How Chinese Maoism Intellectually Shaped Modern Palestinian Jihadism

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How Chinese Maoism Intellectually Shaped Modern Palestinian Jihadism

Mao’s China has had a profound and lasting ideological impact on the Palestinian national movement.

How Chinese Maoism Intellectually Shaped Modern Palestinian Jihadism

Mao Zedong and General Lin Biao in 1966.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/《人民画报》

Contemporary China no longer adheres to Mao Zedong’s ideas of permanent revolution and socialist internationalism. However, Chinese Maoism shaped the Palestinian national movement with a military strategy of protracted guerrilla warfare and an anti-colonial vernacular that combines elements of revolutionary nationalism, anti-Western fervor, and rugged populism. 

Mao’s China has had a profound and lasting ideological impact on the Palestinian national movement. 

Although the Chinese government has long since renounced the worst excesses of the Maoist period, the influence of Maoist ideology can still be felt in the modern-day Palestinian jihadist movement. By portraying themselves as noble defenders of their homeland and virtuous anti-colonial rebels, Palestinian militants have taken a page out of Mao’s Little Red Book and have identified the enemy’s civilian population as ripe for propaganda and disinformation. 

China’s ties to the Palestinian cause stretch back to the early days of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Founded in 1964, the PLO recognized that Maoist China played an important role in the global resistance front against Western imperialism and colonialism. In fact, Maoist China was the first non-Arab government to officially recognize the PLO. 

In 1965, a delegation from the PLO visited China for the first time and met with the “Great Helmsman” himself, Mao Zedong. The Chinese leader sympathized with the Palestinian resistance movement and compared Israel to Taiwan. At a meeting with the PLO delegates in Beijing, Mao said, “Imperialism is afraid of China and of the Arabs. Israel and Formosa [Taiwan] are bases of imperialism in Asia. You are the gate of the great continent and we are the rear. They created Israel for you, and Formosa for us. Their goal is the same.” 

Through tenuous historical parallels, Mao drew analogies between the Palestinian liberation struggle and his own experiences during the Chinese Civil War. During the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese state media drew inaccurate comparisons between the Chinese revolution and the Palestinian situation. For instance, the Peking Review falsely attempted to portray urbanized Palestine as a land ripe for rural subversion and Maoist-style guerrilla warfare. The busy streets of Gaza and the West Bank were awkward parallels to the rugged backwoods and mountains that Mao fought in during the 1930s. All political movements and events were interpreted through a Maoist lens during the 1960s and 1970s in China, even if it was not helpful to a fraternal anti-colonial movement. 

In addition to rhetorical support, Mao also assisted Palestinian militants with a large number of weapons and ammunition. During the 1960s, Beijing sent rifles, grenades, gunpowder, mines, and other explosives to the PLO. In 1970, PLO leader Yasser Arafat said that China was the “biggest influence in supporting our revolution and strengthening its perseverance.” Perhaps even more critically than the weapons, Maoist China gave the PLO a politico-military strategy that consolidated internal political power as well as made them a more effective fighting force in asymmetric conflicts.

After the disastrous 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Palestinian leadership no longer felt that their movement could be led by Arab states. At the same time, many Palestinian militants began to embrace Marxism-Leninism and the ideas of revolutionary socialism. They believed that Palestinians needed to be the torchbearers of their own liberation struggle and that revolutionary socialism, particularly of the non-European variety, filled a void in their ideological constellation of Palestinian statehood and anti-Zionism. 

Much like Mao himself, some within the PLO believed that armed struggle was the only path to liberation as well as believing that learning from the masses was vital for carrying out the revolution. In 1968, the Palestinian national charter was revised and included with the Maoist-style statement, “Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. This is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase.”

After the Arab defeat in 1967, Marxist-Leninist organizations, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), sprang up and took the mantle of Palestinian socialism. These groups adopted Mao’s strategy of a “people’s war.” George Habash, the founding leader of the PFLP, said, “Our best friend, in fact, is China.”

This belief in Mao’s strategy of “people’s war” and the “mass line” splintered the largest PLO faction, Fatah, in the 1970s. The Maoist-oriented Fatah supporters, largely located in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, believed that China was now the leading supporter of the world’s oppressed peoples and that Beijing was the capital of world revolution. As a large non-White nation with a fervently anti-imperialist leadership, Mao’s unique brand of communism appealed to many in the decolonizing world. With the end of Nasserism in Egypt, Arab nationalism had reached its end and receded into the ideological backdrop of Middle Eastern affairs. During the 1970s, Maoism became a leading ideological framework for the fractured Palestinian cause and an important part of the Palestinian political milieu.

It was not the death of Mao in 1976 alone that caused the decline of Maoism within the Palestinian national movement. Instead, the 1979 Iranian Revolution became a new source of inspiration and instilled a reinvigorated sense of Islamist militancy within the Middle East. Ayatollah Khomeini identified Islam as a revolutionary tool and argued that Muslims did not need to look to foreign ideologies, such as Maoism, for hope and guidance. Although predominantly Shi’ite, the Islamic Republic of Iran became an ideological lodestar for many in the Palestinian national movement. Moreover, the Iranian Revolution reintroduced the concept of jihad into the Palestinian national movement. 

This jihadist idea of a holy war merged well with Maoist ideas of armed struggle and righteous justice. The framing of a cosmic battle between the believers and the infidels, so integral to the jihadist mindset, bears uncanny parallels to the Manichaean “revolutionary versus reactionary” mentality that permeated Mao’s China. Moreover, Maoism’s insistence on learning from the people and its grassroots populism eased this conversion to Islamic fundamentalism for some Palestinian militants and sympathizers. 

As Palestinian supporter and Lebanese playwright Roger Assaf put it, “The passage to Islam was a putting into practice of Maoist principles. I went into Islam, like some go to the factory. But here in Lebanon, no one goes to the factory. There are no factories, or so few of them.” Instead of relying on an ideology from a non-Muslim country on the other side of Asia, the revolutionary tool of Islam could be found right in front of them in the mosques of the Middle East. 

As historian Manfred Sing explained, “In both Palestine and Lebanon, a number of Arab nationalists of the 1960s became Jihadists by the 1980s, either by way of Islamism or Maoism.”

Although Hamas emerged long after the Maoist era in China, Maoist influences can still be felt in the militant group’s ideology. For instance, Hamas’ total commitment to armed struggle and the elimination of Israel as a state bears striking resemblance to Maoist extremism. As a revolutionary purist, Mao believed that compromise was futile and that only absolute victory was desirable. Moreover, Hamas’ one-party rule and intolerance for political dissent within Gaza would make the Great Helmsman proud. Constant surveillance and vigilance for foreign agents and saboteurs characterized both Maoist China and Hamas-controlled Gaza. 

Mao understood that information warfare and propaganda was critical for strategic victory. A weaker guerrilla force could not defeat a more powerful conventional adversary on the battlefield. However, guerrillas can achieve a political victory through the media and information operations. In fact, North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap, a loyal follower of Mao’s teachings and techniques, told Arafat to “stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your terror war into a struggle for human rights. Then you will have the American people eating out of your hand.” 

Hamas has heeded this lesson. By presenting themselves as an anti-colonial resistance front and revolutionary organization (which many U.S college students seem to have bought into), Hamas has made the international community forget it is a jihadist terrorist organization committed to the total destruction of the Jewish people. 

Israel’s military response to the October 7, 2023, attacks has led to a clear shift in global opinion against Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombing campaign in Gaza played into Hamas’ strategy of drawing international attention back to the Palestinian cause. While Hamas’ military capabilities are degraded, the terrorist organization remains operational and active. By striking civilian areas in Gaza, the Netanyahu administration has lost the broader strategic advantage. Although largely tactically defeated on the battlefield, Hamas has essentially maneuvered Israel into a no-win strategic situation. 

If he was still around today, Mao would be ecstatic to see the Middle East riled in so much chaos and violence.