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To what extent does Mao Zedong deserve his reputation as one of history’s most notorious dictators?

This essay was written by lower-sixth former Austin Humphrey, and shortlisted for the 2020 Fifth Form Transitional Research Project. The following provides a short abstract to the essay.

Estimated read time of abstract: 2 minutes

Estimated read time of essay: 11 minutes


This essay was written by lower-sixth former Austin Humphrey, and shortlisted for the 2020 Fifth Form Transitional Research Project. The following provides a short abstract to the full essay, which can be found at the bottom.

Estimated read time of abstract: 2 minutes
Estimated read time of essay: 11 minutes

Mao Zedong was Chairman of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to his death in 1976. Mao was a Communist revolutionary, described as having an ‘emphatic aura’ and ‘exuding overwhelming power’. He is known globally as an infamous killer, responsible for the deaths of millions, but can he be compared to the likes of Hitler or Stalin? Another question to consider is what makes a notorious dictator, and due to these factors we can determine whether or not Mao deserves his reputation. 

Firstly, we can examine the death toll of Mao. In 1958, Mao’s ‘Great leap forward’ killed approximately forty million people, by forcing peasants to stop work on farms and begin production of steel. Mao took over all agriculture in China, with no farming experience. He demanded that farmers kill sparrows, to stop them eating the crops. However, the sparrows were only eating pests, thus improving crop yields. Hence Mao’s arrogance and ignorance caused one of the most devastating famines in history.  

To compare Mao’s numbers here, we should look at Pol Pot, the former dictator of Cambodia. Pol Pot killed only two million people, which seems inconsequential compared to Mao. However with perspective, Pol Pot is responsible for the death of a quarter of his while country, while Mao only 6%. Therefore one reason for the extraordinarily high number of deaths is just because China’s population was so much greater than other nations’: 670million.  

Just examining the number of deaths may not be as important as analysing the intent behind them. Whilst the number of people Mao killed was almost double what Hitler and Stalin killed together, his primary intention was to increase China’s industry to make it a world superpower. This highlights Mao’s noble intentions whilst in power. 

On the other hand most would agree that Adolf Hitler’s intentions were horrific. When he murdered eleven million people in death camps, he singled out groups in society as second class humans, then purposely slaughtered them. Therefore, as death by ill-judgement is not the same as death by ill-intent, Mao doesn’t deserve to be compared with the likes of Hitler, who set out with the aim of genocide.  

Mao wasn’t completely innocent of malicious aspirations. In 1956 he launched ‘The Hundred Flowers Campaign’, which was an opportunity for everyone to present ideas on how to improve China. After a few months, the campaign stopped and anyone who criticised the government was persecuted. Many people, including former deputy chief of MI6 and British diplomat in China at that time: Sir Gerry Warner, believe that ‘The campaign was a deliberate attempt to flush out those who opposed Mao and Communism’. 

In conclusion, there are many ways to judge notoriety, the most important of which I believe is intent. Therefore due to Mao’s mass number of killings, but honourable intention on the whole, he deserves his reputation as one of history’s most notorious dictators, but falls short of the notoriety of those who intended to harm others. 

To view Austin’s full article, follow this link below.

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