Mao Zedong

His ruthless vision united a fractured people and inspired revolutions far beyond China's borders

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After the communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Mao's position was immeasurably strengthened. Despite all that the Chinese people had endured, it seems not to have been too hard for Mao to persuade them of the visionary force and practical need for the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s. In Mao's mind, the intensive marshaling of China's energies would draw manual and mental labor together into a final harmonious synthesis and throw a bridge across the chasm of China's poverty to the promised socialist paradise on the other side.

In February 1957, Mao drew his thoughts on China together in the form of a rambling speech on "The Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People." Mao's notes for the speech reveal the curious mixture of jocularity and cruelty, of utopian visions and blinkered perceptions, that lay at the heart of his character. Mao admitted that 15% or more of the Chinese people were hungry and that some critics felt a "disgust" with Marxism. He spoke too of the hundreds of thousands who had died in the revolution so far, but firmly rebutted figures--quoted in Hong Kong newspapers--that 20 million had perished. "How could we possibly kill 20 million people?" he asked.

It is now established that at least that number died in China during the famine that followed the Great Leap between 1959 and 1961. In the Cultural Revolution that followed only five years later, Mao used the army and the student population against his opponents. Once again millions suffered or perished as Mao combined the ruthlessness of Shang Yang with the absolute confidence of the long-distance swimmer.

Rejecting his former party allies, and anyone who could be accused of espousing the values of an older and more gracious Chinese civilization, Mao drew his sustenance from the chanting crowds of Red Guards. The irony here was that from his youthful readings, Mao knew the story of how Shang Yang late in life tried to woo a moral administrator to his service. But the official turned down Shang Yang's blandishments, with the words that "1,000 persons going 'Yes, yes!' are not worth one man with a bold 'No!'"

Mao died in 1976, and with the years those adulatory cries of "Yes, yes!" have gradually faded. Leaders Mao trained, like Deng Xiaoping, were able to reverse Mao's policies even as they claimed to revere them. They gave back to the Chinese people the opportunities to express their entrepreneurial skills, leading to astonishing rates of growth and a complete transformation of the face of Chinese cities.

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