China at the Liberation: The road to serfdom


September 7, 2013 8:00 am

The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-57. By Frank Dikotter. Bloomsbury; 400 pages; $30 and £25. 

[The Economist]

A new history lays bare the violent heart of Mao’s revolution

THE first years of the People’s Republic under Mao Zedong were a golden age, according to Chinese Communists and many in the West. After all, “liberation” in 1949 brought to an end a period encompassing two brutal and overlapping wars: Japan’s invasion and occupation of China and the Chinese civil war with the Nationalists. A decade later, China was charging into the Mao-made Utopian catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, in which tens of millions were worked or starved to death, and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still to come. According to this view, the years from the republic’s founding to, roughly, the so-called Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956 were constructive, even benign in a paternalistic way. The party took a chaotic state in hand, and out of a shattered citizenry forged a “New China”.

Frank Dikotter, a Dutch-born historian at the University of Hong Kong, destroys this illusion in his new book, “The Tragedy of Liberation”. With a mixture of passion and ruthlessness, he marshals the facts, many of them recently unearthed in party archives. Out of these, Mr Dikotter constructs a devastating case for how extreme violence, not a moral mandate, was at the heart of how the party got to power, and of how it then governed.

Towards the end of the civil war, word of how the Communist armies waged war went before them. In Manchuria alone, some 500,000 civilians had fled the Communist advance and sought shelter in the city of Changchun. Lin Biao, the general laying siege to it, called for it to be turned into “a city of death”. In all, 160,000 civilians died, mainly of hunger, many trapped in a killing zone outside the city walls.

So when Mao’s peasant-soldiers marched into Beijing and Shanghai, fear and resignation as much as hope were the predominant emotions. There was also mutual bewilderment. Townsfolk stared at these tough bumpkins, most of whom had never seen sophistication before. Some of the soldiers attempted to light their cigarettes with light bulbs; others washed their rice in lavatory bowls, upset that the grains disappeared when they pulled the chain.

After the choreographed victory parades, the Communist Party began its violence. First in line were country “landlords”. Wanting nothing to stand between the people and the party, Mao and his colleagues set out to smash the ties between country folk and their local leaders. “Land reform” meant overthrowing an evil class.

Much was wrong in the Chinese countryside, especially after decades of war, but the junkerclass which the Communists attacked happened not to exist. Nor was village life across China feudal. Most Chinese were small landowners, with little variation in wealth. Tenants were not much poorer than owners, since only fertile land could be let. In the rice-growing south tenants were more prosperous than owners on the hardscrabble plains of the north.

No matter. Work teams fanned out, calling interminable meetings at which villagers were divided into a system of five artificial classes borrowed from the Soviet Union: “landlords”, “rich peasants”, “middle peasants”, “poor peasants” and “labourers”. Members of these last two, those who stood to inherit land confiscated from the rich, were urged to “turn hardship into hatred”, as Mr Dikotter puts it. Old grudges were dug up, and greed played a powerful part. Occasionally, whole villages stood bravely behind those accused of being landlords. For the most part, as the indoctrination of the work teams ground on, close-knit communities disintegrated.

The genius of communist violence was to implicate ever more people in it. After landlords were tried in front of village tribunals, then beaten and shot, land and possessions were divided up among the crowd. It was an incentive to find new victims, many of whom were burned or buried alive. But the more victims, the greater the fear of reprisals from distraught families. So the tribunals kept on killing. Children were not spared. By the end of 1952 up to 2m Chinese had been murdered.

A parallel terror was waged against those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries, Nationalists or foreign spies, some as young as eight, with new victims trucked daily to execution sites. Throughout these orgies of violence, Mao and other leaders coolly laid down quotas—up to four deaths for every thousand Chinese was considered appropriate. In the three provinces under the jurisdiction of Deng Xiaoping, known today for having been open-minded, 150,000 had been executed by November 1951. The total number of deaths will never be known. But in late 1952 Bo Yibo (father of Bo Xilai, whose recent trial has caused a sensation) said, approvingly, that 2m had been executed.

Not everyone could be killed, Mao acknowledged. So a vast gulag was born, swallowing up counter-revolutionaries, vagabonds, prostitutes, capitalists, marketeers, foreigners and, later, intellectuals. The population in the “reform through labour” camps quickly reached about 2m. The relentless indoctrination, one inmate later said, was nothing less than the “physical and mental liquidation of oneself”.

The country was, as Mr Dikotter puts it, well down “the road to serfdom”—literally so for farmers. All the landlord blood spilled was supposed to empower peasants. But the upheaval had devastated the countryside. Draught animals, fertiliser and skills were in short supply. The markets and other networks on which farmers had long depended were destroyed. Farming risked being branded the work of the evil landlord, yet the state demanded ever more grain from farmers in tax. Hardships multiplied. Villagers sold their children.

The party’s answer was to move faster towards wholesale collectivisation, just as it had nationalised all private business. Open rebellions broke out. Once they were put down, peasants were bound into collectives, forbidden to travel. In a few years the state had enslaved a people it claimed to be setting free.

By 1956, with popular dissatisfaction growing, Mao’s own prestige within the party was at a low ebb. It had not helped that Mao had lost his mentor, Joseph Stalin, three years earlier. Mao had loyally followed Stalin’s directives, and depended on Soviet aid. Now Nikita Krushchev was denouncing his predecessor’s reign of terror. But at this point, Mao’s genius for the moment came into play.

With unrest in Poland and open revolt in Hungary, Mao positioned himself as advocating a more humane kind of socialism than even the Hungarian reformists. He called for popular grievances against the party to be aired: the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Criticisms, slow at first in coming, snowballed, shocking even Mao. But then he struck back. More than half a million Chinese were branded as “rightists”. He himself was firmly back at the head of the party, and his colleagues now knew how he could turn the people against them. He was ready to lead the country into the giant experiment of the Great Leap Forward. Mr Dikotter has already written about that in “Mao’s Great Famine”, which this book only betters. The final volume of his planned trilogy will be on the Cultural Revolution, bringing the curtain down on a truly disastrous period.