A little history lesson on Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong: An Enemy of China

Mao Zedong was a prominent figure in shaping the history of modern China. He was both a successful military leader and a cruel, ignorant dictator known for his ability to manipulate the Chinese people with charismatic speeches and propaganda. He refused to take in advice from intellectuals, and initiated many irrational campaigns hindering social and economic development of China. Using propaganda, Mao deceived the people, and erased anyone who dared to protest. He also kept China closed from foreign influences, and created false descriptions of life outside of China to promote his agenda. Mao does not deny his similarity with Emperor Qin who buried hundreds of scholars along with their Confucian books. During a party speech, Mao announced, “He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold”. He believed that the needs and demands of the masses were important, and emphasized on the mass involvement of the lower classes. He conducted social revolutions in their favour, thus gained the support of the people. However, many of his campaigns were strongly opposed by intellectuals. His controversial campaigns included the Korean War, the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, the Three-anti/five-anti Campaigns, the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, all of which caused millions of deaths.

Mao established The People’s Republic of China in 1949, as an ally of Joseph Stalin, and adapted communist ideologies from the USSR. In the early years, Mao adapted much of Marxist communist theory, and copied the Soviet model. However Mao lacked knowledge in large-scale economical development, yet he had his own set of theories. During the Korean War, Mao disobeyed Stalin, and their relationship broke apart. He decided to intervene in the war even though the country desperately needed to recover from the civil war, thus resulting in an economic halt. Money was used to finance the war efforts, and the people were used to produce weapons instead of social products. Moreover, the goal of uniting China by capturing Taiwan had to be postponed. The war resulted in huge casualty for China; however, the majority of the deaths during Mao’s era did not come from war against other nations, but rather came from Mao’s war against his own people.

In 1950, Mao initiated the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, eradicating anyone who threatened the new Communist government, especially former KMT members. Those who were labelled as counterrevolutionaries were executed or sent to labour camps. People were arrested without concrete evidence, and without thorough examination before they were executed, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians. The Times magazine wrote, “In no previous war, revolution or human holocaust, either in the days of Tamerlane or in the time of Hitler, have so many people been destroyed in so short a period. The number of estimated death was as much as two million, mainly composed of KMT officials, businessmen, and former employees of Western companies.

While eradiating the KMT supporters, Mao also turned to the corrupt officials, landlords, and other rich civilians. The Three-anti/five-anti Campaigns were issued by Mao to root out the corrupt, wealthy capitalists. In the Five-anti Campaign, the Communist party set charges against the bourgeoisies in China, and spread the idea that capitalism was the root of corruption. People turned in each other, sometimes even family members, and the punishment often came with brute torture. As a result, most of the capitalist became afraid to conduct daily businesses, thus creating hostile social environment, and disrupting the economy.

Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1957 which he initially explained as a place for a hundred flowers to bloom −− that is, the freedom to express many diverse ideas. Nikita Khrushchev proposed a more relaxed communist control after the death of Stalin, and it is believed that Mao wanted to do the same. However, he received many negative feedbacks especially towards his failure in agricultural policies. The criticisms reached a point where Mao’s leadership was threatened, so he changed the policy and explained that it was to flush out the rightists, and to wipe them out. People who spoke out against the party, mostly intellectuals such as University professors were treated as traitors to the country, and were sent to labour camps. Consequently, intellectuals became reluctant to criticize Mao and his party. Furthermore, Mao decided to take on more extreme measures to exterminate the capitalist thinkers, and launched the Anti-Rightist Movement. Anyone who appeared to favour capitalism was seen as a rightist and was purged. Many were falsely accused, and were persecuted without sufficient evidence. As a result of the movement, individual rights were restricted and free thought was suppressed. Mao’s selfishness to keep him in power took the lives of hundreds of thousands of scholars, resulting in the destruction of knowledge, and limiting the possibility for a better future.

Disregarding the intellectuals, Mao initiated yet another disastrous campaign called the Great Leap Forward, which aimed to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy into an industrial economy. Mao argued that China could have social transformation before a technological transformation, because he believed that the rural masses can transform both nature and their social relations when mobilized for revolutionary goals. He introduced the People’s Communes where thousands of peasants collectively produced goods. However, the people did not have the resources or the administrative experience necessary to operate in such enormous social units. The People’s Communes also ignored human rights, because they did not allow family time or privacy. The policies of the People’s Communes did not make much scientific sense. For example, they encouraged the making of steel by household furnaces. During an interview, a worker quoted, “We used it to make pots of all sizes, but when people heated them, and they cracked and leaked. If only we had the equipment to make steel, but we didn’t.The grain output at the time was already insufficient, moreover the steel production further reduced the grain output, yet the optimistic farmers reported more grain output than they actually produced in order to impress Mao. As a result, the state collected more grain, resulting in less grain for the farmers to the extent that many people started to starve to death. A journalist describes, “The famine was widely spread, but the newspaper did not spread them at all. To keep the news from spreading, peasants were not allowed to leave their areas.” In 1960, Khrushchev, discontent with the Great Leap policies withdrew Soviet technical support, leaving many plants unfinished, resulting in huge economic loss. Peng Dehuai, the minister of defence openly admitted that the Great Leap was a failure, and had caused huge economic loss. He was immediately removed from all party and state posts and placed in detention until his death. Mao ignored any suggestion made by the intellectuals, and executed those who spoke out. Over 30 million people died during the famine, and the government also plunged the country into a deep debt due to increased spending on the development of heavy industry. Mao blamed the natural disasters, and held other party members responsible for the biggest famine in the world.

A propaganda during the Great Leap Forward Campaign showing a great harvest.

In 1966, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in an effort to further cement socialism by destroying all that represented capitalist ideologies, changing the political, social and economic nature of China through violence. He believed that only with continuing revolution of class struggle, and through the use of violence can China achieve socialism. Mao’s Red Guards composed of mainly students who were suppose to be in school, but instead of studying, the students were on the streets, destroying cultural elements, and violently assaulted bourgeoisie. Mao promoted his book, the Little Red Book in an attempt to deliver his message of “Do not try to think, believe in Chairman Mao blindly as you would in a God.” As a result, the Red Guards did everything Mao said, even beating their own teachers or classmates who were thought as counter-revolutionaries. “This man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious the better, don’t you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are”, was written in the Little Red Book, indicating that Mao believed that a true revolutionary needs the desire to kill. During the time, many religious elements were destroyed, and religious practices were banned. Chinese Marxists theory declared that God was dead, and considered religion as a defilement of the Chinese communist vision. Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and other religions were considered merely superstition, consequently changing the religious view of many Chinese people. In 1968, Mao disbanded the Red Army since they were out of control, but only after securing his political power and almost god-like status. He started a campaign called “Down to the Countryside Movement”, where young intellectuals living in the city were forced to go to the countryside to learn from the farmers. Mao’s actual intention was to banish the Red Guards completely, thus many of the young intellectuals were forced to stay in the countryside while others who came back were not permitted to attend university. The cost of this revolution was not merely in human lives, but also in huge economic losses. Much economic activity came to a halt after young people all over the country marched for the capital to meet Chairman Mao, and joined the revolution with the purpose of destruction. Countless ancient buildings, artifacts, antiques, books, and paintings were destroyed by Red Guards. Education system also came to a halt due to the lack of students and teachers. Many intellectuals were sent to labour camps and universities were closed during the revolution. Even after the Cultural Revolution, there were insufficiencies of trained professionals such as teachers, scientists, and engineers, thus higher levels of education was unavailable for a period of time. There were also serious social consequences, since law were ignored, and police forces were replaced by the Red Guards. The destruction of culture such as Confucianism reversed the roles of young and old, thus brought chaos within the family. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution officially ended on 1976, but the social and economic consequences hinder China’s development for the next decade.

A propaganda poster during the Cultural Revolution. "Destroy the old world, establish a new world".

Mao played the role of a villain by severely setback China’s social and economic development in the second half of the 20th century. In his Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries and the Three-anti/five-anti Campaigns, people’s rights were ignored, and millions of anti-communists were tortured and killed. His decision to intervene in the Korean War cost severe economic loss to China’s recovering economy, and caused more casualties. He killed millions of intellectuals during the Hundred Flowers Campaign so that he will meet no resistance to his campaigns. As a result, the Great Leap Forward came into effect even though, many intellectuals were against it. Without the necessary technology, the peasants could not produce effectively, and over time, it turned into a famine so large that the campaign was called off in 1961. By that time, over 30 million people had already died of starvation. During the Cultural Revolution, all forms of capitalist elements were destroyed by the Red Guards, and education deteriorated. After Mao’s death, the country worked hard to revive its lost culture, overcome the lack of educated professionals, and revitalize the economy which came to a halt during the revolution. Mao Zedong was a great military strategist, but he was not a great political leader – his policies and campaigns caused millions of death as well as cultural, economic and social destruction.


2 thoughts on “A little history lesson on Mao Zedong

  1. I must say this: Mao started calling on the Red Guards because his support base in Beijing called him out. They called him out on his failed reforms during the ‘Great Leap Forward’. Other Chinese leaders made him admit his mistake through a speech delivered to the Congress(i believe?). In order to restore his power, and to purge the people that oppose him, Mao turned to the peasants once again. His propaganda worked in getting the populace on his side.

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