by Amir Taheri

"The biggest Asian tiger!" "The new century's economic miracle!" "The next global superpower!" These are some of the clichés used to describe the People's Republic of China which, its Communist political structures notwithstanding, has experienced remarkable economic growth during the past four or five years. In a short time the People's Republic has emerged as the world's second largest importer of crude oil, just behind the United States, the biggest global exporter of textiles, and the world's largest manufacturer of a wide-range of cheap consumer goods.

According to some estimates, China, whose population will reach a staggering 1.5 billion people in 2010, is already the world's fourth biggest economy and may well emerge as the biggest within the next decade or so. Extrapolating from all that, some experts suggest that we had better prepare ourselves for the day when China, exercising its demographic and economic lout, will dictate its own vision to the whole world.

That admiring view of China's rising power, however, is challenged by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their new book on Mao Zedong. The main message of this excellent study of one of the most enigmatic figures of the Twentieth Century is that unless China goes through a thorough and sincere de-Maoisation process, like the

de-Stalinisation launched by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 in the now defunct USSR, the current Chinese economic success story is bound to end in grief rather than triumph.

The suggestion is not so fanciful. During the past half a century the world has witnessed the rise and fall of other wannabe or would-be "new global powers", starting with Peron's Argentina and ending with Suharto's Indonesia, which soared eagle-like only to fall as clay pigeons. If history teaches one lesson it is that no nation can achieve real and lasting economic power without establishing a democratic political system. And there is no doubt that the current Chinese leadership, despite President Hu Jintao's commitment to reform, is determined to maintain the Communist Party's monopoly on political power. This is why Mao Zedong, a leader who is presented in this book as an almost sadistic despot, continues to retain his iconic position in the mythology of political power in Beijing.

Jung Chang, admired for her autobiographical narrative of "The Wild Swans", and Jon Halliday, who is her husband, spent five years researching the life of the late "Great Helmsman" as Mao liked to describe himself. The research included several visits, some of which lasted weeks, to China where the authorities proved surprisingly cooperative with the two authors. Not only did they allow Chang and Halliday to travel freely wherever they wished, but also "encouraged" party members and government officials to agree to interviews with the authors.

Chang' s first book "The Wild Swans", an account of the havocs wreaked by the so-called "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution", an orgy of populist violence organised by Mao, is banned in China, and she had every reason to expect a hostile reception when she returned to Beijing after years of exile. But she and her husband were given "more assistance than we expected" in implementing their Mao project. The reason may well be that at least part of the current leadership is aware of the need for a more realistic understanding not only of Mao's personality nut , more importantly, of China's checkered history in the 20th century.

Such a realistic understanding requires the puncturing of many myths. And Chang and Halliday do just that.

To begin with they show that Mao, contrary to the official myth, was not the founder of the Chinese Communist Party. The party was created by an agent of the Comintern, the Soviet Union's vehicle for running foreign Communist parties, sent from Moscow with a suitcase full of cash. Mao was one of several people that the agent recruited. Initially, Mao's assignment was to open a bookshop in his native Hunan to distribute Chinese translations of works by Stalin, Lenin, and other Bolshevik dignitaries. It was only three years later that Stalin handpicked Mao as the leader of the Chinese party.

Chang and Halliday also puncture the myth according to which the famous Long March was conceived and led by Mao. Based on several interviews with the veterans of that march, the authors show that Mao joined it after it had started and put himself at the head of it only at the end. More than half of those who had started the march never finished it, dying of hunger, cold, and disease on the way. Mao and a handful of minions, however, never missed a meal, never suffered cold, and had all the rest they needed but were clever enough to put in occasional appearances to appear in documentary films and press photo opportunities.

Mao's reputation as a military commander is also destroyed in this book. We learn in great detail how Mao's leadership produced only defeats for the Communists whenever he was in charge. The military victories that the Communists won, especially against the nationalist Kuomintang under General Chiang Kai-shek, were thanks to other commanders such as Marshal Chu Te.

Nor was Mao a peasant leader as some of his previous biographers had suggested. He had never spent a single day on a farm nor lived in a peasant hut. An urban middle class intellectual he admired the peasants in public discourse but regarded them with the deepest disdain in private. When in power, of course, he had to occasionally visit peasants in the communes he had created to maintain his image of a people's leader.

But reach time he returned from such visits he would take a long bath after which he would perfume himself to erase the "peasant smell".

He had an almost fetishistic obsession with industry and dreamed of iron foundries and steel mills. His ideal man would fly an airplane rather than milk a cow.

The authors present Mao as a lazy man who never did an honest day's work. Nor was he as well read as his official biographies have suggested for decades. In fact, he almost never read anything, although he liked to surround himself with books.

If Mao had one redeeming feature it was his love of poetry. Whenever he could seal himself off from the world of war and politics, he would disappear from the view with several books of poetry, at times for several days. His great secret ambition was to be recognised as a poet, and, over the years, he composed thousands of poems.

Sadly, however, most of his poems turned out to be infantile doggerels.

Apart from poetry Mao loved varied and elaborate food. Once established in power he set up an almost imperial kitchen with an army of chefs and sous-chefs inconstant attendance. His palace in the Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing, became a kind of laboratory in which endless new varieties of Chinese haute-cuisine were invented by talented cooks from all over his Communist empire.

But Mao's greatest weakness, according to the authors, was what could be described as his "Lolita complex". He loved teen-age girls and made sure that at least a dozen were always available within his informal harem. Even when in his eighties the "Great Father of The People" surrounded himself with "grand-daughters of the people" aged between 11 and 16.

Some of the most chilling chapters of the book are devoted to depicting Mao as an almost sadistic character who would go to extraordinary length to humiliate, if not actually destroy anyone whom he regarded either as a threat or simply as a better man. The authors single out the case of Liu Shao-ji, one of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party who became President of the People's Republic in the 1960s.

Mao resented the fact that Liu came from a distinguished family and had a good education, part of it in France. During the so-called "Cultural Revolution", Mao denounced Liu as one of the "Capitalist-roaders", that is to say party leaders who wanted China to reform its highly centralised economic model. Incited by Mao, the youthful hooligans who wore the uniform of the "Red Guards" arrested Liu and forced him to "confess his errors." But that was not enough for Mao. He insisted that Liu should be humiliated in public and the whole episode filmed and shown throughout the country.

With a few exceptions, notably Prime Minister Chou En-lai and Finance Minister Li Hsien-nien, who escaped humiliation, almost all other prominent Chinese Communist Party leaders were rounded up, beaten, humiliated, and in some cases, sent to "re-education camps" for years.

Even Deng Xiaoping, who later became master of China and the architect of its economic reforms, spent three years cleaning toilettes in a "re-education camp" far away from Beijing. And there remains a lingering suspicion that the death of Lin Biao, at the time anointed at Mao's heir-designate, in an air crash may not have been accidental.

Mao loved watching newsreels of the humiliation inflicted on his senior Communist colleagues. He would burst out laughing each time one of them was shown on screen begging forgiveness from adolescent revolutionaries waving Mao's notorious "Little Red Book."

Did Mao really believe that his "Little Red Book" was, as his propaganda machine suggested, the only book that the one billion Chinese, indeed he whole of mankind, needed in order to achieve progress and prosperity? Or, deep down, he knew that he had sold the Chinese, and many others in the rest of the world as well, a bill of goods?

While it makes fascinating reading, this book leaves two crucial questions un-answered.

The first is why did so many Chinese, including hundreds of thousands of highly educated ones, some with years of experience in living in Western democracies, fall for Mao? After all, Mao did not impose his cult of personality single-handedly. Nor could one suggest that he achieved what he achieved thanks to Soviet support. True, Stalin did invest massively in Mao. But it was after Stalin's death and the open rift between Moscow and Beijing that Mao's really built his personality cult.

In one of his poems Bertold Brecht mocks historians who write, for example, that Julius Caesar " crossed the Rhine in winter."

" Was Caesar alone when he crossed the Rhine in winter?" Brecht asks.

" Was there no one to make him some soup at night?

" Was there no one to polish his boots?"

One could wonder whether it was the Chinese society of the time that created Mao or vice versa. It is obviously more rational to see the individual as the product of a society rather than the other way round. In any case Mao did not have any instruments of coercion in the West where, throughout the 1960s, he was the darling of the university campuses and the toast of fashionable intellectuals as depicted in Jean-Luc Goddard's "La Chinoise". As the French proverb has it: no one becomes a cuckold without working to become one!

The second question the authors do not tackle is: why the present Chinese leadership, which is evidently not Moist in any sense of the term, continues to maintain his iconic presence and keep his personality cult alive? Anyone with any knowledge of the current leadership in Beijing would know that most of its members regard Mao as an embarrassment, to say the least.

Having interviewed several Chinese leaders, including Chou En-lai, Hua Kuo-feng, Deng Xiaoping and Li Hsien-nein, over the past 30 years, I never sensed any measure of warm for " The Great Helmsman". And, yet, all those people are gone and Mao is still around, smiling from his giant portrait in Tienanmen Square at the centre of Beijing.

But that should not be surprising, China remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. This is why anyone who claims he knows where China is going is sure to be proved wrong.