Mao Zedong was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death in 1976. Chairman Mao, as he became known to generations of admiring Western leftists, 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.
Rule by Terror
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.
Read the entire article on the Front Page Magazine website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of Front Page Magazine.