Henning Mankell and The Man from Beijing

Mankell's latest second-rate, perverse tome defends the indefensible and indicts the blameless.

[amazon 0307271862 full]Over the past few years, the image of Mao Tse-Tung, China's legendary Communist leader, has taken a severe beating, from which I doubt it will recover. Recent works—most notably Frank Dikkoter's Mao's Great Famine; the History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe and Jung Chan's and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story —have convincingly portrayed Mao as an unfeeling and, ultimately, foolish tyrant, the greatest mass murderer of modern history.

Dikkoter says Mao was responsible for as many as 45 million deaths in his misguided Great Leap Forward, the state-run economic revolution of 1958–1962 that led to mass starvation and much deliberate, brutal murder besides. Some apologists claimed that Mao didn't know. But Chinese documents unearthed by Dikkoter proved otherwise. In one speech Mao said: "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill."

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more were murdered during Mao's second great initiative, the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1969, in which much of the middle class was purged and sent to re-education prisons, millions of lives being ruined. Mao allegedly said of the many thousands driven to suicide: "It is not as if we cannot do without a few people."

Which brings me to the Swede, Henning Mankell's, recent thriller, The Man from Beijing, which deals with the slaughter of nineteen innocents in a remote Swedish village by a Chinaman avenging his family's slighted honor in an incident a century before. Mankell is a continuously best-selling writer—his books have sold millions of copies in dozens of languages—who is a prominent supporter of the Palestinian cause. Last year he famously took part in the Turkish-Islamist-orchestrated Gaza flotilla. In Man from Beijing he offers up a whitewash of Mao, who was a hero to much of Western Europe's youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The case leads Judge Birgitta Roslin, Mankell's heroine, to face her personal, as well as China's, past, in which she was wont to brandish Mao's Little Red Book in noisy, self-satisfied demonstrations, in which the West was pilloried as corrupt, racist and bestial. It is here that Mankell offers his defense of Mao (which is probably a defense of his own, youthful misguidedness): “the Great Helmsman, the Eternal Teacher . . . had not actually been mysterious. . . .He was a politician with a shrewd feeling for what was happening in the gigantic Chinese Empire. . . . He brought about much suffering, chaos and confusion [Does this—"suffering, chaos and confusion"—really cover the murder of tens of millions?]. Nevertheless, nobody could take away from him the fact that, like a modern emperor, he had resurrected the China that was by this stage well on the way to becoming a world power."

Mankell's second-rate and perverse book also includes a defense of one of Africa's worst dictators, Robert Mugabe, of Zimbabwe, the anticolonialist liberator who has brought his country to wrack and ruin and has brutally suppressed all political opposition. Mankell chides the West for boycotting him. Or, in the words of the upright Roslin, Mugabe "was a man who in many ways deserved her admiration and respect. Even if not everything he did was good, he was basicallly convinced that the roots of [Western] colonialism grew very deep and needed to be cut away not just once but many times. Not least of the reasons she respected him was she had read how he was constantly and brutally attacked in the Western media." In fact, according to Mankell, the West was angry with Mugabe not because of his brutality toward his own people but because he had earlier dispossessed several thousand white farmers.

Mankell's opinions on China are not restricted to history. For example, of current Western criticism of that country's human-rights record, Mankell writes: "For me, it's hypocritical, since our part of the world is full of countries—not least the United States and Russia—in which human rights are violated every day." (I don't think most Swedes, or Westerners, regard the US and Russia as equally "our part of the world"—and comparing the two, and comparing American and Chinese human-rights records during the past fifty years, is truly mind-boggling.)

Incidentally, Mankell's plot also has a minatory contemporary relevance which is worth thinking about, given China's ongoing economic expansion into Africa. His villain, the man from Beijing himself Yan Ba, is bent, no less, on turning the dark continent into a Chinese satellite. His China is not merely intent on plundering Africa's natural resources but on dispatching to Africa's relatively underpopulated plains and valleys millions of impoverished Chinese peasants, who are, for Beijing, a growingly destabilizing and vociferous underclass. This will also benefit Africans, says Yan Ba. According to Mankell, in China, currently, there is a momentous struggle between these forward-looking neocolonialists and good old Commies, who, by hook or by crook, merely want to improve the lot of their fellow countrymen at home.