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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Mao Dies, September 9, 1976

Today in 1976, Mao Tse-tung died. He was 82. Mao was the Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China for 31 years. As such, he led China through strife, economic expansion and some the nation’s most deadly years. He is both revered and reviled throughout the world.

Mao was born in 1893 to peasant farmer parents. The China he knew as a child and as a young man was a divided nation dominated by Western nations. He first joined the Nationalist movement during the second decade of the 20th century in an attempt to remove the ineffective royal government from power. He soon came to believe that the Nationalists lacked credible leadership and so, in 1921, he joined the newly-formed Chinese Communist Party. It took Mao only two years to be elected to the Central Committee of the Party.

By 1927, China was under the nominal control of the Nationalists. Initially, the communists and Nationalists worked together against the local warlords that had controlled China for centuries. However, tensions arose between the two groups that would eventually lead to the communists being ousted from most urban areas. Mao himself barely escaped death and began to build a small guerilla army.

Despite leadership struggles in the tattered Communist Party, Mao managed to come out on top. He cemented his position during the “Long March”, a year-long, 6000 mile retreat of the guerilla army across China.

When the war between China and Japan began in the 1937, Mao led the Communist resistance movement against the Japanese while still fighting the Nationalists for control of central China. When the war was over and it became clear that the United States was supporting the Nationalists, Mao sought and received covert assistance from the Soviet Union. The Communist Red Army finally won the civil war in December, 1949, forcing the Nationalists to retreat to Taiwan.

Mao became a fierce proponent of openly combating the West. He sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops to fight on the side of North Korea during the Korean War. This intervention is the only thing that made continued North Korean resistance possible.

Mao was the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1959. During that time, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, a plan that Mao intended to push Chinese industry into the 20th century. Instead, many rural people were forced to produce steel instead of growing crops. Coupled with a severe drought, the food shortage in the nation became severe. It is believed that 30 million Chinese died from starvation in late 1950's.

In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. This movement was intended, or so it seems, to give power back to the Chinese people and instill the revolutionary spirit in the populace once again. In reality, the Cultural Revolution led to purges of the Party and of intellectual organizations. Millions were imprisoned and/or killed. Chinese culture was nearly destroyed. Although Mao called an end to the movement in 1969, vestiges of it continued until his death.

Late in his life, Mao began to see the United States as a possible ally against the Soviet Union. Sino-Soviet relations had begun to crumble in the late 50's and by the middle 60's were at their low point. US and Chinese relations improved dramatically, resulting in a visit to China by President Nixon, an avowed anti-communists, in 1972.

After Mao’s death, a power struggle ensued in China. No blood was spilled and the moderates in the Communist Party eventually gained control of the country. But the spirit of Mao lived on in succeeding generations—it is present in both the prosperity of the nation today and in its brutal oppression of peaceful political opposition.

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