He continues to torment his nation from the grave, his image inescapably linked to modern China. He died 54 years ago, but his childhood home in the town of Shaoshan in Hunan Province is preserved as a place of homage for the faithful — as well as an occasional curious foreigner. More pervasively, Mao’s face decorates Chinese currency. More dramatically, his portrait still hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the northern border of the space made infamous by the killing of demonstrators in 1989.
Moreover, his body, or a wax copy, lies in state in a large mausoleum in Tiananmen Square that draws a steady stream of visitors. On entering the building, the human tide flows right and left to pass first by the massive bronze statue of Mao, before which true believers lay flowers. Urged on by the mausoleum’s staff, people quickly surge past the glass‐encased body. On exiting the building, Chinese capitalism reasserts itself, as numerous booths hawk overpriced Mao tchotchkes.
He is still venerated despite how he abused his authority. After overthrowing the Nationalist government, he launched a campaign against the CCP’s many enemies. Several million “counter‐revolutionaries” and “landlords” were murdered; millions more ended up in laogai or labor camps.
In September 1950, North Korea’s Kim Il‐sung lost his attempt to conquer the South. As allied forces followed Kim’s broken military northward, Mao pressed his colleagues to intervene. The result was “an entirely new war,” in the words of U.S. commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur. After Beijing entered the Korean War, the conflict was not settled until June 1953. Around 200,000 Chinese soldiers, including Mao’s son, died to save what evolved into a weird totalitarian hybrid of monarchy and communism, which Mao later criticized.
With the regime under attack for its authoritarian methods, he initiated the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956, in which he invited criticism: “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Mao insisted. Alas, he either soured on hearing people’s opinions or used the campaign to expose opponents, launching another round of repression, the Anti‐Rightist Movement. Millions more apparently were killed or imprisoned.
Even more disastrous was the “Great Leap Forward,” launched in 1958 as part of the second Five‐Year Plan, intended to rapidly industrialize China. The Great Leap Forward was characterized by agricultural collectivization and backyard steel mills, both of which were disastrous. Local officials claimed phantom surpluses while the national government exported food. The result was mass starvation as the regime claimed an ever‐larger share of ever‐lower production and employed violent “anti‐grain concealment” drives, arresting, torturing, and even murdering peasants accused of hiding food for themselves and their families.
Some true believers diminish the casualty totals, claiming that “only” a few million died needlessly. Ian Johnson noted that “On the Chinese side, this involves a cottage industry of Mao apologists willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Mao name sacred: historians working at Chinese institutions who argue that the numbers have been inflated by bad statistical work.” But official Chinese population statistics tell a different story. Serious estimates of human devastation vary widely, ranging between 20 and 45 million.
Next, Mao’s apologists claim that he did not know or believe claims about the rural reality. But news of mass hardship reached the leadership, causing his colleagues to eventually act. Moreover, attempting to transform the country includes responsibility to assess the consequences. Johnson noted that the inevitable consequence of Mao’s orders “was that farmers had no grain, no seeds, and no tools.” Catastrophe was inevitable. Mao created the system, including purges of his critics, in which subordinates were afraid to tell him the truth. And he expected hardship when he mandated smaller food allotments for those targeted as “enemies of the people.”
So great was the disaster that Deng Xiaoping, who later oversaw China’s dramatic shift toward the market, and Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s onetime political heir who later died in custody, sought to sideline the Great Helmsman, leaving him to reign as revolutionary symbol while others managed the economy. Mao was not finished, however: in 1966 he instigated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, supposedly to upend the new ruling class and stultifying bureaucracy and instill permanent revolutionary fervor in China.
More important, however, was his desire to wreak revenge on his enemies and regain his influence. He urged the young to “bombard the headquarters” filled with bourgeois enemies who had infiltrated the revolution. Mobs of “Red Guards” waving his little red book of quotations went forth in search of rightists and counter‐revolutionaries to destroy.
The result was chaos: a mix of party purge, xenophobic crusade against foreign influence, old‐fashioned power struggle, populist know‐nothing campaign against authority, and bitter civil war. Schools were closed and youth sent to labor in the countryside. Intellectuals and officials were demonized and terrorized before ad hoc tribunals. China’s ancient heritage, from cultural, historical, and religious landmarks to antiquities, artifacts, and relics, was ravaged. Millions were abused, imprisoned, and/or killed. Deng was exiled to the countryside, and Liu, the country’s nominal head of state, was denounced as a “traitor” and “capitalist‐roader” and ousted. Mao formally called off the madness in 1969, but in practice the campaign continued until 1976. After Mao’s death Liu was rehabilitated and Deng was elevated.
Mao left a trail of devastation behind all his major decisions. The casualties were prodigious but unknowable with any certainty. The estimates range widely, from 35 million to an astonishing 100 million people. Even those who know communism well disagree: R. J. Rummel, author of Death by Government, figured 35 million, while the famous collective work The Black Book of Communism indicated 65 million. Ian Johnson criticized higher figures for discrediting the case against Mao, but still suggested 42.5 million, a monumental slaughter.
Whether because of murderous intent or callous disregard, Mao ended up as history’s greatest mass killer. His policies resulted in wholesale death. And he seemed indifferent to the prodigious human suffering, dismissing the deaths of class enemies and faithful peasants alike. After all, he believed, China could afford the losses since it had many more people to carry the revolutionary banners forward.
The moral responsibility lies with Mao. And he was motivated by a perverse ideology that was disastrous everywhere it was imposed. Another fundamental problem, however, was unlimited power. It was not always that way. Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books,