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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

MAO ZEDONG

By Lee Ngok


Curriculum Vitae

FIRST AND FOREMOST, Mao Zedong was a national hero who brought unity and dignity to China. He enabled the nation to stand on its own feet after prolonged Western domination, Japanese occupation and incessant political upheaval. Mao spent more than two decades gaining the support of China's peasants, who were dispossessed by the landlords and their sponsors, the ruling Kuomintang. He developed Lenin's revolutionary strategy to rally peasants, workers and the national bourgeoisie.

After toppling Chiang Kai-shek's regime in 1949, Mao practiced socialism and implemented a land revolution, collectivization and industrialization. China's experience inspired Third World countries to liberate themselves from foreign control through mass support and revolution. But Mao became entangled with Chinese intellectuals and was overwhelmed by economic problems arising from over-ambitious targets. The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Forward coincided with the withdrawal of Soviet aid, marking a turning point in Mao's grand strategy for nation building.

Mao found himself challenged on both the political and economic fronts by his comrades-in-arm. To maintain control of the Communist Party and the nation, he launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The objective was to destroy whatever symbolized the status quo and to establish a new order through class struggle. The entire ruling hierarchy crumbled, giving way to a reign of terror under the Gang of Four, led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing. For 10 years, the nation was paralyzed. Political turmoil led to economic stagnation as the entire workforce was laid idle. Mao was deified, but the gargantuan destruction stripped China of the socialist values and assets he had painstakingly built. Soon after he died, the nation chose to open its doors and pursue the "Four Modernizations," preferring economic prosperity to the political correctness Mao cherished.

On the international front, Mao, the architect of a fledgling state, found himself in the thick of the Cold War. He took pre-emptive action against the Americans by sending troops into Korea. China was shunned internationally as the U.S. orchestrated trade embargoes and sanctions. Undeterred, Mao and his premier, Zhou Enlai, worked to project China as a leader of the Non-Aligned world, championing its cause against "imperialism." Beijing gained membership in the nuclear club by detonating its first atomic bomb in 1964.

After Mao fell out with the Soviet Union, not even the turmoil and ideology of the Cultural Revolution deterred him from making overtures to the United States. The landmark visit by President Richard Nixon in 1972 began a thaw in Sino-U.S. relations. That softened Mao's rhetoric against "hegemonism," though he continued to preach his vision of China as the core of a resurgent communist movement.

"Political power comes from the barrel of a gun" was perhaps Mao's best-known saying. His political authority was rooted in three decades of military struggle against both the KMT and the Japanese. The experience became an integral part of Mao Zedong Thought, notably the doctrine of People's War. It held that the total support of the people against an invader was paramount, relying on the human factor more than weapons. When China was at odds with both America and Russia, Mao urged Third World nations to free themselves from their colonial masters, equating the situation with a victory of the countryside against the cities. But he stopped short of sending troops to back the liberation movements he inspired in Malaya, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In China itself, Mao's "guerrilla" mentality met with serious resistance as the young republic grappled with national security challenges. His People's War doctrine did not tally with the need for professionalization and defense modernization. Proponents of the latter, such as Defense Minister Peng Dehuai and army Chief of Staff Luo Ruiqing, suffered purges. The People's War outlived its usefulness on Mao's death. The predominance of regional conflicts and the 1991 Gulf War persuaded Beijing to undertake fullscale modernization and professionalization of its armed forces.

Both Mao Zedong and Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, brought unity and strength to China. But the force of destruction also loomed large during their rule. Mao, a romanticist, wrote in a 1965 poem: "Thirty-eight years have fled. With a mere snap of the fingers, we can clasp the moon in the Ninth Heaven and seize turtles deep in the Five Seas. Nothing is hard in this world." Not long after the verse was published, China entered one of its most tumultuous periods in modern times.n

Professor Lee Ngok, executive director of the Hong Kong Vocational Training Council, has published widely on China.


MAO ZEDONG

•Born on Dec. 26, 1893

•Helped found the Communist Party, 1921

•Led Red Army's Long March, 1934-35

•Announced the formation of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949

•Launched Great Leap Forward in 1958

•Launched Cultural Revolution in 1966

•Died on Sept. 9, 1976

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