"Mao: The Unknown Story.” By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Knopf. $35.

Lord Acton, the British historian, said: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Two men in the 20th century fit that description: Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

A startling new biography adds the name of China’s Mao Zedong.

"Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and her historian husband, Jon Halliday, makes the damning point that the founder of the Marxist People’s Republic of China thirsted for power, not for his impoverished and downtrodden country but for selfish reasons.

In this account, Mao emerges as a monster with few, if any, redeeming qualities.

What makes this book different from others is that it questions the myths of Mao’s life generally accepted for many years.

Because of his role in the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Mao was seen in his last years as cruel, lecherous and selfish, and motivated by revenge toward not only his enemies but anyone who opposed him. It was conceded that he was a hero in his early years because he united China, ousted the foreign imperialists and set the stage for the economic recovery that followed.

Mao’s own Communist Party rated him after his death as 30 percent bad but 70 percent good. This hefty, heavily researched book paints Mao as all black, with no shades of gray.

First published in June in Great Britain, "Mao” has already aroused both praise and criticism because of the picture it paints of unrelieved moral and human disaster, which it lays at Mao’s door, including the charge that he was responsible for more than 70 million Chinese deaths in peacetime.

Obsessed with the idea he could dominate the world if China, with its huge population, became a military superpower, Mao, the authors say, exported millions of tons of scarce food to the Soviet Union to pay for conventional and atomic arms, coldly ignoring the widespread famine this produced in the countryside.

As the heroic leader of "the Long March,” a 6,000-mile trek under constant fire to seek refuge for his followers in Yan’an in 1934, Mao was admired by many in the West. The authors say he never cared about the peasants and that the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek put up little or no resistance to the 80,000 marchers because he wanted Stalin to release his young son who was being held hostage in Moscow.

"Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao’s outlook,” the authors write. "Mao did not believe in anything unless he could benefit from it personally.”

The authors claim that Gen. George C. Marshall, the American mediator, contributed indirectly to Mao’s victory over Chiang in the 1940s civil war. Having achieved a cease-fire in China proper against all odds, Marshall angrily demanded the Nationalists call a four-month halt to attacks on the communists in Manchuria. This allowed the communists to maintain a secure base in northern Manchuria and link up with the Russians.

Marshall’s order "was probably the single most important decision affecting the outcome of the civil war. ... With help from Washington, however unwittingly, Mao’s victory nationwide was only a matter of time.”

The authors reveal that Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai alone approved China’s entry into the Korean War. Mao’s motive: to get Stalin to give China nuclear weapons so it could become a military superpower.

"For decades to come Mao’s determination to preside over a military superpower in his lifetime was the single most important factor affecting the fate of the Chinese population.”

As a result, millions died of starvation.

The authors say President Nixon made countless concessions to Mao and got nothing in return for his 1972 visit to Beijing.

Shortly after Nixon’s visit, it was discovered that Zhou had cancer. In 1976, Zhou and Mao died only a few months apart, ending an era for China that was unlike any other in its terror and drama.<

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