In his early military career, Mao Zedong employed tactics that fooled not only the Nationalist army, but also the South China Morning Post. A look at some of the first mentions of Mao in the pages of the Post shows how the slow transmission of news muddied the reader’s understanding of what was happening in the field.
In 1927, civil war broke out between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communists. The KMT launched several encirclement campaigns in an attempt to isolate and destroy the Red Army in their bases, but Mao managed to thwart these efforts.
When it came to the second encirclement campaign, in Jiangxi province, on June 1, 1931, the Post reported favourably on the Nationalists. The KMT had recaptured several towns in the province that May, and a government report speculated “from the latest movements of the Red armies … commanded by Mao Tse-Tung and Chu Teh, they intend to concentrate the communist bandits of Jiangxi in south Jiangxi”.
However, the Nationalists had misjudged the situation and the information they provided in the report passed to the Post was inaccurate. For a month, the Communists had been secretly gathering troops in Tonggu, close to the Nationalist forces, while giving the appearance of moving south. In the week before the article was published, the situation in Jiangxi had changed dramatically and a Communist counter-offensive had retaken all lost territory and annihilated more than 30,000 Nationalist troops.
During the third encirclement campaign, on August 6, 1931, the Post reported that an attempt by Mao’s army to break through the government cordon and cross the Gan river had failed. But Mao had hoodwinked the Nationalists – and the Post – once again. With one division disguised as the main army heading towards the Gan, the rest of Mao’s soldiers escaped safely though a gap in Nationalist forces and then wiped out a KMT army brigade on August 7.
The Red Army destroyed four more Nationalist regiments on August 11, taking the upper hand and solidifying a position in Jiangxi it would hold until the Long March, which began in October 1934.
As tactically savvy as he was, it seems unlikely Mao would have got away with such deceptions in the age of the mobile phone.