Magazine article The Spectator

The Leader Who Followed

Magazine article The Spectator

The Leader Who Followed

Article excerpt

The Tragedy of Liberation:

A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957 by Frank Dikotter Bloomsbury, £25, pp. 400, ISBN 978408837573 The historian of China Frank Dikotter has taken a sledgehammer to demolish perhaps the last remaining shibboleth of modern Chinese history. This is the notion, propagated in countless books and documentaries, that Mao's regime started off well, deservedly coming to power on a wave of popular support and successfully tackling the evils left behind by the corrupt and incompetent Nationalists. Then, at the end of the 1950s, it all started to go wrong. There were terrible natural disasters, followed by famine; and, seemingly unaccountably, the brotherhood of brave revolutionaries fell out, creating the bloodbath of the Cultural Revolution. This is the version still served up to A-level students in Britain.

But slowly it is now becoming accepted that the famine of the Great Leap Forward, which killed around 40 million, was a monstrous man-made catastrophe. Dikotter has already helped to establish this in his book Mao's Great Famine, by virtue of his diligent research into local and provincial archives. He has now used the same technique to uncover the truth about the years during which Mao fought his way to power and established the new regime. Drawing on a huge variety of documents, he quotes leaders, officials, intellectuals, factory workers and peasants to create a very different and much more plausible account of the socalled Golden Age.

The Tragedy of Liberation serves as reminder of the ruinous failure of American (and other) experts properly to comprehend both the nature of the communist triumph - a Soviet-backed military conquest - and its disastrous record in government. This should be recognised as one of the great scandals of academic life, on a par with the gross overestimation of the Soviet economy during the Cold War. After all, the Americans effectively fought and lost three costly wars with the Chinese communists - in China before 1949, in Korea, and finally the long proxy war in Vietnam. And some believe the Chinese leaders still consider themselves engaged in a long-term war with America.

Dikotter bluntly states in his first paragraph that the story of the liberation of revolution is 'first and foremost a history of calculated terror and systematic violence'. …

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