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The truth, nothing but the truth… but it is all the truth?

Published on 15 December 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

A review of: Frank DIKÖTTER (2013): The tragedy of liberation. A history of the Chinese revolution 1945 – 1957. Bloomsbury Press, London)

Halfway through the book, I envisaged giving it 4 out of 5 stars in my planned review on Amazon.com. After reading Part IV (the last two chapters), I have taken one star away. For, taken altogether, the narrative seems imbalanced, even at times biased, to me. Let me explain.

Parts I – III represent a prosecutor’s brief. They contain a detailed description of the Communist state’s crimes against the liberties and the property of its people. The writ is long, well substantiated, well structured, and well written. Readers should take in these Parts attentively, for they open up little known vistas. There is a tendency in contemporary history of China to focus on Mao’s crimes perpetrated during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, glossing over those of the first period.[1] This is an error: there is continuity in Mao’s policies – from Yan’an to his dying days. At heart, Mao was the Great Destructor. Any (admiring) intimation that he practiced “creative destruction”[2] is nonsense (I’ll blog this separately).


Even though DIKÖTTER’s historical method is not explained in detail,[3] the underlying logic is readily understandable. Sub-national archives in China have become available to scholars. The author has mined them extensively in order to “retrieve the story of ordinary men and women who were both the main protagonists and the main victims of the revolution.” (Pg. xiv) The subjective experiences are gripping (if often repetitive) tales of hunger, cold, disease, torture, children being sold – and many many deaths.

Stories are telling, riveting; but how representative are they of what happened overall? We do not know. The huge diversity of China and the poor quality of records at the time make inferences problematic. Certainly many of the events presented in the book were common. A couple of examples show the limits of the method. On pg. 280 one reads: “By early 1957 over 10,000 students were up in arms all around the country.” Well, there 645 million Chines at the time… And on pg. 282 we have: “On one occasion, a man lit a lantern in broad daylight and approached the main gate of the Party Headquarters at Zhongnanhai, seeking an audience with Chairman Mao. His unmistakable message was that the Communist Party was an agent of darkness, which had shrouded the land. .” I’d hate to extrapolate or conclude from such outliers.

There are a few attempts in the book at generalizations, but they tend to be flights of rhetoric, rather than quantitative assessments. Here, a couple of examples: “As hundreds of thousands of real or imagined enemies were executed before large crowds…” (pg. 167) “Hundreds of millions would be forced to work on giant water-conservancy projects far from home, as the country became one enormous labor camp.” (pg. 252) Hardly likely…

DIKÖTTER furthermore makes use of witness accounts: he often refers to Robert LOH, who escaped in 1956 and published his experience in 1962. Even if one can check the facts in LOH’s memoir, his intimations and conclusions may be tainted by personal animosity and the Cold War spirit.

Parts I – III describe the waves of violence, terror and death that swept over regions, and then the country as a whole, from the moment the Chinese Community Party grabbed power. It is a most distressing narrative. In turn, we have “land reform;” the “Great Terror” (when all citizens were given class labels, and then the “bad” classes were publicly “struggled” against); “thought reform;” liquidation of government servants from the period of the Kuomintang; and the destruction of the business community. It was relentless. The terror swung back to the countryside as the peasants were herded into ever larger collectives, losing autonomy over their tools and livestock, land, and eventually their labor. They were reduced to semi-serfdom, from which the household-registration system prevented escape.

Retrieving: “the story of ordinary men and women who were both the main protagonists and the main victims of the revolution” (pg. xiv) has systemic drawbacks. One loses depththe historic context in which the policies were put in practice – but also the cultural parameters in which Mao’s actions have to be understood.

Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya SEN has compared the development trajectory of democratic India with the one of China. China outperformed India easily on many indicators. The author’s repeated assertion that it was all a “giant Potemkin village” seems implausible; the remark: “trains ran on time” is cliché for any totalitarian regime. No sooner had Mao died that China started to take off again – silent transformations must have taken place in the country despite Mao’s antics. In the 50s, economic planning was the rage – with scant results. After ten years of activity during the same period, Italy’s Cassa del Mezzogiorno could only show netto a creation of eight jobs for the region. India’s Five Year Plans were no less loss-leaders than those of China. Today, the US prison population is over 2 million,[4] close in proportion to Chinese numbers at the time (Pg. 246). Even after including the Chinese gulag the numbers are not far apart.

What I miss, finally, is the connection between what went on in China and its traditions. I’m not construing necessity here, but simply plausibility. Some of Mao’s policies harked back at cultural practices and may have been perceived by the people as justifiable in cultural terms. This may have been Mao’s strong suit: his uncanny ability to play with echoes of the past in order to place his stamp on the future.

Here a few examples: China’s imperial dynasties tended to build new capitals in their image, wiping out the past in the process. Mao’s ominous “struggle” may have had a precursor in the “responsibility system” of yore.[5] The laojao “re-education through labor” system was abolished in Taiwan in 2006[6] – China’s own system probably pre-dated the CCP. One could go on.

To conclude: DIKÖTTER has made the attempt at contrasting, in just one chapter, the lived experience of people with the development of the country as whole. The result is a superficial juxtaposition, and his narrative at times shows even bias. Written a generation ago, Jonathan SPENCE’s The search for modern China is far more complete and even-handed.

For a short period, 200 years ago, China was Europe’s paragon of virtue. From then on, China was condemned as “obscurantist” and “superstitious” (which in parts it was, of course). We have not foresworn the habit, though we may have changed the specifics of the judgment. When will we stop casting aspersions, rather than trying to understand the “other” civilization of Eurasia?

[1] A telling example is: Ezra F. VOGEL (2011): Deng Xiaoping. And the transformation of China. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass. Deng was fully involved in the first period of the Chines revolution, carrying out Mao’s policies. The biography brushes out his involvement.

[2] Orville SCHELL – John DELURY (2013): Wealth and power. China’s Long March to the twenty-first century. Little Brown, New York; Pg. 281.

[3] In this book he refers to his previous pillar of a planned trilogy: Frank DIKÖTTER (1011): Mao’s great famine. The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Bloomsbury, London.

[4] Michelle ALEXANDER (2012): The new Jim Crow. Mass incarceration in the age of color-blindness. Free Press, New York.

[6] Jerome A. COHEN – Margaret K. LEWIS (2013): Challenge to China: How Taiwan Abolished Its Version of Re-Education Through Labor. How Taiwan abolished its version of re-education through labor. US-Asia Law Institute, NYU School of Law / Berkshire Publishing.

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