Some histories have considered the period 1949-57 to be the closest that Maoist China came to achieving a “golden age”; or gilded, at least, relative to what would follow. They credit the Communist party with creating in the early 1950s a consensus leadership and centralised state after a traumatic century of invasion and civil war; with rebuilding and reindustrialising the economy; and with enabling China to “stand up” by fighting the US army to a stalemate in Korea. “Had Mao died in 1956,” one of his colleagues speculated after the Chairman’s demise, “his achievements would have been immortal.”
In The Tragedy of Liberation – a prequel to his Samuel Johnson Prize-winning Mao’s Great Famine (2010) – Frank Dikötter convincingly demolishes this rosy assessment of the early People’s Republic. “Violence was the revolution,” he observes, as he describes how Mao Zedong and his lieutenants created a “one-party state that sought to control everyone but answered to nobody”. In Dikötter’s account of Chinese communism between 1945 and 1957, the devastating famine of 1958-62 and the vicious purges of the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 are cataclysms waiting to happen. The state-sanctioned savagery and fanatical meddling that would make both these later events possible are already clearly visible.
Dikötter, a Dutch historian who teaches at the University of Hong Kong, begins with the immediate historical background to Communist rule: the ruthlessness with which Mao’s generals waged the four-year civil war that brought the party to power in 1949. Far from reflecting a moral “mandate” to rule, the Communists’ victory against their Nationalist rivals was overwhelmingly military in nature. To conquer key cities in the industrial northeast, Communist commanders laid siege to civilian populations. “Turn Changchun into a city of death,” proclaimed Lin Biao, one of Mao’s most successful strategists, in 1948. By the time the metropolis fell five terrible months later, 160,000 non-combatants had died of starvation.