Mao Zedong: A Great Leader or a Bloodthirsty Tyrant?

The realm of international politics would not have come to a full circle if socialism was not explored to promote the ideology that favors using the state as means to redistribute wealth. Socialists advocate state ownership of capital, rather than private ownership, so that the accumulation of wealth is controlled by the state, which can distribute it equitably. Started by Karl Marx, socialism expanded to become a socio-economic-political doctrine known as communism, where “advocates a classless and stateless society wherein there is collective ownership and control of property and all means of production” (Darity, 2008). One of the prime movers of communism was Mao Zedong (Mao Tse Tung). Leading the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to successfully overthrow the Nationalist (Kuomintang) forces in 1949, people often have mixed impressions about Mao. He is seen as a great leader because he successfully led an all-out revolution to change China’s history and unite all people to support his vision in a very massive country. Yet, some people regard him as a bloodthirsty tyrant who committed many human rights violations and pushed people to suffer unnecessary difficulties during his leadership. Yet, despite Mao’s horrible shortcomings, his heroic efforts still overshadow the various crimes he committed because he had the necessary qualities of a leader who had the persistence and ruthlessness necessary to rebuild a shattered nation like China towards economic development and social change.

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As a “son of a former peasant who had become affluent as a farmer and grain dealer”, young Mao Zedong grew up in the Hunan province in China. In his early years, Mao was trained to become a businessman because he was educated to be able to keep records and accounts. When he was 13, he rebelled against his father because his parents were forcing him into an arranged marriage. Leaving his family, he went to the provincial capital, Changsha, to finish his secondary education. It was there where Mao was exposed to Western thought ideas, “formulated by such political and cultural reformers as Liang Qichao and the Nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen” (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2008). Seeking a wider stage after graduation, Mao set out for Beijing in 1918, where he studied and worked part-time in the library at Peking University, the nation’s premier institution of higher education, and, at the time, a hotbed of radical political thinking among many of the faculty and students. Soon enough, Mao declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, without actually undertaking a thorough study of either the revolutionary doctrine or the Russian Revolution in 1917. After a short period as an elementary school principal and political activist back home in Hunan, he became a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, which was formally established in Shanghai on 23 July 1921.

In early 1927, after an intensive study of rural conditions in his native province, Mao wrote his seminal “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” in which he predicted that the peasant masses would soon rise up and sweep away the old, feudal system of land ownership that exploited and oppressed them. The Communists, he argued, should lead the peasants or get out of the way. When Chiang Kai-shek’s bloody coup erupted in 1927, communist organizations in Shanghai and other major cities were destroyed, forcing them to find refuge in Jiangxi province. Mao was elected chairman of the new Jiangxi Soviet (local Communist government) in this isolated base area but soon lost power to the Returned Student group (a reference to their study in Moscow), which took over the party leadership and pushed him aside (Short, 2001).

Spence (1999) recounted that in the famous Long March in 1934 to 1936, where the Communists had to flee from Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s fifth and finally successful military encirclement campaign to surround their base area and destroy them, Mao rose to become the political and military leader of the Communist movement. During this time, Mao built an elaborate system of ideology, organization, guerrilla warfare, and rural recruitment that led quickly to the emergence of a powerful political movement, backed up by its own military forces (the Red Army). Both the party and the army grew rapidly during the war against Japan, which had invaded China in July 1937, and the Communists emerged as a formidable competitor for state power with the Nationalists.

In 1945, Mao was hailed as the Party’s leading political and military strategist, and, coincidentally, its preeminent ideological thinker. Short (2001) informed that what was now called Mao Zedong thought was said to represent the adaptation of Marxist-Leninist theory into China’s actual historical conditions. Thus, in 1949, the Red Army (renamed the People’s Liberation Army) employed superior strategic tactics to defeat the Nationalists in the Chinese revolution (1946–1949) through Mao’s excellent strategies. Mao then proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and moved decisively to consolidate its borders and occupy and reintegrate Tibet. His intention was not merely to rebuild the shattered nation, but also to transform a nation with a staggering population of over 400 million during that time.

Chinese communism, as articulated by Mao Zedong, viewed the peasantry as the class that had to be mobilized for the revolution. Unlike Lenin’s enlightened leadership elite, Mao advocated the use of the peasantry as a major rather than a secondary force in the revolution. This meant a reliance on a rural-based group, rather than an urban proletariat, to bring about a socialist transformation. Ogden (1995) noted that an orthodox Marxist-led revolution against urban capitalism made no sense in China because few workers had been exploited by the capitalist class. Mao also believed that putting revolutionary theory into practice was critically significant in guiding expected social contradictions in the right direction. Thus dialectical confrontation did not end with the triumph of the political revolution but continued into socialism and communism, according to Mao’s theory. Jiwei Ci argues in Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution (1994) that the establishment of the Communist regime in 1949 marked the successful acquisition of Marxism as cultural self-identity, and China’s possession of it became monopolistic after its ideological break with the Soviet Union in 1960.

Despite these international concerns, Mao launched a wide-ranging program of reconstruction and nationalization in major industrial and commercial cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton). In the countryside, the land was confiscated from the landlord class, many of whom were summarily executed by makeshift tribunals, and land passed (if only briefly) into the hands of the ordinary peasants. A comprehensive range of social reforms was also launched, including marriage reform favoring the female; a crackdown on crime, drugs, and prostitution; and clean-up campaigns targeted at government and business corruption. Although U.S. intervention had placed Taiwan beyond their grasp, by the mid to late-1950s things had gone very well for the Communists, and for this much credit must go to Mao and his fellow party leaders.

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However, Mao had more ambitious plans because he believed he can always achieve the impossible. He wanted to speed up the pace of economic growth, based on industrial development and the collectivization of agriculture; and he wanted to emancipate China from the bonds of the Soviet alliance, which he found increasingly restrictive. Unfortunately, it was at this juncture, in the late 1950s, that Mao’s grand plans and strategies began to fail him and he launched two disastrous political campaigns that convulsed the country and ultimately damaged his reputation. The Great Leap Forward in 1958, calling for the establishment of small backyard factories in the towns and giant people’s communes (consolidated cooperative enterprises) in the countryside, resulted in an economic backlash. The consequent three bitter years (1959–1961) saw rural peasants perish in the millions due to harsh conditions for the very young, the very old, and the disadvantaged. Chastened, and under criticism from his more moderate colleagues, Mao agreed to step back from the forefront of leadership; he turned his attention to the growing ideological polemic marking the growing Sino-Soviet split and left it to others to repair the untold damage at home.

Mao’s failures as a leader were immortalized in a book entitled Unknown Story of Mao (2005). There, the book criticized Mao as a brutal and violent leader who committed numerous crimes that are too many to list down. One particularly emphasized is the 1959–1961 famine that plagued China, where 22 million Chinese people starved to death. Slobodnik (2007) deemed that the famine was the result of Mao’s confiscation of grain, which was allocated to be bought by foreign buyers to finance Mao’s plan for industrialization and weapons manufacturing. The author tagged this famine to have the “greatest death toll in the history of mankind”.

Despite his obvious lapses of judgments that resulted in the decimation of countless lives, the Chinese Communist Party still hailed Mao, after his death, as an illustrious national hero who laid the foundations of the new China, but at the same time a tragic figure with all too human frailties. True enough, there will be lessons to be learned in studying Mao’s gargantuan failures as a leader, but it cannot be denied that he was a catalyst that ushered in a great change that spelled what China had become at present. Of course, his unforgivable crimes remain to be a stain in China’s history, but almost all great political heroes got blood in their hands too – like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and even Genghis Khan. Nevertheless, Mao’s achievements and failures had notched him a place in world history and international politics, where future leaders can learn from his mistakes and duplicate his achievements of bringing China’s widespread national regeneration and re-emergence as a great world power to reality.


Ci, Jiwei. 1994. Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution: From Utopianism to Hedonism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Darity, W.A. 2008. Communism. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 2 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.

Mao Zedong. (2008). In Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Web.

Short, Phillip. 2001. Mao: A Life. New York: Holt.

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Slobodnik, F. 2007. Unmasking Mao: The Unknown Story of a Twentieth Century Tyrant. Web.

Spence, Jonathan D. 1999. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking.

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