John Batchelor meets Jon Halliday


Posted to on November 8, 2005


Just before going to bed, I like to listen to the radio. I tend to end up listening to WFAN, the sports talk station or to the John Batchelor show on WABC. Last night Batchelor interviewed Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the co-authors of “Mao: The Unknown Story,” a biography that amounts to this year’s “Black Book of Communism.” Despite the fact that it is an assault on Mao’s career, the general conclusion anybody would be left with is that the Chinese people would have been better off under Chiang Kai-shek.


Jung Chang is the 53 year old author of a memoir about growing up during the Cultural Revolution titled “Wild Swans.” Her hostility toward Chinese communism seems to be cut from the same cloth as the sort of stuff that comes out of North Korea on a regular basis. You know the drill. Kim’s manicurist tells all: “my boss forced me to wipe his ass after he took a shit.”


Although the book has received accolades from uncritical critics, there are still some demurrers. Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, an anti-Communist whose family fled Russia in the 1920s, observed:


“Another problem: Mao comes across as such a villain that he never really becomes three-dimensional. As readers, we recoil from him but don't really understand him. He is presented as such a bumbling psychopath that it's hard to comprehend how he bested all his rivals to lead China and emerge as one of the most worshipped figures of the last century.”




“This is an extraordinary portrait of a monster, who the authors say was responsible for more than 70 million deaths. But how accurate is it? A bibliography and endnotes give a sense of sourcing, and they are impressive: the authors claim to have talked to everyone from Mao's daughter, Li Na, to his mistress, Zhang Yufeng, to Presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford. But it's not clear how much these people said. One of those listed as a source is Zhang Hanzhi, Mao's English teacher and close associate; she's also one of my oldest Chinese friends, so I checked with her. Zhang Hanzhi said that she had indeed met informally with Chang two or three times but had declined to be interviewed and never said anything substantial. I hope that Chang and Halliday will share some of their source materials, either on the Web or with other scholars, so that it will be possible to judge how fairly and accurately they have reached their conclusions.”


Sounds like Jon Halliday and Jung Chang picked up some pointers from “The Black Book of Communism.”


Halliday, who is 66 years old and married to Jung Chang, is a horse of another color. In 1975 he wrote “A Political History of Japanese Capitalism,” a MR book that is must reading if you want to understand how modern Japan evolved. Around this time he was also on the board of New Left Review and Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. How he ended up writing such a book is a real mystery.


One supposes that it might be genetic since Fred Halliday, his brother, has also broken with the left. In Fred’s case, the evolution has followed a Christopher Hitchens trajectory with support for the US war on “Islamofascism.” I deal with this at:


A word or two about John Batchelor might be in order. WABC radio is the most listened to talk radio station in the USA. It is the home of a rogue’s gallery of rightwingers, including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Batchelor has their politics but a different style and emphasis. To begin with, he does not take phone calls and prefers to interview a fairly interesting lineup of guests each evening, which makes the show somewhat more tolerable than listening to a moron like Limbaugh and his “dittoheads.”


For example, liberal Sovietologist Stephen Cohen and his wife Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the publisher of the Nation Magazine, are frequent guests--Cohen more so than her. Cohen no longer seems to be on the A-list for shows like Charlie Rose or Nightline nowadays, so I guess that he looks at the Batchelor show as an opportunity to educate the listener about current events in Russia. I wonder if Cohen has any sense of who’s listening. Except for somebody with perversely eclectic tastes like my own (I even listen to Christian evangelists when the mood suits me), most of Batchelor’s listeners are hard-core reactionaries who hate any form of communism--including post-communism.


Batchelor led off his interview with a brief introduction that went something like this (no exaggeration): “Tonight my guests are Jung Chang and Jon Halliday who have written a powerful exposé of the 20th century’s greatest tyrant and murderer, a criminal who tortured and imprisoned the Chinese people, starved them to death and plotted to export his Red Mafia system across the planet. A real Satan, a man without any redeeming features who lived for one thing and one thing only: to achieve total domination and exercise absolute power.”


His first question to his guests was highly revealing. He asked them to expand on a theme in their book, namely that the Korean War came about because of a joint plot by Stalin and Mao expand their Communist empire. In other words, the Readers Digest version of the Korean War. On this question, Jung Chang had lots to say while Halliday remained silent. Perhaps it was because there was still a tiny shred of integrity that remained. After all, he is the co-author with Bruce Cumings of the 1988 “Korea: the Unknown War” that states:


“The photographer Margaret Bourke-White did a feature for Life magazine in December 1952 entitled 'The savage, secret war in Korea', in which she described a powerful guerilla force - which included many women - still highly active in mid-1952: 'Some of the guerrillas are converts who went over to the Reds in their first great offensive. Thousands of others are North Koreans bypassed in the UN breakout from the Pusan perimeter. Others have filtered South through Allied lines' - in other words, a composite force that could hardly have survived for two years, in harsh mountain conditions and in the middle of generalized warfare, without some substantial local support.”




So what could have happened to Jon Halliday over the past 17 years since this was written to turn him into another David Horowitz?


To start off, it is important to understand that Halliday’s Marxist scholarship ended many years ago. Unlike his brother Fred, who still maintains leftist pretensions in the Hitchens or Norm Geras style, there is evidence that Jon simply became exhausted or something.


After the 1988 publication of “Korea: the Unknown War,” Halliday never wrote another book. Furthermore, reviewers have noted that the new book on Mao is mostly written by his wife and that his role has been mainly to research Mao’s connection with Stalin. (They argue that Mao was always completely subservient to Stalin, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.)


In addition, Halliday has shown signs from the beginning that perhaps Marxism was just one interest among many. He is also the author of “The Psychology of Gambling” and a collection of interviews with Douglas Sirk, the Hollywood director who was responsible for lurid minor masterpieces like "All That Heaven Allows," "Written on the Wind" and "Imitation of Life."


In some ways, “Mao: The Unknown Story” continues along the road he explored with Douglas Sirk. Since there is every likelihood that Hollywood will make a film based on this outrageously stupid book, they might as well use Sirk’s purple melodramas as a model.