Jung Chang and John Halliday, co-authors of "Mao: The Unknown Story", came to LSE for a public debate organized by the Cold War Studies Centre of LSE. They were joined by Professor Michael Cox,Professor Arne Westad and Dr Athoo Hussain. The interesting feature of this event is such that it took the form of a Q&A session rather than debate among panelists.
From the talks and debates, it can be noticed that the main issues lie in the perspective to see Mao. While Jung Chang sees Mao from a more human side, by exploring his character, behaviour and doings through writing the biography, other academics are looking more towards his ideology, his campaigns, regimes, and the way he made an impact in the landscape of the global politcal map. Due to the difference of perspective and focus, the panelists disagree with one another and argue for own cases. With Jung Chang and Halliday pressing on various cases of Mao's cruelty, and Dr Athoo arguing on the lack of focus on the ideology maoism and the intrinsic value of academic research, political shaping and social impact of the teachings, the event turned into a lively debate with a lot of new fresh ways to see the issue. And as the audience came in with questions and views, I found this session enjoyable, being able to see people making their stand, presenting facts and figures, stating their opinions and arguing different aspects of Mao.
Although this book revealed many new ways to look at Mao, and offered lots of new 'evidence' that has never been made public before, I found there are some limiting factors that open the room for criticism too. From the way the authors described the contents of the book, the way they shape their argument and their emphasis on the issues, I noticed that there seems to be a factor of personal stand towards evaluating Mao as a person. Jung Chang family suffered a lot under Mao's regime (many other Chineses have too), and I suspected this factor weighed quite a lot in the motivation to write the book and shape the character of Mao in this book.
I feel, one issue which needs to be addressed by this book, is that despite Mao's well-known cruelty and sinister policies, how can he manage to attract such huge number of followers? What is his appealing factor that made the Chineses venerated him so much? With his complex character, how can he manage to leave such huge legacy to the current China, with his portrait still looking over Tiananmen? Considering these factors, we note that Mao does have great qualities as a campaigner, a politician and a revolutionist. It would be interesting to look into these aspects of how one leader can influence a population of followers so much, how an ideology can expand with campaigns and policies. Well, such issues will lead to social and political studies then, which I should make way for the specialists. :-)
Another question in my head is the source of information that the authors used for obtaining all the information which have been unobtainable all these years - the speeches, the reports details, the facts, figures, the quotes of words, etc... A Chinese girl in the audience challenged her about the source of information, but the only answer give is 'classified'. I feel there needs to be more clear explanation for all the new evidence put forward about Mao, because every piece of new information matters a lot - in changing the political and historical records in this area, as well as in changing society's views and understanding about China.
The debate ended later than previously arranged in the timetable, but audience found it interesting and informative, and solicited great interest from the LSE community. I myself enjoyed the event, and although I have not read the book, I think it is a good book for sociology/ policical studies material. Despite its controversial and daring views, it presents some new ways to look at the issues, and give rooms for debates and more research studies.