An eminent China scholar uses increasingly available primary materials for a fine, sharp study of this tumultuous, elusive era—the third volume in a trilogy.
In this excellent follow-up to his groundbreaking previous work on the disastrous “crash collectivization” involved in Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (The Tragedy of Liberation, 2013, etc.) Dikötter (Chair, Humanities/Univ. of Hong Kong) focuses on the next phase in the Chinese communist experiment: the paroxysm of violence and destruction known as the Cultural Revolution. The author emphasizes how the forced land collectivization sowed the seeds for the later brutalization of the people by “herald[ing] a great leap from socialism to communism” in the model of Stalin’s ruthless land reform of the 1930s and by compelling the starving people “to fight in a continuous revolution.” Smarting from Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s brutal purges and cult of personality in his famous speech of Feb. 25, 1956, Mao reacted over the next two decades in cycles of paranoia and defensiveness. He portrayed himself as the champion of the people in encouraging democratic values to flourish in the Hundred Flowers Campaign (before cracking down on dissenters) and then promoted the slogan “Never Forget Class Struggle” and unleashed the Socialist Education Campaign of 1962. His so-called 7 May Directive (1966) articulated a utopian vision of political indoctrination in which the army and the people “fuse to become indistinct.” Using archives and memoirs, Dikötter effectively delineates the spasms of violence that followed: Mao’s exuberant urging of the Red Guards (aka young students) to destroy all the “olds” and embark on a terror campaign to “smash, smash, smash”; the attempt by the military to take control; the periodic “cleansing of the ranks,” from the rank and file with “bad backgrounds” to the upper echelon closest to the chairman—e.g., his heir apparent, Lin Biao. As in his previous two books, Dikötter tells a harrowing tale of unbelievable suffering.
A potent combination of precise history and moving examples, plus a useful chronology of events.