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Mao’s Strategy Inspires Afghan Guerrillas and Chinese Planners

Ideas like “people’s war” infuse official thinking in China.

By , an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs.
Chinese paramilitary police officers salute each other.
Chinese paramilitary police officers salute each other.
Chinese paramilitary police officers salute each other as they stand guard below a portrait of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 2014. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

At the U.S. Naval War College, a prestigious education institution in Rhode Island for the U.S. military, the famous works of military strategists are examined. Former Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz’s On War serves as the cornerstone of the Strategy and War curriculum while former Chinese Gen. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the lynchpin of understanding the importance of psychology in warfare. However, there is a third military strategist who is methodically studied by U.S. military officers: former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, whose works are offered as part of a class called Strategy and War.

The thought of intermediate-ranking American military officers studying the works of a Chinese communist may seem absurd. But Mao’s theories of warfare have had a profound influence on generations of so-called Third World insurgencies—even as they transformed into a set of rhetorical cliches at home.

Mao’s military philosophies grew out of his experiences as a revolutionary leader in the Chinese Civil War. Mao’s ragtag band of communist guerrillas was malnourished, poorly clothed, poorly armed, and poorly trained. As Chinese propaganda proudly states, the Red Army of the 1930s was constantly on the verge of starvation and dissolution but overcame these odds to become a mighty fighting force. In 1934, the National Army (also known as the Kuomintang) pinned communist forces in Jiangxi province. However, Mao led his forces in a strategic and difficult retreat into Yan’an in Shaanxi province. This arduous journey, known as the Long March, later became a key part of the hagiography surrounding Mao during China’s Cultural Revolution. In present-day China, Yan’an is referred to as “the cradle of revolution” and has become a key destination for China’s red tourism industry.

At the U.S. Naval War College, a prestigious education institution in Rhode Island for the U.S. military, the famous works of military strategists are examined. Former Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz’s On War serves as the cornerstone of the Strategy and War curriculum while former Chinese Gen. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the lynchpin of understanding the importance of psychology in warfare. However, there is a third military strategist who is methodically studied by U.S. military officers: former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, whose works are offered as part of a class called Strategy and War.

The thought of intermediate-ranking American military officers studying the works of a Chinese communist may seem absurd. But Mao’s theories of warfare have had a profound influence on generations of so-called Third World insurgencies—even as they transformed into a set of rhetorical cliches at home.

Mao’s military philosophies grew out of his experiences as a revolutionary leader in the Chinese Civil War. Mao’s ragtag band of communist guerrillas was malnourished, poorly clothed, poorly armed, and poorly trained. As Chinese propaganda proudly states, the Red Army of the 1930s was constantly on the verge of starvation and dissolution but overcame these odds to become a mighty fighting force. In 1934, the National Army (also known as the Kuomintang) pinned communist forces in Jiangxi province. However, Mao led his forces in a strategic and difficult retreat into Yan’an in Shaanxi province. This arduous journey, known as the Long March, later became a key part of the hagiography surrounding Mao during China’s Cultural Revolution. In present-day China, Yan’an is referred to as “the cradle of revolution” and has become a key destination for China’s red tourism industry.

Despite losing a vast swath of his fighting force during the Long March, Mao believed that his small mobile army could defeat larger enemy forces and that his rear base in the mountains of Yan’an was vital for the consolidation of his rebel forces. Mao’s tactics of protracted asymmetric warfare combined with rural encirclement of enemy forces slowly weakened the defenses of the Nationalists. Mao’s three phases of guerrilla war—the strategic defensive, stalemate, and strategic offensive—allowed the Red Army to steadily gain more support among the rural peasantry and bolster its ranks with more fighters. The protracted nature of Mao’s guerrilla struggle dealt a major blow to the morale of the Nationalists.

Mao also preached the importance of fighting for the people to his troops. Mao understood that by arousing the revolutionary consciousness of millions of Chinese workers and farmers, they could gain new warriors for their anti-imperialist movement. As Mao said in a May 1938 lecture to his comrades, “The richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of the people.” While Mao’s eventual victory was not purely from the application of these principles—a secret cease-fire with the Japanese, Nationalist incompetence, and the handover of Manchuria by the Soviets were all critical advantages—they nevertheless kept the movement alive in dire times.

Due to the success of the Chinese communists, insurgents around the developing world adopted Mao’s theory of revolutionary armed struggle, better known as “people’s war.” From the Viet Cong to Peru’s Shining Path, developing world rebels and subversive organizations adapted Mao’s people’s war for their own local conditions. With its ardent anti-colonial character, Mao’s Little Red Book became an ideological guidebook for many developing world revolutionaries.

By also strategically weakening the supply lines of their foes and engaging in protracted warfare, Maoist rebels in the developing world also decreased morale among enemy forces. This style of armed struggle was not glamorous, but it brought success to many revolutionary movements and national liberation struggles that would not have been able to defeat larger and stronger conventional armies in a full-out military conflict.

The Taliban have also borrowed Maoist concepts. As far back as 1999, scholars and analysts noticed similarities between Mao’s style of governance and the Taliban’s. Both preached a form of zealotry and ideological puritanism. One observer called the Taliban’s form of ideology “Islamic Maoism” that blended Mao’s “serve the people” creed with Sunni fundamentalist beliefs. Militarily, Mao’s three-stage war strategy was adopted by the Taliban insurgency for their nearly 20-year-long conflict against the United States.

Thomas Marks, an expert of irregular warfare and insurgency, wrote in 2009: “The writings of Mao, however, are essential to achieving and maintaining success in the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.” With its focus on the idea of the rural peasantry as the vanguard of the rebellion and emphasis of people’s power over technology, the idea of a people’s war allowed small, agile mobile groups, such as the Taliban, to gradually gain more support among the local population in the countryside and wreak havoc on conventional military forces with sabotage and ambushes. The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), published an op-ed on Aug. 17, 2021, that credited the Taliban’s victory to Maoist military concepts, such as “surrounding the cities from the countryside.”

Yet while the ideas have proven popular with guerrillas elsewhere, they’ve morphed into a set of political demands back in China rather than an approach to war-fighting. Although reform-minded former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping abandoned the guerrilla struggle as official military doctrine of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the 1980s, the Chinese military today still retains certain Maoist principles and ideas. For example, the supremacy of the CCP is the underlying concept of the Chinese military. “The leadership of the party is a defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. In post-Mao China, the PLA’s primary mission is to support the CCP, not the Chinese nation or its citizenry. As a 2021 U.S. Pacific Air Forces report on the PLA explains, “At its core, the PLA views itself as an armed wing of the CCP.” Maoist military traditions and revolutionary legacies can be seen in the tight military-political fusion of Xi’s leadership.

Under Xi, party control of all internal affairs has been one of the key agenda items of the Chinese leadership. As Xi said in a 2021 speech to party cadres, “The constitution of our party makes its purpose crystal clear from the very beginning: The CCP is the vanguard of the Chinese working class and is, at the same time, the vanguard of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.” This concept of party consolidation emerged under Mao and has been revitalized under Xi. One of Mao’s most famous quotes is that “the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.” This idea has become further entrenched under Xi with the strengthening of party rule and discipline.

Although China no longer directly supports national liberation movements in the developing world, the concept of a people’s war still maintains an important space in PLA military doctrine. For example, a 2020 textbook from the PLA’s National Defense University mentions the idea of a “people’s war deterrence.” As the textbook explains: “The people’s war deterrence is a self-defensive and righteous deterrence. Only the people’s army that is highly in line with the interests of the people can implement people’s war deterrence.” The textbook continues: “It has the political foundation for the mobilization and the participation of the whole nation in the war and can maximize the war potential of the nation and countries. Once the enemy is trapped in the vast ocean of people’s war, it will surely be destroyed.” The use of the ocean metaphor echoes one of Mao’s most famous aphorisms: “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”

Due to its sacred status in CCP mythology and revolutionary heritage, the concept of people’s war has not been abandoned but rather redefined and reimagined by Chinese high command. Under Deng, the PLA promoted the idea of “People’s War Under Modern Conditions” as the technological complexities of modern warfare were radically different from the era of Mao’s mass peasant armies. Nonetheless, the supremacy of Mao’s supposed military genius still retains a place in Chinese strategic thinking. The core emphasis on attacking a foe’s weak points continues to be emphasized by PLA doctrine.

In addition, Xi’s government has creatively used the people’s war label to define the country’s fight against COVID-19. Beginning in February 2020, the Chinese government officially adopted the slogan of “winning the people’s war against the epidemic.” Thus, the Chinese leadership continues to evoke Maoist-era populist slogans in an attempt to unify the country around a common foe: the virus.

As Xi looks to cement his place on the CCP pantheon alongside Mao and Deng, this revitalization of Maoist-era principles will likely bleed into Chinese decision-making and may impact the long-term strategic thinking of Chinese leaders. But as the spectacular failure of the country’s zero-COVID policy shows, the notion of a people’s war can be sharply different from what the people want.

Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World.

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