Someday, an incredible "life and times" of Mao will be written. This is not that book, but when that book is written, it will draw heavily from this book.
Chang and Halliday present a portrait of Mao that remains unsatisfying because Mao comes across as unbelievably evil and petty. I do not mean to suggest that Mao was not unbelievably evil and petty, however there must have been more to his character than evil and pettiness. Mao, after all, did run the world’s most populous country for a long time. He also managed to get a lot of people (e.g. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) say a lot of nice things about him.
Chang and Halliday portray Maoist China as a Soviet creation. Someone may not have lost China, but the Soviets definitely won it. This telling helps one to understand the Sino-Soviet split. The Sino-Soviet relationship was clear while Stalin was still in power – Stalin was in charge. However, when Stalin died, the form of the relationship became unclear. There was less of a direct Sino-Soviet split, following the death of Stalin, than there was a jockeying for position as head of international Communism between Khrushchev and Mao.
Chang and Halliday estimate that Mao was responsible for 70 million deaths. That number certainly seems believable. According to their telling, Mao wanted advanced weaponry. All China had to offer (the Soviets) for such weaponry was food. Unfortunately, China didn’t produce a lot of excess food. So, Mao confiscated food to exchange for weaponry, resulting in mass starvation. If Mao could starve a few more Chinese peasants to increase his weapons knowledge or his international prestige among the Communist Party, he would do so.
Another interesting part of the story relates to the Korean War. In the book, the Korean War was portrayed as a war run by the Russians and fought by the Chinese. Paging General MacArthur . . .
Marshall comes under fire for his involvement in the Chinese Civil War as well implicitly at the end of the Korean War. Marshall intervenes at a very key time to virtually ensure that Chiang Kai-Shek loses (and Mao wins). Chang and Halliday don’t really offer an explanation for Marshall’s apparent screw up.
Nixon and Kissinger also look like buffoons near the end of the story for supplicating to Mao for no apparent reason.
Chang and Halliday portray Mao as someone whose regime ended the day he died. Mao did not choose his successor and if he could have chosen his successor, he would not have chosen Deng. In fact, Mao had done terrible things to Deng and his family. Mao’s successors have maintained the myth of Mao (like Caesar maintained the Roman Senate), but departed from his style of leadership.