The Tragedy of Liberation, by Frank Dikötter, Bloomsbury, 376 pp, £25.00, ISBN: 978-1408837353
Mao Zedong stalks through the pages of this book, which has led historians to adjust their assumptions about the impact of the rise of communism in twentieth century China, in particular during the years 1945 to 1957. The Tragedy of Liberation is the second volume in a trilogy, following the celebrated first, Mao’s Great Famine. It is meticulously written by Frank Dikötter, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. The third volume, eagerly awaited, will investigate the Cultural Revolution.
Dikötter benefited from access to contemporaneous records newly released from the archives, which is likely to assure classic status for his texts. The Tragedy of Liberation chronicles the succession of policy failures and penal ideology that killed a greater proportion of the Chinese population than previously assumed.
China was already going through major turbulence. The Opium Wars, from 1839 to 1860, ultimately forced the country to open its ports for trade to the West. With an insular self-sufficient past overseen by a long series of dynasties, internal order strained under the neew interference. China’s old enemy, Japan, muscled in to regain Korea, and in 1937, during World War II, invaded Manchuria, successfully conquering and developing Changchun until the Soviet army arrived to rout them in 1945.
In government, Sun Yat-sen’s nationalists, known as the Kuomintang, had been fighting to oust Manchu rule as well, after their Xinhai revolution of 1911 had overthrown the Qing empire. With American backing, the nationalists, now under Chiang Kai-shek, took over Changchun when the Russians left in 1946, but they were running out of money and popularity as their increasingly harsh treatment of opponents drove swathes into communist ranks, soon swelling to millions, even if some recruits were forcibly conscripted.
Two years later, Lin Biao, Mao’s predecessor, led a victorious communist attack on Changchun, whose besieged residents were gradually reduced to selling human flesh on the black market and selling their children: desperate measures that would recur in the coming years. Marching out, communist fighters in their hundreds of thousands went on to raze many villages. Stepping down, Chiang Kai-shek handed the country over to the CPC, now headed by Mao Zedong.
When the Royal Navy frigate the Amethyst, sent to repatriate British subjects, was shelled, Mao, ordering his troops to “brook no foreign interference”, revelled in world media coverage. Communist numbers and persistence soon ushered the so-called People’s Liberation Army to power in Beijing, adamant, like many other world leaders of the era, about throwing off imperial oppression and becoming self-sufficient.
But ironically, the new chairman was in thrall to foreign direction. As Stalin’s most devoted follower, he was willing to agree to whatever terms he set, generally involving significant shares of natural resources. After the Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in 1919, members like Mao enjoyed remuneration from Russia for attending meetings to build the movement. He was soon made commander-in -chief of the Red Army. Even Stalin judged Mao to be more “Stalinist” than himself, advising him to tolerate at least some dissent.
Bankrolled and armed by Russia, Mao’s vision was to replicate Soviet communism, whatever the cost, for the quarter of the world’s people now ruled by him. He had posters of Soviet leaders stuck everywhere. Communist espousal of revolutionary values such as equality, freedom and democracy offered hope to war-weary citizens, excited about a better future. However, the new regime ran an intensely invasive and catastrophic tyranny from the start.
Foreign residents, often business owners, and native refugees, fled as signs of drastic change were detected. Household registration, initiated by nationalist police, was stepped up, with food rations becoming dependent on identity cards and movement controlled by them. Class labels were imposed, with bad classes comprising landlords, rich peasants and capitalists, although Mao himself grew up on a prosperous farm, better off than other children.
Born in Hunan in 1893, Mao quit school aged thirteen to work in the fields, but left home several years later and resumed basic study, going on to become an assistant librarian. Unrest was the norm in the early twentieth century. He had three siblings killed by the Kuomintang, and later, one of his four wives, though after he’d divorced her for a younger model – for commenting on this writer Ding Ling was later sentenced to hard labour.
Anyone could be deemed a counter-revolutionary. Denunciations were demanded, of friends, family, colleagues, and neighbours, with forced confessions to follow. Suicide was often preferred. Initially, during the regime shift, when former government employees were still needed to run the country, agents kept these under surveillance, marking their cards. Executions began in late 1949, and huge numbers were imprisoned in squalid conditions.
About twenty thousand people were slaughtered in Hebei province, but this was nothing to what was to come. Killing quotas were authorised in all areas, of about one to five class enemies per thousand. Terror reigned. Even within the Communist Party, Mao at intervals called for purges. Xinao, or brain-washing, was blatantly introduced through adult-education classes in workplaces and every shared living area, teaching the new doctrine to create the “New People”.
Land Reform involved appropriation and redistribution of land, a little plot for everyone, whether or not individuals wanted any, or had the means to work it. Poverty and deprivation soon resulted. To deal with this famine, workers were arranged into massive agricultural collectives, regardless of how far away they lived from them or what their skills were. Productivity plummeted, unlike the death rate, as state monopoly requisitioned so much of the yield that workers were left on starvation diets. Protest meant punishment. Suicide was again rampant.
Despite having no operational grasp of finance or economics, Mao wouldn’t listen to those who did. Banks were tightly controlled. Statistics and accounts were adjusted to create the desired impressions. Labour and prison camps to contain the growing guilty or objecting masses, similar to Russian gulags, began to spring up in desolate areas, with such unbearable conditions that many died soon after internment.
Meanwhile, Mao lived in an opulent mansion and was driven around in a luxury car by security guards. He led China to war again over Korea in 1950 when vast numbers of under-equipped soldiers succumbed to illness and death. American biological poisons carried by insects were blamed for huge losses of life. The leadership ordered the populace to spread out, catch the supposedly infected wasps and dragonflies and destroy them, leaving paid work neglected to ensure more hardship down the line.
This war cost more than half of the country’s 1951 budget, and well over two million Chinese soldiers’ lives, not to mention villagers plundered of their sustenance. Those who volunteered, mainly layabouts and bullies according to several commentators, later become disgruntled about their own shabby treatment in peacetime.
Despite his library experience and his onw poetic efforts, Mao was highly suspicious of intellectuals and embarked on a thought reform programme in 1951. Premier Zhou Enlai took the first step, lecturing to three thousand teachers for seven hours about “democratic reform and industrialisation”. Communists infiltrated the staff rooms of schools and universities to strictly ensure the party line, driving many to suicide. Merges and closures destroyed independent-minded institutions.
Book burning ceremonies made any literature other than dogmatic texts rare. Music and cinema were similarly censored, and religion, both indigenous Buddhism, Taoism and other cults, and imported ones including Christianity (fourth biggest), Islam, Judaism and so on, were cruelly suppressed. A discovery of Legion of Mary solidarities particularly alarmed inspectors who presumed it to be a military organisation. A small number of conspicuous temples were then built to show visitors how tolerant official policies were.
In February 1956, Nikita Khruschev’s long speech stunned Communists everywhere when he accused Stalin of a “mania for greatness”, of crimes against his own people, and personality cult behaviour. Resistance was mounting in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. Mao was cut to the quick by the implications, but he deviously invited the public to “let a hundred flowers bloom” by airing their criticisms without fear of recrimination. Many believed him and expressed discontent, only to be locked away, or worse, in the ensuing anti-rightist campaign.
Remnants of this censorious approach linger in China today. Although Mao died in 1976, the CPC continues to govern, still “leaning to one side” but having ditched old socio-economic models as unworkable, and more open to relating to other political schools and international agreements. One such controversial scheme is currently being run by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service for non-EEA citizens. They must invest around a million euro in Irish assets, in exchange for Irish residency requiring only one annual visit. So far, of the fifty-five successful applicants paying for passports, most are Chinese tycoons.
Dikötter includes generous notes and an index and ends the book with a preview of the even greater cataclysm caused by the subsequent “Great Leap Forward”.
An excerpt can be read here – http://www.drb.ie/new-books/the-tragedy-of-liberation