If Mao was going to neutralize Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping and generate the political traction necessary to achieve his goal of defeating modern revisionism, he first needed to burnish his own image. The army and China’s young generation were the target audience in the campaign to revive his personality.
Chairman Mao and Lin Biao
In the parlance of modern political science, Chairman Mao needed to activate his base to defeat modern revisionism. To achieve this, he turned first to his defense minister, Lin Biao, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Lin was a sycophantic follower of Chairman Mao, and he had vigorously defended Mao against Liu Shaoqi’s verbal assault at the conference of 7,000 cadres in 1962. Two years later, Lin Biao was put in charge of a nationwide campaign to revive Chairman Mao’s flagging ‘cult of personality’.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Army’s Faith in Chairman Mao
While Lin’s absolute devotion to Mao was beyond reproach, the loyalty of the PLA as a whole was more problematic.
Two things had served to erode the army’s faith in the chairman.
First was the Great Famine of 1959–61. Although the PLA’s 3.5 million soldiers had been effectively insulated from the devastation of the three hard years, many of them had family members who suffered badly in the great famine.
Secret documents obtained by Taiwanese espionage agents on the mainland confirmed that the fallout from the Great Leap had seriously undermined troop morale.
Moreover, the army’s esprit de corps, and its faith in Mao’s leadership, had also been sorely strained by the Peng Dehuai affair. A number of high-ranking PLA staff officers had been appalled by Mao’s cruel treatment of Peng.
If the chairman intended to wage a successful struggle against revisionists and capitalist roaders within the party, he needed to count on the full, unwavering support of the military.
Learn more about Mao’s confrontations with the dissenting defense minister, Peng Dehuai.
Mao’s Little Red Book
In 1964, with Mao’s blessing, Lin Biao launched a mass movement within the PLA to “Study the thought of Chairman Mao”.
To promote this movement, Lin personally edited a collection of Mao’s pithiest precepts, aphorisms, and homilies, which he packaged into a handy pocket-sized paperback entitled Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong—more popularly known as the Little Red Book.
All military units were required to hold regular study sessions, in which selected passages from the Little Red Book would be collectively recited, analyzed, and sermonized upon. Akin to the worship of deities in fundamentalist religious schools, the study sessions focused on Mao’s strategic brilliance and his god-like qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence.
The mantra “Long Live Chairman Mao! A long, long life to Chairman Mao” (Mao zhuxi wansui Mao Zhuxi wanwan sui!) had its origins in this campaign, as did the practice of starting every public meeting with the phrase, “Chairman Mao teaches us…”
Learn more about the horrific consequences of the Great Leap.
Objection by Lo Ruiqing
Although some senior military leaders balked at the adulation being heaped upon Mao, few dared openly to object. One of those who did was the PLA’s chief of staff Lo Ruiqing. Lo’s immediate predecessor had been purged as a member of Peng Dehuai’s anti-party clique in 1959.
Lo was himself incredulous. He viewed the national fetish of reciting quotations from the Little Red Book as “a needless exercise in forced memorization”.
For all his skepticism, Lo was rewarded a year later by being dismissed.
Mao Zedong’s Thought and China’s Youth
With the Mao-study campaign now unfolding on a massive scale within the army, the next target audience in the campaign to revive Mao’s personality cult were members of China’s younger generation.
In 1965, PLA political instructors were sent out to schools, universities and local branches of the Communist Party Youth League throughout the country to promote group study of the Little Red Book. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, these army-led study groups would become the backbone of China’s youthful Red Guards.
Learn more about Mao’s Socialist vision.
Mao’s Study Campaign and Individual Entrepreneurship
Now, while it’s been widely noted that the nationwide Mao study campaign of 1964–65 produced millions of overzealous revolutionary youngsters, it is also true that many young people took a calculated, opportunistic approach to this campaign, using it to advance their own personal careers and agendas.
For example, the son of a former landlord, growing up in a remote rural area of Guangdong Province, knew that his future prospects were very dim. Whenever a new political campaign came along, he was singled out for struggle as a typical class enemy.
Then, in 1965, the mass Mao-study movement began, and a competition was held among young people in his village to see who could memorize and debate most persuasively the “Thought of Mao Zedong”. Realizing that he had nothing else to lose, he poured himself into the study of Mao’s Little Red Book, memorizing chapter and verse. He handily won his village’s Mao study contest and the commune-wide competition that followed. He then traveled to county headquarters, where he bested all other local contest winners. As his prize, he won an all-expense-paid trip to the provincial capital of Guangzhou, where a province-wide competition was to be held.
However, this young man had other plans. Using his expense money, he boarded a train to a small fishing village near the Hong Kong border, where he bribed a Chinese border guard to look the other way as he entered the water and swam to safety in Hong Kong.
Despite 15 years of intensive ideological indoctrination, the spirit of individual entrepreneurship was evidently alive and well in rural China.
Common Questions about Revival of Chairman Mao’s ‘Cult of Personality’
The two events that served to erode the People’s Liberation Army’s faith in Chairman Mao were the Great Famine of 1959–1961and Mao’s cruel treatment of Peng Dehuai.
Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, more popularly known as the Little Red Book, was a collection of Mao’s pithiest precepts, aphorisms, and homilies.
To revive Mao’s personality cult, in 1965, PLA political instructors were sent out to schools, universities and local branches of the Communist Party Youth League throughout the country to promote group study of the Little Red Book.