BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
The Tragedy of Liberation, by Frank Dikotter
, May 10, 2014
THE TRAGEDY OF LIBERATION:
A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
by Frank Dikotter
Paperback: 448 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Earlier this year I reviewed Rana Mitter’s history of the Sino-Japanese war 1937-45 (News Weekly, February 1, 2014), and a few years ago I reviewed Frank Dikötter’s account of Mao’s Great Famine 1958-62 (News Weekly, April 16, 2011).
This later volume from Dikötter deals with the period between the events covered in these two books: the Chinese Communist Party’s seizure and consolidation of power 1945-57. He has promised to complete a trilogy with a history of the Cultural Revolution.
Dikötter uses the term “liberation” throughout the book without inverted commas (which would have been tedious); but his paradoxical title, The Tragedy Of Liberation, clearly indicates that the reader is expected to supply them.
As he says in his preface, far from delivering freedom in any meaningful sense of the word, “the first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more”. This is not mere rhetoric, but a considered conclusion based on archival research into material made available in China only in the last few years.
The communists were able to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s forces during 1945-49 because they had conserved their resources while the Nationalists had exhausted themselves fighting the Japanese. Stalin predictably supplied Mao’s troops while ostensibly supporting Chiang, while President Truman, far less understandably, denied any real aid to the Nationalists.
Within China, after “more than a decade of fear and violence [the people] craved peace at any cost, even under communism”, a yearning which Mao exploited by promising peasants, workers, minorities, intellectuals, even businessmen, all that they hoped for when he came to power.
After the establishment of the People’s Central Government on October 1, 1949, some changes proceeded gradually. Professionals were allowed to practise as formerly for the time being; not all industry and commerce were immediately nationalised; and the collectivisation of agriculture took place in a series of steps.
However, other transformations were immediate and blatant. An orgy of “re-education” aimed to produce “New People” by means of forced confessions; self-criticism sessions; denunciations of friends, family and colleagues; propaganda rallies; censored media and entertainment; ubiquitous loudspeakers; book-burning; and even the standardisation of clothing.
As one critic quoted by Dikötter put it at the time, “there is no freedom of speech… but there is no freedom of silence either”.
There were no indiscriminate mass executions, only selective liquidations. This was followed, though, by quotas of deterrent deaths issued to local regional authorities by the Party, which resulted in many killings on the vaguest pretexts just to make up the numbers.
Murder proved addictive, and developed into a typical revolutionary Terror, or ideological panic, which claimed the lives of two million “enemies of the people”, comprising men, women and children, by the end of 1951. In 1952, on the heels of the Terror came the Purge, aimed at allegedly corrupt Party members, officials left over from the pre-1949 government, and “bourgeois” bankers, merchants and engineers.
As in the Terror, there were denunciation meetings, executions, “disappearances”, and episodes of beatings, torture and humiliation which led to a proliferation of suicides.
The result was that the country almost ground to a halt economically and administratively, as no-one was willing to attract official attention — and potential condemnation — by displaying any initiative.
One enterprise which did prosper was the Chinese gulag, known as the laogai. As in the USSR, a vast system of labour camps across the country served the triple purpose of dealing with real or potential opponents; providing a labour force, particularly for dangerous work in remote locations; and disposing of society’s unwanted elements such as vagrants, beggars, prostitutes and demobilised soldiers.
Under the catch-all term of “counter-revolutionary”, millions were sentenced to long (minimum 10 years) or indeterminate sentences. Many of them died from overwork, exposure, accidents, malnutrition, filth, sickness and harsh discipline.
In the countryside, where most people lived, collectivisation took place in a number of stages. China’s rural population had not been marked by feudalism or radical inequalities; but in imitation of the USSR’s anti-kulak campaign, the new government imposed artificial class distinctions: “landlords”, “rich peasants”, “middle peasants”, “poor peasants” and “labourers”.
The two poorest “classes” were thereupon organised to confiscate the land of the others and then denounce them in violent public hate sessions, after which the victims were punished. About 2 million so-called “landlords” were killed.
Agricultural production plummeted, because the new plots were too small and scattered, and because the most progressive and innovative farmers had been dispossessed.
The next steps toward serfdom were to organise villagers into “mutual-aid teams”, then into “collectives”, and then to impose a household registration system which tied individuals and families to their locality.
All semblance of private property disappeared, grain became a state monopoly, and famine became endemic. By 1956 agriculture had been effectively socialised, and “farmers were now bonded labourers at the beck and call of the state”.
In 1956, too, industry and commerce were nationalised. Mao was determined that it would take place not by blatant coercion, but in response to the enlightened request of the “capitalists” themselves. Since 1949, businesses had existed under joint private-state ownership, but now a campaign of state terrorism pressured their proprietors, from executives of huge concerns down to shop-owners, to beg that the government hand over everything to “the people”.
This policy of “everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” was naturally directed against religion. Missionaries were murdered, imprisoned or expelled, and their hospitals, schools and orphanages closed or taken over.
Chinese Christians were subjected to demands for confessions, self-criticism and the denunciation of fellow believers. Those who failed to join the official, collaborationist “patriotic” church were sent to labour camps. By 1955, real Christianity had been forced underground.
A number of man-made disasters, in addition to the recurrent famines, accompanied the rush to socialist reconstruction. Health standards declined because medical care remained expensive and inefficient, and missionary clinics and hospitals had been closed.
A national campaign to eradicate rats saw people breeding them in order to produce the authorities’ required quota of rat tails. Another campaign to wipe out schistosomiasis saw the disease proliferate, as people were forced into infested waters to collect the snails which spread it.
Another cause of ill-health was the appalling housing produced for the workers, a scandal hidden from foreign visitors, whose view of China was restricted to a few “Potemkin village” estates.
Dikötter observes: “In the propaganda state nothing was what it seemed… China was a theatre.” This was because the population quickly learned the survival value of putting on a smiling, enthusiastic outward appearance: “Ordinary people may not all have been great heroes, but many were great actors”.
In the field of foreign relations, it seemed obvious that the USSR would be China’s natural ally, but Stalin treated Mao with suspicion. When Mao and Zhou visited him at the end of 1949, they were patronised, treated rudely, and forced to recognise territorial concessions such as Soviet control of Mongolia, and the Yalta agreements which gave the Soviets access to Manchuria.
Mao regained a measure of self-respect by pursuing a more aggressive policy than Stalin during the Korean War. The war caused enormous suffering for the Chinese people, with 400,000 troops dying as a result of appalling equipment and conditions, along with crude military tactics based on mass charges.
On the home front, existing poverty and famine were exacerbated by “voluntary” donations to the war effort which were extorted by a Hate America campaign which branded any reluctance to contribute as treacherous and counter-revolutionary.
In the end, however, Mao preened himself on having taken on the “imperialists”, fought them to a standstill, and ended up with a client-state in North Korea.
In 1956, Mao faced a major challenge as news leaked out of Soviet leader Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress denouncing Stalin. Party leaders, and then ordinary Chinese people, began to openly protest against the “cult of personality” and the miserable conditions on collective farms and in factories. They were encouraged in their defiance by news of the revolt in Hungary later in the year.
Initially, Mao bided his time, and instead of attempting to confront and eradicate this outburst, sought to harness and steer it. He announced a new Rectification Campaign, and famously invited intellectuals to an open national discussion. He declared: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools contend.” It was bound to end in tears.
A torrent of criticism flowed, as the Party was attacked for its suppression of democracy, freedom and human rights. Students and workers demonstrated in the streets.
Finally, in mid-1957, Mao decided that the critics had exhausted their spleen and, more importantly, had exposed themselves for the unreliable elements that they were. An “anti-rightist” campaign was unleashed against them, which ended with Mao and the Party back in uncontested control.
The stage was set for the Great Leap Forward of 1958. Writes Dikötter: “Over the next four years, tens of millions of people would be worked, starved or beaten to death in the greatest man-made catastrophe the country had ever seen.” Dikötter, simply by telling the story and without any overt ideological embellishments, evokes the massive and suffocating machinery of regimentation, standardisation and mind control which characterised Chinese communism.
Equally repulsive dictatorships, such as Nazi Germany, also tortured and killed masses of victims, but did not care what was going on in those victims’ heads. Maoism, through a relentless policy of propaganda, censorship, self-criticism, confessions, denunciations, group struggles, thought campaigns and hate rallies aimed, more fundamentally, at victory over actual and potential dissidents through a dehumanising psychological evisceration.
In the end, the only reality was not Marxist ideology (which was arbitrarily rewritten and manipulated to suit the needs of the regime) but power, in accordance with Lenin’s dictum “Who whom?”
One question which this book leaves unanswered is how Mao was able to dominate for so long not only China’s vast masses, but also fellow party-members such as Zhou En-lai, who might have been moral zombies, but were nonetheless outstandingly intelligent.
Also omitted are any descriptions of change in the role of women under Chinese communism, and of the response of Western leftists to the Chinese dictatorship.
But these are mere bagatelles.
This is another masterly presentation of modern Chinese history from a scholar who is completely in control of his material.