& Personal Power
Father is close,
mother is close,
but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.
- lyrics of a popular song
When the Chinese Communist Party was first formed in 1920, Mao Zedong,
although one of its founding members, was not given significant power. It was only at the
1935 Zunyi Conference that Mao was acknowledged as the party's de facto leader. In
addition, his title was merely unofficial, formal supremacy only bestowed in 1943. How
then was Mao Zedong, compared by many to the first unifying emperor Qin Shihuang, able to
attain this vast personal power that endeared others to follow him to the "point of
Mao's famous saying, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun " acknowledges the importance of military strength in the accumulation of power. However, as Michel Oskenberg points out, Mao also valued material abundance, ideology and organised human energy. He believed that the task of a successful politician was to select a "proper strategy" for the combined use and development of these sources of power. Consequently, a study of such a strategy is essential to determine how the Communist Party chief obtained such vast personal power.
Power & Material Abundance
In the opinion of Frederick Teiwes, Mao's contribution as "father of
the country" constitutes the main foundation for his prestige. Many political
observers believe that Mao's personal mandate was "powerfully strengthened" by
his 1949 success in creating a strong and unified China for the first time in more than a
century. By not succumbing to US pressure in Korea, Beijing had also established a
"new prestige" in the "fine performance" of its army. According to
General David Barr, then Chief of the Joint US Military Advisory Group in China, America
would have suffered a military disaster if Mao had intervened in Korea just twenty-four
hours earlier than he did. The Communist Party leader's industrial success, as outlined in
the First Five Year Plan of 1953, also boosted his stature. Statistics then claimed an
annual production of 5.2 million tons in steel and 5.8 million tons in iron, considered by
Clare Hollingworth to be "genuine" and "spectacular advances".
Internationally, acclaim of Mao's China was probably enhanced by the visits of prominent
foreign leaders such as Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia and Nehru of India.
Power & the Military
Despite the benefits that material abundance had presented to Mao's
personal power, the Communist leader preferred not to rely on such gains as the sole
source of his supremacy, believing wealth to facilitate corruption. Instead, Mao
considered the army to be the "chief component" of a state's political power.
This was exemplified by his post-Cultural Revolution endorsement of the army as a
"logical" ally to restore order. Ross Terrill furthers this argument by
suggesting that many Chinese had then considered the army to be holding most of the
country's power. In addition, Mao practised a "divide and rule" policy in order
to establish a firm military command. This was performed by "[harnessing] the energy
of his allies
and directing their hostility towards [his] enemies". For
instance, the Chairman had chosen Lin Biao as Defence Minister to negate the growing power
of Head of State Liu Shaoqi.
Power & Ideology
Although military control was an essential component of Mao's personal
power, it was only believed to be of short-term value. Ideas and knowledge were however
esteemed in the long-term. As Li Jie remarks, the secret of Mao's success lay in his
creation of a belief system for the masses. This resulted in the construction of a massive
personality cult in which people were "drilled" to believe that anyone not
totally for Mao was their enemy. This cult was first cultivated in the 1940s when Mao's
thought was written into the Party Statures. It later saw an upsurge in the 1958 Great
Leap Forward and the 1959 Lushan Conference, before fully erupting in the 1966 Cultural
Revolution. As Teiwes argues, this charismatic leadership was the underlying reason why
the Chairman was able to attain power. The Cult of Mao achieved tremendous following due
to the "traditional" dimension of Chinese political culture. It established Mao
both as an emperor as well as a political leader, allowing him to purge opponents such as
Peng Dehuai and Liu Shaoqi.
Power & Organised Human Energy
Chinese traditional thought also gave rise to Mao's belief that he who
controlled the thoughts of the people determined their destiny. It was therefore important
to "manage public opinion". Mao was particular successful in this aspect. He
channelled the masses in various campaigns to further his political objectives.
Propagandist efforts such as the 1951 Three Antis Campaign, 1952 Five Antis Campaign and
1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign served as outlets for this organised human energy. In
addition, the Communist leader was able to effectively mobilise a group of committed
youth. These "teenage zealots" called themselves the "Red Guards of
Chairman Mao" and devoted their time studying Mao's quotations, compiled in a
"Little Red Book". The Red Guards were to become Mao's personal "shock
troops" during the Cultural Revolution and were essential in the removal of opponents
such as Liu Shaoqi.
Strategic Control of Power
According to Oskenberg, the maintenance of initiative is a "vital
ingredient" in the political battle for power. Mao was particularly adept in this
aspect, manipulating his image to suit the most favourable situation. This involved
projecting a false impression of his intentions in order to induce his opponents to adopt
a strategy advantageous to him. Such a scheme was exemplified in the Hundred Flowers
Campaign of 1956. Mao had then given political leeway to intellectuals, allowing them to
criticise officials "all the way to the top". His move unleashed a floodgate of
criticisms against the Communist Party. However, in 1957, Mao began to clamp down on these
critics, saying he had launched the campaign to "[entice] snakes out of their
lairs". Among those removed was the prominent writer Ding Ling, who ended up
scrubbing floors at her former office.
Mao was ruthless in his conduct, resorting to any feasible method to remain in power. His approach to leadership involved the "tactical agility" to forge and break alliances with those under him. For instance, the Communist leader had installed Liu Shaoqi and later Lin Biao as his chosen successors. He however removed them when he felt that they were a threat to his personal power. According to Terrill, Liu was purged because he was viewed as a "near equal" of Mao within the Party. Moreover, the Head of State was considered a "man of immense stature" by the Chinese people. As for Lin, the Chairman felt that he was too ambitious. In addition, Mao also felt that the Defence Minister was trying to promote him to the "high benches of sainthood", thereby making him a ceremonial ruler rather than an actual leader.
The vast personal power amassed by Mao Zedong was not fully eclipsed by the death of the man himself. Although his demise in September 1976 had closed a chapter in Chinese history books, the Communist leader had however left an "indelible" impression on the lives of his countrymen. From the late 1980s to the centenary of Mao's birth in 1993, China continued to witness "nationwide revival of interest" in Mao. According to Geremie Barme, this renewed "MaoCraze", although non-political and different from the personality cult of the Cultural Revolution, expressed a "deep dissatisfaction" with the status quo and a "yearning" for the moral power and leadership of the long-dead Chairman. As Li Jie explains, the greatest secret of Mao's success lies in the understanding of the Chinese that he shared with Lu Xun: while the famous writer had used his insight to criticise the Chinese, Mao had used their weakness to further his revolution.
The above essay was written by by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on the 8th March 1999.
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