The Slow Vanishing of Mao Zedong

Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

Among the 20th century’s most famous political leaders, Mao Zedong still fascinates fellow politicians, scholars, historians, and students. He was the founder of the People’s Republic of China, ideological leader of Maoism, revolutionary, and Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. 

In the years just before his death, Mao’s health rapidly deteriorated, and his condition soon became a state secret. Mao’s every move was tracked both at home in China and abroad, and when he failed to show up to events, speculation abounded about his health. A year and a half before his death, in February 1975, a secret report titled “Mao’s Position—An Assessment” was created, theorizing on the health and actions of the Chinese leader. Almost 20 years later, in 1993, the CIA declassified it; however, some portions are still redacted, even one of the most important details: the author. 

The report addresses Mao’s absence from the 1975 National People’s Congress in Beijing and the hypothesis that Mao could be sick. “There are serious problems with these interpretations. There is no evidence that the Chairman is especially troubled by health problems.” The report asks, “What was the issue that caused Mao to sulk in his tent?” 

The report engages in a psychological and geopolitical analysis of the leader and assumes Mao’s top two preoccupations: “ideological carping over the programs necessary for modernization . . . give rise to differences among Chinese leaders that can be exploited by Moscow” and “political power acquired by regional and provincial military figures during the Cultural Revolution could threaten centralized direction.” The report concludes that the military problem was the most pressing of Mao’s concerns, and “It was against this background that Mao suddenly departed for the provinces last summer.”  

The anonymous analysis states that Mao’s absence from any Beijing event “is itself a political act and makes it very difficult not to conclude that strains have developed between Mao and some of the other Chinese leaders.” The author postulates that Mao’s sightings in the more rural provinces of China were caused by his attempt to build a new consensus with other Chinese politicians. 

The report concludes that “the lines of cleavage within the Chinese leadership could become much sharper and deeper than they now appear to be. . . . [T]he Chairman may simply wait for a political opening he can turn to his advantage. He is, however, 15 years older, and time is surely not on his side.” 

Time was definitely not Mao’s ally because a year and a half later, on September 5, 1976, the Chinese Communist leader suffered his third heart attack. He died four days later on September 9, early in the morning. The Communist Party delayed news of his death for almost 16 hours until a national radio broadcast announced the news and called for party unity. 

What is ironic about the situation is that the report goes to great lengths to analyze Mao Zedong’s absence from public and political life while extolling the idea that Mao could be anything but sick. However, Mao was in fact very sick, suffering from three heart attacks and Parkinson’s disease until his death in 1976. Though the U.S. intelligence community knows a great deal, sometimes a common rumor turns out to be the best truth of all.

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