Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy Of Liberation

Consider for a moment the fate of the three most murderous regimes of the 20th century. Hitler’s Third Reich was vanquished by the combined might of the Allied powers, and his ideology thoroughly discredited. German schoolchildren visit Holocaust museums and read about the complicity of their forebears in perpetrating one of history’s most heinous crimes. Stalin’s Soviet Union, on the other hand, imploded, falling victim to its own internal contradictions, and the embarrassing impossibility of keeping up with Western economic might. Today, The Gulag Archipelago is assigned reading in Russian classrooms. But what of Mao’s China, where even conservative estimates of the death toll beggar belief? The CPC, led to power by Mao in 1949, continues to rule China, and despite outside hopes for liberalization of their rule, the trend seems bleak, with modern technologies merely helping them to perfect the surveillance state model of the mid-20th century. Under CPC leadership, the official history has been kind to the Maoists, so much so that – even outside of China – the crimes of their past are often denied or downplayed. Did Mao not restore the glory of a nation that had long suffered under Japanese imperialism? Did he not usher in the industrial era? Frank Dikötter, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, takes an axe to these deeply-rooted myths about the so-called “liberation” of the Chinese people, offering us instead a blood-soaked saga of brutal repression and land expropriation.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a power vacuum existed in China, created by the surrender and retreat of the occupying Japanese forces. The ostensible leader of the country, Chiang Kai-shek, controlled important cities, but a rival power was consolidating its strength in China’s vast rural areas, led by Mao Zedong and financed and advised by the Soviet Union. Ever the master manipulator, Stalin pledged public support to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government, even as he supplied Mao’s communist insurgents with an estimated “700,000 rifles, 18,000 machine guns, 860 aircraft and 4,000 artillery pieces.” Mao was no less duplicitous, offering peace concessions in public while exhorting his followers to ever greater rebellion in private. Dikötter begins our narrative in 1948, with the communist siege of Changchun, a minor trading town transformed, by the Japanese, into a hub of industry and governance, before it was ransacked by the Soviet army. There were some 500,000 people living in Changchun when Mao’s forces advanced on the city, and many of these were farmers and peasants from the countryside, who had fled the advancing communist army. When the nationalist soldiers inside refused to surrender, the commanding communist general, Lin Biao, gave a simple command: “Turn Changchun into a city of death.” For 150 days, the communists sieged Changchun, depriving it of access to outside food – excepting the little that could be air-dropped within the city’s walls. Nationalist soldiers began to rob the pantries of the very citizens they were sworn to protect. Horses were slaughtered for their meat; when there were no more horses left, stray cats and dogs were hunted for food. So great was the hunger and despair that a wave of mass suicides occurred – leading to a black market in human meat, “sold at $1.20 a pound.” By the end of the siege, 160,000 civilians had starved to death. Dikötter quotes from Zhang Zhenglong, a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army, who summed up the calamity: “Changchun was like Hiroshima. The casualties were about the same. Hiroshima took nine seconds. Changchun took five months.” In the eyes of CPC historians, Changchun is remembered as a great and decisive victory.

Much like Germany in the 1920s, China in the 1940s and early 1950s suffered from immense economic and political instability, making it fertile ground for extremist ideologies. The Japanese occupation of China, begun in 1937 and only ended in 1945, damaged more than Chinese national pride. The Japanese had ruthlessly exploited China’s industrial and agrarian economies, imposing heavy taxes that were used to fund the Japanese war effort. The Chinese nationalists, unable to fund their own war for liberation from tax money, printed currency – just as the German government of the 1920s had printed money to pay off their war debts.

This meant that the brunt of the war effort fell on the middle class, undermining the standard of living of people on fixed incomes such as schoolteachers, college professors, government employees and, of course, nationalist soldiers and officers. ‘In 1940, 100 yuan bought a big; in 1943, a chicken; in 1945, a fish; in 1946, an egg; and in 1947, one-third of a box of matches.’ By 1947 the cost of living was approximately 30,000 times what it had been in 1936, a year before Japan attacked China. Chiang tried to tame inflation in 1947 by banning the export of foreign currency and gold bullion, imposing a ceiling on interest rates and freezing all wages, but these measures had no lasting effect. By 1949 people could be seen wheeling their money in carts.

For me, one of the most indelible images of pre-war Germany is of citizens using wheelbarrows to withdraw their life savings from the bank, only to purchase the barest of essentials for the week. Not coincidentally, the same desperation in China resulted in a similarly desperate political gambit. When the communist forces finally triumphed, and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, a sense of optimism overwhelmed the average citizen: surely peace and prosperity would soon be at hand. Motivated by their newfound commitment to communist ideology, the citizens of the newly formed People’s Republic of China sought to conform to the party’s expectations.

People were told to practice thrift and frugality. Production was extolled, consumption denounced. Ideological purity went hand in hand with economic decline to transform once bustling metropoles into drab zones of conformity. Within months of the revolution, the pursuit of pleasure was frowned upon as a sign of bourgeois frivolity. In Shanghai, as elsewhere, cafés and dance halls were closed down. Clandestine gambling casinos broke up without police intervention. […] Even tea rooms closed their doors. The Race Course at Nanking Road become a military barracks. Nightlife was negligible, as shops were shuttered at six in the evening and clubs a few hours later. Those who ventured out at night were accosted by young communists demanding to see residence certificates and other papers. Fewer rickshaws, buses and pedicabs were seen on the streets. Cars were mostly official, as the cost of petrol become prohibitive. Thousands of vehicles vanished from the streets every month.

Art, and cultural artifacts, became morally suspect. Whereas once even families of modest income aspired to own a piece of their nation’s heritage or a testament to its cultural achievements, now such luxuries could cast suspicion on your revolutionary credentials. Whole collections were cosigned to the fires – books, both foreign and domestic, soon followed.

The cities, however, escaped the most repressive and murderous of the communist ascendancy. It was the countryside, the breadbasket of China, where the worst resentments were unleashed. Consider one of their slogans: “Anyone who has land is a tyrant, and all gentry are bad.” Quite a few people owned land, but few of them owned much of it, and those that did rarely fit the description of “tyrant.” The “wealthy” landowners, if they could be called that, rarely turned much of a profit from their labour. Mao himself, an autodidact with an ego, trained to be a primary school teacher, had no direct experience of the countryside, and no knowledge of economics outside of Marxism, but that did not stop him from pronouncing upon the situation in rural China, whipping up his followers into a murderous fervour:

In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves.

What this meant, in practice, was that committees of the poorest peasants were formed to pass judgment on their neighbours, assigning to them the various categories of culpability, following Soviet model: landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, poor peasants and labourers. The wealthier and more prosperous you were, the more morally suspect. But these committees ran into a problem: the categories that worked (if they can be said to have “worked”) in the Soviet Union, where agricultural and economic development was comparatively much higher, did not pertain in China. “The challenge,” as Dikötter puts it, “was that none of these artificial class distinctions actually corresponded to the social landscape of the village, where most farmers often lived in roughly similar conditions.” Having divided – however arbitrarily – the rural populace, the communists then set about their “consciousness raising,” which meant, in practice, whipping up the poorest majority into a murderous hatred of the least-poor minority.

In so-called ‘speak bitterness’ meetings, participants were encouraged to tap into a reservoir of grievances. Some vented genuine frustrations that had long been bottled up; others were coerced into inventing accusations against their richer neighbours. Greed became a powerful tool in whipping up class hatred, as members of the work team calculated the monetary equivalent of past misdeeds, urging the poorer villagers to demand compensation.

The success of the communists could soon be measured in corpses:

One by one the class enemies were dragged out on a stage where they were denounced by the crowd, assembled in their hundreds, screaming for blood, demanding that accounts be settled in an atmosphere charged with hatred. Victims were mercilessly denounced, mocked, humiliated, beaten and killed in these ‘struggle sessions.’ Soon an orgy of violence engulfed the village, as people lived in fear of reprisals from private militias led by former village leaders who had managed to escape.

The horrors of this campaign of terror are scarcely imaginable. Dikötter details one son who was made to lead his father around by a barbed-wire bullring, before both were shot. Where the wealthy did not exist, the overweight were killed, on the principle that they had eaten more than their share. Even children as young as five were not spared: they were branded “little landlords,” and murdered together with their parents. Other victims were “buried alive, dismembered, shot, throttled to death. Sometimes the bodies of the victims were hung from trees and chopped up.” Certainly there were true believers among the murderers, but there were opportunists, too. Did you owe someone a large sum of money? Simply accuse them of being a landlord, and your debt disappeared with their life.

Needless to say, this book did not make for pleasant reading. It is a catalogue of violence and repression so brutal that even the hardiest of readers will take frequent breaks. But it is also an indictment, written with the respect for evidence and argument characteristic of the best prosecutors. That, in fact, is what Dikötter is: a historian with a vendetta, a prosecuting attorney unwilling to let one of history’s great villains wipe his ledger clean.