The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter

This is the second of Mr Dikötter’s ‘People’s Trilogy’, in which he traces the early development of the People’s Republic of China. The first volume, ‘Mao’s Great Famine’, is about the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which was a disastrous ego-driven policy of Mao’s in the early 1950s that led to starvation for millions. I have read that it was the largest anthropogenic famine in history. Which is some accolade.

‘The Tragedy of Liberation’ recounts the establishment of the PRC in the immediate aftermath of World War II. It is very well researched, drawing on archives and evidence only released relatively recently.

It is detailed, and this sometimes overwhelms the narrative, as the same point is illustrated with successive examples. But it is nonetheless a very strong piece of work that really does remind us that the China we see today has some extremely unappealing origins. Countless thousands of people were killed, exiled or tortured, as the Chinese Communist Party took control and imposed its ideology on peasants, workers and everybody else. The social structures of centuries were ripped apart in the name of Marxist-Leninist – Mao Zedong thought. Injustice was entirely commonplace and suffering was immense.

It is not unreasonable, having read this book, to make comparisons with Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, in terms of numbers killed and the inhuman application of ideology. I suppose the obvious difference is that those two regimes are entirely consigned to history, while the Communist Party remains in power in China.

Is there any real connection between the regime of the late 1940s and early 1950s and the China of today? I’m not sure. Perhaps there is and we should persuade Mr Dikötter to examine it.


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