Another good Telegraph article today--this one an informal interview with Chinese ex-pat author Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, who is now writing an 800 page biography of Mao Tse-Tung.
Wild Swans is still banned in China; did this make it difficult for her to research her new book? "Yes and no. There was a top secret edict about me issued to Mao's inner circle in 1994. And some people were worried and declined to be interviewed. But most were not put off and they talked to us. I think people were dying to reveal what really happened. The trouble is," she says, "the current regime claims its legitimacy from Mao and so doesn't want the myths about him to be dismantled."
They're not going to like this book much, then, I suggest. "No, they're not," she replies flatly. "It won't be published in China but it will be smuggled in and I am translating it into Chinese for publication in Taiwan and Hong Kong." I imagine that her argument about Mao being as evil as Hitler and Stalin will go down well in the People's Republic. "But it's true!" she says. "Mao was responsible for the deaths of 70 million people in peacetime, through his organised famines and purges. That makes him the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world."
But surely nothing he did can compare to the hideousness of the gas chambers?
"No, but Mao did create a climate of almost unparalleled fear, suspicion and hatred. The terror was such that parents were even afraid of talking to their children. Mao was different from Hitler and Stalin in that he liked to have people tortured and executed in public. Hitler and Stalin did their torturing and killing in secret. And whereas those two European despots were condemned in their own countries shortly after their deaths, Mao is still a holy cow in China. For as long as his portrait and corpse remain in Tiananmen Square, China will never be able to move on and grow as a country."
Clearly Chairman Mao was a monster - he was as cruel to his own close family as he was to the nameless masses - but did Chang find any aspects of his character she liked? "As 'liking' implies a moral dimension I can honestly say there is nothing I like about Mao. But I was constantly impressed by his ability to scheme and come out on top when he seemed to be in a hopeless situation. He was smart. He could outsmart even Stalin. And he was far-sighted. He knew he could only conquer China with the help of Stalin and he knew he would have to use terror and brainwashing to keep hold of power."
Chan, like many, has few fond memories of Nixon and his Secretary of State, Kissinger. But it is not Viet Nam or Watergate that she has in mind.
"I did get the impression that Kissinger was quite seduced by the idea of absolute power and by the mystery of China," Halliday says. "He de-demonised Mao for many Westerners. But it was Nixon who built up a propaganda unit in the White House which encouraged the press to compare him [Nixon] to Mao - two people from underprivileged backgrounds rising to the top against the odds. Quite a bizarre comparison, really."
I would like to ask Chang if she thinks that China's rapprochement with the U.S. at least paved the way for the less lethal, more open government that the Chinese live under today. Yet to ignore the 70 million peacetime deaths...
With such inconceivable crimes in its history, it is no wonder that the Chinese Communist Party prefers to dwell on those of the long defunct Japanese Imperial Army.