The Great Helmsman: MAO ZEDONG

By Charlton, Tim | Business Asia, May 17, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Great Helmsman: MAO ZEDONG


Charlton, Tim, Business Asia


"Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" -- Mao Zedong, 1938

No person in history has had more power over more people than Mao Zedong, and no one shaped the destiny of an Asian nation so completely and for so long. Mao was chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and, from 1949 to 1976, he was President of the People's Republic of China.

Mao was a revolutionary, visionary and politician who was prepared to put at risk or take millions of lives. He steered his country through a tumultuous 25 years and united it for the challenges of the next century. Mao was a leader who dreamt he could change the world, and in some ways he did so.

Mao Zedong was born December 26, 1893, in Shaoshan, a small rural town among the mountains of Hunan, central China. His family were peasants but his father was better off than most, owning more than enough land to feed his clan and selling surplus rice for profit. It was in this setting that a young Mao forged his character against the strong will of his father, a man who ruled his house with an iron fist and often clashed with his headstrong son.

Mao was never allowed to rest after his work was done. "He was a severe taskmaster. He hated to see me idle," Mao recalled of his father.

At the age of 12, Mao left school to work on the farm, but he had a thirst for knowledge. He would take a book into the fields with him and read between shovelling manure or planting rice.

The first stirrings of his revolutionary spirit came when he read a pamphlet on the Japanese takeover of Taiwan and Korea which suggested that China might be next. Dissatisfied with life at home and constant arguments with his father, Mao borrowed money and enrolled in high school.

By 18, Mao was well versed in literature and history and was becoming interested in politics. At this time China was changing rapidly after 4000 changeless years of imperial rule. In 1912, republican forces opposed to the Qing dynasty captured the town of Changsha where Mao was studying.

He joined the republican army the next day and served the next six months learning basic soldiering -- which was to become vital 20 years later. Then Mao went back to school for five years. He excelled at geography, history and essay writing, all useful for a future revolutionary.

He also started the "New People's study society", which aimed to "help form a new China". Mao was showing early political skills. He also trained hard physically -- running and swimming. He criticised students who were not fit.

Mao first saw armed action when he was still a student at Changsha. He led a group of classmates and teachers against bandit gangs who raided the town for loot, food and recruits. Later, he organised a garrison force to fend off warlords.

Mao graduated in 1918 at the age of 24 and went to Beijing, where he got a job in the university library. The impact of the Russian revolution was then reaching China. By 1920 Mao had become a Marxist, organising student groups and workers. He started the first Communist cell in China.

It soon became apparent to Mao that the key to power and reform in China was the peasants, and not the industrial workers as Marx had taught and Lenin and Stalin had obeyed in seizing and ruling Russia.

Mao led his first peasant uprising in 1927. This was a crucial political year in China, with armed clashes between underground Communists and right-wing Nationalists of the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) party. In Shanghai KMT forces killed thousands of Communist activists and Mao drew the lesson that control of the countryside was crucial to any march on the cities.

By 1931 Mao had a rural army of 30,000 soldiers, opposed by both KMT and fellow Communists who were unhappy with his independent policies. That summer a small, bearded man arrived at Mao's base. His name was Zhou Enlai, a Communist commissar, sent to displace Mao. …

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