Mao Zedong was the principal Chinese Marxist theorist, soldier and statesman who led his nation’s Cultural Revolution.
Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution were ill-conceived and had disastrous consequences, but many of his goals, including stressing China’s self-reliance, were generally laudable.
Mao Zedong died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82, in Beijing, China.
Mao Zedong authored many books, among them were: On Guerilla Warfare (1937), On New Democracy (1940), and Quotations From Chairman Mao Zedong (1946-1976).
In 1966, Mao Zedong made his political return and launched the Cultural Revolution. Appearing at a gathering at the Yangtze River in May, the 73-year-old Mao swam for several minutes in the river, looking fit and energetic.
The message to his rivals was, “Look, I’m back!” Later, he and his closest aides choreographed a series of public rallies involving thousands of young supporters.
He calculated correctly that the young wouldn’t remember much about the failure of the Great Leap Forward.
Mao Zedong manufactured a crisis that only he could solve. Mao told his followers that bourgeois elements in China were aiming to restore capitalism, and declared these elements must be removed from society.
His youthful followers formed the Red Guards and led a mass purge of the “undesirables.”
To prevent a repeat of the rejection he received during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao ordered the closure of China’s schools, and young intellectuals living in the cities were sent into the countryside to be “re-educated” through hard manual labor.
The Revolution destroyed much of China’s traditional cultural heritage as well as creating general economic and social chaos in the country. It was during this time that Mao’s cult of personality grew to immense proportions.
In the late 19th century, China was a shell of its once glorious past, led by the decrepit Qing Dynasty.
Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893, in the farming community of Shaoshan, in the province of Hunan, China, to a peasant family that had tilled their three acres of land for several generations.
Life was difficult for many Chinese citizens at the time, but Mao’s family was better off than most. His authoritarian father, Mao Zedong, was a prosperous grain dealer, and his mother, Wen Qimei, was a nurturing parent.
Mao attended a small school in his village when he was eight years old, he received little education. By age 13, he was working full-time in the fields, growing increasingly restless and ambitious.
At the age of 14, Mao Zedong’s father arranged a marriage for him, but he never accepted it. When he turned 17, he left home to enroll in a secondary school in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province.
In 1911, the Xinhua Revolution began against the monarchy, and Mao joined the Revolutionary Army and the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party.
Led by Chinese statesman Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang overthrew the monarchy in 1912 and founded the Republic of China. Spurred on by the promise of a new future for China and himself, Mao reveled in the political and cultural change sweeping the country.
Moving Toward Communist Ideology
In 1918, Mao Zedong graduated from the Hunan First Normal School, becoming a certified teacher. That same year, his mother died, and he had no desire to return home.
He traveled to Beijing, but was unsuccessful in finding a job. He finally found a position as a librarian assistant at Beijing University and attended a few classes.
At about this time, he heard of the successful Russian Revolution, which established the communist Soviet Union.
In 1921, he became one of the inaugural members of the Chinese Communist Party.
In 1923, Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen began a policy of active cooperation with the Chinese Communists, who had grown in strength and number.
Mao Zedong had supported both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party, but over the next few years, he adopted Leninist ideas and believed that appealing to the farming peasants was the key to establishing communism in Asia.
He rose up through the ranks of the party as a delegate assemblyman and then executive to the Shanghai branch of the party.
Death of Sun Yat-sen and the ‘Long March’
In March 1925, Chinese President Sun Yat-sen died, and his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, became the chairman of the Kuomintang.
Unlike Sun Yat-sen, Chiang was more conservative and traditional. In April 1927, he broke the alliance and began a violent purge of the Communists, imprisoning or killing many.
In September, Mao Zedong led an army of peasants against the Kuomintang, but was handily defeated.
The remnants of the army fled to Jiangxi Province, where they reorganized.
Mao helped establish the Soviet Republic of China in the mountainous area of Jiangxi and was elected chairman of the small republic.
He developed a small but strong army of guerilla fighters, and directed the torture and execution of any dissidents who defied party law.
By 1934, there were more than 10 regions under the control of the Communists in Jiangxi Province.
Chiang Kai-shek was getting nervous about their success and growing numbers. Small raids and attacks on outlying Communist strongholds had not discouraged them.
Chiang reasoned it was time for a massive sweep of the region to eliminate the Communist influence.
In October 1934, Chiang amassed nearly 1 million government forces and surrounded the Communist stronghold. Mao was alerted to the impending attack.
After some intense arguing with other leaders, who wanted to conduct a final stand against the government forces, he convinced them that retreat was the better tactic.
For the next 12 months, more than 100,000 Communists and their dependents trekked west and north in what became known as the “Long March” across the Chinese mountains and swampland to Yanan, in northern China. It was estimated that only 30,000 of the original 100,000 survived the 8,000-mile journey.
As word spread that the Communists had escaped extermination by the Kuomintang, many young people migrated to Yanan. Here Mao employed his oratory talents and inspired volunteers to faithfully join his cause as he emerged the top Communist leader.
Japanese-Chinese Conflict and Mao’s Rise To Power
In July 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China, forcing Chiang Kai-shek to flee the capital in Nanking.
Chiang’s forces soon lost control of the coastal regions and most of the major cities. Unable to fight a war on two fronts, Chiang reached out to the Communists for a truce and support.
During this time, Mao established himself as a military leader and, with aid from Allied forces, helped fight the Japanese.
With the Japanese defeat in 1945, Mao Zedong was able to set his sights on controlling all of China.
Mao announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China
On October 1, 1949, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Mao announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled to the island of Taiwan, where they formed the Republic of China.
Over the next few years, Mao Zedong instituted sweeping land reform. He seized warlord land, converting it into people’s communes.
He instituted positive changes in China, including promoting the status of women, doubling the school population and improving literacy, and increasing access to health care, which dramatically raised life expectancy.
Mao’s reforms and support were less successful in the cities and he sensed the discontent. In 1956, he launched the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” and, in democratic fashion, allowed others to express their concerns.
Mao hoped for a wide range of useful ideas, expecting only mild criticism of his policies. He received a harsh rebuke and was shaken by the intense rejection by the urban intelligentsia.
Fallout from the ‘Great Leap Forward’
In January 1958, Mao Zedong launched the “Great Leap Forward,” attempting to increase agricultural and industrial production.
The program established large agricultural communes with as many as 75,000 people working the fields. Each family received a share of the profits and a small plot of land.
Mao had set idealistic, some would say improbable, expectations for both agriculture and industrial production, believing the country could make a century’s worth of advancement in a few decades.
At first, reports were promising, with accounts of overwhelming advancement. Three years of floods and bad harvests told a different story. Agricultural production had not come close to expectations, and reports of massive steel production proved to be false.
Within a year, an appalling famine set in an entire village died of starvation. In the worst famine in human history, an estimated 40 million people died of hunger between 1959 and 1961. It became clear that Mao knew how to organize a revolution.
As a result of the Great Leap Forward’s failure, in 1962 Mao Zedong was quietly pushed to the sidelines and his rivals took control of the country.
For the first time in 25 years, Mao was not a central figure in leadership. While he waited for his time to return, an ardent supporter, Lin Biao, compiled some of Mao’s writings into a handbook entitled Quotations from Chairman Mao. Known as the “Little Red Book,” copies were made available to all Chinese.
A Revolutionary Legacy
In 1972, to further solidify his place in Chinese history, Mao Zedong met with United States President Richard Nixon, a gesture that eased tensions between the two countries and elevated China’s prominence as a world player.
During the meetings, it became apparent that Mao’s health was deteriorating, and not much was accomplished because Mao was not always clear in his statements or intentions.
Mao Zedong died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82, in Beijing, China.
Officially, in China, he is held in high regard as a great political strategist and military mastermind, the savior of the nation.
Mao’s efforts to close China to trade and market commerce and eradicate traditional Chinese culture have largely been rejected by his successors.
His emphasis on China’s self-reliance and the rapid industrialization that he promoted is credited with laying the foundation for China’s late 20th century development.
China’s reform period was relatively unheralded
As momentous historic events go, China’s reform period was relatively unheralded. Little did anyone realize that 1978 would enter the history books as one of the most important years in modern history.
At the time, the Chinese economy was a mere 5 percent of the size of the US economy, with a per capita GDP roughly on a par with that of Zambia, lower than half of the Asian average and lower than two thirds of the African average.
China’s impact on the world was very limited. Although its growth rate had averaged a little more than 5 percent from 1960 to 1978, it compared rather unfavorably with economies such as Japan and the Republic of Korea.
China was largely forgotten or ignored, usually both. Even in China, there was little anticipation that the country stood on the eve of a remarkable transformation.
When Chairman Mao Zedong died in 1976, China was relatively isolated. The “cultural revolution” (196676) continued to cast a long shadow, the leadership was divided, and Deng Xiaoping had only begun to emerge as China’s key leader.
Notwithstanding the unquestioned achievements made since 1949, the future did not look particularly promising.
China’s economic transformation since 1978 has been on a far greater scale than that of the US between 1870 and 1914.
The reform period, in contrast, has succeeded in transforming not only China but the whole world.
Since 1978 the roles have been reversed, with China growing much faster than any of its neighbors between 1978 and the present.
China experienced an average GDP growth of close to 10 percent annually until 2014, raising per capita GDP almost 49-fold, from $155 at prices in 1978 to $7,590 in 2014, thereby lifting more than 700 million people out of poverty.
Between 1990 and 2005, China was responsible for three-quarters of the world’s poverty reduction.
Since 1978, China’s GDP has overtaken that of countless countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Japan, such that today it is second only to the US and closing rapidly.
Since the late 18th century and the beginning of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, the global economy has been dominated by the advanced Western economies together with Japan, which, unlike all other nonwestern countries, began its industrialization in the 19th century.
China is the first developing country which, like a majority of the world’s countries, had been colonized by the Western powers and Japan to crash the party of the historically privileged and become recognized as one of the two most powerful countries in the world.
China has not only transformed itself and the world, it has overturned more than 200 years of history in the process.
China has been responsible for the most remarkable economic transformation in modern history.
The West has generally veered toward a negative interpretation of China’s economic rise.
China’s rise, in reconfiguring the world, is at the same time diminishing the West’s place in that world. The causes of this can hardly be expected to be a reason for celebration in the West.
There is a further reason that the significance of the reform period has been underestimated, and this belongs rather closer to home its relationship to the socialist tradition.
The sheer novelty of Deng Xiaoping’s thinking and approach has never been given the recognition it deserves.
The West for long belittled the reform period for political reasons. Many on the left tended to believe that it represented a turn to the right. They regarded it, in some degree or another, as a retreat from socialist principles.
Prior to Deng, the communist movement, together with wider sections of the left, was for the most part committed to key propositions. Socialism meant central planning and the public ownership of most of the economy.
The idea of socialism in one country, which first took root in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, came to enjoy widespread influence. It was based on the view that the world was bifurcated between socialist countries and capitalist countries.
Deng challenged both propositions. He embraced the idea of the market as a necessary part of a socialist economy.
Deng’s approach was extraordinarily brave and bold. He recognized that the old ways of thinking were no longer working.
The Soviet Union became ever more timid and defensive; China displayed growing confidence in its attitude toward the world.
There is much that the left around the world can learn from China. Its emphasis was on doing and achieving rather than dogma and assertion.