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Mao Zedong of China - Famous and Infamous Rulers
1180    Dibyendu Banerjee    25/08/2019

Born on 26 December 1893, in the village of Shaoshan in the Hunan province of China, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) was the son of an affluent former peasant and a prosperous grain dealer. From the age of eight, he attended a small school in his native village, but at the tender age of 13, he was forced to begin working full-time on his family’s farm, growing increasingly restless and ambitious. At the age of 14, he was forced to marry, as arranged by his father, which he never acknowledged or consummated and at 17, left home to enroll in a secondary school in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. However, when the Xinhua Revolution began against the Qing dynasty in the month of October 1911, Mao joined the Revolutionary Army. In 1912, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), led by the eminent Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen, overthrew the monarchy and founded the Republic of China. That marked the end of Mao’s military service and eventually, he graduated from the First Provincial Normal School in Changsha in 1918.

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During the same year, he lost his mother and lost the desire to return home. He traveled to Beijing, worked as an assistant librarian at Beijing University for a few months and attended a few classes. In September 1920, he became the principal of a primary school in Changsha and in October, organized a branch of the Socialist Youth League there. That winter he married Yang Kaihui, the daughter of his former teacher and in July 1921, attended the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1923, when Sun Yat-sen began a policy of active cooperation with the Chinese Communists, Mao had supported both the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Part of China) and the Communist Party, but over the next few years, he decided to follow the ideas of Lenin and believed that appealing to the farming peasants was the key to establishing communism in Asia. Meanwhile, after the death of President Sun Yat-sen in March 1925, Chiang Kai-shek became the Chairman of the Kuomintang. He was a lieutenant of Sun Yat-sen in the revolution to overthrow the Beiyang government, but more conservative and traditional in his outlook. Soon he broke the alliance and in April 1927, began a violent purge of the Communists, imprisoning or killing many. He turned against the workers and the peasants and in April massacred the Shanghai workers, who had presented the city to him.

Yang Kaihui and Mao Zedong
Yang Kaihui and Mao Zedong

That September, after unsuccessfully leading an army of peasants against the Kuomintang, Mao fled with remnants of the army to a base in the Jinggang Mountains, on the border between Jiangxi and Hunan provinces. In February 1930, he created the Southwest Jiangxi Provincial Soviet Government in the region under his control. However, he suffered emotional trauma in November, when his wife Yang Kaihui was captured and beheaded by a Kuomintang general. After that, Mao married He Zizhen, an 18-year-old revolutionary, with whom he had been living since 1928.

Mao with He Zizen
Mao with He Zizen

Nevertheless, within a short time Mao developed a small but strong army of guerilla fighters. Gradually, as they took control of more than ten regions in Jiangxi Province by 1934, Chiang became apprehensive and decided for a massive sweep of the region to eliminate the Communist influence. Accordingly, he amassed nearly one million government forces and surrounded the Communist stronghold in October 1934. Mao wanted to avoid the direct confrontation and convinced the other leaders that retreat was the better tactic. Accordingly, Mao and his pregnant wife, along with more than 100,000 Communists and their dependents abandoned the base in Jiangxi and set out for the northwest of China.

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For the next twelve months, they trekked across the Chinese mountains and wetland to Yanan, in northern China, which became famous in History as the ‘Long March’. Subsequently, it was estimated that out of 100,000 original trekkers, only 30,000 survived the 8,000-mile tough journey. However, during the Long March, Mao's wife He Zizen was injured by shrapnel wound to the head and traveled to Moscow for medical treatment. Mao proceeded to divorce her and in 1939 married an actress, Lan Ping, who by that time had changed her name to Jiang Qing.

Mao and his fourth wife, Jiang Qing.
Mao and his fourth wife, Jiang Qing.

Meanwhile, the Communist International (Comintern) at its Seventh Congress in Moscow in August 1935 proclaimed the principle of an antifascist united front and consequently, in May 1936, the Chinese Communists for the first time accepted that such a united front might include Chiang Kai-shek himself and not merely dissident elements in the Nationalist camp. By the time of the Japanese aggression in China, the terms of a new united front between the Communists and the Nationalists had been virtually settled, resulting in the formation of a United Front with concessions on both sides on 25 December 1937. Subsequently, as the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China in July 1937, Mao, already established as a military leader, helped fight the Japanese with aid from Allied forces.

Mao achieved the formal supremacy over the party for the first time in March 1943, when he became the Chairman of the Secretariat and of the Politburo (Political Bureau). Shortly after that, the Rectification Campaign took the form of a harsh purge of elements not sufficiently loyal to Mao. However, the spokespersons of the Soviet lobby have bitterly denounced the event as an attempt to purge the CCP of all those elements genuinely imbued with proletarian internationalism, meaning devotion to Moscow.

Mao in 1938
Mao in 1938

After the defeat of Japan in WW II, the U S. continued their military assistance to Chiang Kai-shek, while the Soviet Union gave quasi-covert support to Mao by their occupation in northeast China. Despite the efforts, particularly by the United States, to establish a coalition government, the People's Liberation Army under direct orders from Mao, starved out the Kuomintang forces occupying the city of Changchun in 1948. It is believed that, at least 160,000 were perished during the siege, which lasted from June until October. The Kuomintang forces also suffered heavy losses in the decisive battles against Mao's forces on 21 January 1949. Mao announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on 1 October1949 and as the PLA laid siege to Chongqing and Chengdu in mainland China in the early morning of 10 December 1949, Chiang Kai-shek fled from the mainland to Formosa (Taiwan), where he formed the Republic of China.

the modern People Republic of China
Mao Zedong declares the foundation of the modern People's Republic of China

In October 1950, Mao decided to send the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), a special unit of the People’s Liberation Army, to Korea, to fight for, as well as to reinforce the armed forces of North Korea, called the Korean People’s Army. Over the next few years, he instituted sweeping land reform through persuasion or violence. He seized land from the wealthy landlords and well-to-do peasants, converting it into people's communes, which significantly reduced economic inequality. Nevertheless, a significant number of unwilling property owners were beaten to death in the process. Apart from land reform, Mao also instituted a number of positive changes in China, including promoting the status of women, doubling the number of schools and improving literacy. The increasing access to health care dramatically raised life expectancy. His government is also credited to eradicate the consumption and production of opium during the 1950s.

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However, these reforms were less successful in the cities and sensing discontent, Mao launched the ‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’ in 1956 and allowed people to express their impression democratically. He expected mild criticism and a wide range of ideas, but was shocked to receive a harsh rebuke and intense rejection by the urban intelligentsia. Apprehending a loss of control, Mao savagely turned against the educated elite of the urban society, which he felt had betrayed his confidence and hundreds of thousands of them were labeled as rightist and thousands were imprisoned.

The giant head of young Mao on Changsha river-bound Orange Island
The giant head of young Mao on Changsha’s river-bound Orange Island

It was against that background that Mao launched the second Five-Year Plan in January 1958, known as the Great Leap Forward. The plan, intended for economic growth, was an alternative model to the Soviet model focusing on heavy industry. The main idea behind the Great Leap was to industrialize by making use of the massive supply of cheap labour and avoid importing heavy machinery. The approach was also marked for the development of small backyard steel furnaces in every village, which were intended to accelerate the industrialization process.

In the process of the Great Leap, private farming was prohibited and millions of citizens were forced to stay in communes. Some were sent to farming cooperatives, while others worked in small manufacturing units. All works in the communes, from childcare to cooking, were shared. Children were taken from their parents and put into large childcare centers, to be attended by the workers assigned to that task. The communes provided schools and nurseries for the children, so that the parents could work. The elderly were moved into the ‘Houses of happiness’, so that they could be looked after and the members of their family could work, without worrying about leaving their elderly relatives at home.

However, the Great Leap Forward failed miserably. It broke families apart, used untested and nonsensical tactics in both the areas of agriculture and manufacturing units, yielding minimal results and leading to widespread devastation. In agriculture, farmland and crops were damaged. In manufacturing units, the requirements for backyard production plants led to environmental damage, as citizens were required to produce steel, cement, and other needed supplies from wooded timber along with other available resources. Agricultural production was much below expectations and reports of massive steel production proved false. Within a year, the entire population of a number of villages died of starvation or malnutrition in an appalling famine. It was the worst man-made famine in the history of mankind, in which an estimated 40 million people died between 1959 and 1961. However, the scale and the degree of the disaster were carefully hidden from the nation and the world. Even Mao was not reported about many details, which only the high-level Communist Party leaders knew. On the International front, the split with the Soviet Union became public and irreparable by 1963, mainly from the Soviet reaction to the Great Leap policies. Khrushchev underlined his displeasure by withdrawing Soviet technical assistance in 1960, leaving many large industrial plants unfinished. Ultimately, due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong was silently pushed to the sidelines and his rivals took control of the country.

Chairman Mao Zedong
Chairman Mao Zedong

During the early 1960s, Mao became concerned, as he could see that the revolution and Great Leap Forward had replaced the old ruling elite with a new one. He became concerned that that the men in power were becoming distanced and detached from the people and felt that a revolution of culture would unseat and unsettle the ruling class. As he correctly presumed that the young generation would not remember much about the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine, he made his political return in 1966 and launched the Cultural Revolution. He started to propagate to his followers that bourgeois elements in China were aiming to restore capitalism and these elements must be removed from the society. His young followers formed the Red Guards, led a mass purge of the undesirable elements and even set up their own tribunals. Soon Mao came back in command, ordered the closure of the schools, as well as the universities and the young urban intellectuals were sent into the countryside to become re-educated through hard manual labour. Chaos reigned throughout the country and millions were persecuted. Strangely, though the Revolution destroyed much of China's traditional cultural heritage as well as creating general economic and social chaos in the country, it was during this period that Mao's cult of personality grew to immense proportions. Many claimed that Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to wreak revenge on those who had dared to challenge him over the Great Leap Forward. It is believed that, during the Cultural Revolution, in rural China alone some 36 million people were tortured and harassed, out of which between 750,000 and 1.5 million were killed, with roughly the same number permanently injured.

As the relation between China and the Soviet Union was steadily deteriorating since the 1960s, there were reports of frequent border clashes between the two countries. Sensing danger, Mao sought closer relations with the Americans, hoping to use them as allies in case of a possible confrontation with the Soviets. His efforts climaxed in 1972, when President Nixon of the United States visited China.

Chairman Mao and President Richard Nixon in 1972
Chairman Mao and President Richard Nixon in 1972

Mao declared the Cultural Revolution to be over in 1969, though many believe that, it ended automatically in 1976, following the death of Mao Zedong. Mao died at the age 82, just after midnight, at 00:10, on 9 September 1976.During the last few years of his life, his health deteriorated rapidly due to either Parkinson’s disease or Motor Neuron disease. Apart from that, he suffered two major heart attacks, one in March and another in July of 1976, before a third struck on September 5, which made him invalid. His embalmed body, draped with the flag of CPC, lay in state in the Great Hall of the People for one week to enable the people to pay their homage to the departed leader. Later, his body was permanently interred in a mausoleum in Beijing.

Mao Zedong Memorial Hall on Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Mao Zedong Memorial Hall on Tiananmen Square, Beijing
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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