The Frustrations of Mao Zedong: 1956-57


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

By the fall of 1956, the twin pillars of China’s socialist transformation—the Sino-Soviet alliance and the socialization of the national economy—were more or less completed. But soon afterward, the facade of national harmony began to show cracks frustrating Mao Zedong. And by 1957, a series of deepening domestic and international fault lines could no longer be ignored or papered over.

A Mao Zedong Statue
The facade of national harmony and post-socialist transformation was showing its true nature. (Image: Gary Lee Todd/Public domain)

An Economic Imbalance

Unlike the majority of his comrades, Mao Zedong was not satisfied with the situation in 1956. Due to the unexpected stagnation of farm production, the urban industrial sector was running short of investment funds. 

Mao wanted to speed up the pace of industrial development, which would require extracting even more resources and revenues from the collective farming sector. The economy was seriously out of balance, and Mao knew it.

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Khrushchev’s Attack on Stalin, Frustrations of Mao Zedong

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev suddenly, and without warning, launched a verbal attack on Joseph Stalin. 

In a secret speech delivered to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February of 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin for having carried out a series of purges within the party in the 1930s, for having executed large numbers of Soviet citizens, for deporting national minorities from their homelands, for causing the great famine of the early 1930s, and for widespread, egregious violations of the principles of socialist legality.

But perhaps Khrushchev’s most telling critique of ‘comrade Stalin’, at least as far as Mao Zedong was concerned, was his denunciation of Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’—the carefully cultivated, glorified image of god-like benevolence, omnipotence, and invincibility that surrounded the late Soviet dictator.

Suddenly, alarm bells started going off in Mao’s own, supremely egotistical mind. The chairman had reason to be concerned. Shortly after Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’, a group of Mao’s own close comrades, including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Liu Shaoqi, began to downplay the role of individual leaders in their own speeches and writings.

And at the Eighth Party Congress, they collaborated in excising from the Chinese Constitution all references to the guiding role of Mao Zedong’s ‘Thought’— just two years after they had inserted that language in the constitution. Mao was upset, but he evidently consented to this downgrading, for he had no wish to openly contradict Khrushchev at this point on this issue—at least, not yet.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.


But Mao had other reasons for concern as well. Throughout the Communist bloc, the fall and winter of 1955 and early 1956 had brought a general relaxation of heavy-handed Stalinist policies toward intellectuals. Khrushchev was the trendsetter in this liberalization movement, promising Russia’s creative intellectuals greater freedom of expression.

Image of damaged/destroyed buildings in Budapest, Hungary, 1956.
The Hungarian revolution was crushed by Khrushchev, who feared spreading of chaos. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Taking their cue from Mother Russia, intellectuals throughout the Soviet bloc began to voice their pent-up frustrations. By the time Khrushchev gave his de-Stalinization speech in February of ’56, teachers, writers, artists, and students throughout eastern and central Europe were calling for a roll-back of repressive Stalinist policies.

In Moscow, Warsaw, and Prague, factory workers joined dissident intellectuals in calling for greater freedom. In Budapest, massive street protests, some involving as many as 200,000 people, paralyzed the country’s hard-line Stalinist leadership.

Fearing the spread of chaos, Nikita Khrushchev sent in hundreds of Soviet tanks and 17 divisions of combat troops to crush the Hungarian revolt. More than 3,000 people died in the ensuing crackdown.

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Hundred Flowers Campaign

In China, intellectual ferment was also on the rise. After years of being subjected to rigid ideological and political controls, Chinese writers, teachers, scientists, and students were also growing visibly restless. With one eye on the worsening situation in eastern Europe, the Eighth Party Congress in September of 1956 held out an olive branch to China’s alienated intellectuals.

Illustration of Mao Zedong giving a speech.
Mao adopted the hundred flowers campaign so intellectuals could speak freely, or at least that’s what he said. (Image: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/Shutterstock)

Dusting off an ancient Chinese aphorism, party leaders introduced a new policy of tolerance toward China’s thinking class. Under the slogan, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom; let a hundred schools of thought contend’, they encouraged the intellectuals to speak their minds and pledged to listen carefully and conscientiously to their opinions and grievances. 

Henceforth, they promised intellectuals would be treated with dignity and respect as valued members of China’s socialist community. Thus began China’s famous ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign.

Although it had been initially suggested by Premier Zhou Enlai in the summer of 1956, the campaign was soon appropriated by Mao Zedong himself. In the fall of 1956, Mao expressed his belief that by encouraging China’s wary and reserved intellectuals to express themselves openly and freely, they would be able to ‘shed their burdens’ psychologically without fear of reprisal.

Relieved of their anxieties, they might participate more eagerly and enthusiastically in the cause of building socialism. Such, at any rate, was the theory behind the Hundred Flowers campaign. In practice, however, things turned out rather differently.

Common Questions about the Frustrations of Mao Zedong in 1956-57

Q: Why did Nikita Khrushchev attack Joseph Stalin?

Khrushchev accused Stalin of executing many Soviet citizens and deporting minorities, and also causing the famine of the 1930s. His denunciation of Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ became the main cause of concern and frustration of Mao Zedong.

Q: What happened in the aftermath of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in the Soviet Union?

Khrushchev’s speech led to many intellectuals finding the courage to express themselves more freely. This led to revolts in Hungary and Krushchev actually sending in troops to crush the revolt. All this intellectual restlessness was a warning call and a major point of frustration for Mao Zedong.

Q: What was the Hundred Flowers campaign?

The Hundred Flowers campaign was designed as an olive branch to the intellectual community in China. The frustration in Mao Zedong caused by seeing the intellectual restlessness in Eastern Europe led him to adopt the Hundred Flowers campaign slogan: ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom; let a hundred schools of  thought contend’.

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