Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 marked a turning point for Communist China, as turmoil and personal rule gave way to market socialism and autocracy.

Summary of Event

The last five years that Mao Zedong ruled China, 1971-1976, were scarred by turmoil and factional struggles that led to drastic changes in Chinese politics after Mao’s death on September 9, 1976. From 1966 to 1971, the Cultural Revolution Cultural Revolution, China masterminded by Mao unleashed political, economic, and cultural chaos throughout China, but by 1971, there were signs that stability was on the rebound. Part of that trend was the emergence of an official successor to Mao, Lin Biao, who had led the army in a crackdown on the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Almost as soon as Lin emerged as a probable successor, however, Mao set out to undermine Lin’s authority for murky reasons. Lin proved spectacularly inept at political infighting, and on September 13, 1971, he loaded his family into a passenger plane and took off for an undisclosed destination. Thirty hours later, the wreckage of the plane was spotted in Mongolia; no one had survived the crash. Mao assumed Lin had been headed to Russia, the ultimate perfidy at a time of bitter animosity between China and the Soviet Union. China;government
[kw]Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China (Sept. 9, 1976)
[kw]Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China, Death of (Sept. 9, 1976)
[kw]Reforms in China, Death of Mao Zedong Leads to (Sept. 9, 1976)
[kw]China, Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in (Sept. 9, 1976)
[g]East Asia;Sept. 9, 1976: Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China[02530]
[g]China;Sept. 9, 1976: Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China[02530]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 9, 1976: Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China[02530]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 9, 1976: Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China[02530]
Mao Zedong
Jiang Qing
Lin Biao
Hua Guofeng
Deng Xiaoping

After the death of Lin, no new possible successor to Mao emerged, and Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, formed an alliance with three officials that became known as the Gang of Four. Gang of Four Jiang had joined the Communists while she was a film actress in Shanghai; she met Mao at the Communist redoubt in Yan’an. She had lived in relative obscurity in the 1950’s, but she took a prominent role during the Cultural Revolution and sought to purge the performing arts of any Western capitalist influences. Mao expressed his contempt for her political ambitions but refrained from criticizing her in public, instead choosing to promote the political future of Hua Guofeng, a moderate leader whose only attributes were his total anonymity and bland personality. The last years of Mao’s life unfolded with vicious factional infighting raging all around him.

Mao first made reference in public to his health problems on March 30, 1974. He was diagnosed with cataracts that same year. Then, in the winter of 1975, his doctors found out that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), but they never disclosed their findings to Mao. On May 3, 1975, the longtime chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chaired his last Politburo meeting. Then, in 1976, two of Mao’s longtime colleagues died, Zhou Enlai Zhou Enlai and the army commander Zhu De. Zhu De In July, the same month that Zhu De died, a massive earthquake in the Tangshan Tangshan earthquake area killed approximately 242,000 Chinese (according to official estimates; other estimates were much higher), an ominous event to Chinese who traditionally thought that major natural disasters were harbingers of dynastic change. Mao suffered his first heart attack on May 12, 1976, and as his failing health became evident, the political struggles intensified. Mao then had a major heart attack on September 2, 1976, and died four days later.

In less than a month following Mao’s death, the political uncertainty in China began to clear with the arrest of the Gang of Four. Hua Guofeng would soon fade from the scene, and Deng Xiaoping, a pragmatic reformer, would emerge to lead China. Deng was resolute in implementing orderly economic development under the label of the “four modernizations.” Four modernizations (China) Deng also believed that political reform would only be a dangerous distraction to his economic goal of “market socialism.”

As Deng pursued his economic plans, the task remained to evaluate the impacts of Mao and his policies. That difficult undertaking began in 1979 at the CCP Theory Conference. Deng wanted an endorsement of his pragmatism, but instead he unleashed a veritable torrent of criticism of Mao, including the withering charge that Maoism had amounted to a “God-creating movement.” Another repudiation of Maoism was seen in the appearance of “wound literature,” which exposed the injustices inflicted by the Maoists.

The official outcome of sorting out the legacy of Mao was the Resolution on CCP History issued in 1980. Deng’s hope was to end any controversy about Maoism as well as any demands for future political reforms, but although his economic reforms proved very successful, his defense of the political status quo foundered. Movements for political reform waxed and waned over the years, but they never stopped completely.

Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, shown in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Maoism was no longer official policy, but a wave of Mao nostalgia swept Chinese popular culture in the 1980’s, including a series of songs that set quotations from his infamous volume Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, known in the West as the Little Red Book, to music. Maoism continued to flourish outside China, and Deng was embarrassed during a visit to the White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency when two members of the Chicago-based Revolutionary Communist Party threw smoke bombs at him on the White House lawn.


The death of Mao in 1976 left China facing a long list of unresolved political, economic, and diplomatic problems. The political uncertainty eventually gave way to the heavy-handed but predictable leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Mass campaigns, the essence of Maoism, turned into ritualized sideshows of little importance under Deng. The trials and convictions of the members of the Gang of Four, carried worldwide on satellite television, were the final nails in the coffin of Maoism.

Maoist economics had been a hodgepodge of mass campaigns, ideological indoctrination, and ambitious production quotas that drained the rural agricultural sector and unleashed a deadly famine in the early 1960’s. Post-Mao China resorted to the four modernizations, a pragmatic plan that yielded great advances but devastated the environment. Education was restored to normal, and foreign companies began to do business in China on a grand scale. The result was “market socialism,” which led to growing economic clout for China in the world.

In foreign policy, Maoist preoccupation with the Soviet Union faded as China asserted itself as a major regional power. Despite setbacks such as the disastrous war with Vietnam in 1979, Chinese military power grew steadily. Diplomacy resulted in the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997. Chinese pressure increased the world’s isolation of Taiwan and resulted in that nation’s expulsion from the United Nations in favor of the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of the people of China. China also became adept in cultivating support in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. The one blemish was Western criticism of China’s human rights record, but the Chinese responded to such criticism with a mix of bluster and token concessions. Mao had been a failure at diplomacy, but his successors made gains beyond his wildest dreams.

Mao no doubt imagined his legacy would span many decades. Instead, China pursued market socialism in place of his ruthless utopian schemes. The impact of Mao was immense, but his legacy quickly diminished as the Chinese set aside the nightmares of Maoism. China;government

Further Reading

  • Lynch, Michael. Mao. New York: Routledge, 2004. Very brief biography provides few details on Mao’s last years but presents an excellent concise evaluation of the legacy of Mao. Includes chronology and maps.
  • Short, Philip. Mao: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Detailed biography provides excellent coverage of political events, but unfortunately tends to focus on gossipy accounts of Mao’s personal flaws and quirks. Includes photographs and maps.
  • Terrill, Ross. Mao: A Biography. Rev. ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Informative on the early years of Mao, but provides less detail on his final years. Offers an excellent evaluation of the role played by Jiang Qing.

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