Was Mao Zedong a Successful Political Leader? Was his legacy mainly negative or were there positive elements?

Mao Zedong was a successful political leader, however the legacy he left behind was overwhelmingly negative. In some respects, despite his tragic errors Mao had initially made some great triumphs for China. Thereafter, his rule was disastrous. Before Mao’s ascension to country leadership in 1949, China was a backward, war-torn, divided and impoverished empire that buckled to imperial powers. By the end of his reign China was a united, stable and respected world power. It had a strong government with a firm grip on power, that was able to pursue socialist goals.[1] However, these successes were offset by cruelty and fatal mistakes of a grand scale.[2] Persecution of intellectuals pushed them to silence, anti-rightist movements sent millions to labour in the countryside, economic policies became disastrous and the country fell into a dictatorship under Mao.[3] In 1958, Mao’s ambitions resulted in the Great Leap Forward which disenfranchised the population, almost collapsed the economy and led to the deaths of millions of people.[4] From 1966, paranoia, ideology and political pursuits culminated in the Cultural Revolution. This was a period of “gross mistakes” that left people exhausted, traumatised and cynical.[5] To assess Mao’s success as a political leader and his legacy, this essay will discuss his impact on four important aspects. This includes his legacy on government and the political system, on ideology, on society, and on the economy.

Legacy on Government and the Political System

Although on the whole Mao’s legacy was negative, his impact on the government was mostly positive and it demonstrated his personal success as a political leader. Firstly, he was able to unite the country due to his victory of 1949.[6] Deng Xiaoping said that “only Chairman Mao could have led [the CCP] to victory.”[7] China was united militarily in the People’s Liberation Army and politically in the CCP.[8] This was a significant accomplishment given the enormous problems he had to confront such as population growth, economic strains, warlordism, foreign invasion, and famine.[9] Thus, for such a momentous feat, in the future Mao would not only be obeyed, but also forgiven by some for grave errors that damaged China and the CCP.

This leads to another success of Mao which was the party organization and strength built during his reign. After the Seventh Party Congress in 1945 (where Mao’s primacy was confirmed) Mao assembled a formidable leadership team that would more or less last for over a decade.[10] Their skills complemented Mao’s and their organizational talents greatly benefited the longevity of the CCP.[11] These people included Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Ren Bishi and Chen Yun.[12] In being able to mobilise this impressive group, he demonstrated his political brilliance and helped to strengthen the Party. For example, Liu excelled in organization and party discipline whilst Zhou and Chen focused on economics.[13] The government under Mao was also able to retain a firm grip on power and centrally controlled major resource allocation decisions.[14]

However, Mao also weakened the party’s organization in several ways. For example, the Mao led Great Leap Forward was not only disastrous for the subjects of China but also hurt the CCP. While the majority could previously unite in favour of positive goals such as improved productivity or higher standards of living, following this period such promises could no longer be fully credited.[15] In addition, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, even according to the Party, was “the most severe setback…[and created] the heaviest losses suffered by the Party…since the founding of the People’s Republic.”[16] In this period, mass mobilization of Red Guards, who were taught from infancy to worship Mao[17], replaced the traditionally Party controlled groups.[18] It was a result of Mao’s loss of confidence in the Party.[19] This change also often generated a “vindictive mob atmosphere”[20] that proved dangerous to both the people and the Party, who had lost control of the movement. Indeed, after the Cultural Revolution had finished, China’s organizational structure was in shambles. This illustrates how Mao’s actions damaged the CCP. During this time Mao did not shrink from using terror or suppression.[21] To protect his own power and legacy, Mao purged rivals and opponents of Party leadership, using guises of “rectification movements”, “anti-rightist” campaigns and “suppression of counter-revolutionaries” campaigns to eliminate them. This demonstrated a political cunning and ruthlessness that contributed to Mao’s personal success, but ultimately weakened the CCP.

This extends to how Mao had a further negative legacy on government by advancing his personal power over the good of the Party. Firstly, despite breaking from and criticising China’s historical rule, Mao would tend to compare himself with various Chinese emperors.[22] This contradicted the type of leadership that a Communist revolutionary party was meant to have. He also seemed unwilling to relinquish personal control over society, thus heightening tensions.[23] Secondly, Mao would subvert Party consensus or authority to pursue methods as he saw fit. He would stipulate the direction of change and would rely on his own charisma to set objectives unilaterally.[24] Mao was able to do this because he was so confident that he had the support of the masses, that he could rebel against the leadership with the people around him if needed.[25] Lastly, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to recover his status as supreme leader.[26] Here, his personality cult dominated, and Mao put the importance of his personal legacy above that of the national interest.[27]

A final positive element of Mao’s regime was that it in some ways paved the way for reform in post-Mao China. For example, normalising relations with the United States (as evidence by President Nixon’s 1972 visit) created a favourable international environment for reform.[28] Additionally, many Deng-era policies were built on Mao’s efforts to improve the economy.[29] Therefore although costly, without Mao there perhaps never would have risen an “order out of chaos” or the development of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the post-Mao era.[30] Mao has had lasting positive and negative impacts on the CCP. On a grand scale, major accomplishments paint a good legacy, however Mao, especially in his later years, also caused harm to the Party.

Legacy on Ideology

One of the most important contributions from Mao was his ideological works. He was known as much for his writings and ideas as he was for his actions.[31] A positive legacy he left behind was the inception and development of Mao Zedong thought. Mao ridiculed the dogmatists of Marxism, saying “your dogma is less useful than excrement,”[32] and instead forged his own “Sinicized”s version of Marxism-Leninism, which combined it with the circumstances and conditions of China.[33] This new theory was able to help achieve one of the most efficient and least damaging socialist revolutions (between 1949 and 1956 in China).[34] It also influenced revolutions in Asia, Latin America and Africa.[35] Thus it proved to be a positive aspect of Mao’s legacy. Linked to this was his supreme belief in the importance of the masses. He thought that “the people alone, [were] the motivating force in the making of world history” and with them it was “possible to accomplish any task whatsoever.”[36] Mao consistently advocated that leadership activity would be fruitless without the support of the masses.[37] He thus contributed to the health of the CCP by convincing them to eliminate social distance and remain close with their followers in order to lead effectively.[38] Furthermore, on top of being able to organise the party and policies, Mao Zedong Thought remains the official ideology of the CCP today, and provides them with legitimacy.[39] It also provided proof that socialism could be achieved and enjoyed even before capitalism, which from a socialist perspective is a significant positive of Mao’s legacy.[40]  

Regarding Party ideology, Mao captured the goals of the CCP in his 1940 essay “On New Democracy” that highlighted the degenerative effects of “invasion of foreign capitalism”, and how it was “against these predominant political, economic and cultural forms that [their] revolution [was] directed.”[41] Mao believed that in order to gain the “scented flowers of socialism” they must first “destroy the poisonous weeds of capitalism.”[42] As such, Mao during the Cultural Revolution accused other leaders who encouraged free markets such as Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, as being “Capitalist Roaders.”[43] He also provided a detailed outline of how the CCP could gain power and who its enemies were in writings such as “The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party” (1939), “On New Democracy” (1940), “On Coalition Government” (1945) and “On People’s Democratic Dictatorship” (1949).[44]

However, it was under this very same Mao Zedong Thought that China suffered greatly. For example, Mao used the “100 Flowers” Rectification Campaigns (1956), which opened the floodgates of criticism, as a ruse to expose critics and censor opposition to Mao ideology and the CCP.[45] In addition, despite the guidance of Maoism, the cultural revolution lacked precise objectives, instead calling for vague and shifting cultural goals.[46] This led to chaos and carnage.[47] Overall, Mao was viewed as both theorist and implementer of the socialist revolution.[48]

The legacy he left behind regarding ideology was significant for socialism and communism and therefore positive in their view. However, it was also under this theory that China endured so much tragedy.

Legacy on Society

Mao’s legacy on Chinese society was mostly negative. In order to fulfil his goals, society paid a formidable price. His actions caused widespread harm to all elements of society.  Firstly, Mao disregarded the individual rights of the Chinese people, instead believing that loyalties of the individual should be transferred from the clan to the nation.[49] Consequently, the people (especially workers and peasants) were exploited to help destroy the capitalist class.[50] Furthermore, in order to usher in new structures, hundreds of thousands of landlords were executed.[51]  

The Great Leap Forward was another Maoist led project that was negative for society. It left people famished, disaffected and apathetic.[52] Between 15 and 40 million people starved to death between 1959 and 1961 as a result of the famine caused by this policy.[53] Here, a terrible failure on Mao’s behalf was witnessed as Mao’s call to improve the livelihood of peasants resulted in the very opposite.[54] However, in these years (especially 1959) China suffered its worst natural catastrophes for decades. For example, over half the land in cultivation flooded and China went from a grain exporter to a grain importer.[55] Furthermore, the government made great efforts to fight the famine, by actions such as importing grain or reintroducing private plots.[56] Therefore the entire disaster cannot be attributed solely to Mao’s actions.

The Cultural Revolution also caused irreparable damage between the people and the government. This has been discussed above, however an additional catastrophic social result was observed. Under the credibility of Mao’s “Little Red Book” of quotations, Red Guard youths mindlessly terrorised communities, workers and intellectuals denounced each other, people were subject to constant “thought investigations” and eventually, students (and Red Guards) were sent to the countryside to “learn from the peasants.”[57] This madness created a “nightmare for millions,”[58] and “never before in China’s history had a whole generation of young people been so ruthlessly used and discarded.”[59] Altogether, the death and disenfranchisement of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution on society were overall greater than the total positives that Mao brought to China.[60]

Mao also had a profoundly negative impact on intellectuals. Mao was anti-elitist and often scorned intellectuals, pressing them to instead learn from the masses. Such actions led to alienation between them.[61] Furthermore, those who did not support the CCP were ostracised and persecuted. This was evidenced in the 1956 “100 Flowers” Rectification Movement and in the Cultural Revolution. The possibility to be accused for being bourgeoisie, capitalist, elitist, rightist or counter-revolutionary forced many to supress their intellectual freedom and spirit. Another group in society that Mao’s legacy affected was peasants. Mao claimed legitimacy by being a champion of the peasants, who made up 80 per cent of the population, and intended to advance their wellbeing. He initially devoted himself to liberating them from the “three big mountains” of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.[62] To this he achieved considerable success. However, Mao also produced negative outcomes for peasants. For example, although promised land, they were instead dehumanised and pushed into collective farms.[63] Millions also starved to death. Therefore on balance, Mao’s impact on society was a negative contribution to his legacy.

Legacy on the Economy

On the whole, Mao’s economic policies formed another negative part of his legacy. Although Mao did pursue modernization and engaged with globalization, the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward, and its movement for steel production in 1957 proved to be too harmful.[64] This process started with incredibly rapid collectivization, pushed by Mao.[65] For example, regional collectivization was very fast. In 1956, 83 per cent of households were enrolled in cooperatives.[66] In 1957 this rose to 97 per cent.[67] This was even further developed, as by 1958 in regions like Henan, 5,376 agricultural collectives became 208 large “people’s communes”.[68] In total, about 550 million peasants were organised into approximately 26 thousand communes.[69] This ambitious but flawed policy was intended to make the country’s production easier to control, however it did not work successfully. Firstly, bad management under Mao caused major problems. New farming techniques ruined the soil, irrigation and damming was bad, and steel produced from backyard furnaces was of too poor quality to use.[70]
Secondly, the organization of the communes removed incentives for farmers to produce a surplus, and this contributed to a shortage of food for the producers. Likewise, the non-stop operation of urban factories resulted in low efficiency and poor productivity.[71] For these many reasons, under Mao’s direction China’s economy was pushed to the brink of ruin. For example, over three million tonnes of steel was wasted and China’s exports to Hong Kong between 1958 and 1959 dropped by 25 per cent.[72][73] In 1962, Mao acknowledged some responsibility for the disaster, citing the steel campaign and excessively high grain production quotas as primary mistakes.[74] Therefore instead of being prosperous, under Mao the people were to live under daily rationings and in “unending egalitarian poverty.”[75] Consequently, given the neglect and failure of the economy under Mao, the CCP post 1976 decided that the new direction of the Party should be economic development over political movements.[76]  However, Mao’s economic legacy of this period is not all negative. Cities such as Shanghai largely recovered under the CCP, helped by “industrialization without urbanization.”[77] Economic growth in Shanghai from 1953 to 1978 averaged 8.8 per cent.[78] Accordingly, Mao left a healthy urban infrastructure for Deng and the CCP to develop.  Overall, Mao’s legacy regarding economic affairs was damaging due primarily to policies starting from the Great Leap Forward.


Mao’s legacy is a mixture of positive accomplishments and negative downfalls. He was able to unite the country under the strong and stable CCP, and developed Mao Zedong Thought. These were noble and grand achievements. However, his social and economic impact during his reign damaged his legacy. Failures, especially in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would mean that by 1976 he was viewed by many as a symbol of subjugation and brutality. On balance, the severity of Mao’s negative impacts outweigh the positive elements he developed in his 28 years of leadership. In the CCP document, the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” (1981) it summarises Mao’s legacy stating that his “merits [were] primary and his errors secondary.”[79] This has been popularly heard as 70 per cent contributions and 30 per cent failings. However, from the above analysis the opposite should be concluded about his legacy. Mao’s errors were primary and his merits secondary.


Britannica. 2017. “Mao Zedong,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mao-Zedong. Accessed 29 May 2017.

Brugger, Bill. and Reglar Stephen. 1994. Politics, Economy and Society in Contemporary China. London: Macmillan.

This book details the ideas, rational and results of key periods under Mao’s reign. As a primarily descriptive text, the authors do not present a forceful argument in favour or against Mao, but they do provide evidence suggesting some of his policies resulted in poor results (especially the Great Leap Forwards and Cultural Revolution). Additionally, overall it is clear that despite his legacy, Mao was clever and successful as a political leader in some ways. The authors cite several historians as secondary sources, and also include primary sources from people active during that time. Thus I regard this source of high quality. 

From this information, valuable relevant and reliable facts and statistics will be used as evidence to prove that whilst there were more negative than positive aspects to Mao’s rule. Therefore I will be able to use this book to assist as to what Mao’s achievements and failures were in the big picture, and subsequently analyse them in the essay.

Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon. 2005. Mao: The Unknown Story. London: Jonathan Cape.

Cheek, Timothy. 2010. “Mao, Revolution, and Memory.” In Timothy Cheek (Ed.), A Critical Introduction to Mao. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3-30.

Chinese Communist Party.1981. “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China” (Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China), 27 June 1981. http://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm. Accessed 10 May 2017.

Dittmer, Lowell. 1980. “The Legacy of Mao Zedong.” Asian Survey. 20(5), 552-573.
This journal article inspects Mao’s accomplishments against his intentions in the areas of leadership, political structure, culture, and political change. Dittmer argues that we must try to isolate Mao’s personal impact from the converging influences of other political actors, in order to obtain a truthful assessment of what transpired in China during the Mao period. This article is more concerned with the political side, over economic or social aspects. Dittmer overall believes that Mao had both success and failures in each of the areas discussed, and notes that his legacy has in fact been “left to the custody of his opponents” (p. 573). This text quotes many primary sources and references several secondary ones. It is useful for my essay because it provides a different and more focused view that explores Mao’s individual actions, which relates directly to the essay question. 

Hayford, Charles W. 2010. “Mao’s Journeys to the West: Meanings Made of Mao.” In Timothy Cheek (Ed.), A Critical Introduction to Mao. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 313-331.

Ip, Hung-Yok. 2010. “Mao, Mao Zedong Thought, and Communist Intellectuals.” In Timothy Cheek (Ed.), A Critical Introduction to Mao. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 169–195.

Mao Zedong. 1949. “On the people’s democratic dictatorship,” in Selected Works of Mao Zedong Volume 4. 30 June 1949. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-4/mswv4_65.htm. Accessed 10 May 2017.

Mao Zedong on Peasant Cooperatives. July 1955. http://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/mao-zedong-peasant-cooperatives-1955/. Accessed 30 May 2017.

Mao’s 16 Points on the Cultural Revolution. 8 August 1966. http://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/mao-zedongs-16-points-on-the-cultural-revolution-1966/. Accessed 31 May 2017.

Karnow, Stanley. 1990. Mao and China: A Legacy of Turmoil. New York: Penguin Books.
This book written by American author Stanley Karnow largely concentrates on Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, but also explores events preceding and succeeding it. It provides a heavily detailed chronicle of events focusing on what Mao’s actions were and how it translated to the people of China. Although largely a descriptive piece of work, Karnow is clearly critical of Mao’s leadership and the results its produced. He harshly criticised the “nightmarish” Cultural Revolution and argues that by Mao’s death, he was seen as a symbol of “cruelty and repression” (Preface, VII). Karnow utilises many primary sources in the form of direct quotations and examinations of official policies and statistics. He also uses secondary sources to fulfil the historical narrative. This source is suitable for my essay. It contains high quality information regarding the main events under Mao’s China, which is vital in arguing if Mao was a successful political leader or not. However it is a 571 paged book so only the preface and certain chapters will be examined.

Teiwes, Frederick C. 2010. “Mao and His Followers.” In Timothy Cheek (Ed.), A Critical Introduction to Mao. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 129-168.

Wei, C. X. George. 2011. “Mao’s legacy revisited: its lasting impact on China and post-Mao era reform.” Asian Politics & Policy. 3(1), 3-27.
This article examines the ways in which Mao’s policies have affected those post-1976, especially under Deng Xiaoping. Wei points out that the perceived successes of the post-Mao era must contain some form of continuation from that time. Wei is generally more supportive of the overall legacy and political leadership provided by Mao and focuses on his foreign policy, domestic policy and the effect of the Cultural Revolution. Wei uses primary and secondary sources. It looks at policies used by the CCP, but also sets up a debate between intellectuals. For my essay I will do research on domestic policies in order to help determine which were successful in the long run, and which others failed. This will help identify both positive and negative elements with regard to Mao’s legacy.

Wemheuer, Felix. 2010. “Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine in the People’s Republic of China.” The China Quarterly. 201(1). 176-194.

Yihua, Jiang, and Roderick MacFarquhar. 2010. “Two Perspectives on Mao Zedong.” In Timothy Cheek (Ed.), A Critical Introduction to Mao. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 332–352

[1] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 351

[2] Hayford 2010, 331

[3] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 351

[4] Ibid

[5] Chinese Communist Party.1981. “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China” (Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China), 27 June 1981. http://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm. Accessed 10 May 2017.

[6] Teiwes 2010, 129

[7] Ibid

[8] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 343

[9] Karnow 1990, 11

[10] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 347

[11] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 348

[12] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 347

[13] Ibid

[14] Wei 2011, 8

[15] Dittmer 1980, 568

[16] Chinese Communist Party.1981. “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China” (Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China), 27 June 1981. http://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm. Accessed 10 May 2017.

[17] Karnow 1990, II

[18] Dittmer 1980, 565

[19] Brugger and Reglar 1994, 35

[20] Dittmer 1980, 565

[21] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 347

[22] Dittmer 1980, 553

[23] Dittmer 1980, 571

[24] Dittmer 1980, 568

[25] Dittmer 1980, 555

[26] Karnow 1990, I

[27] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 351

[28] Wei 2011, 5

[29] Wei 2011, 3

[30] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 343

[31] Cheek 2010, 13

[32] Ip 2010, 180

[33] Hayford 2010, 315

[34] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 348

[35] Cheek 2010, 4

[36] Karnow 1990, 84

[37] Dittmer 1980, 553

[38] Dittmer 1980, 559

[39] Cheek 2010, 20

[40] Hayford 2010, 327

[41] Cheek 2010, 19

[42] Karnow 1990, VII

[43] Wei 2011, 14

[44] Dittmer 1980, 569

[45] Karnow 1990, VII

[46] Dittmer 1980, 568

[47] Karnow 1990, 7

[48] Cheek 2010, 6

[49] Karnow 1990, XII

[50] Karnow 1990, VIII

[51] Karnow 1990, XII

[52] Karnow 1990, 101

[53] Wemheuer 2010, 178; As such, the majority of people killed under Mao were victims of famine, not murder or terror.

[54] Brugger and Reglar 1994, 32

[55] Brugger and Reglar 1994, 35

[56] Wemheuer 2010, 179

[57] Cheek 2010, 12; : 4.4 billion books and pamphlets of Mao material were published between 1966 to 1976

[58] Karnow 1990, XI

[59] Karnow 1990, VII

[60] Furthermore, as a result of various failures, many writers attacked Mao after his death, such as Jung Chang, in Mao: The Unknown Story. Jung painted him as a monster who was motivated solely by power. She argues that Mao held “absolute power” and was “responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime.”; Chang and Halliday 2005, 3

[61] Dittmer 1980, 573

[62] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 333

[63] Karnow 1990, XII

[64] Wei 2011, 8

[65] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 348

[66] Brugger and Reglar 1994, 22

[67] Ibid.

[68] Brugger and Reglar 1994, 32

[69] Chang and Halliday 2005, 451

[70] Karnow 1990, 85

[71] Karnow 1990, VII

[72] Chang and Halliday 2005, 451

[73] Karnow 1990, 95

[74] Wemheuer 2010, 181

[75] Yihua and Roderick 2010, 352

[76] Wei 2011, 3

[77] Wei 2011, 10

[78] Wei 2011, 12

[79] Chinese Communist Party.1981. “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China” (Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China), 27 June 1981. http://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm. Accessed 10 May 2017.