Why Mao Still Matters


In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ denouncing late dictator Joseph Stalin for crimes against humanity broke Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung’s heart. At least, it would have, if Mao had had any heart. Stalin had been Mao’s inspiration before 1956, to be emulated in word and deed. To the tyrant who’d held absolute power in mainland China for over six years and was still perfecting mass terror when news of the speech broke, Khrushchev’s tirade was Communist heresy. 

In 1961, Stalin’s embalmed body was removed from its place of honor next to Lenin’s in the Mausoleum and interred in an outdoor plot behind it. By then, Mao had finalized his break with Moscow and aspired to lead the worldwide Communist movement. The ‘Great Leap Forward,’ which sacrificed tens of millions of ordinary people to starvation, malnutrition-related fatality, suicide, and other unnecessary death, had been underway for three years.

Stalin’s posthumous debasement would present Communist China with a quandary down the road. Mao’s successor, the reformer Deng Xiaoping, should have put Mao on history’s dustheap, as Khrushchev had with Stalin. But he chickened out. Mao had periodically purged and abused Deng, as he had innumerable other sycophants and underlings, and even made Deng’s son a paraplegic. But when it came time for an official Chinese Communist evaluation of mass-murderer Mao’s legacy, a blanket was thrown over Mao as a topic of criticism and debate. That was that.

Like Khrushchev, Deng had shown plenty of brutality of his own during Mao’s rule, faithfully leading purges and repression for the ‘Great Helmsman.’  In the wake of the Deng-authorized Tiananmen Square Massacre, municipal clean-up crews mopped blood off Beijing’s streets for days. Still, Deng never matched Mao’s levels of sustained barbarism, and he partially ‘opened’ China’s post-Mao economy and society. So why no historical reckoning for one of history’s greatest devils?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) never condemned Mao because it lacked something the Soviets had: Lenin. Khrushchev’s take-down of Stalin didn’t completely destroy Stalinism, but it did take the glow off the Stalinist tyranny. Khrushchev and other Soviet reformers could always classify Stalinism as a deviation from the true path. Crucially, Lenin was Russian, and thus a convenient ‘patriotic’ icon in the Russia-dominated USSR.

The CCP had only Mao. The ‘Chairman’ hadn’t founded the Party, and in fact, Moscow had repeatedly tried to sideline and control Mao as he rose to power before, during, and after the Chinese Civil War (1945-49). Stalin had even directed Mao to cooperate with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek until the ‘Generalissimo’ had clearly lost. But Mao had founded the ‘People’s Republic,’ authored the ‘Little Red Book,’ and decreed the barbaric ‘Cultural Revolution.’  Unless the CCP wanted a ‘foreign’ mascot (Lenin), it had to stick with Mao, China’s very own homegrown horror.

A sociopath is often described as someone with antisocial personality disorder, as if that explains anything. But imagine a person lacking the feintest degree of warmth or affection for any other human gaining absolute power over 600 million people. Mao despised his Politburo members and liked to call them into his study-bedroom to give orders from his fetid bedsheets. When he learned that his long-serving premier, Zhou Enlai, had cancer, he concealed the news from him until the disease had metastasized, denying him medical treatment even during the terminal stages of the illness. Mao thus ensured he would outlive Zhou by several months. 

All of Mao’s four wives died unnatural deaths, one falling victim to a public execution from which he could easily have saved her. By his wives alone he fathered ten children, none of whom he ever cared for. He spread venereal disease through numerous concubines and other sexual partners, never brushed his teeth, and viewed a swim in the river as a perfectly acceptable form of washing.

The Chairman was a duplicitous coward in war. He worked relentlessly to undermine the authority of military leaders and gain de facto control of their units if he spotted any talent among them. During the Civil War, he lured Red forces into death traps, taking advantage of poor communications to conceal what was happening in the countryside, and wiping out military officers he saw as rivals. If an enemy unit was getting too close, Mao would flee. The few engagements Mao’s forces faced proved disastrous, and Mao himself always gave a very wide berth to any actual fighting.

Mao’s mega-infrastructure schemes (harebrained in their destructiveness), collectivization of agriculture (killing 45 million people), and foreign policy adventures (sending 2 million ill-equipped troops to fight in Korea, 400,000 of whom perished; sponsoring the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia) all smacked of an effort to ‘out-Stalin’ Stalin himself. All were disastrous for both China and the world. 

Apologists for today’s CCP regime dismiss reminders of Mao with a wave of the hand, pointing to the great ‘modernization’ of the last three decades. The implication: Mao committed ‘insane’ excesses and mistakes but laid the foundations for prosperity—and can thus be safely ignored. Sadly, those ‘foundations’ consist of mass graves, ruined ecology, and endless fear of persecution. The idea that Mao did anything truly positive for successive generations is a lie.

The notion that Mao was a sincere Communist fanatic, like the ascetic Lenin, is a lie too. The banner for Mao’s megalomaniacal sadism was immaterial to him. What drew the young Mao to the Communists was money: the Moscow-bankrolled Communist International became Mao’s financier, giving him an early taste of cash entering his pocket from abroad. The Nationalists offered no such money-faucet, so Mao went with the Reds, led a mob of bandits, and looted a fortune in the Civil War. By the time he died, he’d had huge palaces built for his personal, decadent use all over China.

Just as every ‘body of law’ contains a ‘meta-law’—a principle or series of principles on which the entire corpus rests—so Maoism lies at the core of the CCP. And at the core of Maoism, in turn, is visceral anti-Americanism, a conviction the tyrant held consistently throughout his life. Mao’s hatred of the United States was so deep and abiding that he strained to maintain composure in his meeting with Nixon in 1972 at the behest of realpolitik ‘genius’ Henry Kissinger. The raw deal America secured from Mao in exchange for diplomatic recognition of the PRC (and sidelining Taiwan) would only become clear decades later. With vague platitudes about ‘democracy,’ the Chairman deftly suckered ‘Tricky Dick,’ who was so fixated on weakening one Communist superpower he was willing to facilitate the rise of another by affording it international legitimacy. America is paying the price of Nixon and Kissinger’s folly today. Anti-Americanism remains the raison d’etre of the CCP.

Today, Mao’s giant portrait hangs alone on Tiananmen Gate, his embalmed body on public display in a ‘crystal coffin’ in the Mao Zedong Mausoleum with an around-the-clock military honor guard in the center of Tiananmen Square. The Chinese tyrant’s corpse lies in the Middle Kingdom’s highest place of honor, to be worshipped as a false god. Just as in the USSR, where ‘conservatives’ resisted reform and retained an affection for Stalin, ‘conservatives’ in one-party China celebrate Mao. ‘Liberals’ are always ‘on the right’ in Communism’s warped world, while ‘leftists’ are reactionaries. If China is ever to really change, it must excise the evil at its heart. It must bury Mao—body, mind, and soul.

Chad Nagle is a communications consultant, attorney and freelance writer currently based in the Washington D.C. area. He recently served as an advisor to a Saudi humanitarian and development program operating in Yemen.