Book review – The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945–57

Robert Bickers on a vivid exploration of the bloody reality behind the ‘golden age’ of the Chinese Revolution

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Reviewed by: Robert Bickers
Author: Frank Dikötter
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £25

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The Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong was ever blunt and pithy. “It is true,” he announced in February 1957, “that 700,000 people were killed, [but] if they had not been killed, the people would not have been able to raise their heads. The people demanded the killing.” And yes, he freely admitted, among the victims were people who had been “unjustly killed”. This speech was shorn of the detail when it was officially published, but has been available to scholars in an unbowdlerised form since 1967, when it was published in Chinese, and in English since 1989. Mao was talking only of the first three years after the communists came to power in 1949, when the party launched a series of devastating campaigns against ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to consolidate its grip on a country ravaged by more than a decade of relentless conflict.

Killing was what the party did. The ‘justly’, as well as ‘unjustly’ killed, are the subject of this harrowing account of the seizure of power by the Chinese Communist Party, and its first decade of iron-handed rule. Frank Dikötter outdoes Mao in his terse catalogue of the horror of the violence inflicted on China’s peoples, cultures and even environment by the people’s government. And he shows clearly that it was not ‘the people’ who demanded slaughter, but the party.

Mao famously remarked that a “Revolution is not a dinner party… but an act of violence by which one class overthrows another”. Despite such candour, the violence of the Chinese revolution’s early years has, in fact, long been overlooked. Instead, a widespread belief persists that there was a golden age in which the communists embarked on a period of national reconstruction, garnering widespread support before plunging into the chaos of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

As Dikötter shows through his extensive use of contemporary foreign-language reportage and memoir, the basic contours, as well as much of the detail of the bloody reality, have in fact long been known. And he joins other scholars in bringing new evidence out from China’s archives: internal discussions about quotas and targets – for killings – estimates of the numbers of those executed, gruesome case studies, and debates over the management and implementation of terror. There was no golden age.

The crucial question, then, is why this book will be such a surprise to so many. Perhaps the key lies in the regime’s success at, as Dikötter puts it, “mesmerising very different audiences on the road to utopia”. As Mao spoke in 1957, foreign readers of the state’s propaganda magazines were treated to photo-essays on new power stations, new colleges in Beijing, third-world solidarity and a Chinese cultural renaissance. The plentiful evidence of brutality flooding out with refugees and diplomats was widely dismissed as Cold War, anti-communist propaganda, and instead ‘New China’ seemed to offer a ‘third way’ between the great armed camps. Commentators today mesmerised by Chinese’s economic rise might well ponder how far they too have fallen under a similar spell.

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Robert Bickers, University of Bristol