10 Brutal Realities of Life in Mao’s China

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Mao Zedong, who you may also know as Chairman Mao, is one of those rare people whose actions have affected the lives of countless millions. He ushered his own brand of communism in China, and held the massive country in an iron grip for decades. But what was life like under this initially benevolent-seeming leader who gradually shifted into a ruthless dictator? Let’s find out…

10. The civil war between Mao’s communists and the ruling National Party

Mao seized power in 1949, but it was by no means an easy task. The power shift came in the form of a ruthless conflict that started at the heels of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1945, and raged on for years. The war with Japan and the emergence of communism had divided China in three factions: The regions controlled by Japan, the ones controlled by Mao’s communists, and the Kuomingtang nationalists fighting under Chiang Kai-Shek. Japan’s WWII defeat took them out of the equation, and the clash between the remaining two became known as the Chinese Civil War.

The Nationalist government troops were much larger and they were initially the stronger side, but as the battles progressed, it became evident that the communists were the cool new kid on the block. As communism spread throughout Asia, they gained both momentum and ground, and mediation attempts by the U.S. completely failed to defuse the situation. By 1949, the underpowered but far more driven communists of the People’s Liberation Army had secured China from their enemies … and the country was declared the People’s Republic of China.  

9. The Great Leap Forward

One of Mao’s most ambitious goals was to change China from an agrarian farming society to a modern, industrial megapower. Unfortunately, he thought that this massive change could be achieved in just a few years, and without any notion as to what his subjects wanted. Even more unfortunately, he decided to focus on labor-intensive industrialism instead of the sort that required machines and investments, which meant he needed lots and lots of people moved to new, unfamiliar industrial tasks at newformed communes. If you think that this sounds a lot like he was sentencing a huge chunk of his population to work camps, well, there have been worse analogies.

The result of Mao’s ambitions was the Great Leap Forward, a two-year game of population chess that has been called the greatest mass murder in history. From 1958 to early 1960, the Chairman and his cohorts reverted millions and millions of people who had previously worked in agriculture to communes where they were harnessed in various small-scale industry activities. In the process, many agricultural implements were destroyed and farm animals were killed, and the removal of the workforce from food production first resulted in crops rotting in the fields, and then very little crops at all. When frightful leaders of the ineffective communes lied about the size of their crops to make themselves look better, the bureaucrats nodded … and carried away all the “surplus” food they didn’t actually have, leaving the workers to starve.

At this point, even Soviet Union took one look at what China was doing and withdrew its support. Add in a few natural disasters and unfortunate weather conditions, and a large-scale disaster was ready. Before the Great Leap Forward was called off, it caused massive environmental damage throughout China and killed a literally immeasurable number of people. No one knows the precise amounts of victims — though China insists the “official” death toll was 14 million people, experts have estimated the real number somewhere between 20 and 48 million.  

8. The atrocities of the 1966 Cultural Revolution

In 1966, Mao launched his (in)famous Cultural Revolution that was officially meant to revive the country’s communist cultural strivings and reach it to new, glorious heights. While he hoped that the plan would help China become the ultimate socialist country and rise himself into the position of “the man who leads Planet Earth into socialism,” it was also a handy plot for the now elderly Chairman to get rid of the people plotting against him. As a result, the whole endeavor was a ploy that Mao used to “strengthen communist ideology,” and it just so happened that the best way to do that was to cull the people who opposed him.

Mao let the party faithfuls loose on his enemies, and had the official media slander them. Gangs of the party’s Red Guards and students attacked people who they thought were wearing “bourgeois” clothing, signs interpreted as “imperialist” were torn down and non-conforming party members were either murdered or driven to suicide. The brutalities were so complicated and widespread that historians are still trying to make sense of it all, but it’s generally agreed that up to two million people lost their lives and the country’s economy was thoroughly crippled. In the end, the only goal the Revolution reached was plunging China into a decade of turmoil, hunger and mindless violence. The Cultural Revolution also managed to destroy much of China’s cultural heritage.

7. Mao’s cult of personality

A key part of Mao’s rule was the cult of personality centered around him. The “Cult of Mao” depicted the Chairman as a benevolent leader and infallible ideological visionary who loomed over everyone else, both metaphorically and as a literal giant watching over the people in propaganda posters. To keep up with this image, the mistakes and failures of his regime were routinely either downplayed or blamed on other, lesser Party members.

This hero worship was a far cry from Marxist ideals, which despised the cult of an individual person, but he sold it to the party as a necessity to boost morale: After all, thousands of years of emperor worship couldn’t just vanish overnight, and the people would need something to fill the void. This certainly worked for Mao’s purposes. In time, his public image became that of an unchallengeable, iconic figure that was all but impervious to criticism. His shadow is felt though the man himself is long gonel, and elements of his borderline messianic status in parts of China have carried over to the new millennium.

6. Labor camps

In 1949, the Chinese communists set up a system of Laogai camps, which were a network of labor camps modeled after the Soviet gulags. Laogai camps were technically just for work and re-education — “re-education through labor,” if you will — and there were rules that prevented the camp officials from torturing and abusing the prisoners. However, the ruleset was purely technical, and creative camp leaders were able to torture prisoners who didn’t fill their daily work quota with tricks like tying them to bamboo poles and exposing them to mosquitoes and elements, without ever actually hitting them.

As the Atlantic reported in 2013, the Laogai camp system didn’t exactly go away with Mao. It survived to modern times, providing handy workforce with minimal costs. The camps often have two names to mask their real nature: a “secret” administrative name, and a public name that made it seem like a legitimate business. For instance, one camp was publicly known as ‘Yunnan Province Jinma Diesel Engine Plant,’ but its true, administrative name is listed as ‘Yunnan Province Prison No. 1.’



5. Brutal executions

Brutal executions were a tragic consequence of Mao’s ruthless rule. Between 1947 and 1957 alone, the communist regime killed an estimated five million civilians, and a good chunk of this was premeditated. Mao’s early regime used violence and scare tactics to silence the opposition and to dirty the hands of ordinary people to make them accomplices. Mao’s idea was to turn people against each other so “they had their hands bloodied in the pact sealed in blood between the party and the people.” When everyone was dirty, no one could go back and the only way was forward … namely, Mao’s forward.

As a result, villagers had to bloody their hands by denouncing and killing “landlords,” who were largely just ordinary farmers. They were buried alive, or tied up and dismembered while they were helpless. Even their children weren’t always safe, and some particularly zealous people killed them for being “little landlords.” Meanwhile, the regime often staged public executions on stadiums, where hundreds of people witnessed the deaths.  

4. The anarchy of 1967

One particular unforeseen side effect of Mao’s cultural revolution was the anarchy of 1967. Removing various party power players from under Mao had created a power vacuum, and multiple factions of the Red Guard were trying to get as large a slice of the pie as possible, which led to battles that sent many cities on the brink of full anarchy.  

Lin Biao, Mao’s designated successor, was ordered to restore order by sending army troops to various cities. This went roughly as well as sending the military to urban areas tends to go: Although the military managed to push the Red Guards of the problem areas to more rural areas and stop their conflict, the chaos in the cities sent the country’s economy in free fall.

3. The Great Famine

Mao’s Great Leap Forward may have been the largest mass murder in history, but the Great Famine is what did the most of the actual dirty work. Thanks to the communist regime’s actions toward forcefully shifting the country’s production wheels toward industrialization, tens of millions of people starved. The Great Famine was easily the world’s largest famine, and between 1959 and 1961 an estimated 30 million people starved to death. What’s more, a similar amount of life was lost over that time due to lost or postponed births.

China is still hesitant to make a detailed look into the Great Famine, but voices such as journalist Yan Jisheng have written extensively about the tragedy. Jisheng describes the events from the viewpoint of an otherwise unremarkable Henan province city, where one in eight people were wiped out by starvation and starvation-induced brutality in just three years. Officials tried to commandeer more grain than farmers actually have. In a single commune, 12,000 people died over the span of just nine months. Children begging for food from the officials were dragged deep into the mountains and left to die. There are terrifying true stories of cannibalism and entire villages slowly dying, the last remaining inhabitant finally going insane.

2. Mango worship

If you want an example of just how crazy things could get under Chairman Mao, look no further than China’s cult of the mango. Mao once received a crate of mangoes as a present from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, but evidently didn’t much care for the fruit since he immediately re-gifted the crate to a group of peasants occupying a university. Overwhelmed by the fruit basket from their noble leader, the workers decided to send one of the mangoes to each of the most important factories in Beijing.

The people immediately started associating the fruit with Mao, and since the man’s cult of personality was already in full flow, things got a little… weird. The People’s Daily newspaper published poems about the mango. Factory workers held huge ceremonies around the fruit, preserving it in wax, placing it in altars and bowing to it. One tool factory decided to send their mango to a sister factory in Shanghai, and chartered an entire plane for its transport. People started making fake plastic and wax mangoes to worship, and mango-themed merchandise started popping up. Mango-brand cigarettes were a huge hit and the 1968 National Day parade featured mango-themed floats. You could even get killed over a mango; When a dentist in a small village compared a touring mango (yes, there were touring mangoes) to a sweet potato, he was put on trial for slander and promptly executed.

The reason for the mango craze was ultimately simple: Apart from being associated with Mao, the fruit was virtually unknown in China, so it was like the Chairman had suddenly given them the communist version of the Forbidden Fruit. Ultimately, the mango cult turned out to be little more than a particularly weird (and occasionally homicidal) meme. The craze lasted for 18 months before people came to their senses and moved on.

1. Mao’s final days and the power vacuum he left

Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman,” died in 1976 after assorted issues with his lungs and heart, and as his body was (against his living wishes) embalmed for future display in a darkly comedic, bumbling process that may or may not have involved his head swelling up like a football, the country was a mess. Mao’s final year was marked by disaster and setback, and one of the most devastating earthquakes in China’s history had struck only a few months earlier, causing many of the more traditional Chinese to lose faith in the leadership.

There was no clear idea of who would assume control after Mao. The most likely successor —  a virtual unknown called Hua Guofeng — took steps to cement his power by arresting his opponents and becoming the new Chairman, but in the end his only claim to power was a personal link to Mao, who wasn’t exactly around to watch his back. When Hua’s hastily formed, 10-year “four modernizations” policy to improve China’s economy was such a disaster that the country shook its head and abandoned it in less than a year, a challenger emerged in the form of Deng Xiaoping. Deng was a twice-purged and twice rehabilitated, resilient veteran of the communist leadership, who was less about ideology and more about pragmatic “if it works, it works” attitude. In fact, the main reason for his second purge was his famous saying that he “did not care whether a cat was black or white as long as it caught mice.”

In a country ravaged by decades of ideological ideas, a little bit of pragmatism was ultimately enough to seize the power, and Deng eventually emerged as China’s new top dog.


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