China under Mao Zedong

(Remember that part of the point of the case study is to analyze the case using some of the theories/tools discussed in the course - xmarquez xmarquez Jun 8, 2011)

external image e6af9be6b3bde4b89c-mao-zedong-mao-tse-tung.jpg?w=215&h=280[1]


This Wkipedia page will outline why China under Mao was considered a dictatorship. It will say what the guiding ideologies were, how he created legitimacy and attempts at consolidating power through the employment of; personality cult, national cultural and identity change in the form of ‘the cultural revolution’ and his attempt at economic prosperity, which failed in the ‘great leap forward’.
It will largely focus on the rule of Mao, with a brief insight into the political changes after his death in 1976. It will attempt to explain the reasons for why China has not become a democracy and will present a discussion of how Mao's rule fits into political theories by people like; de Mesquita, Przeworsk and Haber.

Establishment of the Peoples Republic of China

There was a desire to create an equal society. China had up until 1911 been an absolute monarchy. Nepotism, misappropriation of state wealth and social segregation alienated the monarchy from the people. With the civil war, and the deposoing of the emperor, there was a vast power vacum. The struggle lasted for several years, with the
Kuomintang party gaining power in the early stages. However, Mao Zedong came to power in the form of an armed struggle. He had led many before, and he employed guerrilla tactics. He established a communist state in 1949 that was heavily influenced by the ideas of marxism. He created an ideologly that developed over and became what was later know as Maosim.

Why this regime is classified as a dictatorship

Communism may look at itself to be the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', but most communist states do not end up this way; and China is no exception. One could argue that communist ideas are those of democracy (note, not a liberal democray, where individual freedom is paramount[2] ), but that it more often then not turns into the exact opposite. The criteria for democracy set out by O’Donnel and Schmitter[3] is; each human being has the right to be treateed equally and has a say in making collective choices. This is what communism sets out to achieve. However it does not, and I will argue that Mao’s China was far form democratic and was in fact, a dictatorship.
Never the less, categorising dictatorships and democracies are not as simple as might be first imagined. It is often easier to measure it against what it does not have, as to what it does. Jennifer Ghandi[4] would class this regime as a military dictatorship, as Mao came to power through the use of armed combat and was not elected leader by the general public in an election, nor was he born into the role as leader like a monarch.

For this wiki, I will use a template by Levitsky and Way to argue why it was a dictatorship[5]
  • Elections for the legislature and executive are free, fair and competitive;
This was not the case in China. There was only one party - the communist party. There was no competition in the form of political parties. the National peoples congress was the highest state body, but acted in accordance to the Communist Party - and therefore mao.
people worked their way up the ladder in the party, but it was not a democratic process and was more about who you knew, not what you knew - a process of cronyism.
  • All adults possess the right to vote;
This was not the case.
  • Political rights and civil liberties are protected;
Political and civil rights were non-existent. One could not form a political party, criticize the communist party or Mao and his ideas. Those who did not comply had either their privileges (if they had any) taken away, shunned, beaten, sent to hard labour camps, or killed. There was tight control of the media.
Groups had to be state sanctioned, therefore there was not freedom of association.
  • Elected authorities possess real authority to govern in that they are not subject to the tutelary control of military or religious leaders.
there were no elected authorities at the national level. As the state was communist, it was atheist. therefore, there was no influence by religious leaders. the army had some sway, but Mao was in control of the apparatus as well as the party. Mao was the only source of authority and what he said went.

Therefore, one can conclude that China under Mao was in-fact a dictatorship.

Maintaining power

Mao employed several tools in order to keep his grip on power. At the start of my threee examples of how Mao stayed in power, talk about hoe Mao believed in a ‘revolution by stages’[6] .This can be seen in these three examples. The Great Leap forward was an attempt at bring modernization to China. His plan on increased production and economic growth failed and resulted in the death of millions. The cultural revolution was aimed at creating a new social order and beliefs, while the cult of personality was a strategic attempt to consolidate power.

The Great Leap Forward 1958-1961.

For china, the process of modernization was a brutal one. Prior to Mao’s ascension to power, there had been minimal large changes to the infrastructure, and the country was far behind other countries technologically. As a result of the nation becoming communist, private property was abolished. The wealthy peasants and landowner’s assets were redistributed amongst the poorer peasants.
The whole point was to make the country self sufficient. Mao encouraged the now infamous ‘backyard furnaces’ as a way of self-sufficiency. however these failed dismally, producing poor quality metals and rendering them useless. the girders that were produced cracked and were therefore unsafe to use. State planning failed, and along with the many famines, millions of people died during this period.
Propaganda, showing production ‘sky-rocketing’ - when in fact many people where starving to death.
Propaganda, showing production ‘sky-rocketing’ - when in fact many people where starving to death.

Cultural Revolution 1966-1976.

It was to break down familial ties and for people to denounce those who thought they ‘knew’ something. It was a specific action that created fear in the population, as sons and daughters in some cases told on their parents. There was the use of rhetoric like; “To rebel is justified”[8] . There was an overhaul of the arts, and more modern, socialist images were produced. Many propaganda posters were strikingly similar to that of ones in the USSR. While, like many authoritarian regimes, art plays a vital role, artists themselves were heavily persecuted for being too bourgeoisie and (ironically) too free thinking. The art was government sanctioned. A ‘re-eduction’ of the population took place, with communist ideas installed. Links to religion such as icons and in some cases, temples, were destroyed.

Cult of personality
Mao seen as the the 'light'. One of many myths created to enhance his legitimacy.
Mao seen as the the 'light'. One of many myths created to enhance his legitimacy.

As a result of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s figure became larger than ever. It manifesteded itself into a personality cult. This was an intentional action on the Part of Mao, as it was another way of ensuring obedience, and therefore; power.

Mao expressed his desire and admiration for personality cults at the 1958 Party connference;
"There are two kinds of personality cults. One is a healthy personality cult, that is, to worship men like Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Because they hold the truth in their hands. The other is a false personality cult, i.e. not analyzed and blind worship"[10]
The cult of Mao was a vital tool in propelling the cultural revolution. They youth had been raised under communism and taught to idolise Mao.Many had not witnessed the starvation cause by Mao during the great leap forward, and so they had a positive view of him. His was useful for Mao as he used their enthusiasm to his advantage. He made them denounce those already in authority. During the time of the cultural revolution and the great leap forward, there was a large amount of propaganda art that was produced. Many had Mao at the centre, and encouraged certain traits that were seen to be desirable for a leader. He was painted as though the sun was coming out of him in one, and with him riding a tractor on another. Posters and badges proclaimed him to be the saviour of the people and so on. He somehow managed to be on the one hand, just like everyone else and a fartherly/brotherly figure, while at the same time a remote, unknowable and omniscient being.[11]

Havel; the line of conflict ran not between those in power and the people, but though each person. They were both simultaneouly a victim and a supporter of the regime.[12]

Perhaps the most influential tool employed by Mao was his ‘Little Red Book’ (Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung). It was published near the end of 1966 and it became compulsory for members of the party to have in their possession and everyone else was encourage to do the same. It became of the most visual icon in China by the end of the 1960’s. Music and children's stories emphasised Mao’s greatness and it was often proclaimed that Chairman Mao should live for ‘a thousand years’. It is an interesting note, that many dictators have this same notion of creating a regime that will last a ‘thousand years’. Both Hitler and Mussolini proclaimed the same, only a few years prior to the establishment of the Peoples republic of China. Today, Mao is still regarded by some as the "never setting Red Sun" and compared to great emperors of the past. His popularity is still prevelant in China today, with millions having visited his birthplace.

After Mao's death
In 1976 Mao died. The liberal Deng instigated many changes during the decade after[13] . These were small changes aimed at lifting the tight state control of the economy and social life, but was seen as a delineation form Maoist values by conservatives (or hardliners). International/ western influences and the events unfolding in europe invigorated the youth of Beijing to protest. The ‘flashpoint’ was the death of the beloved X, which lead to the student protests of Tianamon square in 1989. They hoped for peaceful demonstrations, like those in Europe, to end communism. However, the tanks were brought out.

The ‘gang of four’, including Mao’s last wife, were charged with treason in 1980. They acted as scapegoats for the communist party in order to distance themselves from the horrors of the cultural revolution. The show trials were a means of creating legitimacy for the new order that had gained power after Mao’s death.

Like karklins and peterson say[14], students were the original and main protestors. However, they did not get enough momentum for the theorists model of tipping points to come into play. The theory argues that a person needs the assurance of the group below them in order for them to feel safe to protest. Freedom House does not class it as free today, even with the loosening of economic (and to a lesser extent increased personal freedom) this is because there is not voting for the top tier of power players and large amount of corruption, human rights abuses, heavy censorship and limits on what you can say.[15]


“Competition for national leadership is a hallmark of economic growth, but it also creates problems for leaders who aspire to maximise their time in office.”[16] As discussed above, Mao actively sought to destroy competition. Haber's theory that terror also ruins the economy fits with this analysis[17] . De Mesquita; "Bad policy is good politics because their focus is on cronyism and corruption ensures their enduring leadership.”[18] and “Leaders who produce famine, poverty, and misery seem like dismal failures who ought to be removed from office as quickly as possible. Yet the irony is that leaders who produce poverty and misery keep their jobs much longer than those who make their country richer.”[19] This idea is especially apparent in Mao’s rule over China. “Repression does not mean that dictators are unpopular.”[20]

The regime of Mao clearly fits de Mesquita’s theories.

The winning coalition and the selectorate were both small. Mao was also in control of the army, so did not need to pay off generals like other dictators sometimes need to. The regime is also distinct from other dictatorships i the sense that although Mao completely ruined the economy and caused millions to starve to death, he did not expropriate that money for his personal use. Yes, I am sure that those in the top tier of the communist party lived much better lives than the peasants, but not in the same way as despots such as Mobutu. Perhaps this is because of the guiding ideology that Mao subscribed of 'equality'. The winning coalition was the politburo. This small group was made up of mostly people who had been involved in the setting up of the Chinese Communist party and the war for the establishment of the new state. However, like Mobutu[21] he used a divide and rule policy. This was to stamp out competition for his job and attempt to destroy trust between his followers to prevent a coup. Mao also removed members of his inner and outer circle in order to create fear and distrust. Mao cleverly used the Cult of personality as a means of keeping himself in power. This can be seen as a two pronged approach. The first is that is creates a positive image in the eyes of the people so they want him to be in power. This public legitimacy for rule then serves as a deterrent for challengers. If a individual/person attempted a coup, and either killed or disposed of Mao, they would face huge public backlash. Therefore the fits the theory that Mao had to die in order for any hope of a change in regime. Mao used the the 'authoritarian equilibria' of; fear lies and (failed) economic prosperity.

Przeworski’s idea of fear as a tool of suppression can be seen in the actions of the cultural revolution. By making examples of those who 'rebelled' , it stopped others from doing the same. Public shaming and executions took place. The offenders hair was often shaved (an attack on honour in some asian cultures), had boards around their necks, and dragged through the streets.

Recently, there has been a theories set forward that attempts to explain why some authoritatrian regimes are still in place, and are moderately to very successful. A case example is Singapore. One theory suggests that is it due to culture that there has not been a shift to liberal democracry. That is, that a liberal democracy is a western idea, and that asian values are different. There is a deferment to elders, a rigid and accepted heirachy and so on. However, Mao attempted to, and largely succeeded in re-educating the population in his way of thinking. The other is economic prosperity. China's economy in recent decades has gown at world record speed to become one of the largest in the work. Material wealth prevents people form questioning the political hierarchy as they may not do so well under a different form. Those in power have made economic concessions, rather than political rights ones.

  1. ^, accessed 2/6/2011.
  2. ^ O'Neil, Patrick. "Essentials of Comparative Politics" (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010), p143.
  3. ^ O’Donnell, Guillermo A., and Schmitter, Phillippe. " Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies" (Balitmore: John Hopkins University Press,1986), p7.
  4. ^ Ghandi, Jennifer. "Political Institutions under Dictatorship" (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p7.
  5. ^ Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan, Way. "The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism" (Journal of Democracy, 2002), p53.
  6. ^ Chai, Winberg. "The New Politics of Communist China; Modernization of A Developing Nation" (California: Goodyear, 1972), p121.
  7. ^, accessed 5/6/2011.
  8. ^ Huang, Shaorong. "The power of Words: Political Slogans as Leverage in Conflict and Conflict Management during China's Cultural Revolution Movement," in Chinese Conflict Management and Resolution, by Guo-Ming Chen and Ringo Ma (2001), Greenwood Publishing Group.
  9. ^, accessed 5/6/2011.
  10. ^, accessed 5/6/2011.
  11. ^ Schram, Stuart. "Mao Tse-Tung as a Charismatic Leader," in Mao Zedong And The Chinese Revolution, ed. Benton, G (Abington: Routledge), p302.
  12. ^ Kuran, Timur. " Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the Eastern European Revolution of 1989" (The Journal of Politics 55 (3), 1991), p29.
  13. ^ Fewsmith, Joseph. "Dengist Reforms in Historical Perspective," in Contemporary Chinese Politics in Historical Perspective, ed. Womack, Brantly (New york: Universtity of Cambridge, 1991), p23.
  14. ^ Karklins, Rasma, and Rodger Peterson. "Decision Calculus of Protesters and Regimes: Eastern Europe 1989" (The Journal of Politics 55(3), 1993), p595-596.
  15. ^, accessed 4/6/2011.
  16. ^ Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, "Political Competition and Economic Growth" (Journal of Democracy, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2001), p. 58.
  17. ^ Harber, Stephen. " Authoritarian Government" in Oxford Handbook of Political Economy, ed. B.R. Weingast and D. A. Wittman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p699.
  18. ^ Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce. "Political Competition and Economic Growth.", p. 64.
  19. ^ Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce. "Political Competition and Economic Growth.", p65.
  20. ^ Wintrobe, Ronald. 'How to understand, and deal with dictatorship: an economist's view.' (Economics of Governance. Vol. 2, No. 1, 2001), p. 39.
  21. ^ Wrong, Michela. "The Emperor Mobutu" (Transition 9(1), 2000), p99.