Chairman Mao: The twentieth century’s deadliest dictator

Mao Zedong was one of history’s most devastating dictators. His leadership is often ignominiously credited with leading to more non-combatant deaths than any other in history. While estimates vary, between thirty and eighty million deaths are attributed to Mao’s whims.

The sheer scale of Chairman Mao’s outright barbarity is poorly understood by many even today. An example of his bloodlust can be seen in the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956 and 1957. During this period, Mao feigned a tolerance for criticism, proclaiming that Chinese citizens would be allowed to freely express their views of the government. Once citizens shared their overwhelmingly negative views of the Communist regime, however, Mao backtracked and ordered the purge of all who had criticized his leadership. He later claimed that the Hundred Flowers Campaign had been a clever ruse from the beginning, promulgated in order to successfully identify and eliminate dissidents.

Another deadly purge occurred with Mao’s Cultural Revolution, lasting between 1966 and his death in 1976. Millions were killed when Mao announced that a violent struggle against traditional Chinese norms and intellectuals was necessary. Red guards formed to “purify” their country of any individuals opposing Mao’s regime. In this state of violence and tumult, students would murder their professors in the knowledge that Mao smiled upon their contribution to his vision.

The most deadly chapter in Mao Zedong’s regime, however, came during his Great Leap Forward. Mao’s plan to modernize and industrialize China’s economy precipitated one of the worst famines in human history, the Great Chinese Famine, which claimed the lives of as many as forty-five million souls over the course of four years. Several factors contributed to the severity of the famine. Collectivized agriculture led to poor productivity and farming techniques, while forcibly transplanted farmers, conscripted into manufacturing, had no experience with their new roles.

Possibly the biggest factor in the Great Leap Forward’s deadly famine, however, was the Four Pests Campaign. Mao identified four pests (mosquitoes, rats, flies, and sparrows) and ordered their extermination by the public. While the first three pests never came close to eradication, sparrows were largely eliminated from China. This assault on sparrows did not ultimately benefit the public, however. Instead, it upset the country’s fragile ecosystem and exacerbated the country’s death toll. Sparrows consume locusts, whose population blossomed in their absence. Widespread locust infestations damaged crop yields further, causing additional suffering for the Chinese public. Mao later redirected the fourth prong of his crusade to bedbugs instead.

In spite of his totalitarianism, Mao Zedong was able to maintain a robust cult of personality. His admiration from the public was so great that, when giving forty mangoes to factory workers, these workers, who had never tasted the fruit before, began to treat them as divine. Many of the workers worshipped the mangoes, seeing them as an extension of Mao Zedong himself. This set off a mango craze across China that lasted years before it ebbed.

In his later life, Mao Zedong became more withdrawn. He stopped brushing his teeth, causing his teeth to rot and his gums to ooze puss and blood. During this period, he also stopped bathing, contending that his conquests with mistresses were a rough equivalent. Chairman Mao Zedong finally died on September 9, 1976, leaving an shameful legacy of death and starvation.


A.C. Grimes. “The Disgusting Truth About Mao Zedong’s Personal Hygiene.” Grunge. January 13, 2020.

Amber Pariona. “The Four Pests Campaign: Objectives, Execution, Failure, and Consequences.” WorldAtlas. April 25, 2017.

BBC Editors. “China’s Curious Cult of the Mango.” BBC News. February 11, 2016.

Gilbert King. “The Silence that Preceded China’s Great Leap Into Famine.” Smithsonian Magazine. September 26, 2012.

Tom Phillips. “The Cultural Revolution: All You Need to Know About China’s Political Convulsion.” The Guardian. May 10, 2016.