Modern China is often viewed as somewhat of a miracle society. It went from a hardcore, repressive dictatorship with a closed society and economy, to a wider, more open and economically successful economy in just a couple of decades. Of course, no one will say China isn’t without many problems today.

It’s still a one-party state, dissidents are routinely thrown in jail, and the government tightly controls the press and Internet.

On the other hand, though, things are very different than they were in the 1970s. Outsiders can visit China and millions of non-Chinese live and work in the communist country. Likewise, Chinese citizens are allowed to leave and freely travel, acquire wealth, and have a level of freedom they haven’t enjoyed since the inception of the communist regime.

Communist China was ruled by Mao Zedong from the time it was born in the ashes of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 until his death in 1976. During that time, Mao made some pretty crazy decisions that cost millions of people their lives, the two worst being the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.”

When it comes to trying to pick which of the two was crazier, it’s hard to say.

The Great Leap Forward, which was Mao’s plan to industrialize China into a Soviet-style communist state from 1958 to 1962 was an unmitigated disaster and a humanitarian nightmare of an epic scale. The program collectivized private land (remember Stalin?) and forced people to work in factories. The result was a famine that killed between 18 and 45 million people.

The Great Leap Forward was truly a crazy decision and one that Mao should have avoided given Stalin’s human-made famine 20 years earlier. But they say the mark of insanity is when one keeps trying to do the same thing over and over expecting different results.

But as crazy as the Great Leap Forward was, the Cultural Revolution was probably a bit crazier. You see, the failure of the Great Leap Forward temporarily sidelined Mao, but once he came back into favor with the Communist Party, he did so with a vengeance.

Mao appealed to the young communists of China to destroy everything old. From Confucian and Buddhist temples to writings of the previous generation of communist intellectuals, anyone and everything that was considered old was subject to destruction.

By the time the Cultural Revolution was over when Mao died in 1976, up to 20 million Chinese had died, thousands of ancient temples and shrines had been destroyed, universities had been closed, and some of the brightest minds in China were either dead or exiled.

It took China more than a decade to recover from the Cultural Revolution, and in many ways, it’s still recovering.

Chairman Mao

Unlike some of the communist dictators in our book, Mao Zedong really did come from a poor family. He grew up in the sticks of the Hunan province. After moving to Beijing to attend university, Mao learned first-hand that he came from a different class and background to many of his classmates.

Due to his background, Mao found it difficult to make friends with many of his more urban and upper-class classmates, but he found solace in the writings of Marx and the theories of communism and anarchism.

Mao played a leading role in the establishment of the Communist Party of China in the early 1920s but also made connections with the nationalist movement, though he eventually saw them as too “reactionary.” The two groups initially sought to work together to establish a government after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the abdication of the last emperor, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The communists and nationalists engaged in a civil war for control of China from 1927-1937 and then aligned against the Japanese through World War II before reigniting their war from 1946 to 1949.

It was during the Chinese Civil War that Mao became the leader of communist China by introducing successful guerilla tactics to his army, eventually driving the nationalists to live on the island of Formosa.

And that’s what’s important to know about Mao. Yes, he was a fairly intellectual guy, but he was also pragmatic and knew that true power only came with force or the threat of it.

Violence was a tool that Mao used to achieve power, and once he was in power, he had no qualms about using it to stay in power.

Leading the Youth

Mao’s Great Leap Forward was such a crazy decision and a disaster that he actually stepped down as the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, although he maintained his position as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China. Since China was a one-party state, and he was the head of that one party, Mao still held most of the power in the country.

But it was almost an admission of failure and most certainly felt like a loss of face.

By late 1966, Mao declared that the old leaders of China had grown decadent and had lost their way and were no longer following true Marxism. He said that the only way to remedy this situation was by handing the reins of power over to the youth.

Although the speeches he gave were dressed in standard Marxist-communist platitudes, many believe that there were personal reasons for him leading the Cultural Revolution.

Mao blamed others more than himself for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, so when he initiated the Cultural Revolution in 1966, it was a way for him to get some payback and reestablish his position as the most important person in China.

The Cultural Revolution began with his paramilitary “Red Guards” beating, humiliating, and arresting a long list of Mao’s enemies. This was followed by purges in the government and military that saw thousands imprisoned and killed.

Within a few weeks, the Cultural Revolution turned into a bizarre spectacle of mob violence that spared no one, especially those over the age of 30.

Students called their professors and teachers out as enemies of Mao and children informed on their parents. A general sense of fear and doom hung over all of China, from the largest cities where most of the action was taking place to the rice paddies of the south.

The slogan of the Cultural Revolution became the destruction of the “Four Olds,” which were: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.

In other words, anything related to Chinese culture before 1949 was targeted for destruction. Although that often mean tombs, temples, and statues, it could also include anyone who was born before the Chinese Civil War.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution from 1968 to 1971, China was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. It had previously cut ties with the Soviet Union over differences in Marxist doctrine and it was an avowed enemy of the “imperialist” United States.

Needless to say, the Cultural Revolution didn’t help China’s standing in the world.

The immense death toll of the Cultural Revolution came through a combination of massacres, mass arrests, and cumulative executions, but damage to supply lines also caused starvation and even cannibalism in some places.

In addition to the millions of lives lost and the brain drain Mao’s crazy decision to lead the Cultural Revolution cost China, modern scholars believe that the majority of China’s pre-Communist Era artifacts were destroyed or looted and sold on the international market.

No price can be put on the loss of those cultural objects.

Did You Know?

  • The Cultural Revolution really didn’t hurt Chinese-US relations. As Mao urged young communists to fight for Marxist ideals on the streets of Beijing and the other major cities, he met with American President Richard Nixon in 1972. The two countries re-normalized their relations in 1979.
  • Later leaders of China realized just how crazy the Cultural Revolution was. They have consistently tiptoed around condemning it outright because to do so would be to condemn Mao, but it is rarely mentioned in official texts.
  • “Maoism” is the strain of Marxist-communist thought that gives primacy to the peasant instead of the worker/proletariat. During the middle of the Cultural Revolution, Mao sent many of the Red Guards and other young communists to the countryside to learn how it was to live and work as a true peasant, although skeptics say it was to move the violent and rebellious leaders of the movement to areas where they had less impact.
  • Another consequence of the Cultural Revolution is that it created more social differences in China. Although theoretically a communist society is supposed to be free of class differences and the Cultural Revolution was intended to bring China into a period of true communism, it instead created a new, privileged class of young Chinese.
  • Mao died of a heart attack on September 9, 1976, in Beijing at the age of 82. He was survived by his fourth wife and at least three children, although the status of some of his other ten children was not known.