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Going behind Mao's ruthless reign

Mao: The Unknown Story, By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Knopf, 814 pp, $35

Writing in 1917-18, Mao Zedong, then a 24-year-old student, addressed the question of ''How do we change [China]?"

''The country" -- by which he meant traditional Chinese culture -- ''must be destroyed," he wrote, ''and then re-formed."

That theme ''was to typify his rule," write Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in ''Mao: The Unknown Story." And it is a theme, one that found its culmination in the Cultural Revolution a half-century later, that gives coherence to this episodic -- and polemic -- biography.

Chang, whose 1991 family memoir, ''Wild Swans," remains a memorable account of growing up in revolutionary China, left the country in 1978 and lives in London. Halliday, a British historian, is her husband.

Chang was a 16-year-old schoolgirl during the Cultural Revolution, and her account of raiding a teahouse in Chengdu with other Red Guards struck this reviewer at the time as ''[carrying] a sense of righteousness overtaken by confusion."

There is a high sense of righteousness, undeterred by confusion, as well as a sense of mission in ''Mao." From the opening pages, Mao is depicted in the darkest terms, a power-hungry ''monster" on the order of Hitler and Stalin, responsible for 38 million deaths (the authors' estimate) during 1958-61 alone, the years of the misguided ''Great Leap Forward" and ensuing famine, as well as being guilty of shading, or bluntly rewriting history to cast himself as hero.

That depiction begs the question: How could Mao get away with it from 1949, when he defeated the Nationalists and established the People's Republic of China, until his death in 1976?

Through it all, Mao retained his ability to mobilize workers, students, and peasants by the tens of thousands to thwart opposition.

Still, there was opposition within the Communist Party leadership. The accounts of these events -- told with much ''insider" detail -- are among the strengths of ''Unknown Story."

One example occurred during Mao's ''Great Leap Forward," which, with its backyard steel mills melting down farm implements and cooking utensils, had led to massive starvation throughout China. In early 1961, Chang and Halliday say that Liu Shaochi, then China's president, visited his home province of Hunan. ''Deeply troubled," he ''apologized to the peasants for the misrule Communists had brought." Returning to Beijing, ''he told top managers: 'We cannot go on like this.' "

Subsequently, Liu attacked Mao's policies at a party conference, forcing Mao into ''self-criticism." Liu, along with Premier Zhou Enlai and ''rising star" Deng Xiaoping, reversed the misguided policies and ''in less than a year people's lives improved perceptibly [and] by and large, deaths from hunger stopped."

The book ends with Mao's death in September 1976. A two-sentence epilogue notes that Mao's entombed body and massive portrait ''still dominate Tiananmen Square" and that ''the current Communist regime declares itself to be Mao's heir and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao."

Still, within 10 years of Mao's death, a wave of economic and social reforms had put China on the path to becoming an economic superpower. Perhaps that could have happened without the destruction of the old China that Mao sought and largely achieved. But perhaps not.

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