Mao Zedong & 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 blind obedience"?

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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