Mao Zedong is largely remembered as a communist, but some contend that he was primarily a nationalist. I argue that he was motivated only partially by nationalism but also that it influenced him greatly.
Although Mao was the first Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and undoubtedly was a communist, his rise is intertwined with the history of the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party).
The Communist Party was founded in 1921. In 1923 it made an alliance with the Kuomintang. The objective of the Kuomintang was to recover China’s sovereignty and was ultimately aimed at proletarian dictatorship. The Kuomintang was given support by Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (Das 2004, p. 13) The Kuomintang ruled China for over twenty years before being defeated by the communists. (Tien 1972, p. 1)
“During most of 1924 Mao worked in Shanghai, both for his party [centre] and in the executive bureau of the Kuomintang.” (Rice 1974, p. 30) He was elected to the Central Committee of the Kuomintang as an alternate member in the same year. (Rice 1974, p. 31) “In Canton, he served for some time as de facto head of the propaganda department of the Kuomintang, and as the director of its Peasant Movement Training Institute.” (Rice 1974, p. 32) He organised peasant associations in anticipation of the Northern Expedition, the military’s reunification campaign in which China would be made whole under the Kuomintang. (Rice 1974, p. 32)
Mao’s communist party had common ground with the Kuomintang, “his revolution and its predecessor nationalist revolution had in common four inextricably connected objectives: unifying China by eliminating warlords and erasing foreign spheres of influence, regaining China’s independence and deterring foreign invasion or bullying, establishing respect for China as a sovereign participant in international affairs, and restoring China to prosperity.” (Freeman, 2012)
“Kuomintang advocates of tradition used National Essence as a symbol of their political legitimacy, as a rallying point for precarious national unity, and, perhaps most important, as a sign that they were drawing the limits of revolution well within the inherited socioeconomic structure.” (Schneider 1971, p. 44)
“While the nation was defined by political criteria, the leadership also tried to promote ideas of a single Chinese civilization that would unify the various ethnicities within the country. The concept of ‘Chinese nationalism’ (zhonghua minzu) became crucial to thinking about the Chinese nation.
“It is important to note that the term nationalism (minzu zhuyi) was not used by the government because of the danger that it would alienate the minority ethnicities. Instead, the concept of patriotism (aiguo) was constantly evoked by the ruling party to justify policies, most often in the context of external threats.” (Lewis, 2004) Mao was influenced by Yan Fu, a pro-Western nationalist. Yan is said to have greatly influenced the communists in general but Mao in particular. (Cabestan, 2005)
According to Schram (1966, p. 50-51), Mao Zedong viewed nationalism as a powerful weapon against Japanese and Western dominance, but unlike other Marxist-Leninists, he saw nationalism as something intrinsically valuable in itself. He eventually came to adopt an orthodox Marxist-Leninist position.
“According to [Professor] Suisheng Zhao[, Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver], before the nineteenth century, when China was still an empire, nationalism did not exist. The Chinese political elite began to embrace modern nationalist doctrine for China’s defence and regeneration only after China’s disastrous defeat by British troops in the 1839-42 Opium War, which led not only to the eventual disintegration of the Chinese empire but also to the loss of national sovereignty to imperialist powers. Since that time, the nationalist quest to blot out the humiliation China suffered at the hands of imperialists has been a recurring theme in Chinese politics. Almost all powerful Chinese leaders, from the early twentieth century through today, have shared a deep bitterness at this humiliation and have been determined to restore China’s pride and prestige, as well as its rightful place in the world.
“They realised the potential of nationalistic feelings among the Chinese people and deliberately revived it in the memory of the people. As William A. Callahan noted, ‘There are textbooks, novels, museums, songs, and parks devoted to commemorating national humiliation in China.’” (Ali, 2007) Clearly, nationalism was ripe for use by politicians.
An example of Mao using nationalism as a weapon came after he was removed from his official positions after the calamitous “Great Leap Forward”. Mao incited antitraditionalist nationalism during the cultural revolution and in doing so, continued to exert his unparalleled influence among the people of China. (Lewis, 2004)
When prominent politician and military leader “Tchang Kai-shek[, member of the Kuomintang] dithered over launching a hopeless counterattack against Japan’s territorial violations, … Mao and his partisans [appeared] in the eyes of many Chinese, and above all of important sections of the Chinese elite, as the only upholders of the nationalist cause.” (Cabestan, 2005)
Ethnic-based nationalism receded after the abolition of the Qing dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1911. The Kuomintang and the Communist Party defined China as a multiethnic political community. (Ali, 2007) According to Friberg, Hettne and Tamm (1979), Indian nationalist pioneer and leader M. K. Gandhi saw Mao as communist first and Chinese second.
According to Ali (2007), from the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 until Mao’s death in 1976, nationalism was the dominant factor in Mao’s mind while devising the foreign and domestic policies of China since “Mao was a Chinese nationalist first and foremost.” Chinese scholar Tianbao Zhu stated that one of the reasons for Mao’s differences with the Soviet leaders was the fact he never wanted the Communist Party of China to become a puppet of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was due to his strong sense of nationalism. (Ali, 2007)
Mao waged war against the Kuomintang, emerged largely victorious and led mainland China as a communist, so I cannot agree with the sentiment that Mao was primarily a nationalist.
Many Chinese rulers across the political spectrum have used nationalism as a unifying force to seize and hold power. Although Mao was primarily a communist and will be remembered as one, he was greatly influenced by nationalism and it was instrumental in his rise. His longstanding links with the Kuomintang and its members influenced his views, his policies and the course of history. His actions led to the creation of the modern state of China and he is said to have “turned China from a feudal backwater into one of the most powerful countries in the World” (Mao Tse Tung: China’s Peasant Emperor, 2005). Other countries of that region that did not have a unifying force like nationalism or a unifying figure like Mao are still much like preunification China. It is arguable that without nationalism, not only would there be no Mao as we know him today, but also that China would still be a feudal backwater.
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