How did Mao Lead China, and What did He Leave Behind?

Mao’s reign over China is one of the most controversial in history. The impact of his leadership is profound and hard to define as strictly good or evil without exploration.

Dec 1, 2023By James Keating, BA History

how did mao zedong lead china


Mao established ties with the Soviet Union, targeted material inequality domestically, and pursued rapid industrialization. However, his policies like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution resulted in famine, persecution, and cultural destruction. It is clear there was a marked difference between the radical revolutionary who climbed to power and the ruthless dictator who pursued all avenues available to extinguish his perceived opponents.


Early Years

mao stalin 1949
Mao and Stalin meet in Beijing in 1949 via The Globe and Mail


After proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao prioritized establishing strong relations with Joseph Stalin and, in turn, the Soviet Union. In the winter of the same year, Mao went on a state visit to join in the celebrations of Stalin’s 70th birthday. During the visit to Moscow, the two discussed a deal between the nations surrounding railways, naval bases, Soviet aid, the Chinese Revolution, and how the two nations could cooperate going forward. The treaty showed Stalin’s willingness to help China, something that proved integral to Mao’s initial success. Mao was heavily influenced in his leadership by the Soviet Union’s former leader and founder, Vladimir Lenin. He agreed with Lenin’s view that mass criticism was necessary to keep bureaucracy in check.


Domestically, Mao’s first policies targeted material inequality throughout the country. During his Land Reform, landlords and affluent farmers were targeted and executed; the US State Department estimates one million were killed during this reform. As well as this, the “Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries” around the same time targeted those labeled “economic parasites,” which were largely merchants and Kuomintang officials. A further eight hundred thousand people were killed after this reform. This period also saw more positive policies. Mao addressed the opium crisis in China, and roughly ten million addicts went into compulsory treatment. Opium farms were also replaced with other crops, thus forcing the opium trade south of the Chinese border.


opium farm china
Opium addiction was widespread in China until its ban, via Unsplash


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Two further aggressive campaigns targeting Mao’s perceived enemies during this period were the Three-Anti Campaign (1951) and the Five-Anti Campaign (1952). During “struggle sessions,” those deemed enemies of the revolution were verbally and physically punished. Many were sent to labor camps, but the individuals considered the worst offenders were shot. These two campaigns led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, most of whom committed suicide. In Shanghai, citizens jumping from buildings was so common that residents avoided walking near skyscrapers.


Mao’s industrial focus took form in his first “five-year plan,” which aimed to grow heavy industry, similar to Stalin’s rapid industrialization. With Soviet assistance, China’s iron, steel, electric, coal, and many other industries grew quickly.


Mao’s final notable policy before his Great Leap Forward in 1958 was the Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956. This was yet another movement in which Mao targeted and executed his political enemies. Citizens were invited and encouraged to openly criticize the party and his leadership. However, only months later, the policy was reversed, and all those who had been critical- around five hundred thousand- were persecuted in the “Anti-Rightist Movement.” Mao’s physician at the time, Li Zhisui, claimed that Mao was surprised at the number of critics that emerged when given the opportunity.


Mao’s Policies

workers marching in gansu
A workers’ delegation marches during the Great Leap Forward, via The New Yorker


Arguably, the two most notable and influential policies of Mao’s reign were the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the later Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.


The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s second five-year plan, and its purpose was to move China from an agrarian nation to an industrial one. It was launched at the beginning of 1958, and small agricultural collectives were quickly merged into far larger people’s communes. Private food production was banned, and farm implements and livestock came under collective ownership.


The plan was a huge failure. Mao and his party members ordered unscientific and untested techniques to be implemented across China. Grain production dropped hugely, by 15% in 1959 and a further 10% in 1960. However, the most damaging element of the plan, and what led to famine, were the lies told throughout the chains of command out of sheer fear.


young girl suffers famine
Malnutrition in children was widespread during the famine, via Ranker


Local party officials regularly exaggerated their harvests, and in desperate attempts to reach quotas, many farmers were left with little food for themselves. To further exacerbate the issue, false harvest numbers meant that the Chinese government continued to export grain despite starvation in their own country. These factors led to what is widely regarded as the worst famine in human history: the Great Chinese Famine. Predictions of death tolls controversially vary from fifteen to fifty million, however, what isn’t controversial is the perception that the Great Leap Forward was a calamitous failure.


The Cultural Revolution came later, in 1966. By May, Mao felt that the ruling elite of China he had worked to topple had simply been replaced by a new, powerful few. He desired China to enter a state of “continuous revolution,” in which the wants of the majority were always served. Some historians, such as Frank Dikötter, feel the chaos that wreaked during the Cultural Revolution was intentional, and Mao intended to enact revenge against those who had challenged his Great Leap Forward in earlier years.


The revolution targeted cultural heritage and those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands were persecuted and ultimately died due to the movement. Leading figures such as Liu Shaoqi, former chairman of the People’s Republic of China, died during this period. As well as this, suicide was once again widespread, and on this issue, Mao bluntly said: “People who try to commit suicide- don’t attempt to save them!”


struggle meeting 1968
A young man is humiliated at a struggle meeting during the Cultural Revolution, 1968, via The New Yorker


The main tool for Mao in the revolution was the “Red Guards,” a young paramilitary movement uprooting anything they deemed problematic to the goals of the revolution. They were supported by much of the establishment in their behavior, such as national police chief Xie Fuzhi, who said, “Don’t say it is wrong of [Red Guards] to beat up bad persons: if in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it.” In Beijing alone, during August and September of 1966, 1,772 people were murdered by Red Guards.


As well as people suffering personally, much material was vandalized and destroyed if it was labeled roots to the “old ways of thinking.” The Temple of Heaven, Ming tombs, and Buddhist statues were just some of the monuments extensively damaged. As well as this, numerous valuable books, paintings, and relics were burned.


Mao declared the revolution over in 1969; however, similar activity continued throughout China for many more years. After Mao’s death, the Communist Party declared the revolution a “severe setback” for China. Similarly to the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, the exact death toll caused by the revolution is controversially contested. However, it is typically acknowledged that at least 400 thousand deaths occurred during the revolution. Mao’s major policies had completed a transition in his widespread perception from a grounded revolutionary into a ruthless dictator.


Death and Legacy

mao preserved for display
Chairman Mao on display as mourners file past, via The New York Times


Mao’s health declined quickly, likely because of the chain-smoking he indulged in throughout his life. After two major heart attacks four days earlier, Mao died on September 9th, 1976. His lung and heart issues had been deemed a state secret. His body was embalmed and put on display for one week to allow people to pay their respects. One million Chinese citizens went past his body at the Great Hall of the People, and on September 18th, a mandatory three-minute silence was observed as millions packed into Tiananmen Square.


mao official portrait
Mao remains one of history’s most controversial figures, via Infobae


Unifying China, driving out imperialism, advancing women’s rights, and almost doubling the Chinese population from 550 million to 900 million during his reign are all unquestionably positive results of his leadership. However, Mao’s reign saw the highest death toll of any 20th-century leader during those 27 years. Estimations of the collective number range as high as eighty million. For these reasons, his perception is so controversial today. A state-run Global Times survey from 2013 found that 85% of respondents thought Mao’s achievements outweighed his mistakes. Internationally, he is a far lesser-known leader among new generations, despite having such a profound effect on China and, therefore, the world. A 2016 YouGov survey found that 42% of American millennials had never even heard of Mao.


There are very few leaders and eras throughout history as controversial and disputed as Chairman Mao and his time leading China.

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By James KeatingBA HistoryI hold a degree in History from the University of Liverpool and have always loved reading non-fiction in my spare time. My specific interests mainly lie in Russian history but I have also been fascinated with biographies outside of Russia from the biggest names in history such as Frida Kahlo or Oliver Cromwell.