Stalin’s death in 1953 was Mao’s liberation. For more than thirty years Mao had had to play supplicant to the leader of the communist world. From the age of twenty-seven, when he was handed his first cash payment of 200 yuan by a Soviet agent to cover the cost of travelling to the founding meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai, Mao’s life was transformed by Russian funds. He had no qualms about taking the money, and used the Moscow link to lead a ragged band of guerrilla fighters to ultimate power – but not without endless reprimands from Moscow, expulsions from office and battles over party policy with Soviet advisers. Stalin constantly forced Mao back into the arms of his sworn enemy Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the nationalist Guomindang that ruled much of China. Stalin placed little faith in Mao and his peasant soldiers, and openly favoured Chiang, even after the Guomindang had presided over a bloody massacre of communists in Shanghai in 1927. For the best part of a decade Chiang’s troops relentlessly hounded an embattled Mao, forcing the communists to find refuge on a mountain base and then to traverse some 12,500 kilometres towards the north in a retreat later known as the Long March. When Chiang was kidnapped in Xi’an in 1936, Stalin promptly sent a telegram ordering Mao to release his hostage unharmed. After Japan had invaded China a year later, Stalin demanded that Mao again form a United Front with his arch enemy Chiang, sending planes, arms and advisers to the Guomindang regime. All Mao got during the Second World War was a planeload of propaganda leaflets.
Instead of confronting the Japanese, Mao strengthened his forces in northern China. At the war’s end in 1945 Stalin, always the hard pragmatist, signed a treaty of alliance with the Guomindang, diminishing the prospects of support for the communists in the event of a civil war. Soon after Japan’s surrender, full-scale war between the communists and the nationalists resumed. Stalin, again, stayed on the sidelines, even warning Mao to beware the United States, which had sided with Chiang Kai-shek, now recognised as a world leader in the Allies’ defeat of Japan. Mao ignored his advice. The communists eventually gained the upper hand. When they reached the capital, Nanjing, the Soviet Union was one of the few foreign countries to permit its ambassador to flee alongside the Guomindang.
Even when victory seemed inevitable, Stalin continued to keep Mao at arm’s length. Everything about him seemed suspicious to the Soviet leader. What kind of communist was afraid of workers, Stalin wondered repeatedly, as Mao stopped his army outside Shanghai for weeks on end, unwilling to take on the task of feeding the city? Mao was a peasant, a caveman Marxist, Stalin determined after reading translations of the Chinese leader’s writings, which he dismissed as ‘feudal’. That there was a rebellious and stubborn streak in Mao was clear; his victory over Chiang Kai-shek, forced to retreat all the way to Taiwan, would have been difficult to explain otherwise. But pride and independence were precisely what troubled Stalin so deeply, prone as he was to seeing enemies everywhere: could this be another Tito, the Yugoslav leader who had been cast out of the communist family for his dissidence against Moscow? Tito was bad enough, and Stalin did not relish the prospect of a regime that had come to power without his help running a sprawling empire right on his border. Stalin trusted no one, least of all a potential rival who in all probability harboured a long list of grievances.
Mao, indeed, never forgot a snub and deeply resented the way he had been treated by Stalin, but he had no one else to turn to for support. The communist regime desperately needed international recognition as well as economic help in rebuilding the war-torn country. Mao declared a policy of ‘leaning to one side’, swallowing his pride and seeking a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
Several requests to meet Stalin were rebuffed. Then, in December 1949, Mao was finally asked to come to Moscow. But rather than being welcomed as the leader of a great revolution that had brought a quarter of humanity into the communist orbit, he was given the cold shoulder, treated as one guest among many other delegates who had travelled to Moscow to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday. After a brief meeting Mao was whisked off to a dacha outside the capital and left to wait in isolation for several weeks for a formal audience. With every passing day he was made to learn his humble place in a communist brotherhood which revolved entirely around the Soviet dictator. When Mao and Stalin met at last, all he got was $300 million in military aid divided over five years. For this paltry sum Mao had to throw in major territorial concessions, privileges that harked back to the unequal treaties in the nineteenth century: Soviet control of Lüshun (Port Arthur) and of the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria was guaranteed until the mid-1950s. Rights to mineral deposits in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, also had to be conceded. But Mao did obtain a treaty providing for mutual protection in the event of aggression by Japan or its allies, in particular the United States.
Even before Mao and Stalin had signed the Alliance and Friendship Treaty, Kim Il-sung, the communist guerrilla fighter who seized control of the north of Korea after his country’s division in 1948, had been contemplating the reunification of the peninsula by military force. Mao supported North Korea, seeing in Kim a communist ally against the United States. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, but it prompted American intervention in defence of the south. Faced with overwhelming air power and tank battalions, an embattled Kim was pushed back all the way to the Sino-North Korean border. Worried that the Americans might cross the Yalu River and attack China, Mao dispatched volunteers to fight in Korea, having been promised air cover by Stalin. A ferocious war followed, the casualties on the Chinese side all the higher as the planes that Stalin had pledged came only sparingly. When the conflict reached a bloody stalemate, Stalin repeatedly obstructed negotiations to bring it to an end. Peace was not in his strategic interests. To add insult to injury, Stalin also demanded payment from China for the Soviet military equipment he had sent to Korea. His death in March 1953 brought about a rapid armistice.
For thirty years Mao had suffered humiliation at the hands of Stalin, willingly subordinating himself to Moscow out of sheer strategic necessity. The Korean War had made him even more resentful of the Soviet Union’s patronage, a feeling widely shared by his fellow leaders who likewise craved a sense of equality in their country’s dealings with Moscow.
The Korean War also deepened Mao’s hold over his colleagues. The Chairman had led the party to victory in 1949. Korea, too, was his personal glory, as he had pushed for intervention when other leaders in the party had wavered. He was the man who had fought the United States to a stalemate – albeit at a huge cost to his own soldiers. He now towered above his peers. Mao, like Stalin, was incapable of seeing anybody as an equal, and, like Stalin, the Chairman had no doubt about his own role in history. He was sure of his own genius and infallibility.
After Stalin’s death Mao finally saw a chance to secure independence from the Kremlin and claim leadership of the socialist camp. The Chairman naturally assumed that he was the leading light of communism, which was about to crush capitalism, making him the historical pivot around which the universe revolved. Had he not led his men to victory, bringing a second October Revolution to a quarter of the world? Stalin could not even claim to have presided over the Bolshevik revolution; still less could Nikita Khrushchev, the man who soon took charge in Moscow.
Coarse, erratic and impulsive, Khrushchev was viewed by many who knew him as an oaf limited in both ability and ambition. It was precisely this reputation which had allowed him to survive under Stalin, who treated him with an affectionate condescension that saved him from the fate of far more impressive colleagues who blundered in their dealings with the dictator. ‘My little Marx!’ Stalin once mockingly called him, gently tapping his pipe against Khrushchev’s forehead and joking, ‘It’s hollow!’1 Khrushchev was Stalin’s pet. But he was as paranoid as Stalin, and underneath deceptive clumsiness was a cunning and hugely ambitious man.
Khrushchev was scathing of Stalin’s handling of Mao, and resolved to outdo his former master by putting relations with Beijing on a new footing. He would be Mao’s benevolent tutor, steering the peasant rebel towards a more enlightened form of Marxism. Khrushchev also played the role of beneficent patron, presiding over a massive transfer of technology as hundreds of factories and plants were financed with Soviet aid. Advisers in every domain, from atomic energy to mechanical engineering, were sent to China, while some 10,000 Chinese students were trained in the Soviet Union in the first years following Stalin’s death. But instead of showing gratitude, leaders in Beijing saw this largesse as their due, seeking to extract ever greater amounts of economic and military support through a mixture of bargaining, begging and cajoling. Khrushchev gave in. Having overplayed his hand, he had to bully his colleagues in Moscow into accepting an aid package that far outstripped what the Soviet Union could afford.
Khrushchev went out on a limb to satisfy Beijing, and he expected a lot in return. Mao instead treated him with contempt, locking the man into the role of the boorish, immature upstart from which he had been so keen to escape. The key turning point came in 1956, when Khrushchev denounced the crimes of his former master in a secret report delivered at a party congress – without consulting Mao. The Chairman praised this speech, as he sensed that it would weaken Moscow’s authority within the communist bloc. But he would never forgive Khrushchev, as he also saw deStalinisation as a challenge to his own authority, accustomed as he was to interpreting the world with himself at its centre. To diminish Stalin was to undermine Mao, who constantly compared himself to the Soviet dictator, despite bearing a long list of grievances against him. Mao also thought that he alone occupied a moral position lofty enough to impart judgement on Stalin’s mistakes and achievements. An attack on Stalin, furthermore, could only play into the hands of the Americans.
Above all, the move against Stalin implied that criticism of Mao was also permissible. Khrushchev’s secret speech gave ammunition to those who feared the Chairman’s growing power and wanted a return to collective leadership. At the Eighth Party Congress in Beijing in September 1956, a reference to ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ was removed from the party constitution, the principle of collective leadership was lauded and the cult of personality was decried. Constrained by Khrushchev’s secret report, Mao had little choice but to go along with these measures, to which he contributed himself in the months prior to the congress.2 But the Chairman felt slighted and did not hide his anger in private.3
Mao encountered another setback when his economic policy, known as the ‘Socialist High Tide’, was halted in late 1956, at the second plenum of the party congress. A year earlier an impatient Mao, displeased with the slow pace of economic development, had repeatedly criticised those who favoured a more cautious tempo as ‘women with bound feet’. He prophesied a leap in agricultural output brought about by the accelerated collectivisation of the countryside, and in January 1956 called for unrealistic increases in the production of grain, cotton, coal and steel. The Socialist High Tide – later referred to by some historians as the ‘Little Leap Forward’ – rapidly ran into trouble.4 Industrial production in the cities suffered from all sorts of shortages and bottlenecks, as the required funds and raw materials for increased output were unavailable. In the countryside, collectivisation was met with widespread resistance as farmers slaughtered their animals and hid the grain. Famine appeared in some provinces by the spring of 1956. Trying to control the damage created by the shock tactics of their Chairman, premier Zhou Enlai and economic planner Chen Yun called for an end to ‘rash advance’ (maojin) and tried to reduce the size of collective farms, revert to a limited free market and allow greater scope for private production in the countryside. Frustrated, Mao saw this as a personal challenge. Atop a June 1956 editorial of the People’s Daily criticising the Socialist High Tide for ‘attempting to do all things overnight’, forwarded to him for his attention, Mao angrily scrawled, ‘I will not read this.’ Later he wondered, ‘Why should I read something that abuses me?’5 His position was furthered weakened because Khrushchev, in his secret speech, had highlighted the failure of Stalin’s agricultural policies, which included collectivisation of the countryside. Criticism of Stalin looked like an unintended assessment of Mao’s drive towards collectivisation. The Eighth Party Congress scrapped the Socialist High Tide.
More humiliation followed after Mao, despite major reservations from other party leaders, encouraged open criticism of the party in the Hundred Flowers campaign launched in April 1957. His hope was that, by calling on ordinary people to voice their opinions, a small number of rightists and counter-revolutionaries would be uncovered. This would prevent the havoc created by deStalinisation in Hungary, where a nationwide revolt against the communist party in October 1956 had forced Soviet forces to invade the country, brutally crush all opposition and install a new government with Moscow’s backing. In China, Mao explained to his reluctant colleagues, the party would break up any opposition into many small ‘Hungarian incidents’, all to be dealt with separately.6 A more open climate, he surmised, would also help secure the support of scientists and intellectuals in developing the economy. The Chairman badly miscalculated, as the mounting barrage of criticism he had produced questioned not only the very right of the party to rule, but also his own leadership. His response was to accuse these critics of being ‘bad elements’ bent on destroying the party. He put Deng Xiaoping in charge of the anti-rightist campaign, which was carried out with extraordinary vehemence, targeting half a million people – many of them students and intellectuals deported to remote areas to do hard labour. Mao struggled to regain control, and the whole affair was a huge embarrassment, but his strategy was partly successful in that it created the conditions in which he could assert his own pre-eminence. Assailed from all sides, its right to rule having been called into question, the party found unity behind its Chairman.
The collapse of the Hundred Flowers campaign in June 1957 also confirmed the Chairman’s suspicion that ‘rightist conservatism’ was the major ideological enemy, and that rightist inertia was behind the current economic stagnation. He wanted to revive the policies of the Socialist High Tide, which had been discredited by an outpouring of criticism from the very experts he had tried to court. If so many of the intellectuals who had the professional skills and scientific knowledge to help with economic development were disaffected, it would be politically unwise to base the country’s future on their expertise. This view was shared by Liu Shaoqi, the party’s second-in-command, and he rallied behind the Chairman in pushing for higher targets in rural production.7 In October 1957, with support from Liu, Mao had the slogan which crystallised his vision reinstated: ‘Greater, Faster, Better and More Economical’. He also managed to replace the term ‘rash advance’ (maojin), with its connotations of reckless hurling forward, with ‘leap forward’ (yuejin): in the midst of a ferocious anti-rightist campaign, few party leaders dared to oppose it. Mao was having his way, and he was ready to challenge Khrushchev.