The Post-Colonial People’s War: The Legacy of Maoism

A Timeless Strategy? A 1991 English translation of Mao Zedong’s On Guerrilla Warfare

Tom Harper

1935 was not a good year for Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Having almost been wiped out by the encirclement campaigns waged by the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) of Chiang Kai Shek and barely surviving the Long March to Shaanxi Province, one could be forgiven for thinking that the days of Chinese communism were numbered.      Even fewer could have predicted that nearly fourteen years later, Mao, with his nationalist foes now vanquished to the island of Formosa, would be standing in Tiananmen Square declaring the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Much of the reversal of the CCP’s fortunes can be attributed to the ideology and strategies formulated by Mao and his German educated strategist, Zhu De, which combined Marx’s theories on communist revolution with traditional Chinese texts such as The Water Margin and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to a context far removed from Marx’s prognosis for revolution.  [2]    These ideas would form a significant part of China’s contribution to the post-colonial world and influenced both guerrilla movements across the globe and the counter insurgency planners that sought to defeat them. These strategies also would influence the thinking behind Chinese foreign policy during and after the Cold War.

Death of an Empire, Birth of the People’s War

If European Marxism was a child of the Industrial Revolution, Maoism’s birthplace was the battlefields of the peasant revolutions that plagued China during the 19th and 20th centuries.  The once-mighty Qing dynasty lurched from crisis to crisis as a result of discontent towards it in the aftermath of China’s defeat in the First Opium War (dates), which led to the view that China’s Manchu rulers had lost the fabled ‘Mandate of Heaven’, meaning that their rule could justifiably be overthrown.  This discontent manifested itself in rebellions such as the quasi-Christian Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan of 1850 to 1864 (Taiping Rebellion, dates?) and the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, the latter of which ultimately overthrew the Qing dynasty.

Birth of a Revolution? Taiping Heavenly King Hong Xiuquan and Taiping Rebels.

The Taiping Rebellion displayed several aspects that would be present in the communist revolution nearly a century later.  It sought to build support from the Han peasantry by creating a more egalitarian society, rejecting the traditional Confucian norms, which they achieved through equality between the sexes as well as prohibiting foot binding and opium. [3]    All of these led to the perception of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom as an early example of communism. This rejection of Confucianism would be echoed in the later campaign against China’s traditional culture as one of the ‘Four Olds’ during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

After its conquest of the former imperial capital of Nanjing, the Taiping created a parallel Chinese state competing for recognition against the Qing imperial court based in Beijing.  Foreign envoys expressed preference for the Taiping due to their perceived Christianity and the aloofness of the Qing court.  [4]   This creation of a parallel state would also be present in Mao’s more successful revolution.

While the Taiping Rebellion was defeated by the Qing with Western assistance (most notably coming in the form of Charles Gordon’s Ever Victorious Army), Hong’s example would inspire later Chinese revolutionaries.  One of these was another Chinese Christian, Sun Yat Sen, whose campaign against the Qing would conclude with the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor of China and the establishment of the Chinese Republic.  This saw one of the freest periods of political and intellectual inquiry in Chinese history, as the Chinese intelligentsia looked to the West for a replacement of the once-dominant Confucian system that had seemingly been discredited by China’s defeats.  [5]  Some looked towards European nationalism and later fascism, such as Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai Shek, while others took to the theories of Marx.  Both sought to apply ideas from largely industrial Europe to a fragmented, unstable China, where around 80% of the population were peasants, a far cry from the proletarian revolution predicted by Marx.

To achieve their goals for revolution, Mao and the Chinese communists adapted Marx’s theories to place the peasantry as the driving force behind their vision of revolution, rather than the industrial proletariat.  As a result, Maoism became as much a part of China’s philosophical canon as it was a part of communist ideology – and this ideology would be the driving force behind China’s future.

Red Star, White Sun

Mao’s ideology and strategies would be realised in the divided China of the 20th century.  While Chiang’s KMT and Mao’s CCP had been allies during the Northern Expedition against the warlords that had once been part of the military strongman, Yuan Shikai’s, Beiyang Army, by the 1930s they were bitter foes.  Chiang’s massacre of communists in Shanghai saw the CCP become a broken force, with only the Japanese invasion of Manchuria ceasing the conflict between the two.  [6]

While China had been devastated by the war, the KMT was seemingly in a stronger position than it had been.  With the defeat of Japan and the subjugation of the warlords, the KMT, buoyed by American and Soviet aid, was well placed to defeat Mao’s communists in the inevitable continuation of China’s Civil War.  [7]    The KMT possessed forces far superior to the communists’ People’s Liberation Army (PLA), staffed by experienced commanders.

The Revolution Grows: Mao Zedong Addresses Chinese Communists, 1944

Despite these advantages, the KMT was a giant with feet of clay, with the seemingly weaker PLA defeating it in 1949.  How did a superior force lose to a weaker foe?  The answers lie within the political and military  situation of post-war China, which the communists were able to work to their advantage.

One of the lessons learned by Mao and Zhu from The Art of War was that warfare was more than simply a military affair.  This focused on building support for the communists from the Chinese peasantry, which was achieved by a series of radical land reforms.  Mao’s reforms won over the peasantry, which had long been exploited by the feudal land -owning class.  [8]    Chiang, who owed his support to the urban elite, was unable or unwilling to implement such reforms, which cost the KMT much needed support.

Like the Taiping rebels before them, the CCP created a parallel Chinese state against Chiang’s Republic of China.   The CCP were also perceived to be more effective administrators than the KMT, which was seen as corrupt and inefficient.  In their governance, the CCP had not so much overthrown the KMT, but had rendered it irrelevant, which made its overthrow inevitable.

The devastation of the Japanese invasion would also prove to be invaluable to the CCP’s bid to overthrow the KMT.  While the KMT led the lion’s share of the combat against the stronger Japanese forces, the CCP’s guerrilla tactics enabled it to better preserve its forces for the civil war.  The war also devastated the Chinese economy due to the destruction of China’s productive regions and high military expenditure.  To alleviate this, the KMT boosted inflation, which alienated much of Chinese society, whose already meagre wages were now almost worthless.  As a result, many officials and soldiers indulged in looting and corruption to boost their incomes. [9]  This boosted support for the CCP, which exploited the backlash against the KMT as well as the corruption of the KMT providing a source of arms and equipment for the PLA, much to the chagrin of Chiang’s American advisors, most notably Joseph Stillwell, who gave Chiang the derogatory nickname ‘General Cash My Cheque’.  As a result, the KMT’s allies saw it as unreliable and were unwilling to grant it further aid.

The effectiveness of the CCP’s strategies were described by Chen Xue, an official in the KMT’s security forces, who claimed that:

The Nationalists had failed because they had lost the support of the people.  I had heard that during the Northern Expedition, the people gave us flowers and food.  During the war with Japan, they gave us intelligence and helped us resist the Japanese.  Once the Civil War began, we couldn’t even find anyone to give us road directions. [10] 

In the vein of Sun’s treatise, the CCP was able to defeat the stronger KMT by destroying its will to fight.  This provided the answer to the question of how an inferior force can defeat a superior one, and it provided a useful blueprint for the post-colonial world to follow.

The Global People’s War

Amidst the ideological rift of the Cold War, the nascent People’s Republic believed that it had finally ‘stood up’ and sought to become the harbinger of communism in the post-colonial world.  This saw China provide assistance to anti-colonial movements in their struggles against the European empires that had been damaged by the Second World War.  To China’s new communist rulers, the largely agrarian developing nations, long exploited by rapacious imperial powers, reminded them of China’s pre-revolutionary situation and they sought to replicate their success overseas.  [11]

As a result, they deployed Mao’s strategies to the former colonies, most notably against France in Indochina and Britain in Malaya.  China also sought to spread its vision of revolution to Africa in supporting Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe.  [12]    This support would be the roots for China’s engagement with the African continent.

The most enduring contribution of China to the post-colonial world was the Three Worlds Theory (三世界理论).  While the term Third World is often used nowadays to denigrate the developing world for its poverty and backwardness, its roots in Chinese communist thought are often overlooked.  [13]    It is this categorisation of the world into the developed First World, the communist Second World and the developing Third World that persists even after the demise of the Second World.

China’s bid to become the vanguard of communism in the developing world saw it collide with the Soviet Union, which also sought to promote its own vision of communism globally.  [14]    This would see conflict between movements supported by the rival communist powers, such as the Angolan Civil War, where the Maoist UNITA battled the Soviet supported MPLA and the Cambodian-Vietnamese war with the Soviet backed Vietnam overthrowing the Chinese supported Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia.

China’s push to promote its brand of communism also drew interest from Western observers, most notably from writers such as Werner Titzrath and John Cooley.  Both saw Mao’s strategies in the developing world as part of a global effort by Beijing to achieve global domination by marginalising the US in the developing world, a notion reminiscent of the first phase of Mao’s strategies applied on a global scale.  [15]

This tapped into the established cultural phenomenon of the Yellow Peril, with Mao being viewed as a nefarious oriental mastermind in the mould of Fu Manchu.  The aesthetics of Maoism also made their presence known in the popular culture of the 1960s, most notably in the garb of James Bond’s long running nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who often wore a Zhongshan suit.  The suit and the ideas associated with it were also popular with leftists in the Western world, who sought to distance themselves from their identity.  A notable example can be seen in the divided Germany of the Cold War, where Mao’s works enjoyed a greater audience in West Germany than in its’ communist eastern neighbour.

The Cold War also saw the darker side of Mao’s ideology, in a manner similar to the Taiping’s crusade against Confucianism, China’s traditional culture during the Cultural Revolution.  Mao’s ideas would be taken to their most extreme form by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, whose rule saw the devastation of Cambodia as well as the deaths of nearly a quarter of its population.  [16]

Mao’s strategies also influenced the nascent field of counterinsurgency.  An early advocate of this was the French officer, David Galula, who was exposed to these ideas as a prisoner of the Chinese communists.  After his release, Galula attempted to deploy these strategies against France’s enemies in the colonies, such as the FLN in Algeria, as a bid to deprive them of local support.  [17]    Galula’s ideas would also influence American strategists during the Vietnam War, most notably in Charles Wolfe Jr’s Strategic Hamlets programme. And these ideas continue to influence counter insurgency strategies today.

While China’s attempts to replicate the success of its revolution abroad were largely a mixed success, it nevertheless was a notable influence on the development of the post-colonial world.  Its influence would even persist after the end of the Cold War.

Shadow International Order

With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the USSR, Maoism appeared part of the seemingly obsolete communist ideology destined for the scrapheap of history, with China foregoing Mao’s pursuit of revolution in favour of economic reform and opening up by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping.  Despite these changes, Mao’s ideas continue to have a notable influence, even appearing in several unexpected places.

The most obvious manifestation of Mao’s legacy globally has been in the groups that still identify themselves as Maoist, from the Shining Path of Peru to the Naxalites of India. [18]  The 21st century even saw a successful example of Mao’s strategies, with Nepal’s Maoist rebels overthrowing the country’s feudal monarchy in a manner eerily reminiscent to that of early-20th-century China. [19]

Continuing the Revolution: Nepalese Maoist Guerrillas

The patterns identified by Mao’s strategies have even been present in movements that do not identify themselves with his ideas.  This has been apparent in Afghanistan, where groups such as the Taliban have exploited discontent at the corruption of the Western backed government.  The War on Terror also saw Mao’s ideas gain traction among a new generation of strategists, with American planners invoking these ideas to emphasise the necessity to learn the non-military aspects of war.  [20]  This was most notable in the surge in Iraq, which was influenced by Galula’s interpretation of Mao’s strategies.

Mao’s concepts also had an indirect influence on China’s post-Cold War foreign policy.  China’s earlier policies enabled it to cement ties with developing nations, an advantage that few other nations possess.  Without this legacy, it is unlikely that China would have gained as strong a foothold.  [21]  In addition, this has seen a shift in the categorisation of the Third World, with China’s affinity for the developing world suggesting that these nations are linked by shared experiences rather than by economic status.

These strategies also had an indirect influence on China’s wider challenge.  While China has often been accused of seeking to overthrow the established international order, it has instead created an alternative system with Chinese bodies such as the BRI, the AIIB and the SCO shadowing more established organisations such as the Marshall Plan, the IMF and NATO.  Just as Mao had created a shadow government to Chiang’s regime, China has created a shadow international order parallel to the established American-led system.  In attempting to render this system irrelevant, China has applied Mao’s strategies on a scale far greater than he could have thought.

While Mao’s ideology appears to be a relic of an earlier China, it has enabled China to leave its mark on the post-colonial world, although it is Mao’s strategies rather than his ideology that has endured.  Without the legacy of Maoism, it is unlikely that China would be as influential as it is today, which would lead to a very different post-colonial world.

Dr Tom Harper is a researcher specialising in China’s foreign relations.   He received his PhD at the University of Surrey.


[1] Philip Jowett, China’s Wars: Rousing the Dragon 1894-1949, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2013

[2] Karen Kao, The Art of War, Inkstone Press, 30th August 2017 (

[3] Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1996

[4] Stephen R. Platt, New Domestic and Global Challenges 1792-1860 in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016

[5] Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century Abacus, London, 2013

[6] Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

[7] Odd Arne  Westad, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950, California, Stanford University Press, 2003

[8] Erik Durschmied, Beware the Dragon: China: 1,000 Years of Bloodshed,  Andre Deutsch, London, 2008

[9] Rana Mitter, ‘The War Years, 1937-1949’ in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016

[10] ‘China: A Century of Revolution,’ PBS, 1986 (

[11] Julia Lovell Maoism: A Global History, Bodley Head, London, 2019

[12] Isabel Hilton, ‘Politics with Bloodshed: How Maoism Changed the World,’ Prospect Magazine, 4th May 2019 (

[13] Herbert S. Yee, ‘The Three Worlds Theory and Post-Mao China’s Global Strategy,’ International Affairs, 59:2, Spring 1983

[14] Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, University of North Carolina Press, United States, 2015

[15] John Cooley, East Wind over Africa: Red China’s African Offensive, Walker and Company, United States, 1965

[16] Chenyi Wang, ‘The Chinese Communist Party’s Relationship with the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s: An Ideological Victory and a Strategic Failure,’ CWIHP Working Paper Series, December 2018 (

[17]  ‘The Galula Doctrine: An Interview with Galula’s Biographer, A.A. Cohen’ Small Wars Journal (

[18] Rose Deller, ‘Book Review: Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerillas by Alpa Shah,’ LSE Blogs, 13th May 2019 (

[19] Kamal Dev Bhattarai, ‘Are the Maoists Rising Again in Nepal?,’ The Diplomat, 13th March 2019 (

[20] Elliot Ackerman, ‘The Islamic State’s Strategy Was Years in the Making,’ The New Republic, 8th August 2014 (

[21] Stephen Chan, The Morality of China in Africa: The Middle Kingdom and the Dark Continent, Zed books, London, 2013