Question: How many innocent people does a communist tyrant have to kill before The New York Times gets really mad? Answer: More than 70 million.
Seventy million is a good estimate of the number of Chinese who perished under Mao's reign of terror and ineptitude, the victims of their own government's decades of torture, famine, forced labor, purges, assassinations, ethnic massacres and class genocide.
I bring up all this history because I was halfway through reading "Mao: The Unknown Story," the new book by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, when The New York Times published Nicholas Kristof's review of the book.
Now it's true that Kristof, an op-ed writer at The Times, judges the book to be a "magnificent biography," and he does at least whistle past the graveyard, pointing out that Mao had slaughtered a quarter of the entire Red Army, "often after they were tortured in such ways as having red-hot rods forced into their rectums."
Still, Mr. Kristof worries that Chang and Halliday might have painted too dark a picture. He wonders if the 70 million number is "accurate," and if the book unfairly excludes "exculpatory evidence" about the upside of Mao's rule.
Arguing that "Mao's legacy is not all bad," Kristof pays tribute to Mao's successes with land reform and women's rights. "Land reform in China," he writes, "like land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today."
What he doesn't say is that land reform in Japan and Taiwan was accomplished without the slaughter of millions of people.
Regarding women's rights, Kristof asserts that Mao "moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea."
The perfect example of this enhanced equality, perhaps, is that the Chinese government has just banned this new book on Mao, for both men and women.