The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forefathers as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two allied princes allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable, was – literally – capable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a smoke and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence a litany of dehumanising insults designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists developed their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own side.

People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speechers, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact I wonder if there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping…

It’s really in the 1870s and 80s that the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. The later 19th century in China rotates around the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circle round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644-1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist rebellions against their rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, one of the bloodiest wars in human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million – more reasonably set at 20 million.
  • 1894-95 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others, illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Dowager Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899-1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks
  • 1937-45 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter)

Themes & thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale, the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51)
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90)

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884,

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs. They brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world, they were resisted hammer and tong by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement it.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most is that Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, legal coverage of foreigners, entire treaty ports like Hong Kong), gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example building railways or setting up banks. I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action.

I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany by the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia more than all the others, because of its steady expansion into the north of the country and Manchuria (‘The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China.’ p.31). And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of 20th century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

Ratcheting A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839–42 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856-60 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884-5 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the kind of treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds.

After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company.

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which even he realises is getting out of hand and c) represses.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Related links

Other reviews about China

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century (from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the death of Mao in 1976) China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering.

Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought.

The centrepiece of the trilogy is the second book, about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated.

Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression i.e. people beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who consider the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another.

Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element
  • bourgeois
  • bourgeois idealist
  • bourgeois sentimentalist
  • capitalist roader
  • Chiang Kai-shek roader
  • counter-revolutionary
  • degenerate
  • decadent
  • deviant element
  • exploiter
  • go-it-aloner
  • hoarder
  • hooligan
  • humanist
  • hypocrite
  • individualist
  • kulak
  • lackey
  • landlord
  • middle-of-the-roader
  • reactionary
  • rightist
  • right deviationist
  • running dog of imperialism
  • saboteur
  • schemer
  • servant of imperialism
  • speculator
  • spy
  • swindler

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)

Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.


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