Lecture Thirty-Five

China under Mao

Scope: For a quarter of a century, Mao Zedong was the dominant figure in the People’s Republic of China, but his prominence should not mask the underlying tensions and disagreements in the Chinese Communist Party. A series of clashes among Party leaders was reflected in the history of the Great Leap Forward, the Socialist Education Movement, and finally, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This lecture will tease out the complex interaction of differing groups within the Communist leadership and consider how the economic and political development of China fared through Mao’s death in 1976.


I. From 1949 until his death in 1976, Mao Zedong was the dominant figure in China.

A. Mao’s vision of a New China was the avowed goal of the government of the People’s Republic.

1. Within the leadership of the CCP, however, there were divergent views of how to pursue the goals of Socialist development.

2. Debates and disagreements within the Party shaped the history of the PRC and sometimes broke out into public conflicts.

3. Mao generally was able to win the day but, at times, had to compromise or give up some of his power to gain his objectives.

B. In the 1950s, the main area of contention was over agricultural policy.

1. Following land reform, there was a gradual process of collectivization, which at first, was voluntary and modest in scale.

2. These early steps were quite successful, and yields rose rapidly, leading to enthusiasm for further collectivization.

3. By 1956, Mao began to urge an accelerated program, which soon led to the creation of the People’s Communes, large-scale units of collective farming.

4. The Great Leap Forward in 1958 and 1959 was an attempt to mobilize peasant labor to achieve a “take off” in production that could also provide investment for urban industrial growth.

5. It failed because of bureaucratic over-reporting and exaggerated claims, which triggered excessive consumption and, ultimately, led to food shortages.

II. The failure of the Great Leap led to the first serious clash within the Party.

A. Through the 1950s, the CCP had carried out political campaigns against “rightists” and “anti-Party elements.”

1. These campaigns were often used by Party bureaucrats to strike at those who criticized their abuses of public trust.

2. The Party’s popularity suffered somewhat from this, but the overall achievements of the revolution still won wide support.

B. With the Great Leap came the first open clash between Party leaders.

1. At a conference of top Party leaders in August 1959, the defense minister, Peng Dehuai, criticized Mao.

2. Mao counterattacked and was able to have Peng removed from office but had to agree to give up control over the day-to-day management of government affairs.

C. Over the next three years, the CCP adopted more moderate tactics, and a “pragmatist” group, led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, came to have great influence.

1. These leaders emphasized the achievement of concrete economic objectives rather than the integration of politics and the economy.

2. They moved away from the more highly collectivized aspects of Mao’s policies.

III. By 1962, Mao began to reassert his leadership.

A. In 1962, he advocated a Socialist Education Campaign to give Party leaders a better sense of life among the people.

1. Leaders were to “go down” and experience the realities of village and factory life.

2. But senior and mid-level Party leaders didn’t want to give up their privileged lifestyles, and the campaign was diverted into another “anti-rightist” episode.

B. Mao became increasingly frustrated and sought to go outside the Party to appeal to the people directly.

1. In 1966, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched by Mao without the support of other Party leaders.

2. He called on “the masses” to criticize those in the Party taking “the capitalist road” and behaving like a new ruling elite.

3. The forces unleashed by these actions proved to be more than Mao had anticipated, and after two years of widespread conflict, he began to try to regain Party control.

4. At the Ninth Congress of the CCP in April 1969, the Cultural Revolution was basically ended, though it was carried on in name until Mao’s death.

IV. In the years from 1969 to 1976, there was an effective stalemate within the CCP; neither the pragmatists nor the radicals could gain total control.

A. The radical forces were centered in the Gang of Four, with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, as leader.

I. The Gang of Four controlled much of the information and cultural affairs of the country.

1. In 1971, Mao’s designated successor, Lin Biao, was denounced as a traitor and accused of having plotted to kill Mao.

A. The pragmatists, led by Deng Xiaoping since Liu Shaoqi’s death in 1969, were purged from power, in theory, but still controlled much of the technical and bureaucratic aspects of the Party and government.

1. Deng had been sent to labor reform in the late 1960s but, by 1972, was in charge of China’s science and technology policy.

2. Mao seemed to balance the radicals and pragmatists against one another and was unable or unwilling to give full support to either side.

B. In 1976, a series of dramatic events signaled the coming of a great change.

1. In January, China’s much-loved prime minister, Zhou Enlai, died.

2. In April, large-scale demonstrations against the Gang of Four took place in Tiananmen Square.

3. In July, a major earthquake killed nearly 300,000 people in Tangshan, northeast of the capital.

4. Finally, on September 9, Mao died.

5. From 1976 on, China had to come to grips with life without Mao, and the post-Mao era soon proved to be one of profound change and dramatic developments.

6. In the final lecture, we will consider China after Mao and prospects for China and the world at the dawn of the 21st century.

Essential Reading:

Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and After.

Supplemental Reading:

William Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary> of Revolution in a Chinese Village.

Hong Yong Lee, The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why were land reform and the marriage law the first priorities for the new government in 1949-1950?

2. Mao believed that the Communist Party was becoming too bureaucratic and alienated from the masses and that it would become a new elite, replacing the old literati. Was he right?

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