The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikotter is a thoroughly researched book about the history of the Chinese revolution. It paints a gory picture. The bloodshed necessitated by revolution, its innocent victims and the futility of actions that follow the maxim - ‘the ends justify the means’- is highlighted throughout. The tone of the book increasingly makes the case that Mao was responsible of democide - where a government sets about killing its own citizens - as one reads through the impressive array of accounts on the mass killings sanctioned by the Communists.
Anecdotes Used to Good Effect
The book is more than a tome of statistics or records taken from official documents. It also gives subaltern accounts of the revolution, and the period following its success in vesting power in mainland China. The atrocities inflicted on the common man as a vehicle for state policy are shown by giving individual accounts which are corroborated with citations and archival evidence. Joseph Stalin had famously said: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million men is a mere statistic.” Dikotter takes Stalin’s advice seriously, by giving numerous anecdotes of the individual being trampled upon by the machinations of an ideology. One is touched by the account of people like Han Laoliu, conveniently classified as a ‘landlord’, who was publicly executed for being a class enemy. Dikotter writes:
Han Laoliu had no land, but collected rent on behalf of the owner who lived in the administrative centre. Like the others, he ate coarse grain and had too few clothes to keep him warm in the winter. His greatest claim to wealth was two small windowpanes built into his earth-walled house covered with a layer of straw. (66) In using this style the book is similar to Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking about the atrocities committed by the Japanese on the Chinese during WW-2 in which an estimated 3 million are said to have lost their lives.
The Dangers of Utopian Ideology
Communism and its ideals are presented as fairy-tales, which when one tries to implement become nightmares. But the author uses stark facts to present this, more than appealing to our emotions. Policies implemented by Mao like the Great Leap and land reforms are trashed both for their ineffectiveness as economic policies and the crimes perpetrated in enforcing them. Their impact can be easily inferred by the reader. In such a discourse, when stared at by the tragedy of the Chinese revolution, one is tempted to categorise Communism as a religion. While religion strives for utopia in the after-life in the form of heaven, Communism believes in the utopia of establishing a classless society in this lifetime. In both, ethics are often suspended with the promise of a better end result.
The paranoia in such states is reminiscent of Orwell’s novel 1984. It is a dystopia where even thinking contrary to the party’s line constitutes a crime. The decision making process of the regime is shown, and killing is one of the main instruments of state policy. There is mention of a provincial head Li Jingquan who ordered the deaths of 6,000 landlords to give momentum to land reforms which were started by Mao. This example is one instance of many highlighted by the author. Facts presented by Dikotter highlight Mao’s ruthlessness. Many officials who are reluctant to liquidate class enemies are purged and never heard of again. Mao gives arbitrary targets of how many people he wants dead so that the revolution is not threatened and his policies go ahead unhindered. The book offers insights into the workings of a totalitarian state. In the final reckoning, Mao’s legacy of death runs into the millions, not off the mark to what was achieved by Hitler or Stalin. But, history is written by the victors.
It also helps one learn about the current Chinese regime, which despite its market friendly reforms under Deng Xiaoping, still remains a totalitarian state, using many of the same draconian measures used by its founders. The recent purging of Bo Xilai, a senior Communist official and his wife are prime examples. The recent purging of his uncle, the second in power in the secretive North Korean state, by leader Kim-Jong-un, is the inheritance of a legacy that can be traced to Mao due to the methods used to maintain a stranglehold on power.
Usurping the Artistic Sphere
The book demonstrates how Communism creates a culture of its own and usurps what was achieved by natural historical processes. A Communist victory procession after the liberation is mentioned where the traditional gongs and drums are beaten by dancers but it is hard for the public to understand what is happening as they highlight Communist themes, many of which are borrowed from the Soviets. The importance the regime attaches to having absolute control over the artistic space was seen a few years back with the persecution of artist Ai Weiwei.
The picture of a naked girl running on a street, her back burning after napalm bombing in Vietnam, did a lot to end the war. The author, to his credit, has been successful in portraying the human tragedy of the Chinese liberation, despite the book not being a work of art. More works in the artistic space, coming from the Chinese, on the despotism under Mao will be excellent complements to this work. The Russian movie ‘Burnt by the Sun,’ which highlights the terror under Stalin’s purges, was that sort of an effort.
This book is a must read to anyone who values freedom.