Book review: The tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57, by Frank Dikotter - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 15 December 2013

Book review: The tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57, by Frank Dikotter

Reviewed by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Dec 2013

Title       : The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57
Author    :  Frank Dikotter
Publisher : Bloomsbury, London, 2013
Price       : 14.99 pounds
Length    :  376 pages

Frank Dikotter, who won plaudits for “Mao’s Great Famine”, the breathtaking account of how a dictator’s megalomania killed more than 30 million Chinese in a man-made famine in 1957-59, has now presented an equally disquieting prequel. “The Tragedy of Liberation” documents the years before the disastrous Great Leap Forward, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) killed millions of Chinese as it consolidated its hold after sweeping to power in 1949. Like in his earlier book on the later period, Dikotter works from official documents of that period. In saying little while letting the documents speak, Dikotter presents an authoritative account of how millions of Chinese were killed --- or killed themselves in desperation --- as the party’s icy hands closed over the throats of an entire people.

Mao Tse-tung is the psychopathic spider at the centre of this web of death, directing pogroms, laying down shockingly high quotas for executions that his party workers enthusiastically implemented and, sometimes, even exceeded. In quintessential Mao style, he would step in benevolently when the blood tide ran too deep, reining in the cadres who were, of course, to blame for “excesses”.

Dikotter slaps down the rhetoric of “liberation” and jubilant crowds celebrating the arrival of a messiah, which party propagandists have woven around the CCP’s capture of power in 1949, proving it to be a Goebbelsian lie. In fact, the communist assumption of power provided only a brief moment of hope, which quickly faded into terror, violence and widespread deprivation.

This was already evident in the early 1940s, when tens of thousands of young volunteers poured into Yan’an to join the communists, many weeping with joy as they sighted the highlands that were Mao’s refuge. Disillusionment quickly set in as they found not equality, but a rigid hierarchy where food, housing, healthcare and clout were determined by one’s position in the party hierarchy. As Dikotter tellingly recounts, “At the apex of the party stood Mao, who was driven around in the only car in Yan’an and lived in a large mansion with heating especially installed for his comfort.”

Mao’s complex, deviant personality has already been documented by individuals who knew him well, including a riveting description published in 1994 by his personal physician, Dr Li Zhisui. Dikotter, in contrast, relies on the written word, especially reports and targets that the CCP meticulously compiled with the diligence that characterizes the record keeping of so many totalitarian regimes.

The book describes in harrowing detail how Mao cynically consolidated power by dividing the people, turning one against the other while presenting himself and the CCP as arbiters. In the land redistribution programme that followed the communist victory and went on till 1951, the fabric of society was torn asunder as party workers instigated, even coerced, the peasantry to turn upon the “landlords” who had exploited them for generations. Many of the landlords that were denounced, stripped of their meagre holdings, and publicly executed were from much the same stratum as the peasants. But Mao drew his power from presiding over class struggle, the bloodier the better.

Very quickly, poverty became the route to survival. The party’s slogan, “To be Poor is Glorious”, meant that success was the mark of the exploiter and prosperity was a route to the killing fields. When bloodletting abated, Mao would simply step up the execution targets that eventually reached 3 people per thousand. “Every Village Bleeds, Every Household Fights”, was Mao’s approving slogan for the carnage that Dikotter estimates killed 1.5 to 2 million people by 1952. Over ten million “landlords” were ruined and condemned as “exploiters and class enemies”, but the most damaging destruction was to the bonds of trust that held society together.

Within three years of the CCP’s victory, Chinese society in both towns and villages became fearful and distrustful. Robert Loh, who lived through that period, describes the mood: “During the persecution, friend had been made to betray friend; family members had been forced to denounce each other. The traditional warm hospitality of the Chinese, therefore, disappeared. We learned that the more friends we had, the more insecure our position. We began to know the fear of being isolated from our own group and standing helplessly alone before the power of the State.”

After land reform came a succession of bloody internal witch-hunts, with Mao calling successively for the elimination of “remnant nationalist forces”, “secret agents”, “bandits”, “counter revolutionaries” and “rightists” who were in one way or another blocking the revolution. Although Mao in the spotlight, the figure of Deng Xiao-ping lurks menacingly in the shadows.

Amidst all this, Mao found the time to outflanks his party rivals by pushing China into the Korean war, where the PLA fought America to a standstill; steer a stormy and unequal relationship with Russia; and cunningly purge anyone in the party who tried to challenge his predominance.

Dikotter is not a stylist, preferring the precise, economical prose of the professional academic. Yet he deploys a devastating arsenal of facts and figures to make his points effectively and succinctly. The book is difficult to put down, but is also difficult to read thanks to the tiny Garamond typeset.

For those interested in China, Dikotter’s book is essential reading. The bloody upheavals that came with the CCP in 1949 are as crucial for understanding the Chinese psyche, as the northern invasions that led the Ming emperors to build the Great Wall of China. Following Dikotter’s double triumph, we wait for him to describe the Cultural Revolution in the third part of his trilogy.

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