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On This Day: Chinese Leader Mao Zedong Dies

September 09, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 9, 1976, Communist Party of China Chairman Mao Zedong died at age 82 after a long illness, ending his 27-year rule over China.

The Death of Chairman Mao

Mao Zedong (or Tse-Tung) was a leader of the Chinese Revolution, which led to the creation of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949. As chairman of the Communist Party of China, Mao held authoritarian control over the country since its founding.

Mao’s health began to noticeably decline in the late 1960s as he suffered from what was believed to be Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease. “It had been known for some time that Mao was approaching the end,” reported Reuters. “Meetings with visiting statesmen had been cut to 15 to 20 minutes. Official photographs showed him seated, his head back against the top of his chair. Mao last appeared in public on May Day 1971. For just a few minutes he sat on a rostrum overlooking Tien An Men Square to watch a fireworks display.”

Chinese party leadership did not indicate who would succeed Mao. “[H]is death comes uneasily soon after the major struggle within the party leadership … Yesterday’s official announcement emphasises that the Chinese must ‘resolutely uphold the unity and unification of the party,’ in an evident reference to the divisions,” wrote John Gittings in The Guardian.

The Battle to Succeed Mao

In 1967, Mao designated Defense Minister Lin Biao as his successor. Their relationship quickly deteriorated, however, and in 1971, according to the Chinese government account, Lin was killed in a plane crash while fleeing to Russia after his plot to assassinate Mao was exposed.

Following Lin’s death, two main factions emerged to succeed Mao: the moderate Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, who was purged from the party in the 1960s but reinstated in 1973, and the radical “Gang of Four,” led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.

The Gang of Four gained the upper hand in 1976 after Zhou died of natural causes and Deng was purged from the party after the Gang of Four accused him of inciting an uprising at a Zhou memorial in Tiananmen Square. Mao, however, tapped the relatively unknown Hua Guofeng, who followed Zhou as premier, as his successor, alleging telling him in late April 1976, “With you in charge, I’m at ease.”

Just a month after Mao’s death, Hua had the Gang of Four arrested. Days later, he was announced as the new Communist Party chairman. Hua’s reign did not last long; in July 1977, Deng was reinstated into the party and he soon outmaneuvered Hua and took control of the country.

Biography: Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong was born in 1893 in the Hunan Province of China. He learned about socialism during his days in the army, and eventually became involved in the Communist movement. He excelled at rallying the support of peasants and advocating for a rural, as opposed to urban, revolution.

In 1949, after driving Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government from the Chinese mainland, Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic of China. He undertook a plan to eliminate the rural gentry as a class and create a permanent underclass of former landlords.

In 1958, Mao implemented an economic plan known as the Great Leap Forward, which sought to simultaneously introduce industrialization and collectivization of peasant farms. The plan had disastrous effects on China’s agriculture, causing a massive drop in food production. Tens of millions of Chinese died in famines between 1958 and 1962, when the Great Leap Forward was ended.

Frank Dikötter, author of “Mao’s Great Famine; The Story of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe,” estimates that 45 million died in these four years, including 2-3 million who were killed by the government; “coercion, terror and violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward,” he writes.

The failure of the Great Leap Forward caused Mao to lose power within the Communist Party. In an attempt to reclaim his control, in 1966 he introduced the Cultural Revolution, under which he instructed the country’s youth to revive the spirit of revolution and rid the country of capitalist or elitist influences.

The Cultural Revolution created great social upheaval and violence; millions were abused or killed, historic artifacts and institutions were destroyed, and the economy stagnated. Many important leaders, including Mao’s primary political rivals, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, were purged from the Communist Party.

“Perhaps never before in human history has a political leader unleashed such massive forces against the system that he created,” writes University of Michigan Chinese studies professor Kenneth G. Lieberthal for Encyclopedia Britannica. “The resulting damage to that system was profound, and the goals that Mao sought to achieve ultimately remained elusive.”

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