Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976)

Photograph of Mao Tse-tung

Wikipedia Commons

Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) was the political leader of the Chinese Communists during the Pacific War. Masterful both at political intrigue and the application of political terror, he would seize control of China, then go on to institute possibly the worst reign of terror in human history, the Great Cultural Revolution. China would not begin to recover until long after Mao's death.

Mao was born to a successful peasant farmer (whom he loathed) in Hunan Province, fought in the revolution of 1910, and attended the Hunan Normal School until 1918. He was a voracious reader, happiest where there was plenty of food and plenty of books. He fancied himself a Great Hero, who strongly resembled Nietzsche's Superman:

Everything outside their nature, such as restrictions and constraints, must be swept away by the great strength in their nature ... When Great Heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful, stormy and invincible. Their power is like a hurricane arising from a deep gorge, and like a sex-maniac on heat and prowling for a lover ... there is no way to stop them.

Mao was outgoing, convivial, but quick-tempered, while his personal habits struck some as simple and down to earth (Mitter 2013) and others as slovenly (Chang and Halliday 2005). He was an utterly committed revolutionary who "demanded a complete overturning of 'heaven and earth'" (Mitter 2013).  His violent clashes with his father led him to leave home to become a political journalist. His attitude towards death (of others) bordered on the surreal:

Human beings are endowed with the sense of curiosity. Why should we treat death differently? Don't we want to experience strange things? Death is the strangest thing, which you will never experience if you go on living ... Some are afraid of it because the change comes too drastically. But I think this is the most wonderful thing: where else in this world can we find such a fantastic and drastic change?

On the evidence, Mao relished satisfying people's curiosity.

Mao traveled throughout China until 1921, when he was present at the  organization of the Communist Party at Shanghai. He joined the Kuomintang, along with the other Communists, in 1923, and became the director of propaganda. When Chiang Kai-shek broke with his Russian sponsors and turned against the Communists in 1927, Mao barely escaped execution and fled to organize a guerrilla force in the mountains of southeast China. This force was little more than an unusually murderous bandit gang until Mao was joined by Chu Teh and his more disciplined troops. Establishing a pattern that would be repeated in the future, Mao first allied with Chu, then displaced him as leader of their combined forces. Chu was luckier than many such allies; the force continued to be known as the Mao-Chu Army, and Chu would remain Mao's military front man for the remainder of his long life.

Mao was disliked and distrusted by other Communist leaders, even being accused at one point of "rightism" because he favored organizing a peasant army over the more orthodox Marxist approach of organizing urban workers into political cells. However, Mao had the support of Stalin, and when Kuomintang forces under Chiang forced the Communists out of their base in southeast China, Mao was not left behind (as many wished), but eventually intrigued his way into control of the Long March. Chang and Halliday (2005) have claimed that Stalin was effectively holding Chiang Kai-shek's son hostage in Russia, allowing him to blackmail Chiang into leaving the Communists an escape route that steered them towards their ultimate bastion in Shensi province. This is unlikely, but there is less doubt that the Communist's initial escape from encirclement was aided by the warlord of Kwangtung, who feared that if Chiang was successful at eliminating the Communists, the warlords would be next. Other warlords were equally unenthusiastic about aiding Chiang against the Communists.

Chiang may in fact have tried to steer the Long March into Szechuan province, which would have provided Chiang an excuse to bring the hostile warlord of Szechuan under his control. Mao would have none of it; he feared losing control to Chang Kuo-t'ao, the popular and ruthless leader of a large Communist force in northern Szechuan. Mao marched his forces in circles for four months while consolidating his political power, at a tremendous cost in casualties. Only when he felt politically strong enough did he march into Szechuan, against negligible resistance, and join up with Chang, who soon was outmaneuvered by Mao and put in a subordinate position. Mao made certain he arrived in Yanan in north Shensi first, and was well-established before Chang arrived.

Mao then proceeded to turn Yanan into a hell on earth, with a grim prison-like atmosphere in which the local peasants were taxed to the edge of starvation and arriving recruits, having come mostly from Kuomintang-controlled areas, were automatically suspected of being spies. Although depicted by unskeptical foreign sympathizers as an advocate of moderate agrarian reform, Mao felt no reluctance about slaughtering landlords and their sympathizers and redistributing their land to the poor.Opium production was encouraged as a way to finance the Communists, and there is evidence that opium was traded even with the Japanese. So thorough was Mao's control and cult of personality that even such a leading Communist as Chou En-lai would publicly denounce himself for lacking sufficient devotion to Mao throughout the remainder of his life.

By this time Japan was fully in control of Manchuria and posed an obvious threat to both China and Russia. Stalin wished to keep Japan preoccupied in China, and cynically gave considerable support to Chiang. When Chiang was kidnapped by Chang Hsueh-liang on 4 December 1936, ostensibly to force an alliance against Japan (but more likely to buy Mao off with Chiang's head), Stalin applied considerable pressure to have Chiang released. Mao would much have preferred to see Chiang dead. In the end, the Communists nominally threw their support to the Kuomintang, with Chou En-lai acting as liaison in Chungking. Communist moles in Chiang's government ensured that the Communists got good press for their purported efforts against Japan without having to do much serious fighting.

There is solid evidence that Mao never had any intention of engaging in serious fighting against the Japanese. His policy was to allow the Japanese to clear an area of Kuomintang forces, then move into the vacuum behind the front line. He commented that "The more land Japan took, the better." Recurrent claims that the Communists fought an effective guerrilla campaign against the Japanese find remarkably little support in eyewitness reports or historical records, and Japanese commanders in China often claimed postwar that the Communists were not a serious concern. The Communists appear to have fought just two significant actions in eight years of Japanese incursion. These were an ambush of a column of 10 Division at Pingxingguan, and the Hundred Regiments Offensive in August 1940. Both were carried out against Mao's wishes. The Hundred Regiments Offensive managed to greatly annoy the Japanese, who responded by killing 90,000 Communist troops and unleashing the Three Alls on northern China: "Kill all, loot all, burn all."

Following the Japanese surrender, Mao and Chiang resumed their civil war, with Mao finally receiving overwhelming support from Stalin while Chiang received only tepid and equivocal support from the United States. The war ended with Communist victory in 1949.


Boot (2013)

Chang and Halliday (2005)

Hastings (2007)

Mitter (2013)

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