The Claws of the Dragon

This book is the most important of Byron's publications so far.  The Claws of the Dragon is a biography of Kang Sheng, a shadowy but seminal figure in the creation of the Communist Chinese state.  Kang Sheng was the creator of the Communist intelligence service, but his role extended far beyond that of a spymaster, and he became Mao Zedong's chief adviser on ideological issues and on relations with the Soviet Union.  Drawing on secret Chinese Communist Party documents that Byron managed to obtain while living in Beijing in the early 1980s, The Claws of the Dragon was the first of the line of books that have now emerged revealing the major flaws in Mao's policies and approach to politics.  But while some of the more recent books on Mao's excesses have extrapolated from anecdote and the total irrelevance of Mao's theories to China's economic reality, Byron's study of Kang Sheng, and indirectly of Mao, was based on an array of internal documents and sources that were not generally available to the general public.  The result is an indictment of the Maoist era that is extremely difficult to refute or discredit.

Byron wrote The Claws of the Dragon in conjunction with Robert Pack, a Washington-based free-lance journalist and writer who was author of several biographies, including a life of Ed Bennett Williams, one of Washington's most famous and colourful lawyers.   While Robert Pack had no background in China issues, his experience with the biographical format ensured that the end result was a coherent and easy-to-read piece of writing.  The Claws of the Dragon was published in New York by Simon and Schuster in 1992.

The Claws of the Dragon was reviewed by over a dozen major publications, including The New York Times, Time Magazine, and the Washington Post.  Writing in the neo-conservative magazine, The National Interest, Professor Arthur Waldron said that this book "is a minutely detailed biography of Kang Sheng, a Soviet-trained security specialist who, until his death in 1975, was a key figure in Peking politics, although always in the background.  John Byron is a Western diplomat with sinological training and long experience in Peking.  For his story he has relied above all on indirect access to the Peking establishment, through a variety of secret inner-party documents that he managed to obtain during his service in the Chinese capital and a host of interviews with Chinese having firsthand knowledge of Kang, all painstakingly evaluated and counter-checked against other available evidence.  The result is perhaps the best account yet available in English of the inner workings of Chinese communism... The Claws of the Dragon is a virtuoso performance, as true as tour as we are likely to receive of the hidden paths of power in People's China."

Timothy Tung, writing in The New Leader , said "I cannot help marveling at its extraordinary sources... A superbly documented, well-written biography, The Claws of the Dragon is an exceptional contribution to the understanding of Mao's brand of Communism."

Subsequent developments in China, including the Tiananmen massacre, and more recent books about Mao Zedong and the Communist period, underscore the accuracy of the judgments that were made in The Claws of the Dragon.  The extent to which the current regime goes to suppress all evidence of Kang Sheng's role only draws attention to the fact that a full awareness of his actions would threaten the credibility of the Party structure.

© John Byron - 2019