Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was one of the historic figures of the twentieth
century. A founder of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), he played a
major role in the establishment of the Red Army and the development of
a defensible base area in Jiangxi province during the late 1920s and
early 1930s. He consolidated his rule over the Party in the years after
the Long March and directed overall strategy during the Sino-Japanese
War and the civil war. He formally assumed the post of Party Chairman
in 1945. His reliance on the peasantry (a major departure from prevailing
Soviet doctrine) and dependence on guerrilla warfare in the revolution
were essential to the Communist triumph in China.
Following the establishment of the PRC (People's Republic of China)
in 1949, Mao was responsible for many of the political initiatives that
transformed the face of China. These included land reform, the collectivization
of agriculture, and the spread of medical services. In particular, this
leader of the revolution remained alert to what he saw to be new forms
of oppression and sensitive to the interests of the oppressed. In 1958
he advocated a self-reliant "Great Leap Forward" campaign in
rural development. The failure of the Leap led Mao to turn many responsibilities
over to other leaders (Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, etc.) and to withdraw
from active decision making.
During the early 1960s, Mao continued his restless challenge of what
he perceived as new forms of domination (in his words, "revisionism," or "capitalist
restoration"). In foreign policy he led China's divorce from the
Soviet Union. Domestically, he became increasingly wary of his subordinates'
approach to development, fearing that it was fostering deep social and
political inequalities. When Liu, Deng, and others seemed to be ignoring
his call to "never forget class struggle," Mao in 1966 initiated
the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," exploiting discontent
among some students (the "Red Guards") and others. The Cultural
Revolution was successful in removing many who opposed his policies but
led to serious disorder, forcing Mao to call in the military to restore
order in 1967.
In 1969 Mao designated Defense Minister Lin Biao, a Cultural Revolution
ally, as his heir apparent. But Mao came to have doubts about Lin and
soon challenged him politically. One of the issues of debate was the
opening to the United States, advocated by Mao and Zhou Enlai as a counter
to the Soviet Union. In 1971 Lin was killed in a plane crash while fleeing
China after an alleged assassination attempt on Mao.
Until his death, a failing Mao refereed a struggle between those who
benefited from the Cultural Revolution and defended its policies, and
rehabilitated veterans who believed that the Cultural Revolution had
done China serious harm. It seemed for a while that the veterans, led
by Deng Xiaoping, had won the day. But the radicals, either by manipulating
Mao or by appealing to his basic instincts, regained momentum after Zhou
Enlai's death in January 1976. Mao chose the more centrist Hua Guofeng
to carry on his vision. Four weeks after Mao's death, Hua led the arrest
of major radical figures, four of whom — Zhang Chunqiao, Jiang
Qing, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan — were dubbed a "gang."
The post-Mao era has seen a reversal of much that Mao stood for and
the eclipse of many individuals, living and dead, that he stood behind.
His leadership, especially the Cultural Revolution initiative, has been
hotly debated. In June 1981 the Party Central Committee approved a resolution
that criticized Mao's rule after 1958, but affirmed his place as a great
leader and ideologist of the Chinese Communist revolution.
From Focus on Asian Studies, Vol. IV, No. 1 (New York: The
Asia Society, 1984). © 1984 The Asia Society. Reprinted with permission.