The Personal was Political: Mao’s Foreign Policy from 1950-1976

Above all else, Mao Zedong was a revolutionary.

From 1949 to 1976, Chairman Mao ruled his People’s Republic of China, directing its actions inside and out. During the last 27 years of his life, the Great Helmsman steered his country from crisis to crisis as he battled to piece together his China, keep it whole and safe, and win recognition for the socialist nation that he had forged in the fires of revolution. Mao’s foreign policy decisions were directed in part by hostile geostrategic circumstances. But as importantly, they were driven forward by Mao’s personal desire for continuous revolution inside China – to tear down the structures of old China and erect a new, revolutionary edifice with Mao, the greatest revolutionary, sitting atop. Mao’s need to keep the revolution burning influenced the foreign policy decisions he made during the Cold War, from the Korean War to the Taiwan Crisis and from the Vietnam War to the final rapprochement with the United States. But like any hot fire, Mao’s revolution warped the structure of China’s foreign policy and left China increasingly brittle as the fires cooled.

Mao learned early the efficacy of using foreign policy to manipulate domestic forces to serve his revolutionary projects. The eruption of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 threatened China’s geostrategic position, but it also presented an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Having declared the establishment of the PRC from Tiananmen less than a year earlier, Mao saw in the Korean conflict a chance to re-direct pressure from outside of China to consolidate the CCPs power within it. [i] By resolutely confronting U.S. imperialism in Asia, Mao sensed he could bolster the revolutionary fervor of China’s people to legitimize the CCP’s authority as the new ruler of China and propel forward his plans to remake the country.[ii] Although failing to defeat the Americans in Korea would create a dangerous geostrategic problem for China, the fight itself would mobilize the revolutionary potential of the weary Chinese masses, and victory would enhance the CCP’s standing in a country still not yet fully united.[iii] It was, Mao decided, worth the risk. After months of propaganda, once American forces crossed into North Korea, China surged to war in October 1950. Hundreds of thousands dead and wounded was a high price, but Mao got what he paid for. By fighting the Americans to a stalemate over the next three years, he secured CCP rule and his own status as the resolute leader of a revolutionary movement.[iv]

But Mao had far grander plans for China, and by 1958 he was yanking the nation into his Great Leap Forward, a mass campaign intended to thrust China out of the agricultural dark ages and into the revolutionary future by rapid industrialization and collectivization. The Chairman, increasingly worried that growing discord with the Soviet Union threatened to dampen his dreams of revolution, saw an opportunity in Guomindang-held Taiwan to once again to stoke China’s revolutionary sentiment and build support for the Great Leap.[v] When the United States and Britain intervened to break a left-wing coup in Iraq in July 1958, protests erupted in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese cities. Mao had his official pretext to shell Taiwan: solidarity against Western imperialism.[vi] During the episode, Mao himself best elucidated his Cold War foreign policy: “Besides it’s disadvantageous side, a tense [international] situation can mobilize the population, can particularly mobilize the backward people, can mobilize the people in the middle, and can therefore promote the Great Leap Forward in economic construction. … Tension … is to our advantage in that it will mobilize all [our] positive forces … To have an enemy in front of us, to have tension, is to our advantage.”[vii] The timing, too, gave partial lie to the official justification. On August 23, two months after the Western intervention in Iraq, the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on Jinmen and Mazu Islands, just off the mainland coast. The shelling went on into October, at which time the CCP leadership began looking for a way out, having gotten the enthusiastic domestic response Mao sought. In the end, the Chairman simply left both islands in Taiwan’s hands. He understood the usefulness of having a ready-made enemy to play up China’s “victim mentality” to encourage nationwide mobilization.[viii]

With the shelling of Taiwan, Mao had gotten such mobilization, and China leapt into a great abyss. But by 1960, however, it was clear that Mao’s Great Leap Forward was a catastrophe, leaving the countryside in ruins and tens of millions dead from starvation.[ix] More important to the Chairman himself, however, the Great Leap dimmed Mao’s aura of “eternal correctness”, and his eternal revolution was in danger of melting away.[x] Revolution was in retreat across the country, so by the time the economy began to recover in 1962, Mao was preparing to leap again. Mao had learned his lessons well in the 1950s; if he were to restart his revolution and save his reputation, he needed another crisis, and he had one in America’s war in Vietnam. By creating the impression that China faced a serious counterrevolutionary threat there, Mao could rekindle the dying revolution at home and re-secure his authority as the head of the CCP. Vietnam was tricky, though. If China’s involvement led to a direct Chinese-American military confrontation, the unwinnable war could sabotage his revolution at home.[xi] From 1965-1969, China sent engineering troops, antiaircraft artillery troops, and military equipment and materials to North Vietnam but not the full military support the Vietnamese expected.[xii] Frustrated by Mao’s balancing act and diverging political opinions regarding the Soviet Union, the carefully built relationship between China and North Vietnam frayed and then unraveled.[xiii]

It was just one of many deteriorating relationships in the background of Mao’s foreign policy.[xiv] After Stalin’s death in 1953, Mao saw a chance to take his place at the head of the international revolutionary movement. New Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his “secret speech” criticizing Stalin in 1956,[xv] and Mao decided he needed to root out China’s own Krushchevs—traitors who might criticize the Chairman’s revolutionary decisions—to begin a great purge and his final revolution.[xvi] In this atmosphere, from the late 1950s onward Mao engineered a series of incidents that alienated China from its erstwhile Soviet ally, using both the paranoia seeping from Sino-Soviet split as well as the “People’s War” in Vietnam to launch his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In 1966, China, more and more alone as a result of Mao’s foreign policy, descended madness and chaos, while the flames of student-led revolution raged everywhere, scorching even China’s last remaining friends in Burma, Cuba, and elsewhere Mao badge-bearing students and CCP-funded insurgencies spilled out of China’s borders.[xvii]

The old revolutionary’s great revolution failed. It could not build anything new, only burn and destroy. By 1969, belligerence and disfunction threated to bring Soviet bombs down on China, now totally alone.[xviii] Mao had a choice: burn with the revolution or save himself – now the unquestioned and unassailable revolutionary – and what was left of the edifice or rubble he had made. He chose the latter, and for one last time, Mao’s personal political ambitions drove his foreign policy. With the Soviet Union entrenched as the top imperialist enemy, Mao saw a chance to pull back from the brink of war by reaching out to the Americans.[xix] After shooting broke out on disputed Zhenbao Island and hundreds of thousands of troops massed along the Sino-Soviet border, Mao signaled to the newly elected President Richard Nixon in 1970 that he would be welcome in Beijing. Henry Kissinger’s secret 1971 visit followed, and Nixon himself came to China in 1972 for leader-to-leader talks—and to listen to Mao philosophize in the Chairman’s personal study.[xx] It would take seven more years for full relations to be restored and for China to begin its true recovery. Mao died before that in 1976, China’s great revolutionary lying amid the ashes of his revolution.


[i] Chen Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), Chapter 4, 85-117.
[ii] Ibid. Chapter 4, 85-117.
[iii] Waley-Cohen, Joanna. The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, digital edition), 288-290.
[iv] Ibid, 288-290.
[v] Westad, Odd Arne. Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 337.
[vi] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War, 175.
[vii] Chen Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War, Chapter 7, 161-204.
[viii] Ibid. Chapter 7, 161-204.
[ix] Westad. Restless Empire, 336.
[x] Chen Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War, 210.
[xi] Westad. Restless Empire, 348.
[xii] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapter 8, 205-237.
[xiii] Westad. Restless Empire, 348.
[xiv] Ibid, 350-352.
[xv] Khan, Sulmaan. “The Cultural Revolution” (class lecture, The Foreign Relations of Modern China, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, November 2018).
[xvi] Chen Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War.
[xvii] Khan, “The Cultural Revolution”.
[xviii] Westad, Restless Empire, 360.
[xix]Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War, Chapter 9, 238-276.
[xx] Ibid, Chapter 9, 238-276.

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