There is a narrative about the halcyon period in China from when Mao assumed power in 1949 through late 1956 when he launched what turned out to be the insidious “Let 100 flowers bloom” campaign. These were the good years when women were liberated and the nation’s new leaders seemed reform-minded and effective. The bad stuff all came later.
In a scathing new book, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-57, Frank Dikotter, a harsh critic of Mao in his earlier book on the Great Leap Forward’s unnecessary famine, demolishes the myth of Mao’s golden years. He maintains instead that was a time of unimaginable cruelty and wanton murder. I haven’t read the book yet, but recommend you read the review of the book in the Economist. These were years drowned in bloodshed.
The genius of communist violence was to implicate ever more people in it. After landlords were tried in front of village tribunals, then beaten and shot, land and possessions were divided up among the crowd. It was an incentive to find new victims, many of whom were burned or buried alive. But the more victims, the greater the fear of reprisals from distraught families. So the tribunals kept on killing. Children were not spared. By the end of 1952 up to 2m Chinese had been murdered.
A parallel terror was waged against those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries, Nationalists or foreign spies, some as young as eight, with new victims trucked daily to execution sites. Throughout these orgies of violence, Mao and other leaders coolly laid down quotas—up to four deaths for every thousand Chinese was considered appropriate. In the three provinces under the jurisdiction of Deng Xiaoping, known today for having been open-minded, 150,000 had been executed by November 1951. The total number of deaths will never be known. But in late 1952 Bo Yibo (father of Bo Xilai, whose recent trial has caused a sensation) said, approvingly, that 2m had been executed.
Not everyone could be killed, Mao acknowledged. So a vast gulag was born, swallowing up counter-revolutionaries, vagabonds, prostitutes, capitalists, marketeers, foreigners and, later, intellectuals. The population in the “reform through labour” camps quickly reached about 2m. The relentless indoctrination, one inmate later said, was nothing less than the “physical and mental liquidation of oneself”.
The country was, as Mr Dikotter puts it, well down “the road to serfdom”—literally so for farmers. All the landlord blood spilled was supposed to empower peasants. But the upheaval had devastated the countryside. Draught animals, fertiliser and skills were in short supply. The markets and other networks on which farmers had long depended were destroyed. Farming risked being branded the work of the evil landlord, yet the state demanded ever more grain from farmers in tax. Hardships multiplied. Villagers sold their children.
I realize that Chinese people don’t like to hear foreigners say negative things about Mao. It’s a topic of great sensitivity, as I myself learned the hard way when I tried to discuss it with a co-worker some years ago. But the story needs to be told anyway. They aren’t going to read about it in Chinese textbooks so I am grateful to scholars like Dikotter for making sure that anyone interested can learn the truth. Again, since I haven’t read the book I can’t say it’s all gospel truth. But based on the review, it sounds like a good and important read. I admit, I’ve been sucked into the “halcyon years” myth myself. It’s good to see it debunked.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.