Book review: The Tragedy of Liberation, by Frank Dikotter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 5:44pm

The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
by Frank Dikotter
5 stars

Mark O'Neill

The Tragedy of Liberation is a meticulous chronicle of the violence used by China's Communist Party to take and consolidate power over the first eight years of its rule. It puts the civilian death toll from 1949 to 1957 at more than five million.

The book is the second volume of a trilogy by Frank Dikotter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. The first was 2010's Mao's Great Famine, which has sold more than 30,000 copies. The final book will be on the Cultural Revolution.

Most of the evidence comes from previously classified Communist Party archives that have now become available.

The bibliography includes archives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, eight provinces and three cities. These corroborate eyewitness accounts, personal memoirs, letters and diaries.

The tone is set by the first chapter on the five-month siege of Changchun in 1948 by a communist army under Lin Biao, in which at least 160,000 civilians starved to death. Inside the city were 500,000 civilians and 100,000 Kuomintang troops, surrounded by 200,000 Communist soldiers. Lin placed a sentry every 50 metres and turned back those trying to leave the city.

By the end of June 1948, 30,000 were trapped in a no man's land outside the city between the Communists and the Kuomintang troops who would not allow them back into the city.

After it had won the civil war, the new government used violence as a major weapon to consolidate its rule. People were divided into 60 classes, including "good", "middle" and "bad"; violence was used against the bad classes. During the period of land reform from 1947 to 1952, about 1.5 million to two million people were killed.

Mao Zedong insisted villagers themselves carry out the killings - not the security organs, as in the Soviet Union - so that they would be implicated and linked to the party.

Next came the Great Terror, to kill enemies, real or imaginary, between the start of 1950 and the end of 1951. For the provinces of Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Guangdong, the death toll was 301,800, or 1.69 per 1,000 people.

The next blood-letting was the Korean war. Lin Biao and Liu Shaoqi strongly opposed intervention but Mao insisted. He sent to the front about three million soldiers, of whom an estimated 400,000 died - including his son Anying. Military expenses - 55 per cent of state spending in 1950, rising to 75 per cent the next year - and requisitions for grain, cotton and meat for the soldiers pushed areas of Manchuria into starvation.

The next campaigns were against intellectuals and religion, involving denunciations, arrests and deportations. Next came forced collectivisation of land and state monopoly of grain purchase; both met widespread, violent resistance.

By July 1954, the average villager had about half a kilogram a day to eat, one third less than before 1949. In Henan, Jiangxi, Hunan, Shandong, Guizhou and Sichuan, there was widespread starvation.

Following his mentor Joseph Stalin, Mao constructed a system of labour camps, which housed about two million people, of whom 90 per cent were political prisoners. Violence and torture were common.

The book debunks the idea, widely believed by foreigners and Chinese, that the first years of communist rule until the anti-rightist movement of 1957 and the Great Famine were positive. Not so, it says: violence and coercion were the nature of the regime from the beginning.

This book has a wealth of detail, much of it published in English for the first time. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the nature and history of the communist state. The man who ordered the violence continues to look down on Tiananmen Square and stares at us from banknotes.