Mobutu Sese Seko became part of the controversial new biography of Mao Zedong during a manicure in Hong Kong. Wild Swans author Jung Chang and her husband, historian Jon Halliday, were reading this newspaper in 1994 when they discovered that the former leader of Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo - was staying in the same hotel, The Regent. Halliday was keen to interview Mobutu about his struggle against Maoist rebels funded by Beijing. Chang, exhausted by the first year of research for Mao: The Unknown Story, 'couldn't be bothered'. She went to the hotel's hair salon. There she found Mobutu having his nails polished. 'I asked him, 'How was the manicure?'' says Chang. 'He showed me his hands and said, 'Not too bad'. I was looking at those hands which had apparently strangled his rivals. 'I asked him for the interview. He was completely trapped and said yes.' Chang, 53, and Halliday, 66, went on to interview the Dalai Lama, George Bush senior, Henry Kissinger, Edward Heath and the actor Michael Caine, among others. The 12 years of research caused health problems and delayed the biography they had expected to release in 1995. 'Every day we lived in excitement at our discoveries,' says Chang at The Peninsula hotel. They decline to name most of the more than 100 members of Mao's inner circle who talked to them for the book, which claims the Great Helmsman was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million Chinese in peacetime. While she admits to interviewing people as vicious as Mobutu, Chang says 'they were all charming'. 'Imelda Marcos batted her eyelids at us and said, 'I can see that this is a perfect combination: the eastern heart and the western intellect. Perhaps you would like to write a book about another third world leader'.' The two authors refuse to reveal how they were given access to official mainland archives, saying only that they had no close shaves with the central government. An official warning to cadres against speaking to Chang and Halliday helped the book, according to the authors. Ageing senior officials were willing to tell the truth about Mao. They recognised that only an important book would encourage an official warning. Halliday says it helped that his wife's memoir about growing up during the Cultural Revolution and the lives of her mother and grandmother had become the biggest selling paperback ever, with more than 10 million copies printed. 'People wanted to talk to Jung. They knew from Wild Swans that she was the right person,' he says. Most of the interviews were recorded, says Chang. When the interviewees have passed away and their families are out of danger, Chang and Halliday say transcripts will be made public. 'The warning actually helped open doors,' says Chang. 'When we started in 1993, a lot of Mao's contemporaries were still alive. That was a great help. Also, China has changed sufficiently for people to open up. 'They knew [the biography] would not be the party line and they knew it would be honest. Older people wanted to talk. They were soon going to die. They had information and they wanted it to be told.' Chang and Halliday are at the start of an Asia-Pacific tour to promote Mao, which has yet to be released in the US but is already the top-selling non-fiction title in Hong Kong, Britain and Australia. Released in most countries in the week of the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown, the couple officially launched the book in Hong Kong days ahead of another significant date, July 1, handover day. A review of the book in the Far Eastern Economic Review last week led to a mainland ban on the magazine's June issue. The state-owned distributor of foreign publications took the unusual step of outlining its reasons for the ban, naming the Mao review as offensive. Most reviews praised the authors for delving into tens of thousands of pages from Soviet archives for the first time, revealing the extent to which Mao was groomed by Stalin. The biography claims Mao was just as manipulative with Moscow, encouraging his communist counterparts to enter the conflict against Japan and the Korean war. Mao starved to death 38 million people while devoting most of the nation's funds to his dream of becoming a nuclear power, the book claims. But Mao has also been criticised as a polemic for failing to put Mao into a social, political or economic context. Chang, a former Red Guard, denies the book was written out of hatred. 'My past was put to rest after the writing of Wild Swans,' she says. 'I wasn't driven by revenge ... or anything personal. I was intrigued by this man. 'We didn't court controversy. We kept an open mind and tried to be fair to Mao. We just [found] that everything that was alleged to be Mao's good deeds were untrue. For example, that Mao made China great. He didn't. He wasn't the one who unified China. We realised it was Chiang Kai-shek who unified China and Mao merely imposed a totalitarian system on it. It was Chiang Kai-shek who got China on the UN Security Council.' Chang and Halliday avoided the trend in biographies to find a psychological motive for Mao's behaviour. Citing a commentary Mao wrote at the age of 24 on the German philosopher Friedrich Paulsen, the authors argue that after a normal childhood Mao made an adult decision to reject conscience, duty to others and responsibility for the future. Ideologically vague, he used the Communist Party as a vehicle for his ambition and Marxist theory as a 'bludgeon' for rivals. 'What's in the book is the result of trying to look at all the decisions that he took, political and economic, when he was in a position of power and could impose his decisions ... and Mao is extremely consistent,' says Halliday. 'The record is absolutely unequivocal. In 1930, when he's just got his endorsement from the Russians, he launches a huge purge against his fellow communists. From then on, he doesn't purge every day, but he's instituted a system of fear. He whips it up whenever he needs to. That is consistent throughout his life. 'In Yenan when he got into power and later on with the central government, we looked at his economic decisions. From the word go, it is: 'Screw the peasants as hard as you possibly can and put every single cent you have into military spending.'' The authors claim Mao isolated China from the world and in the 1970s left the mainland with a lower per capita income than Somalia. Average food intake in China was lower at the time of Mao's death than it was in the 1930s, according to the book. Yet, says Chang, the central government fears that revealing the truth about Mao could undermine the party's legitimacy. 'They are determined to uphold the Mao myth ... for their own power,' she says. 'China is not a democracy, so how [else] do you justify your power? 'It doesn't have to be that way. The current regime didn't have any hand in the atrocities Mao committed. They don't have to associate themselves with him. They chose to legitimise their rule by claiming to be Mao's heir, which I think is a terrible mistake. They should back away from Mao. 'Mao is written into the constitution. But if Mao was written into the constitution at a time when a lot of people were in favour of repudiating Mao, they can equally create an environment in which they can write him out of the constitution and make a clean break from Mao ... Everything China has achieved now has been achieved after Mao's death.' Chang predicts Chinese-language editions of Mao will be translated for mainland leaders. Her own Chinese edition is expected to be released by the end of the year. She says she hopes Hong Kong will be the gateway for smuggling her book into the mainland, where Wild Swans has been banned since its 1991 release. In the meantime, the couple worries that their points will be dulled by poorly translated copies. 'We live in fear [of pirate copies],' Chang says, adding that the 654-page biography is supplemented by 159 pages of footnotes and references. 'The strength of the book is accuracy. 'I would welcome a challenge of our facts. If our facts remain unchallenged and the people know that Mao was responsible for at least 70 million deaths of his own people in peacetime, if people ... still try to defend Mao, then I just feel that those people need to have their conscience examined.' Speaking a night earlier to a sellout crowd of 150 at the China Club - surrounded by kitschy Mao paraphernalia - Halliday admits his findings could be devastating for ordinary Chinese. However, he says China will be a greater nation if the truth about Mao is known. 'Myth-making is more dangerous than telling the truth,' he says. 'I only set out to tell the truth ... I hope that will be more helpful than harmful.'