The Machiavelli of Mao

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On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong arose at the Gate of Heavenly Peace and declared, “The Chinese people have stood up”, proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic. Yet Mao was by no means the first leader to declare a new beginning for the Middle Kingdom. China was at this time weak and unstable, and had been in almost perpetual turmoil and war since the late 1800s. Numerous leaders had risen and fallen and, like his predecessors, Mao inherited a precarious position. His nation had been ravaged by both the Civil War and the Second World War, which cost a combined 19,133,000 lives. What was remarkable was that unlike his predecessors, Mao would secure his place at the pinnacle of power and rule China for the next 27 years. This reign of almost three decades was only possible because Mao was uniquely effective at establishing a vice like grip on the state in the first years of his rule. If his long march to supremacy showed the zeal and charisma of a revolutionary, and his last years the paranoia and egomania of a delusional statesman, these early years reveal a Machiavellian mind, uniquely attuned to holding onto power.

We must acknowledge that Mao did begin his tenure with widespread popular support. The Kuomintang had proven itself to be incompetent, indecisive and ineffective. Accordingly they enjoyed little widespread backing. During the Japanese Invasion, the Nationalists had blundered, failed to protect China from the external threat and, more often than not, their military stratagems had backfired onto the very people they were trying to defend. In contrast, Mao had established firm support amongst the populace, emerging in the 1930s as the most effective opponent to the Japanese invaders and had gained popularity with the peasant class through his land redistribution program. The CCP had 6,000,000 members by 1951, and only those who were devout supporters were allowed entry, while many more were supportive of Mao’s actions. Mao had the backing of the ‘National Bourgeoisie’, who were mainly factory owners, farmers and key figures in industry. He held significant sway with their workers, who were already angered by the Nationalists corruption, which was perceived to have benefitted the upper classes. Mao had a significant base of popularity already, which meant that he could trust the people to help in his Mass Mobilisation programmes. This broad base of support was strengthened by the Korean War – as during a defensive war, people will rally against the perceived aggressor. The army and its leaders became enormously popular and are still today known as “most beloved people” in China. Mao could not have hoped for a better opportunity to draw a contrast between himself and his predecessors. The empire had been abused by the imperialists, the Nationalists by the Japanese, and now the Americans wished to do the same. Mao presented himself as driving the war to a standstill and displayed China as a major military power, far from the disorganised mess of the 1920s and before.

Mao also used totalitarianism as a means for consolidating his position. Totalitarian states often muster all the resources of the nation, in order to help unite their people, with the aim of achieving a common goal, while at the same time such massive mobilisations of resources show the competence of the government. This in turn provides said government with legitimacy, so it is no coincidence some of the largest and most ambitious structures have been planned by absolute rulers. At the same time, totalitarian states extend the tentacles of the state apparatus into all aspects of the population’s life, to cement party control. The primary example of mass mobilisation during the formative years of Mao’s rule was his expansion of the military. In 1950, military spending accounted for 41% of the state budget, but Mao was using the army to defend himself not only from enemies external, but also domestic opposition. 800,000 new conscripts joined the PLA each year and, having served for three years, left completely indoctrinated in Mao’s philosophy, ready to give the regime their full support. The army effectively became a tool of mass brainwashing. Through large military mobilisation, the impact of this policy was expanded. During the Korean War of 1950-53, two million volunteers headed to Korea and those that returned had experienced not only war but the constant propaganda present in Mao’s army. The education reforms undertaken by Mao were wide-ranging, but were also designed to spread propaganda and state-ideology. They were a clear break from the more Western model imposed by the Kuomintang. It was stated these measures would eliminate the defects of “the system of capitalist states.” Instead, these reforms emphasised communism as the ideology of the future and stressed the superiority of the Chinese system, and that of their political soulmate, the Soviet Union. Indeed, in the early stages the Chinese sought to simply expand the purview of the Soviet education to the coast of the Yellow Sea. By 1956, 12,000 Soviet books had been translated into Chinese, Soviet lecturers frequently taught in Chinese universities and had produced 629 teaching materials for the People’s Republic. Education became the means to highlight the superiority of communism over all other ideologies and helped ensure continued Maoist and CCP rule for years to come. Before 1949, illegal trade, crime, drugs and prostitution had plagued China’s major cities. However, through government monopolisation of tobacco production, familial responsibility for drug addicts and re-education centres for prostitutes, these issues which had faced China were virtually obliterated by Mao and the Communist Party in just under a year. Examples of other mass mobilisation programmes included the Five-antis campaign, which was directed against the bourgeoisie and tax evaders. This began in January 1952, and, unusually for Mao’s China, did not result in execution if caught. However, Mao’s hold on power is shown vividly by this campaign, as up to two million people committed suicide after being caught, rather than face humiliation by those close to them. Mao used public shamings to squash dissidents during his reign. By 1952, those who were seen to have betrayed the party, and by extension Mao, were held in such disdain by society that many committed suicide. Those opponents who weren’t shamed were executed or put in labour camps. Mao had thus managed to create a balance of fear and fevered support using standard totalitarian methods, which gave Mao both a reputation for competence and the chance to reinforce his public image. 

This reveals that Mao’s primary method for maintaining power was terrorism, violence and intimidation. He constructed a large number of lao-gai, forced labour camps akin to those used by Stalin. Chang and Halliday, writing in Mao: The Unknown Story, believe that up to 27 million people were executed, committed suicide or were worked to death during Mao’s rule in these camps. By 1951, all Chinese citizens over the age of fifteen needed permission if they wished to relocate, a law which allowed the government to begin building an enormous database on its citizens. People were encouraged to inform on those who they believed to be anti-Communist. Furthermore, the inventively titled “Suppression of counter-revolutionaries campaign” was launched in October 1950, and immediately proved highly effective both in inciting fear and quelling dissidents. Those who had links with the previous regime (the Kuomintang) or religious leaders were particularly heavily targeted. In Shanghai alone, 28,333 people were executed in less than a year. These executions were frequently carried out in public in order to have maximum effect. Chang and Halliday state that Mao “intended” most of the population to witness violence and aimed to “brutalise the population” in a way that went much further than any of his predecessors or contemporaries. These measures do indeed go just as far as Stalin or Hitler went in suppressing their own nations. In fact, China frequently sent inspectors to Soviet gulags to “improve” on their systems. Thus, it can be no surprise that Mao was still in power after his early years, as the terrorisation of his own population went to extremes rarely seen before or after in world history. The launch of the Five Year Plan had sparked debate within the CCP over Mao’s economic strategy. In a totalitarian state, the only way dissidence can manifest is through a faction in the ruling party. Mao had concentrated all power in the nation into the party, and to further maintain his control he concentrated all power in the party into himself. In 1953, the first major purge of the CCP began. Gao Gang, believing to have seen supportive signals from Mao, attempted to take the Vice-Presidency of the CCP from Zhou Enlai, who was more sceptical of Mao’s plans. However, this drastically backfired, and in the next Politburo meeting he was accused of “underground activities” and committed suicide rather than face the disgrace of having stood against Mao. His name was then expunged from CCP records and his allies were rounded up. This showed that debate was not tolerated within the CCP and that everyone except Mao was replaceable, and thus any attempts to try and take power off him would be futile. Mao had effectively eliminated a rising star with little damage to himself. There are chilling echoes of how Stalin managed his party – both presented themselves as balancing extremes, both aligned with those in favour of slower reform to isolate the most radical elements of their party and both showed that under no circumstances would any alternative organelle of power form.

So Mao managed to achieve what had eluded previous Chinese leaders. The chaos which had plagued the Heavenly Kingdom for centuries had provided the opportunity for his rise, yet to cement his position Mao needed to bring order to the troubled land. To do this, he capitalised on his existing support and utilised opportunities to expand it, such as the Korean War. At the same time, Mao mustered the resources of the state to defend himself. Loyalty to the Chairman ultimately was based on propaganda and lies backed by violence, imprisonment and fear of condemnation. This fear permeated through China, and extended to the upper echelons of the party. Thus Mao ensured no gap emerged into which a rival faction or party could step, as he had during his long march to power.

Chang, J., and Halliday, J., 2005. Mao: The Unknown Story. Jonathan Cape

Walder, Andrew., 2017. China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed. Harvard University Press