Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping: Leaders of China


China owes its present existence and well-being to the actions of some of its past great leaders. Arguably the two most significant leaders in China’s history are Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. These two played monumental roles in shaping China between 1949 and 1997. Through their respective rules, Mao and Deng made enormous contributions to China’s development. Even so, their contributions are a subject of controversy since both leaders exhibited levels of tyranny in their rule. Mao is infamous for the Cultural Revolution which resulted in terror to the middle-class while Deng is infamous for crushing pro-democracy movements in China. These factors have led some historians to view the two leaders as tyrants who brought nothing but death and destruction to China between 1949 and 1997. This paper will argue that while Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping exhibited some elements of tyranny in their rule, they brought about great socio-economic progress in China and greatly contributed to the strengthening of the country between 1949 and 1997. To reinforce these claims, this paper will highlight some of the roles of both men and how they both positively and negatively impacted China.

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Mao Zedong

Mao took over the leadership of China in 1949 when the country was arguably at the lowest point in its history. The China of 1949 was impoverished by decade-long civil wars, poor economic planning, and an ineffective government structure (Fenby 37). Mao’s first step was to establish a strong centralized government under his leadership. Even as he set out to do this, there was strong opposition to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) he headed. To counter this, Mao turned China into a “Democratic Dictatorship” and took action to purge the republic of the people who challenged the CCP’s power and ambitions. Hundreds of thousands of dissidents were executed or sent to the rural areas for “re-education”. He also destroyed the oppressive landlord class who had for centuries lorded over the peasants. Howard and Wm record that between 1950 and 1951, Mao implemented land reforms which resulted in the seizure and distribution of land and the killing of millions of landlords (p. 23). By doing this, Mao eliminated the old established order, therefore, clearing the way for a new order. Mao’s vision alleviated the abuses of the old landlord system and sparked modernization for most rural lands in China. Successful industrialization programs were implemented.

The key to Mao’s rule was the complete and unquestioning allegiance from the people. The CCP did not welcome any criticism and communist ideals and ideology were held in high esteem (Moise, p. 42). Meisner notes that even against his backdrop of a lack of freedom and rights, the Chinese people reaped enormous benefits (p. 195). With the assistance of the Soviets, China began to be industrialized with many lights and heavy industries were developed. The standards of living for the population rose significantly as education and healthcare programs were successfully implemented. Meisner states that through Mao’s efforts, the life expectancy of the Chinese went from an average of 35years in pre-1949 China to 65 years at the end of Mao’s reign (p. 195).

Mao acknowledged that the power of his party came from the common people and to provide them with a means to be heard, he in 1957 gave the now-famous “Hundred Flowers Speech” (Moise, p. 56). This speech gave the impression that criticism from the people was welcomed by the Communist Party. It was followed by heightened criticism against the communist system and by extension Mao himself. In retaliation, Mao withdrew the concessions and unleashed a wave of repression.

Mao’s vision was centered on the notion of class struggle and a revolution was seen as key to achieving a communist society. In this utopian state, everyone would enjoy equal rights and equal access. Materials and goods would be distributed according to the needs of an individual and not privilege (Goodman, p. 84). Mao wanted to achieve this complete communist state in a hurry which led him to stage the Great Leap Forward. This leap was characterized by a move from private property to socialist ownership. This project was a huge failure and it resulted in death from starvation by millions of Chinese (Moise, p. 132). These failures led to Mao’s leadership being questioned and the once prominent Mao was pushed to the background.

Mao was resentful of the fact that the CCP had lost its zeal for achieving a socialist state. He, therefore, incited Chinese students to rebel against the CCP and carry out a Cultural Revolution. Through this revolution, Mao reinserted his personal power and made the CCP return to its revolutionary values. This revolution inspired by Mao brought about great human and social destructiveness (Fenby, p. 378). As such, the Cultural Revolution which lasted until 1976 halted the development that Mao’s leadership had initiated in China.

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Deng Xiaoping

After the death of Mao, Hua Kuo-Feng took over as the leader of the CCP. He however did not wield any significant power and by 1978, Deng Xiaoping had established himself as the authority in China (Moise, p. 234). Deng ended the reign of terror that had been in effect through the Cultural Revolution. Laws in China in 1985 were still strict but legality was observed. While a lifelong member of the Communist Party, Deng thought that individual competence was more important than ideological commitment. He realized that Marxism and the ideology that had been championed by Mao could not help China to achieve its modernization goals. He, therefore, set out to correct Mao’s policies which he declared had been a big mistake.

Deng believed that China could only prosper if she opened herself up to the rest of the world. In 1978, Deng officially charted a new route for China by proposing economic reforms and an open-door policy (Goodman, p. 287). His era is therefore marked by an improvement in China’s international relations. Most significant is the establishment and thriving of Chinese-American relations. By the end of his leadership, Deng had succeeded in transforming China from the isolated stagnant economy of 1976 to an open and robust economy.

Just like his predecessor Mao, Deng did not allow any criticism of the communist system. He, therefore, engaged in a crackdown on individuals who were critical of the communist system, and by 1980, there was little opposition to the system. In the years that followed, he did little to move towards political democracy after assuming power. Deng faced a crisis in his leadership in the spring of 1989 when discontent, as well as a desire for more political freedom, inspired large-scale demonstrations in Beijing and a number of other major Chinese cities (Goodman, p. 108). These pro-democracy demonstrations culminated in the occupation of Tiananmen Square by a large contingent of students. Under Deng’s leadership, the army was ordered to clear the square resulting in a significant death toll. The Tiananmen crisis was followed by intense political repression and reduced economic changes. Even so, Deng continued to concentrate on economic growth after Tiananmen and improved China’s international position. China’s current prosperity can therefore be attributed to the actions of this iconic leader, Deng Xiaoping.

Discussion and Conclusion

Both Mao and Deng played major roles in the development of China. Mao was a visionary leader who succeeded in turning China from its impoverished state to a modern nation with great power despite the great tyranny that he engaged in during his last years in power. The revolution that Mao began led to a great social revolution for the Chinese peasants against seemingly overwhelming odds. Thanks to him, the once fragmented China was unified and an effective central government was established (Meisner, p. 194). Deng Xiaoping on the other hand was a visionary leader who strengthened China and brought about radical changes and progress from 1978 up until he died in 1997. He turned China from an isolated economically impoverished country into a successful economy.

The contributions of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to Chinese modern development cannot be understated. From this paper, it is clear that Mao’s rule brought about great socio-economic progress to China. Deng on the other hand modernized China and set it on the path to becoming the global power that it now is. This paper has noted that the two leaders committed acts of tyranny. Even so, these acts pale in comparison to the development that these two leaders brought to China.

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Works Cited

  1. Fenby, Jonathan. The Penguin History of modern China: The fall and rise of a great power, 1850-2008. London: Allen Lane, 2008. Print.
  2. Goodman, David. Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese revolution: a political biography. Arizona: Routledge, 1994. Print.
  3. Howard, Michael and Wm. Roger Louis. The Oxford history of the twentieth century. New York: Oxford University press, 1998. Print.
  4. Meisner, Maurice. Mao Zedong: a political and intellectual portrait. NY: Polity, 2007. Print.
  5. Moise, Edwin. Modern China: A history. London: Longman, 1994. Print.
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