“If people don’t die, the earth will not be able to hold them” – Mao Tse Tung
Authors Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book, Mao: The Unknown Story, write, Under Chairman Mao Zedong, 38 million people died in one of the greatest man-made famines in history and overall 70 million Chinese died under indescribable conditions during Mao’s rule, in peacetime. In his mind, Mao saw communism as the only way to bring about revolution and change in China and the world.
By Balaji Subramanian
“Mao’s rule was best understood in terms of a medieval court, in which he exercised spellbinding power over his courtiers and subjects. He was also a maestro at ‘divide and rule’, and at manipulating men’s inclination to throw others to the wolves.”
― Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.
If one reads about Mao’s early life, it is evident that he abhorred doing laborious work and had nothing but contempt for the peasants and throughout his rule, he did nothing to improve the condition of said peasants. When his father admonished him for not doing chores, he threatened him by jumping into the pond. He later joked that old men like his father would not like to lose their sons and thought of it as a weakness and Mao always attacked people’s weaknesses. Mao hated his father so much that in 1968 during the height of the cultural revolution, he said that if his father had been alive he should be “jet planed” which is a very cruel physical torture of people that took place during the “Denunciation rallies”.
After driving Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist Party or the Kuomintang out of mainland China, Mao declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China on the 1st of October 1949. As a youth, when Mao was still exploring his political affiliation and as his fondness for Communism and the measures taken by Lenin grew, so did his lust for violence and brutality. As a twenty-four-year-old upcoming, Mao had said, “the Country (China) must be destroyed and then re-formed, and people like me long for this destruction and the Soviet model suited best” (Mao, The Unknown Story p–54).
The violence that he witnessed committed both by the Communists and Nationalists before and after the end of the Second World War and his pathology now embued with Marxism, Mao internalized the slogan popularized by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme when he said, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” and it is likely from this idea Mao laid the foundation of the Great Leap Forward that led to the death of tens of millions of people.
Drawing from his boundless energy, Mao immediately initiated wide-ranging political and economic reforms with land reform that saw agricultural land taken from the landlords and given to the long-suffering peasants. This made the poor peasants very happy but their joy was short-lived. Every economic decision taken by Mao had a political end to fulfill his dream. As hundreds of advisors from the Soviet Union which was ruled under the iron will of Joseph Stalin whom Mao admired, he soon started using the same methods and tactics of the Soviet dictator who will later be discredited by his party a few years after his death in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev who denounced Stalin’s cult of personality in a secret speech. The footage of Khrushchev denouncing Stalin was later handed over to the Americans by the Israeli intelligence Mossad.
Mao, who secretly wanted to build his cult of personality, after gaining control of the state, unleashed a wave of systematic terrorism on the population to induce long-term conformity and obedience and said he was “a man without law or limit”. Mao who had long ago developed a taste for the macabre not only wanted adults, who for most weren’t squeamish when it comes to violence and torture, but he also wanted children to witness all the violence and killings and in that process, he could have these children turn into torturers and murderers in future. But mostly he wanted the population to witness such mindless brutality to ensure they were scared and remained silent.
After making the so-called land reforms the landlords were attacked by the peasants and many died an agonizing death.
“Farmers were given a plot of land in exchange for overthrowing their leaders. Violence was an indispensable feature of land distribution, implicating a majority in the murder of a carefully designated minority.”
― Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution
To make himself popular, Mao went after opium production and consumption, and rightly so because the West had forced this drug addiction that was forcibly grown in India by the British. That led to millions of people getting addicted and the Opium Wars of 1839–1842 and 1856–1860 started the century of humiliation. The Qing dynasty was overwhelmed by the United Kingdom and France and other European powers who had modern military technology which resulted in granting favorable tariffs, trade concessions, reparations, and territory to the Europeans.
It also gave Mao to start his first slave or labor camps inspired by the Gulags of Stalin. Mao sent millions of drug addicts and users into the so-called labor reform camps along with countless people who were branded as counter-revolutionaries and many of the unfortunate souls were members of the Kuomintang. It is quite evident that all those who were sent to these camps never survived.
The killing of the Hundred Flowers and all roads lead to the Great Leap Forward
After taking power in 1949, Mao felt he was now free to make any and every decision without anyone questioning his authority. But he so thought because many of his comrades who had survived the war and his treachery during the war (N4A Incident and the betrayal of Zhang Guotao a rival in the Politburo) started to question some of his policies which infuriated him. But, Mao being a consummate artist and master of tactical retreat, decided that he will listen to everyone and no one is above criticism. Also, culminating in this factor was the criticism of Stalin by Khrushchev in 1956, which forced Mao to reduce the number of arrests and killings.
That is when in one of the most brilliant political tactics, Mao who could never tolerate dissent in a four-hour speech said, “The party needed to be held accountable and under the supervision, and in that speech he even went on to criticize his idol Stalin and said that the Soviet leader had committed too many excesses when it came to mass arrests and execution of people who were deemed counter-revolutionaries and subversives and declared, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom’.
However, this freedom of expression to question the party i.e. the Chairman was not to be tolerated, and a hundred flowers that were allowed to have blossomed directive was used for the pollination of his purge. Mao only confided his scheme to a select few whom he could trust and who will carry out all his orders. Mao told his select cronies that his policy to allow criticism of him will expose all the “intellectuals and we must allow those ox devils and the snake demons to curse us for a few months and he was casting a long line to bait big fish”, (Mao, The Unknown Story p–504).
Mao who was forced to criticize his idol Stalin used one of his playbooks to trap his detractors so he could exact revenge and the consolidation of his cult of the personality and so began his ‘Anti Rightist Campaign that would ensure all those who had come forward to criticize him and his policies would pay the price. Many suffered due to guilty by association.
The Red Emperor was now in total control and went all over China on a publicity spree visiting factories and agricultural cooperatives. The title of the newsreel was “Chairman Mao Walks all Over China”, but in reality, he created a situation that allowed him to walk over Chinese, and his revenge was carried out by the same caders who had carried out past atrocities.
Superpower Program and the Great Leap Forward
In May 1958 after Mao Zedong had ensured all his detectors were either dead or now in line with his policies, he finally revealed his ultimate plan to his puppet politburo. Mao wanted China to be a superpower and rule the world and to achieve this dream called the Great Leap Forward, which was part of his Great Leap Forward initiative. Mao told his terrified colleagues that under the great leap, China will surpass the capitalist countries like Great Briton in just fifteen years. Addressing a select group of elite army officers, Mao said, “Now the Pacific Ocean is not peaceful, it can only be peaceful when we take over”. This is an eerie resemblance between President Xi Jinping Belt and Road Initiative and his quest to control the Indo-Pacific.
Mao now dreamt of becoming a global superpower and for that to happen he decided to industrialize China with Soviet financial support and technical know-how. In return, Mao was prepared to give food at the cost of the peasants. He figured he could use the peasants as fodder to increase the agricultural output and as Zhou Enlai who was Mao’s errand boy had told East German leader Walter Ernst Paul Ulbricht who had demanded that China keep up its supply of meat and other agricultural produce that no one will know if millions died on the countryside.
In 1953, six years before the Great Leap Forward was implemented, Mao had instructed that more food must be extracted from the peasants to pay for his superpower program. Mao wanted the peasants to eat less and said that the peasants should eat sweet potato leaves which were traditionally pig feed and the state should try harder to ensure the peasants ate less and most of the food was taken away by force (p479). By 1955, Mao had forced the entire farms into collective farms to ensure they did not underreport the harvest, and caders were sent to the countryside to check if farmers hid any food for themselves. If they found any grain, the peasants were punished with the utmost brutality, and thousands were driven to suicide.
Party officials knew of the immense damage to life and property being caused by these measures but they kept quiet because they did not want to end up along with their families on one of the community farms. By 1959, the situation got so worse that people resorted to eating compounds of earth that caused edema, the swelling of the stomach due to severe malnutrition.
Once all farms were collectivized and placed under the communist party and all the money was used to build railways and other infrastructures like dams. The first five-year plan saw significant gains in all sectors but all turned into a nightmare when Mao dreamt of world domination which led to the greatest man-made catastrophe in history. With his vast human resource at his disposal to carry out all his whims, Mao set about to accelerate his superpower program and called on his fanatical apparatchiks to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal.
The state that had all the control over its people began to deploy them to increase the grain and steel products for which new factories were established. Mao who had no experience in farming or the economics associated with it ordered that. Lands that were not suited for grain production were now being used to produce grain that Mao intended to sell so he can build his nuclear submarines and nuclear bombs. Under his leadership, the communist ignored centuries of farming practices like excessive close planting and the reduction of chemical fertilizers imports.
The other great idea was to get rid of sparrows along with rats, mosquitos, and flies. The latter of the three made sense but calling for the complete eradication of sparrows, resulted in a natural imbalance and suddenly, the population of pests just multiplied which the sparrows kept a check. Mao’s obsession to overtake Great Britain and the United States took a turn for the worst when he said that China must increase its output of steel production.
If millions of Chinese had already not died or were on the cusp of dying because Mao was busy selling the grain to the Soviet Union to pay off debt, the desire to increase the steel output was the final act of madness on his part. Chairman Mao ordered some ninety million Chinese to construct backyard furnaces to make steel. For that to happen Mao’s blind followers forced the rural population to give them any metal they could get from them. They took every piece of metal they could get their hands on including cooking utensils. Mao’s obsession to catch up with Great Britain economically in just fifteen years led his people to utter disaster.
Ignoring rules and regulations Mao called for untrained people to run, manage and produce in newly constructed steel mills. This led to many accidents as the machinery was overused and did not receive proper maintenance, however, this was Mao’s least concern because he never followed any regulations. Across China, houses of peasants were being torn apart for anything that was metal and timber for burning the makeshift furnaces that produced poor grade steel. Mao used the grain for his nuclear program and grain was turned into purest alcohol that was later used for missile tests. Over ten million kilograms of grain were used for this purpose, enough to feed nearly two million people. But who can fault Mao, who once said I am willing to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for acquiring nuclear weapons because, for Mao, the lives of the people were not premium.
One particular group for no fault of theirs fell for his purge for telling the truth about Mao and they were all doctors who told him that all the deaths were taking place due to starvation. But for Mao, the word starvation was to become a taboo. Strangely, Mao went after the doctors because when the Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin, he too had targeted doctors.
According to Mao, death had a practical advantage because they fertilize the ground and during his Moscow trip in 1957, Mao said, “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory for the world revolution. On May 17, 1958, during the party congress, Mao said, Don’t make a fuss about world war. Most people die. Half of the population wiped out and this has happened quite a few times in Chinese history,” (Mao, The Unknown Story p-535).
Due to this action, millions of peasants became homeless, and since the cooking utensils were taken Mao instructed that the people must eat in the commune canteen and this is where Mao and his enforcers implemented one of the most profound statements made by Karl Marx when he had said, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,”. Those who could not work did not receive the amount of food sustenance that is required and people started to starve. Mao who always had very low regard for women had once said in an article written on November 21. 1919, “Women can do as much physical labor as men and it is just that when a woman is pregnant she can’t do such work, therefore for a woman to be independent, women should prepare enough before they marry so they can support themselves and women should stockpile necessities for the period of childbirth themselves, (Mao, The Unknown Story p–504).
In the camps where peasants were forced to live Mao, insured men and women did not indulge in sex but for Mao, the rules did not apply. manipulative egotist incapable of human feeling who surrounded himself with sycophants and refused even to be treated for a sexually transmitted disease, though he knew he was spreading it to the numerous young women who shared his bed. Li Zhisui, who was his private physician in his book “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” Dr. Li calls Mao Chinese Caligula and Mao believed that sexual activity leads to longevity, or, at least, the Daoist lore “gave him an excuse to pursue sex not only for pleasure but to extend his life,” and led a hedonistic lifestyle.
In his book, Li says Mao never bathed or even washed his hands or face and preferred his bodyguards to wipe his body, his hands, and his face with hot towels. He also never brushed his teeth, which Dr. Li says were coated with a green patina and when he dared to suggest to him that he should use a toothbrush, Mao’s reply was, “A tiger never brushes his teeth.”
Mao had an insatiable appetite for food and sex. When it came to food, he would sometimes eat the same dish for weeks and when it came to sex, as he got older, the age of the girls who were picked for him became younger and younger. One of Mao’s army chiefs named Peng De-Huai called the selection of these young girls for Mao “imperial concubines”.
The Great Leap Forward took the lives of 45 million people and in Mao’s lifetime, he was responsible for the death of 70 million Chinese, and that too in peacetime. Mao had such disregard for humans, that he looked at the possibility of getting rid of people’s names and replacing them with numbers. This idea is the same as what the Nazis did to Jews during the Second World War when numbers were tattooed on their forearm and they were no longer people but just numbers.
Communism has always been very seductive due to its ideals and in return, it clouds reality, and rationality and completely kills humanity. Those addicted to communism think they are part of a journey of social transformation. However, for Mao Zedong, the Red Emperor the Great Leap Forward was his idea for global domination at the expense of a great civilization and culture.
The author is a freelance writer and has published articles on defense, world history, and strategic affairs. He tweets @LaxmanShriram78