Book Review: The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikotter

Before you read this, read my highlights. They give a better overview/feel of the book anything here.

The tragedy of liberation covers China from 1945 to 1957 with a few references back to events during WW2 and the Japanese occupation. It looks at the communist victory in the civil war and the gradual transformation of Chinese society that followed. It’s part of a trilogy, the latter two books covering the great leap forward and the cultural revolution.

The writing is good. It’s able to convey large scale social trends without loosing sight of the human experience or reducing history to the decisions of a few great men. Reading the book will teach you about those, but it will also paint a story of how peasants, industrialists, housewives and students experienced the decade.

The research seems good. From what I see, Dikotter went through party archives and bases his work on mostly primary material from the time. Still, I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was lying, either directly or by presenting only one side of a story.

The book is heavy. It talks of suffering and injustice and war. The descriptions of the former are often graphic. The scale of the suffering is unimaginable. It’s the injustice which got to me the most.

Recommendation: Read it. You’ll get a bit more from it if you have some knowledge of the broader history of the time to slot it into, before and after, but even without that background it’ll give you a good insight into the formation of the second most powerful state on earth and injustices which are difficult to comprehend.

Some observations from the book:

  • Bad incentives and un-empirical policymaking can and did have horrific consequences.

    • Regions were given targets for percentages of their population to kill as "rightists". Leadership at every level strove to exceed these targets and in doing so destroyed huge numbers of people, most being innocent. Underachieving meant risking being purged themselves.
    • In disease eradication programs, programs success was judged based on inputs, not outputs. Number of snails/rats killed rather than number of cases of disease X per year. People farmed rats to sell the tails. Peasants were organized in work brigades and forced to pick snails in waters swarming with Schistosomiasis. Why? To eliminate Schistosomiasis. In part this was down to ignorance and cadres incentives to show visible efforts to meet targets as well as bad incentives.
    • More generally, making any criticism of government policy incredibly dangerous leads, unsurprisingly, to no criticism and bad policy.
  • When the powerful are able to suppress speech, they will do so to limit criticism of their actions or morals. This was true even in the 1942 where Mao, in the midst of a desperate civil war, launched a half-year long purge to destroy critics who decried his luxurious lifestyle.

    • tens of thousands of young volunteers had poured into Yan’an to join the communist party. Students, teachers, artists, writers and journalists, they were disenchanted with the nationalists and eager to dedicate their lives to the revolution. Many were so excited after days on the road that they wept when they saw the heights of Yan’an in the distance. Others cheered from the backs of their lorries, singing the ‘Internationale’ and the Soviet Union’s ‘Motherland March’. They were full of idealism, embracing liberty, equality, democracy and other liberal values that had become popular in China after the fall of the empire in 1911. They were quickly disillusioned. Instead of equality, they found a rigid hierarchy. Every organisation had three different kitchens, the best food being reserved for the senior leaders. From the amount of grain, sugar, cooking oil, meat and fruit to the quality of health care and access to information, one’s position in the party hierarchy determined everything. Even the quality of tobacco and writing paper varied according to rank. Medicine was scarce for those on the lower rungs of the ladder, although leading cadres had personal doctors and sent their children to Moscow. At the apex of the party stood Mao, who was driven around in the only car in Yan’an and lived in a large mansion with heating especially installed for his comfort.2 In February 1942, Mao asked the young volunteers to attack ‘dogmatism’ and its alleged practitioners, namely his rival Wang Ming and other Soviet-trained leaders. Soon the criticisms that he unleashed went too far. Instead of following the Chairman’s cue, several critics expressed discontent with the way the red capital was run. A young writer called Wang Shiwei, who worked for the Liberation Daily, wrote an essay denouncing the arrogance of the ‘big shots’ who were ‘indulging in extremely unnecessary and unjustified perks’, while the sick could not even ‘have a sip of noodle soup’.3 After two months, Mao changed tack and angrily condemned Wang Shiwei as a ‘Trotskyist’ (Wang had translated Engels and Trotsky). He also turned against Wang’s supporters, determined to stamp out any lingering influence of free thinking among the young volunteers. Just as the rank and file were investigated in a witch-hunt for spies and undercover agents, they were interrogated in front of large crowds shouting slogans, made to confess in endless indoctrination meetings and forced to denounce each other in a bid to save themselves. Some were locked up in caves, others taken to mock executions. For month after month, life in Yan’an was nothing but a relentless succession of interrogations and rallies, feeding fear, suspicion and betrayal. All communications with areas under nationalist control were cut off, and any attempt to contact the outside world was viewed as evidence of espionage. The pressure was too much for some, as they broke down, lost their minds or committed suicide…

  • Absolute disregard for human life and dignity. The regime didn’t just kill it’s opponents or torture them. It sough to humiliate them. To make them lower than low. To make it normal, acceptable and indeed mandatory for their former friends, employees and community members to degrade them.

    • Some victims spent years in chains, for instance Duan Kewen and Harriet Mills. Many tightening devices were also very heavy, digging into the skin and lacerating the flesh. Beatings were common, administered with bamboo sticks, leather belts, heavy clubs or bare knuckles. Sleep deprivation was widely used. Other forms of torture were more ingenious, and came with poetic titles drawn from traditional literature. ‘Dipping the Duckling into the Water’ meant suspending a victim upside down with bound hands. ‘Sitting on the Tiger Bench’ consisted of fastening somebody’s knees to a small iron bench with his hands cuffed behind the back. Bricks were inserted under the tied legs, causing them to bend unnaturally, eventually breaking at the knees. There was an extensive repertoire of torture methods, as ever more ingenious ways of degrading other human beings were developed. In Beijing some victims had their feet shackled to the window until they fainted. Salt was rubbed into their wounds. Some had to squat on the bucket used for excrement and hold a spittoon for hours without moving. Others were sodomised. In the south the guards sometimes built crude electric machines with a battery in a wooden box and a wheel on the outside. Two cords were attached to the victim’s hands or other body parts and then the wheel was turned to generate an electric shock.11 The list could go on. But by all accounts the most dreaded aspect of incarceration was not the frequent beatings, the hard labour or even the grinding hunger. It was thought reform, referred to by one victim as a ‘carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind’. As Robert Ford, an English radio operator, put it after a four-year spell in prison, ‘When you’re being beaten up, you can turn into yourself and find a corner of your mind in which to fight the pain. But when you’re being spiritually tortured by thought reform, there’s nowhere you can go. It affects you at the most profound, deepest levels and attacks your very identity.’ The self-criticism and indoctrination meetings lasted for hours on end, day in, day out, year after year. And unlike those on the outside, once the group discussions were over, the others were still in the same cell. They were encouraged to examine, question and denounce each other. Sometimes they had to take part in brutal struggle meetings, proving on whose side they stood by beating a suspect. ‘By the time you got through such a meeting you would, if you were a conscientious person at all, suffer terribly mentally and groan for days. Silence and distress were the outcome.’ Every bit of human dignity was stripped away as victims tried to survive by killing their former selves. Wang Tsunming, a nationalist officer captured in 1949, came to the conclusion that thought reform was nothing less than the ‘physical and mental liquidation of oneself by oneself’. Those who resisted the process committed suicide. Those who survived it renounced being themselves

  • Many members of the intellectual elite bought wholeheartedly into communism. Chinese Harvard graduates chose to return to Maoist china only to be thrown into the meat grinder. Western intellectuals and ambassadors were led around potemkin villages, introduced to former capitalists who spoke well of the regime on fear of death.

  • How quickly humans descend to depravity when their society permits and encourages it

    • Some went further. Lin Zhao, a headstrong, idealistic young woman who wrote searing denunciations of government corruption before joining the underground movement in 1948, told her classmate that ‘my hatred for the landlords is the same as my love of the country’. This she demonstrated by ordering a landowner to be placed in a vat of freezing water overnight. She felt ‘cruel happiness’ on hearing the man scream in pain, as this meant that the villagers would no longer be afraid of him. After a dozen victims were executed in the wake of a rally she had helped organise, she looked at each of the corpses, one by one. ‘Seeing them die this way, I felt as proud and happy as the people who had directly suffered under them.’ She was barely twenty.

  • China has a long history of statehood. The communists like the nationalists before them knew how to govern, monitor regions from the center, establish a bureaucracy and do a huge number of other things which are difficult to do in a country of hundreds of millions. This was probably partly due to soviet assistance, but it’s still stunning just how different the cultural tech of governance is in different societies.

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