Kwasi Kwarteng

The Evening Standard, 22 August 2013

We all know that Chairman Mao was one of the great monsters of human history. The Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the insane cultural revolution of the 1960s are familiar. By contrast, the human tragedy which accompanied the communists’ final victory over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang in 1949 has remained obscure.

Frank Dikötter’s powerful new book is a bold and startling attempt to rectify this apparent neglect. In a cool, dispassionate narrative, Dikötter recounts the orgy of violence which the communists set loose. Mao famously said that “revolution is not a dinner party”. In a relentlessly direct way, Dikötter shows that the Chairman was right.

Mao always loved violence. As a revolutionary in the 1920s he was exhilarated by the prospect of bloodshed, by the notion of a world being turned upside down. He was particularly excited by the idea of class war. “They strike the gentry to the ground,” he wrote euphorically of peasants in one report. The young Mao was so taken with the violence that he confessed he felt “thrilled as never before”.

By 1949, through a mixture of cunning, extreme stamina and ruthlessness, Mao was top dog. His communist cadres were anxious to kill landlords, “Right deviationists” and their “imperialist lackeys”. Their revolutionary zeal also promoted the spiritual re-education of an entire population.

“Thought reform” was even more terrifying than the beatings and torture. One victim, in a telling phrase, described this process as a “carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind”. “Everyone is learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans,” the communists reported.

Mao famously said that 'revolution is not a dinner party'. In a relentlessly direct way, Dikötter shows that the Chairman was right

One English radio operator, Robert Ford, after a four-year spell in a Chinese prison, described “thought reform” in chilling terms: “When you’re being beaten up, you can turn into yourself and find a corner of your mind in which to fight the pain. But when you’re being spiritually tortured by thought reform, there’s nowhere you can go.”

Of course, once Stalin died in March 1953, Mao saw himself as invincible. In his own perverse terms, he was now the premier global revolutionary. He could indulge his fancies without seeking any approval from the Kremlin. For Mao, it was as though a parent had died. This feeling gave him even greater authority and self-confidence. The death of Stalin, Dikötter hints, set the stage for the even greater acts of inhumanity witnessed in the Great Leap Forward of the later 1950s.

Dikötter’s previous book, Mao’s Great Famine, earned great critical acclaim and won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. The Tragedy of Liberation demonstrates why he has established himself as a leading historian of modern China. He is a rare scholar, adept in both Russian and Chinese. The subtle interplay between Stalin and Mao, their complicated and difficult relationship, forms a novel background to the horrors of Mao’s rule in China.

Combined with this linguistic skill in Russian and Chinese, Dikötter has a writer’s gift in the use of English. The narrative of The Tragedy of Liberation is always clear and simple. Sometimes it is almost a little too remorseless in its description of appalling violence.

Too often, historians use the cloudy jargon of bureaucrats to recount horrors which ordinary language can scarcely describe. Historians talk, almost as though they were communist officials themselves, of “liquidation”, of “extermination” and millions of deaths. “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic,” Stalin is supposed to have observed.

Too many historians have taken him at his word, describing human violence in dry, rather boring prose. Dikötter, by contrast, must be admired for the manner in which he puts a human scale on the enormous barbarities of the communist takeover of China.

We cannot begin to understand modern China without being aware of the blood-drenched tale Dikötter so ably relates.

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