Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang, Jon Halliday

The book discusses a life of stunning cruelty and questions how Chinese society has coped with the issue of complicity.

What's the connection between Lily, the pretty Chinese student in Paris currently facing jail for industrial espionage and 'Mao: The Unknown Story', the new biography of Mao by Jung Chang and John Halliday?

Perhaps it is the argument by CCTV commentators on the 'Lily' case that foreigners need to understand that China is peace-loving nation and not interested in fomenting international tensions.

That is probably quite true, at least for the moment. But while Western audiences are exposed to works like "Mao: The unknown story" it will be difficult for them to agree.

Most people should know by now that the book reveals Mao as a cruel and sadistic tyrant who killed anybody who stood in his way, despised the peasantry, used the Gang of Four as a tool to launch the Cultural Revolution, worked with the Japanese to sabotage the KMT, grew opium to finance the Party during the 1930s and risked nuclear war with the US in order to obtain nuclear weapons from Russia.

Does the book underestimate its audience? People's natural cynicism about the Party and official admissions that Mao committed 'errors', mean that most people have a far more balanced view now than ten years ago. Indeed, Philip Short's biography of Mao, which does not gloss over his ruthlessness, has been translated into Chinese. However, the sheer mass of new and apparently well-researched detail in the Jung/Halliday volume should hasten re-examination of Mao's impact on Chinese society.

Of course, the older generations will know perfectly well what crimes Mao committed because they participated in the process.

The lack of personal responsibility is the most interesting question raised by the book.

Most Westerners believe that the single most important event of the 20th century was the failure of Western civilization to prevent the rise of Hitler and the massacre of Jews and Slavs. In contrast, the acts of horror that huge segments of Chinese society carried out on each other on behalf of Mao do not seem to have made the same impact on China.

Some Chinese commentators point out that the 'scar literature' about the personal suffering of people in the Cultural Revolution focuses only their own woes. But where is the recognition that these same people in all likelihood inflicted suffering on others? Everything is blamed on the Gang of Four.

In contrast, the way Germany was subordinated to the will of one demented mind is a topic that continues to torment Germans to the present day. Read any German periodical and there will be long articles about some aspect of the war, in particular the issue of how democratic and cultural safeguards failed.

The issues of British weakness in the run-up to the War and the terror bombings of Germany and Japan are also frequent topics of British and US introspection.

Admittedly, introspection was forced on to Germany by its defeat by the allies. But 50 years later, Germany is mature and sophisticated enough to recognize that Germany needs to avoid a repetition of those events by close study of the past.

The book does not descend into a China-hating polemic. The authors are sympathetic to the degrading effect on people of unimaginable levels of fear and isolation. Lin Biao, Mao's No.2, was betrayed by his own daughter when he fled to Russia.

Even now, the word 'traitor' - the favourite accusation of totalitarian watchdogs - appears in Chinese far more often than in Western literature, including that of the hyper-patriotic US. In Western Europe, as globalization has turned passports into little more than vouchers for social services and security in return for tax payment, the concept of 'traitor' has become increasingly irrelevant. But in China only a few months ago the word was being used in millions of text messages condemning those who worked for the Japanese or bought Japanese goods.

The search for completely imaginary traitors was the pretext for countless bloody purges under Mao. To most Western democracies, the portrait of a society so prone to literally devouring itself (cannibalism occurred in Guangxi during the CR, according to several sources cited in the book) will continue to undermine confidence in China's 'peace loving nature' - at least until there are signs Chinese intellectuals, students and journalists are dealing with the problem of guilt by other means than amnesia or blame shifting.