A further catalog of horrors courtesy of Mao Zedong.
In this prequel to his Samuel Johnson Prize–winning Mao’s Great Famine (2010), Dikötter (Humanities/Univ. of Hong Kong) mines the Communists’ grisly early slog to power through the lives of everyday people. The victory of the Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists proclaimed on October 1, 1949, was supposed to bring liberation for everyone. A new orthodoxy had to be instilled in the masses, gleaned from Soviet training and Nationalist holdover ideas—e.g., a more rigorous registration of households and individuals according to class labels that would stick with them forever: good (revolutionaries, peasants) or bad (landlords, capitalists). As the police moved in to purge subversives, people scrambled to declare their allegiances to the new regime, “re-educate” themselves and denounce one another. As he did in his previous work, Dikötter wades deep into the grim reality, starting with the establishment of land reform, which helped whip up class hatred in the countryside so that laborers turned against the village leaders and traditional bonds were broken in favor of party loyalty. Poverty prevailed, the economy shut down, and suspicion was rampant: Mao warned of “secret agents and…bandits” still lurking and struck at the imperialist enemy on the Sino-Korean border in October 1950. The Great Terror ensued, followed by the suppression of foreigners, religious people, and even rats and vermin (due to a hysteria over germ warfare). The implementation of collectivization, based on the Soviet model, would seal the coffin for the masses, introducing famine and starvation. Dikötter marshals his meticulous research to show how Mao continually set up expectations only to mow them viciously down.
Under the “shiny surface” of Mao’s propaganda, the author ably reveals the violence and misery.