The authors make an impressively strong case. Chang, a former Red Guard and "barefoot doctor" now married to Halliday, a British historian, is known for her 1991 memoir Wild Swans, one of the biggest-selling books of all time (10 million copies, 30 languages). Since its publication Chang has done little except delve into the life of the man who devastated her family in Wild Swans. (Her parents, dedicated Communists, were denounced as class traitors during Mao's Cultural Revolution; her father was tortured, driven insane and worked to death in a labor camp.) Chang's obsession is evident. About one-sixth of the 800-page Mao: The Unknown Story cites the diaries, intelligence reports, diplomatic messages and other documents she and Halliday unearthed in China, Russia and elsewhere, plus the 150 or so former Mao minions, victims and acquaintances they interviewed, including a dozen heads of state and government as well as the nurse who heard the Great Helmsman's last words ("I feel ill; call the doctors"). It's difficult to gauge the reliability of all this research, but it builds a case sure to anger Mao fans everywhere, especially his successors in Beijing. Among the charges:
• During China's civil war, Mao did not organize and lead the 1934-35 Long March of Red Army remnants to safety from pursuing Nationalists. Instead, the authors say, his relatively small force was left behind by disdainful colleagues and then decimated by his own scheming and incompetence.
• Mao survived the Long March largely because Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek made a secret deal with Stalin: Chiang let the Red Army escape in exchange for the Russians' release of the Generalissimo's son and eventual successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, held hostage in Moscow. Mao, meanwhile, solidified his power by luring a rival Red Army faction to its destruction and burying the survivors alive.
• Mao didn't fight the Japanese during World War II, according to Chang and Halliday, but instead welcomed their invasion of the mainland. He and Stalin planned to divide China with Japan; Mao would end up running a Soviet puppet state much smaller than today's People's Republic.
• To fund the Red Army in the early 1940s, Mao grew opium, bringing in as much as $60 million a year. He stopped after overproduction drove down the price and Party officials—though not Mao—decided the practice was unseemly.
• Mao made a fortune in royalties from his writings, which Chinese were forced to read while other authors' works were suppressed. According to Chang and Halliday: "Mao was the only millionaire created in Mao's China."
Some of the news in the book is not new. Mao's womanizing, gourmandizing and peculiar personal habits—his aversion to bathing and teeth brushing, for instance—surfaced in the entertaining 1994 memoir by his physician Li Zhisui. Evidence of Mao's Machiavellian ruthlessness has been seeping out of China for years. Journalist Jasper Becker reported in his 1996 book Hungry Ghosts that China's granaries were bulging during the 1958-61 famine, the worst in history.
But Chang and Halliday have some genuine scoops—on Mao's wartime conniving with the Japanese, his key role in fomenting the Korean War and, thanks to Halliday's excavations in newly opened Russian archives, his complex dealings with Stalin. As with Chiang, Stalin held Mao's son Anying hostage in Moscow for four years until Mao freed a pro-Soviet Chinese official.
Chang and Halliday also connect a few dots. While 38 million Chinese were starving to death during 1958-61, much of the grain they produced was being shipped to the Soviet Union, where it accounted for two-thirds of all food imports. It was a weapons-technology-for-food program, a demonic bargain to make China a military superpower even at the cost of its own citizens' lives. "Half of China may well have to die," Mao said of this deal to his inner circle in 1958, according to Party documents. China's acquisition of the atom bomb, the authors calculate, "caused 100 times as many deaths as the ones dropped by the U.S. on Japan."
So numerous are the damning disclosures in Mao that Chang and Halliday have little room for the emotive prose and lyrical description that animated Wild Swans. Neither, to their disadvantage, do they balance their relentless criticisms with any of Mao's accomplishments, like fending off Stalin's attempt to run China as a Soviet fiefdom, reimposing central authority in a fractious country, giving Chinese a new sense of pride and nationhood, or marketing his own image at home and abroad with dazzling aplomb.
Also missing is an attempt to explain Mao's enduring popularity in China. In a conversation with TIME, Chang ascribes that phenomenon to "brainwashing." But nearly three decades after his death, as New China races toward the industrial and military glory of which Mao could only dream, the man remains as well liked as ever. His visage beams benignly across Beijing's Tiananmen Square, long lines of visitors creep past his preserved corpse nearby, and restaurants are decorated with Mao memorabilia. Perhaps in a time of galloping economic modernization and social upheaval, Chinese crave the reassuring continuity provided by a larger-than-life figure from their recent past. Reading this atom bomb of a book, in the unlikely event it gets published in China, would surely cure them of that.