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Historical Dictionary

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MAO ZEDONG (1893–1976)

President of the People’s Republic of China between 1949 and 1976 and the driving force in the Chinese Com-mun-ist Party (CCP) until his death. Unlike Zhou Enlai, Mao never left China before 1949. Instead he played a pivotal role in the making of Chinese communism as it was forced out of the coastal cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) by civil war and into the peasant world of the Chinese interior. Mao consolidated his power and leadership at the head of the Party during the Long March and especially at Yan’an during the Sino-Japanese war, advocating the importance of ruralizing Chinese communism and rectifying the Party and army.

The displacement of the CCP towards the north, the expansion of the Chinese civil war, and the outbreak of World War II made it harder for Chinese and Vietnamese communists to maintain their earlier collaboration in southern China. It is not known whether Mao Zedong ever knew Ho Chi Minh in Guangzhou during the First United Front period (1923–1927). Nor do we know whether Mao met Ho during the latter’s return to Vietnam from the Soviet Union by way of Yan’an in the late 1930s. Contact was always difficult. The resumption of the Chinese civil war in 1946 further isolated the Chinese communists from their Vietnamese counterparts. This changed, however, in 1949 when the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong defeated the Chinese Republicans and established a new communist state in China, sharing a long border with Indochina.

Impressed by the Chinese victory and convinced that the prospects for revolution were better in Asia than in Europe, Joseph Stalin ceded to Mao the task of running internationalist communist affairs in Asia, most notably with regard to Korea and Vietnam. Mao Zedong, Chinese historians Chen Jian and Qiang Zhai tell us, was a dedicated internationalist. While security was an important factor in Mao’s decision to support Ho Chi Minh’s struggle against the French, the Chinese helmsman also believed in the importance  of supporting communist revolutions on the move. The Vietnamese version was one such case. In January 1950, Chinese communists led by Mao not only recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam diplomatically, but Mao personally persuaded Stalin to forget the past and support Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communist movement. Stalin agreed. During the rest of the Indochina War, Mao Zedong took a personal interest in the course of the Indochina War, providing advice to his advisors working with the Vietnamese in political, economic, and above all military matters. He closely followed preparations for and operations during the battle of Dien Bien Phu and during the Geneva Conference.