Among revolutionaries the name Mao is revered, and there is no doubting his exceptional ability to sweep up and motivate the suffering masses. As a politician though, he was a disaster and, in later life, one of the world’s great tyrants.


Mao was born in 1893. His father was a peasant who became a successful grain dealer. Mao served in the army during the 1911-12 revolution then drifted around aimlessly for a few years, finally graduating from school in 1918. At Peking University he became involved in the Communist Movement that had just gained control in neighboring Russia, and in 1921 he helped found the Chinese Communist Party. As he studied the Russian system, which was based on an industrialized nation, he realized how different China was. He therefore focused his efforts on the agricultural peasant class to make a revolution.

In 1927 the Nationalist Party leader, Chiang Kai Shek, used his troops to massacre thousands of communist leaders.


Chinese Communists then fled to Jiangxi and hid in the mountains gradually building their power. In 1934, the Nationalists attacked again and, to escape, Mao took his 100,000 followers on what became known as the “Long March.”

For nearly two years they trekked over 6,000 miles through marshes, deserts and snow covered passes, climbing 18 mountain ranges, with only their thin cotton clothing to keep them warm. As they went they befriended local peasants who helped them avoid Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist army. Only one in five people who started the long walk survived by the time they reached their destination in Yan’an.


But, by 1937, the Nationalist government was losing support as it failed to stop the cruel Japanese invasion of China. Tokyo’s new aggressive army had been sweeping across Asia swallowing Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and, in 1937, South China. Many Chinese leaders felt that communists and Nationalists should unite against the Japanese but Chiang Kai Shek was reluctant to do this. In 1937, a strange event occurred when his officers kidnapped him and forced him to sign an agreement with the communists. World War II 1939-45 brought American support against Japan and Mao’s guerrilla tactics were now employed against the Japanese during the temporary truce with the Nationalists.


After World War II, with Japan’s defeat, the Communist and Nationalist forces faced each other again. This time Mao was victorious.

In May 1949 a defeated Chiang Kai Shek and about one million of his Nationalist forces grabbed what they could of China’s wealth (including many of its art treasures) and fled to the island of Taiwan.


With no one now in his way, Mao declared the establishment of “The Peoples Republic of China” and turned to the Soviet Union for help. The United States continued to support the Nationalist forces, now beleaguered in Taiwan.

The Communists set about reforming land ownership, taking away from landowners and rich peasants and giving it to poor peasants. It was a violent process and almost 2 million landowners lost their lives. There was no room for individual expression,

collective farming groups were formed to share tools and equipment and, by 1956, almost all industry was owned by the government. Education and health services improved and women could no longer be sold into marriage.

Mao invited the Chinese people to let him know what they thought of his rule as he urged them to “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.” He was shocked by the responses especially from the educated people who were bitter about their lack of freedom. By accepting Mao’s invitation to respond they drew attention to themselves and he reacted violently against them.


In 1958, Mao’s propaganda campaign launched “The Great Leap Forward” which finished with the worst famine in modern history. More than 20 million Chinese died.

The idea was to transfer industry from the cities to the villages out in the countryside. Markets were closed down while people in the country were forced into communes of approximately 40,000 people each. Within these groupings, income was meant to be shared equally. In return, each family was required to contribute all its possessions, down to pots and pans to the commune.

The result was a sharp decrease in food production. The only incentive to workers was the vague objective of “building socialism.” This reason to work,could not compete with the traditional motivated family who loved every square foot they planted for their own loved ones.

Coinciding with this period was the withdrawal of Soviet support following the many differences they had with China. A famine of biblical proportions was about to happen. In the beginning Mao was kept in the dark by lackey officials, afraid to tell him the truth. On tours of the countryside they arranged for attractive farm boys and girls, to be waving happily while they labored in their revolutionary colored clothes as Mao’s train passed by.

The disaster that followed, cost millions their lives, and was finally corrected by a very short practical man who had been on the Long March with Mao. His name was Deng Xiaoping. He restored some private ownership with a statement long remembered “Private farming is alright as long as it raises production, just as it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”


Mao reacted with indifference to those who died, feeling that the fault lay with the country itself. Together with his wife Jiang Qing, he announced the beginning of a “Cultural Revolution.” His point was that his people had become soft and lazy and lost the revolutionary spirit. He indirectly accused Deng Xiaoping of being a “counter-revolutionary revisionist” and again invited young people to “talk, discuss and criticize the party, army and their superiors.”

Chinese youth accepted the invitation calling themselves the Red Guard. In August 1966, a million Red Guards passed in review before Mao in Beijing.

In the next few years, Mao’s Red Guards tried to destroy traditional customs, books and clothes. People who had foreign

connections were persecuted. Musicians, dancers, surgeons and university professors were beaten up and sent to labor camps to work with the “common people.” With particular cruelty they forbade artists from ever holding a paintbrush and watched them carefully.

Deng Xiaoping was sent to work in a mess hall in the country in order that he might learn more about “serving the people.” His son was thrown from an upstairs window and crippled for life.

The Peking Opera’s glorious repertory of Chinese classics was thrown out and replaced by eight new operas with political themes. All western music was banned, universities were stormed and books burned.

Then the Red Guards started fighting among themselves, and in 1968 Mao had to call in the army to restore order. The Red Guards were a disaster.

When Chairman Mao died in 1976 at age 83, the ten year Cultural Revolution died with him and was renamed “Ten years of Havoc.”


In the late 1970’s, China adopted an open door policy because it was eager to take an active part in international affairs. In 1971, they had taken over the United Nation’s China seat from Taiwan, their involvement in the Vietnam War was over, they had the nuclear bomb and the economy was improving. Deng Xiaoping was back from his serving job and active in government again. In the 1980’s, Deng became the most important political leader in China.

Finally, China became open to foreign investment and a market economy was encouraged wherein individuals could get richer from their own work. The results were dramatic as the economy improved by leaps and bounds. Many Chinese enjoyed a much higher standard of living, with modern technologies widely available, thanks largely to the non-communist free enterprise zones set up to allow capitalistic-style economies to flourish.

By 1986, it seemed obvious to Deng that, if China were to reach its full economic potential, there would have to be political reform.

When student leaders sensed democracy in the air in 1989, they decided to put peaceful demonstration to the test. Thousands of students from all over China assembled in Tiananmen Square. When western reporters poured into China to cover the story, the students became more strident. They made seven freedom demands on the party leadership, including making known the incomes and assets of party leaders. Eventually after a month of demonstrations, 50,000 armored troops closed in and crushed the democracy movement.


China is still officially a communist country but avery diluted one, which now includes the capitalist gem, Hong Kong, returned to China by Britain in 1997. Now, state industries are allowed to retain their profits and cooperative enterprises encouraged. In addition, special economic zones have been set up where foreign companies can take part in joint ventures.

Huge projects are underway and Shanghai is emerging as the modern gateway to China.