[DECEMBER 26, 1893EPTEMBER 9, 1976]
Communist leader of People's Republic of China
Born in Shaoshan (Hunan), Mao Zedong was the son of a moderately wealthy peasant. After a checkered classical primary education and training at the Hunan Teacher's College, the young Mao gathered like-minded anarchists in his bookstore in Changsha. In 1921 he cofounded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After the collapse of the united front with the
Given the merciless nature of political conflict in Republican China (1911949) and the extraordinary brutality of the Japanese occupation (1931945), it is no surprise that Mao concluded that a "revolution is not a dinner party" (Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, 1927). His astonishing disregard for individual human lives in later years, however, cannot be explained solely by the brutalizing experiences of his early career. Starting in the mid-1950s, Mao repeatedly affirmed his willingness to sacrifice up to a third of the Chinese population in a nuclear war so long as this would help bring about the downfall of world capitalism.
Mao's desire at Yan'an to cement his leadership of the CCP met opposition from two directions. First, pro-Soviet communists returned from Moscow to work for the Bolshevization of the party. Second, urban intellectuals who had been attracted by the utopia Yan'an seemed to promise in an otherwise corrupt China demanded greater freedoms once they recognized the repressive nature of the CCP regime. Benefiting from his disputed but, as it eventually turned out, correct decisions with regard to conduct of the civil war, Mao in the early 1940s pushed for a party purge, with the goal of installing his version of communism. A small number of dissidents were driven to commit suicide or killed. Although Mao in 1945 apologized publicly for the brutality of the campaign, it nevertheless set a precedent for future campaigns against dissidents, real or imagined.
The Korean War (1950953) against the "imperialist" United States provided the backdrop for class warfare against so-called capitalist elements, designed to rectify abuses tenant farmers and workers had endured in the past. Incomplete evidence from China's countryside suggests that it often served as a pretext for the continuation of local clan conflict by other means. According to Mao ("On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People," February 27, 1957), 800,000 counterrevolutionaries were killed (in 1952 China's population was 575 million).
In the wake of Nikita Khruschev's Secret Speech (February 1956), in which the Soviet leader charged his predecessor Joseph Stalin with criminal and arbitrary rule, and the resulting Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation (October 1956), Mao tried to preempt the outburst of pent-up dissatisfaction by allowing criticism under highly controlled conditions (the Hundred Flowers Campaign that occurred during the spring of 1957). Despite all the precautions taken to avoid this, party members and intellectuals called for greater freedoms. In the resulting antirightist campaigns in subsequent years, critics, including leaders of national minorities (particularly in Xinjiang and after 1959 also in Tibet), were persecuted, lost their positions, and were sent to reeducation camps. An unspecified, but probably large, number of victims died or suffered permanent damage to their health from forced labor, abuse, and malnutrition in the camps.
By far the greatest loss of life during Mao's regime stemmed from the deadly spring famines (1959961) of the Great Leap Forward. Unlike the Ukrainian famines in the early 1930s, which Stalin had planned to crush as anti-Russian nationalism, the famine of 1959 resulted from the misguided economic policies of the Great Leap Forward. However, once it became clear that the Great Leap Forward had not only failed to produce the promised economic miracles but also led to serious economic disruptions, Chairman Mao refused to change course because he feared a loss of face, if not his preeminent position. The acrimonious debates about economic reform in 1959 convinced Mao that alleged rightists in the party wanted to replace him. After crushing his supposed enemies, Mao relaunched the Great Leap Forward in late 1959; it collapsed on its own a year later. Due to lack of direct evidence, the number of famine victims can only be calculated on the basis of incomplete demographic data. Most historians agree that excess deaths (the difference between projected and actual demographic data) total at least 20 million (with more than two-thirds of these deaths occurring in 1960 alone); high estimates stand at 65 million (in 1957 China's population was 646 million).
Although still poorly understood, the Cultural Revolution (1966976) was, in many respects, Mao's most far-reaching attempt to rid China of his supposed opponents. Unlike Stalin, who remained in firm control of the Soviet party from the 1920s, Mao never had complete command over the CCP. Many of the campaigns from 1957 onward were attempts to increase his political control over the party. However, once Mao realized by the mid-1960s that his quest for undisputed leadership had been stymied, he turned to forces outside the CCP to attack what he considered a reticent party unwilling to implement his erratic policies. The Cultural Revolution was a mixture of party purge and class warfare, during which radicalized students persecuted, humiliated, tortured, and even murdered alleged rightists or counterrevolutionaries. The exact number of those who were killed, committed suicide, or died in camps is not known; nonetheless, it is clear that most of the victims came from the educated strata, had party backgrounds, or were from minorities.
SEE ALSO China; Famine
Becker, Jasper (1996). Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine. London: John Murray.
Lee, Hong Yung (1978). The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: A Case Study. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Mao Zedong. "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People," February 27, 1957, Harold C. Hinton, ed. (1980). The People's Republic of China, 1949979: A Documentary Survey. Volume I, 1949957. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 53451.
Mao Zedong. "Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, March 1927." Mao Zedong (1965). Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Volume 1. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 239.
Short, Philip (1999). Mao: A Life. New York: Henry Holt.
Teiwes, Frederick C. (1979). Politics and Purges in China: Rectification and the Decline of Party Norms, 1950965. White Plains, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.
Lorenz M. Lüthi
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