Chapter 10

Creative Destruction: Mao Zedong, Part II 1893-1976

Mao's obsession with eradicating China's cultural roots led to tragedy: millions of lives were lost in his pursuit of "permanent revolution." But Mao's China also provided the launch pad for the three-decade economic boom that followed his death in 1976.


1949  Founding the PRC

On September 21, 1949, Mao triumphantly proclaimed to assembled Communist Legislators that the Chinese people had “stood up.”

On October 1, 1949, from Tiananmen Square, Mao announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

"We are all convinced that our work will go down in the history of mankind, demonstrating that the Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up."
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1949  Remaking the Square

Tiananmen had been the site of Anti-Japanese demonstrations in 1895 and 1919 (the May Fourth Movement), inspirational moments for Mao and other Communist leaders. Fittingly, Mao chose Tiananmen to announce his new People’s Republic.

One of Mao’s early acts as China’s ruler was launching a grand redevelopment of Tiananmen Square. Already very significant in the history of Chinese reform, Mao wanted to make the square into a public gathering place that would outshine Moscow’s Red Square.

1950  China’s Destroyer God

Mao was fond of saying that the Chinese people were “first of all, poor, and secondly blank,” but getting the Chinese people to that state involved quite a bit of work on Mao’s part.

Unlike earlier intellectuals whose rebellious nerves wavered later in life, Mao’s drive to destroy and dismantle only increased after the Communist victory.

In this period, China gave English the phrase “brainwashing,” or xinao (洗脑).

As Liang Qichao, Chen Duxiu, and Lu Xun–Mao's youthful heroes–had become painfully aware, the Chinese people were far from blank. In fact, China's history and culture were so deeply engraved upon them that to make them blank, someone would have to become something of a political Shiva, the Hindu "destroyer god."
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1950  Permanent Revolution

Mao was convinced his new government would slip into complacency if the revolution wasn’t made “permanent.”

In his first decade in office, he enacted many reforms, including the following:

Land confiscation and reform (1950), executing million landlords.
Marriage law reform (1950), fundamentally changing the status of women.
Joining the Korean War against the United States (1950).
The “Three-Anti” and “Five-Anti” Campaigns (1951-52).
The agricultural cooperative movement (1952-1953).
The “Hundred Flowers Movement” (1956), a brief period of intellectual freedom.
The “Anti-Rightist Campaign” (1957), persecution for the same intellectuals.
And finally, “The Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961).


1958  The Great Leap Foward

These revolutionary movements culminated in one of human history’s most epic catastrophes, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961).

This movement completed the full-scale collectivization of Chinese agriculture, which proved disastrous. The resulting famine killed an estimated 30 million people.

Ignoring calls for prudence from some advisors like Chen Yun, Mao thought he could:

…lead the Chinese people in another glorious, unconventional forced march around all the verities of Western development. (Wealth and Power, page 237)


1960  The Sino-Soviet Split

As China was suffering through the Great Leap Forward internally, Mao also attempted to remake the global communist power structure.

Mao did not respect Russia’s new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who Mao felt lacked revolutionary zeal. Relations between the two communist powers soured, as Mao’s extremism and belligerence increased.

1961-1963  A Brief Retirement

After the catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao is forced briefly to the sidelines and more moderate voices–Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi– take over.

While not directly involved in day-to-day party affairs, Mao’s influence remained. He found a new ally, a fellow Hunanese General, Lin Biao, who became his sidekick for the last phase of Mao’s revolutionary career, the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”

1963  Profile of Zhou Enlai

Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), was Mao’s longest serving companion at the top of the Chinese Communist Party. Born in Jiangsu province and raised in Tianjin, Zhou also spent a significant amount of time abroad in Japan and France, where he met Deng Xiaoping.

While Zhou outranked Mao at times in the early days of the party, he astutely maneuvered through the post-revolution years to avoid being purged by Mao. Zhou became Mao’s trusted right-hand man and top foreign policy negotiator. During the decade of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou became immensely popular, credited with attempting to temper the excesses of that period.

The young Zhou Enlai

1963  Profile of Lin Biao

Lin Biao (1907-1971) was the youngest of the Chinese Communist Party’s top military leaders. He led the Red Army in several decisive defeats over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, earning himself a spot at the top of the post-war power structure. Lin came to fore in the mid 1960s, when he supported Mao’s plan to launch the great “Cultural Revolution” to restore revolutionary zeal to the Communist Party. Lin Biao edited the Little Red Book of quotations from Mao, which became the emblem of the Cultural Revolution. Designated Mao’s successor at one point in time, Lin fell from grace and died in a plane crash while fleeing China after allegedly attempting to assassinate Mao.

Marshal Lin Biao


1966  The Cultural Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last and arguably greatest attempt to bring a spirit of destructiveness and permanent revolution to the party. Beginning as a mass movement among students inspired by Mao’s rhetoric and Lin Biao’s “Little Red Book” of quotations, the Cultural Revolution spread quickly through Chinese society, leading to the persecution and death of millions of so-called rightists. The young “Red Guards” turned on their parents, their teachers and their leaders. President Liu Shaoqi was ousted from power and Deng Xiaoping soon followed, accused of “following the capitalist road.”

When the initial fervor of the Red Guards faded, the party was left in disarray, with many of its top leaders ousted or disgraced. Filling the power vacuum were new faces, like Lin Biao and the notorious Gang of Four. An aging Mao remained in charge as rival factions vied to be anointed his successor.

Roderick MacFarquhar, a leading expert on the Cultural Revolution, prepared a brief essay for this project on the turmoil of this period and its aftermath.

As Mao explained in his essay, "On New Deomcracy," China's revolution had always been about culture: "For many years we Communists have struggled for a cultural revolution as well as for a political and economic revolution."
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1972  Normalization

In the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, an ailing Mao achieved the last great political move of his career, normalizing relations with the United States.

Mao had initially appealed to the United States before the Communist victory in the Civil War, but had been ignored by fiercely anti-Communist members of the U.S. State Department.

Mao waited 26 more years, but in 1972 met with Nixon in Beijing to announce formal ties between the two countries. Mao’s last act finally put China back on the map politically and economically.

1976  Mao’s Legacy

Mao died in 1976, his preserved remains placed on view in a marble tomb at the center of Tiananmen Square, where they remain today.

As China’s leader, Mao left behind a devastating record of turmoil and death. The country he turned over to his successors was desperate for change.

In the end, Mao's willingness to do whatever was necessary to get where he wanted to go bequeathed to Deng a country that, while traumatized, had come far closer to escaping the draft of its four thousand years of tradition than at any time since the May Fourth Movement.
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