Why Mao Zedong Was The Most Brutal Tyrant


In the Steven Pinker book, “The better Angels
of Our Nature” – a history of violence and an attempt to understand the darker side
of humanity- the man who is the focus of today’s show plays almost a starring role among many
of the other tyrants, criminals and government-sanctioned sadists. He is sometimes called the worst mass murderer
in the history of tyrants, but knowing the exact number of how many died due to his policies
and those just murdered under the regime, is not easy. That number is sometimes said to be about
40 million, sometimes we are told 45 million, and sometimes we are told even as many as
65 million. It’s hard to even imagine such a thing and
we might be reminded of the phrase sometimes attributed (there are doubters), to the tyrant
Joseph Stalin “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” The reason the number of deaths changes of
course is because getting access to records- if there even is a record of death- is not
easy, and it is also difficult to know who died as a direct result of Mao’s policies
and zero-tolerance attitude to critics. But historians haven’t pulled the number
out of hats, and there are ample well-researched accounts of the devastation of Mao’s policies
and also how his regime was sometimes incredibly cruel towards the Chinese people, especially
dissidents. The historian Frank Dikötter, who spent a
lot of time researching in archives for what went down during the Great Leap Forward, said
Mao Zedong was responsible for “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known”. He said around 45 million people either starved,
were worked to death, or were beaten to death. “It ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust
as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century… It was Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times
over,” he said. We can tell you first hand how this writer
told a captivated audience at a literary festival that people were seen only as “digits”,
things to move the Great Leap ahead. This historian, while researching his book,
“Mao’s Great Famine; The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe”, explained
to people that while looking through China’s Public Security Bureau reports he found some
things that turned his blood cold. Dikötter said that in these records of the
provinces he found that there were instances of children, hungry children, stealing potatoes. The rulers were strict about crime, and in
one instance the child had his hands tied and was thrown into a river. Others were forced to work naked in winter
as punishment, some were branded, others set on fire, while others merely had their nose
or ears cut off. Perhaps the most disturbing thing was a record
of parents being forced by officials to bury their children alive. But starvation killed the most people. To give you an example, Dikötter writes that
in one town containing around 250,000 people, 80 percent of the folks were deliberately
kept away from the official canteens where food was served. They were old or weak and so it was decided
they were a waste of space in the greater scheme of things and should be starved to
death. That’s how bad it was, and this information
was taken from archives, not word of mouth. But before we talk about more misery, let’s
look at who this leader was. This will be a very abridged history, as people
have written long books on this man’s life. Little Mao was born on December 26, 1893,
in a small rural community called Shaoshan, in the province of Hunan, China. His parents were farmers and were said to
have worked hard in the fields of that town for generations. It’s said his family weren’t that bad
off for their area, which was mostly made up of very poor peasants. He did a bit of schooling, but by the time
he was 13 he was working in the fields, too. It’s said he had been a good student, and
enjoyed reading and writing poetry. It’s said he was asked to leave school for
being unruly, according to an excerpt from a book featured in the New York Times. His mother, whom he worshipped, was ok with
him leaving but his father was displeased, according to this book. Mao himself once said he had bitter fights
with his father. At 14, his dad said he had found a wife for
Mao, but we are told he turned the offer down. Other sources tell us he did in fact marry
her, but that Mao never later recognized her as his proper wife. In his own words, Mao once said, “When I
was 14, my parents married me to a girl of 20. But I never lived with her … I do not consider
her my wife … and have given little thought to her.” She died a year after their marriage anyway,
and it’s said even though his father wanted him to work in a rice store, Mao had his sights
set on studying in a modern school where he could learn things like foreign languages,
science and world history. He would soon be inspired by western economists,
philosophers, military leaders and scientists, as well as the writings of philosopher and
economist Karl Marx. It’s said at around this time, still a young
man, he developed a reasoning that the end justifies the means, or perhaps you might
say that to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. His father at this time thought Mao’s intellectual
pursuits were totally pointless. Their break-up was imminent. At age 17 he left home and went to study in
another city. After educating himself more he went on to
join the Revolutionary Army and the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), whose intention was to
overthrow the monarchy. That happened in 1912, and the Republic of
China was born. These were exciting times for Mao no doubt,
but he didn’t exactly rocket into politics. In 1918 he became qualified as a teacher,
but after looking for jobs in Beijing he was still unemployed. Instead he managed to land a job as a librarian’s
assistant at Beijing University. Around this time we are told that Mao had
taken an interest in Russia and what was going on there with the revolution (1917), an uprising
that would lead to the formation of the Soviet Union based on the tenets of communism. Just a couple of years later and Mao would
become one of the first members of the Chinese Communist Party. There was still a ruling nationalist party
in China that Mao had supported from the beginning, but having watched Vladimir Lenin’s ideas
come to fruition not too far away, Mao believed it was time for China to give some power back
to the people, the agrarian masses that made up most of the country. What happened next, in short, is the Chinese
Nationalist Party broke all alliances with the upstarts, the Communist Party. And here’s where Mao stepped in. He led an army (The Red Army) of peasants
against the nationalists. This violent reprisal wasn’t without its
reasons of course, the Nationalists had killed and locked up many people affiliated with
the Communist Party before the fighting. Mao then formed the Soviet Republic of China
and by 1934 ten provinces in the country were under his Communist control. Government forces then buckled down and tried
to defeat all those mostly peasant guerillas, but the Communists retreated and began was
has been called “The Long March”, basically a hard trek through the mountains. It’s said from about 100,000 people that
started the march, around 10-30,000 died on the way (the exact number is disputed). Walking 8,000 miles over treacherous territory
gave Mao some stories to tell; he was in some ways a great action and intellectual hero,
and this would later fuel the “cult of personality.” If you don’t know what that is, it’s when
a leader becomes somewhat like a demigod, and he and his cronies (often paranoid themselves
of being accused of not being devout) use propaganda, the media, posters, unrealistic
stories, to promote this veritable savior. Look no further than North Korea for a present
example. Matters became worse in China in 1937 when
the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the country. The government couldn’t have internal discord
and also fight Japan. The Red Army of Mao grew in size in part because
of the atrocities of the Japanese. Mao’s communists were asked to get on one
side and they did, and together along with help from the Allied forces the Japanese were
defeated. Where did this leave Mao? Well, in a pretty strong position. He wanted all of China, and that he got in
the end. A second civil war ensued and that ended with
Mao’s enemies skipping off to Taiwan. So, now we have Mao the leader, and he did
a lot of good things. If people got in his way, blood was often
spilled, but he took land from warlords and gave it back to the people. He tried to stop opium production and cut
down on addiction. He doubled the number of Chinese people getting
an education; he greatly improved healthcare and women’s rights. It’s said because of Mao’s policies life
expectancy improved quite quickly in the country. He was a champion of the rural classes, but
things would take a turn for the worse. Although he thought he had done so much good,
and he had in many respects, he was still heavily criticized by those he said were on
the right – these were mostly urban folk with urban educations. We might remember many of these people were
bullied, hurt, had their lives turned upside down. After some amount of condemnation he embarked
on a campaign of fear. His doubters had to be silenced, and they
were. Mao had even allowed people to voice their
concerns about how the country should be run, which came under the banner “Hundred Flowers
Campaign.” But many of those on the right, expressing
concern of the leadership, were just sent to prison. If you think being doxxed is bad, imagine
hundreds of thousands being sent to dank jail cells just for sharing an opinion. Some writers say the campaign was only there
in the first place to weed out so-called threats. In many other cases people were executed,
and it’s said in every village there were executions. People also perished in labor camps, where
Mao had hoped to see a “reform through labor” campaign change people’s views. It’s also written that during this time
many people took their own lives before they could be forced to work or be executed. But without criticism there can be no progress,
without a dialectic it’s hard to move forward, and when you glue the mouths of your detractors
something bad is likely going to happen. It did, and worse than anything previously
seen. In 1958, Mao launched his “Great Leap Forward”,
which were a series of reforms to push the country forward. This included forcing farmers to work in a
collective, everything was for the country, the move ahead, the bright future, and anyone
working for themselves in the vein of an individualist capitalist was severely punished. The reforms were many, but a big emphasis
was also on quickly industrializing the country, which often involved taking the peasants out
of the fields and into iron and steel production. China was then hit by devastating floods and
some bad harvests, and all the efforts to have people working in industries did not
really work out. The movement from field to factory also meant
lower grain production. Mao’s propaganda would tell a different
story, however. When you have zero-tolerance to criticism,
or even complaining, it’s not always the police or army that get to you. It’s your neighbor, because much of the
time they are playing a bad part in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, which basically means they get
you before you can get to them. One writer for the Guardian interviewing a
Chinese author wrote, “Across China teachers, former landlords and intellectuals were being
humiliated, beaten and murdered. They were hounded by neighbors, colleagues
and pupils moved by misguided revolutionary fervor, personal grudges or little more than
whim. Friends, children and spouses turned on them.” We might also say that during rules of cults
of personality people can become quite drunk with love, stoned on their belief that they
know the true path cut by the great leader. So, when ruin comes, there just wasn’t anywhere
the people could turn. Many of those that did criticize the policies
were called “right opportunists” and imprisoned. It was a chaotic time, to say the least. What happened was a famine, a terrible famine. This was a response from one party official
who had been told there is no food for people to eat, they are dying. “That’s right-deviationist thinking. You’re viewing the problem in an overly simplistic
matter.” This famine literally killed off entire villagers,
decimated towns, turned some people on each other. Farmers declaring that their harvest was terrible
were sometimes beaten, set alight, drowned. The Guardian writes, “Others are tortured,
beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests, refusing to hand over what little
food they have, stealing scraps or simply angering officials.” One Chinese man called Yang Jisheng who lived
through those harsh times many years later wrote a book called “Tombstone”, which
he penned after travelling the length and breadth of China to find out how people had
been affected by the famine. His own father had died of starvation back
then. He finds case upon case of acts of sheer desperation
and depravity. In one such case 13 kids appeal to officials
to give them a scrap of food. The officials take the young kids to the edge
of the mountains where they die of exposure. In another case a young boy kills and eats
his own brother. He mentions other cases where people didn’t
bury their deceased family members (they hid them) so that they could collect their food
rations, and in some cases people just ate their dead friends and family. Like the historian we mentioned, the Chinese
writer got this information from Chinese provincial archives. The authorities at least were good at keeping
records. “To start with, I felt terribly depressed
when I was reading these documents,” he told The Guardian “But after a while I became
numb – because otherwise I couldn’t carry on.” His book is banned in China, and some critics
wonder if the Chinese authorities have not learned a lesson already about censorship. Is history doomed to repeat itself? We doubt it, but one might ask even as right
and left schisms destroy friends’ alliances, if banning and blocking is a good thing. Yang called the banning of his book, “an
offense to the memories of tens of millions.” Of course we can’t directly charge Chairman
Mao for all the deaths, and it’s said that some of Communist Party leaders kept a lot
of information away from him regarding the depth of the famine, but we must also make
him accountable for his part, his rule by fear, his intolerance for criticism. While one man alone we cannot blame, it perhaps
is just easier to focus ire on one thing, one face. But that man, that face, did say things like,
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” He also said, “To read too many books is
harmful.” This was in his famous “Little Red Book”,
which consists of 427 quotations from Mao. It’s said a billion copies of this book
have been published, making it more widespread than the whole of the Harry Potter series
of books, but still a little way behind the bible. Still in some countries today leaders look
upon their population as a herd of sheep designed for their sometimes unruly demands and absolute
theories, mostly indirectly related to them retaining their power. As sir Francis Bacon once said, “Knowledge
is Power,” and maybe we should all arm ourselves with a foundation of knowledge, a willingness
to listen and change, to not fall for a despot’s lies, to not be seduced by GroupThink, to
not be enthralled too much by the madness of a crowd, and live with open hearts and
curious minds. What do you think of Mao Zedong? Could the famine have been averted? Also, be sure to check out our other video,
greatest naval battle in history – battle of leytte gulf. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t
forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time.

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