Account for the Rise of Power of Mao Zedong
Account for the Rise of Power of Mao Zedong
‘Few have exercised more power, personal and political, than Mao Zedong’. Salisbury’s opinion is a matter of little historical debate as the effects of Mao Zedong’s rise to power have been felt in all countries around the world. To create a Communist State in a country like China, with one of history’s oldest imperial traditions, from a Civil War where the Guomindang, Mao’s Nationalist Rivals, were superior to the Communists in terms of manpower, materiel, foreign aid to fund their war machine and international recognition as the legitimate Chinese Government, was a seemingly impossible task. Nevertheless, growing up in conditions where traditional Confucian Chinese values first began to be questioned enabled Mao to develop a political skill, a ruthless determination and a recognition of the peasants as a potential revolutionary force, from which the demagogue was able to successfully establish Soviets in Jiangxi and Yanan, an integral step in his rise to power. These Soviets were created according to Four Points of essential Sino-Marxist philosophy, namely the importance of political indoctrination, creating unity between the people and the Chinese Communist Party, creating unity between the people and the army, and most crucially the development of a mobile warfare strategy. It was this development of incredibly effective guerrilla war tactics combined with Mao’s flexibility and pragmatism that aided his rise to power, however such a feat as the establishment of a Chinese Communist State could never have been accomplished had it not been for the numerous economic, militaristic, political and personal failures of Chiang Kai Shek, leader of both the Guomindang and of the rapidly declining China.
Dissatisfaction and disappointment were rife in China, as the common feeling that China had been betrayed by its leaders rose while Mao grew up in the era of a falling imperial family and hostile warlords, and the conditions created where people were more inclined towards radicalism catalysed his rise to power. The Chinese had experienced military humiliations throughout the late nineteenth century in the form of the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rising, yet it was the May the Fourth Movement that was ‘the spark that politicised a generation into political activity’, being later recorded in official CCP records as ‘part of the World Proletarian Revolution’. Part of this politicised generation was Mao, one of the increasing minority rejecting Confucianism and the social order it instructed. Growing up in a peasant family himself, Mao experienced firsthand the overwhelming taxes imposed upon peasants as well as the austere interest rates demanded by money lenders, some as impossible as 100% interest to be repaid in a matter of months. This experience, coupled with the influence of his employer at the library where he worked, Li Dazhao, who’s views on the peasantry as a potential revolutionary force Mao would later act upon, coupled with cutting edge literature such as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House which presented a modern view on women that also later became Communist policy, helped inspire the man Hollingworth describes as ‘a natural born rebel’ to do exactly that; rebel and join the fledgling Communist party and begin his rise to power.
Although by no means the undisputable leader of the CCP at the time of the Jiangxi Soviet, a symbol of how successful Communism could be, it was down to the Sino-Marxist principles that Mao developed that its successful rise to power was ensured; by 1934 there were an estimated 2-4 million people in Jiangxi as well as over 100,000 troops. The first of Mao’s Four Points was the importance of political indoctrination, which advocated winning over the hearts and minds of peasants. The reason for this was that Mao wanted people to be loyal to the ideology of his party and not just to its leader, as he suspected the case was with the GMD. In order to achieve this Point, Mao embarked upon a campaign of propaganda, surrounding the peasants with posters, radio and suchlike to exaggerate and publicise the failings of Chiang Kai Shek and the GMD as well as to recruit more peasants for the Red Army. Terror was also used to achieve political indoctrination, with numerous rectification campaigns that would later characterise Communist Rule, and the Futian indecent of 1940 evidencing Mao’s ruthless nature. Nevertheless, these campaigns were largely successful and established Mao himself as an exceptional political thinker.
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The second of Mao’s Four Points, creating unity between the people and the party, was also a crucial step in securing his rise to power. Mao was acutely aware of the disparity between the ruling class and the peasants, and worked towards the party being seen as champions of the peasants, presenting a sharp contrast to the GMD who seemed to have little concern for the plight of peasants. In order to unite the people with the CCP, Mao’s cult of personality was developed, enabling him personally to be associated with providing for the peasantry and indeed CCP philosophy was commonly referred to as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’. The beneficial social reforms passed by the CCP were a significant factor in the achieving of this unity, with their moderate land reforms overseeing the reductions of rent by up to 40%. Through democratic proceedings in Jiangxi and Yanan Soviets, the CCP portrayed an image of heroic selflessness and leaders like Mao depicted as genuinely concerned for the peasantry, an impression intensely different to that of the GMD. That a unity between the people and the party was created as a result of these measures is made clear from primary sources such as the account from American journalist Edgar Snow who stated that the vast majority of ‘peasants...support the Communists’; this support assumed huge importance for the future of Communism and also for Mao’s rise to power.
Unifying the peasantry and the Red Army, later renamed the Peasants’ Land Army, was unquestionably a vital step in Mao’s rise to power, largely due to the ‘total antithesis [created between] the approach and attitude of the GMD troops’. Mao fulfilled his promise to the peasantry that ‘the army and people are one’ through the implementation of his Three Rules and Eight Points of Behaviour, which laid the basics for good relations with the peasants by outlining standards of decency, honesty, respect and cordiality, resulting in the peasants accepting and often joining the army as a force fighting for their rights and entitlements. These behavioural standards helped further cement the developing camaraderie between peasants and communists, as well as clearly displaying that the PLA were a very different force to the Nationalist Army, viewed from a peasant perspective as an army just as dangerous and conflicting with their interests as that of Japan. By treating the peasants with respect, the PLA were able to become a much more successful army which increased five-fold within three years to stand at 1.5 million by 1948, with General Peng Dehaui commenting in 1936 that ‘[the peasantry] welcomed us. Many joined us, and mostly all helped us in some way. They wanted us to win’; therefore Mao’s initiative of setting high standards of decorum to create unity between the people and army and the consequent gain of popular support was a major contribution to the success of Communism.
Mao’s fourth Point, the development of a mobile warfare strategy, was perhaps his most important of all and was instrumental in his rise to power. Having observed the effectiveness of such campaigns in the Irish Civil War and from his own experience in combat with the Japanese, Mao stressed the importance of pursuing guerrilla tactics against the GMD, having recognised the Communists’ lack of manpower and supplies, rendering them unable to fight successfully in traditional combat. The hilly forested terrain of Manchuria further lent itself to guerrilla tactics as the CCP employed tactics of ‘wear and tear’ against their opponents, seizing key opportunities to gradually eliminate opposition and occupy vital communication points such as railway lines, eventually leaving the GMD essentially ostracised from rural areas. However Mao’s rise to power was also influenced and aided by the role of other prominent Communists, especially the brilliant military commander Lin Bao, who masterminded the guerrilla tactics and fought the battles Mao talked about. His rise was also helped by a development of an intelligence network to complement the CCP’s guerrilla tactics, where Communist agents infiltrated the GMD hierarchy to hold prominent positions, such as Wei Lihung, a Communist GMD Commander in Manchuria, who made his unit stay well past the point of hopelessness to gain maximum damage. The CCP could never have beaten their rivals in traditional combat; Mao’s ability to recognise this and play it to the Communists’ advantage further evidenced his reputation as an excellent theoretician and thinker and resulted in him being the unquestionable leader of a steadily strengthening Communist Party.
Mao had not always been the unquestionable leader of the CCP; he only emerged as such after the Long March of 1934, a pivotal point in his rise to power. Despite being the March ‘in many ways an unmitigated disaster’, Mao manipulated what was a retreat from the Jiangxi province after a defeat at the hands of Nationalist forces into what was later seen as a victory with enormous propaganda value for the Communists. The March also marked a change from Comintern-pleasing policy, as Mao, having been previously sidelined by Comintern agents Otto Braun and Zhou Enlai in the running of Jiangxi, began to make decisions post-Long March based solely on the interests of the CCP rather than Russia. Lynch rightfully refers to the Long March as ‘a prodigious event’ but ‘also a defeat’; only one tenth of its undertakers survived the March, and those who did were left physically and mentally exhausted and in bad condition after walking the eight thousand miles to Yanan in little over a year. It also symbolised a moral defeat for Mao, as he left his two year old son behind in Jiangxi and ‘another small part of Mao’s humanity withered on the vine’ according to Philip Short. Nevertheless, Mao refused to view the March as anything less than the biggest success yet for the CCP, declaring it to have sowed the seeds of revolution and ‘[announcing] to some two hundred million people in eleven provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation’. As well as symbolising his emergence as leader of the CCP, the Long March also symbolised Mao’s determination and resourcefulness as he created from a defeat a Red Myth which would inspire Communist propaganda for years to come, using a flexibility which would characterise Mao’s rise to power and beyond.
Nevertheless, just as important as Mao’s successes in his rise to power were the failings of Chiang Kai Shek and the GMD. The Three Principles of Nationalism, Democracy and People’s Livelihood that the GMD pledged were left unfulfilled, and as the popularity they had gained in the twenties and thirties faded, the Communists’ opponents were left aloof from society. The main reason for their loss of popular support was Chiang’s failure to display a real move towards the democracy he had promised; meanwhile, the CCP were establishing successful democratic Soviets in Jiangxi and Yanan. Numerous political failings also occurred within the party, as corruption and factionalism were rife left the party divided and wrought with internal weakness. GMD figures of power also appeared to be very corrupt even at a regional area, with local authorities abusing power which led to ever more increasing loss of support. Ultimately, the GMD, depicted as a middle class party serving only the needs of its supporters, never convinced the peasantry that GMD rule could benefit them, unlike Mao who concentrated his efforts on the peasantry and improving their quality of life. The popularity of the GMD further decreased accordingly with their increased brutality during the Civil War as they lost power, which culminated to include beheadings on street corners in Shanghai by 1948. Furthermore, their reliance on foreign aid made them seem unpatriotic and a clear contradiction of their supposed nationalist principles. As a contrast, the Communist Mao both appealed to the masses and presented a party united in its aims, and indeed appeared a lot more nationalist than Chiang Kai Shek. To the peasantry especially, Communism looked to be a tangible and realistic alternative to the GMD rule with which they were so dissatisfied.
Lynch asserts that the GMD’s ‘greatest burden was economic’; this statement is entirely correct as it was their failure to tackle the hyperinflation that they themselves had prompted that had the biggest impact on the population’s quality of life, in particularly the peasantry already crippled with taxes, that triggered the ultimate failure of GMD rule. As the price index rose from 100 in 1937 to 287,700,000 in 1948, the Chinese currency was totally devalued. Cries from the proletariat to raise wages were met, but prices of goods were raised to the same extent; this continued so that by 1948, the rate of inflation had reached 3000%. The GMD passed reforms in 1948 in an attempt to counter the effects of hyperinflation with the introduction of a new currency and encouragement of people to convert their gold and foreign currency into the new gold Yuan. Yet it was ‘too little too late’ and had failed disastrously by 1949 as the economy collapsed and as thousands of the middle class lost their savings, the GMD lost even more of their very limited support base. In contrast, the Communists appeared to be in touch with the needs of the peasants and pragmatically manipulated Marxism to fit the needs of the peasantry. The success of a bank and tax bureau in Jiangxi made Communism even more appealing, as did the CCP’s efficient organisation of fair taxation and distribution of food resources in their provinces whereas the GMD left the peasantry to bear the brunt of economic hardship. This critical weakness of the GMD, failure to adequately handle the economy, was a crucial factor in Chiang Kai Shek’s downfall and consequently Mao’s rise to power.
Another important reason accounting for Mao’s ascent to power was the CCP’s victory in the Civil War, which was in large part due to the failings of the Nationalist army. Theoretically, the GMD forces should have easily beaten the Communists as they had a much larger army complete with an air force, and outnumbered the CCP by four to one. They also gained multitudes of experience fighting the Japanese in WWII and had the support of the USA to bolster them. Nevertheless, their significant failings made them look inferior to the well organised PLA; a significant failing of the GMD army was the low morale of their largely conscripted army. Having lost huge numbers of their best combaters in WWII, desertion was common amongst battalions, reaching 70% a year, which the Nationalists attempted to prevent by force; ‘[GMD conscripts] were tied to one another to forestall any possible escape’ according to the President of the Chinese Red Cross. The disorganisation of their bureaucracy was also an important factor in the failure of the GMD army, as poor deployment of food and water provoked mutinies that the lack of discipline prevalent was unable to quash. CCP informants in high places often leaked their strategies, and soldiers’ pay was frequently stolen by officers in what was ‘a decadent and corrupt bureaucracy’ according to an American official’s report from 1944. In addition to these failings, warlords still controlled many territories across China, which prevented the GMD from efficiently mobilising as they could only do so across two thirds of the country overall. Chiang’s interference in military affairs further overextended the GMD army, his biggest mistake being the continued occupation of Manchuria where his forces were too vulnerable to attacks and counter-offences from the superior army of the Communists. From as early as 1944, the Communists were seen by some as ‘already too strong for Chiang’, confirmed by the official American report which goes on to state that ‘China’s destiny is not Chiang’s but theirs [the Communists]’.
The role of international powers and Chiang Kai Shek personally also played an important part in the failure of the GMD and thus Mao’s rise to power. Despite being recognised by foreign powers, including the USSR, as the legitimate Chinese government and receiving military equipment and aircrafts and nearly $3 billion in aid from the USA, The GMD was still unable to conquer the CCP in Civil War. This was due to the leadership failings of Chiang, who ultimately failed to unite a regime divided by factionalism and to stamp out corruption. His poor delegation and decision making was often impractical and contradictory as he managed to cause nearly as many problems as he solved. There was also an absence of meritocracy in promotional prospects within the GMD; Chiang was a poor judge of character, evidenced by the fact that a number of CCP agents were promoted by him into prominent positions. He was thought of by many, including American General Stilwell as ‘a grasping, bigoted, ungrateful little rattlesnake’. To the people of China, their official leader seemed increasingly interested in Western affairs and culture, to such an extent that he converted to Methodism during the Civil War. Throughout his reign, Chiang failed to foresee the impact of choices he made on China as a whole, and consequently lost the respect of his people and of his American Allies, and was little competition of Mao and the Communists, liberating the peasantry.
Contrasting to Chiang’s devotion to static warfare, Mao’s use of guerrilla tactics was yet another example of the flexibility that aided his rise to power. He sought always to please the peasants, believing that revolutionary activity would come from them, and adjusted any policies accordingly. He believed, according to that the ‘Chinese proletariat should be the source of wisdom and policy, and not dogmatic adherence to the works and ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin’, and thus had no qualms about changing the nature and strength of policies as the peasants’ opinion on them changed; this flexibility in Mao’s political ideas ensured the effectiveness of his rule. Mao was a realist as well as an idealist, and also recognised when it was necessary to work with others to achieve his goals. This took the shape of United Fronts when they were necessary, and working with military leader Zhu De; their partnership was described as ‘a potent and ultimately successful force’, and Wilson credits their union as significantly aiding Mao’s rise to power as ‘[without it] Mao would have remained at best a discredited provincial leader’. His cooperation with another military leader, Lin Bao, was crucial in the Communists’ Civil War victory, as Mao acknowledged Lin’s prowess in the art of guerrilla warfare and, unlike Chiang Kai Shek did with GMD army generals, gave him the power and independence to operate effectively without interfering in minor decisions. Dietrich asserts that ‘few modern political figures can equal Mao Zedong’; this was largely due to his ruthlessness pragmatism and adaptability allowing for his eventual rise to power.
Despite being ‘a hero to some, a demon on to others’ according to Cheek, Mao’s unique revolutionary aims and ability to adapt his political ideas to new situations ensured that they both survived and flourished in a China submerged in the failings of its supposedly Nationalist government. It was this flexibility and pragmatism of Mao’s that accounted for his rise to power, yet another vital factor was the contrast he drew to the failings of Chiang Kai Shek by appearing to offer the people an alternative to the repressive measures of the GMD and instead to celebrate the unity between the party, the people and the army found in Jiangxi and Yanan, and extend it to all China. Therefore, despite Chinese Communism lacking in major resemblances to the traditional Marxism it was supposedly based on, it was made successful due to the flexibility and pragmatism that, guiding Mao’s decision making, at last resulted in his successful rise to power.