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He said, we are prepared to let 300 million Chinese die to achieve our aims. Famously, he said, all power grows out of the barrel of a gun. He was convinced that politics had to be violent when he toured the villages and witnessed the violence and atrocities firsthand. As he said himself, he changed. He felt a kind of ecstasy as he had never experienced that before.
In the center of China's capital, Beijing lies a corpse that no one dares remove. It's protected by armed guards and a surveillance detail. Today, the country's ruling Communist Party officially recognizes this man as an heroic leader. He's widely held to be the father of the nation, but many observers, both inside and outside of China, are far less flattering to them. He's a sadistic thug, a man who was willing to sacrifice half of China's population in pursuing his dream of global domination.
It's been 44 years since Mao Zedong's body was laid to rest in the grandiose Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. He may be gone, but he's not forgotten. His portrait is etched into millions of banknotes and stamps even painted onto the sides of prominent buildings. So who was Chairman Mao and how did this peasant son chart a course to absolute power? Over 600 million people changing the course of history.
Mao didn't try to build the nation. I mean, Mao destroyed the nation. He didn't unify China. China was a unified the place. I mean, he said people against each other. He brought great chaos and the tragedies and suffering to this nation. He was not a builder. He was a destroyer. The distracter I mean, he said so himself. Mao was in the league of a Hitler and Stalin. That's the company he belongs to in history.
My name is Paul McGann and welcome to Real Dictators, the series that explores the hidden lives of tyrants such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong Il.
In this episode, we follow the story of the peasant son who became undisputed ruler of China. Once in power, his notorious economic master plan, the Great Leap Forward, incurred the deaths of tens of millions and drove people across the land to theft, murder and even to cannibalism. From Noisey podcasts, this is real dictators. May 1911 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the air is thick with the smoke of industry, locals scurry through the cobbled streets of the city wending their way towards the docks, desperate not to miss a momentous event on the waterfront.
The shipyard of Harland and Wolff is packed with spectators awaiting the launch of our most titanic. At 12 00, five pm to signal rockets are five. The crowd erupted in cheers as the vast 175 foot steel hole crashes into the waters of Belfast, La. The ship waits ready for her maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The buoyant economic atmosphere is shared. Chevrolet is about to officially enter the automobile market in competition with the Ford Model T. In Flint, Michigan, workers on the factory production line put the finishing touches to each Chevy chassis that rolls past their workstation.
American consumer capitalism is well and truly up and running. This is before the First World War, the years of optimism, before the cataclysm in the West. It seems like the whole world is on the up of the western world is only one of planet Earth. Various civilizations far across the Pacific, 7400, 24 miles away in China, 17 year old Mao Zedong sits reading Western philosophy by candlelight in a mud brick house in the village of Shoshan. The house sits on a farm.
It's surrounded by rice paddies and lotus ponds, unremarkable for this part of the world. Hunan Province is full of similar abodes with a stodge. The boy snuffed out the candle flame and hides his book. He finds sleep until the footsteps outside his bedroom recede out of earshot. His father doesn't approve of reading. He thinks it's a waste of time and effort. But even at the tender age of 17, Mao Zedong does grasp the power of books and ideas.
And he will use them to change the course of human history. Shaping the world's largest country in his own image, how does he do it? Let's find out. The village of Shoshan sits in a lush green valley surrounded by mountains. This part of Yunnan province in the southeast of mainland China was stunningly beautiful. The nearby peaks hold deep spiritual significance for the local Buddhists. On December the 26th, 1893, one particular peasant out of China's hundreds of millions is born here.
His name is Mao Zedong. He's born on the ninth day of the 11th month of the Year of the Snake. His mother, when Kim is a devout Buddhist, she's lost children in infancy before and she doesn't want history to repeat itself, so she travels into the mountains to visit a Buddhist nun who lives as a hermit and unprescribed prayers for the young child.
When Kim does it in an advisees and it works, Mao Zedong survives the opening weeks and months of infancy, growing stronger by the day. The young boy grows up in a clay brick farmhouse. He has his own bedroom. He has decent clothes. In a lot of ways, he has a pretty good. Certainly much better than a lot of the other farmers and their families who live in the area scratching out a living on the breadline. He's a good boy, well-behaved.
He often accompanies his mother to the local temple, the young man's problem is not his diet, lifestyle or financial situation. It's his violent father. Now, Senior is a strict disciplinarian. He used to live in abject poverty, but he's holed himself up by his bootstraps to become one of the wealthiest farmers in the area. Now, with four children of his own, he's careful to ensure that they don't grow up spoiled. He beats them on a regular basis, as is the local custom.
Mao Zedong starts work on the farm at the age of five or six, looking after the livestock. As he grows older, he graduates to the rice paddy fields. Growing up on the land in the late 90s and the early 1980s, Mao experiences firsthand the hardships of rule under the emperor. He observes the ruthlessness with which the army executes any peasants who rebel. Those who revolt are rounded up and dragged off by the army or shocked. There's no room for divergence from the norm.
Jonathan Clements is an expert on East Asia and author of the book Mao Zedong Life and Times. You can see a lot of Moul, the adult, in his childhood. I think if you look at the way that he was raised, if you look at the experiences that he had, particularly as a teenager, you can see many things that are going to influence the way that he behaves later on. Now was part of the last generation to study the old imperial exam system, and that meant when he was at school, he learned the classics.
He learned books that were 2000 years old. He learned them by rote. He learned folklore and myths and and poetry composition. And just as he was coming to the end of his education, this was abolished. The Chinese government decided that actually, no, they needed engineers and they needed technicians and they needed scientists. And so Mao's education was rendered almost entirely worthless. And he tried in his teen years, in his early 20s, he tried desperately to find some kind of new niche for himself.
He toyed with the idea of being a lawyer. He thought about studying economics. But these require English, which he never learned. He hated science. And I think you can see there the very beginnings of the Mao, the adult Mao, saying that science doesn't matter what scientists say doesn't mean anything. Experience is the important thing. So what you get with Mao is this homespun wisdom. He always plays this card over and over again. His education is useless to him unless he can throw in a clever phrase or a classical allusion.
So to to a peasant, he sounds learned. He sounds like he knows what he's talking about. It all falls apart if he's actually looking for scientific rationale. Mao says we don't need chemistry to prove that we don't need actual statistics. If we just believe in ourselves, we can do it. The Qing dynasty has ruled China since the sixteen hundreds before that was another empire, the Ming Dynasty. As far back as the eye can see, China has been governed from the top down by sanctified emperors, but by 1911, the world's most populous nation is in meltdown.
The government is failing to keep pace with the times. Poverty is desperate and widespread. Unlike Japan, Russia and the West, China has failed to modernize. The country is constantly under threat from foreign aggression. The age old imperial order is crumbling. Across the countryside, peasants farming the staples of rice, sorghum and soybeans have had enough. Two thousand years of dynastic rule come crashing down, rule from the top is replaced by revolutions scattered across the land.
Peasants rise up and form militias while cities like Shanghai, Wuhan are rocked by explosions and speak fights between rebels and the imperial authorities. The emperor is overthrown. He's out of a job, but what follows is not a whole lot better. The economy is in the dirt. Chaos reigns, China is set for years of violent anarchy. Dr. Michael Lynch is an historian and biographer of Mao.
China was in deep depression by the late 19th century, early 20th century when Mao's growing up economic depression, which the foreigners have imposed. In a sense, the notion among Chinese is that our faults will come from two sources. One is the foreigner, says the eighteen forties led by the British. We had opium imposed upon us the famous Opium Wars, and then all the other major powers, principally France and Germany, then got in on the act and imposed on China all sorts of settlements not by Chinese choice, but major ports and towns along the coast.
Up, the major rivers were settled, became enclaves of European influence, and China wasn't strong enough militarily to resist this. And then you have the second major complaint among revolutionaries. Our government, our government doesn't really put up with this actually compromises with the West. It does deals with the West. It's culpable our government, which should lead resistance. It's actually in cahoots with the West and we are suffering the consequences. We want to change that. We can't do it through normal means because there are no normal means.
If only rebellion, if you had an instinct for politics, you tended to lean towards the revolutionary because there's no middle ground. You had an imperial system that didn't permit debate or discussion or criticism. There's no loyal opposition concept in Chinese history.
So if you are unhappy with the situation which you were born, you had to rebel, you had to kick against, you had become revolutionary. In the 1920s, out of the ruins of empire, two political groups with opposing ideologies begin to emerge. On one hand, the Nationalists, they are dedicated to transforming China into a westward looking capitalist republic. They want commerce, enterprise, international trade. On the other hand, the communists. At this point early in the 1920s, they are a relatively small group.
They've been inspired by Lenin's revolution in Russia. China's biggest neighbor has been turned upside down almost overnight. The old aristocracy trussed up, hanged, shot the proletariat of seized power. Could the same thing happen in China? China's cities are relatively small. The vast majority of people still inhabit rural areas. They toil through the daylight hours, tilling their land under the watchful eyes of the landowners, often living in near medieval conditions of the nationalists. And the communists claim to act for China's 600 million peasants.
But clashes between these factions will sow the seeds for a bloody civil war, one that will ravage China for over two decades. Against this backdrop, it figures it now grows up into an angry rebel looking for a cause, even as a teenager now is fascinated by political philosophy, especially the European greats. He reads them in translation by candlelight, sat in his bedroom desk in the clay brick farmhouse in Shoshan Village. At just 13, his father tries to set him up with an arranged marriage.
But despite his young age, now has the temerity to turn his back on the proposed match. He ends up in middle school in the nearby city of Changsha. This city is a revolutionary hotbed surrounded by exciting new ideas, the future Chinese chairman reaches for the texts that inspire the people around him. In 1917, at the age of 24, Mao Zedong discovers Karl Marx. The communist north is writing strike a chord, it all falls into place. Dr.
Michael Lynch, he doesn't discover Marxism until we think because we can't be absolutely sure about this, but until he was 23, 24, when he read the manifesto, The Communist Manifesto, and he read in it the perfect description of why China was subjected and subordinated and humiliated in the way that it was. And so his nationalism comes first and then it easily slips into this communism, because communism for China offers a way out through rejection of all the mistakes made by the current government government and offers a path, a path you can measure step by step Marxism.
Explain why China was inferior. It was all to do with capitalism and the use of it by superior capitalist powers to impose themselves on the weak. And so China was a fascinating example. Study of exploitation by the stronger over the weak classic case of economic capitalist exploitation. Mao picks up on that and from then on, as committed communist after finishing his formal schooling, Mao Continues is learning devouring books these days and Changzhou Public Library. His father has had enough.
He cuts off his son. Mao Zedong, for the first time in his life, taste's real poverty as he moves into a homeless hostel. But the young man won't be deterred in his pursuit of knowledge. He signs up for classes at the local university. It's there that he falls under the influence of a circle of academics. They are convinced that to move forward, China needs to embrace science and technology.
Next stop for Mao is Beijing, China's capital city and intellectual hub. By this time, Mao is a fully fledged left wing activist. He firmly believes that change in society must be driven by the people owned by the people. He's convinced that communism is the only route to a successful revolution. It helps that the communists have some powerful friends abroad. John Chang is an author and academic, originally from China, now based in London, England. She grew up under Mao's rule.
Her own family suffered under him, as we'll hear a little later on.
There was absolutely nothing that suggests he cared about the Chinese peasants. It wasn't his sympathy for Chinese peasants that made him a communist. Mao was spotted where most important thing that is China's most powerful neighbor, Russia, was determined to put Chinese Communist Party in power. And then he realized this tiny party had a future. In 1922, inspired by events in Russia, Mao joins the fledgling Chinese Communist Party just one year after its official inception. He's intent on being on the winning side in any coming revolution.
But in 1924, the communists have blindsided by a turn of events. They didn't see coming. They're bitter rivals, the nationalists snatch power and establish themselves as China's government. The communists are now fighting for their very survival, but they think they have a plan as to how to respond in Russia. The revolution began in the cities. It was an industrial phenomenon inseparable from the factories of the great metropolises. It's a little different in China, a country that is still overwhelmingly rural and agrarian.
In China, the revolutionary spark must come from the nation's millions of peasants. Now realizes this, he realizes this is the key to fighting back against the nationalists. Though still new to frontline politics, Mao is well read, highly intelligent, charismatic, he sent by his communist brethren to meet with representatives from the Soviet Union to work out a plan of action. Now has what becomes the first of many clashes with his Russian comrades. Jonathan Clements, the Russians were intimately involved in the Chinese revolution in the Chinese Communist Party, and certainly he was one of their anointed when they were fighting the nationalists, but he was increasingly at odds with Stalin.
He says that when he went to to Moscow for his meeting with Stalin, he spent two months arguing with him. There was always a sense that the Russians were trying to tell him how to run his revolution. They were trying to tell the Chinese communists how to behave. And Mao would repeatedly say on the ground, this is not how it works. Mao insists that it's his way or the highway. A Chinese revolution must be ignited in a Chinese fashion.
This isn't Russia. The Russians believe the revolution came from within the urban poor. And now we see no revolution in China comes from the peasantry. It comes from the people in the countryside is a completely different system. And you can't tell me what to do. From the beginning, Mao said, this is an arm we can't be told by outsiders how to run a national local revolution, only we know how to do it well, except advice in key areas where take arms, we take resources, we take propaganda techniques, but we can't be told what to do.
We must have the final word. That's heresy to the Kremlin, heresy to Stalin, and it's that huge divide that never heals right through to Stalin's death. And then Mao's death. The two great communist powers, great monoliths remain at loggerheads, had occasional coming together, but never agreed on basics. Mao Zedong is a stubborn man. He wins out while the nationalist rule in Beijing, the communists focus their efforts on building their numbers in China's vast rural provinces away from central government.
By this stage, mouths grown into his looks, the puppy fat cheeks and cropped hair of his youth have given way to high cheekbones and dark center parted looks that he wears slicked back, clad in a trenchcoat, Mao Zedong cuts quite a figure as he journeys from village to village through the Chinese countryside, rounding up recruits. In 1927, man's reputation as a hard taskmaster and an organizer of men sees him elevated to the position of commander of the Red Army.
It's a grand title for a man just 34 years old, but in reality, at this stage, the Red Army is a small, ragtag militia. Morale is low, the enemy nationalists are on the march, but man got big plans for his force of peasant soldiers. He puts his recruits through basic military training. Then he instructs them to read and study key communist texts. Mao's plan is to turn the peasants against their landowners. There's a lot of resentment out there in the countryside.
Mao knows this. His own father was a landlord after all. From his student days, Mãe has taken the lesson that great individuals in history need not be held back by convention nor by fear of causing damage, the ends justify the means. If the ends are great, do what you have to do, it doesn't matter who gets hurt in the process more colloquially put, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. The broken eggs, the China's rural landlords, they hardly know what's hit the.
Travelling from village to village, Mao unleashes his peasant army, these local cadres burn and loot the landlord's property, humiliating and beating them for all to see. Professor Frank DeCota is based in Hong Kong and reports on modern China. He spent years studying Chinese archives to build up a picture of life under Mao. Mao was keen to pit people against each other. The villagers are assembled by local cadres and forced to denounce a number of very carefully selected victims seen as tyrants or vandals or traitors.
And the party insists on Mao, rather, insist that the villagers eliminate these people themselves. In other words, to put it slightly differently, the regime forces people to have blood on their hands. The pact between the people and the party is sealed quite literally in blood, and that technique of forcing people to denounce each other starts with land reform that goes all the way through the Cultural Revolution. Families, family members denounce each other, colleagues denounce each other, whereas no longer the party itself.
That has to do very much. It just sets in motion a cycle of violence which then becomes ever larger. The scope and extent of violence is constantly expanded. The violence is the revolution, he said. This is something we have to do. This is a necessity that we have to do this. But you see him wandering around China, starting these fights, pushing against landlords. The definition of what a landlord is depends on how much resources and how much material needs at any point.
There are stories of people taking evil oppressors of the masses and stringing them up and criticizing them and executing them and confiscating their wealth for the greater good of the party. But there are also stories of people saying the man in the next farm to me has three chickens. I've only got two. So he must be a landlord. He must be an evil oppressor. So there's all kinds of banditry basically going on. The face of Mao presents to the peasants, however, is very different.
The face of the disease is everywhere we go. We will pay for what we take. And when times were good, this is exactly what he would do. They would give IOUs or they would even offer money. There was one point where they they accidentally ran into a cargo of opium, which they then sold for the greater good of the Communist Party and use the money to buy arms and food and so on. But so they were drug dealers for for a couple of months.
While they had that, he would manipulate whatever he had. And this is the sign of desperation. But as he said on guerrilla warfare, this is how we have to work. So Mao changed his strategy depending on the situation that he was in. Soon, Mao's rule and revolution is too big for Beijing to ignore. Tensions between the communists and nationalists have been bubbling for years. Now, in 1927, open conflict erupts. It's the beginning of the bloody Chinese civil war.
For 22 years, the government will be locked in conflict with the communists. As Mao fights the nationalists on battlefields across China, he learns a bloody lesson. One that will serve him well in his rise to power. Jonathan Clements, one of Mao's most famous phrases is Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun that's rooted in his experience with the peasantry in the countryside, where it didn't matter what his superiors told him to do. It didn't matter what the the general lay of the land or the general political situation was.
What was most important is who had the ability to take what they needed at that time that required a gun. The years of war or the butchering and brutality of a profound, perverse impact on Mao was a man. He's becoming a sadist, the ecstatic relief violence brings becomes an end in itself. This is only the beginning. Chinese author of the story in June changed when he went to the villages, when he toured the villages and witnessed the violence and atrocities firsthand, as he said himself, he changed.
He felt a kind of ecstasy. That was his word, as he had never experienced that before, with his encouragement of violence and atrocities, ran wild in the villages in Hunan Province and the same kind of violence and atrocities Mao would repeat after he came to power. As the civil war rages on, Mao goes from strength to strength within the Communist Party. His talents, his leadership qualities have not gone unnoticed. His career is about to really take off, but it will happen far away from the front line.
A commissar is a political fixer responsible for enforcing right thinking in the party's rank and file. It's a role to which Mao Zedong is perfectly suited.
The leader of the army was left in the hands of others, and Mao found himself with this political role, with with the role of a political commissar, which is fantastic for him because he gets to define whatever his role is at any given time.
All those nights spent reading books by candlelight back on the family farm asset to pay off. Mao is the ideal candidate to enforce discipline of thought on the communist movement, controlling what people think can make you supremely powerful. Soon, Mao is viewed as the supreme authority on communist doctrine. He can say, oh, this is a party matter where that food should go today. This is a party matter how we should spend our money. Or he could decide it's not a party matter and it's someone else's problem.
So he's in this fantastically powerful position. He has no military role anymore. But the military must always defer to him because we set up this structure now whereby the military has to have political advice, the military needs advice on what the party position will be. And Mao is defining that over and over again. So he gets to be that role. But also he gets to teach the others he's in charge of educating people about what the party policy is.
He was already developing a personality cult. People were already talking about Mao Zedong, thought about him as some kind of philosophical leader of the Communist Party. So he knew that there was a personality cult developing in his name. And he was very happy about that as well, because the more people worshipped him, the less chance there would be of anyone attempting to topple him.
Mouse move to the top is about to be accelerated further when outsiders take advantage of the political chaos. China's turmoil presents a golden opportunity to the age old enemy, the empire of Japan. Japanese generals have been watching events unfold across the East China Sea with interest. They've long had designs on China as an area for territorial expansion. In 1931, the Japanese choose their moment to strike on September the 18th. A Japanese soldier detonates a pile of dynamite near the Japanese owned South Manchuria Railway in northeastern China.
The explosion is minor, no real damage to the railway is done. In fact, a train passes through the site unharmed. Just minutes later, it's a set up in the Japanese capital, Tokyo. Politicians feign outrage at this attack on Japanese infrastructure, its pretext enough to dispatch a battalion of troops to Manchuria. The Japanese swiftly seized the entire province, China's nationalist government puts up a fight, but it's not enough. Now, a full scale Japanese invasion is on the cards.
Amidst the chaos, the Chinese communists buy an opportunity with the government stretched to breaking point. It's time to take advantage of the mayhem. They tried to topple the nationalists, but the attempted coup fails. The nationalist generals begin to encircle the communists rural strongholds. Mao Zedong knows that retreat is unavoidable, Mao's masterstroke is to turn this defeat into a golden PR opportunity. In 1935, as the nationalist close in Mao commands his forces to pull back to the north and to the west.
His troops flee into the hills, food and water are scarce as they begin the painstaking journey on foot back to their hideouts now stands at the head of a column of bedraggled, hungry soldiers. This won't do such a defeat is no way for his revolution to be remembered. Lucky for him, the reality of an event is not always the same as the memory of it. In a genius move, Ma will rebrand this beating as one eternal headline. The long march.
This moment will become the stuff of legend. Chinese children and generations to come if they complain about cold hunger or any inconvenience will be told, you don't know how good you've got it. It's nothing compared to the long march. Over the years, the Chinese will embark on countless other long marches, long marches to industrialization, long marches to sporting prowess on the world stage. It will become something of a national catchphrase. But right now, in 1935, the original long march tastes like a grim defeat.
As the lines of bruised and battered communist soldiers make their way through the mountains and plains, disease, hunger and starvation are rife. As the death toll mounts, now puts on a masterclass in self-preservation, Mãe simply stayed alive. This is a very important component because there were many other people who could have ended up in his position, but they were all killed off in the 1920s. In the 1930s, a lot of his early success came from ignoring his superiors.
He was out in the countryside pursuing what at the time was regarded as a very bad idea of getting the peasants together and lynching landlords and requisitioning materials and then running before anyone could fight him. So he kept on getting orders from his superiors, saying, we want you to engage with the nationalist forces at this particular point. And he would often ignore them or he'd send some soldiers in, fire some shots in the air and then run off. So every time more loyal communists follow the advice of their superiors and got killed, Mao made it another rung up the ladder.
At the age of 42, with the Communist Party decimated, Mao Zedong achieved his long held aim. He reaches the top rung of the ladder, he's appointed leader of the Chinese Communist Party from this position at the apex of communist politics, now can begin to action his master plan to become uncontested leader of all China. But first things first. He's got one hell of a fight on his hands. Next time, unreal dictators. After a long and bloody struggle, the nationalists are finally forced from office.
Stepping on stage in Beijing to rapturous applause, Mao Zedong declares himself supreme leader of a China 600 million people. With the red flag flying over Tiananmen Square, Mao proclaims the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. Virtually overnight, he will revolutionize the Chinese economy no matter the human cost. It is better to let half of the people die, he says, so that the other half can eat their fill. That's next time on Real Dictators. Real Dictators is presented by me, Paul McGann.
The show is created by Pascal, who's produced by Joel de Down, edited by James Tindale and Katrina Hughes. The music was composed or assembled by Oliver Baines from Flight Brigade. The strings were recorded by Doree McCoole. The sound mixer is Tom Pink. The sound recordist is Robbie Stamm, Real Dictators is a noisy and world media writes co-production. If you haven't already, we'd love you to follow us wherever you listen to your favorite shows or check us out at real dictators dotcom.