Mao Zedong (1893-1976)
Chairman and cofounder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and founder and chairman of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Born in Shaoshan, Hunan Province, on 19 November 1893, Mao Zedong graduated from the Hunan First Normal School in 1918. He then went to Beijing to work in the Beijing University Library, where he learned Marxist ideology and developed his revolutionary plan to save China. Mao helped found the CCP in Shanghai in 1921. In 1924, following the Comintern's instructions, Mao joined the Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) party, forming the first United Front aimed at Chinese national unification. In so doing, he bought time for the infant CCP to grow under the GMD shield. However, the United Front broke down in mid-1927 when GMD leader Jiang Jieshi decided to purge the Chinese communists, thereby beginning the CCP-GMD power struggle that lasted for two decades.
Following the breakdown of the United Front, Mao and other frustrated Chinese communists worked on their own to develop a unique Chinese path to carry out the socialist revolution. In January 1935 Mao became the CCP chairman, a post he held until his death. His ascension to power is attributed to his ideological and tactical pragmatism, which rejected the rigid application of Soviet orthodox thinking and instead emphasized the uniqueness of Chinese history and culture. After expelling Jiang's GMD government from the mainland, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the PRC on 1 October 1949, officially ending the Chinese Civil War. Mao's reign can be divided into three periods: 1949-1957, 1958-1965, and 1966-1976.
The first period was characterized by imitation of the Soviet model in reconstructing China and consolidating the CCP's power. On foreign policy matters, Mao coined the three principles of make another stove, clean the house and then invite the guests, and lean to one side. According to the first two principles, Mao was determined to start anew by pursuing an anticolonial and anti-imperialist policy to eliminate China's century-old semicolonial status, imposed by imperial powers since the mid-nineteenth century. Because the PRC's birth coincided with the Cold War, Mao's policy of lean to one side signaled a pro-Soviet and anti-American stance. His first foreign policy initiative was a visit to Moscow in December 1949, culminating in the Sino-Soviet Treaty of February 1950.
The PRC's anti-American stance was vividly showcased over the question of Taiwan, where Jiang's GMD government still retained power, as well as in the Korean War, the Geneva Conference, the first and second Taiwan Page 1275 | Top of ArticleStrait crises, and the Bandung Conference, at which Mao attacked America for its “imperialist” designs in the Taiwan Strait.
Domestically, Mao selectively transplanted the Soviet model. Politically, he preferred a democratic dictatorship, along the principles of democratic centralism and coexistence with other revolutionary parties and noncommunist classes, to the Soviets’ proletarian dictatorship. Mao wished to avoid the Soviet political purges of the 1930s. Yet he ensured that real power and leadership rested in the hands of the CCP, as the terms “dictatorship” and “centralism” suggested.
In economic matters, Mao strictly adhered to the Soviet model, with Soviet technical and material assistance. In early 1950, he ushered in land reform, which involved government confiscation and the redistribution of agrarian land to peasants. This stage was completed in late 1953 and was succeeded by collectivization aimed at boosting agricultural production. In 1953, Mao launched the First Five-Year Plan, which strove to develop heavy industries and was completed a year ahead of schedule.
To consolidate his control over the country, Mao adopted mass socialization by encouraging the formation of numerous mass organizations in the early 1950s to mobilize the population to participate in such movements as the Resist-America Aid-Korea Campaign, the Three-Anti Movement to combat corruption and wasteful bureaucracy, and the Five-Anti Movement against bribery, tax evasion, fraud, theft of government property, and leakage of state economic secrets.
The second period of Mao's rule demonstrated his determination to establish a unique brand of Chinese socialism, designed to wean China from Soviet aid. The year 1958 began with the Second Five-Year Plan, which was much more ambitious than the first. To accelerate China's industrialization, Mao launched the three-year Great Leap Forward program at year's end, a radical measure designed to catch up with and surpass British industrial output. To this end, he ordered the establishment of nationwide People's Communes, which was also an essential step in facilitating the socialist transformation of China.
The Great Leap Forward, however, was doomed to failure, as the PRC was not ready for such a radical transformation. The results were measured in massive manpower and property losses. Another adverse impact was the growing division within the PRC leadership. Realizing his miscalculation and hoping to avoid becoming the scapegoat for further losses, Mao gave up his PRC chairmanship to Liu Shaoqi in April 1959 while retaining the chairmanship of the CCP. In September 1959, Mao relieved Peng Dehuai of his post as defense minister because of his opposition to the Great Leap Forward. The failure of the Great Leap Forward convinced moderate leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai that socialization should be slowed down, a view that made both men targets of the Cultural Revolution in later years. To compensate for the economic dislocation and destruction of the Great Leap Forward, Mao reluctantly agreed to relax economic socialization by dismantling the communes and using material incentives to revive the Page 1276 | Top of ArticleChinese economy, cures proposed by Liu and Deng. By the mid-1960s, China's economy had been restored to its 1957 level.
Mao's drive for independence also resulted in the collapse of the Sino-Soviet alliance. His insistence on proceeding with the radical Great Leap Forward alarmed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who decided to stop assisting the PRC's national reconstruction in 1958. This forced Mao to pursue a lone course in implementing both the Second Five-Year Plan and the Great Leap Forward.
Mao's unilateral initiation of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in September 1958 prompted Khrushchev to withhold nuclear information. The Sino-Soviet split became official after Mao passed the chairmanship to Liu, who intensified the ideological attack against Soviet revisionism and Khrushchev's advocacy of de-Stalinization and peaceful coexistence with the West. By 1963, Sino-Soviet unity had all but disappeared. To compensate for the loss of Soviet aid, Mao promoted closer PRC ties with Asian and African countries. His success in this enabled the PRC to become an influential leader in the developing world, transforming the bipolar Cold War world into a tripolar one.
The decade-long Cultural Revolution constituted the third period of Mao's era, during which the PRC experienced violent chaos and disorder. Determined to reassert his personal authority and monolithic leadership over the country, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 through his wife Jiang Qing. By reviving the class struggle and Marxist-Leninist teachings, he purged all potential opponents, including old comrades, from both the government and the CCP. To ensure his personal control, Mao packed the party and the government with his supporters, such as his wife and Hua Guofeng, both of whom were made Politburo members. Outside the government, Mao incited the Red Guards, radical youths indoctrinated with Maoism, to criticize old customs and practices by employing such means as violence, public trials, and mass rallies. The Red Guards were also sent into the countryside to encourage the so-called cult of Mao. This ten-year period constituted the darkest days of the PRC's history, characterized by a reign of red terror that badly bruised Mao's revolutionary legacy.
The Cultural Revolution also had a direct bearing on the PRC's foreign policy. On the one hand, the revolution aroused grave hostility and suspicion from the PRC's allies, who either severed diplomatic relations with the PRC or recalled their foreign service delegations. Combined with the Sino-Soviet split, the Cultural Revolution almost completely isolated the PRC within the international community. On the other hand, the Cultural Revolution made possible the normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations because of their mutual desire to enhance each other's bargaining position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. In February 1972, Mao received U.S. President Richard M. Nixon in Beijing, which culminated in American diplomatic recognition of the PRC in 1979. This rapprochement marked the end of China's diplomatic isolation.
Mao died in Beijing on 9 September 1976. Shortly after his death, in October 1976, Hua, now the premier, seized power and ended the Maoist era by officially terminating the Cultural Revolution.
Chang Jung and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Chen, Jian. Mao's China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Karnow, Stanley. Mao and China: A Legacy of Turmoil. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Lynch, Michael J. Mao. London: Routledge, 2004.
Lyons, Thomas P. Economic Integration and Planning in Maoist China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
Mao Zedong. Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1966-1977.