Author Frank previously published his spellbinding investigative account, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, about the rise of Mao Zedong and the formation of the People’s Republic of China. That was followed by Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. Here he returns with a third expose of the movement that changed the course of Chinese history. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proudly declared the new republic following the defeat of the Kuomintang forces led by Chiang Kai-Shek. The new communist government sought to emulate its Soviet icon and instituted the disastrous policy of collectivization under the banner of the “Great Leap Forward”. But as Dikotter showed us, reality soon set in as the aura of the new country began to fade as famine set in, the government began to seize property and a climate of deceit and suspicion spread across the country. The book was thorough in examining the failures of the program as the harsh effects it placed upon the people of China. In this third book, he takes us deep inside the revolution, showing us the very dark side behind the late Chairman’s government.
I forewarn the reader that this book is not for the faint at heart. The things we learn although factual are ugly to say the least. Behind the facade of a nation of comrades committed to revolution, was a society breaking away at the seems as anarchy ruled and those in charge plotted against each other as they sought to maintain their hold on power and avoid the Chairman’s wrath. Today it is no secret that the “Great Leap Forward” failed in many ways. But what is often not discussed and examined are the very things we learn in this book. Similar to Himmler’s SS, the Red Guards, under the guise of filtering out counter-revolutionary’s, unleashed a wave of terror across the country against anyone suspected of being against the regime, from a lower class family or related to those who held high positions in society before the revolution. The Third Reich used the classic technique of divide and conquer to control the people and purge those suspected of not harboring unwavering loyalty to the Führer and his ideology of the master race. In China, the faces were different but the same climate of suspicion and spying by one person on another is prevalent. In fact, one example we learn of is a child that turns in their own parent.
Dikötter as usual has done a great job researching this book. To say that it is eye-opening would be a severe understatement. Not only does he show us what really happened behind the closed off borders of China, he highlights the political battles that raged behind the scenes. His writing style is engaging, pulling the reader in from the beginning and refuses to let go. The lives and actions of major places at the time are examined in detail. Names such as Jiang Qing (1914-1991, Madame Mao and leader of the Gang of Four), Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), Lin Biao (1907-1971) and Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969) appear throughout the book as the deadly politics of Communist China come to light. The members of the old guard have long passed but they still remain a part of China’s complicated history. What shocked me the most was the ease at which accusations were hurled and lives ruined in nearly every case without a shred of proof. Mao, concerned with maintaining an iron grip on his rule, let the division fester and rarely intervened. And as I think back to the book The Private Life of Chairman Mao by his personal physician Dr. Li Zhisui, I remember his words that the Great Leap Forward was used by Mao to expose those plotting against him. In fact, as I read the book, I found it increasingly hard to believe that those in charge actually did have concern for the millions of people affected by their actions. Dysentery, famine, pillaging and even cannibalism, turned the revolution into a living nightmare.
China continues to be haunted by the legacy of Mae Zedong. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, continued the government position of suppression of dissent and the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 became some of the most memorable of the twentieth century. Time will tell if democracy will ever take hold and if the young generation will be able leave Mao in a past that many do not care to relive. For students of the Cultural Revolution or those curious about what really happened across the country under Mao’s leadership, this book is a great addition of any historical library.