The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

by Frank Dikotter

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"The Chinese Communist party refers to its victory in 1949 as a ‘liberation.' In China the story of liberation and the revolution that followed is not one of peace, liberty, and justice. It is first and foremost a story of calculated terror and systematic violence." So begins Frank Dikötter's stunning and revelatory chronicle of Mao Zedong's ascension

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"The Chinese Communist party refers to its victory in 1949 as a ‘liberation.' In China the story of liberation and the revolution that followed is not one of peace, liberty, and justice. It is first and foremost a story of calculated terror and systematic violence." So begins Frank Dikötter's stunning and revelatory chronicle of Mao Zedong's ascension and campaign to transform the Chinese into what the party called New People. Due to the secrecy surrounding the country's records, little has been known before now about the eight years that followed, preceding the massive famine and Great Leap Forward.

Drawing on hundreds of previously classified documents, secret police reports, unexpurgated versions of leadership speeches, eyewitness accounts of those who survived, and more, and told with great narrative sweep, The Tragedy of Liberation bears witness to a shocking, largely untold history, giving voice at last to the millions who were lost and casting new light on the foundations of one of the most powerful regimes of the twenty-first century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine (2010) won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2011, and his prequel is just as well composed and heartbreaking to read. He draws on Chinese archives to detail the depth of tragedy, oppression, dehumanization, and death visited on the people of China under Mao’s leadership before the horrifically misnamed “Great Leap Forward.” Dikötter sets the stage in his preface, where he calls the initial period of the revolution “one of the worst tyrannies... of the twentieth century,” which sent “to an early grave at least 5 million civilians.” The book goes on to offer both statistical and anecdotal evidence of the hardships and terror that the Chinese endured; waves of collectivization in the countryside reduced villagers to near-starvation levels of diet, while in urban areas “capitalists” and “intellectuals” were forced to divest themselves of all property, and party members were subject to Mao’s whims. Hunger, humiliation, torture, and suicide fill these pages. This isn’t an easy book to read, especially as readers will already understand that the decade described here is only the beginning of Mao’s reign of terror, but it is a vital study of a crucial period of history. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Bloomsbury USA
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Copyright © 2013 Frank Dikotter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-347-1



When workers in Changchun started digging trenches for a new irrigation system in the summer of 2006, they made a gruesome discovery. The rich black soil was clogged with human remains. Below a metre of earth were thousands of skeletons closely packed together. When they dug deeper, the workers found several more layers of bones, stacked up like firewood. A crowd of local residents, gathered around the excavated area, was taken aback by the sheer size of the burial site. Some thought that the bodies belonged to victims of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. Nobody except an elderly man realised that they had just stumbled on remnants of the civil war that had resumed after 1945 between Mao Zedong's communists and Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists.

In 1948 the communists had laid siege to Changchun for five months, starving out a nationalist garrison stationed inside the city walls. Victory came at a heavy cost. At least 160,000 civilians died of hunger during the blockade. After liberation the communist troops buried many of the bodies in mass graves without so much as a tombstone, a name plate or even a simple marker. After decades of propaganda about the peaceful liberation of China, few people remember the victims of the communist party's rise to power.

* * *

Changchun, in the middle of the vast Manchurian plain north of the Great Wall of China, was a minor trading town before the arrival of the railway in 1898. It developed rapidly as the junction between the South Manchurian Railway, run by the Japanese, and the Chinese Eastern Railway, owned by the Russians. In 1932 Changchun became the capital of Manchukuo, a puppet state of imperial Japan, which installed Henry Puyi, later known as the last emperor, as its Manchu ruler. The Japanese transformed the city into a modern, wheel-shaped city with broad avenues, shade trees and public works. Large, cream-coloured buildings for the imperial bureaucracy appeared beside spacious parks, while elegant villas were built for local collaborators and their Japanese advisers.

In August 1945, the Soviet army took over the city and, so far as they could, dismantled the factories, machines and materials, sending the war booty back by the trainload to the Soviet Union. Industrial installations were demolished, and many of the formerly handsome houses were stripped bare. The Soviets stayed until April 1946, when the nationalist army took over the city. Two months later, the civil war began, and Manchuria once again became a battlefield. The communist armies had the initiative and moved down from the north, cutting the railway that connected Changchun with nationalist strongholds further south.

In April 1948, the communists advanced towards Changchun itself. Led by Lin Biao, a gaunt man who had trained at the Whampoa Military Academy, they laid siege to the city. Lin was considered one of the best battleield commanders and a brilliant strategist. He was also ruthless. When he realised that Zheng Dongguo, the defending commander in Changchun, would not capitulate, he ordered the city to be starved into surrender. On 30 May 1948 came his command: 'Turn Changchun into a city of death.

Inside Changchun were some 500,000 civilians, many of them refugees who had fled the communist advance and were trapped in their journey south to Beijing after the railway lines had been cut. A hundred thousand nationalist troops were also garrisoned inside the city. Curfew was imposed almost immediately, keeping people indoors from eight at night to five in the morning. All able-bodied men were made to dig trenches. Nobody was allowed to leave. People who refused to be searched by sentries were liable to be shot on the spot. Yet an air of goodwill still prevailed in the first weeks of the siege, as emergency supplies were dropped by air. Some of the well-to-do even established a Changchun Mobilisation Committee, supplying sweets and cigarettes, comforting the wounded and setting up tea stalls for the men.

But soon the situation deteriorated. Changchun became an isolated island, beleaguered by 200,000 communist troops who dug tunnel defences and cut off the underground water supply to the city. Two dozen anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery bombarded the city all day long, concentrating their fire on government buildings. The nationalists built three defensive lines of pillboxes around Changchun. Between the nationalists and the communists lay a vast no man's land soon taken over by bandits.

On 12 June 1948 Chiang Kai-shek cabled an order reversing the ban on people leaving the city. Even without enemy ire, his planes could not possibly parachute in enough supplies to meet the needs of an entire city. But the anti-aircraft artillery of the communists forced them to fly at an altitude of 3,000 metres. Many of the airdrops landed outside the area controlled by the nationalists. In order to prevent a famine, the nationalists encouraged the populace to head for the countryside. Once they had left they were not allowed back, as they could not be fed. Every departing refugee was subject to rigorous inspection. Metallic objects such as pots or pans as well as gold and silver and even salt, seen as a vital commodity, were prohibited. Then the refugees had to cross the no man's land, a dark and dangerous terrain dominated by gangs, usually army deserters, who preyed on the defenceless crowds. Many had guns and even horses; some used passwords. The most skilful refugees managed to conceal a piece of jewellery, a watch or a fountain pen, but those found to be hiding an earring or a bracelet in a seam of their clothing risked being shot. Sometimes all their clothes were snatched. A few saved their best belongings by bundling them deep inside a burlap bag filled with dirty rags, including urine-soaked baby clothes, in the hope that the smell would repel robbers.

Few ever made it past the communist lines. Lin Biao had placed a sentry every 50 metres along barbed wire and trenches 4 metres deep. Every exit was blocked. He reported to Mao: 'We don't allow the refugees to leave and exhort them to turn back. This method was very effective in the beginning, but later the famine got worse, and starving civilians would leave the city in droves at all times of day and night, and after we turned them down they started gathering in the area between our troops and the enemy.' Lin described how desperate the refugees were to be allowed through communist lines, explaining that they:

knelt in front of our troops in large groups and begged us to let them through. Some left their babies and small children with us and absconded, others hanged themselves in front of sentry posts. The soldiers who saw this misery lost their resolve, some even falling on their knees to weep with the starving people, saying, 'We are only following orders.' Others covertly allowed some of them through. After we corrected this, another tendency was discovered, namely the beating, tying up and shooting of refugees by soldiers, some to death (we do not as yet have any numbers for those injured or beaten to death).

Half a century later, Wang Junru explained what had happened when he was a soldier: 'We were told they were the enemy and they had to die.' Wang was fifteen when the communists forced him to enrol in the army. During the siege he joined the other soldiers ordered to drive back hungry civilians.

By the end of June, some 30,000 people were caught in the area between the communists, who would not allow them to pass, and the nationalists, who refused to let them back into the city. Hundreds died every day. Two months later, more than 150,000 civilians were pressed inside the death zone, reduced to eating grass and leaves, doomed to slow starvation. Dead bodies were strewn everywhere, their bellies bloated in the scorching sun. 'The pungent stench of decomposition was everywhere,' remembered one survivor.

The situation inside the city was little better. Besides the airdrops for the garrison, some 330 tonnes of grain were required daily to feed the civilians, although at best 84 tonnes were delivered by four or five planes, and often much less. Everything was requisitioned in the defence of Chang-chun. Chiang Kai-shek even prohibited private trading in August, threatening to shoot any merchant who contravened his order. Soon the nationalist soldiers turned on the civilians, stealing their food at gunpoint. They slaughtered all the army horses, then dogs, cats and birds. Ordinary people ate rotten sorghum and corncobs before stripping the bark from trees. Others ate insects or leather belts. A few turned to human flesh, sold at $1.20 a pound on the black market.

Cases of collective suicide occurred all the time. Entire families killed themselves to escape from the misery. Dozens died by the roadside every day. 'We were just lying in bed starving to death,' said Zhang Yinghua when interviewed about the famine that claimed the lives of her brother, her sister and most of her neighbours. 'We couldn't even crawl.' Song Zhanlin, another survivor, remembered how she passed a small house with the door ajar. 'I entered to have a look and saw a dozen bodies lying all over the place, on the bed and on the floor. Among those on the bed, one was resting his head on a pillow, and a girl was still embracing a baby: it looked as if they were asleep. The clock on the wall was still ticking away.'

Autumn saw temperatures plunge, and the survivors struggled to stay warm. They stripped floorboards, rooftops, sometimes entire buildings in the search for fuel. Trees were chopped down, even signboards were pilfered for wood. Asphalt was ripped from the streets. Like a slow-moving implosion, the gradual destruction of the city started in the suburbs and gradually rippled towards the centre. In the end 40 per cent of the housing went up in smoke. Heavy bombardment by artillery at point-blank range added to the misery, as ordinary people sheltered in shanties strewn with debris and decomposing bodies, while the nationalist top brass took refuge behind the massive concrete walls of the Central Bank of China.

Soldiers absconded throughout the siege. Unlike the civilians who were driven back, they were welcomed by the communists and promised good food and lenient treatment. Day and night loudspeakers beamed propaganda encouraging them to defect or rebel: 'Did you join the Guomindang army? You were dragged into it at a rope's end ... Come over to us ... There is no way out of Changchun now ...' Desertion rates soared after the summer, as the troops received a reduced ration of 300 grams of rice and flour a day.

The siege lasted 150 days. In the end, on 16 October 1948, Chiang ordered General Zheng Dongguo to evacuate the city and cut southwards to Shenyang, the first large city along the railway leading towards Beijing. 'If Changchun falls, do you really think Peiping [the name for Beijing before 1949] will be safe?' Zheng was asked. He gave a sigh: 'No place in China will be safe.'

Zheng had two armies to withdraw: the Sixtieth, composed mostly of dispirited soldiers from the subtropical province of Yunnan, and the New Seventh Army, made up of tough US-trained veterans who had fought on the Burma front. The Seventh stormed out as ordered, but failed to break through the blockade. The Sixtieth refused to leave, and in any event the soldiers were too weak to march all the way to Shenyang. They turned their guns against the Seventh and handed the city over to Lin Biao.

* * *

Hailed in China's history books as a decisive victory in the battle of Manchuria, the fall of Changchun came at huge cost, as an estimated 160,000 civilians were starved to death inside the area besieged by the communists. 'Changchun was like Hiroshima,' wrote Zhang Zhenglong, a lieutenant in the People's Liberation Army who documented the siege. 'The casualties were about the same. Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months.


Excerpted from THE TRAGEDY OF LIBERATION by FRANK DIKÖTTER. Copyright © 2013 Frank Dikotter. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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