I'm no hero, says Frank Dikoetter, author of book banned on mainland China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 5:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 5:16am

Frank Dikoetter may have published books inflammatory enough to have been banned on the mainland, but he does not consider such behaviour to be particularly brave.

"In fact, I'm a coward," the Dutch historian and author said yesterday. "The real heroes are the local historians who are going into the archives in the PRC, and who take far greater risks with their careers than I do."

Dikoetter was speaking at the Hong Kong Book Fair to promote his latest work, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of Revolution 1945-1957, in which he chronicles the violence and terror used by the Communist Party. He said that while he wrote about historical facts the party may prefer not to see printed, he did so in English and was based in Hong Kong.

"This is a place where we can speak, write and read freely," he said, adding that he was pleased to be a part of "the largest book fair on planet Earth".

Dikoetter does not believe he is doing any more than should be expected of him as a historian.

"I decided 30 years ago to study modern China and, unlike some of my Sinologist colleagues, I don't think you can do that properly without writing critically about the PRC."

The Tragedy of Liberation puts the civilian death toll in the years it covers at five million.

"The key difference between Mao [Zedong] and Stalin and Hitler is that, while they did some pretty awful things, Mao wanted people to denounce each other," he said. "People had to be implicated in the demise of others."

Dikoetter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, was speaking at a seminar moderated by columnist Chip Tsao in which both speakers dissected Mao's influence and stature. "Mao, like the regime, had a split personality. On the outside, there is the proclaimed ideal, but on the inside, there is pitilessness," Tsao said.