More than thirty years have passed since the death of Mao Zedong; many of those years - especially, say, the last ten - have not been kind to his memory. Fortunately (for scholars, anyway, if not Mao himself) they've been accurate, which is precisely why they've been so unkind...
As long ago as the 1911 Revolution - which would eventually unseat the last emperor of China's Qing Dynasty, Puyi - Mao had fought against the status quo, eventually allying himself with the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in July 1921, even serving as a commissar on behalf of his home province, Hunan. Over the next few years he would formulate the precepts of Maoism, as elucidated in two works from 1937, On Contradiction and On Practice.
The People's Republic of China was proclaimed in October 1949, and by September 1954 Mao was its Chairman, a title he would hold in one form or another for the rest of his life. His first initiatives in power involved the suppression of dissent and land reform; on his personal order a million or more were killed due to the former, and as many as 5 million in the latter.
During the subsequent Hundred Flowers Campaign, intellectuals and dissenters were encouraged to offer differing viewpoints as to how the country should be run. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, but it should have been evident even with foresight that this was a trap; after several months as many as half a million of China's leading scholars were rounded up and killed.
Which makes, by my count 6.5 million dead in the first decade alone, an effort worthy of Joseph Stalin, whom Mao was known to revere.
By 1958, Mao felt the country was ready for a massive step back; in the dissembling language particular to dictators, he called this the Great Leap Forward, which sought to reintroduce serfdom to China under the hoary rubric of 'collectivization'. Between 20 and 72 million peasants - the same peasants about whom Mao waxed so eloquently - died of starvation in the four years of the campaign. All of which makes for a conservative estimate of, say, 40 million dead...
For all the depravity he aimed at his own countrymen, Stalin could only dream of such numbers.
It was at this point that China could have been made a better place - if only Chairman Mao himself had taken a Great Leap Forward, preferably off a Very Tall Cliff. Alas, he held on to power as villains* will do and instead began to gradually sink into dementia. Largely as a result of Mao's diplomacy, relations between China and the Soviet Union soured, and by the mid-1960s China was as isolated politically in the world as it had been geographically in the 15th Century. Ironically the one bright spot in this time came from a very dark source indeed, namely US President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit to China in February 1972 (which had been brokered by Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger).
At this time one can almost hear his mind working: What to do, what to do... I know! Let's have a Cultural Revolution. This, the final atrocity of Mao's life, would mark his last decade on Earth.
Entire books have been written on the Cultural Revolution and the various deleterious effects it had on China; they do so better and more calmly than I ever could. Suffice it to say, it did not go well, and I do not approve.
Mao died on this day in 1976, following which an utterly predictable power struggle occurred, with more liberal (called 'right-wing' in China, making them centrist at best) elements in the Party on one side and the hardliners of the Gang of Four on the other. The 'right-wing' - personified by Zhou Enlai and later Deng Xiaoping, won.
Following a show trial in 1981, the Gang of Four - including Madame Mao, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen - were sent to jail, but all were eventually released. She was the first of them die, in 1991, a suicide; the last, Yao Wenyuan, died in December 2005. Since then the cult of personality surrounding Mao Zedong, once dangerous, has dwindled although his portraits still feature prominently at Tiananmen Gate and other places around the country - where scholars must now carefully separate Mao's contribution to the revolution and any 'errors' he may have committed later in life.
*Let alone self-made objects of personality cults...
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