“Every man did what was right in his own eyes” is a quote from the book of Judges in the Old Testament. It sums up what Mao Zedong did after he took control of China in 1949 and how he imposed his brand of socialist utopianism on the people of China. This was the first of three major crossroads or turning points in Chinese history since the Communist takeover. The two other major crossroads will be discussed in a future column.
Mao Zedong created two major programs to advance the nation: The Great Leap Forward from 1958-61 and the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. Both created chaos and death in the millions.
Background: Mao Zedong was a toughened revolutionary who had prevailed in bringing communism to China after 20-plus years of strife and civil war with his arch enemy Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang or Nationalists, and later with the Japanese when they began to invade in 1931. He and those who survived had endured the 6,000-mile journey from southeastern China to Yan’an in the north and west between 1934 and 1935. Starting with about 100,000 Communist soldiers they fought their way to the north against the KMT. Only about 7,000 soldiers survived. Those who did made up the core of the Chinese Communist Party. They were called the Long Marchers. Their children, the “princelings,” rule China today.
After Mao and the communists drove out Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists to the island of Taiwan in 1949, Mao took control of all of China. His most famous program was called, “The Great Leap Forward.” Mao’s goal was to rapidly create a communist industrialized and collectivized nation from a primarily agricultural economy.
Peasants in the countryside were told to produce steel in their backyards. They took all the metal they possessed – woks, bedsteads, and tools – and melted them into shapeless chunks of metal, useful for nothing.
At the same time school children were encouraged to kill all the sparrows because it was thought that the sparrows were eating a lot of the crops. Wiping out the sparrows caused a locust infestation.
In the meantime, growing rice for food was largely ignored. Because of these two programs a great famine resulted, killing between 18 and 32.5 million people from starvation and resulting disease.
The Soviets were appalled at the utter stupidity of Mao and cut off relations with the Chinese, ending their economic aid. Mao was stripped of most of his power, but remained a figurehead.
Thus began the Cultural Revolution. During Mao’s reign, he had indoctrinated schoolchildren with his ideas. He then gathered them into cadres of Red Guards. From 1966 to 1976 he used them to regain power. These children were sent out to punish anyone (who had an education), waving their “Little Red Books” (the Proverbs of Mao).
Buddhist priests were killed and temples were destroyed. Schoolteachers were forced to wear dunce caps and were marched down the streets. Sometimes they were beaten and thrown out of high story windows to their deaths. Universities were closed and college students and faculty were sent out to learn to be peasants in the rice paddies. Many Communist Party leaders also were purged. It is thought that between 2 million and 7 million people died during this time of madness in China. It only ended with the death of Mao in 1976.
In 1978 Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiao Ping stood at the second crossroads of Chinese history. His approach would be entirely different from Mao’s. His achievements will be the topic of my next column.
I began this column with a quote from the book of Judges: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” That very accurately describes Mao actions in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It vividly depicts the hazards of unfettered governmental power with no checks and balances.