherland March.”

The new arrivals, he wrote, “really envied the stinking and dirty worn-out padded uniforms [of the veterans]. They found everything fresh, exciting and mysterious.”

The newcomers were mostly enrolled in various “schools” and “institutes” to be trained — and indoctrinated. But most very soon became disillusioned. The biggest letdown was that equality, the core of their idealism, was not only completely absent, but manifestly rejected by the regime. Inequality and privilege were ubiquitous. Every organization had three different levels of kitchen. The lowliest got roughly half the amount of meat and cooking oil allotted to middle-rankers, while the elite got much more. The very top leaders received special nutritious foods.

Likewise with clothes. The locally produced cotton was rough and uncomfortable, so softer cotton was imported for senior cadres. Mao, outwardly, dressed the same as the rest, but his underwear was made of fine material, as a servant who washed and mended for the Maos told us. The maid did not qualify for any underwear or socks at all, and kept getting colds as a result. Items like tobacco, candles and writing paper were similarly allocated by rank.

Children of the topmost leaders were sent to Russia, or had nannies of their own. Wives of senior cadres could expect to give birth in a hospital, and then have a personal nurse for a while. Officials on the next rungs down could send their children to an elite nursery. The relatively small number of ordinary Communists who were married either tended not to have children, or had to struggle if they did.

Spartan conditions and poor food led to many illnesses, but only high officials had access to scarce medicines, which were imported specially from Nationalist areas. Mao had a personal doctor from America, George Hatem, as well as Russian doctors. When he needed something — or somebody (like a physiotherapist) — he asked Moscow, or Chou En-lai in Chongqing. Senior cadres were given special hospital treatment, and no one could get into a hospital without authorization from their work unit. Food was graded in hospitals, too.

At the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War there was a Red Cross team in Yenan, which had been sent by the Nationalists. It treated local residents as well as average Communists. But the regime set about driving it away. Rumors were put about that its medicines were poisonous, and that it had been “sent by the Nationalists to murder our comrades! And to poison our drinking water, to spread germs!” Most of the team soon left. The rest were forcibly kept behind, mainly to minister to the Red elite.

The ultimate symbol of privilege in Yenan was highly visible — the only car, in fact an ambulance, which was a present from Chinese laundry workers in New York for carrying war wounded. But it never transported one injured soldier. Mao “privatised” it. It transported his guests as well, including Edgar Snow in 1939. Snow was blasé about it: “So this was Mao’s extravagance that had shocked my missionary friend,” he wrote, asserting that it was one of “a number of these laundrymen’s gifts [which] had accumulated in Yenan, where sometimes they were used to carry civilian air-raid victims to near-by hospitals.” In fact, it was the only car, and never carried any civilian wounded — and was known, appropriately, as “Chairman Mao’s car.” Even people near the top thought Mme Sun Yat-sen had given the car to Mao “for his personal use.”

Many were extremely put out. One young volunteer saw Mao in the car in spring 1939, driving with his wife, who sported “a dark red spring outfit. She and Mao Tse-tung raced by, drawing a lot of attention, and the passersby looked askance at the couple.”

Mao was well aware that his privileges were a sore point. One day an old devotee came to dine. Afterwards, Mao invited her to come back often, whereupon she blurted out: “So I”ll come to you every Sunday to treat myself to a good meal!” She noticed that “the Chairman’s smile froze, and he looked a bit awkward. I knew I had said the wrong thing …”

The Party tried to make a case for privilege: “it is not the leading comrades who ask for privilege themselves,” one leading ideologue opined. “It is the order of the Party. Take Chairman Mao, for example: the Party can order him to eat a chicken a day.”

This sophistry failed to dissipate the widespread discontent. One crack doing the rounds went: “In Yenan, only three things are equal to all — the sun, the air and the toilets.” The privilege system even extended to the group of Japanese Communists and POWs. The only one of them officially allowed to have sex was their leader, Sanzo Nosaka. “Mao wanted to keep him in a good mood,” a former Japanese POW in Yenan told us, “so he gave him a woman comrade to keep him company … we didn’t complain — not openly — people did have complaints, but they kept them to their own hearts.”

NO MATTER HOW disillusioned they might feel, the young volunteers realized that they could not leave Yenan: trying to leave was treated as desertion, with execution a distinct likelihood. The Yenan region was run like a prison. The rest of China, including other Red bases, was called “the Outside.” One volunteer described a scene he witnessed in a hospital. “We are not ill, why send us here?” two men were shouting. Their accents showed they were Long Marchers from Jiangxi. They were struggling and being pinned down by armed men.

“We’ve been asking for leave to go home to see our families, but we just don’t get the permission. They insisted we were crazy, and sent us here.”

The men wore the Long March veterans’ medal. One cadre said: “Comrades, please remember your glorious revolutionary history!”

“Fart of use this thing. We were dead and wounded plenty of times. All we get is others become officials, and have good things to eat and wear. What’s in it for us? It’s better to go home and work on the land.”

“Ha, it seems you are not crazy. You are just wavering in your revolutionary stand.”

The eyewitness noticed that “among cadres in Yenan, old and new, homesickness was common.” Cadres of peasant origin “often asked straight out to go home, and were stopped by their superiors. Some tried to run away, and once caught were immediately executed. The educated were much cleverer. They wouldn’t say they wanted to go home, they would make up some story and ask the Party to transfer them Out …”

Escape was easier for army men on the border of the region — and the rate of desertion was colossal. The target of one brigade alone, as of 29 September 1943, was to catch one thousand of its own deserters. But in the heart of the Red area, escape was virtually impossible, and most young volunteers just willed themselves to settle down.

THESE WERE THE people Mao had to depend on for his future power base. And to that end they were clearly poor material. They had come to Yenan for a dream. To make them fight for the real CCP, Mao would have to change them fundamentally, to remold them. This enormous human engineering project Mao began from early 1942. His first step was to strike at the champion of the young volunteers, a 35-year-old writer called Wang Shi-wei, a dedicated Communist who had translated Engels and Trotsky. An essay by him called “Wild Lilies,” which was published in the main newspaper in Yenan, Liberation Daily, caught Mao’s attention. In the first installment on 13 March, Shi-wei wrote:

Young people in Yenan seem to have lost steam in their life lately, and seem to have discontent in their stomachs. Why? What do we lack in our life? Some might answer: we lack nutrition, we lack vitamins … Others say: the male — female ratio in Yenan is 18 to 1, and many young men cannot find a wife … Still others will say: life in Yenan is too monotonous, too drab …

These answers are not unreasonable. But … young people … have come here to be in the revolution, and they are committed to self-sacrifice. They have not come to seek the satisfactions of food and sex or the pleasures of life.

What had shattered their dreams, he said, was institutionalized privilege, accompanied by high-handedness and arrogance. He quoted a conversation he had overheard between two young women about their bosses:

He’s always accusing you of petty bourgeois egalitarianism. Yet he himself … only looks out for his own privileges … and is completely indifferent to comrades under his charge …!

All fine words — class friendship and warmth. And it all boils down to — fart! They don’t have even elementary human sympathy!.. There are just too damn few cadres who really care about us.

In the second installment ten days later, Shi-wei sharpened his key points:

Some say there is no system of hierarchy and privilege in Yenan. This is not true. It exists. Others say, yes, there is, but it is justified. This requires us to think with our heads.

SHI-WEI WAS calling on people to think for themselves. Moreover, his arguments were reasonable and eloquent:

I am no egalitarian. But I do not think it is necessary or justified to have multiple grades in food or clothing … If, while the sick can’t even have a sip of noodle soup … some quite healthy big shots are indulging in extremely unnecessary and unjustified perks, the lower ranks will be alienated …

When Mao read this, he slammed the newspaper on his desk and demanded angrily: “Who is in charge here? Wang Shi-wei, or Marxism?” He picked up the phone and ordered a shake-up at Liberation Daily.

Shi-wei put some even sharper thoughts in a wall poster. Mao had tolerated these as a safety-valve for the young intellectuals. Wall posters had the advantage (for him) of having a restricted audience — and were easily torn down or erased. Shi-wei’s poster proclaimed: “Justice must be established in the Party. Injustice must be done away with … Ask yourselves, comrades … Are you scared of telling the ‘big shots’ what’s on your mind …? Or are you the kind that is good at persecuting the ‘little men’ with trumped-up crimes?” Shi-wei went far beyond the issue of privilege, to the heart of darkness in the Party.

The poster with Shi-wei’s words was hoisted outside the South Gate, the busiest place in the city. People flocked to read these few sentences, which articulated what many wanted to say but did not dare. Shi-wei became a hero.

One night, Mao crossed the river to read the poster by the light of a barn lantern. There he saw the eager crowds and registered Shi-wei’s enormous popularity. He said at once: “I now have a target.” He later complained: “Many people rushed from far away to … read his article. But no one wants to read mine!” “Wang Shi-wei was the king and lord master … he was in command in Yenan … and we were defeated …”

Mao decided to condemn Shi-wei as a way of scaring his sympathizers, the young volunteers. As he could not confront Shi-wei’s points head-on, he denounced him as a Trotskyist. Some remarks that Shi-wei had made in private about Trotsky and Stalin were made public. Trotsky, Shi-wei had said, was “a genius,” while Stalin was “an unloveable person” who had “created untold countless evils” in the purges. The Moscow Trials he described as “dubious.” Shi-wei was sent to prison. He spent the last years of his short life in solitary, where he was subjected to crushing pressure. In 1944, when some journalists from the Nationalist areas were allowed into Yenan, he was wheeled out to meet them and produced a robotic confession. “He said over and over again: ‘I’m a Trotskyite. I attacked Mao. I deserve to be executed … But Mao is so magnanimous … I am extremely grateful for his mercy.’ ” One reporter observed: “When he mentioned his past ‘mistakes,’ his expression was severe to the point of frightening … In my observation, his mind had been badly disturbed …”

His interrogator later revealed the background: “He said what he was told to say. Of course, he had no option. Afterwards, he lay in bed in great anguish. He clenched his fists and showed extreme bitterness.” When the Communists evacuated Yenan in 1947, he was taken along — and executed en route. One night he was hacked to death, and thrown into a dry well. He was forty-one.

AFTER MAO DESIGNATED Shi-wei as his prime target, meetings were held throughout the rest of 1942, at which the young volunteers were told to denounce him. Mao noticed that they expressed a lot of resistance. They were not sufficiently scared. He had to find another way to terrorize them.

So Mao and his KGB chief Kang Sheng devised a blanket accusation — that the vast majority of Communist organizations in the Nationalist areas were spy rings working for Chiang Kai-shek. This assertion turned virtually all the young volunteers into spy suspects, because they had either belonged to one of these organizations, or had come to Yenan under their auspices. To back this accusation there was one single piece of “evidence”—the confession of a nineteen-year-old volunteer who had been deprived of sleep and worked over by the security forces for seven days and nights, at the end of which he produced what he was told to say.

By deploying this charge, Mao found a way to place all the young volunteers in Yenan in one form of confinement or another for “screening,” starting in April 1943. Thousands were arrested and thrown into prison-caves newly carved out of the loess hillsides. In one prison alone, in the ravine behind the Date Garden — the site of the Chinese KGB, where Mao also lived — cells were dug for over 3,000 prisoners. Most of the rest were detained in their own institutions, which now became virtual prisons, sealed off and patrolled by guards. Mao gave orders that every organization must “place sentries and impose a curfew. Ban visitors and freedom of movement in or out.” The roles of jailers and interrogators were filled by those in each institution who were not suspects. These were mainly people who had not come from Nationalist areas, who were often a minority of the personnel, sometimes as few as 10–20 percent in any given institution.

Turning ordinary organizations into virtual prisons was a significant innovation of Mao’s, which he was to apply throughout his rule. Here he went far beyond anything either Hitler or Stalin achieved: he converted people’s colleagues into their jailers, with former colleagues, prisoners and jailers living in the same premises. (In Communist China, people’s workplaces and living quarters were often the same.) In this way, Mao not only drove a massive wedge between people working and living side by side, he greatly enlarged the number of people directly involved in repression, including torture, making the orbit significantly wider than either Stalin or Hitler, who mostly used secret elites (KGB, Gestapo) that held their victims in separate and unseen locales.

In incarceration, the young volunteers came under tremendous pressure to confess to being spies, and to denounce others — not really in order to find spies, but for the sake of inducing terror. Genuine spy-hunting was conducted secretly all the time by the security forces, using conventional methods. Any real suspects were “taken care of without fuss,” Mao’s security assistant Shi Zhe told us, which often meant a speedy, secret and noiseless execution.

The fake spy-hunting created the excuse for torture. Sleep deprivation was the standard technique, sometimes lasting as long as two weeks on end. There were also old-fashioned tortures like whipping, hanging by the wrists, and wrenching people’s knees to breaking point (the “tiger-bench”); as well as psychological torment — from the threat of having poisonous snakes put in one’s cave to mock execution. At night, amid the quiet of the hills, from inside the rows of caves screams of lacerating pain traveled far and wide, within earshot of most who lived in Yenan.

Mao personally gave instructions about torture (which the regime euphemistically called bi-gong-xin, meaning use “force” to produce a “confession,” which then provides “reliable evidence”): “it is not good to correct it too early or too late,” he decreed on 15 August 1943. “Too early … the campaign cannot unfold properly; and too late … the damage [to torture victims] will be too profound. So the principle should be to watch meticulously and correct at the appropriate time.” Mao wanted his victims to be in good enough shape to serve his purposes.

For month after month, life in Yenan centered on interrogations — and terrifying mass rallies, at which some young volunteers were forced to confess to being spies and to name others in front of large crowds who had been whipped into a frenzy. People who were named were then hoisted onto the platform and pressed to admit their guilt. Those who stuck to their innocence were trussed up on the spot and dragged away to prison, and some to mock execution, amidst hysterical slogan-screaming. The fear generated by these rallies was unbearable. A close colleague of Mao’s remarked at the time that the rallies were “an extremely grave war on nerves. To some people, they are more devastating than any kind of torture.”

Outside the interrogations and rallies, people were pounded flat at indoctrination meetings. All forms of relaxation, like singing and dancing, were stopped. The only moments alone afforded no peace either, consumed as they were in writing “thought examinations”—a practice hitherto known only in fascist Japan. “Get everybody to write their thought examination,” Mao ordered, “and write three times, five times, again and again … Tell everyone to spill out every single thing they have ever harboured that is not so good for the Party.” In addition, everybody was told to write down information passed unofficially by other people — termed “small broadcasts” by the regime. “You had to write down what X or Y had said,” one Yenan veteran told us, “as well as what you yourself had said which was supposed to be not so good. You had to dig into your memory endlessly and write endlessly. It was most loathsome.” The criteria for “not so good” were kept deliberately vague, so that out of fear, people would err on the side of including more.

Many tried to resist. But any sign of doing so was considered “proof” that the person resisting was a spy, on the specious grounds that: “If you are innocent, there should be nothing that cannot be reported to the Party.” The concept of privacy could not be evoked, because a Communist was required to reject the private. One man at the Administration College, which was the place where aversion was most outspoken, took a small but brave step to protest by quipping: “Do we have to write down our pillow talk with our wives at night?” which aroused chuckles all round. Naturally, the man and most others there were “found” to be spies. “Apart from one [sic] person, all teachers and administration staff are spies” in this college, Mao announced on 8 August 1943, and “many of the students are spies, too, probably more than half.” Under this kind of pressure, one man wrote down no fewer than 800 items of conversation in a frantic attempt to get off the hook.

Through forcing people to report “small broadcasts,” Mao succeeded to a very large extent in getting people to inform on each other. He thus broke trust between people, and scared them off exchanging views not just at the time in Yenan, but in the future too. By suppressing “small broadcasts,” he also plugged what was virtually the only unofficial source of information, in a context where he completely controlled all other channels. No outside press was available, and no one had access to a radio. Nor could letters be exchanged with the outside world, including one’s family: any communication from a Nationalist area was evidence of espionage. Information starvation gradually induced brain death — assisted vastly by the absence of any outlet for thinking, since one could not communicate with anyone, or put one’s thoughts on paper, even privately. During the campaign, people were put under pressure to hand in their diaries. In many a mind, there also lurked the fear of thinking, which appeared not only futile but also dangerous. Independent thinking withered away.

Two years of this type of indoctrination and terror turned the lively young volunteers from passionate exponents of justice and equality into robots. When outside journalists were allowed into Yenan for the first time after many years in June 1944, a Chongqing correspondent observed an eerie uniformity: “if you ask the same question of twenty or thirty people, from intellectuals to workers [on any topic] their replies are always more or less the same … Even questions about love, there seems to be a point of view that has been decided by meetings.” And, not surprisingly, “they unanimously and firmly deny the Party had any direct control over their thoughts.”

The journalist felt “stifled” by “the air of nervous intensity.” “Most people,” he noticed, “had very earnest faces and serious expressions. Among the big chiefs, apart from Mr. Mao Tse-tung who often has a sense of humour, and Mr. Chou En-lai who is very good at chatting, the others rarely crack a joke.” Helen Snow, wife of Edgar Snow, told us that in 1937, when she was in Yenan, people could still say things like “There goes God” behind Mao’s back. But seven years on, no one dared to say anything remotely so flippant. Mao had not only banned irony and satire (officially, since spring 1942), but criminalized humor itself. The regime invented a new catch-all offense—“Speaking Weird Words”—under which anything from skepticism to complaining to simply wise-cracking could lead to being labeled a spy.

Mao had decided that he did not want active, willing cooperation (willingness, after all, could be withdrawn). He did not want volunteers. He needed a machine, so that when he pressed the button, all its cogs would operate in unison. And he got it.

BY EARLY 1944 Russia was on the offensive against Germany, and Mao could look to it entering the war against Japan. After Japan was defeated, Mao would need cadres to fight Chiang Kai-shek, so he now began to tone down the terror.

The victims remained locked up, still living in uncertainty and torment, while the security forces began to examine their cases, to see whether there were any genuine spy suspects at all from among the mountains of coerced confessions — a process that was predictably long and slow. But one thing the apparatus was sure of from the start: that true spy suspects were far less than 1 percent of the young volunteers.

At this time, Mao ordered other Red bases to start their spy-hunting, replicating the Yenan model. He specifically warned them not to get into examining individual cases just because Yenan was doing so. All must go through the full cycle of terrorization. To spur them to whip up the same kind of frenzy as in Yenan, Mao inflated his KGB’s estimate of the proportion of spy suspects from 1 percent to 10 percent, claiming, falsely, that Yenan had uncovered a plethora of spies through his method.

It was not until another year elapsed, in spring 1945, that Mao ordered a wholesale rehabilitation of the victims. By then, he knew that Russia would be entering the war against Japan; soon he would be fighting for control of all of China, and he needed cadres fast.

The young volunteers, who numbered many tens of thousands in Yenan alone, had been through a hell of mental confusion and anguish. There had been many breakdowns — some lifelong. People who lived through Yenan remembered seeing caves in valleys crammed with people “many of whom had gone mad. Some were laughing wildly, some crying,” producing “screams and howls like wolves every night.”

The number who perished could be in the thousands. For many, suicide was the only way to end their ordeal. Some jumped off cliffs, others into wells. Those with children and spouses often killed them first. Repeat attempts were common: one physics teacher failed when he swallowed match heads (which were poisonous), then hanged himself, successfully. Survivors of suicide attempts were hounded mercilessly. One who had swallowed broken glass was brought back to life and immediately told to “write self-criticisms.”

Suicide was sometimes also used as a way to stage a protest — in one case becoming a double protest. When one detainee killed himself by jumping off a cliff, his classmates buried him opposite the residence of his interrogators, one of whom registered the import of the gesture: the ghost will come back to haunt you!

As one official put it in a letter to the leadership in March 1945, the young volunteers had been dealt “a heavy blow to their revolutionary enthusiasm … the wounds carved in their minds and hearts are very deep indeed.” All the same, Mao was confident he could rely on these people to serve him. However unhappy they might be, they were trapped in the Communist organization, and it was extraordinarily hard for them to leave, psychologically as well as physically. In the absence of options, many fell back on their faith, which made it easier for them to rationalize sacrifice. Mao adroitly exploited their idealism, convincing them to accept their maltreatment as part of “Serving the People” (a snappy expression he coined now, and which later acquired fame), and as a noble experience, soul-cleansing for the mission of saving China.

To defuse the bitterness that clung on in many hearts, Mao performed a few public “apologies” in spring 1945 before he sent his victims to the front to battle Chiang Kai-shek. What he typically did was to take off his cap and bow or salute his audience. But he would carefully present his apology as generously taking responsibility for others (“On behalf of the Centre, I apologise …”), and spread the blame — even to the victims themselves. “The whole of Yenan committed mistakes,” he averred. “The intention was to give you a nice bath, but too much potassium permanganate [used to kill lice] was put in, and your delicate skin was hurt.” This last remark implied that the victims had been too pampered and were easily hurt. Sophistry flowed liberally from Mao’s lips: “We were fighting the enemy in the dark, and so wounded our own people.” Or even: “It was like a father beating his sons. So please don’t bear grudges.” “Please just get up, dust the mud off your clothes and fight on.”

At such moments, the audiences were usually in tears, tears which were a mixture of resignation and of relief. Most went on fighting for a system that had cruelly wronged them. After they had helped Mao come to power, they would function as part of the machine that ground down the entire population of China. Mao built this machine not through inspiration or magnetism, but fundamentally through terror.

During what can be called the Yenan Terror, the whole Party was worked over, even those members who did not become outright victims themselves. These were invariably coerced into denouncing others — colleagues, friends, even spouses — which caused lasting trauma to themselves as well as to the victims. Everyone who attended a rally witnessed haunting sights, involving people they knew, and lived with the fear that the next victim might be oneself. The relentless invasion of privacy, being forced to write endless “thought examinations,” brought further stress. Mao was to say over a decade later that he did not just stamp on 80 percent of the Party—“it was in fact 100 percent, and by force, too.”

MAO NOW HAD in his hands a formidable tool for use against Chiang Kai-shek. One supreme accomplishment of the terror campaign was to squeeze out every drop of information about any link whatever with the Nationalists. Mao introduced a special “Social Relationship” form: “Tell everyone to write down every single social relationship of any kind [our italics].” At the end of the campaign, the regime compiled a dossier on every Party member. The result was that Mao knew every channel the Nationalists might use to infiltrate in the forthcoming showdown. Indeed, during the civil war, while the Nationalists were penetrated like sieves, they had virtually zero success infiltrating the Communists. Mao had forged a machine that was virtually watertight.

Mao also prepared a “no-questions-asked” anti-Chiang force by fomenting hatred of Chiang. When most of the young volunteers joined up, the CCP was not at war with the Nationalists, and many did not hate Chiang the way Mao wanted them to. As Mao said, “Some people think the Nationalist Party is very good, very pretty.” One senior official noted at the time that “new cadres cherish extremely big illusions about Chiang, while old cadres have weakened their class hatred” for the Generalissimo. Chiang was the undisputed leader of China’s war against Japan. It was Chiang who got America and Britain to retrocede their territorial concessions (except Hong Kong) in 1943—an historic event for which even Mao felt obliged to order grand celebrations. And it was under Chiang that China was accepted as one of “the Big Four,” along with America, Russia and Britain. China’s permanent seat and veto on the UN Security Council, which Mao eventually inherited, were acquired thanks to Chiang.

At the time, Chiang was generally regarded as the nation-builder of modern China, who had done away with the warlords and unified the country — and led the war against Japan. Mao had to smash this image. In the terror campaign, he ordered the Party to be “re-educated” on the question: “Who is the nation-builder of China: the Nationalists or the CCP?” The corollary of the drive to break Chiang’s image was to create the myth that Mao was the founder of modern China.

Mao manufactured the fault-lines and hate-lines against Chiang through his “spy hunt” campaign, in which it was spying for the Nationalists, not for the Japanese, that was made the key issue, sometimes identifying the Nationalists with the Japanese by vague assimilation. It was via the terror campaign that Mao turned Chiang into the enemy of the average Communist.

TO STIR UP anti-Chiang fervor in the CCP, Mao cogitated another “massacre” by the Nationalists like the one involving the New 4th Army HQ two years before. This time the sacrificial victims included his only surviving brother, Tse-min.

Tse-min had been working in Xinjiang, in the far northwest, which had been a Russian satellite for years. In 1942 the warlord there turned against the Reds. Sensing that their lives were in danger, Tse-min and the other regional CCP leaders cabled Mao repeatedly asking to be evacuated. But they were told to stay put. In early 1943, Tse-min and more than 140 other Communists and their families, including his wife and son, and a girl Mao had called his “daughter,” Si-qi (Mao’s future daughter-in-law), were imprisoned.

As the warlord had gone over to Chongqing, the obvious thing to do was for the CCP’s liaison, Chou En-lai, to ask for their release from the Nationalist government, which is what the Russians urged Chou to do. The CCP leadership collectively (in the name of the Secretariat) also asked Chou to do this on 10 February. Two days later, on the 12th, Mao sent Chou a separate cable, signed only by him, with the agenda for talks with the Nationalists; the release of the Xinjiang group was not on it. Chou, by now taking orders from Mao alone, did not raise the matter of the Xinjiang group in his many meetings with the Nationalists.

Lin Biao was in Chongqing at the time, and on 16 June he got to a meeting with Russian ambassador Panyushkin ahead of Chou, and told Panyushkin that Chou had not done anything, and that “orders” had come from “Yenan.” When Chou turned up, he started claiming he had written to Chiang some three months before, but had had no reply. At this point, Panyushkin reported to Moscow, Lin Biao “sat hanging his head.” Chou was obviously lying. In fact, Chou and Lin had seen Chiang only days before, on the 7th, when Chiang had been friendly and Chou had said nothing about his imprisoned comrades in Xinjiang.

The upshot was that Mao’s brother Tse-min and two other senior CCP figures were executed on 27 September on charges of plotting a coup. But with so few deaths — only three — Mao was unable to cry “Massacre.” He did not make any announcement condemning the executions, either, as this might raise questions about whether the Communists were indeed guilty as charged. For years, Tse-min’s death remained a public non-event.

Mao knew the German invasion was coming, and when, to within a matter of hours, and had alerted the Kremlin. Comintern chief Dimitrov records in his diary the tip-off from the CCP saying: “Germany will attack the USSR … the date—21 June 1941!” (bold in Dimitrov original). This is the only such warning singled out. This information had been acquired by CCP moles. When the Germans did invade on the 22nd, the Kremlin belatedly acknowledged the CCP’s help, although it seems it discounted the warning.

This project is known as zheng-feng, usually translated as “Rectification Campaign.”

Executions sometimes served other functions. Shi Zhe recounted visiting a hospital where he was shown a big basin: “inside was a male corpse, aged about thirty, soaked in formaldehyde.” Hospital staff told him they had needed corpses for dissection, and “Kang Sheng authorised us” to kill three “counter-revolutionaries” for medical purposes.

Using exhausting meetings to bend — and break — people was to solidify into an integral part of Mao’s rule.

The other detainees, including Tse-min’s wife and their son Yuan-xin, were released later, with the Generalissimo’s authorization.


WHILE USING terror to turn ordinary Party members into cogs for his machine, Mao also went to work on his top colleagues. His aim was to break them and make them kowtow, with the ultimate goal of establishing himself as their undisputed leader, so that he would never have to rely on Moscow’s blessing again. He picked the time when Stalin was preoccupied with the war against Germany.

In autumn 1941, Mao convened a series of Politburo meetings at which all those who had opposed him in the past in any way had to make groveling self-condemnations and pledge loyalty to him. Most did so meekly, including nominal Party chief Lo Fu, and former Party No. 1 Po Ku, the man who had reduced Mao to a figurehead before the Long March. (Chou En-lai was away in Chongqing.) But one top figure in Yenan refused to crawl: this was Wang Ming, the man who had been the main threat to Mao since his return from Moscow late in 1937.

After the German invasion of Russia, Wang Ming figured that Stalin was bound to be displeased with Mao’s refusal to take action against Japan to help the Soviet Union. In October 1941 he caught sight of a cable from Comintern chief Dimitrov to Mao posing fifteen extremely stern questions, including: What measures is the CCP adopting to strike at the Japanese army so that Japan cannot open up a second front against the Soviet Union? Armed with this hard evidence of Moscow’s vexation with Mao, Wang Ming pounced on the chance to reverse his personal and political fortunes. He declined to perform self-flagellation, and criticized Mao’s policy vis-à-vis both Chiang and the Japanese. He also demanded that Mao debate with him in a large Party forum, declaring that he was prepared to take the issue all the way up to the Comintern.

Mao’s original plan had been to nail down absolute and unconditional submission from his colleagues and then call the long-delayed Party congress and mount the Party throne. He had been de facto Party No. 1 for nearly seven years, but with no commensurate post or title. However, Wang Ming’s challenge wrecked Mao’s plan. If the stubborn challenger managed to open up a debate about Mao’s war policies at the congress, the conclave could well take his side. Mao had to shelve the congress.

Mao was infuriated at this unexpected turn of events, and his wrath gushed forth from his pen. In this period, he wrote and rewrote nine ranting articles, cursing Wang Ming and his past allies, including Chou En-lai, even though Chou had since switched allegiance. These articles are still a closely guarded secret today. According to Mao’s secretary they were a “huge release of emotions, with much shrill excessive language.” One passage referred to his colleagues as “most pitiful little worms”; “inside these people, there is not even half a real Marx, living Marx, fragrant Marx … there is nothing but fake Marx, dead Marx, stinking Marx …”

Mao reworked these articles repeatedly, and then put them away. He remained obsessively attached to them right up to the end of his life three and a half decades later. In June 1974, after Wang Ming had died in exile in Moscow, and while Chou En-lai had terminal cancer of the bladder, Mao had the articles taken out of the archives and had them read out to him (Mao then was almost blind). And only one month before he died in 1976, he had them read to him yet again.

MEANWHILE, JUST AFTER he had challenged Mao in October 1941, Wang Ming collapsed from a sudden illness, and was hospitalized. He claimed he had been poisoned by Mao — which may or may not have been true on this occasion. What is certain is that Mao attempted to have him poisoned the following March, when Wang Ming was just about to be discharged from the hospital. Wang Ming remained defiant: “I will not bow my head even if all others are fawning,” he vowed. In private, he had written poems calling Mao “anti-the Soviet Union, and anti-the Chinese Communist Party.” Furthermore, he said, Mao was “setting up his personal dictatorship”; “Everything he does is for himself, and he does not care about anything else.” Mao could expect the highly articulate Wang Ming to speak out against him.

The agent for Mao’s poisoning operation was a doctor called Jin Mao-yue, who had originally come to Yenan as part of a Nationalist medical team, at the height of the cooperation between the Nationalists and the CCP. He was a qualified gynecologist and obstetrician, and so the Communists kept him in Yenan. When Wang Ming was admitted to the hospital, Jin was assigned as his chief doctor. That he poisoned Wang Ming was established by an official inquiry involving Yenan’s leading doctors in mid-1943. Its findings, which we obtained, remain a well-kept secret.

As of the beginning of March 1942, Wang Ming was described as “ready to be discharged.” Dr. Jin had been trying to keep him in the hospital by advocating a whole string of operations—“having his teeth taken out, piles excised and tonsils removed.” These operations were dropped after another doctor objected. The inquiry found that the operations for both the tonsils and the piles (which were “large”) “would have been dangerous.”

But just as Wang Ming was about to leave the hospital on the 13th, Dr. Jin gave him some pills, after which Wang Ming collapsed. The inquiry recorded that: “On 13 March, after taking one pill, [Wang Ming] felt a headache. On 14 March, he took two, and started vomiting, his liver was in severe pain, his spleen was swollen, there was pain in the area of his heart.” After more pills from Dr. Jin, Wang Ming “was diagnosed as having acute cholecystitis [of the gallbladder] and … hepatomegaly [enlarged liver].”

The inquiry never found out what the pills were, as there was no prescription. Under questioning, Dr. Jin gave “very vague answers” about the type of drug, and the amount. But the inquiry established that after taking the pills, Wang Ming showed “symptoms of poisoning.”

Dr. Jin then prescribed further pills: large doses of calomel and soda — two medicines which, when taken in combination, produce poison in the form of corrosive mercury chloride. The inquiry found that these prescriptions were “enough to kill several people.” The report detailed many “symptoms of mercury poisoning,” and concluded: “It is a fact that he was poisoned.”

Wang Ming would have died if he had taken all Dr. Jin’s poisonous prescriptions. But he grew suspicious and stopped. In June, Dr. Jin halted his murderous treatment. The reason was that a new and very senior Russian liaison man, Pyotr Vladimirov, had just arrived in Yenan. Vladimirov, who held the rank of general, had worked in northwest China, spoke fluent Chinese and knew some of the CCP leaders personally. His reports went to Stalin. He also brought with him a GRU surgeon, Andrei Orlov, who also held the rank of general, plus an extra radio operator.

On 16 July, shortly after Vladimirov and Orlov arrived, Moscow was informed, for the first time, that Wang Ming “after nine months of treatment is at death’s door.” At this stage it seems Wang Ming did not tell the Russians that he suspected he was being poisoned. Not only was he in Mao’s hands, but he had no proof. He first tried to drive a wedge between Stalin and Mao by telling Vladimirov that Mao had no intention of helping Russia out militarily. Wang Ming, Vladimirov recorded on 18 July, “says that if Japan attacks [Russia] … the Soviet Union ought not to count on the [CCP].”

Vladimirov quickly became very critical of Mao. “Spies watch our every step,” he noted. “These last few days [Kang Sheng] has been foisting upon me a teacher of Russian whom I am supposed to accept as a pupil. I have never seen a Chinese girl of such striking beauty. The girl doesn’t give us a day’s peace …” Within weeks, Vladimirov had fired the cook who he was convinced was “a Kang Sheng informer.”

At the beginning of 1943, Wang Ming’s condition took a sharp turn for the worse. Doctors, who now had the Russian surgeon Orlov in their ranks, recommended treatment in the Nationalist area or Russia. Mao refused to let Wang Ming go.

To save his life and get himself to Moscow, Wang Ming knew he had to make Stalin feel that he was politically useful. On 8 January, he dictated a long cable to Vladimirov, addressed to Stalin by name. According to his own account, it detailed Mao’s “many crimes,” which he called “anti-Soviet and anti-Party.” At the end, he “inquired if it was possible to send a plane for me and have me treated in Moscow, where I would also give the Comintern leadership particulars about Mao’s crimes.”

Wang Ming’s message, much watered down by Vladimirov, reached Comintern chief Dimitrov on 1 February. Mao obviously found out that Wang Ming had got a dangerous message out to Russia, as he immediately cabled Dimitrov with counter-accusations against Wang Ming. Still, Dimitrov promised Wang Ming: “We’ll have you flown to Moscow.”

At this point Dr. Jin made another attempt on Wang Ming’s life. On 12 February, right after Dimitrov’s message, Jin prescribed the deadly combination of calomel and soda again. A week later, he prescribed tannic acid as an enema at a strength that would have been fatal. This time, Wang Ming not only did not follow the prescriptions, he kept them carefully.

Mao clearly felt a sense of acute urgency, as he now made a startling move. On 20 March, in total secrecy, he convened the Politburo — minus Wang Ming — and got himself made supreme leader of the Party, becoming chairman of both the Politburo and the Secretariat. The resolution gave Mao absolute power, and actually spelled out: “On all issues … the Chairman has the power to make final decisions.” Wang Ming was dropped from the core group, the Secretariat.

This was the first time Mao became Party No. 1 on paper, as well as in fact. And yet this was a deeply surreptitious affair, which was kept entirely secret from his own Party, and from Moscow — and was to stay secret throughout Mao’s life, probably known to no more than a handful of people.

Wang Ming may have got wind of Mao’s maneuver, as he now, for the first time, exposed the poisoning attempt to the Russians. On 22 March he showed Orlov one of Dr. Jin’s prescriptions, which Vladimirov cabled to Moscow. Moscow wired back immediately, saying that the prescription “causes slow poisoning” and “in grave cases — death.” Wang Ming then showed the prescription to Yenan medical chief Dr. Nelson Fu, and this led to an inquiry, which found beyond doubt that Wang Ming had been poisoned.

But Mao, the ace schemer, turned the inquiry to his advantage. Whilst the inquiry did establish that attempts had been made on Wang Ming’s life, Mao used the fact that it was still sitting as an excuse to stall Wang Ming’s trip.

And for Mao, scapegoats were always to hand — in this case Dr. Jin. On 28 March, Mme Mao “came to see me quite unexpectedly,” Vladimirov noted. “She talked at length about ‘the unreliability of Doctor Jin who [she said] is probably a [Nationalist] agent …’ ”

FIFTY-SIX YEARS LATER, in a drab concrete building in dusty Peking, the only surviving member of the medical panel of fifteen that drew up the official findings in Yenan, Dr. Y, a physically energetic and mentally alert 87-year-old, gave us a tape-recorded interview.

Once the decision was taken to carry out a medical inquiry, Dr. Y was assigned to establish whether Wang Ming had indeed been poisoned. He “stayed with Wang Ming for a month, sleeping in his study,” heating up his urine each day and then dipping a sliver of gold into it and examining it under a microscope. It proved to contain mercury: “He was being poisoned slowly,” Dr. Y reported to his medical superior. But nothing was done for weeks. The medical inquiry finally opened on 30 June, more than three months after the poisoning was exposed. The findings, drawn up on 20 July, stated that Wang Ming had definitely been poisoned by Dr. Jin, and were signed by Jin himself. After his signature, he wrote in brackets: “Will make separate statement about several of the points.” But he never did. In the middle of one meeting, in front of his colleagues, he threw himself at the feet of Wang Ming’s wife, weeping. Dr. Y was present. He told us that Dr. Jin “went down on his knees, begged for forgiveness, saying he was wrong.” “He admitted mistakes. Of course, he wouldn’t admit it was deliberate.” In fact, Dr. Jin had been carrying a pocket medical manual, which stated specifically that it was taboo to use calomel in combination with soda, and he had underlined these words. Dr. Y had actually confronted him on this: “Look, it’s written here: taboo prescription, great harm. You have even underlined it!” Jin was silent.

Far from getting into trouble, however, Jin was protected by being taken to the haunt of the security apparatus, Date Garden, where he lived with the security elite. He continued to be one of the doctors for Mao and other leaders, which would have been inconceivable if Mao had had the slightest doubt about either his competence or his trustworthiness.

The inquiry did not mention Mao, of course, but the Russians had no doubt: “Wang Ming was being poisoned and … Mao Tse-tung and Kang Sheng were involved.”

MAO’S KEY ACCOMPLICE in preventing Wang Ming from making it to Moscow was, once again, Chou En-lai, his liaison in Chongqing. Chiang Kai-shek’s permission was needed for Russian planes to come to Yenan so Mao hypocritically asked Chou to obtain permission from Chiang for a Russian plane to come and collect Wang Ming, while making it clear to Chou that he did not want Wang Ming to leave. Chou duly told the Russians that “the Nationalists would not allow cde. Wang Ming to leave Yenan.” In fact, Lin Biao, who was in Chongqing at the time, told Soviet ambassador Panyushkin that Chou never raised the issue with the Nationalists, because of “instructions” from “Yenan.”

At this very time, Chou got Chiang’s clearance for a Russian plane to bring Mao’s son An-ying back from Russia. An-ying, who had been in Russia since 1937, was now a 21-year-old gung-ho enthusiast at a military academy where he had joined the Soviet Communist Party. He had written three letters to Stalin asking to be assigned to the German front.

As he was not sent to the front, An-ying asked permission to return to China after graduation on 1 May 1943. He was not only Mao’s eldest son, but also the only probable male heir, as Mao’s other son, An-ching, was mentally handicapped. An-ying cabled his father (via Dimitrov), and Mao replied saying that Chiang had cleared the plane trip. An-ying got ready to go home, and asked the head of the International Communist School to look after his brother: “Don’t let him out of your sight … He is an honest person, only he has hearing ailments and his nerves are wrecked.”

On 19 August, a Russian plane left for Yenan to collect Wang Ming, and An-ying was supposed to be on it. But that day he was called in to see Dimitrov. When the plane arrived in Yenan, there was no An-ying on board. This was Moscow saying to Mao that it wanted Wang Ming first before releasing his son.

But Mao held on to Wang Ming. Vladimirov recorded: “doctors were … told to say Wang Ming … couldn’t stand the strain of the flight … [The] crew kept delaying the flight as long as they could, but [Mao] got his way.”

Another Soviet plane came on 20 October and stayed four days, before leaving with some Russian intelligence men — but again not Wang Ming. “On seeing [Dr Orlov],” Vladimirov recorded, “Wang Ming burst into tears … he is … still unable to walk … [his] friends have abandoned him … He is all alone in the full sense of the word …” It was two years now since his health crisis had begun, and a good nineteen months since the start of the poisoning. In those long and agonizing days, his wife looked after him devotedly, presenting a strong calm face to him. But occasionally she would lock the door and try to release her anguish. Her son told us that as a young boy he once caught her rolling and kicking on the earthen floor, muffling her sobbing and screaming with a towel. The son was too young to comprehend, but the traumatic scene was etched into his memory.

In Yenan, Dr. Y said, “many people knew that Wang Ming had been poisoned by mercury, and that someone was trying to murder him … Word got around.” And not only among senior officials, but also among ordinary Party members who had connections to medical staff. So many people suspected the truth that Mao felt he had to flush out the undercurrent of suspicion and kill it off. That meant getting the Wang Mings to make a public denial.

On 1 November, a week after the second Russian plane had left, Mao convened a large meeting for senior officials. He himself sat on the platform. Wang Ming was kept away. The star witness was a veteran commander who was trotted out, from detention, to say that over a year before, Mrs. Wang Ming had told him her husband was being poisoned — and had strongly hinted that Mao was responsible. Mrs. Wang Ming then made a vehement denial onstage. On 15 November she wrote to Mao and the Politburo, vowing that she and her husband had not even harbored such a thought, and felt nothing but gratitude to Mao. The poisoning case was formally closed.

MAO HAD DEFIED Stalin’s will to an astonishing degree, as Moscow would not send a plane all the way to Yenan for nothing. Furthermore, strange things happened to the Russians in Yenan around now. Their radio station was wrecked, apparently sabotaged. Their dogs, which they had brought to provide security and an alarm system — as well as protection against wolves — were shot. Mao dared to do all this because he knew he was the victor, and that Stalin needed him and was committed to him. It was during this same period that Stalin told the Americans, on 30 October 1943, he would eventually enter the war against Japan. Russian arms supplies to Mao were greatly stepped up.

When Dimitrov cabled Mao again on 17 November about getting Wang Ming to Russia, Mao did not respond. And when Dimitrov wrote to Wang Ming on 13 December it was in an unmistakably sad tone. After saying that Wang Ming’s daughter, whom the Dimitrovs had adopted, was well, Dimitrov went on resignedly: “As regards your Party matters, try to settle them yourselves. It is not expedient to intervene from here for now.”

But Stalin clearly decided that Mao should be served a warning. Shortly afterwards, on 22 December, he authorized Dimitrov to send a most unusual telegram, in which he told Mao:

Needless to say, after the disbanding of the Comintern, its leaders … can no longer intervene in the internal affairs of the CCP. But … I cannot help offering a few words about my worries caused by the situation in the CCP … I think the policy of curtailing the struggle against the foreign occupiers is politically wrong, and the current action to depart from the national united front is also wrong …

Saying that he had “suspicions” about Mao’s intelligence chief, Kang Sheng, whom he described as “helping the enemy,” Dimitrov told Mao that “the campaign conducted to incriminate” Wang Ming (and Chou En-lai) was “wrong.”

Dimitrov opened the telegram with a very pointed passage about An-ying:

Regarding your son. I have arranged for him to be enrolled in the Military-Political Academy … He is a talented young man, so I have no doubt that you will find in him a reliable and good assistant. He sends his regards.

Dimitrov did not say a word about An-ying’s long-overdue return to China. And mentioning him in one breath with Wang Ming was the clearest possible way of saying to Mao that his own son was a hostage, just as Chiang Kai-shek’s had been.

WHEN VLADIMIROV translated Dimitrov’s cable to him on 2 January 1944, Mao’s immediate reaction was one of defiance. He wrote an answer there and then. It was a blunt, point-by-point retort:

To Comrade Dimitrov,

1. We have not curtailed the anti-Japanese struggle. On the contrary …

2. Our line as regards collaboration with the [Nationalists] remains unchanged …

3. Our relations with Chou En-lai are good. We are not going to cut him off from the Party at all. Chou En-lai has made great progress.

4. Wang Ming has been engaged in various anti-Party activities …

5. I assure you and can guarantee that the Chinese Communist Party loves and highly respects Comrade Stalin and the Soviet Union …

6. … Wang Ming is not trustworthy. He was once arrested in Shanghai. Several people have said that when he was in prison he admitted to being a member of the Communist Party. He was released after this. There has also been talk about his suspicious connections with Mif [purged in Russia] …

Kang Sheng is a trustworthy man …

Mao Tse-tung

Mao was an impulsive man, but he usually held his impulses at bay. He once told staff who commented on his “unruffled calm” and “impeccable self-control”: “It’s not that I am not angry. Sometimes I am so angry I feel my lungs are bursting. But I know I must control myself, and not show anything.”

Mao’s hair-trigger reaction on this occasion was uncharacteristic. The reason he exploded was not that he cared so much for his son, but because this was the first time Moscow tried to blackmail him. But he instantly regretted his eruption. He could not afford to offend Moscow, especially now that the tide had turned against Germany, and Russia was likely to move against Japan soon — and sweep him to power.

Next day, Mao told Vladimirov he “had given much thought” to Dimitrov’s telegram, and asked if his answer had been sent. If not, “he certainly would change its content.”

But the cable had gone off, and over the following days a visibly anxious Mao set out to woo Vladimirov. On 4 January, he invited Vladimirov to an operatic show, and “immediately began speaking of his respect for the Soviet Union … and I. V. Stalin … Mao said he sincerely respected the Chinese comrades who had received education or worked in the USSR …” Next day, Mao called on Vladimirov again: “apparently he understands,” Vladimirov noted, “that the telegram he sent to Dimitrov on January 2 was rude and ill-considered.” On the 6th, Mao threw a dinner for the Russians: “Everything was ceremonious, friendly and … servile.” The following day, Mao came alone to Vladimirov’s place at 9:00 AM — for him, the middle of the night. “Suddenly,” Mao “began to speak of Wang Ming — in an entirely different, almost friendly tone!” At the end, Mao sat down and wrote another telegram to Dimitrov, and asked Vladimirov to “tick it out” at once. “Mao looked perturbed, his gestures betraying tension and nervousness … He looked extremely tired, as if he hadn’t had a minute’s sleep.”

The tone of the second telegram was groveling:

I sincerely thank you for the instructions you gave me. I shall study them thoroughly … and take measures according to them … Regarding inner-Party questions, our policy is aimed at unity. The same policy will be conducted towards Wang Ming … I ask you to rest assured. All your thoughts, all your feelings are close to my heart …

Mao then paid Wang Ming two long visits.

Dimitrov wrote on 25 February saying that he was particularly pleased by Mao’s second (groveling) telegram. This and subsequent missives had a we-can-work-together tone.

On 28 March, Mao asked Vladimirov to send a telegram to his son An-ying. It told him not to think about returning to China. Mao, it said, was “very happy about his successes in his studies.” Mao asked his son “not to worry about his [Mao’s] health. He feels well.” He asked An-ying to convey “warm greetings” to Manuilsky and Dimitrov, who, Mao said, “have assisted … the Chinese revolution. It is to them that Chinese comrades and their children owe their education in [Russia], their upbringing and maintenance.”

This was Mao saying to Moscow: I accept you keeping An-ying as a hostage. With this understanding, An-ying remained in Russia.

Dimitrov meanwhile told Wang Ming to compromise. While protesting that the rift was not his fault, a helpless Wang Ming promised to work with Mao, but asked Moscow to try to restrain him.

The result was a stand-off, but very much in Mao’s favor. Mao was allowed to keep Wang Ming in Yenan, and do what he wanted with him, including vilifying him, so long as he did not kill him. In fact, vilification of Wang Ming was a major activity in the Yenan terror campaign from 1942. Endless indoctrination sessions were held to blacken his name among Party members. At one rally denouncing him in absentia (Mao made sure that Wang Ming was kept well away from the Party cadres), Wang Ming’s wife managed to get onto the stage and say the accusations were untrue. She asked for Wang Ming to be fetched to clarify the facts. As no one stirred, she threw herself at Mao, sobbing loudly, clinging to his legs and asking him to be just. Mao sat there, unmoved as a stone.

By the end of the campaign, it was established in people’s minds that Wang Ming was Party Enemy No. 1, and he was in no position thereafter to challenge Mao’s supremacy — even though Mao still saw him as a threat, because he remained unbroken. Five years later another attempt was made on his life.

WHILE EMPLOYING poisoning to tackle Wang Ming, in 1943 Mao also turned on Chou En-lai. This was in spite of the fact that Chou had collaborated in quite a bit of Mao’s dirty work, not least in letting Tse-min be killed, and in preventing his old friend Wang Ming from getting out to Moscow for treatment.

Mao, however, wanted more than just slavish deference. He wanted Chou thoroughly scared and broken. The terror campaign in 1942–43 threatened to condemn Chou as the big spy chief. In fact, it was partly to frame Chou that Mao invented the charge that most Communist organizations in Nationalist areas were spies for Chiang, because Chou was in charge of these organizations. In order to have Chou on the spot in Yenan and put him through the terror mill, Mao sent menacing cables ordering him back from Chongqing. One, on 15 June 1943, read: “Don’t linger … to avoid people talking.” And when Chou came back in July the first thing Mao said to his face was a warning: “Don’t leave your heart in the enemy camp!” Chou panicked, and responded with fulsome fawning, singing Mao’s praises at length at his “welcome” party. Then, in November, he bashed himself for five days in front of the Politburo, saying he had “committed extremely big crimes,” been “an accomplice” to Wang Ming, and had “the character of a slave”—for the wrong master, of course. He told larger Party audiences that he and other leaders had been disasters, and that it was Mao who had saved the Party from them. Thoroughly tamed, Chou became a self-abasing slave to Mao for more than three decades, until almost his last breath.

THE LAST MAN Mao set out to de-fang was Peng De-huai, the acting commander of the 8th Route Army. Peng had opposed Mao in the 1930s. In 1940 he had defied Mao’s wishes and launched the only large-scale operation by the Reds against the Japanese during the entire Sino-Japanese War. And he had done something else equally infuriating to Mao — tried to implement some of the ideals which in Mao’s lexicon were to be brandished solely as propaganda. “Democracy, freedom, equality and fraternity,” Mao said, were concepts to be deployed only “for our political needs.” He berated Peng for “talking about them as genuine ideals.”

Mao had tolerated Peng because Peng had played an extremely useful role in expanding the army and running the base areas. (The bases under Peng enjoyed a much better relationship with the local people, and a much less oppressive atmosphere than Yenan.) In autumn 1943, Mao brought him back to Yenan, although he did not put Peng on the hit list immediately because he did not want to have to deal with too many enemies all at the same time. Peng did not mince his words over the many things that galled him in Yenan, including Mao’s effort to build a cult of himself, which Peng called plain “wrong.” One day, talking to a young Party member who had just been released from Mao’s prison, he said pensively: “It is hard to stand alone honorably.”

From early 1945 Mao set out to tarnish Peng’s credibility and reputation — and to unnerve him. In a series of long harassment meetings, Mao’s henchmen bombarded him with insults and accusations — an experience he described as “being fucked for forty days.” The sessions attacking Peng went on intermittently right up to the eve of the Japanese surrender, when they stopped because Mao needed commanders of Peng’s caliber to fight Chiang Kai-shek. By this point, Mao had systematically subdued all his opponents.

Po Ku died in a plane crash in 1946.

Dr. Jin remained particularly close to Mme Mao, on whom he had performed an induced abortion and oviduct ligation in summer 1942. When the Communists took power, he became head of the Peking Hospital, which catered for Party leaders and their families. On the night of 30 September 1950, Mao’s daughter-in-law was taken to this hospital with appendicitis. The signature of the next-of-kin was needed to okay the operation. As her husband, An-ying, was not present, it was Dr. Jin who authorized the operation.

On 20 May 1943. This was largely a formality, to mollify Stalin’s Western allies, and it brought little change in the relationship between Moscow and Mao.

This meant that Wang Ming’s explanation of the way he got out of prison was unsatisfactory, and therefore suspicious.

In 1948, when Mao planned to go to Russia, he was concerned about what Wang Ming might get up to in his absence. So Wang Ming was given Lysol, ostensibly for his chronic constipation. Lysol was a powerful disinfectant used for cleaning urinals, and would wreck the intestines. Wang Ming survived because his wife immediately stopped administering it to him after he cried out in agony. No other top CCP leader had so many “medical accidents”—or indeed any serious accidents at all. The possibility of it being an accident can be ruled out by the fact that the doctor who prescribed the Lysol remained chief physician for Mao.

A restricted official circular dated 7 July 1948 and other medical documents acknowledged this “medical accident,” but made the pharmacist the scapegoat. In September 1998, a friend of the pharmacist telephoned her for us. After greetings, the colleague said: “I have a writer here, and she would like to talk to you about the enema.” To this question out of the blue, we heard the pharmacist answer without a second of hesitation or bafflement: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“What medicine did you give?”

“I don’t know what medicine I gave. I’ve forgotten.”

It seems that for the past fifty years, the matter had remained at the forefront of the pharmacist’s mind.


MAO’S TERROR campaign made him so many enemies, from raw recruits to veteran Party leaders, that he came to feel more unsafe than ever, and redoubled his personal security. In autumn 1942 a special Praetorian Guard was inaugurated. Mao gave up his public residence at Yang Hill altogether and lived full-time in Date Garden, the isolated haunt of his KGB, several kilometers outside Yenan. Surrounded by high walls and heavily guarded, the estate was a place to stay away from. Anyone venturing near could easily draw suspicion as a spy. There Mao had a special residence built, designed to withstand the heaviest aerial bombing.

But even Date Garden was not safe enough. Beyond it, shielded by willows, birch-leaf pears and red-trunk poplars, a path led through wild chrysanthemums into the depths of the hills — and an even more secret lair. There, in a place called the Back Ravine, a group of dwellings was prepared for Mao in a fastness in the hillside. The path was broadened so that Mao’s car could be driven virtually to his door. Only a handful of people knew he lived here.

Mao’s main room here, as in most of his residences, had a second door, leading to a bolthole dug through to the other side of the hill. The secret passage also ran all the way up to the stage of a large auditorium, so that Mao could step onto it without having to go outside. The auditorium and Mao’s caves were so well camouflaged by the hills and woods that one would not suspect their existence until one virtually reached the doorstep. But from Mao’s place, it was easy to monitor the path leading up. The auditorium was designed, like most public buildings in Yenan, by a man who had studied architecture in Italy, and it looked like a Catholic church. But it was never used, except for a few gatherings of the security force. Mao wanted it kept ultra-secret, exclusively his own. Today Mao’s caves nestle in total seclusion, and the grand hall stands in ruins like a dilapidated cathedral, spectral, in a landscape of loess gullies extending as far as the eye can see.

Mao’s security assistant Shi Zhe told us: “I controlled that entrance to the path. No one was allowed in just because they wanted to come.” Few leaders ever came. Any who did could take only one bodyguard in, but “not near where Mao Tse-tung lived.” Mao’s own men escorted the leader, alone, to Mao’s place.

MAO’S CAMPAIGN terrorized even the terrorizers like his deputy and main hatchet man, Kang Sheng. Shi Zhe observed that Kang was living in a state of deep fear of Mao in this period. Though Kang had helped concoct the charge of a vast spy ring in the CCP, it could rebound, as Kang himself had a murky background. Where and when he had joined the CCP was a mystery: he had no witness to the event, and the sponsors he named denied his claim. Many letters had reached Mao casting doubts on Kang, some saying he had buckled when arrested by the Nationalists. Most damning of all, Dimitrov (i.e., Stalin) condemned Kang to Mao in December 1943 as “dubious,” saying that Kang was “helping the enemy.” In fact, back in 1940, the Russians had urged that Kang be kept out of the leadership.

Far from being put off by Kang’s murky past, Mao positively relished it. Like Stalin, who employed ex-Mensheviks like Vyshinsky, Mao used people’s vulnerability as a way of giving himself a hold over subordinates. He kept Kang on as the chief of his KGB, in charge of vetting and condemning others. Kang remained in fear of Mao right up to his death in 1975; one of his last acts was to plead with Mao that he was “clean.”

Mao made full use of Kang’s penchant for persecution and twisted personality. Kang had been in Moscow during the show trials and had participated in Stalin-type purging. He enjoyed watching people being stricken with terror at mass rallies, and liked to play with his victims’ anguish. Like Stalin, who sometimes invited victims to his study for a last talk, Kang savored the pleasure of watching the condemned fall into the abyss at the very moment they thought they were safe. He was a sadist. One story he particularly liked telling was about a landlord in his home district who thrashed his farmhands with a whip made from asses’ penises. Kang was also a voyeur. After one fifteen-year-old girl invented a story of how she had used her body for spying, he had her repeat it all over the region, while he listened again and again. One of Kang’s closest bonds with Mao came from supplying him with erotica, and swapping lewd tales.

Kang later became a scapegoat for the Yenan Terror, but everything he did was on Mao’s orders. Actually, during the campaign, Mao limited his power by making Party bosses in each unit — rather than Kang’s KGB — responsible for designating and taking charge of most victims in their institution. In the future Communist China, there was to be no exact equivalent of the Soviet KGB.

ANOTHER ASSOCIATE who was dealt a tremendous scare in the campaign was Liu Shao-chi. Not only did some of the organizations named as spy outfits come under his domain, but he had also been arrested by the Nationalists — in fact, several times, which qualified him to be a prime suspect as a possible turncoat. If he gave any cause for dissatisfaction, Mao could easily have him condemned as a spymaster. Liu had actually been against the terror campaign when he first came back to Yenan at the end of 1942; but after this brief flutter of distaste, Russian liaison Vladimirov described him as “changing his views rapidly,” and cozying up to Kang Sheng. Thereafter, Liu toed Mao’s line, and played an ignominious role in the campaign. As he was extremely able, Mao picked him to be his second-in-command, a position Liu held until his downfall in the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

TWO WOMEN WHO were to become extremely powerful in the future entered the realm of persecution now: Mao’s wife and the wife of the man who was to be his deputy in the Cultural Revolution, Lin Biao. Both women had come to Yenan through Party organizations that were being condemned as spy centers. One day in 1943, while Lin Biao was in Chongqing, his wife, Ye Qun, was tied onto a horse and dragged off into detention. Luckily for her, Lin Biao was someone who enjoyed a most uncommon crony relationship with Mao. When Lin returned to Yenan in July, he marched into the Party office dealing with his wife’s case. “Fuck you!” he shouted, throwing his whip on the desk. “We fight wars at the front, and you screw my wife in the rear!” His wife was released, and given the all-clear. This brief experience of intense fear was the beginning of the sclerosis of the heart for Ye Qun. When she rose with her husband in the Cultural Revolution, she became a victimizer.

The later notorious Mme Mao, Jiang Qing, also learned terror during the Yenan campaign. She had been arrested by the Nationalists years before, and had got out of prison by recanting, and entertaining her jailers — and, according to Kang Sheng (later), sleeping with them. Her past had been a big issue in 1938, when Mao wanted to marry her. Now, although no one dared to denounce her, because she was Mao’s wife, she lived in dread that somebody might, particularly as she too had to perform “self-examinations” and endure criticisms from others. She tried to hide by asking for sick leave, but unlike Lin Biao, who simply told his wife to stay at home, Mao ordered his wife to go back to her unit and experience the scare cycle. Although what she went through was nothing compared with the ordeal suffered by the vast majority, it was enough to make her live in fear about her past for the rest of her life. More than two decades later, when she acquired enormous power, this obsessive fear contributed to the imprisonment and death of many people who knew about her. Above all, Jiang Qing was afraid of her husband. Unlike her predecessor Gui-yuan, she never dared to make a scene about Mao’s womanizing, much less to contemplate leaving him. Whatever squalid jobs he assigned her, she would do.

The terror campaign in Yenan also marked her debut at persecuting others, for which she developed a taste. Her first victim was her daughter’s nineteen-year-old nanny, whom she got thrown into prison, as the nanny revealed fifty-five years later.

Mao and Jiang Qing had one child together, a daughter, Li Na, born on 3 August 1940. By the time Li Na was one and a half, she was on her third nanny, who came from a poor peasant family in Shanxi. The nanny’s father had died humping goods across the freezing Yellow River for the Reds. She herself started making shoes for the Red Army from a young age, and was promoted to her district Communist bureaucracy. She and some other “reliable” women were then selected to be nannies for the leaders.

After a health check and some training, she was taken on as the Maos’ nanny and servant. One of her chores was to wash Mme Mao’s hair. She described how Mme Mao would lose her temper if her hair was not washed exactly the way she wanted. One day in 1943, the nanny was suddenly summoned to appear in front of Mme Mao and two staff members. “You have come here with poison! Confess!” screamed Mme Mao. That night the nanny was taken to the prison in the Back Ravine behind Date Garden.

She was accused of poisoning the Maos’ milk, which came from their own specially guarded cow at the security apparatus’ compound. What had happened was that Mme Mao developed diarrhea. After grilling the chef and the orderly, she told Kang Sheng she wanted the nanny imprisoned and interrogated.

In prison, the nanny shared a cave with a large number of other women. During the day, the main activity was spinning, with a very high quota, which she had to work flat out to fill. The regime had spotted that this was an ideal occupation for prisoners, as they were forced to be stationary, thus easy to guard, while being economically productive. The evenings were a time for interrogations, during which the nanny was copiously abused with remarks like: “Why don’t you simply confess and get it over with, you shit-making machine!” During the night, guards poked their heads into the cave to watch against suicide and escape. After nine months she was released, but the gut-wrenching fear she experienced stayed with her forever.

IT WAS THROUGH the Yenan Terror that Mao accomplished another most important goal: building up his own personality cult. People who lived through this period all remembered it as a turning point when they “firmly established in our minds that Chairman Mao is our only wise leader.” Till then it had been possible to admire Mao while having reservations about him, and to gossip about his marriage to Jiang Qing while still supporting him as the leader. When they were first told to “study” a Mao speech, many had responded with an audible groan: “the same old thing,” “can’t be bothered to go over it again,” “too simplistic.” Quite a few had been reluctant to chant “Long live Chairman Mao.” One recalled thinking: “This was a slogan for emperors. Why are we doing this? I felt creepy and refused to shout it.” This kind of independent talk — and thinking — was killed off by the campaign, and the deification of Mao established. This worship had nothing to do with spontaneous popularity; it stemmed from terror.

Every step in the construction of his cult was choreographed by Mao himself. He minutely controlled its main vehicle, Liberation Daily, using giant headlines like “Comrade Mao Tse-tung is the Saviour of the Chinese People!” And it was Mao who initiated the phenomenon of badges of his head, which he first issued to the elite during the campaign. In 1943 he got a huge head of himself carved in gold relief on the façade of a major auditorium. It was in that year that Mao’s portraits were first printed en masse and sold to private homes, and that the Mao anthem, “The East Is Red,” became a household song.

It was also in 1943 that a later widely used expression, “Mao Tse-tung Thought,” first saw the light of day, in an article by the Red Prof, Wang Jia-xiang. Mao stage-managed this eulogy himself. The Red Prof’s wife described how Mao dropped in one sunny day when the dates were green on the trees. After some banter about mah-jong, Mao asked her husband to write an article to commemorate the twenty-second anniversary of the Party that July, dropping heavy hints as to what it should say. Mao checked the final text and made it obligatory reading for all.

Every day, at the interminable meetings, Mao’s simplistic formula was hammered in: for everything wrong in the Party, blame others; for every success — himself. To achieve this end, history was rewritten, and indeed often stood on its head. The battle of Tucheng, the biggest disaster on the Long March, fought under Mao’s command, was now cited as an example of what happened when the army “violated Mao Tse-tung’s principles.” The first action against Japan, Pingxingguan, was credited to Mao, although it had been fought against his wishes. “Just make it clear to Party members and cadres that the leadership headed by Comrade Mao Tse-tung is completely correct,” Mao instructed.

IN EARLY 1945 Mao was ready to convene the long-delayed Party congress and have himself inaugurated as the supreme leader of the CCP. The 7th Party Congress opened in Yenan on 23 April, seventeen years after the 6th, in 1928. Mao had been postponing it for years, to make sure he had absolute control.

Mao had not only weeded the list of delegates with a fine-tooth comb, he had held most of them in virtual imprisonment for five years, and put them through the grinder of his long-drawn-out terror campaign. Of the original 500 or so delegates, half were victimized as spy suspects and suffered appallingly, with some committing suicide and others having mental breakdowns. Many were then dropped. Hundreds of new delegates were appointed, guaranteed loyal to Mao.

The congress hall was dominated by a huge slogan hung over the platform: “March Forward under the Banner of Mao Tse-tung!” Mao was voted chairman of all three top bodies: the Central Committee, the Politburo and the Secretariat. For the first time since the founding of the Party, Mao formally, and publicly, became its head. It had taken him twenty-four years. It was an emotional moment for Mao, and, as always when his emotions were in play, self-pity was never far off. As he raked over his tale of woes, he was on the verge of tears.

Mao Tse-tung had become the Stalin of the CCP.

Later, Liu encouraged some cadres to speak up against the terror, but not until it was over in 1945. In 1950 he told Soviet ambassador Nikolai Roshchin that its methods were “perversions which cost a great number of victims.”

In 1943, a booklet was published in Yenan, entitled A Brief History of China’s Labour Movement, written by Deng Zhong-xia, a labor leader executed by the Nationalists. The original text had been published in 1930 in Russia, and contained no mention of Mao’s role. Now a passage was inserted: “In 1922, thanks to the leadership of comrade Mao Tse-tung, the workers’ movement in Hunan developed stormily …”


26. “REVOLUTIONARY OPIUM WAR” (1937–45 AGE 43–51)

YENAN, MAO’S HQ during the Sino-Japanese War, was run somewhat differently from former Red bases like Ruijin. With the policy changes the CCP introduced for the “United Front,” the practice of designating “class enemies” for slave labor and dispossession was drastically scaled down. But the maximum extraction went on, through taxation.

This was despite the fact that Yenan enjoyed two enormous external subsidies: substantial funding from the Nationalists (for the first few years), and massive clandestine sponsorship from Moscow, which Stalin personally set at US$300,000 per month in February 1940 (worth perhaps some US$45–50 million a year today).

The chief domestic source of revenue was grain tax, which rose steeply during the years of Communist occupation. Official figures for grain tax for the first five years of Red rule, for which records are available, were (in shi, equivalent to roughly 150 kg at the time):

1937: 13,859 1938: 15,972 1939: 52,250 1940: 97,354 1941: 200,000

The sharp increases from 1939 on were to fund Mao’s aggressive expansion of both territory and army. Coercion and violence were clearly rife, as the region’s Communist chief secretary, Xie Jue-zai, noted in his diary for 21 June 1939 that peasants were being “driven to death” by tax collectors. (Xie was one of the few to keep a diary, thanks to his high position and his long relationship with Mao, which went back to Mao’s youth.) In 1940, grain tax doubled in spite of severe bad weather and famine. And it doubled again in 1941, even though the harvest was 20–30 percent down on the previous year.

Mao was disliked by the locals — a fact he knew, but had no impact on his policy. He later told senior cadres a story about a peasant complaining about heavy taxation. After a county chief was struck dead by lightning, the peasant said: “Heaven has no eyes! Why didn’t it strike Mao dead?” Mao told the story as a way of saying he was responsive to discontent, and claimed he had had grain tax reduced as a result. As a matter of fact, the lightning and the peasant’s curse occurred on 3 June 1941, well before that year’s unprecedentedly high tax was announced, on 15 October. Mao doubled the tax after he heard about the peasant’s anger. And that November he added a new tax, on horse feed.

On another occasion, Mao revealed that someone who, according to him, “was feigning madness” lunged at him and tried to assault him — because of the heavy taxes. Mao did not quote other stories that went the rounds, including one about a peasant who cut the eyes out of a portrait of Mao. When interrogated, he said: “Chairman Mao has no eyes,” meaning: “There is no justice under his rule.” Mao’s response was simply to cook the figures. In 1942 and 1943, government announcements understated taxes by at least 20 percent.

The Communists claimed that taxation in Yenan was much lower than in Nationalist-ruled areas. But Chief Secretary Xie himself noted in his diary that grain tax per capita in 1943 was “high by the standards of the Big Rear [Nationalist area].” Sometimes, he recorded, grain tax “almost equals the entire year’s harvest”; the state took the astronomical figure of 92 percent in the case of one family he cited. For many, “there was no food left after paying the tax.” Large numbers tried to flee. According to the Communists’ own records, in 1943 over 1,000 families fled from Yenan County alone, which was no small feat, as the whole place was guarded around the clock, and the county was not on the border of the Red area, which was roughly the size of France.

THE REDS FOSTERED the myth that Yenan was under tight economic blockade by Chiang Kai-shek. In fact, there was plenty of trade with Nationalist areas, and the person Chiang selected to place on Yenan’s northern frontier, General Teng Pao-shan, was a man who had longstanding ties with the Communists. His daughter was a Party member, and actually lived in Yenan, which he sometimes visited; he also had a Communist secretary. He let the Reds take over two crucial border crossing points on the Yellow River, which gave them uninterrupted communications with their other bases. In addition, his men bought arms and ammunition for the Reds. Chiang tolerated this state of affairs because he did not want an all-out civil war, which Mao promised to start if he did not get his way.

The Yenan region had considerable assets. The most important marketable one was salt. There were seven salt lakes, where all that had to be done, as one 1941 report noted, was “just to collect it.” In the first four years of their occupation, the Reds produced no new salt, and simply used up the reserve built up before they arrived. “The salt stock of decades has been sold out,” the 1941 report said, and the territory “is in a salt famine.” The regime was not only extremely slow to maximize this asset, it had no plan. This reflected the fact that Mao treated Yenan, like the other areas he occupied, as a stopover, inflicting an economic approach akin to slash and burn, with no attention to long-term output.

By mid-1941, the regime had belatedly come to recognize salt as “the second-biggest source of [domestic] revenue” after the grain tax, and a key money-spinner, which soon came to account for over 90 percent of export earnings. The salt was in the northeast of the region, but the export market was over the southern border. As there was no railway or navigable river, let alone motor vehicles, it had to be carried some 700 km on steep, twisting paths. “Transporting salt is the harshest form of taxation,” one Yenan governor wrote to the emperor under the Manchu Dynasty; “those who are poor and cannot afford animals have to carry it on their backs and shoulders, and their hardship is untold …” “Today,” Chief Secretary Xie noted, “it is not much different from the old days.”

The regime imposed corvée labor (unpaid porterage) on innumerable peasant families. Xie and other moderates wrote to Mao many times arguing against this harsh method, but Mao told them flatly that the policy “is not only nothing to criticise, but is also completely correct.” Peasants, he said, must be “forced” to do it, and, he specifically enjoined, “in the slack season.” The underline was Mao’s, to stress that they must not neglect farm work.

THE LOCAL PEASANTS were having to support an administration that was both huge and inefficient. A British radio expert who was in Yenan in 1944–45, Michael Lindsay, was so frustrated by the inefficiency that he produced a document called “What’s Wrong with Yenan.” The system stifled initiative, Lindsay wrote, and made people frightened of proposing improvements, as any suggestion could be twisted into a lethal political accusation. “Technical people all [sic] run away at the first opportune moment.” A copy was given to Chou En-lai. Lindsay heard nothing more.

Others had raised their voices against the bloated bureaucracy earlier. In November 1941 a non-CCP member of the region’s dummy parliament had proposed cutting down on the army and administration, quoting a traditional adage that a good government should have “fewer but better troops, smaller and simpler administration.” For propaganda purposes, Mao made a public show of adopting the adage. But he was not interested in reducing the number of cadres, or soldiers. He wanted more of them, not fewer, in order to conquer China.

It is part of the founding myth of Communist China that in Yenan both the army and the administration were reduced, and that this relieved the burden on the population. In fact, what the regime did was to weed out the politically unreliable (termed “backward”), and the old and the sick, and reassign them to manual labor. The rules for relocating them said they “must be placed round the centre of the region to avoid the Nationalists enticing them away.” In other words, to prevent them fleeing. But even with these reductions, as a secret document of March 1943 noted, there was actually “an overall increase” in employees in the region’s administration, mainly at lower levels, in order to intensify control at the grassroots. Meanwhile, Mao used the drive to merge departments and carry out a reshuffle at the top to tighten his grip.

THE GERMAN INVASION of Russia in June 1941 made Mao look around for an alternative source of funding in case Moscow was unable to continue its subsidy. The answer was opium. Within a matter of weeks, Yenan brought in large quantities of opium seeds. In 1942, extensive opium-growing and trading began.

To a small circle, Mao dubbed his operation “the Revolutionary Opium War.” In Yenan, opium was known by the euphemism “te-huo,” “Special Product.” When we asked Mao’s old assistant, Shi Zhe, about growing opium, he answered: “It did happen,” and added: “If this thing gets known, it’s going to be very bad for us Communists.” He also told us that conventional crops, mainly sorghum, were planted around the opium to hide it. When a Russian liaison man asked Mao outright over a game of mah-jong in August 1942 how Communists could “openly engage in opium production,” Mao was silent. One of his hatchet men, Teng Fa, supplied the answer: opium, he said, “bring[s] back a caravan loaded with money … and with it we’ll whip the [Nationalists]!” That year a carefully researched study put the opium-growing area at 30,000 acres of the region’s best land.

The major opium-producing counties lay on the borders with the friendly Nationalist general to the north, Teng Pao-shan, who was actually known as “the Opium King.” Mao received invaluable collaboration from him, which he reciprocated by facilitating Teng’s own opium-trafficking. When Chiang Kai-shek was thinking of transferring Teng, Mao sprang into action to prevent this: “Ask Chiang to stop at once,” he told Chou in Chongqing, saying that he (Mao) was “determined to wipe out” the unit scheduled to replace Teng. Chiang canceled the transfer. Mao showed how much he appreciated Teng by mentioning him twice when he addressed the 7th Congress in 1945, once even in the same breath as Marx, leading the Russian liaison Vladimirov to ask: “What sort of man is this Teng Pao-shan whom Mao Tse-tung cited … alongside Marx?” Yet Mao never trusted his benefactor. After the Communist takeover in 1949, Teng remained on the Mainland and was rewarded with high nominal posts. But when he asked to travel abroad, the request was denied.

In one year, opium solved Mao’s problems. On 9 February 1943 he told Chou that Yenan had “overcome its financial difficulties, and had accumulated savings … worth 250 million fabi.” Fabi was the currency used in the Nationalist areas, which Mao had been stockpiling, along with gold and silver, “for when we enter Nationalist areas,” i.e., once all-out war began against Chiang. This sum was six times the official Yenan region budget for 1942, and it represented pure saving. In 1943 the Russians estimated Mao’s opium sales at 44,760 kg, worth an astronomical 2.4 billion fabi (roughly US$60 million at then current exchange rates, or some US$640 million today).

By early 1944 the Communists were “very rich,” according to Chief Secretary Xie. The huge fabi reserve “is without doubt thanks to the Special Product,” Xie wrote in his diary. The lives of Party members in Yenan improved dramatically too, especially for senior officials. Cadres arriving from other base areas marveled at how well they ate. One described a meal with “several dozen dishes,” and “every table left many dishes unfinished.”

Mao put on weight. When Opium King Teng met him in June 1943 after some time, his first words of greeting were: “Chairman Mao has grown fatter!” He meant it as a compliment.

FOR THE PEASANTS, the main benefit opium brought was that it lessened the impositions visited on them. Up till now, they had been liable to have their meager household possessions and vital farm tools commandeered. After he became opium-rich, Mao ordered steps to improve relations with the locals. The army began to return goods it had taken, and even to help peasants work the land. Mao himself later admitted that the locals’ attitude towards the Party until spring 1944 had been to “keep an awe-struck and fearful distance as if it were deity and devil,” i.e., to try to steer well clear of the Reds. And this was seven years after the Communists had occupied Yenan. Throughout, the Communists had little contact with the locals, except when their work required it, or on token New Year visits to villages to exchange ritual greetings. Intermarriage, and social relations, were rare.

Opium wealth, however, did not improve the locals’ standard of living, which remained far below that of the occupying Communists. The lowest-grade Communist’s annual meat ration was almost five times (12 kg) the average local’s (2.5 kg). While conserving its vast hoard of cash, the regime still lost no opportunity to milk the population. In June 1943, on the grounds that Chiang was about to attack Yenan (which he did not), civilians were made to “voluntarily donate” firewood, vegetables, pigs and sheep, and what little gold they had, which was often their life savings.

A mention of the CCP’s huge reserves in Xie’s diary on 12 October 1944 is sandwiched between dire descriptions of peasants’ lives: the mortality rate was not only rising, it was vastly outstripping the birth rate, in one district by nearly 5 to 1. The reasons, Xie noted, were “inadequate clothing, food and accommodation,” foul drinking water, and “no doctors.” The regime had introduced a major cause of mortality by banning firearms. Wolves sauntered into people’s front yards, and leopards roamed freely in the hills. So people had to bring their precious livestock into their dwellings, or risk losing them. The resulting abysmal hygiene led to many diseases. Access to game as food was also strangled by the firearms ban.

Mortality was highest among immigrants, who formed a sizable part of the population. They had been moving to the Yenan area because it had spare arable land. Mao encouraged them to keep coming, but then did little for them when they got there. Herded into mountain country and left to fend for themselves, they died like flies—31 percent within two years in one area. Mao knew that the mortality rate for children was 60 percent (and nearly all who survived grew up illiterate). And yet, as a top administrator recalled, “the massive death tolls in people and livestock were never given proper attention.” When pressed to do something, in April 1944, Mao said: Let’s discuss this in the winter. Public health did become the focus of discussion in November that year, for the first time since the Communists had arrived in the area nearly a decade before; but there was no mention of spending money on it.

FOR THE LOCALS, opium also brought astronomical inflation, much worse than in Nationalist areas. “We have caused great inflation,” Xie wrote in his diary on 6 March 1944, “not because we are poor, but because we are rich.”

Mao played a key role in this. In June 1941 he had personally ordered unrestrained printing of the local Communist currency, bianbi. The original plan had had a ceiling. After he saw the budget, Mao wrote: “don’t get fixated on the idea that bianbi should be kept within 10 million yuan … don’t tie our hands.” He urged spending “generously” on administration and the army, showing a total disregard for the local economy: “If in the future [the system] collapses, so be it.” In 1944 the price of salt was 2,131 times that in 1937, cooking oil 2,250 times, cotton 6,750 times, cloth 11,250 times, and matches 25,000 times, according to Chief Secretary Xie.

This hyper-inflation did not hurt those feeding at the state trough. Russian ambassador Panyushkin, who probably had a better picture than most, said it hurt the “toilers,” i.e., the peasants, who needed cash to buy basics like cloth, salt, matches, utensils and farm tools — and medical care, which was never free for non-state employees, if they could get it at all. A hospital official in one Red area revealed: “Only when we want wheat do we admit the lao-pai-shing [man-in-the-street].”

One practice where cash was needed, and the impact of inflation can be measured, was buying a bride. In 1939 a bride cost 64 yuan. By 1942 the prices were: seven-year-old girl: 700; adolescent: 1,300; widow: 3,000. By 1944 the price for a widow was 1.5 million.

Loan-sharking flourished, with average interest rates running at 30–50 percent monthly, according to Chief Secretary Xie, who also recorded the astronomical rate of 15–20 percent from one market day to the next — which was five days. These rates were as bad as the worst before the Communists. To raise cash, many peasants presold crops, which sometimes meant accepting as little as 5 percent of the harvest-time price.

“Reducing loan interest” was one of the Communists’ two main economic pledges at the time; the other was to lower land rent. But, whilst there were specific regulations about the latter (which actually meant little, as the peasants just had to hand over their harvest to the state instead of to landlords), the regime set no ceiling on loan interest. All it said was: “it should be left to the people themselves to fix … and the government should not fix too low an interest rate, in case lending dries up.” As the regime advanced virtually no loans, it had to find some other way to get credit floated. Some Red areas enforced low ceilings on interest rates, but in the Yenan region the regime let loose the most rapacious forces of the private sector on the most helpless of its subjects.

In March 1944 the regime stopped the runaway printing of money and started to call in bianbi. This was partly prompted by the imminent arrival of the first non-Russian outsiders for five years — an American mission, and some journalists. Hyper-inflation did not look good. But deflation was no boon to those in debt either, as Xie noted on 22 April: “No matter whether the currency goes down or up, those who suffer are always the poor … the debt they owed when prices were high now has to be paid back by selling more of their possessions. I heard that many are selling their draft animals.”

Opium-growing stopped at this point. Apart from not wanting the Americans to see, there was overproduction. In fact, the surplus had become a headache. Some hard-liners advocated dumping it on the population within Yenan, which Mao vetoed. A drug-addicted peasantry was no use to him. But some peasants had inevitably become hooked by growing the stuff. The regime ordered locals to kick the habit, with tough deadlines, promising to “assist addicts with medicine” and saying that “the poor” did not have to pay for treatment, clearly showing that one had to pay if one could remotely afford it.

To officials in the know, Mao met the widespread disquiet about opium-growing by calling it one of the Party’s “two mistakes,” but he went on to justify both in the same breath. One mistake, he said on 15 January 1945, “was that during the Long March we took people’s things”—“but,” he immediately added, “we couldn’t have survived if we hadn’t”; “the other,” he said, “was to grow a certain thing [mou-wu, i.e., opium] — but without growing this we couldn’t have got through our crisis.”

YENAN STAYED extremely poor even years after Mao had taken control of China. A visitor from Communist Hungary, itself by no means rich, commented on “indescribably squalid and poverty-stricken villages” near Yenan in 1954. In fact, all the Red bases remained among the poorest areas in China, and the reason was precisely that they had been Red bases. An exchange between Mao and a Swedish enthusiast in 1962 ran:

J. MYRDAL: I have just come back from a trip to the Yenan area.

MAO: That is a very poor, backward, underdeveloped … part of the country.

MYRDAL: I lived in a village … I wanted to study the change in the countryside …

MAO: Then I think it was a very bad idea that you went to Yenan … Yenan is only poor and backward. It was not a good idea that you went to a village there.

MYRDAL: But it has a great tradition — the revolution and the war — I mean, after all, Yenan is the beginning—

MAO [interrupting]: Traditions — [laughing]. Traditions — [laughing].

Control of guns was watertight. An Austrian doctor kidnapped by the Communists in the later 1940s observed that if you heard wolves, you knew you were in a Red area. No one we interviewed recalled hearing a shot in Yenan throughout the war. One night, when a Russian radio operator on the outskirts of Yenan shot a wolf that had killed one of their two guard dogs, Mao’s guards immediately appeared to complain that the sound of the shots had “very much unsettled” Mao. Another time, Russian liaison Vladimirov shot a rabid dog (rabies was common) that was attacking his guard dog. A group of Mao’s guards instantly descended, saying that Mao “was very agitated” and that the shooting “had interrupted his work.”

27. THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! (1945–46 AGE 51–52)

IN FEBRUARY 1945, at Yalta in the Crimea, Stalin confirmed to Roosevelt and Churchill that Russia would enter the Pacific War two or three months after Germany’s defeat. This meant the Soviet army would enter China, and thus give Mao his long-awaited chance to take the country. Mao had made a shrewd assessment as far back as 1923: communism, he had said then, “had to be brought into China from the north by the Russian army.” Now, twenty-two years later, this was about to become reality.

Stalin did not have to persuade Roosevelt and Churchill to let him tail-end on the war against Japan. They wanted him involved. At the time, the US atomic bomb had not been tested, and the feeling was that Soviet entry would hasten the defeat of Japan and save Allied lives. The two Western leaders accepted Stalin’s demands for “compensation,” neither seeming to realize that Stalin needed no inducement at all to come in. They agreed not only to accept “the status quo” in Outer Mongolia (in effect, allowing Stalin to keep it), but to turn the clock back decades and restore the Tsarist privileges in China, including extraterritorial control over the Chinese Eastern Railway and two major ports in Manchuria.

Stalin used the excuse of fighting Japan, at the very last minute, to invade China and create the conditions for Mao to seize power. A hint came right after Yalta, on 18 February, when Russia’s governmental mouthpiece, Izvestia, wrote of Moscow’s “desire to solve the Far Eastern problem taking due account of the interests of the Chinese Communists.”

Mao was ecstatic, and his goodwill towards the Russians extended to their sex lives. Within days, he was trying to fix them up. “Haven’t you liked a single pretty woman here?” Mao asked Russian liaison Vladimirov on 26 February. “Don’t be shy …” He returned to the theme a week later: “Well, there are attractive girls, aren’t there? And extremely healthy. Don’t you think so? Maybe Orlov would like to look around for one? And maybe you, too, have an eye for someone?”

Vladimirov wrote:

towards evening a girl appeared … She shyly greeted me, saying she had come to tidy up the house …

I took out a stool, and placed it under our only tree, near the wall. She sat down, tense, but smiling. Then she amiably answered my questions, and was all the while waiting cautiously, her legs crossed, small slender legs in woven slippers …

She was a smashing girl, indeed!

… she told me she was a university student, just enrolled. How young she was …

On 5 April, Moscow told Tokyo it was breaking their Neutrality Pact. One month later Germany surrendered. This came right in the middle of the CCP congress that ratified Mao’s supremacy. Mao fired up the delegates with the sense that victory was imminent for the CCP as well. The Soviet army would definitely come to help them, he said, and then, with a big smile, he put the side of his hand to his neck like an ax head, and announced: “If not, you can chop my head off!” Mao delivered the most effusive comments he ever made about Stalin in his entire life. “Is Stalin the leader of the world revolution? Of course he is.” “Who is our leader? It is Stalin. Is there a second person? No.” “Every member of our Chinese Communist Party is Stalin’s pupil,” Mao intoned. “Stalin is the teacher to us all.”

AT TEN PAST MIDNIGHT on 9 August 1945, three days after America dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, over 1.5 million Soviet and Mongolian troops swept into China along a huge front stretching more than 4,600 km, from the shores of the Pacific to the province of Chahar — far wider than the European front from the Baltic to the Adriatic. In April, Mao had ordered those of his troops who were near the Russian points of entry to be ready to “fight in coordination with the Soviet Union.” As soon as the Russo-Mongolian army entered China, Mao went to work around the clock dispatching troops to link up with them and seize the territory they rolled over. He moved his office to an auditorium at Date Garden, where he received a stream of military commanders, drafting telegrams on a Ping-Pong table he used as a desk, pausing only to wolf down food.

Under the Yalta agreements, before entering China, Russia was supposed to sign a treaty with Chiang Kai-shek, but it stormed in anyway without one. A week after the Russians invaded, with their army driving hundreds of kilometers into China, Chiang’s foreign minister reluctantly put his signature on a Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, which formally severed Outer Mongolia from China. Chiang compromised in return for the Russians recognizing him as the sole legitimate government of China and promising to hand back all the territory they occupied to him and only to him.

In spite of his promise, Stalin found myriad ways to assist Mao. His first ploy was to refuse to commit to a timetable for withdrawal. He made a verbal promise to withdraw his troops within three months, but refused to incorporate this in the agreement; and it was attached only as a non-binding “minute.” In fact, Stalin was to stay much longer than three months, and was to use the period of occupation to thwart Chiang and secretly transfer territory and assets to Mao.

Japan surrendered on 15 August. The occasion was greeted in China with firecrackers and street parties, tears and toasts, drums and gongs. Most of China had been at war for eight years, and some regions for fourteen years. During that time at least one-third of the population had been occupied by the Japanese. Tens of millions of Chinese had died, untold millions had been crippled, and more than 95 million people — the largest number in history — had been made refugees. People yearned for peace.

What they got instead was an all-engulfing nationwide civil war, which broke out in earnest at once. In this, Stalin was right behind Mao; in fact, the Russians did not stop their drive south when Japan surrendered, but pressed on for several weeks afterwards. The area Russian troops moved into in northern China was larger than the entire territory they occupied in Eastern Europe. Russian paratroopers landed as far west as Baotou, the railhead due north of Mao’s base, some 750 km west of the Manchurian border. By the end of August, with Russian help, the CCP had occupied much of Chahar and Jehol provinces, including their capitals, Zhangjiakou and Chengde, both only some 150 km from Peking, to the northwest and northeast respectively. For a while Mao planned to move his capital to Kalgan, and camel trains carrying documents and luggage set off thither from Yenan.

The key prize was Manchuria, which contained China’s best deposits of coal, iron and gold, giant forests — and 70 percent of its heavy industry. Manchuria was bordered on three sides by Soviet-controlled territory — Siberia, Mongolia and North Korea. The border with Siberia alone was over two thousand kilometers long. “If we have Manchuria,” Mao had told his Party, “our victory will be guaranteed.”

Neither the Communists nor the Nationalists had armies in the region, which had been occupied by the Japanese, efficiently and ruthlessly, for fourteen years. But Red guerrillas were far closer than Chiang’s troops. The Russians immediately opened up Japanese arms depots to these Reds, including the biggest arsenal, in Shenyang, which alone contained about “100,000 guns, thousands of artillery pieces, and large quantities of ammunition, textiles and food,” according to a secret CCP circular. Only a few months earlier, the Communist 8th Route Army had had only 154 pieces of heavy artillery.

The bonanza was not just in weapons, but also in soldiers. The troops of the Japanese puppet Manchukuo regime, almost 200,000 strong, had surrendered en masse to the Soviet army, and were now made available by the Russians to be “re-enlisted” by the CCP. So were hundreds of thousands of men newly unemployed as a result of Russian depredations and outright destruction. The Soviet occupation forces carted off whole factories and machinery as “war booty,” and even demolished industrial installations. The equipment removed by the Russians was estimated to be worth US$858 million (US$2 billion at current replacement cost). Many local people were deprived of their livelihood. The CCP, which had originally dispatched 60,000 troops into Manchuria, saw its force snowball to well over 300,000.

THIS EMPOWERMENT of the CCP was carried out by the Russians in maximum secrecy, as it was in stark violation of the treaty Moscow had just signed with Chiang. The Generalissimo’s best, combat-hardened troops, who were American-trained and equipped, were stuck in South China and Burma, far away from the areas Russia held. To get them to Manchuria fast, he desperately needed American ships. America wanted him to talk with Mao about peace; so under American pressure, the Generalissimo invited Mao to come to Chongqing for talks. America’s China policy had been defined by the late President Roosevelt (who had died on 12 April 1945 and was succeeded by his vice-president, Harry Truman) as to “knock heads together,” and the US ambassador in China had earlier suggested the idea of bringing the Generalissimo and Mao to the White House together if the two Chinese leaders reached a deal.

Mao did not want to go to Chongqing, and twice turned down Chiang’s invitation, mainly because he did not trust Chiang not to harm him. This would be Mao’s first venture out of his lair since he had started running his own military force in 1927. He told Chiang he was sending Chou En-lai instead. But Chiang insisted the summit must take place with Mao, and in the end Mao had to accept. Stalin had cabled him no fewer than three times to go. While secretly helping Mao to seize territory, Stalin wanted him to play the negotiations game. If Mao refused to show up, he would look as though he were rejecting peace, and America would be more likely to give its full commitment to Chiang.

Mao resented this pressure from Stalin. It was to be his biggest grievance against Stalin, and one he would keep bringing up for the rest of his life.

Stalin told Mao that his safety would be assured by both Russia and the US. The Founder of Chiang’s FBI, Chen Li-fu, told us that the Nationalists had no designs on Mao’s life “because the Americans guaranteed his safety.” Mao knew he would also have secret protection from his strategically placed moles, especially the Chongqing garrison chief, Chang Chen. Even so, he insisted on US ambassador Patrick Hurley coming to Yenan and escorting him to Chongqing as insurance against being bumped off in mid-air.

With all these precautions in place, Mao at last flew off to Chongqing in an American plane on 28 August, leaving Liu Shao-chi in charge in Yenan. When the plane landed, Mao stuck close to Hurley, and got into Hurley’s car, shunning the one Chiang had sent for him.

Mao also took out insurance of the kind he knew best, by ordering an offensive against Nationalist forces while he was in Chongqing, which demonstrated that the Reds would escalate the civil war if anything happened to him. He told his top generals, who were about to be flown (by the Americans) to 8th Route Army HQ: Fight without any restraint. The better you fight, the safer I am. When his troops won the battle at a place called Shangdang, Mao beamed: “Very good! The bigger the battle, the bigger the victory, the more hope I will be able to return.”

Mao flew into one moment of panic in Chongqing, when Hurley left on 22 September, followed by Chiang on the 26th, and he feared he was being set up for a hit. Chou was dispatched to the Soviet embassy to ask if the Russians would let Mao stay there, but Ambassador Apollon Petrov was non-committal, and got no reply when he wired Moscow for instructions. Mao was furious.

Mao gained a lot by going to Chongqing. He talked to Chiang as an equal, “as though the convicts were negotiating with the warders,” one observer remarked. Foreign embassies invited him not as a rebel, but as a statesman, and he played the part, behaving diplomatically, and laughing off a pointed challenge from Churchill’s no-nonsense envoy General Carton de Wiart, who told Mao that he did “not consider that [the Reds] contributed much towards defeating the Japs,” and that Mao’s troops only “had a nuisance value, but no more.” Even when put on the spot in a tough face-to-face encounter with the US commander in China, General Albert Wedemeyer, about the murder and mutilation by the Reds of an American officer called John Birch, Mao showed aplomb. And he kept his cool when Wedemeyer told him, with more than a hint of a threat, that the US was planning to bring atomic bombs into China, as well as up to half a million troops. By appearing conciliatory, Mao scored a propaganda victory.

The peace talks lasted forty-five days, but the whole episode was theater. Mao went around exclaiming “Long live Generalissimo Chiang!” and saying he supported Chiang as the leader of China. But this meant nothing. Mao wanted China for himself, and he knew he could only get it through civil war.

Chiang also knew that war was inevitable, but he needed a peace agreement to satisfy the Americans. Although he had no intention of observing it, he endorsed an agreement that was signed on 10 October. And this behavior brought benefits, at least in the short term. While Mao was in Chongqing, US forces occupied the two main cities in northern China, Tianjin and Peking, and held them for Chiang, and started to ferry his troops to Manchuria.

After the treaty was signed, Chiang invited Mao to stay with him for the night; and the next day they had breakfast together before Mao departed for Yenan. The moment Mao’s back was turned, the Generalissimo gave vent to his true feelings in his diary: “The Communist Party is perfidious, base, and worse than beasts.”

WHEN MAO RETURNED to Yenan on 11 October he immediately started military operations to keep Chiang’s army out of Manchuria. Lin Biao was appointed commander of the Red forces there. Tens of thousands of cadres had already been dispatched, coming under a new Manchuria Bureau whose leaders the Russians flew secretly from Yenan to Shenyang in mid-September.

Mao ordered troops deployed around Shanhaiguan, at the eastern end of the Great Wall. His forces had occupied this strategic pass from China proper into Manchuria in cooperation with the Soviet army on 29 August. He asked the Russians to take care of the seaports and the airports. With Russian encouragement, CCP units posing as bandits fired on US ships trying to land Chiang’s troops, in one case shooting up the launch of the US commander, Admiral Daniel Barbey, and forcing him back out to sea.

The US 7th Fleet finally had to dock at Qinhuangdao, a port just south of Manchuria, and one of Chiang’s best armies disembarked. On the night of 15–16 November it stormed the Shanhaiguan pass. Mao had called for a “decisive battle” and told his troops to hold out at the pass, but Chiang’s divisions simply swept through them. Mao’s forces disintegrated so overwhelmingly that one Nationalist commander lamented proudly that “we don’t even have enough people to accept all the arms being surrendered.”

The Communist forces had no experience of trench warfare, or of any kind of modern warfare. As guerrillas, their first principle, as laid down by Mao himself, was “retreat when the enemy advances.” And that is what they did now. Chiang’s armies, on the other hand, had fought large-scale engagements with the Japanese: in Burma, they had put more Japanese out of action in one campaign than the entire Communist army had in eight years in the whole of China. The Nationalist supremo in Manchuria, General Tu Yu-ming, had been in command of major battles against the Japanese, whereas Mao’s commander, Lin Biao, had taken part in one single ambush in September 1937, eight years before, since when he had hardly smelled gunpowder. By studiously avoiding combat with the Japanese, Mao had ended up with an army that could not fight a modern war.

The Reds had been in some frontal engagements during the Japan war, but mostly against weak Nationalist units. They had not faced the cream of Chiang’s forces, who, as one top Red commander wrote to Mao, were fresh, well-trained, “US-style troops,” and battle-ready.

The CCP troops were not only badly trained, but also poorly motivated. After the Japanese war, many just wanted peace. The Reds had been using a propaganda song called “Defeat Japan so we can go home.” After Japan’s surrender, the song was quietly banned, but the sentiment — let’s go home — could not be quenched as easily as the song.

When Red troops were marched to Manchuria, mainly from Shandong, pep talks focused not on high ideals but on material enticements. Commissar Chen Yi told officers: “When I left Yenan, Chairman Mao asked me to tell you that you are going to a good place, a place of great fun. There are electric lights and high-rises, and gold and silver in plenty …” Others told their subordinates: “In Manchuria we’ll be eating rice and white flour [desirable foods] all the time,” and “everyone will be given a promotion.” Even so some officers found it impossible to motivate the soldiers, and kept the destination secret until the troops were safely on board ship en route to Manchuria.

Communist officers who trekked to Manchuria remembered abysmal morale. One officer recalled:

The thing that gave us the worst headache was desertions … Generally speaking, all of us Party members, squad commanders, combat team leaders had our own “wobblies” to watch. We would do everything — sentry duty, chores, and errands — together … When the wobblies wanted to take a leak, we would say “I want to have a piss, too” … Signs of depression, homesickness, complaints — all had to be dealt with instantly … After fighting, particularly defeats, we kept our eyes peeled.

Most of those who ran away did so after camp was pitched, so … as well as normal sentries, we placed secret sentries … Some of us tied ourselves surreptitiously to our wobblies at night … Some of us were so desperate we adopted the method the Japanese used with their labourers — collected the men’s trousers and stowed them in the company HQ at night.

Yet even some of these trusted cadres deserted.

The commander of one division that had transferred from Shandong to Manchuria reported to Mao on 15 November that between “deserters, stragglers and the sick” he had lost 3,000 men out of the 32,500 he had set off with. Earlier, the commander of another unit reported: “Last night alone … over 80 escaped.” One unit suffered a desertion rate of over 50 percent, ending up with fewer than 2,000 out of its original 4,000-plus men. Local Manchurian recruits also defected in droves when they realized they would be fighting the national government. During a ten-day period in late December 1945 to early January 1946, over 40,000 went over to the Nationalists, according to the Reds’ own statistics. Although CCP troops in Manchuria far outnumbered the Nationalists, and were well armed with Japanese weapons, they were still unable to hold their own.

MAO’S NO. 2, Liu Shao-chi, had foreseen that the Reds would not be able to shut Chiang out of Manchuria. He had a different strategy from Mao. While Mao was in Chongqing, Liu had instructed the CCP in Manchuria to focus on building a solid base on the borders with Russia and its satellites, where the troops could receive proper training in modern warfare. On 2 October 1945, he had sent an order: “Do not deploy the main forces at the gate to Manchuria to try to keep Chiang out, but at the borders with the USSR, Mongolia and Korea, and dig our heels in.” In addition, Liu had told the Reds to be ready to abandon big cities and go and build bases in the countryside surrounding the cities.

But when Mao returned to Yenan from Chongqing, he overruled Liu. Concentrate the main forces at the pass into Manchuria and at big railway junctions, he ordered on 19 October. Mao could not wait to “possess the whole of Manchuria,” as another order put it. But his army was not up to the job.

Mao’s relationship with his army was in many ways a remote one. He never tried to inspire his troops in person, never visited the front, nor went to meet the troops in the rear. He did not care about them. Many of the soldiers sent to Manchuria had malaria. In order to drag these feverish men the many hundreds of kilometers, each sick man was sandwiched between two able-bodied soldiers and pulled along by a rope around the waist. Mao’s preferred method for dealing with wounded soldiers was to leave them with local peasants, who were usually living on a knife-edge between subsistence and starvation, and had no access to medicine.

His army’s performance showed that Mao had no prospect of victory anytime soon, and Stalin adjusted rapidly. On 17 November 1945, after Chiang’s army stormed into southern Manchuria, Chiang noted a “sudden change of attitude” in the Russians. They told the CCP it would have to vacate the cities, putting an end to Mao’s hopes of becoming immediate master of all Manchuria, and of a quick victory nationwide.

Stalin knew this decision would be devastating for Mao, so he made a gesture to reassure him. On the 18th, a cable was dispatched from Russia: “MAO AN YIN[G] asks for your permission to go to ‘41’ [code name for Yenan].” Stalin was finally returning Mao’s son. This was good news for Mao, but no help in seizing Manchuria. Desperate entreaties to the Russians followed, and futile orders for his troops to hold out. When both failed, Mao collapsed with a nervous breakdown. On the 22nd he moved out of Date Garden into a special elite clinic (after all the patients had first been turfed out). For days on end, he was unable to rise from his bed, or to sleep a wink. He lay trembling all over, his hands and feet convulsing, pouring cold sweat.

At his wits’ end, Mao’s assistant Shi Zhe suggested asking Stalin for help. Mao agreed, and Shi cabled Stalin, who replied at once, offering to send doctors. Mao accepted the offer, but two hours later he seems to have had second thoughts about laying himself so bare to Stalin’s eyes and asked Shi to hold the telegram. But it had already gone off.

Only days before, Stalin had recalled Mao’s GRU doctor Orlov, together with the whole GRU mission in Yenan. Orlov had been in Yenan for three and a half years without a break, but the minute he arrived in Moscow, Stalin ordered him back to Mao. The hapless Orlov arrived back on 7 January 1946, accompanied by a second doctor called Melnikov from the KGB. They found nothing seriously wrong with Mao, except for mental exhaustion and nervous stress. Mao was advised to delegate work more, relax, take walks and get plenty of fresh air. Orlov, however, was soon pleading nervous tension himself and begging Moscow to recall him. In vain.

On the plane with the doctors came Mao’s son, An-ying, to whom Stalin had personally presented an inscribed pistol before he left. It was over eighteen years since Mao had seen his son, then four years old, in 1927, when Mao had left his wife Kai-hui and three sons and begun his outlaw career. Now An-ying was a good-looking young man of twenty-three. At the airfield Mao hugged him, exclaiming: “How tall you have grown!” That evening, Mao wrote a thank-you letter to Stalin.

Mao had moved out of the clinic by now and settled in the HQ of the military, a beautiful place known as Peony Pavilion. It was surrounded by a large garden of peonies, including some of China’s most gorgeous varieties. To this rich splendor the plant-loving nominal C-in-C, Zhu De, and his staff had added a delicate peach orchard, a fish pond and a basketball court. Mao spent a lot of time with An-ying, often sitting at a square stone table chatting outside his adobe house, which stood right next to his deep — and private — air-raid shelter. A frequent mah-jong and card partner of the Maos at the time noticed that Mao acted very affectionately towards his son. Mao’s health gradually improved. By spring, he had made a good recovery.

The most comforting thing for Mao was that most of Manchuria was still in Communist hands. Stalin maintained overall control of the area, having hung on way beyond the three months he had promised, and had refused to allow anything but a skeleton Nationalist staff into the cities. Though the CCP had to move its organizations out of most cities, they entrenched in the vast countryside.

THE RUSSIAN ARMY did not finally leave Manchuria until 3 May 1946, nearly ten months after it had entered. To maximize the CCP’s chances, they kept the Nationalists in the dark until the very last minute about the pull-out schedule, while coordinating their departure with the CCP so that it could take over the area’s assets, including major cities, which the Reds now re-entered. Mao ordered his army again to hold out in key cities on the railway line, which he insisted were to be defended “regardless of the sacrifice,” “like Madrid,” evoking the heroic image of defending the capital to the death in the Spanish civil war.

Mao’s second in command, Liu Shao-chi, again cautioned that the Reds were not up to stopping Chiang’s army, and that most cities would have to be abandoned. The Manchuria commander, Lin Biao, also warned Mao that “there is no great likelihood of holding on to [the cities],” and suggested their strategy should be “to eliminate enemy forces, not defend cities.” He agreed with Liu Shao-chi that the priority was to build up rural bases. Mao insisted that the cities must be defended “to the death.”

But the next round of battles showed that his army was still no match for Chiang’s. Within weeks of the Russian withdrawal the Nationalists had seized every major city in Manchuria except Harbin, the nearest to Russia, and the Communist forces had been reduced to a state of collapse. They retreated north in chaos, under aerial bombardment, harried by Nationalist tanks and motorized troops. Lin Biao’s political commissar later admitted that “the whole army had disintegrated” and fallen into what he called “utter anarchy.” One officer recalled being chased northward non-stop for forty-two days: “It really looked as though we’d had it …”

Not only were the Reds collapsing militarily, but they were at a huge disadvantage with the civilian population, which longed for national unity after fourteen years of brutal Japanese rule, and saw the Nationalists as representing the government. Lin Biao reported to Mao: “People are saying that the 8th Route Army shouldn’t be fighting the government army … They regard the Nationalists as the Central Government.”

The CCP had a further disadvantage, that of being linked in people’s minds with the much-hated Russians. Russian troops plundered not only industrial equipment, but people’s homes; and rape by Russian soldiers was frequent. When the belated publication of the Yalta Agreement in February 1946 revealed the huge extraterritorial privileges Stalin had grabbed in Manchuria, anti-Soviet demonstrations erupted in many cities there, as well as in other parts of China. There was a widespread feeling that the CCP had got into Manchuria on the back of the Russians and was not working for the interests of China. When demonstrators shouted slogans like “The CCP should love our country,” onlookers applauded. Rumors circulated that the Party was offering the Russians women in exchange for weapons.

The locals treated the Chinese Reds quite differently from the Nationalists. One Red officer recalled: “We were hungry and thirsty when we got to Jilin … There was not a soul in the street … But when the enemy entered the city; somehow the folks all appeared, waving little flags and cheering … Imagine our anger!”

The Red troops were disheartened, and vented their fury even on their top brass. Lin Biao was once caught in his jeep in a crowd of retreating troops. When his guard asked the men to make way for “the chief,” he was greeted with yells like: “Ask that chief, are we retreating to the land of the Big Hairy Ones?” The sobriquet was the locals’ derogatory term for the Russians.

At this point it looked as though the Chinese Reds might be driven across the border into Russia, or be scattered into small guerrilla units in the mountains, which Lin Biao anticipated. On 1 June, he asked Mao for permission to abandon Harbin, the last big city the Reds held, about 500 km from the Russian border. The CCP’s Manchuria Bureau gave Mao the same fatalistic message the next day: “We have told Brother Chen [code name for the Russians] that we are ready to leave [Harbin] …” Mao twice implored Stalin to intervene directly, in the form of either a “military umbrella” or “joint operations.” Stalin declined, as intervention would have international implications, although he allowed CCP units to cross into Russia. On 3 June, Mao had to endorse plans to abandon Harbin and go over to guerrilla warfare “on a long-term basis.”

Mao was on the ropes. Then he was rescued — by the Americans.

In the Yalta Declaration, these are presented as reparations due Russia by Japan, but the reality was that they were gouged out of China. Churchill welcomed this, on the grounds that “any claim by Russia for indemnity at the expense of China would be favorable to our resolve about Hong Kong.” Though the deals involved Chinese territory, the Chinese government was not even informed, much less consulted. Moreover, the US put itself at Stalin’s mercy by committing to wait for his permission before it told Chiang Kai-shek — and placed itself in the uniquely constrained position of then being responsible for obtaining Chiang’s compliance. As a result, the Generalissimo was not given a full account by the US until 15 June, over four months later. This was shabby treatment of an ally, and it stored up trouble.

Stalin also had his own aggressive agenda: a tentative scheme to detach part of the Mongolian region of China adjacent to Outer Mongolia and merge it with the Soviet satellite. Russo — Mongolian occupation forces actually formed an Inner Mongolia provisional government, ready for the merger, but the scheme was then dropped.

When two years later he urged sending large forces deep into Nationalist areas, the commanders asked what would happen to the wounded without a base area to fall back on. Mao’s airy response was: “It’s easy … leave the wounded and the sick to the masses.”

Since then, a cultivated myth has credited Mao with the strategies of “surrounding the cities from the countryside” and of “aiming mainly to eliminate enemy forces, not to defend or capture cities.” In fact, the former idea came from Liu Shao-chi, and was vigorously opposed by Mao before practicality forced him to adopt it; and the latter was Lin Biao’s.

28. SAVED BY WASHINGTON (1944–47 AGE 50–53)

IT WAS NO secret that many US officials were decidedly unenthusiastic about Chiang, and so Mao acted to exploit this ambivalence in the hope that America would withhold support from the Generalissimo and perhaps take a friendlier line towards the Reds. Mao carefully fostered the delusion that the CCP was not a real Communist party, but one of moderate agrarian reformers, who wanted to cooperate with the US.

In mid-1944 Roosevelt sent a mission to Yenan. Just after the first Americans arrived, Mao floated the idea of changing the Party’s name: “We’ve been thinking of renaming our Party,” he told the Russian liaison in Yenan, Vladimirov, on 12 August: “of calling it not ‘Communist’ but something else. Then the situation … will be more favorable, especially with the Americans …” The Russians immediately chimed in. Later that month, Molotov fed the same line to Roosevelt’s then special envoy to China, General Patrick Hurley, telling him that in China “some … people called themselves ‘Communists’ but they had no relation whatever to communism. They were merely expressing their dissatisfaction at their economic condition by calling themselves Communists. However, once their economic conditions had improved, they would forget this political inclination. The Soviet Government … [was not] associated with the ‘Communist elements.’ ”

Red deception became especially important when Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, sent America’s top general, George Marshall, to China in December 1945 to try to stop the civil war. Marshall, who had served in China in the 1920s, was already ill-disposed towards Chiang, mainly because of the corruption of Chiang’s relatives, and was susceptible to CCP claims that it and the US had a lot in common. At their first meeting, Chou En-lai soft-soaped Marshall by telling him how much the CCP “desired a democracy based … on the American style.” A month later, Chou egregiously suggested that Mao preferred America to Russia, telling Marshall “a small anecdote which might be of interest to you. It has been rumored recently, that Chairman Mao is going to pay a visit to Moscow. On learning this, Chairman Mao laughed and remarked half-jokingly that if ever he would take a furlough abroad … he would rather go to the United States …” Marshall relayed these remarks uncritically to Truman. Even years later, he was maintaining to Truman that the Reds had been more cooperative than the Nationalists.

Marshall did not understand Mao, or Mao’s relationship with Stalin. On 26 December 1945 he told Chiang that “it was very important to determine whether or not the Russian Government was in contact with and was advising the Chinese Communist party”—as though this still needed verification. Later (in February 1948), he told the US Congress that “in China we have no concrete evidence that [the Communist army] is supported by Communists from the outside.” This ignorance is particularly striking because the Americans, like the British, had been intercepting cables from Russia, some of them addressed to Yenan, clearly showing the relationship. Marshall was also given strong warnings by other American officials, including the head of the US mission in Yenan, who opened his final report with a three-word alarm: “Communism is International!”

Marshall visited Yenan on 4–5 March 1946. For the occasion, Mao made doubly sure that everything was shipshape and watertight. One step was to pack his son An-ying off to a village. He told An-ying this was to help him to learn farm labor and Chinese ways, but the real reason was that Mao was vexed by the attention the Americans were paying his English-speaking son. Soon after An-ying had arrived from Russia, Mao had introduced him to the Associated Press correspondent John Roderick, who then interviewed An-ying on the edge of the dance floor at a Saturday night party. Afterwards Mao exploded. He “did not even read the interview through,” An-ying recalled, “before he crushed it into a ball, and then told me sternly: … How dare you give an interview to a foreign reporter just like that, off the top of your head, without instructions?” An-ying had been schooled in the hard world of Stalin’s Russia, but even that had not prepared him for the super-steely discipline of his father’s laager. While An-ying was banished to the sticks, the non-English-speaking Mme Mao was very much on hand for her debut as First Lady.

Marshall’s report to Truman about Yenan oozed illusions: “I had a long talk with Mao Tze-tung, and I was frank to an extreme. He showed no resentment and gave me every assurance of cooperation.” Marshall informed Truman that Communist forces in Manchuria were “little more than loosely organized bands”; and, even more astonishingly, that: “It has been all but impossible for the Yenan headquarters to reach the leaders’ in Manchuria. This was after the Russians had flown CCP leaders to Manchuria from Yenan (in a DC-3) and when Yenan was in daily contact with CCP forces in the field that numbered hundreds of thousands.

While Marshall was still in Yenan, Mao summoned the GRU liaison, Dr. Orlov, and briefed him on the talks.

MARSHALL WAS to perform a monumental service to Mao. When Mao had his back to the wall in what could be called his Dunkirk in late spring 1946, Marshall put heavy — and decisive — pressure on Chiang to stop pursuing the Communists into northern Manchuria, saying that the US would not help him if he pushed further, and threatening to stop ferrying Nationalist troops to Manchuria. On 31 May, Marshall wrote to Chiang, invoking his personal honor:

Under the circumstances of the continued advance of the Government troops in Manchuria, I must … repeat that … a point is being reached where the integrity of my position is open to serious question. Therefore I request you again to immediately issue an order terminating advances, attacks or pursuits by Government troops …

Chiang gave in and agreed to a fifteen-day ceasefire. This came at the very moment when Mao had become resigned to abandoning the last big Red-held city in Manchuria, Harbin, and dispersing his army into guerrilla units. In fact, he had issued the order on 3 June but on the 5th, when he learned about the ceasefire, he dashed off a new order: “Hang on … especially keep Harbin.” The tide had turned.

Marshall’s diktat was probably the single most important decision affecting the outcome of the civil war. The Reds who experienced that period, from Lin Biao to army veterans, concurred in private that this truce was a fatal mistake on Chiang’s part. Had he pressed on, then at the very least he might have prevented the Reds establishing a large and secure base on the Soviet border, with rail links with Russia, over which huge amounts of heavy artillery were brought in. Furthermore, having agreed to a truce of two weeks, Chiang then found Marshall proposing that it be extended to nearly four months and cover the whole of Manchuria — and that the Communists be allowed to keep northern Manchuria. For Chiang to press on would have meant a head-on collision with Marshall, who, Chiang noted, “was in an exceptionally violent fury” in this period.

The Generalissimo found pressure bearing down on him not only from Marshall, but from President Truman himself. In mid-July, two prominent anti-Nationalist intellectuals were gunned down in the Nationalist area. That month, a public opinion poll in the US showed that only 13 percent favored aiding Chiang, while 50 percent wanted to “Stay Out.” On 10 August, Truman wrote to Chiang using very tough language, citing the two assassinations and saying that the American people “view with violent repugnance” events in China. Truman threatened that he might have to “redefine” America’s position if there was no progress “toward a peaceful settlement.”

Under these circumstances, Chiang held his fire in Manchuria (although he pursued Mao’s forces elsewhere, with some success). One of Chiang’s closest colleagues, Chen Li-fu, disagreed with his restraint. “Be like Franco of Spain,” he told Chiang; “if you want to fight communism, fight it to the end.” A “stop-go” approach would not work, he told Chiang: “No good to fire and cease fire, cease fire and fire …” But Chiang needed American aid, which came to some US$3 billion for the whole civil war (almost $1.6 billion in outright grants, and about $850 million in de facto gifts of arms), and bowed to American pressure.

Mao thus gained a secure base in northern Manchuria some 1,000 km by 500 km, an area far bigger than Germany, with long land borders and railway links with Russia and its satellites. To his top brass, Mao compared this base to a comfortable armchair, with Russia as a solid back to lean on, and North Korea and Outer Mongolia on each side on which to rest his arms.

WITH FOUR MONTHS’ RESPITE, the Reds had the time to integrate the nearly 200,000-strong Manchukuo puppet army and the other new recruits, and to retrain and recondition the old troops. Any soldier the Communists could not control was “cleansed” (qing-xi), which often meant killed. Classified figures reveal that for the Red Army in this theater, the total for those “cleansed,” together with those who “escaped,” came to a staggering 150,000 in three years, almost as many as the total killed in action, assumed captured and invalided out (172,400).

Motivating the troops to fight Chiang was a key part of the reconditioning. This was mainly done through rallies at which soldiers were pushed to “speak bitterness.” Most had been poor peasants, and had histories of hunger and injustice. Bitter memories were stirred up, bringing out personal traumas. The crowds became febrile. A report to Mao said that one soldier had burst out at a rally with such a storm of grief and anger that “he passed out. And when he came to, he never recovered sanity and is now an idiot.” When the rallies reached their emotional climax, the Party would tell the inflamed crowds that they were now fighting to “take revenge on Chiang Kai-shek,” whose regime was the source of all their woes. The soldiers thus found personal motivation to fight. People who went through the process testify to its effectiveness, even though they find this hard to believe when they reflect in a calmer state of mind.

Many, however, declined to be psyched up, and some made skeptical remarks. They quickly found themselves condemned as members of “the exploiting classes,” and joined the ranks of those destined for “cleansing.”

The military training was as intensive as the political reorientation. Here, the Russians were indispensable. When the first Chinese Red units arrived in Manchuria, the Russians had taken some of them for bandits. They did not look like regular troops, and could not handle modern weapons. During the truce, the Russians opened at least sixteen major military institutions, including air force, artillery and engineering schools. Many Chinese officers went to Russia for training, and others to the Russian enclaves of Port Arthur and Dalian. These two ports that Stalin had acquired at Yalta now also served as sanctuaries for Mao’s shattered units and cadres in southern Manchuria; here they were given refuge, trained and rearmed.

Moscow’s arming of Mao accelerated. The Russians transferred some 900 Japanese aircraft, 700 tanks, more than 3,700 artillery pieces, mortars and grenade-launchers, nearly 12,000 machine-guns, plus the sizeable Sungari River flotilla, as well as numerous armored cars and anti-aircraft guns, and hundreds of thousands of rifles. More than 2,000 wagonloads of arms and war matériel came by rail from North Korea, which had housed major Japanese arsenals, and more captured Japanese weapons arrived from Outer Mongolia. Russian-made arms were also shipped in, plus captured German weapons with the markings chiseled out, which the Reds then pretended were captured American arms.

In addition, the Russians secretly transferred tens of thousands of Japanese POWs to the CCP. These troops played a major role in turning the ragtag Communist army into a formidable battle machine, and were crucial in training Red forces to use the Japanese arms on which they chiefly depended, as well as for servicing and repairing these weapons. It was Japanese, too, who founded the CCP air force, with Japanese pilots serving as flight instructors. Thousands of well-trained Japanese medical staff brought the Red wounded a new level of professional and much-welcomed treatment. Some Japanese troops even took part in combat operations.

Another vital factor was Soviet-occupied North Korea. From there the Russians supplied not only arms but also a Japanese-and Russian-trained contingent of 200,000 hardened Korean regulars. In addition, with its 800-km border with Manchuria, North Korea became what the CCP called “our clandestine rear” and bolthole. In June 1946, when they were on the run, the Chinese Reds moved troops, wounded and matériel there. As the Nationalists took much of central Manchuria, splitting the Red forces in two, the Communists were able to use North Korea as a link between their forces in north and south Manchuria, and between Manchuria and the east coast of China, particularly the vital province of Shandong. To supervise this vast transportation complex, the CCP set up offices in Pyongyang and four Korean ports.

By no means the least of the Russians’ contributions was to get the railway system running. Once the northern Manchuria base was consolidated, in late 1946, a team of Russian experts restored the extensive railway network in Mao’s territory and had it linked with Russia by spring 1947. In June 1948, when Mao’s army was preparing for its final push to take all Manchuria, Stalin sent his former railways minister, Ivan Kovalev, to oversee the work. Altogether, the Russians supervised the repair of more than 10,000 km of track and 120 major bridges. This railway system was critical in allowing the Communists to move vast numbers of troops, and heavy artillery, at speed, to attack the main cities that autumn.

The gigantic assistance from Russia, North Korea and Mongolia was carried out in the greatest secrecy — and is still little known today. The Reds went to great lengths to conceal it. Mao told Lin Biao to delete mention of the fact that their base “was supported by Korea, the Soviet Union, Outer Mongolia” even from a secret inner-Party document. Moscow played its customary part by calling reports of Soviet assistance “fabrications from start to finish.” The real fabrication was Mao’s claim that the CCP was fighting with “only millet plus rifles.”

This Russian help, however, came at a grievous price for those living under Mao’s rule. Mao did not want to be beholden to Stalin for this aid, and he wanted to feel free to ask for more. Twice, in August and October 1946, he offered to pay for it with food, an offer Russia’s trade representative in Harbin at first declined. So in November Mao sent one of his most dependable acolytes, Liu Ya-lou, to Moscow to insist. A secret agreement was reached for the CCP to send Russia one million tons of food every year.

The result was famine and deaths from starvation in some areas of China occupied by the Communists. In the Yenan region, according to Mao’s logistics manager, over 10,000 peasants died of starvation in 1947. Mao knew the situation very well, as he was traveling in the region that year, and saw village children hunting for stray peas in the stables of his entourage, and women scrabbling for the water in which his rice had been washed, for the sake of its driblets of nutrient. In the neighboring Red base in Shanxi, his guard chief told him after a visit home that people were starving, and that his own family was lucky to be alive — and this was soon after harvest time. In Manchuria itself, civilian deaths from starvation were in the hundreds