Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1949 until his death in 1976. Mao is arguably the greatest mass murderer in history, eclipsing even the murderous Joseph Stalin in this regard. Some 70 million Chinese, along with countless Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus, Koreans, Hmong, Uyghurs, and other nationalities, perished at his hands during his long and brutal reign.
Mao was born into a rich peasant family in a valley called Shaoshan, set in the heartland of China in Hunan province, on 26 December 1893. Hopelessly doted upon by his mother, alienated from his hard-working father, Mao balked at having to dirty his hands with farm work, once even threatening suicide in protest. Instead he successfully insisted that his father send him away to school. He arrived in the provincial capital of Changsha in 1911 at the age of seventeen, turning his back forever on peasant life.
He later claimed that his peasant upbringing had filled him with concern for the plight of poor peasants, but there is no contemporary evidence of this. Indeed, one of his early teachers wrote how Mao had told him that in “his clan … it is easy for them [peasants] to get rich.” Mao also maintained that, as a young man, he was moved by the sight of people starving. But he was in Changsha during a famine when, according to a friend of Mao’s, the numerous beggars “looked like skeletons wrapped in yellow skin.” There is no mention of these unfortunates in Mao’s writings of the time.
Instead, as his early journals make clear, Mao admitted no duty towards or responsibility for anyone other than himself. Indeed, he described himself as wu fa wu tian, which literally means “without law and without heaven.” As he wrote, “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others … People like me want to … satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. … People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.”
He considered himself to be a “Great Hero,” and argued that, for this elite group, absolute selfishness and irresponsibility was the rule: “Everything outside their nature, such as restrictions and constraints, must be swept away by the great strength in their nature. … When Great Heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful, stormy and invincible. Their power is like … a sex maniac in heat and prowling for a lover … there is no way to stop them.”
(Chairman Mao was a sex maniac, as it turned out, who in his later years did in fact prove unstoppable. Around 1953 the “Great Hero” ordered the People’s Liberation Army to provide him with a steady stream of fresh, young, attractive female “recruits.” Leading General Peng Dehuai, later purged, bitterly complained about having to pimp for Mao, comparing it to “selecting imperial concubines.” Unlike imperial concubines, however, who had lived in the Forbidden City, had a certain status, and were well cared for, most of Mao’s date rape victims were warned by his bodyguards never to speak of what had happened—and sent packing.)
Mao Zedong, who was at least as well versed in Chinese history as in Marxist dialectics, envisioned himself as much the founding emperor of a new dynasty as the ruler of a Communist state. His poem “White Snow,” written in 1936 during the Yenan years, scarcely cloaks his vaunting ambition:
“How beautiful these mountains and rivers,
enticing countless heroes to war and strife.
Too bad that Emperors Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi lacked culture
and that Emperors Tang Taizong and Song Taizu lacked romance.
Genghis Khan was the pride of his time,
though he was only good at shooting eagles with his bow.
They all belong to a time gone by,
Only today is a True Hero present.”
The True Hero was proposing himself, correctly as it worked out, to be superior in both ability and ruthlessness to the founders of the Qin, Han, Tang, and Song dynasties. If he was offended by comparisons that many made between himself and Emperor Qin Shihuang, arguably the most hated figure in Chinese history, it was only because he saw himself as Emperor Qin’s superior in ruthlessness and cunning. At the Second Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress in May 1958, Mao scoffed, “Emperor Qin Shihuang was not that outstanding. He only buried alive 460 Confucian scholars. We buried 460 thousand Confucian scholars. [Some democratic personages] have accused us of being Emperor Qin Shihuang. This is not true [I told them]. We are a hundred times worse than Emperor Qin. To the charge of being like Emperor Qin, of being a dictator, we plead guilty. But you have not said nearly enough [I told them], for often we have to go further [than Emperor Qin Shihuang did].”
In another of his poems, Mao contrasted his admiration for Emperor Qin Shihuang and the Legalist order to his utter disdain for Confucius:
“Please don’t slander Emperor Qin Shihuang, Sir
For the burning of the books should be thought through again.
Our ancestral dragon, though dead, lives on in spirit,
While Confucius, though renowned, was really rubbish.
The Qin order has survived from age to age. . . .”
Mao’s disdain for Confucianism was rooted less in his Marxist-Leninism than in his drive for power. Mao despised the old Confucian orthodoxy for its impracticalities, for its moral niceties, for its preachiness about virtue and benevolence. Even more, he despised it because its tottering remains stood in the way of building a strong state that would dominate the Chinese and neighboring peoples. Confucius had preached what is known as “the silver rule”: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Mao’s motto—what should perhaps be called “the black rule”—was “Do unto others what you would not want done unto yourself.”
Growing up around the turn of the twentieth century, Mao had steeped himself in Chinese historical classics, absorbing the frank and brutal advice they offered to would-be Hegemons. “Know the future in the mirror of the past,” as the Chinese say, Jian wang zhi lai. His ambition was to found a dynasty by naked force, to be a new Emperor Qin Shihuang, to rule all of China’s traditional domains through the same kind of totalitarian institutions. To successfully establish the “Qin order” in the modern age, however, he needed a replacement for Confucianism, a new legitimating ideology that the people could be taught. He needed to reconfigure imperial rule for modern times.
With the victory of the Communist revolution in Russia, Mao found an unlikely companion for his totalitarian ambitions: an imported Marxist ideology that was every bit as statist and elitist as traditional Chinese political culture, while at the same time claiming to be even more “modern” and “progressive” than its chief ideological opponent, liberal democracy.
Democracy, after all, would be the nemesis of Mao’s ambitions, dispersing power among elected representatives instead of concentrating it in his hands, weakening instead of strengthening the state, empowering rather than subjugating the people. The principle of the self-determination of peoples, in particular, threatened to undermine hegemony by opening the possibility that border regions where minorities were numerically dominant, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, would go their own way. He detested the Christianity underlying Western values and feared that the weakening, even the dissolution, of China would result from the widespread propagation of such altruistic views.
While formally acknowledging civil rights and the equality of man, Marxist-Leninism was an enabler for Mao. It defended the monopoly of power by an educated elite (and in practice by one “Great Hero”), and defined a relationship between state and society very much in keeping with China’s autocratic tradition. It was a much more effective tool of indoctrination than Confucianism and, with its pseudoscientific terminology, provided a stronger defense for autocratic rule. As a bonus, it even commanded a respectful audience in the very heart of Western society.
Mao saw Communism as an allegory for hegemony, showing how the revolution that had come to China was predestined to spread to neighboring countries. Meanwhile, China could keep a tight grip on border regions; it would only be a matter of time until a common proletarian identity unified China’s diverse ethnic nationalities. Mao, already a leftwing radical, decided for very practical reasons to become a Communist.
It was largely due to Mao that the early history of the Chinese Communist Party is encrusted in self-serving myths. For example, official histories—along with most accounts by Western scholars–date the Party’s founding to 1921 to bolster Mao’s false claim of being a founding member, when it was actually begun the year before without him. Nor was it even a Chinese initiative, having originated in Moscow in what Mao biographers Chang and Halliday call “a huge secret program of action and subversion for China, starting a commitment of money, men, and arms three decades long, which culminated in bringing the Communists under Mao to power in 1949.” Young Mao, though he proved difficult to manage, was effectively in Moscow’s pay from 1921 onward.
After a flirtation with the Nationalists, whom the opportunistic Mao for a time cast his lot with, he was driven out by Chiang Kai-shek, who in 1927 moved to reduce the influence of Communists and suspected Communists in Nationalist ranks. Mao then returned to Hunan, where he managed to convince the Party Central Committee, based in Shanghai, to let him lead an August assault on the provincial capital of Changsha. For the first time, troops were placed under his command.
This episode–the beginning of the myth of Mao as a peasant leader–appears in history books as the “Autumn Harvest Uprising.” In fact, in what the Soviets called an act of the “most despicable treachery and cowardice,” Mao called off the assault before it began. Instead, he made off with his new “Red Army,” taking them into the remote fastnesses of the Jinggang mountains to become “mountain lords,” or bandits.
For this duplicity, a furious Central Committee stripped him of all his posts. But Mao, now safe in his lair, could not be budged. He cleverly passed his Party post along to a stooge while as “Division Commander,” a title he had awarded himself, he kept a firm grip on the army. Mao kept the base alive by raiding surrounding areas, even capturing a county seat. Stalin, who was impressed that Mao had an army and a base, ultimately intervened on his behalf. He was insubordinate, Stalin later remarked to the Yugoslavs, who knew something about insubordination, but a winner.
Another myth created by Mao was the Long March, which began in October 1934. Most history books recount how the Red Army, guns blazing, fought its way out of the Nationalist armies that had encircled its southern base and through hostile provinces to reach the Red Base of Yenan in the far north a full year later. But this heroic epic—the central myth of Communist China–is a complete fabrication. In reality Chiang Kai-shek, who had encircled the Red Base with a 500,000-man army and four lines of blockhouses bristling with machine guns, simply allowed them to decamp. He opened “one side of the net,” thereafter using his superior forces to herd the increasingly pitiful Red forces along like sheep until they reached his intended destination. Chiang made absolutely sure that the Reds would flee to Yenan by allowing the Communist base there to flourish, while others elsewhere in China were vigorously stamped out. The so-called Long March should properly be recorded in the history books as a forced march.
Why did Chiang “relocate” the Red Army instead of simply destroying it? The Generalissimo was afraid that Stalin would execute his only son, Ching-kuo, at that time nine years a hostage in the USSR. The Confucian-minded Chiang did not want to betray his ancestors by leaving no male descendants. He herded the Reds to the north to please Stalin, knowing that the Soviet supremo wanted them where he could control them, arm them, and use them against the looming Japanese threat. Chiang hopes for the return of his son went unfulfilled, however, and the Red Army was fatefully able to “link up” with Moscow.
To visiting Westerners, Mao claimed that he had won the Chinese civil war with “only millet plus rifles,” but research into the Soviet archives has uncovered regular payments from Moscow to the CCP, including receipts dating from the 1930s for US$300,000 (worth about US4 million today) signed and sealed by none other than “Mao Zedong” himself. Without this generous and continuing support from his Soviet “older brothers,” which included, after World War II, the entire arsenal of the surrendered Japanese Army in Manchuria, Mao would have remained a minor bandit on China’s periphery. Instead, with Soviet aid, he had by 1949 extended his writ to all of China.
Mao was mightily assisted in his conquests by Western journalists. Chief among these was socialist Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China (1938) airbrushed the Chinese Communist into an austere patriot dedicated to agrarian reform. Later journalistic visitors to Yenan, well-fed and pampered, isolated from the dark side of Mao’s rule, likewise fell under the same spell. Guenther Stein of the Christian Science Monitor declared ecstatically that “the men and women pioneers of Yenan are truly new humans in spirit, thought and action,” and that Yenan itself constituted “a brand new well integrated society, that has never been seen before anywhere.” Most agreed with A. T. Steele of the New York Herald Tribune, who thought that a Communist victory would “open the way to a new day in China.”
They were carefully isolated from, and completely oblivious to, the terror that underlay Mao’s rule in Yenan.
From the beginning, Mao had been no stranger to murder and mass executions, always in the pursuit of power. Given a heartfelt welcome in Yenan in October 1935 by a local Red army that outnumbered his own, Mao had 200 of its officers shot for “rightwing deviations” and the popular base commander, Liu Chih-tan, assassinated. He destroyed rival Politburo member Chang Kuo-tao’s army in 1936 by sending it on a hopeless mission into the wastes of the Gobi desert, and then ordered that the survivors of this debacle be executed—after being forced to dig their own graves. In 1941 he had Politburo rival Wang Ming poisoned—twice—crippling his health and forcing him to seek medical treatment in Moscow. Many more examples of his utter ruthlessness could be cited.
But what really distinguishes Mao as a leftwing monster is his use of terror to systematically destroy entire classes of people who might prove obstacles to his rule, deliberately striking fear—and instilling blind obedience–into the remainder of the population. Mao had written in the early twenties that China “must be destroyed and then re-formed.” Once in power, he began applying the Leninist principle of class struggle to the Chinese people under his control.
Mao launched his first terror campaign, called a zheng-feng in Chinese, from 1942-44. It was aimed at the tens of thousands of young volunteers who had come to Yenan and other base areas in response to Communist–and Western–propaganda. Expecting to enter into a patriotic, egalitarian paradise, they instead found themselves trapped in joyless, regimented hellholes from which escape was nearly impossible and even the attempt was punishable by death.
Mao needed to turn these increasingly disillusioned volunteers into obedient cogs for his machine. So, after torturing one of their number into confessing that he was a Nationalist spy, he had them all placed in detention for “screening.” Because their numbers were so great, most remained in their places of work, but were kept under watch, forbidden to leave of have visitors, and subjected to interrogations. As Chang and Halliday comment, “turning ordinary organizations into virtual prisons was a significant innovation of Mao’s … Here he went far beyond anything either Hitler or Stalin achieved.”
The torture that followed produced hundreds of absurd confessions of spying. But its real purpose lay elsewhere. It was intended to break the will of these idealistic young people to resist until they, like Winston in George Orwell’s 1984, would swear that four fingers were actually five—or however many Chairman Mao wanted there to be. Mao’s reality was the only “reality” they were allowed to possess.
After winning the civil war, Mao launched one terror campaign after another, each aimed at neutralizing this or that class of enemies:
Each of these campaigns cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, and reduced another portion of the population to abject servility. Official propaganda touted these movements as popular in origin, and necessary to destroy roadblocks to the brave new world of modern China. Predictably, these fabrications and others endlessly repeated by starry-eyed overseas sympathizers. Professor John K. Fairbank of Harvard, for example, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1957 that the regime’s controls over “prices, person and minds, mobilizing of patriotic youth, collectivizing the rural economy and pushing of industrialization” were “remarkable successes” and great achievements.” Not a word about the Maoist terrors that now held the Chinese people in a grip of fear, nor about Mao’s larger aims.
Mao intended his terrors to preempt opposition to his rule, of course, but the “True Hero” had a greater purpose in mind: The Chairman wanted to put China on a war footing in preparation for the wars of conquest that he intended to launch.
When, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China, his words suggested not merely wounded national pride but a thirst for revenge:
The Chinese have always been a great, courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind. And that was due entirely to oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism and domestic reactionary governments. . . . Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up.
In the view of Chairman Mao, a cabal of Western and Western-oriented countries—Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan and America—had treacherously combined to attack the old Chinese empire, loosening China’s grip on hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory and a dozen tributary states in the process.
Mao reserved special rancor for the United States, fulminating in a bitterly sarcastic speech called “‘Friendship’ or Aggression” in late 1949:
The history of the aggression against China by U.S. imperialism, from 1840 when it helped the British in the Opium War to the time it was thrown out of China by the Chinese people, should be written into a concise textbook for the education of Chinese youth. The United States was one of the first countries to force China to cede extraterritoriality. . . . All the ‘friendship’ shown to China by U.S. imperialism over the past 109 years, and especially the great act of ‘friendship’ in helping Chiang Kai-shek slaughter several million Chinese the last few years—all this had one purpose [according to the Americans] . . . first, to maintain the Open Door, second, to respect the administrative and territorial integrity of China and, third, to oppose any foreign domination of China. Today, the only doors still open to [U.S. Secretary of State] Acheson and his like are in small strips of land, such as Canton and Taiwan.
Mao now controlled all of China proper. But it wasn’t enough. Even as a young man he had dreamed of controlling a global empire, musing in a poem: “I ask the boundless earth, who after all will be your master?”
Once in power, he launched a program to industrialize and (secretly) to militarize China. Spending of the military and its arms industries took up three-fifths of the budget, a ratio that even his chief arms supplier, Joseph Stalin, criticized as “very unbalanced.” Nuclear-tipped ICBMs were a particular priority. The end game was Chinese hegemony or, as he bluntly told his inner circle in 1956, “We must control the earth.”
The disastrous Great Leap Forward—in which the peasants were dragooned into large, state-controlled communes–must be understood as an outgrowth of Mao’s lust for ever-expanding power. The Chairman wanted steel not just “to overtake Great Britain in steel production in three years,” as the standard histories relate, but to build a blue water navy for conquest. “Now the Pacific Ocean is not peaceful,” he told his leading generals and admirals on June 28, 1958. “It can only be peaceful when we take it over.” Lin Biao, Mao’s closest ally in the military, then interjected: “We must build big ships, and be prepared to land in [i.e., invade] Japan, the Philippines, and San Francisco.” [Italics added]. Mao continued: “How many years before we can build such ships? In 1962, when we have XX-XX tons of steel [figures concealed in original]…”
Calling together his provincial chiefs later in 1958, Mao was even more expansive: “In the future we will set up the Earth Control Committee, and make a uniform plan for the Earth.” Observe Chang and Halliday: “Mao dominated China. He intended to dominate the world.”
The fact is that Mao was in a hurry to industrialize, build a first-class war machine, and become the Hegemon. Yet, virtually the only thing he had to sell to the Soviet Union in exchange for arms was food. Setting up large, centrally controlled people’s communes allowed him to more efficiently extract food and work out of the peasantry. Loudspeakers were set up to urge the peasants to work longer and harder, and women were forced into the fields to work alongside the men for the first time. Most of the grain they produced was turned over by the Communist cadres in charge to local “state collection stations.” For there it was shipped to the cities—and to the Soviet Union.
As the Great Leap Forward picked up speed, senior officials kept increasing the quotas of grain to be delivered to the state collection stations. In response, commune-level cadres worked the peasants longer and longer hours on shorter and shorter rations. Mao, who saw people only as means to his ends, was unmoved by reports that millions of peasants were starving to death. Instead, this ruthless megalomaniac calmly declared that, to further his global ambitions, “half of China may well have to die.”
The people’s communes were arguably the greatest instrument of state exploitation ever devised. They proved so efficient at squeezing the peasantry that tens of millions of villagers starved to death from 1960-62 as a result. Mao’s efforts to build up his arsenal cost an estimated 42.5 million lives.
News of the famine was suppressed by the regime, and what were innocuously called “food shortages” were blamed on bad weather. American leftists and academics once again proved to be Mao’s willing collaborators, swallowing and regurgitating his lies. Edgar Snow came back from his 1960 trip to write that “One of the few things I can say with certainty is that mass starvation such as China knew almost annually under former regimes no longer occurs.” Professor Fairbank’s introductory history of modern China, The United States and China, dismisses the worst famine in human history in a sentence: “Malnutrition was widespread and some starvation occurred.”
Mao believed that China’s greatness, Communism’s universalism, and his own destiny as a “Great Hero,” demanded empire-building. Lost territories must be recaptured, straying vassals must be recovered, and one-time tributary states must once again be forced to follow Beijing’s lead. Military action–engaging the Japanese invaders, defeating the Nationalists, and capturing the cities—had delivered China into his hands. Now military action would restore the empire. For these reasons Mao intervened in Korea in the early years of his rule, invaded Tibet, bombarded Quemoy, continued to bluster over Taiwan, attacked India over Tibetan border questions, confronted the Soviet Union, and gave massive amounts of military aid to Vietnam.
Maps were drawn up showing China’s borders extending far to the north, south and west of the area that the PLA actually controlled. Any territory that had been touched by China, however briefly, was regarded as rightfully Beijing’s. Fr. Seamus O’Reilly, a Columban missionary who was one of the last foreign Catholic priests to leave China in 1953, recalls seeing, in the office of the local Communist officials who interrogated him, a map of the PRC that included all of Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, and Singapore–within China’s borders.
But such maps were marked for internal distribution only. For Mao, although willing to go to war to restore China’s imperium piecemeal, was uncharacteristically coy about his overall imperial aims. Even as his troops were engaged in Korea or Tibet, he continually sought to reassure the world, in the policy equivalent of a Freudian slip, “We will never seek hegemony.” Once he had vanquished his enemies, Mao may have been open about his dictatorial aims at home, but along his borders he still faced an array of powerful forces. The United States occupied Japan and South Korea, and had bases in the Philippines and Thailand. The British were in Hong Kong and Malaysia. Even his erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, was occupying large swaths of Chinese territory in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
“When hemmed in, resort to stratagems,” advised Sun-tzu. The diplomatic establishment of the PRC, headed by the charming and crafty Premier Zhou Enlai, developed not just one stratagem, but three. The first was for China to play the role of a loyal member of the Soviet-dominated Communist bloc. The second was taking an anticolonial posture as a member—indeed the leading member—of the Third World, a posture used to great effect with India, for example. The third stratagem, which proved increasingly useful as time went on, was posing as a responsible member of the post-Westphalian international system, a respecter of international agreements and international borders, merely one nation-state among many.
As befits a well-designed stratagem, each of these postures seemed to reflect a certain truth about the PRC. Mao’s adopted ideology demanded that lip service, at least, be paid to international Communist unity, but the relationship of China’s “revolutionary, statesman, theoretician and scientist” with Stalin was complicated from the beginning. Mao was grateful for Stalin’s aid, but suspicious that the Soviet leader was trying to keep China disunited and weak, and more often than not rejected his advice. In 1936 he ousted the “28 Bolsheviks” that Stalin’s Comintern had foisted upon the CCP, thus reducing Moscow’s influence over his guerilla movement. In 1945 he rejected out of hand Stalin’s staggering suggestion that he disband his army and join Chiang Kai-shek’s government, advice which he later ridiculed.
The USSR’s late entry into the war against Japan had allowed Soviet troops to occupy parts of Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and Xinjiang. Mao could do little about this insult to China’s sovereignty until the CCP had emerged victorious in the civil war, when he journeyed to the Soviet Union for two months of hard negotiations with Stalin. The terms of the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, which Mao and Stalin signed on February 12, 1950, gave Moscow a degree of economic and political leverage within China all too reminiscent of the old colonial days. Mao had told Edgar Snow in the late 1930s that Mongolia would “automatically” be part of the new China. Now he was forced to concede the existence of a separate “People’s Republic of Mongolia.”
By 1958 Mao was publicly expressing unhappiness over the way these negotiations had gone: “In 1950 I argued with Stalin in Moscow for two months. On the questions of the Treaty of Mutual Assistance, the Chinese Eastern Railway, the joint-stock companies and the border we adopted two attitudes: one was to argue when the other side made proposals we did not agree with, and the other was to accept their proposal if they absolutely insisted. This was out of consideration for the interests of socialism.”
Despite his unhappiness at Russian “colonialism,” Mao had accomplished his principal goals, which were the removal of all Soviet forces from Chinese soil, the return of the China Eastern Railway and Dalian (Port Arthur), and the avoidance of any additional territorial concessions. Mao’s determination to recover China’s lost grandeur did not include kowtowing to one of the imperialistic powers that had humiliated it, even if it happened to be a member of the same ideological camp. For the Chinese, Soviet ascendance meant domination by a people that, rightly or wrongly, they regarded as culturally inferior. “The hungry land,” as they called Russia, was not going to devour any additional Chinese territory.
On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech at the National Press Club, the main thrust of which was that China, left alone by the West, would soon break with the Soviet Union. The Soviet “absorption” of Outer and Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Manchuria, he vigorously asserted, was “the most important fact in the relations of any foreign power with Asia.” America must avoid conflict with China so as not to “deflect from the Russians to ourself the righteous anger and the wrath and the hatred of the Chinese people which must develop.”
Ironically, Acheson’s speech is not remembered for its prescience on the issue of a Sino-Soviet split, but for its contribution to the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Having been assured that Stalin had not targeted South Korea for aggression, Acheson famously failed to include it within the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia as he defined it. North Korean Communist dictator Kim Il Sung soon thereafter won Stalin’s agreement to a limited offensive and, on June 25 of that same year, the entire North Korean army poured across the border and fell upon the almost defenseless south.
This was Mao’s first opportunity to reassert China’s traditional prerogatives over one-time vassal states. With the world’s attention fixed on the Korean peninsula, he sent elements of the People’s Liberation Army to take control of Tibet. The Dalai Lama was forced to sign an agreement on October 21, 1950, acknowledging Chinese sovereignty. Tibet became a protectorate of China, although it would continue, for a time, to control its own domestic affairs.
On the Korean peninsula the war had quickly turned against Kim Il Sung. By late November 1950, American forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur were approaching the Yalu River, which separates Korea from China. With his half-kingdom fast disappearing, Kim appealed to China for succor—exactly what tributary states were expected to do when threatened by outside powers.
Mao responded promptly with a grand imperial gesture, throwing a huge “volunteer” army into the fray. He was not reacting to a threat but seizing an opportunity, in this case to reestablish Chinese suzerainty over a once and future tributary state. Recklessly inviting casualties, the Chinese army advanced by overwhelming the beleaguered Americans in wave after wave of attacks, eventually forcing them to retreat south of the 38th parallel. After intense fighting, the front was consolidated near the 38th parallel in October, and Kim Il Sung’s half-kingdom was restored.
Mao later summed up the Korean War in a 1958 speech to his generals as “a big war in which we defeated America and obtained valuable experience.” With Korea regarded strictly as a military contest, Mao’s comment may seem mere conceit. After all, the PLA lost at least a quarter of a million men (as opposed to some 34,000 American casualties), gained no territory over the original North-South partition, and settled for a negotiated armistice. Viewed as a bid to recover a tributary state, however, Mao’s intervention was an impressive first step. He fought the United States to a standstill, establishing China as a military power to be reckoned with. He impressed the Soviets, who had been unwilling to commit ground forces into the fray. Even more importantly, he had brought at least the northern half of the Korean peninsula back into its traditional relationship of dependency on China. The first step toward the restoration of Chinese hegemony over Asia had been taken.
Although Mao was never comfortable with the Soviet domination of the Sino-Soviet relationship, he was for many years careful to avoid open criticism. But Khrushchev’s “secret speech” discrediting Stalin, delivered to the CPSU Twentieth Congress in February 1956, marked a turning point. Whatever compunctions Mao may have felt about privately criticizing the Soviet leadership vanished.
Talking to the Politburo in 1956, Mao warned, “We must not blindly follow the Soviet Union. . . . Every fart has some kind of smell, and we cannot say that all Soviet farts smell sweet.” He was irritated that his countrymen worshipped all things Soviet. He complained at one point that he “couldn’t have eggs or chicken soup for three years because an article appeared in the Soviet Union which said that one shouldn’t eat them. . . . It didn’t matter whether the article was current or not, the Chinese listened all the same and respectfully obeyed.” He mocked Chinese artists who, when painting pictures of him and the diminutive Stalin, “always made me a little bit shorter, thus blindly knuckling under to the moral pressure exerted by the Soviet Union at that time.” He remained conciliatory in public, however, largely because he was hoping to get his hands on Soviet nuclear weapons.
Mao’s eagerness to acquire nuclear weapons, so as to confirm him as the leader of a great power, knew no bounds. Although he had earlier rejected, as an affront to Chinese sovereignty, a Soviet offer to set up its own nuclear bases on Chinese soil, he managed to convince Stalin’s successor to aid China’s nuclear weapons program in return for massive shipments of foodstuffs to the Soviet Union. A nuclear technology transfer agreement to this end was signed in 1957. Under this agreement, Khrushchev later recalled, the Chinese received “almost everything they asked for. We kept no secrets from them. Our nuclear experts co-operated with their engineers and designers who were busy building a bomb.”
The Soviets were about to hand over a prototype bomb when Mao’s saber rattling over Taiwan spooked them. As Mao prepared to invade Quemoy (Jinmen) and Matsu (Mazu) in September 1958, Khrushchev advised caution. Mao was deeply offended, in part because he no longer respected Soviet military advice. So it was that when Khrushchev pointedly reminded him that America possessed nuclear weapons, Mao airily dismissed the possibility of mass casualties. “So what if we lose 300 million people,” the Great Helmsman told a stunned Khrushchev. “Our women will make it up in a generation.”
Not surprisingly, in June 1959, Khrushchev unilaterally abrogated the agreement that was to have provided China with an atomic weapon. Mao was furious. In September of that year he angrily denounced Soviet meddling in Chinese affairs, telling members of the Military Affairs Commission, “It is absolutely impermissible to go behind the back of our fatherland to collude with a foreign country.” The Soviets were “revisionists,” China was soon telling the world, and a greater threat than American “imperialism.” In going his own way, Mao was now less a part of an international revolutionary movement than the reawakening Hegemon slowly exerting control over ever wider territory.
With the onset of the Cultural Revolution, the war of words escalated, and armed clashes broke out at several points along the 4,000-mile border with the Soviet Union. Mao dispatched additional troops to the border and on March 2, 1969, on the Chairman’s orders, a battalion-sized PLA force ambushed Soviet patrols on the Wusuli River. The Soviets promptly retaliated, and during the next two years there were repeated skirmishes at many points along the frontier.
The Ninth Party Congress, held April 1–24 that same year, took an openly hegemonic tone. The only published speech was that of Lin Biao, then Chairman Mao’s heir apparent, who repeated Mao’s formula that a third world war would promote revolution and dig the graves of both revisionism and imperialism. “We must be ready for a conventional war and also for an atomic war,” Lin said. “Both the Soviet Union and the United States are paper tigers.” The present border between the Soviet Union and China could be made the basis of negotiation, he avowed, but Moscow would first have to admit that the historical border treaties were “unequal treaties.”
Instead, the Soviets threatened nuclear attacks on the Chinese heartland, and deployed forty-four heavily armed mobile assault divisions along the border. The crises gradually passed and no territory changed hands, but the message was clear: The existing border was ultimately dependent on Soviet strength, not Mao’s acquiescence.
After PLA troops entered Tibet in 1950, the government of the Dalai Lama was gradually isolated. Those members of the international community who questioned Chinese actions were haughtily informed that the Tibetan question was a purely internal affair. The Himalayan plateau had been an integral part of China for centuries, Beijing’s story went, having been brought under China’s sway as early as the seventh century, when the Tang Emperor Li Shimin sent his daughter Princess Wencheng as a bride to the great Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. The princess then bestowed culture on the uncouth Tibetans, bringing them and their land forever into the debt and the orbit of China’s superior civilization.
In fact, the emperor sent his favorite daughter, famed for her beauty and talents, as a peace offering to Songsten Gampo because he had a healthy respect for the military prowess of his Himalayan neighbors, not because he intended to civilize them. Had the Tibetan king been seeking a closer association with Chinese culture, the tribute would have flowed the other way.
Chairman Mao, having promised to respect Tibet’s autonomy, instead gradually suffocated its political and religious institutions during the 1950s. Half the land of traditional Tibet was carved up and handed over to other provinces where Chinese were in the majority. The process of Sinicization was accelerated during the chaotic days of the Great Leap Forward, when Mao’s cadres carried class warfare into the Land of the Snows, sacking monasteries and killing monks. When the Tibetans rose in protest in 1959, Beijing, claiming that the Tibetan local government had “instigated a rebellion,” used brute force to consolidate total control.
On March 25, 1959, after heavy fighting, Chinese Communist troops occupied Lhasa. The Dalai Lama fled the capital. Beijing announced that its army had “swiftly put down the rebellion in Lhasa and was mopping up the rebels in some other places in Tibet.” The Tibetan government under the Dalai Lama was formally dissolved, replaced by a puppet regime headed by the 21-year-old Panchen Lama. For the first time since the thirteenth century, the Tibetans did not control their own country.
To justify their intervention, the Chinese Communists invented a mythological Tibet where the masses were enslaved by a slothful priestly class. The propaganda machine churned out horror stories of a dark and brutal theocracy of bonded labor, vast monastic fiefs, indolent monks and immoral abbots. As late as 1998 the Chinese Communist Party, in the person of Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, was still patting itself on the back for ending monkish “slavery” in Tibet.
In order to bring the partly nomadic Tibetan population under control—and generate more grain to build arms—Mao had Tibetans herded into communes, a new form of serfdom far worse than anything in Tibet’s past. As in China proper, the commune system proved to be an economic and ecological disaster of the first magnitude. Chinese agricultural officials ordered the Tibetans to raise wheat rather than the barley they preferred, and the resulting crop failures on the high Himalayan plain with its short growing season left them malnourished.
Meanwhile, the monasteries and nunneries were emptied and the resident monks and nuns put to work in the communes. The 70,000-character Petition of the Panchen Lama, written in 1962, states that 97 percent of Tibet’s two thousand monasteries were destroyed following the 1959 uprising, presumably by the People’s Liberation Army. A few years later, the Cultural Revolution completed this destructive work. All of China suffered from the depredations of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards, but Tibet, outside the Chinese cultural sphere, was a special target. Thanks to Beijing’s propaganda, these young zealots saw Tibet as the very embodiment of a corrupt and exploitative feudal tradition, and they set about with picks, shovels and even their bare hands destroying every religious edifice and artifact they could find. By the time their rampage ended, Tibet’s few remaining stupas and lamaseries were in ruins.
Nehru insisted on recognizing China’s “rights” in Tibet despite the pleas of the Tibetans, along with many Indians, that he weigh in against this new form of Chinese hegemony. His appeasement of the “New China” came back to haunt him in 1959 when Mao, having disposed of the Dalai Lama and his followers, began building military roads right up to the existing Indian-Tibetan border, and then, in early September, ordered troops to cross over into India.
Mao’s aggression took Nehru completely by surprise, which is perhaps less a consequence of his naiveté than of Zhou Enlai’s sophisticated sales pitch about the two countries being fellow victims of the Western imperial powers. The Chinese premier had first visited him in New Delhi in April 1954, stopping over on his way back to China from the signing the Geneva peace accord on Indochina. Zhou played the second international stratagem to the hilt, portraying the PRC as a country with impeccable anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist credentials, a country that was a natural member of the Third World club. Nehru agreed.
To be sure, Nehru had been favorably disposed toward Mao’s China from the beginning. India had been the first “capitalist” country to recognize China (in April 1950), the leading non-Communist proponent for admitting the PRC into the United Nations, and the principal intermediary between Beijing and Washington during the Korean War.
The result of Zhou’s 1954 visit was a joint communiqué based on China’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.” Nehru breathlessly announced that relations between India and China would henceforth be governed by “mutual respect for territorial sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-intervention in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.” These high-sounding principles were reaffirmed at the April 1955 Conference of Asian Countries in New Delhi, and again at the Conference of Asian and African Countries in Bandung, Indonesia. By now, Nehru had assumed the role of Zhou’s patron, eager to advance Zhou’s cause by smoothing over China’s past support for destabilizing guerilla movements throughout the region. For his part, Zhou spoke of the “Bandung Spirit,” a new policy of peacefully wooing nonaligned nations in the region according to the Five Principles. Mesmerized by the Five Principles and the Bandung Spirit, Nehru could not bring himself to see that Mao was intent on making himself the master of Asia.
The Indian delegation at the U.N. was arguing passionately on behalf of Communist China’s admission to the General Assembly on the very day that the Chairman sent Chinese forces pouring across the border into India. As Nehru pondered Mao’s perfidy, PLA troops continued their march southward, seizing two important mountain passes that guard approaches to Sikkim and India.
Nehru allowed two years of border skirmishes before responding to the pleas of his generals for leave to stop the slow-moving Chinese steamroller. Then the ill-planned Indian attack proved a disaster, and the Chinese advance picked up speed. As tens of thousands of square miles of disputed territory passed into Chinese control, Nehru panicked and requested help from the Soviet Union and America. Moscow blasted the Chinese advance, and the Seventh Fleet steamed up the Bay of Bengal. Mao, having gotten the territory he wanted, offered a cease-fire. An overwrought Nehru, who had begun to have nightmares about Chinese troops on the Ganges, was only too glad to accept.
Chairman Mao initially supported Maoist-style Communist parties in Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Burma, India and Thailand. The Malaysian Communist Party launched an armed rebellion, which the Chairman supported until it became clear that the guerrillas were losing. At the Bandung Conference, a conciliatory Zhou Enlai declared that those Chinese who adopted another nationality should be good citizens of the countries they joined. But this pious statement did not completely allay suspicions that Mao was encouraging indigenous Communist movements among the “bridge compatriots” of Southeast Asia.
After the invasion of India, Mao once more began manifesting a new militancy toward countries in Southeast Asia. The Bandung Spirit was a thing of the past. Instead, Chairman Mao began to act in accordance with an ancient Chinese diplomatic principle, yuan chiao chin kung, meaning “to appease distant countries while attacking those nearby.” Faraway Canada, Italy, Belgium, Chile and Mexico were courted for diplomatic recognition, while neighboring countries like Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, India and Laos were attacked in word, and sometimes in deed.
Laos, one of three Indochina states covered by Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) protection, was a specific target of Maoist aggression. Although small in size and population, the country was important because of its strategic location between China, North Vietnam and the non-Communist states of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and South Vietnam. It also had a tributary relationship with China going back centuries. A Communist guerrilla group, the Pathet Lao, began receiving increasing amounts of military aid in the late fifties. The U.S. countered with an expanding program of military and economic assistance. The conflict intensified in 1959 as North Vietnam sent military units across the border to reinforce the Pathet Lao. On September 4, Laos appealed to the U.N. to dispatch an emergency force to counter aggression by North Vietnam. The U.S. responded by warning both the Soviet Union and Communist China that it would help counter any new danger to peace in the region. Mao responded by stepping up aid to the Pathet Lao, who eventually won control of the country, bringing Lao back into China’s orbit.
When America began sending military assistance to South Vietnam in the early sixties, Mao responded by coming to the aid of China’s tributary. The Chairman not only positioned large numbers of troops at the North Vietnamese border as a deterrent to a U.S.-led thrust into the north, he also deployed forces over the border into Vietnam. One study has reported that, between 1965 and 1972, over 320,000 PLA troops served in Vietnam, peaking at 170,000 troops in 1967. These served largely in anti-aircraft and engineering capacities, seeking to bring down U.S. aircraft and repair the damage caused by the U.S. bombing of transportation nodes.
In Indonesia as well, the local Communist Party, responding in part to encouragement and aid from Mao, launched a coup against General Sukarno’s increasingly restive generals in 1962. This particular gambit backfired on the Chairman. The result was a bloody purge of suspected Communists, which quickly developed anti-Chinese overtones. As many as a million lives were lost, many of them Chinese. The food distribution system and other large sectors of the economy, which had been run by this mercantile minority, consequently collapsed. Centuries after assaults upon Java and Sumatra by imperial forces, the Indonesian archipelago had once again eluded Mao’s grasp.
It was the recovery of Taiwan that remained Mao’s principal obsession. No sooner was the Korean armistice in place than the Great Helmsman ordered the PLA to begin preparing for the invasion of Taiwan that would mark the delayed final battle of the Chinese civil war. There was only one problem: the PLA invading force would have to cross the ninety-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, which was patrolled by the carriers and cruisers of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Moreover, the Nationalist army was growing more formidable, as a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group helped to train and equip its expanding ranks.
The Chinese Communist press on August 14, 1954 issued a blistering denunciation of the “American imperialists” for their continued “occupation of Taiwan.” The island would be “liberated,” by force if necessary. Battle-hardened Communist divisions were moved to staging areas along the Fujian coast and MIGs appeared over the South China Sea.
Chiang Kai-shek did not back down. He put the Nationalist army on alert and strengthened his garrisons on the offshore island groups his forces still controlled. Neither did the PRC’s bellicosity unnerve President Eisenhower. When the question of Communist China’s war preparations came up at a press conference on August 17, he replied that he had recently reaffirmed standing orders to the U.S. Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan against any attack. “Any invasion of Formosa,” the former general remarked, referring to the island by its Portuguese name, “would have to run over the Seventh Fleet.”
Deterred from launching a full-scale attack on Taiwan, the Mao shifted his attention to the offshore islands, bombarding Jinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), and invading a small island chain to the north. The crisis speeded passage of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty through the U.S. Senate, in effect including the offshore islands within the defensive perimeter of the treaty.
The use of force had given Mao nothing except an insignificant chain of islands. Faced with a virtual promise of heavy U.S. retaliation in the event of any further attacks, Mao shifted course. The shelling of Jinmen and Mazu came to an abrupt halt, as did the feverish preparations for an assault on the islands. The ever-genial Zhou Enlai arrived at the Bandung Conference, held in Indonesia in April 1955, bearing an olive branch: the PRC was willing to sit down with the U.S. at the negotiating table to discuss ways to ease cross-strait tension. Talks between the U.S. and the PRC began in Geneva and dragged on for months, but no formal armistice was ever reached, nor did Mao agree—then or ever—to renounce the use of force. That was not his way.
Instead, Mao’s traditional truculence reasserted itself. When the Soviet Union in 1957 launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, Mao saw it as proof that the Communist bloc had surged ahead of the United States, and he was eager to press its newly won strategic advantage. Following a meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Beijing, he suddenly imposed a blockade on Jinmen on August 23, 1958, in an effort to starve out the garrison force. A relief convoy arrived two weeks later, escorted by warships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The commander of the U.S. squadron had permission to return fire if fired upon, but the Communist guns were silent. The Great Leap Forward was underway, and Mao was perhaps waiting for his “big ships” to be built.
Because of the PRC’s peace-loving rhetoric, Chairman Mao has largely avoided the reputation for bellicosity that his history of aggression against peoples on China’s periphery deserves. In the years that he ruled China, his armies intervened in Korea, assaulted and absorbed Tibet, supported guerilla movements throughout Southeast Asia, attacked India, fomented an insurrection in Indonesia, provoked border clashes with the Soviet Union, and instigated repeated crises vis-à-vis Taiwan. When an opportunity arose to send out China’s legions, Mao generally did not hesitate—especially if the crises involved a former tributary state, which is to say almost all of the countries with which China has a common border. Under Mao, the would-be Hegemon, China had bloody borders.
The Great Leap Forward ended so disastrously that Mao’s closest colleagues decided to, as he later complained, “relegate him to the second line.” He remained the Chairman, but the day-to-day running of the government fell to the Liu Shao-qi and his pragmatic assistant, the tiny Deng Xiaoping. These two effectively downsized the communes, cut the state grain quotas, and reintroduced private plots, enabling China’s villagers to once again feed themselves. The Sino-Soviet split, which occurred at the same time, slowed down the insane shipment of vital foodstuffs out of the country. The mortality rate dropped to normal levels.
Mao, frustrated in his imperial ambitions, was furious about this turn of events. But rather than force a vote of the Central Committee—a vote that he was not sure he could win—he instead set out to destroy the Party elite itself. His chosen weapon was the young, energized by their personal allegiance to him and backed up by the armed might of the PLA.
Mao’s “personality cult” was already flourishing by April 1945, when the new Party constitution declared the “Thought of Mao Zedong” essential to “guide the entire work” of the Party. The chairman was praised as “not only the greatest revolutionary and statesman in Chinese history but also the greatest theoretician and scientist.” As always, much of this fulsome praise came from Mao’s own hand.
The cult of the Party chairman was seen as a continuation of the cult of the emperor. The Party went to extraordinary lengths to prey upon the superstitions of the people in this regard. During the days of the civil war, Mao was endlessly exalted as a larger-than-life figure, a kind of living god who would rescue the people from oppression. As soon as the Communists captured a village, its buildings would blossom with slogans like “Mao Zedong is the great savior of the Chinese people.”
As always, foreign admirers of the regime were always ready to put the best face on Mao’s ugliness. Professor Michel Oksenberg, who was to become President Carter’s China advisor, advised that the Maoist personality cult was a necessary innovation: “While the new institutions [of state control] are taking root, resort to the unifying symbol of the ruler—in China’s case, Mao—may be an appropriate response.”
Mao began his counterattack by stoking the fires of his personality cult. It was Maoist acolyte Lin Biao, then in the control of the People’s Liberation Army, who came up with the idea of a book of quotations from Chairman Mao. Called the “Little Red Book,” both for its red plastic cover and for the ‘redness” of the idea contained therein, it became mandatory reading for all members of the military, then for schoolchildren, and then for the public at large. Then he put military factories to work churning out hundreds of millions of badges featuring the head of Chairman Mao, which young people were encouraged to wear to demonstrate their loyalty to the Great Helmsman. Seizing control of the People’s Daily from Liu Shao-qi’s supporters in May 1966, he turned it into his personal mouthpiece.
Slogans exalting Mao were splashed in bold red type across the top of the first page: Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts! Establish Chairman Mao’s Absolute Authority! We will destroy whomever Opposes Chairman Mao! The rest of the page was covered with long editorials exhorting the masses to join with Chairman Mao in launching a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and to “sweep away all ox devils and snake demons,” which is what Mao now called class enemies. Sometimes, instead of slogans, quotations, and editorials, Mao’s beaming portrait took up the entire front page.
Thus deified, the Chairman spoke. The flame of revolution must be rekindled. Soviet-style “revisionism” must be fought. A generation of revolutionary successors must be created. China stood in need of a thoroughgoing Cultural Revolution. Organize yourselves into Red Guard units, Chairman Mao signaled the youth on August 1, and root out “revisionists” within the Party. Protected by the military, young people throughout China went on a rampage. There was open warfare in city after city as Red Guard factions, having destroyed the local educational and government structures, went on to fight among themselves, first with sticks and clubs, then with pistols and rifles.
Under the cover of this mass movement, and using special “Red Guard” units that he personally controlled, Mao moved against his chief enemies within the Party. He saw to the arrest of Liu Shao-qi, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Dehuai and others. Liu and Peng were tortured to death. Deng Xiaoping only escaped because he was protected by a senior military commander. By the time Mao had finished his purge, over half of the Central Committee had been purged—and the Chairman was firmly back in command.
As for the Red Guards, Mao was finished with them too. After two years of bloodly factional clashes throughout China, he ordered an army crackdown. Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams were sent into the universities to take control, and ordered many of the students to be “sent down” to the countryside, there to languish on army farms and communes.
The American left, led by China-infatuated academics, was once again unable to recognize a power struggle when it stared them in the face. They rhapsodized about the Cultural Revolution, enthusing over the “new Socialist men and women” the Cultural Revolution had created, and much more.
Michel Oksenberg, President Carter’s China expert, complained that “America [is] doomed to decay until radical, even revolutionary, change fundamentally alters the institutions and values,” urging us to “borrow ideas and solutions” from China. Why? Because, as he wrote, China “appears to have regenerated itself and to be making economic and social progress. Moreover, the Chinese have undertaken bold experiments in a number of areas that are of direct concern to us, such as bureaucractic practice [the arrest of officials by young thugs?], education [closing the universities?], the patterns of urbanization [keeping peasants out of the cities?], penology [labor re-education camps?], public health [barefoot doctors?], factory management [worker committees?], and civil-military relations [armed occupation of the cities?]…. Beyond this, the Chinese Revolution is an optimistic statement about the capacity of man to solve his problems.
Even Harvard Professor John K. Fairbank, by no means the worst of this lot, believed that America could learn much from the Cultural Revolution: “Americans may find in China’s collective life today an ingredient of personal moral concern for one’s neighbor that has a lesson for us all.” This, he added admiringly, was the result of “a far-reaching moral crusade to changed the very human Chinese personality in the direction of self-sacrifice and serving others.” Elsewhere, he wrote that “The people seem healthy, well fed and articulate about their role as citizens of Chairman Mao’s New China … the change in the countryside is miraculous…. The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing than happened to the Chinese people in centuries.”
There were many hundreds of millions of Chinese—those who suffered the hands of the “Maoist revolution”—who would have disagreed with this analysis. But they weren’t talking, at least to visiting fellow travelers. The tens of millions of dead, of course, were beyond interlocution.
Mao Zedong died on 9 September 1976. On his own terms, he was a failure. Eager to restore China’s lost grandeur, recover its still-alienated territories, and once again dominate the vast marches of Asia, the founder of the People’s Republic of China cannot be said to have succeeded on any front. His failures were spectacular, to be sure, but they were failures nonetheless. The socialization of industry, the collectivization of agriculture, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to name just a few of his incessant political campaigns, failed to lift China into the first rank of nations. More to the point, they failed to elevate him to the status of international Hegemon, although they did keep him in power in China.
Mao died without achieving his goal of reunifying all of Greater China. The same Marxist-Leninist ideology which propelled him to victory in the Chinese Civil War paradoxically denied him the economic clout and military means necessary to rebuild the Chinese imperium. He recovered Manchuria from the Japanese, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang from the Soviets, Tibet from the Tibetans, and half of Korea from the Americans, but beyond this his hegemonic ambitions were frustrated. Large parts of Greater China, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, Mongolia, the Russian Far East and Central Asia, remained outside of his control. As Mao complained to Henry Kissinger in 1973, “[I]n history the Soviet Union has carved out one and a half million square kilometers from China.”
Unlike earlier emperors, Mao’s writ ended at his borders. The rest of Asia was dominated by two powers: the “socialist imperialist” Soviet Union, which held sway over the landmass to the north and west, and the “capitalist imperialist” United States and its allies, which ruled the oceans and territories to the east and south. At the time of Mao’s death, China had unresolved irredentist claims in every direction of the compass. To the north and west in the Soviet Union, to the south in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Sikkim, to the southeast in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, and to the east in Taiwan and Japan.
Yet Mao’s failure to act on these claims reflected a lack of means, not a lack of will. If China had possessed a blue water navy and a modern air force in the fifties, Mao would have tried to take Taiwan by force. If China had enjoyed the same advantage over the Soviet Union that, say, the U.S. enjoys over Canada, there is no doubt that Mao would have abrogated the 1860 Sino-Russian Treaty of Beijing, in which the Qing government ceded the territory that is now the Russian Far East.
Mao’s primal mistake, if it could be called that, was in choosing as the instrument of China’s national aggrandizement an economic policy totally inadequate to the task of rebuilding a Hegemon that could compete with twentieth-century capitalism. True, communism was the perfect vehicle for achieving half of the essential Legalist program of “strengthening the military and enriching the state.” But while it could “strengthen the military” up to a point, it could not “enrich the state.”
Communism enabled Mao to recruit and effectively deploy a huge standing army and police force, and to concentrate all existing economic resources in the hands of the state. Communism brought the Chinese heartland under his control. Communism enabled him to terrorize the Chinese population into subservience. But the strength of Maoism, like its imperial predecessors, lay in reducing the people to obedience rather than in producing an abundance of goods. Communism was simply incapable of generating new wealth and technology at the rate that capitalism did; this made it difficult for a Communist nation to equip its army, however vast, with weapons sophisticated enough to challenge its capitalist adversaries.
By the end of his life, Mao was increasingly frustrated by the economic setbacks of his years in power. He chose to blame them on what he called his “lack of training in economics.” But China’s economic difficulties were not such that enrolling Chairman Mao in a macroeconomics course (save one taught by Milton Friedman) would have helped. And Mao would certainly have had Milton Friedman shot for questioning Legalism’s primary presupposition: that power politics deserves primacy over private economic transactions.
As Mao lay dying, Chang and Halliday write, he was consumed by self-pity for having failed to become the “master of the earth,” giving no thought “for the mammoth human and material losses that his destructive quest had cost his people.” The death of his long-time rival, Chiang Kai-shek, led an aged Mao to spend an entire day in mourning for him. As if acknowledging that Chiang was the better man, he even wrote a bit of doggerel in memoriam: “Go, let go, my honoured friend, do not look back” Certainly the country of Chiang’s redoubt—Taiwan–is better by any conceivable political, social, or economic measure than Mao’s China, even today 30 years after the death of the two leading figures of modern China.
The Chinese Communist Party elite, in the person of Deng Xiaoping, posthumously decreed that Mao had been “70 percent good and 30 percent bad.” Such an evaluation of the founder of the People’s Republic of China is hardly unexpected, given that it was Mao’s evil genius that made it possible for the Party to seize power in the first place. Yet in minimizing his crimes against the Chinese people the Communist Party condemns itself. For Mao is arguably the greatest mass murderer of the Twentieth Century, perhaps in history. He easily eclipses his fellow left-wing monsters Pol Pot, Hitler, and even Stalin in the sheer number of corpses he left in his wake.
Unlike the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin, and the Democratic Kampuchea of Pol Pot, the People’s Republic of China of Mao Zedong survives to the present day, its ruling party intact, its system of government largely unchanged. The myths and lies that continue to prop up Mao’s image also bolster the claims of the People’s Republic of China itself to political legitimacy. The current Communist leadership proudly declares itself to be Mao’s heirs, maintains his Leninist dictatorship, continues his military build-up, and cherishes his grand ambitions. The ghost of Monster Mao haunts us still.
This profile first appeared as an article titled : Leftwing Monster: Mao Zedong, written by Steve Mosher and published by Front Page Magazine on December 6, 2005.