- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

Was Mao Zedong a monster or an authentic Chinese hero? A selfish, unfeeling lecher or a great revolutionary who liberated China from foreign domination, poverty and disease?

Historians, journalists and many Chinese pondered these questions on Tuesday, the 113th anniversary of the birth of Mao, father of communist China.

His successors, presiding over a booming economy, refuse to answer. They also let Sept. 9, the 30th anniversary of Mao’s death at 82, pass quietly without fuss or fanfare.

In early February 1946, Mao invited me, a newly minted Associated Press correspondent, to eat with him at his modest lodgings in Yan’an, his encircled and barricaded cave capital next to the Gobi Desert. I was in Yan’an to report on negotiations to bring together the warring Nationalist and Communist factions.

The moon-faced peasant’s son met me at the door of his simple one-story house, but he no longer was the slender, wiry youth of the Long March that saved the communist rebellion in the 1930s. A lack of exercise and love of good food — apparent at our meal as one delicious dish succeeded the other — had turned Mao into a roly-poly figure. He wore scuffed, loosely tied sneakers.

Before dinner, Mao, who had an air of superior self-confidence that left me cold, sat close and carried on a lively conversation through Huang Hua, his official interpreter.

Because Mao was sidelined with exhaustion after failed talks with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, I spent my first two months in Yan’an interviewing and updating the biographies of China’s colorful revolutionaries, including Zhou Enlai, Mao’s protege and later prime minister; He Long, the feared “Bandit General”; Peng Dehuai, the homely but gentle deputy army commander; and Mao’s fascinating, strong-willed third wife, Jiang Qing.

It was a cast of characters in a turbulent Chinese drama to come. They all accorded Mao the respect due a leader, but one seldom saw him chatting with them. Few would have predicted that an increasingly paranoid Mao would denounce most of his supporters and condemn some to torture and death once they had helped him conquer China.

I met Mao almost daily during my months in Yan’an. He appeared at the Saturday night dances at the military compound, whirling about with partners half his size. We sat next to each other at the Peking opera, performed in a drafty barnlike building but with all the care and silk costumes the production demanded.

We also talked frequently about the state of the negotiations. Mao remained optimistic about their outcome until Chiang Kai-shek refused to apply the cease-fire secured by American Army Gen. George C. Marshall to the vast industrial area of Manchuria.

I stayed in Yan’an until a week or so before it fell to the Nationalists in March 1947 and Mao once more led his troops into the Chinese wilderness.

At the airport, leaving for the last time, I bumped into Mao and noted it was a bleak day for the revolution he had waged for 26 years. His reply revealed the unflappable, confident leader that he was.

“Lo te li,” he said, using my Chinese name and looking me in the eye. “I invite you to visit me in Peking two years from now.”

His armies, in fact, moved into the capital city in less than two years, and there, on Oct. 1, 1949, he proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic. That farewell meeting at the airport was my last encounter with Mao but not my last reporting on the extraordinary events of his life.

Chiang Kai-shek chose to challenge Mao on the Manchurian battlefield, lost all of China to the Communists in 1949 and fled to Taiwan. Mao became an absolute, unchallenged Red emperor.

I returned to reporting on China from the British colony of Hong Kong in 1956, from AP assignments elsewhere, to report on the chaotic events and the Mao personality changes that followed.

A man of many moods, Mao suddenly, without explanation, in April 1971 invited an American pingpong team and three American reporters to visit China. I was one of the reporters. It was the run-up to President Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing the next year and the unexpected restoration of normal Chinese-American relations.

Now free for the first time since 1949 to visit, I returned often to China, still gripped in the pain of the deadly Cultural Revolution. A few weeks before Mao died in 1976, a high-ranking official told me Mao had wanted to know where I was and what I was doing.

Remembering the mild-mannered Mao of my Yan’an days and the horrors then being committed in his name, I shuddered.

Up to then, Mao already had been a man of many faces: bandit and murderer, according to his Nationalist enemies; an Asian Robin Hood, said Edgar Snow, the American journalist whose seminal book, “Red Star Over China,” revealed Mao’s human side for the first time.

The Mao I knew in Yan’an was pro-American, a patient negotiator and a determined fighter when the chips were down.

Josef Stalin mistakenly called Mao an agrarian reformer while the adoring Chinese masses hailed him as “The Great Helmsman.” At the height of the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which he unleashed to reassert his grip on the country, Mao became “a genius produced only once in 10,000 years.” He denied none of the flattery.

In his early years, as absolute ruler, Mao did much to alleviate the poverty, epidemic disease and natural disasters that had plagued China for centuries. For this he won deserved, if brief, praise.

Unspeakable atrocities, torture, and countless executions were committed in his name. But Mao remained untouched and untouchable as the idolized father of the Chinese communist state.

It took years for the two books questioning Mao’s heroic image to emerge. The first, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” was written by his longtime personal physician, Li Zhisui. The doctor revealed that in his old age Mao was a self-indulgent, sometimes senile rogue who seduced young female admirers.

The second book, “Mao: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang, and her husband, Jon Halliday, asserted, among other things, that Mao wasn’t a real revolutionary, and gave thousands of tons of grain to other communist countries knowing that millions of Chinese peasants would die of hunger as a result.

Editor’s note: John Roderick was an AP foreign correspondent for 39 years, dividing his time almost evenly between covering China and Japan.

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