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The Tragedy of Liberation

The Tragedy of Liberation

Jonathan Sullivan08 Sep 2014Leave a comment

Written by Stanislav Myšička.

Frank Dikötter: The Tragedy of Liberation. A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945–57. New York, Bloomsbury 2013.

With The Tragedy of Liberation Frank Dikötter, a Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong, presents the second book from his People’s Trilogy. The first work in that series, Mao’s Great Famine, was released in 2010 and provided internationally acclaimed analysis of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in all of human history. His new book, like the earlier installment, is not a detailed history of the period, but rather a kind of narrative that works through presenting primary evidence. Thus, we follow more what was happening “on the ground”, in schools, villages, factories and shops, rather than trying to reconstruct the decision-making of the upper echelons of the party leadership (even though that does form an important part of the book as well).

The evidence presented is primarily based on confidential party reports, statistical data and documents, followed by plethora of eyewitness accounts, diary entries and interviews with participants in land reform and other mass campaigns from 1945–57. The book is meant to be a sort of counter-narrative to the CCP’s official account of the Liberation era, which is the cornerstone of how the first decade of the PRC should be interpreted and looked at in schools, museums etc. in contemporary China. The aim is to “retrieve the story of ordinary men and women who were both the main protagonists and the main victims of the revolution.“ (p. xiv)

The book starts with the bloody struggle between the CCP and KMT over China after the WWII ended. Subsequently, we are taken through the main CCP policies up to 1957. It is fortunate that Dikötter starts with the Chinese civil war, because this period remains still somewhat under researched and we possess only a few concise historical books mapping the whole conflict (see for example Westad 2003). The second part of the book (“Takeover”) covers the years 1949–1952. We learn about the ideological and practical side of the land reform campaign, which left 1-2 mil. “landlords” dead and most of their land redistributed, only to be de facto nationalized and kept under collective (scil. CCP) control few years later. Another topic is the removal of socially, politically and economically suspicious elements of Chinese society during first years of the PRC. Last two chapters of the second part are devoted to the growing international isolationism of the new regime and the campaigns and policies during the Korean War.

Part III (“Regimentation”) deals with various attempts of the PRC to strengthen its rule over Chinese society, starting with the campaign against counter-revolutionaries, collectivization of agriculture following the land reform and last but not least with the creation of massive system of prisons and labour camps. The so-called campaign against counter-revolutionaries was one of the most violent aspects of the first years of the CCP’s rule in China and Dikötter presents abundant evidence of the brutality of the campaign, as well as the complete negligence of people’s freedoms, welfare and personal integrity on the side of the ruling party. One particularly interesting chapter is devoted to the dynamics of the multiple attempts on thought reform inside and outside the CCP. Finally, part III (“Backlash”) describes the never-ending attempts of the regime to present only the “bright side” of the situation in China to foreign visitors and its own citizens. The book ends with narration of the course and aftermath of the Hundred Flowers campaign, which finally dispelled hopes on the side of many PRC’s citizens about the possibility of regime reform and better attention to the true need of the “masses”.

The author persuasively argues that some of the most violent periods of the PRC history (land reform, campaign against counter-revolutionaries and others) were not isolated outbursts of violence, but were part of a systematic regime policy based on violence. Therefore, the Great Leap forward and the Cultural Revolution should not be interpreted as isolated cases of revolutionary violent outbursts, but were in many ways continuation of CCP’s policies dating back as far the Yan’an years and the civil war of 1945–1949. Party elites pursued their political goals without mercy, with the peasantry usually being hit the hardest.

Readers learn very soon that even those communist leaders later heralded as more liberal or lenient (Deng Xiaoping or Liu Shaoqi for example) were as heartless and negligent to the suffering of the masses as Mao Zedong, Kang Sheng or Peng Zhen. I also greatly appreciated Dikötter’s detailed description of how the nationalization of economy and thorough liquidation of private business proceeded with substantial and long-term negative impacts on national economy. The chapter on the Korean War is very interesting, especially, for the many valuable details about the functioning and effectiveness of the CCP’s propaganda machine. The “Hate America, Aid Korea” campaign is again shown in its full tragic absurdity. Everyone interested in that topic should read the part of the book devoted to “germ warfare”, where we find a depiction of a well-orchestrated state policy for eradication of all potential sources of biologically hazardous material, including various pests.

Some readers may find author’s intentions noble, but their exposition and interpretation in the book somewhat imbalanced. When Dikötter tries to persuade the reader that the advances in hygiene, nutrition standards, and lifespan were not really that important nationally compared to the regime’s crimes and neglect of lower class welfare, it is not underlined by enough evidence as some of his other statements. But to be objective, one of the main development indicators, life expectancy really took-of only after 1960, with end of the most brutal and deadly CCP campaigns, which is roughly in line with Dikötter’s arguments presented in the book.  Nevertheless, I think that some of the generalizations in the book may sometimes seem weak, because we simply do not have enough reliable data from that period.

On the other hand, much of the evidence clearly calls the one sided, rosy picture of the years of Liberation, propagated by contemporary Chinese communist elites, into question and that is the book’s most important contribution. It is understandable that some may find troubling that Dikötter leaves intentionally the “big historical picture” aside (national statistics is the exception) and focuses on more on the dramatic events in certain regions of the country. However, I don’t think that it was (or had to be) the author’s intention to write a concise history of the Liberation period and there are other books which supplement this role very well. Personally I would like to see more reflections on the victim-perpetrator psychological mechanism and how the Liberation era violence connected to China’s cultural and historical traditions.

Anyone interested in modern Chinese history should read Dikötter’s work because it supplies lot of missing information sorely needed for making more objective assessment of one of the most important eras in PRC’s history. The material presented in the book cannot be taken as a definitive assessment of the period, but it presents a very important contribution to our knowledge of the first decade of the PRCS. Generally speaking, the book shows the first years of the PRC as much more turbulent, violent and ambivalent (in the sense of citizens-elite relationship) period, than it was thought before.

Stanislav Myšička is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Hradec Králové


Dikötter, F.: Mao’s Great Famine. New York, Walker and Co. 2010.

Westad, O. A.: Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950. Stanford University Press 2003.

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