Expansion by Guerrilla
Chairman Mao initially supported Maoist-style Communist parties in Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Burma, India and Thailand. The Malaysian Communist Party launched an armed rebellion, which the Chairman supported until it became clear that the guerrillas were losing. At the Bandung Conference, a conciliatory Zhou Enlai declared that those Chinese who adopted another nationality should be good citizens of the countries they joined. But this pious statement did not completely allay suspicions that Mao was encouraging indigenous Communist movements among the “bridge compatriots” of Southeast Asia.
After the invasion of India, Mao once more began manifesting a new militancy toward countries in Southeast Asia. The Bandung Spirit was a thing of the past. Instead, Chairman Mao began to act in accordance with an ancient Chinese diplomatic principle, yuan chiao chin kung, meaning “to appease distant countries while attacking those nearby.” Faraway Canada, Italy, Belgium, Chile and Mexico were courted for diplomatic recognition, while neighboring countries like Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, India and Laos were attacked in word, and sometimes in deed.
Laos, one of three Indochina states covered by Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) protection, was a specific target of Maoist aggression. Although small in size and population, the country was important because of its strategic location between China, North Vietnam and the non-Communist states of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and South Vietnam. It also had a tributary relationship with China going back centuries. A Communist guerrilla group, the Pathet Lao, began receiving increasing amounts of military aid in the late fifties. The U.S. countered with an expanding program of military and economic assistance. The conflict intensified in 1959 as North Vietnam sent military units across the border to reinforce the Pathet Lao. On September 4, Laos appealed to the U.N. to dispatch an emergency force to counter aggression by North Vietnam. The U.S. responded by warning both the Soviet Union and Communist China that it would help counter any new danger to peace in the region. Mao responded by stepping up aid to the Pathet Lao, who eventually won control of the country, bringing Lao back into China’s orbit.
When America began sending military assistance to South Vietnam in the early sixties, Mao responded by coming to the aid of China’s tributary. The Chairman not only positioned large numbers of troops at the North Vietnamese border as a deterrent to a U.S.-led thrust into the north, he also deployed forces over the border into Vietnam. One study has reported that, between 1965 and 1972, over 320,000 PLA troops served in Vietnam, peaking at 170,000 troops in 1967. These served largely in anti-aircraft and engineering capacities, seeking to bring down U.S. aircraft and repair the damage caused by the U.S. bombing of transportation nodes.
In Indonesia as well, the local Communist Party, responding in part to encouragement and aid from Mao, launched a coup against General Sukarno’s increasingly restive generals in 1962. This particular gambit backfired on the Chairman. The result was a bloody purge of suspected Communists, which quickly developed anti-Chinese overtones. As many as a million lives were lost, many of them Chinese. The food distribution system and other large sectors of the economy, which had been run by this mercantile minority, consequently collapsed. Centuries after assaults upon Java and Sumatra by imperial forces, the Indonesian archipelago had once again eluded Mao’s grasp.
It was the recovery of Taiwan that remained Mao’s principal obsession. No sooner was the Korean armistice in place than the Great Helmsman ordered the PLA to begin preparing for the invasion of Taiwan that would mark the delayed final battle of the Chinese civil war. There was only one problem: the PLA invading force would have to cross the ninety-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, which was patrolled by the carriers and cruisers of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Moreover, the Nationalist army was growing more formidable, as a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group helped to train and equip its expanding ranks.
The Chinese Communist press on August 14, 1954 issued a blistering denunciation of the “American imperialists” for their continued “occupation of Taiwan.” The island would be “liberated,” by force if necessary. Battle-hardened Communist divisions were moved to staging areas along the Fujian coast and MIGs appeared over the South China Sea.
Chiang Kai-shek did not back down. He put the Nationalist army on alert and strengthened his garrisons on the offshore island groups his forces still controlled. Neither did the PRC's bellicosity unnerve President Eisenhower. When the question of Communist China’s war preparations came up at a press conference on August 17, he replied that he had recently reaffirmed standing orders to the U.S. Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan against any attack. “Any invasion of Formosa,” the former general remarked, referring to the island by its Portuguese name, “would have to run over the Seventh Fleet.”
Deterred from launching a full-scale attack on Taiwan, the Mao shifted his attention to the offshore islands, bombarding Jinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), and invading a small island chain to the north. The crisis speeded passage of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty through the U.S. Senate, in effect including the offshore islands within the defensive perimeter of the treaty.[v]
The use of force had given Mao nothing except an insignificant chain of islands. Faced with a virtual promise of heavy U.S. retaliation in the event of any further attacks, Mao shifted course. The shelling of Jinmen and Mazu came to an abrupt halt, as did the feverish preparations for an assault on the islands. The ever-genial Zhou Enlai arrived at the Bandung Conference, held in Indonesia in April 1955, bearing an olive branch: the PRC was willing to sit down with the U.S. at the negotiating table to discuss ways to ease cross-strait tension. Talks between the U.S. and the PRC began in Geneva and dragged on for months, but no formal armistice was ever reached, nor did Mao agree—then or ever—to renounce the use of force. That was not his way.
Instead, Mao’s traditional truculence reasserted itself. When the Soviet Union in 1957 launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, Mao saw it as proof that the Communist bloc had surged ahead of the United States, and he was eager to press its newly won strategic advantage. Following a meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Beijing, he suddenly imposed a blockade on Jinmen on August 23, 1958, in an effort to starve out the garrison force. A relief convoy arrived two weeks later, escorted by warships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The commander of the U.S. squadron had permission to return fire if fired upon, but the Communist guns were silent. The Great Leap Forward was underway, and Mao was perhaps waiting for his “big ships” to be built.
Because of the PRC’s peace-loving rhetoric, Chairman Mao has largely avoided the reputation for bellicosity that his history of aggression against peoples on China’s periphery deserves. In the years that he ruled China, his armies intervened in Korea, assaulted and absorbed Tibet, supported guerilla movements throughout Southeast Asia, attacked India, fomented an insurrection in Indonesia, provoked border clashes with the Soviet Union, and instigated repeated crises vis-à-vis Taiwan. When an opportunity arose to send out China’s legions, Mao generally did not hesitate—especially if the crises involved a former tributary state, which is to say almost all of the countries with which China has a common border. Under Mao, the would-be Hegemon, China had bloody borders.
Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution
The Great Leap Forward ended so disastrously that Mao’s closest colleagues decided to, as he later complained, “relegate him to the second line.” He remained the Chairman, but the day-to-day running of the government fell to the Liu Shao-qi and his pragmatic assistant, the tiny Deng Xiaoping. These two effectively downsized the communes, cut the state grain quotas, and reintroduced private plots, enabling China’s villagers to once again feed themselves. The Sino-Soviet split, which occurred at the same time, slowed down the insane shipment of vital foodstuffs out of the country. The mortality rate dropped to normal levels.
Mao, frustrated in his imperial ambitions, was furious about this turn of events. But rather than force a vote of the Central Committee—a vote that he was not sure he could win—he instead set out to destroy the Party elite itself. His chosen weapon was the young, energized by their personal allegiance to him and backed up by the armed might of the PLA.
Mao’s “personality cult” was already flourishing by April 1945, when the new Party constitution declared the “Thought of Mao Zedong” essential to “guide the entire work” of the Party. The chairman was praised as “not only the greatest revolutionary and statesman in Chinese history but also the greatest theoretician and scientist.” As always, much of this fulsome praise came from Mao’s own hand.
The cult of the Party chairman was seen as a continuation of the cult of the emperor. The Party went to extraordinary lengths to prey upon the superstitions of the people in this regard. During the days of the civil war, Mao was endlessly exalted as a larger-than-life figure, a kind of living god who would rescue the people from oppression. As soon as the Communists captured a village, its buildings would blossom with slogans like “Mao Zedong is the great savior of the Chinese people.”
As always, foreign admirers of the regime were always ready to put the best face on Mao’s ugliness. Professor Michel Oksenberg, who was to become President Carter’s China advisor, advised that the Maoist personality cult was a necessary innovation: “While the new institutions [of state control] are taking root, resort to the unifying symbol of the ruler—in China’s case, Mao—may be an appropriate response.”
Mao began his counterattack by stoking the fires of his personality cult. It was Maoist acolyte Lin Biao, then in the control of the People’s Liberation Army, who came up with the idea of a book of quotations from Chairman Mao. Called the “Little Red Book,” both for its red plastic cover and for the ‘redness” of the idea contained therein, it became mandatory reading for all members of the military, then for schoolchildren, and then for the public at large. Then he put military factories to work churning out hundreds of millions of badges featuring the head of Chairman Mao, which young people were encouraged to wear to demonstrate their loyalty to the Great Helmsman. Seizing control of the People’s Daily from Liu Shao-qi’s supporters in May 1966, he turned it into his personal mouthpiece.
Slogans exalting Mao were splashed in bold red type across the top of the first page: Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts! Establish Chairman Mao’s Absolute Authority! We will destroy whomever Opposes Chairman Mao! The rest of the page was covered with long editorials exhorting the masses to join with Chairman Mao in launching a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and to “sweep away all ox devils and snake demons,” which is what Mao now called class enemies. Sometimes, instead of slogans, quotations, and editorials, Mao’s beaming portrait took up the entire front page.
Thus deified, the Chairman spoke. The flame of revolution must be rekindled. Soviet-style “revisionism” must be fought. A generation of revolutionary successors must be created. China stood in need of a thoroughgoing Cultural Revolution. Organize yourselves into Red Guard units, Chairman Mao signaled the youth on August 1, and root out “revisionists” within the Party. Protected by the military, young people throughout China went on a rampage. There was open warfare in city after city as Red Guard factions, having destroyed the local educational and government structures, went on to fight among themselves, first with sticks and clubs, then with pistols and rifles.
Under the cover of this mass movement, and using special “Red Guard” units that he personally controlled, Mao moved against his chief enemies within the Party. He saw to the arrest of Liu Shao-qi, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Dehuai and others. Liu and Peng were tortured to death. Deng Xiaoping only escaped because he was protected by a senior military commander. By the time Mao had finished his purge, over half of the Central Committee had been purged—and the Chairman was firmly back in command.
As for the Red Guards, Mao was finished with them too. After two years of bloodly factional clashes throughout China, he ordered an army crackdown. Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams were sent into the universities to take control, and ordered many of the students to be “sent down” to the countryside, there to languish on army farms and communes.
The American left, led by China-infatuated academics, was once again unable to recognize a power struggle when it stared them in the face. They rhapsodized about the Cultural Revolution, enthusing over the “new Socialist men and women” the Cultural Revolution had created, and much more.
Michel Oksenberg, President Carter’s China expert, complained that “America [is] doomed to decay until radical, even revolutionary, change fundamentally alters the institutions and values,” urging us to “borrow ideas and solutions” from China. Why? Because, as he wrote, China “appears to have regenerated itself and to be making economic and social progress. Moreover, the Chinese have undertaken bold experiments in a number of areas that are of direct concern to us, such as bureaucractic practice [the arrest of officials by young thugs?], education [closing the universities?], the patterns of urbanization [keeping peasants out of the cities?], penology [labor re-education camps?], public health [barefoot doctors?], factory management [worker committees?], and civil-military relations [armed occupation of the cities?]…. Beyond this, the Chinese Revolution is an optimistic statement about the capacity of man to solve his problems.
Even Harvard Professor John K. Fairbank, by no means the worst of this lot, believed that America could learn much from the Cultural Revolution: “Americans may find in China’s collective life today an ingredient of personal moral concern for one’s neighbor that has a lesson for us all.” This, he added admiringly, was the result of “a far-reaching moral crusade to changed the very human Chinese personality in the direction of self-sacrifice and serving others.” Elsewhere, he wrote that “The people seem healthy, well fed and articulate about their role as citizens of Chairman Mao’s New China … the change in the countryside is miraculous…. The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing than happened to the Chinese people in centuries.”
There were many hundreds of millions of Chinese—those who suffered the hands of the “Maoist revolution”—who would have disagreed with this analysis. But they weren’t talking, at least to visiting fellow travelers. The tens of millions of dead, of course, were beyond interlocution.
Mao Zedong died on October xx 1976. On his own terms, he was a failure. Eager to restore China’s lost grandeur, recover its still-alienated territories, and once again dominate the vast marches of Asia, the founder of the People’s Republic of China cannot be said to have succeeded on any front. His failures were spectacular, to be sure, but they were failures nonetheless. The socialization of industry, the collectivization of agriculture, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to name just a few of his incessant political campaigns, failed to lift China into the first rank of nations. More to the point, they failed to elevate him to the status of international Hegemon, although they did keep him in power in China.
Mao died without achieving his goal of reunifying all of Greater China. The same Marxist-Leninist ideology which propelled him to victory in the Chinese Civil War paradoxically denied him the economic clout and military means necessary to rebuild the Chinese imperium. He recovered Manchuria from the Japanese, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang from the Soviets, Tibet from the Tibetans, and half of Korea from the Americans, but beyond this his hegemonic ambitions were frustrated. Large parts of Greater China, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, Mongolia, the Russian Far East and Central Asia, remained outside of his control. As Mao complained to Henry Kissinger in 1973, “[I]n history the Soviet Union has carved out one and a half million square kilometers from China.”
Unlike earlier emperors, Mao’s writ ended at his borders. The rest of Asia was dominated by two powers: the “socialist imperialist” Soviet Union, which held sway over the landmass to the north and west, and the “capitalist imperialist” United States and its allies, which ruled the oceans and territories to the east and south. At the time of Mao’s death, China had unresolved irredentist claims in every direction of the compass. To the north and west in the Soviet Union, to the south in Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Sikkim, to the southeast in Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, and to the east in Taiwan and Japan.
Yet Mao’s failure to act on these claims reflected a lack of means, not a lack of will. If China had possessed a blue water navy and a modern air force in the fifties, Mao would have tried to take Taiwan by force. If China had enjoyed the same advantage over the Soviet Union that, say, the U.S. enjoys over Canada, there is no doubt that Mao would have abrogated the 1860 Sino-Russian Treaty of Beijing, in which the Qing government ceded the territory that is now the Russian Far East.
Mao’s primal mistake, if it could be called that, was in choosing as the instrument of China’s national aggrandizement an economic policy totally inadequate to the task of rebuilding a Hegemon that could compete with twentieth-century capitalism. True, communism was the perfect vehicle for achieving half of the essential Legalist program of “strengthening the military and enriching the state.” But while it could “strengthen the military” up to a point, it could not “enrich the state.”
Communism enabled Mao to recruit and effectively deploy a huge standing army and police force, and to concentrate all existing economic resources in the hands of the state. Communism brought the Chinese heartland under his control. Communism enabled him to terrorize the Chinese population into subservience. But the strength of Maoism, like its imperial predecessors, lay in reducing the people to obedience rather than in producing an abundance of goods. Communism was simply incapable of generating new wealth and technology at the rate that capitalism did; this made it difficult for a Communist nation to equip its army, however vast, with weapons sophisticated enough to challenge its capitalist adversaries.
By the end of his life, Mao was increasingly frustrated by the economic setbacks of his years in power. He chose to blame them on what he called his “lack of training in economics.” But China’s economic difficulties were not such that enrolling Chairman Mao in a macroeconomics course (save one taught by Milton Friedman) would have helped. And Mao would certainly have had Milton Friedman shot for questioning Legalism’s primary presupposition: that power politics deserves primacy over private economic transactions.
As Mao lay dying, Chang and Halliday write, he was consumed by self-pity for having failed to become the “master of the earth,” giving no thought “for the mammoth human and material losses that his destructive quest had cost his people.” The death of his long-time rival, Chiang Kai-shek, led an aged Mao to spend an entire day in mourning for him. As if acknowledging that Chiang was the better man, he even wrote a bit of doggerel in memoriam: “Go, let go, my honoured friend, do not look back” Certainly the country of Chiang’s redoubt—Taiwan--is better by any conceivable political, social, or economic measure than Mao’s China, even today 30 years after the death of the two leading figures of modern China.
The Chinese Communist Party elite, in the person of Deng Xiaoping, posthumously decreed that Mao had been “70 percent good and 30 percent bad.” Such an evaluation of the founder of the People’s Republic of China is hardly unexpected, given that it was Mao’s evil genius that made it possible for the Party to seize power in the first place. Yet in minimizing his crimes against the Chinese people the Communist Party condemns itself. For Mao is arguably the greatest mass murderer of the Twentieth Century, perhaps in history. He easily eclipses his fellow left-wing monsters Pol Pot, Hitler, and even Stalin in the sheer number of corpses he left in his wake.
Unlike the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin, and the Democratic Kampuchea of Pol Pot, the People’s Republic of China of Mao Zedong survives to the present day, its ruling party intact, its system of government largely unchanged. The myths and lies that continue to prop up Mao’s image also bolster the claims of the People’s Republic of China itself to political legitimacy. The current Communist leadership proudly declares itself to be Mao’s heirs, maintains his Leninist dictatorship, continues his military build-up, and cherishes his grand ambitions. The ghost of Monster Mao haunts us still.
To read the footnotes for this article, click here.