Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution

Fittingly, the third and final work in historian Frank Dikötter’s trilogy of history books on modern china, The Cultural Revolution, was released exactly 50 years after Mao set the Cultural Revolution in motion, inaugurating a miniature civil war that would further divide an already battered country, and unleash enmities that survive into the present day. Dikötter’s subtitle describes this book as “A People’s History,” which speaks to both its method – he draws heavily on the stories of the men and women who survived the turmoil – and a fact of modern Chinese politics: no “official” history for this period exists. Within mainland China, the Cultural Revolution is a taboo topic, spoken of in whispers, if at all. Dikötter’s concluding volume investigates what, exactly, the Communist Party of China has to be ashamed of, and by so doing, calls them to account.

The seeds of the Cultural Revolution were sown not by Mao but by Nikita Kruschev, whose not-so-secret 1956 speech to the Soviet Union’s 20th Congress, in the wake of Stalin’s death, punctured the cult of personality surrounding their lately departed leader, and ushered in a period of gradual reform that would culminate, decades later, in the collapse of the regime. Mao watched with horror as the leader he admired and the regime he had sought to emulate were repudiated, and shrewdly foresaw that his fate might be similar. Which of his underlings would betray him? How would history look upon the famine he provoked, or the millions who died as a consequence of his arrogance and indifference? His solution, as always, was to deflect the blame:

Bad people have seized power, causing beatings, deaths, grain shortages and hunger. The democratic revolution has not been completed, as feudal forces, full of hatred towards socialism, are stirring up trouble, sabotaging socialist productive forces. […] Who would have thought that the countryside harboured so many counter-revolutionaries? We did not expect the counter-revolution to usurp power at the village level and carry out cruel acts of class revenge.

The brazen dishonesty of these sentences rivals anything ever written or said by Stalin. There was indeed a revolution in China, but by no measure could it be described as “democratic,” and the term “counter-revolutionary” was so elastic as to have no discernible meaning. A peasant farmer who attempted to stave off starvation by hiding a portion of his crop or slaughtering a pig rather than handing it over to the collective was labeled “counter-revolutionary.” And the dig at the countryside as being a hotbed of reactionary activity is particularly risible given how differently communist policies impacted city- and country-dwellers: the former were not subject to anything like the slave-labour impositions of collectivization, nor did they suffer from starvation at comparable rates as a result of Mao’s grain redistribution policies. Indeed, survival in the countryside was predicated on one’s willingness to lie, steal, cheat or otherwise subvert Mao’s imposed collectivization, which meant, in effect, that the charge of “counter-revolutionary” could legitimately be applied to the majority of the Chinese peasantry.

Mao targeted his message at the student population in particular, who were young, naive, and full of ideological zeal. He accused the entire education system of being run by “bourgeois intellectuals,” denounced learning for its own sake, and even encouraged cheating on tests (“If your answer is good and I copy it, then mine too should be counted as good”) and sloth (“You don’t have to listen to nonsense, you can rest your brain instead”). Ideological purity, not knowledge, was the goal of Mao’s ideal education system. Unsurprisingly, then, it was university professors who were among the first victims of the Cultural Revolution: they were denounced for their “decadence,” their commitment to learning, their ideological heresies, their appreciation for China’s artistic and cultural heritage, or their measured appraisals of the West. Some were denounced out of spite, by petty students eager to avenge a bad grade; others were denounced by their fellow professors, usually in the vain hope that the denouncer would be spared. The revolutionary students, loyal to Mao, mobilized as the Red Guard, and took their revolutionary zeal to the streets. They entered homes to confiscate “bourgeois relics” such as books, art, musical instruments and statues, leading to the destruction of priceless cultural artifacts; they entered factories to stir up dissent and encourage strikes. Posters displaying revolutionary slogans or Maoist agitprop (“Father is Close, Mother is Close, but Neither is as Close as Chairman Mao”) covered every building; loudspeakers chanted canned phrases day and night (“Long live Chairman Mao!”), or warned of the ubiquity of “class enemies” and “rightists.” Every citizen was scrutinized, every mark of individuality stamped out: women could not wear make-up or high heels, and the only acceptable form of accessory or artwork was propagandistic. Buttons proclaiming loyalty to Mao became a fashion staple, worn by the dozen; home artwork was rapidly replaced by photos of the Dear Leader.

Unsurprisingly, this unleashing of revolutionary zeal was accompanied by shocking levels of violence. Denounced professors were humiliated in public, spanked, beaten, spat upon. “At elementary schools, where the students were no older than thirteen, some teachers were made to swallow nails and excrement, others had their heads shaved and were forced to slap each other.” At the prestigious 101st Middle School in Beijing, “where Mao and other central leaders sent their children, more than ten teachers were forced to crawl on a path paved with coal cinders until their knees and palms were burned.” An estimated 77,000 “counter-revolutionaries” were exiled from Beijing to the countryside, though they were perhaps lucky. Dikötter recounts the horror that took place in Daxing, on the outskirts of Beijing, where local cadres were ordered to execute all “landlords and other bad elements, including their offspring”:

Party activists joined the local militia in locking their victims into their own homes or makeshift prisons. They were taken out one by one. Some were clubbed to death, others stabbed with chaff cutters or strangled with wire. Several were electrocuted. Children were hung by their feet and whipped. One eight-year-old girl and her grandmother were buried alive. More than 300 people were killed, including entire families and their children, as the killers wanted to make sure that there would no one left to take revenge years later. Most of the bodies were thrown into disused wells and mass graves. In one case the stench became so overpowering that the villagers had to dig out the bodies and throw them into a pond instead.

The violence even spilled over into Hong Kong, formally outside the CPC’s control, where communist fanatics placed thousands of crudely made bombs in public parks, cinemas and markets, agitating for the cause. One popular radio host known for his vocal criticisms of communism, Lam Bun, was trapped inside his car by a “death squad posing as road-maintenance workers,” then burned alive after his car was doused with petrol.

For one person, however, the violence and disorder was merely a smokescreen, a way to deflect attention from his own misrule and consolidate his power. When one of Mao’s rivals, Liu Shaoqi, denounced the student movement as disruptive, Mao shrewdly took the side of the students, offering them vocal support in the early stages of their movement, and using the momentum generated by their efforts to purge Shaoqi from power. The Cultural Revolution, which upended all of civilized society, was for Mao a mere pretext, the final proof that he would go to any length, sacrifice any number of lives, to maintain control of China. In an editorial in the People’s Daily, designed to whip up his followers into a frenzy, he laid bare his true guiding principal: “If you have power, you have everything. If you don’t have power, you have nothing… Unite yourselves, form a great alliance, and seize power! Seize power! Seize power!!!” Taken collectively, Frank Dikötter’s trilogy of books on the history of communism in China are a study in power, and a minor monument to the millions of Mao’s victims.