Book review: A trilogy of Maoism, one of the worst tyrannies of the 20th century

Ryle Dwyer reads a trilogy that traces the life and crimes of the tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of his fellow countrymen. 

The Tragedy of Liberation

Mao’s Great Famine

The Cultural Revolution

Frank Dikötter

Bloomsbury, £10.99 each

‘Mao actually toasted unfolding civil war’

ALTHOUGH Mao Zedong is the central character in Frank Dikötter’s trilogy, it is not a biography but a fascinating history of China during Mao’s years in power, from 1945 to 1976.

The three books were not published in chronological order. Mao’s Great Famine — covering 1958 to 1962 — was the first published. That is a ground-breaking horror story of which most people on this side of the world are probably unaware. The insightful account undoubtedly sparked interest in what actually happened during the rest of Mao’s career.

The insightful account undoubtedly sparked interest in what actually happened during the rest of Mao’s career.

As a professor at the University of Hong Kong, Frank Dikötter casts an informed outsider’s eye on the story. Originally from the Netherlands, he was reared in Switzerland and the United States. He writes in a fluent style with an eye for interesting detail.

The Tragedy of Liberation, covering the communist victory in the Chinese revolution, provides in-depth insights into human depravity.

President Harry Truman of the United States sent his most trusted advisor, General George Marshall, to China to try to broker a coalition between the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the communists under Mao Zedong.

“We must stop civil war and all parties must unite under the chairmanship of chairman Chiang to build a modern China,” Mao proclaimed on September 18, 1947. But Mao privately explained to colleagues that this was “a mere scrap of paper”.

“Mao would agree to almost anything on paper,” the author notes. “Mao achieved power by promising every disaffected group what they wanted most, land for the farmer, independence for all minorities, freedom for intellectuals, protection of private property for businessmen, higher living standards for the workers.”

“Mao achieved power by promising every disaffected group what they wanted most, land for the farmer, independence for all minorities, freedom for intellectuals, protection of private property for businessmen, higher living standards for the workers.”

“The Chinese Communist Party rallied a majority under the banner of the New Democracy,” Dr Dikötter adds. Of course, they were ready to be ruthless.

Mao later broke his promises at will. He consolidated his power by “a series of drives by the party to eliminate all opposition, whether it came from ethnic minorities, religious groups, farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs, industrialists, teachers and scholars, or doubters within the ranks of the party itself.”

People from all walks of life became entangled in the huge human tragedy. The communists formed a pact in blood with the poor to liquidate the so-called landlords. This resulted in

This resulted in killing of some two million people. Many of those were no more landlords than their poor neighbours.

From the summer of 1955 to the spring of 1956 the communists engaged in “Socialist High Tide”, which was a massive push to accelerate collectivisation of the countryside. Farmers were herded into collectives in which they no longer owned their land.

“The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least five million civilians, and bringing misery to countless more,” Dr Dikötter argues.

But this was minor in comparison with what happened during the next four years.

Viewing deStalinisation in the Soviet Union and the Hungarian rising of 1956 as challenges to his own authority, Mao encouraged a more open political climate in China.

When this reverberated against his own regime, Mao backtracked, and launched the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to steal the revolutionary thunder of the Soviet Union, which had relied heavily on industrial development. Mao sought to develop agriculture and industry at the same time in order to produce a totally collectivised utopia.

Mao sought to develop agriculture and industry at the same time in order to produce a totally collectivised utopia.

This was to have catastrophic consequences. “Coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward,” according to Dr Dikötter.

“Coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward,” according to Dr Dikötter.

Some two-and-a-half million people were summarily killed, and unprecedented damage was inflicted on agriculture, trade, industry and transportation.

In order to increase steel production, small furnaces were set up into which pots and pans and other metallic objects were thrown to be melted down, but in many places not even a third of the steel produced was usable.

Targets were set for farm production, but those were just paper figures. In line with Mao’s own example, those reports were not worth the paper on which they were written. China was producing more than ever on paper, but those figures were gross exaggerations.

China was producing more than ever on paper, but those figures were gross exaggerations.

Some 110 million people were forced off the land into urban areas. Extra food that should have been sent to those urban areas, was exported instead. Despite massive food shortages in urban China, the value of the country’s rice exports trebled.

Even when the urban food shortage became apparent, Mao pressed ahead. “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill,” Mao proclaimed. His reckless experimentation led to no fewer than 45 million deaths between 1958 and 1962.

“It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill,” Mao proclaimed.

His reckless experimentation led to no fewer than 45 million deaths between 1958 and 1962.

Disease became a rampant killer, but Mao went into denial.

“You doctors are just upsetting people by talking about disease,” he complained. “I just don’t believe you.” The transition from capitalism to socialism had required a revolution, so Mao demanded a revolution to move from socialism to communism. He called this the Cultural Revolution.

“I just don’t believe you.” The transition from capitalism to socialism had required a revolution, so Mao demanded a revolution to move from socialism to communism. He called this the Cultural Revolution.

The transition from capitalism to socialism had required a revolution, so Mao demanded a revolution to move from socialism to communism. He called this the Cultural Revolution.

The transition from capitalism to socialism had required a revolution, so Mao demanded a revolution to move from socialism to communism. He called this the Cultural Revolution.

Dr Dikötter depicts Mao as “an old man settling personal scores at the end of his life.” At the outset, Mao actually toasted “the unfolding of a nationwide civil war.” He could not rely on the party machine to purge the higher echelons of the communist party, so he turned to radical students, urging them to “seize power” and overthrow the bourgeois in power. This led to the release of pent-up frustrations after years of communist rule.

At the outset, Mao actually toasted “the unfolding of a nationwide civil war.” He could not rely on the party machine to purge the higher echelons of the communist party, so he turned to radical students, urging them to “seize power” and overthrow the bourgeois in power. This led to the release of pent-up frustrations after years of communist rule.

He could not rely on the party machine to purge the higher echelons of the communist party, so he turned to radical students, urging them to “seize power” and overthrow the bourgeois in power. This led to the release of pent-up frustrations after years of communist rule.

The Red Guard turned viciously against their teachers, class mates, and perceived reactionaries. They went on murderous rampages in Beijing. On August 26, 1966, they killed 126 people in the

They went on murderous rampages in Beijing. On August 26, 1966, they killed 126 people in the city, and slaughtered 228. Next day, 188, and 200 on the following days.

Entire branches of arts, crafts and industry were wiped out, as the young people went on orgies of destruction. Mao then called on them to apply their revolutionary experience to other parts of the country, and the Red Guard were given free travel. After inflaming the students, Mao enticed workers to join the revolution.

Mao then called on them to apply their revolutionary experience to other parts of the country, and the Red Guard were given free travel. After inflaming the students, Mao enticed workers to join the revolution.

After inflaming the students, Mao enticed workers to join the revolution.

The first phase of the Cultural Revolution ended in the summer of 1968 when “revolutionary party committees” took control. Heavily dominated by military officers, these committees concentrated real power in the hands of the army.

In the next three years, they turned the country into a garrison state.

Mao had launched the Cultural Revolution with the help of Lin Biao, who exploited the turmoil to expand his own power base by placing people in key army positions. Some thought he was planning to take over from

Some thought he was planning to take over from Mao, until he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971. Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who had been closely allied with Lin Biao, was arrested and imprisoned as part of the so-called Gang of Four, a month after Mao’s death in 1976. She hanged herself in jail ten years later.

Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who had been closely allied with Lin Biao, was arrested and imprisoned as part of the so-called Gang of Four, a month after Mao’s death in 1976. She hanged herself in jail ten years later.

The Cultural Revolution was not nearly as murderous as earlier campaigns, but still, some two million people were killed. Those who eventually took charge pushed the country in a direction at odds with what Mao desired.

Those who eventually took charge pushed the country in a direction at odds with what Mao desired.

“Instead of fighting the remnants of bourgeois culture, they subverted the planned economy and hollowed out the party’s ideology,” Dr Dikötter concludes. “In short, they buried Maoism.”

“In short, they buried Maoism.”

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