- "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed."
- —Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong (December 26th, 1893 - September 9th, 1976) was the Communist Leader of the People's Republic of China and led the "Leap Forward" movement to break all traditions of Ancient China. He was the founding father of the People's Republic of China. His Cultural Revolution all but destroyed China's heritage.
Although many of Mao's campaigns, most notably The Great Leap Forward lead to the death of millions, many historians have pointed out that many of the deaths under Mao's regime were unintentional unlike many of the deaths under Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. He is widely considered one of the most polarizing and controversial figures in recent history, many regard him as a capable and necessary leader who improved health care, women's rights and industrialised China and see many of his campaigns as taking significant risks, while in contrast his critics have drawn comparisons between him and dictators such as Stalin and Hitler.
The exact number of deaths attributable to his regime are still a subject of debate and often range from 40 to 70 million. However, the population of China grew from 500 million to 900 million during his regime in contrast to the many deaths.
The People's Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949. It was the culmination of over two decades of civil and international wars. From 1943 to 1976, Mao was the Chairman of the Communist Party of China. During this period, Mao was called Chairman Mao (毛主席, Máo Zhǔxí) or the Great Leader Chairman Mao (伟大领袖毛主席, Wěidà Lǐngxiù Máo Zhǔxí). Mao famously announced: "The Chinese people have stood up."
Mao took up residence in Zhongnanhai, a compound next to the Forbidden City in Beijing, and there he ordered the construction of an indoor swimming pool and other buildings. Mao's physician Li Zhisui described him as conducting business either in bed or by the side of the pool, preferring not to wear formal clothes unless absolutely necessary. Li's book, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, is regarded as controversial, especially by those sympathetic to Mao.
In October 1950, Mao made the decision to send the People's Volunteer Army into Korea and fight against the United Nations forces led by the U.S. Historical records showed that Mao directed the PVA campaigns in the Korean War to the minute details.
Along with land reform, during which significant numbers of landlords and well-to-do peasants were beaten to death at mass meetings organized by the Communist Party as land was taken from them and given to poorer peasants, there was also the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, which involved public executions targeting mainly former Kuomintang officials, businessmen accused of "disturbing" the market, former employees of Western companies and intellectuals whose loyalty was suspect. The U.S. State department in 1976 estimated that there may have been a million killed in the land reform, and 800,000 killed in the counterrevolutionary campaign.
Mao himself claimed that a total of 700,000 people were killed in attacks on "counter-revolutionaries" during the years 1950–52. However, because there was a policy to select "at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution", the number of deaths range between 2 million and 5 million. In addition, at least 1.5 million people, perhaps as many as 4 to 6 million, were sent to "reform through labour" camps where many perished. Mao played a personal role in organizing the mass repressions and established a system of execution quotas, which were often exceeded. He defended these killings as necessary for the securing of power.
Starting in 1951, Mao initiated two successive movements in an effort to rid urban areas of corruption by targeting wealthy capitalists and political opponents, known as the three-anti/five-anti campaigns. While the three-anti campaign was a focused purge of government, industrial and party officials, the five-anti campaign set its sights slightly broader, targeting capitalist elements in general. A climate of raw terror developed as workers denounced their bosses, spouses turned on their spouses, and children informed on their parents; the victims often were humiliated at struggle sessions, a method designed to intimidate and terrify people to the maximum. Mao insisted that minor offenders be criticized and reformed or sent to labor camps, "while the worst among them should be shot." These campaigns took several hundred thousand additional lives, the vast majority via suicide.
In Shanghai, suicide by jumping from tall buildings became so commonplace that residents avoided walking on the pavement near skyscrapers for fear that suicides might land on them. Some biographers have pointed out that driving those perceived as enemies to suicide was a common tactic during the Mao-era. For example, in his biography of Mao, Philip Short notes that in the Yan'an Rectification Movement, Mao gave explicit instructions that "no cadre is to be killed," but in practice allowed security chief Kang Sheng to drive opponents to suicide and that "this pattern was repeated throughout his leadership of the People's Republic."
Following the consolidation of power, Mao launched the First Five-Year Plan (1953–58). The plan aimed to end Chinese dependence upon agriculture in order to become a world power. With the Soviet Union's assistance, new industrial plants were built and agricultural production eventually fell to a point where industry was beginning to produce enough capital that China no longer needed the USSR's support. The success of the First-Five Year Plan was to encourage Mao to instigate the Second Five-Year Plan, the Great Leap Forward, in 1958. Mao also launched a phase of rapid collectivization. The CPC introduced price controls as well as a Chinese character simplification aimed at increasing literacy. Large-scale industrialization projects were also undertaken.
Programs pursued during this time include the Hundred Flowers Campaign, in which Mao indicated his supposed willingness to consider different opinions about how China should be governed. Given the freedom to express themselves, liberal and intellectual Chinese began opposing the Communist Party and questioning its leadership. This was initially tolerated and encouraged. After a few months, Mao's government reversed its policy and persecuted those, totalling perhaps 500,000, who criticized, as well as those who were merely alleged to have criticized, the party in what is called the Anti-Rightist Movement. Authors such as Jung Chang have alleged that the Hundred Flowers Campaign was merely a ruse to root out "dangerous" thinking.[
Li Zhisui, Mao's physician, suggested that Mao had initially seen the policy as a way of weakening those within his party who opposed him and was surprised by the extent of criticism and the fact that it began to be directed at his own leadership. It was only then that he used it as a method of identifying and subsequently persecuting those critical of his government. The Hundred Flowers movement led to the condemnation, silencing, and death of many citizens, also linked to Mao's Anti-Rightist Movement, with death tolls possibly in the millions.
Great Leap Forward
In January 1958, Mao Zedong launched the second Five-Year Plan, known as the Great Leap Forward, a plan intended as an alternative model for economic growth to the Soviet model focusing on heavy industry that was advocated by others in the party. Under this economic program, the relatively small agricultural collectives which had been formed to date were rapidly merged into far larger people's communes, and many of the peasants were ordered to work on massive infrastructure projects and on the production of iron and steel. Some private food production was banned; livestock and farm implements were brought under collective ownership.
Under the Great Leap Forward, Mao and other party leaders ordered the implementation of a variety of unproven and unscientific new agricultural techniques by the new communes. Combined with the diversion of labor to steel production and infrastructure projects, these projects combined with cyclical natural disasters led to an approximately 15% drop in grain production in 1959 followed by a further 10% decline in 1960 and no recovery in 1961.
In an effort to win favor with their superiors and avoid being purged, each layer in the party hierarchy exaggerated the amount of grain produced under them. Based upon the fabricated success, party cadres were ordered to requisition a disproportionately high amount of the true harvest for state use, primarily in the cities and urban areas but also for export. The net result, which was compounded in some areas by drought and in others by floods, left rural peasants with little food for themselves and many millions starved to death in the largest famine known as the Great Chinese Famine. This famine was a direct cause of the death of some 30 million Chinese peasants between 1959 and 1962 and about the same number of births were lost or postponed. Further, many children who became emaciated and malnourished during years of hardship and struggle for survival died shortly after the Great Leap Forward came to an end in 1962.
The extent of Mao's knowledge of the severity of the situation has been disputed. Mao's physician believed he may have been unaware about the extent of the famine, partly due to a reluctance to criticize his policies and decisions and the willingness of his staff to exaggerate or outright fake reports regarding food production. Upon finding out the extent of the starvation, Mao vowed to stop eating meat, an action followed by his staff.
Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikötter, who conducted extensive archival research on the Great Leap Forward in local and regional Chinese government archives, challenged the notion that Mao did not know about the famine until it was too late: The idea that the state mistakenly took too much grain from the countryside because it assumed that the harvest was much larger than it was is largely a myth—at most partially true for the autumn of 1958 only. In most cases the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death. At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated March 25, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting he announced that "When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill."  In Hungry Ghosts, Jasper Becker notes that Mao was dismissive of reports he received of food shortages in the countryside and refused to change course, believing that peasants were lying and that rightists and kulaks were hoarding grain. He refused to open state granaries, and instead launched a series of "anti-grain concealment" drives that resulted in numerous purges and suicides. Other violent campaigns followed in which party leaders went from village to village in search of hidden food reserves, and not only grain, as Mao issued quotas for pigs, chickens, ducks and eggs. Many peasants accused of hiding food were tortured and beaten to death.
In contrast, journals such as the Monthly Review have disputed the reliability of the figures commonly cited, the qualitative evidence of a "massive death toll", and Mao's complicity in those deaths which occurred.
Whatever the case, the Great Leap Forward caused Mao to lose esteem among many of the top party cadres and was eventually forced to abandon the policy in 1962, while losing some political power to moderate leaders, perhaps most notably Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping in the process. However, Mao, supported by national propaganda, claimed that he was only partly to blame. As a result, he was able to remain Chairman of the Communist Party, with the Presidency transferred to Liu Shaoqi.
The Great Leap Forward was a tragedy for the vast majority of the Chinese. Although the steel quotas were officially reached, almost all of the supposed steel made in the countryside was iron, as it had been made from assorted scrap metal in home-made furnaces with no reliable source of fuel such as coal. This meant that proper smelting conditions could not be achieved. According to Zhang Rongmei, a geometry teacher in rural Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward: "We took all the furniture, pots, and pans we had in our house, and all our neighbors did likewise. We put everything in a big fire and melted down all the metal." The worst of the famine was steered towards enemies of the state. As Jasper Becker explains: "The most vulnerable section of China's population, around five per cent, were those whom Mao called 'enemies of the people'. Anyone who had in previous campaigns of repression been labeled a 'black element' was given the lowest priority in the allocation of food. Landlords, rich peasants, former members of the nationalist regime, religious leaders, rightists, counter-revolutionaries and the families of such individuals died in the greatest numbers."
At the Lushan Conference in July/August 1959, several leaders expressed concern that the Great Leap Forward had not proved as successful as planned. The most direct of these was Minister of Defence and Korean War General Peng Dehuai. Mao, fearing loss of his position, orchestrated a purge of Peng and his supporters, stifling criticism of the Great Leap policies. Senior officials who reported the truth of the famine to Mao were branded as "right opportunists." A campaign against right opportunism was launched and resulted in party members and ordinary peasants being sent to camps where many would subsequently die in the famine. Years later the CPC would conclude that 6 million people were wrongly punished in the campaign.
The number of deaths by starvation during the Great Leap Forward is deeply controversial. Until the mid-1980s, when official census figures were finally published by the Chinese Government, little was known about the scale of the disaster in the Chinese countryside, as the handful of Western observers allowed access during this time had been restricted to model villages where they were deceived into believing that the Great Leap Forward had been a great success. There was also an assumption that the flow of individual reports of starvation that had been reaching the West, primarily through Hong Kong and Taiwan, must be localized or exaggerated as China was continuing to claim record harvests and was a net exporter of grain through the period. Because Mao wanted to pay back early to the Soviets debts totaling 1.973 billion yuan from 1960 to 1962, exports increased by 50%, and fellow Communist regimes in North Korea, North Vietnam and Albania were provided grain free of charge.
Censuses were carried out in China in 1953, 1964 and 1982. The first attempt to analyse this data in order to estimate the number of famine deaths was carried out by American demographer Dr. Judith Banister and published in 1984. Given the lengthy gaps between the censuses and doubts over the reliability of the data, an accurate figure is difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, Banister concluded that the official data implied that around 15 million excess deaths incurred in China during 1958–61, and that based on her modelling of Chinese demographics during the period and taking account of assumed under-reporting during the famine years, the figure was around 30 million. The official statistic is 20 million deaths, as given by Hu Yaobang. Yang Jisheng, a former Xinhua News Agency reporter who had privileged access and connections available to no other scholars, estimates a death toll of 36 million. Frank Dikötter estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths attributable to the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962. Various other sources have put the figure at between 20 and 46 million.
On the international front, the period was dominated by the further isolation of China. The Sino-Soviet split resulted in Nikita Khrushchev's withdrawal of all Soviet technical experts and aid from the country. The split was triggered by arguments over the control and direction of world communism and other disputes pertaining to foreign policy. Most of the problems regarding communist unity resulted from the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 and his replacement by Khrushchev. Only Albania under the leadership of Enver Hoxha openly sided with China against the Soviets, which began an alliance between the two countries which would last until the Sino-Albanian split after Mao's death in 1976.
Stalin had established himself as the successor of "correct" Marxist thought well before Mao controlled the Communist Party of China, and therefore Mao never challenged the suitability of any Stalinist doctrine (at least while Stalin was alive). Upon the death of Stalin, Mao believed (perhaps because of seniority) that the leadership of the "correct" Marxist doctrine would fall to him. The resulting tension between Khrushchev (at the head of a politically and militarily superior government), and Mao (believing he had a superior understanding of Marxist ideology) eroded the previous patron-client relationship between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the CPC. In China, the formerly favorable Soviets were now denounced as "revisionists" and listed alongside "American imperialism" as movements to oppose.
Partly surrounded by hostile American military bases (in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan), China was now confronted with a new Soviet threat from the north and west. Both the internal crisis and the external threat called for extraordinary statesmanship from Mao, but as China entered the new decade the statesmen of the People's Republic were in hostile confrontation with each other.
At a large Communist Party conference in Beijing in January 1962, called the "Conference of the Seven Thousand," State Chairman Liu Shaoqi denounced the Great Leap Forward as responsible for widespread famine. The overwhelming majority of delegates expressed agreement, but Defense Minister Lin Biao staunchly defended Mao. A brief period of liberalization followed while Mao and Lin plotted a comeback. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping rescued the economy by disbanding the people's communes, introducing elements of private control of peasant smallholdings and importing grain from Canada and Australia to mitigate the worst effects of famine.
Mao was concerned with the nature of post-1959 China. He saw that the revolution had replaced the old elite with a new one. He was concerned that those in power were becoming estranged from the people they were supposed to serve.
Mao believed that a revolution of culture would unseat and unsettle the "ruling class" and keep China in a state of "perpetual revolution" that, theoretically, would serve the interests of the majority, not a tiny elite. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, then the State Chairman and General Secretary, respectively, had favored the idea that Mao should be removed from actual power but maintain his ceremonial and symbolic role, with the party upholding all of his positive contributions to the revolution. They attempted to marginalize Mao by taking control of economic policy and asserting themselves politically as well. Many claim that Mao responded to Liu and Deng's movements by launching the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Some scholars, such as Mobo Gao, claim the case for this is perhaps overstated. Others, such as Frank Dikötter, hold that Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to wreak revenge on those who had dared to challenge him over the Great Leap Forward.
Believing that certain liberal bourgeois elements of society continued to threaten the socialist framework, groups of young people known as the Red Guards struggled against authorities at all levels of society and even set up their own tribunals. Chaos reigned in much of the nation, and millions were persecuted, including a famous philosopher, Chen Yuen. During the Cultural Revolution, the schools in China were closed and the young intellectuals living in cities were ordered to the countryside to be "re-educated" by the peasants, where they performed hard manual labor and other work.
The Revolution led to the destruction of much of China's traditional cultural heritage and the imprisonment of a huge number of Chinese citizens, as well as creating general economic and social chaos in the country. Millions of lives were ruined during this period, as the Cultural Revolution pierced into every part of Chinese life, depicted by such Chinese films as To Live, The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, perished in the violence of the Cultural Revolution.
When Mao was informed of such losses, particularly that people had been driven to suicide, he is alleged to have commented: "People who try to commit suicide — don't attempt to save them! . . . China is such a populous nation, it is not as if we cannot do without a few people." The authorities allowed the Red Guards to abuse and kill opponents of the regime. Said Xie Fuzhi, national police chief: "Don't say it is wrong of them to beat up bad persons: if in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it." As a result, in August and September 1966, there were 1,772 people murdered in Beijing alone.
It was during this period that Mao chose Lin Biao, who seemed to echo all of Mao's ideas, to become his successor. Lin was later officially named as Mao's successor. By 1971, however, a divide between the two men became apparent. Official history in China states that Lin was planning a military coup or an assassination attempt on Mao. Lin Biao died in a plane crash over the air space of Mongolia, presumably on his way to flee China, probably anticipating his arrest. The CPC declared that Lin was planning to depose Mao, and posthumously expelled Lin from the party. At this time, Mao lost trust in many of the top CPC figures. The highest-ranking Soviet Bloc intelligence defector, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa described his conversation with Nicolae Ceauşescu who told him about a plot to kill Mao Zedong with the help of Lin Biao organized by the KGB.
In 1969, Mao declared the Cultural Revolution to be over, although the official history of the People's Republic of China marks the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 with Mao's death. In the last years of his life, Mao was faced with declining health due to either Parkinson's disease or, according to his physician, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, as well as lung ailments due to smoking and heart trouble. Some also attributed Mao's decline in health to the betrayal of Lin Biao. Mao remained passive as various factions within the Communist Party mobilized for the power struggle anticipated after his death.
This period is often looked at in official circles in China and in the West as a great stagnation or even of reversal for China. While many—an estimated 100 million—did suffer, some scholars, such as Lee Feigon and Mobo Gao, claim there were many great advances, and in some sectors the Chinese economy continued to outperform the west. They hold that the Cultural Revolution period laid the foundation for the spectacular growth that continues in China. During the Cultural Revolution, China exploded its first H-Bomb (1967), launched the Dong Fang Hong satellite (January 30, 1970), commissioned its first nuclear submarines and made various advances in science and technology. Healthcare was free, and living standards in the countryside continued to improve
Mao had been in poorer health for several years and had declined visibly for at least six months prior to his death. There are unconfirmed reports that he possibly had ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. Mao's last public appearance was on May 27, 1976, where he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during the latter's one-day visit to Beijing.
At around 5:00 pm on September 2, 1976, Mao suffered a heart attack, far more severe than his previous two and affecting a much larger area of his heart. X-rays indicated that his current lung infection had worsened. Three days later, on September 5, Mao's condition was critical, and Hua Guofeng called his wife, Jiang Qing, back from her trip. She visited him before returning to her own residence in the Spring Lotus Chamber.
He was taken off life support and was pronounced dead at 12:10 am on September 9, 1976. September 9 was chosen as the day to let Mao die because it was seen as an easy day to remember, being the ninth day of the ninth month of the calendar.
His body lay in state at the Great Hall of the People. A memorial service was held in Tiananmen Square on September 18, 1976. There was a three-minute silence observed during this service. His body was later placed into the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, though he had expressed a wish to be cremated and had been one of the first high-ranking officials to sign the "Proposal that all Central Leaders be Cremated after Death" in November 1956.
After Mao's death, there was a power struggle for control of China. On one side was the left wing led by the Gang of Four, who wanted to continue the policy of revolutionary mass mobilization. On the other side was the right wing opposing these policies. Among the latter group, the right wing restorationists, led by Chairman Hua Guofeng, advocated a return to central planning along the Soviet model, whereas the right wing reformers, led by Deng Xiaoping, wanted to overhaul the Chinese economy based on market-oriented policies and to de-emphasize the role of Maoist ideology in determining economic and political policy. Eventually, the reformers won control of the government. Deng Xiaoping, with clear seniority over Hua Guofeng, defeated Hua in a bloodless power struggle a few years later.