Remembering Mao: How did history judge the founder of modern China?

For Chairman Mao, no failure, criticism, or death toll, no matter how staggering, was enough to taint his legacy.

People commute past a billboard showing an image of late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong in Beijing on February 28, 2023.
People commute past a billboard showing an image of late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong in Beijing on February 28, 2023.

Remembering Mao: How did history judge the founder of modern China?

Saturday, the ninth of September, marked the 47th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death. It used to be a big occasion in China. Still, it seemed like a low-key event this year, as the country faces a nest of economic problems that include, among other things, the devaluation of the yuan, which reached a groundbreaking low last August.

Social inequality is high, and many attribute that to the social-market policies of post-Maoist China. Undoubtedly, life was far simpler under Chairman Mao – and cheaper – and although people were far poorer than they are today, many still look back on his era with a smile and nostalgic whim.

In the United States, he is often described as a brutal autocrat who sent his opponents to the gallows, and caused millions to perish, first during the Great Leap Forward and then under the Cultural Revolution. In China, however, millions still see him as a hero.

In 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping excited Maoists, calling for a new “Long March” during his country’s trade war with the United States. It was a term ripped straight out of the Maoist dictionary; the original Long March being carried out by the communist party’s Red Army back in 1934-136, evading pursuit of by their opponents.

The Chinese president was trying to say that we as a nation had been there before, in a far more difficult struggle, and yet, we survived and emerged victorious.

And that is precisely what Mao is all about for the people of China: a fighter who never gives up; a leader to whom nothing sticks: no failure, no criticism, and no death toll, no matter how staggering.

He was not only the founder of modern China, but also a political theorist, military strategist, poet, and revolutionary figure who inspired millions across the globe, no less iconic than Fidel Castro and far more substantial than Che Guevara.

Souvenirs bearing the images of late communist leader Mao Zedong and China's President Xi Jinping are seen at a shop in Beijing on April 5, 2023.

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Mao was not only the founder of modern China but a political theorist, military strategist, poet, and revolutionary figure who inspired millions across the globe, no less iconic than Fidel Castro and far more substantial than Che Guevara.

From republicanism to communism

Born into a well-to-do peasant family in 1893, Mao's mother was a Buddhist and his father was a grain merchant, farmer, and strict disciplinarian.

From a relatively young age, he began reading world classics, translating Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Charles Darwin. He was also particularly well-read in international history and admired men like Napoleon Bonaparte.

While still at school, Mao developed a strong vengeance for the Chinese emperor's divine authority and like Chinese of humble background, blamed him for all the poverty and suffering in the countryside. He also grew fond of the republican leader Sun Yat-sen, a US-educated Chinese Christian physician who played a monumental role in the overthrow of the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty in 1911.

Mao would play a minor role in that revolt and took great pride in dismantling the monarchy and its replacement with a republic that soon, he too would overthrow. He spent the early years of the republic in various irregular stints, briefly studying at the police academy, trying – with little luck – to major in economics, before landing a job as an assistant librarian at Pekin University.

His intellectual journey began with reading socialist literature, which coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which toppled and eventually killed Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, along with his family. In just five years, revolutionaries had managed to bring down two well-established monarchies in Russia and China.

It was a turning point in the life of Mao, who witnessed firsthand how the masses – if given proper leadership – could unite and take control of their future.

Another landmark in his early career was when the Chinese government caved into Japanese demands at the end of World War I, seceding territory the Japanese had occupied since the 19th century.

Mao attributed the betrayal of China by the Allies to the weak and corrupt government back home, vowing to right the wrongs done to his country in a manner very similar to how Adolf Hitler drew inspiration from the humiliating manner in which Germany had been treated at the Treaty of Versailles. It inspired Hitler's rise to power and before he did, the dramatic rise of Mao Zedong as well.

Mao played a minor role in the revolt that led to the overthrow of the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty and took great pride in dismantling the monarchy and its replacement with a republic that soon, he, too, would overthrow.

Founding of the Chinese Communist Party

In 1919, Mao began teaching history at a primary school in Changsha, on the lower reaches of the Xiang River. On 23 July 1921, along with 12 other delegates, he helped found the Chinse Communist Party and attended its first congress. At the time, he was only 28.

Authorities sent policemen to spy on him and his comrades, forcing them to move to a boat on South Lake near Jiaxing, deemed a safer place to convene. At the party's third congress in June 1923, Mao was elected to its central committee and moved to Shanghai.

He never imagined, right there and then, that in the next 26 years, not only would he and his comrades come to power, but manage to successfully both revolutionise and reshape the Chinese nation. 

On 1 August 1927, the Chinese Civil War began, between the Communist Party and the government of the Republic of China. Mao led the People's Liberation Army, and, by December 1949, managed to overrun most of mainland China.

The US supported the Chinese government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, while the USSR did not surprisingly back Mao and his comrades. On 1 October 1949, Mao announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Two months later, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, setting up a government there that continues to trouble authorities in Beijing until today.

Mao and Stalin

On 16 December 1949, Mao Zedong travelled to Moscow to celebrate Joseph Stalin's 70th birthday. It was the first of just two foreign visits during his entire reign, both to the USSR. Stalin spoke with a very patronising tone, never missing a chance to remind Chinese communists that had it not been for the support that they received from Moscow, then there would be no People's Republic in China.

A photo taken in 1949 in Moscow shows (from L to R) Chinese President Mao Zedong, Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union Nikolai Alexsandrovich Boulganin and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during the XXIIth Communist Congress.

"Comrade Stalin" was 15 years older than "Chairman Mao" and in 1949, he had been in power for 27 years. Mao was new to the international scene, and although strong in underground politics and on the battlefield, was still inexperienced in foreign affairs. He needed to listen to Stalin and learn from him, nodding attentively as the Soviet leader lectured him about socialism, revolution, state-building, and international pacts and alliances.

In less than a year, he would find himself more dependent on Stalin than ever, after sending a special unit of the People's Liberation Army into the Korean War to back North Korea.  As commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army, Mao personally supervised the military campaign, and the US replied with a trade embargo on China, which would last until the 1970s.

Stalin taught him how to make the best of the embargo, how to use it to strengthen internal trade and production in China, and how never to trust the Americans.

Stalin was the one who taught Mao how to make the best of the embargo, how to use it to strengthen internal trade and production in China, and how never to trust the Americans.

The Great Leap Forward

Meanwhile, Mao had been taking drastic measures to redistribute wealth inside China, right from the minute he seized power. Wealthy notables were robbed of their lands by the communists; those who objected were beaten, jailed, and in many cases executed by firing squad.

But there was a positive side to authoritarianism: it created a new elite far more grassroots than before, and also, helped eradicate the consumption and production of opium, which had plagued the nation since the early 19th century.

Drug dealers were executed, opium-producing regions ploughed and ordered to grow new crops, and 10 million addicts were forced into rehab centres.

In 1953, Mao launched his first Five Year Plan, focused on transforming China into an industrial society, while continuing to support agriculture in all its means. Industrial plants sprung up across the country, mostly with technical support from Stalin.

The second Five Year Plan – better known as the Great Leap Forward – is perhaps the single most internationally famous of Mao's achievements.

Launched in January 1958 it forced the Chinese nation to harvest more aggressively, emphasising manpower in both industry and agriculture.

To win his favour, as many would put it, and avoid his wrath, the party officials started exaggerating the amount of grain and based upon these erroneous reports, they were eventually asked to provide that fictitious harvest for state use. It never showed up, leading to major shortages throughout the country, which topped with drought and floods, caused millions to starve and perish.

Western sources claim that up to 30 million people died during the Great Chinese Famine, between 1959-1962.

In future years, writing in his memoirs, Mao's physician Li Zhisui claims that the chairman was unaware of how severe the famine was, blaming the false reports on members of his inner circle.

According to Li, when Mao got the full picture of what was really happening, he vowed to stop eating meat to share the suffering of his people, hoping to lead by example.

Chinese government statistics were only published in the 1980s, years after Mao's death, revealing wanton disaster in the Chinese countryside. Mao continued to press for higher agricultural production, which he needed badly to pay off debts accumulated to the Soviet Union, totalling 1.9bn yuan in 1960-1962.

Right from the minute Mao seized power, he took drastic measures to redistribute wealth inside China: Wealthy notables were robbed of their lands by the communists; those who objected were beaten, jailed, and, in many cases, executed by firing squad.

The Great Leap Forward would last until 1962, but in its midst, Mao took the unusual decision to resign from the presidency on 27 April 1959.

He wanted to show the world that China was not a one-man show, bequeathing power to his chosen successor Liu Shaoqi, a senior party official, but continued to hold the extremely powerful posts of chairman of both the Communist Party and of the Central Military Committee.

That August, a handful of Chinese ministers hinted that the Great Leap Forward had not been as successful as planned, before Liu Shaoqi denounced it openly during a party conference in January 1962.

That prompted Korean War veteran Peng Dehuai to join in its condemnation, which led to his dismissal as minister of defence, proving just how limited room there was to critically review the chairman's policies, so long as he remained at the helm of power in China.

A portrait of late Communist leader Mao Zedong is displayed outside Tiananmen Gate ahead of the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 10, 2023.

The Cultural Revolution

Then came the Cultural Revolution, officially called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which was launched by Mao to purge the nation from the slightest opposition to his rule. 

Its declared aim was to bring down what was then described as the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits. A new elite had emerged in communist China which wrongly considered itself a partner in Maoist China.

Mao had no partners and saw members of this new elite as his creation. With the stroke of a pen, he could destroy them all and so he did, accusing officials of distancing themselves from the people that they had vowed to serve. He began taking them down, one after the other, in order to keep the country in a state of "continuous revolution."

Launched in May 1966, the Cultural Revolution earned international acclaim for its violence and chaos. Young students with a vengeance, mainly from the countryside, formed the infamous Red Guards to ransack society, storming the offices of communist leaders and taking them by force.

In the process, historic relics were vandalised, including many cultural and religious sights. As the Red Guards overran China, excerpts of Mao's sayings were collected and published in the famous Little Red Book in January 1964, which became a sacred text for Mao's personality cult. Memorising it and keeping it in everybody's pocket became a must.

Mao's chosen successor Lin Biao, then serving as vice-chairman, was ironically one of the Cultural Revolution's many victims. He was accused of plotting a coup and on 13 September 1971, died in a plane crash over the skies of Mongolia. Lin was posthumously expelled from the Communist Party, although he had overseen the implementation of the Cultural Revolution and edited the first edition of Mao's Little Red Book.

In 1953, Mao launched his first Five Year Plan, which focused on transforming China into an industrial society with the help of Stalin. The second Five Year Plan – better known as the Great Leap Forward – is perhaps the most internationally famous of Mao's achievements.

International politics

Relations between China and the Soviet Union spiralled downwards after Stalin's death in March 1953. The USSR had always been a reliable ally. It was the only country Mao had visited in his life, first in 1949 and then again in November 1957, to attend the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

During the second visit, he was received by Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who subsequently ordered the withdrawal of Soviet technicians operating in China since 1949. In 1969, the Soviets began amassing troops on the Chinese border, a total of 21 armoured units raised to 45 by 1972.

The two communist nations were at daggers-end on who was the real leader of world communism, and they began competing for satellite states throughout Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The first to build on that rivalry was US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who paid a secret visit to China in July 1971 to bring his boss, President Richard Nixon, to Beijing. No other US president had visited China in office, and all his predecessors had recognised China no different than the Taiwan-based Republic of China.

President Nixon meets with Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in Peking, during his 1972 visit to China.

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Nixon landed in China on 21 February 1972 and met with the ageing chairman, a man whom Americans had been taught to hate for three solid decades.

"I believe our old friend Chiang Kai-shek would not approve of this," Mao joked, before receiving a porcelain swan statue from Nixon. During the visit, Nixon signed the Shanghai Communique, which called for a "One China Policy" which ended the global isolation of both Mao and China and prompted other countries, like Great Britain and Germany to start opening up as well. 

End of an era

Mao Zedong did not live long after the Nixon visit and died on 9 September 1976, aged 82. A chain-smoker throughout his life, he suffered from multiple lung problems, and three strokes, and had last been seen in public on 27 May when receiving Pakistani premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Since then, he has remained one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century, with a very contradictory legacy. Few can dispute his monumental role in transforming China from a backward country into the modern state that it is today.

He did this, however, through the blood and sweat of millions who died or disappeared during his 27 years in power.

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