If one had to describe Mao Zedong using just two words, “the ideologue” would most likely be the number one choice… with pros but unfortunately also cons deriving from his strongly ideology-driven approach to ruling China. To put things into perspective, Mao Zedong’s attitude when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the USSR (following Stalin’s death) speaks for itself: he strongly criticized Khrushchev’s more moderate tone as well as pragmatic approach and, instead, expressed his belief that ideology needs to come first, second and third.
On the one hand, it is indeed true that China wasn’t exactly in the best shape when Mao came to power back in 1949, following the defeat of the nationalist forces, who retreated to Taiwan. Mao Zedong can be considered the man with the plan, to use a corny but strangely accurate analogy. Unfortunately, the plan was… well, sometimes just wrong, as illustrated by two episodes:
- The so-called Great Leap Forward (1957), which involved Mao’s intention of making it clear that China is on the rise by setting optimistic goals. Excessively optimistic goals, as time would prove, with Mao’s intention of China surpassing the UK ending up with downright catastrophic results. To simplify things and explain why, let’s just say that the administrative sector was scared not to disappoint Mao on the one hand and eager to please him on the other, which led them to overstating production numbers by a wide margin when it comes to sectors such as agriculture. Based on these overly-optimistic numbers which had little to do with reality, China exported considerably more than it should have and once it was time to reconcile the previously-mentioned projections with reality, China realized it exported so much that there wasn’t enough left for internal consumption. Among other things, this led to the most devastating famine in the history of mankind by number of victims, with a seven-figure number of deaths
- Another example of taking ideology so far that you end up doing tremendous economic damage was the Cultural Revolution that took place as of 1966. Simply put, the Cultural Revolution had goals such as empowering the working class by, among other things, “correcting” the behavior of the bourgeoisie (intellectuals, for example). This led to situations that made little sense, such as intellectuals who could have been put to much better used being sent to villages so as to “learn” from farmers and all in all, the Cultural Revolution revolved around disrupting the status quo to such a degree that gross misallocation of capital took place, incredibly important cultural landmarks (many of which were related to symbols of the past such as Confucius) were destroyed and the list could go on and on
However, closer to Mao’s death (Mao Zedong died in 1976), circumstances forced China to tone it down a notch ideologically-speaking. Due to tensions with the USSR, China had little choice but to become more open to the idea of communicating with the United States, now that the two entities shared common USSR-related goals. The culmination of this can be considered the visit of Richard Nixon in Beijing back in 1972.
Unfortunately, leaving geopolitical collaboration aside, not all that much was done economically speaking. But still, it was a generation-defining shift which would create the proper conditions for China to embark on its journey to modernization once Deng Xiaoping came to power, but more on that in another article.
As a conclusion when it comes to the Mao Zedong era of China, his death left behind a country which found itself divided due to having to decide which direction to choose for the future. On the one hand, there was a highly ideology-driven faction (the famous or infamous Gang of Four) with members who even included Mao’s wife and intended to maintain China on an ideologically rigid course. On the other hand, the faction led by Deng Xiaoping had much more pragmatic (or realistic, if you will) goals in mind. Luckily for China, the latter won and the rest, as they say, is history.