[DECEMBER 26, 1893-SEPTEMBER 9, 1976]
Communist leader of People’s Republic of China
Born in Shaoshan (Hunan), Mao Zedong was the son of a moderately wealthy peasant. After a checkered classical primary education and training at the Hunan Teacher’s College, the young Mao gathered like-minded anarchists in his bookstore in Changsha. In 1921 he cofounded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After the collapse of the united front with the Nationalist Party in 1927, the two former allies fought a civil war until 1949. At its beginning the CCP found itself in rural areas trying to stem rapid decline. Forced from its largest base in Jiangxi in 1934, the party commenced its famous, yearlong Long March to Yan’an (Shaanxi), during which Mao rose to a preeminent leadership position. Only after continued internal struggle did Mao emerge in 1945 as the “chairman” of the CCP-a position he retained until his death in 1976 in Beijing. In 1949, after victory in the civil war, the CCP founded the People’s Republic of China, with Mao serving as the chairman (or president) of the new country until 1959.
Given the merciless nature of political conflict in Republican China (1911-1949) and the extraordinary brutality of the Japanese occupation (1931-1945), it is no surprise that Mao concluded that a “revolution is not a dinner party” (Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, 1927). His astonishing disregard for individual human lives in later years, however, cannot be explained solely by the brutalizing experiences of his early career. Starting in the mid-1950s, Mao repeatedly affirmed his willingness to sacrifice up to a third of the Chinese population in a nuclear war so long as this would help bring about the downfall of world capitalism.
Mao’s desire at Yan’an to cement his leadership of the CCP met opposition from two directions. First, pro-Soviet communists returned from Moscow to work for the Bolshevization of the party. Second, urban intellectuals who had been attracted by the utopia Yan’an seemed to promise in an otherwise corrupt China demanded greater freedoms once they recognized the repressive nature of the CCP regime. Benefiting from his disputed but, as it eventually turned out, correct decisions with regard to conduct of the civil war, Mao in the early 1940s pushed for a party purge, with the goal of installing his version of communism. A small number of dissidents were driven to commit suicide or killed. Although Mao in 1945 apologized publicly for the brutality of the campaign, it nevertheless set a precedent for future campaigns against dissidents, real or imagined.