Title

China: Reeducation Through Horror

Here are two snippets from a Chinese Communist journal called People’s China, published in August 1956:

In 1956, despite the worst natural calamities in scores of years, China’s peasants, newly organized in co-operatives on a nation-wide scale, produced 2,740 million Yuan’s worth more farm products than in 1955, an increase greater than the average annual increase in the previous three years….

The total floorspace, either completed or in construction in the period 1949–1952 was 85,752,000 sq. ft., 160% again as much as that of all the buildings erected in the entire half century before Liberation (which was 33,048,00 sq. ft.)….

And so on. The tone, typical of all such publications, of which China Reconstructs was perhaps the best known, is defensive, as though the new regime needed to boast of every stupendous achievement and “bumper harvest” to be taken seriously, and, in line with the Marxist tradition, it is also pseudoscientific. Progress had to be measured precisely in percentages and square feet. And progress under communism could only accelerate, usually in great leaps.

The scholar of modern China Frank Dikötter seeks to dismiss all this. If the official line in China today is that Chairman Mao’s legacy was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad, Dikötter’s view is that it was pretty much 100 percent bad. In his dogged attempt to make his case, Dikötter is just as addicted to statistics as the Party hacks whose myths he wants to demolish. Since his statistics are not about progress but about death and destruction, they make grim reading:

By the beginning of 1948, when the pressure abated, some 160 million people were under communist control. On paper the party determined that at least 10 percent of the population were “landlords” or “rich peasants.”… The statistical evidence is woefully inadequate, but by a rough approximation between 500,000 and a million people were killed or driven to suicide.

By the end of 1951, close to two million people had been murdered….

From July 1951 to the ceasefire on 27 July 1953 millions of soldiers and civilians died. China sent some 3 million men to the front [in the Korean War], of whom an estimated 400,000 died.

And as for progress:

Famine stalked large swathes of the countryside in 1953. In the spring, 3 million people in Shandong went hungry. Five million people were destitute in Henan, close to 7 million people in Hubei and another 7 million in Anhui.

I have no doubt that Dikötter’s statistics are more accurate than those printed in People’s China. And his litany of atrocities, ranging from the public lynchings of so-called landlords to the brutal oppression of intellectuals after the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” in 1956, rings true, even if it does get a little wearisome to read page after page of horror stories. Dikötter’s prose has only one tone: righteous indignation. That is his style.

We know that other things were going on in the early 1950s apart from violent purges. Some of these, such as new laws securing property rights for unmarried or divorced women, were even commendable. Not everyone was a victim of purges all the time. Notwithstanding the horrors taking place around them, some people actually learned to read and write for the first time in their family history, and many had access to a modicum of medical care.

But this book is a polemical history, and polemics do not deal in shades of gray. Dikötter is a debunker. Not only does he want to draw attention to the millions of people whose sufferings have been glossed over or actively suppressed by official Chinese propaganda, and he does so with great vigor, but his book is also an attack on Western historians who, in his words, “have called the years of liberation a ‘Golden Age’ or a ‘Honeymoon Period,’ in contrast to the cataclysm of the Cultural Revolution that started in 1966.”

* * *

It would have been helpful if he had mentioned some of these historians. To the extent that such views still have currency (and I’m sure they do here and there), his polemic serves a useful purpose. Others have engaged in this enterprise already, to be sure. Some acknowledgment of their work might have been in order. Richard L. Walker’s China Under Communism: The First Five Years1 laid out pretty conclusively how ruthlessly China was regimented under Maoism from the very beginning. He described the same things Dikötter does: the vast slave labor programs, the persecution of intellectuals, the campaigns against landlords, the famines resulting from Stalinist collectivization of agriculture. But Walker wrote his book at a particularly fraught time, in 1955, when McCarthyism had poisoned the political discourse so thoroughly that a critical analysis of China, so easily seen as tainted by the “Red Scare,” was not always taken seriously by liberal-left historians.

The great merit of Dikötter’s book is that it goes beyond the horrific statistics. Following in Walker’s footsteps, he clearly explains the mechanics of the revolutionary state, how mass violence was orchestrated, why people took part in the killing, and what the purposes of the terror were.

The new rulers’ main task was to make every Chinese subservient to the Communist Party. This was not easy in a society composed of multiple loyalties that were only rarely focused on any central government. Family ties, clan associations, and regional bonds were more important to most people than whoever happened to be ruling in the capital city.

The Party set out to smash those loyalties quite systematically. First of all, everyone in the new dictatorship of the proletariat was wrenched into specific class categories, such as revolutionary martyrs, middle peasants, industrial workers, and landlords. Campaigns were then launched against “feudalism.” But these divisions, lifted from Marxist dogma, did not accurately reflect social reality in China, which never had a feudal system as it existed in premodern Europe. Peasants who owned land were frequently quite poor. And relatively prosperous peasants, such as Mao’s own father, were not landlords in any sense comparable to the English aristocracy, for example, or the serf-owning Russian gentry.

That this was to be a dictatorship was made clear from the start. As Mao put it in 1949, in response to those who accused him of being dictatorial: “My dear sirs, you are right, that is just what we are.” The Communists would be dictatorial, he explained, toward the “running dogs of imperialism,” “the landlord class and bureaucrat-bourgeoisie,” and “reactionaries and their accomplices” associated with the Guomindang.2 These categories were sufficiently vague that anyone who got in the way of Party bosses could be fingered as an enemy of the people. And millions were deprived of their rights, sent to slave labor camps, or killed as a result.

The use of violence in the class war that followed the Communist takeover in 1949 was not just a distasteful side effect of social renewal—collatoral damage of the revolution, as it were. Since the 1920s Mao had reveled in violence for its own sake, as a cleansing expression of revolutionary zeal. As was true in fascism, collective brutality had an aesthetic appeal. To Mao, and some of his followers, the revolution had a certain barbaric poetry. Chinese newspapers and journals in the first years of the revolution actually bragged about the regime’s ruthless measures. The People’s Daily, October 11, 1951: “The subjection of counterrevolutionaries to forced labor is an indispensible means for the liquidation of the counterrevolutionary class….”

* * *

The purging of “landlords” and “rich peasants” in the battle against “feudalism” in rural China was a brutal form of revolutionary theater, in which Party cadres played their parts as directors, so-called People’s Courts acted out the violent dramas in ritual fashion, and large crowds appeared as Greek choruses. Peng Zhen, the mayor of Beijing, who was later purged himself, was one leader who presided over such bloody rituals, when cowering class enemies were displayed to the screaming mob: “‘Comrades, what should we do with all these criminals, bandits, secret agents, evil landlords, heads and organizers of reactionary Taoist sects?’ ‘Shoot them,’ the crowd roared with one voice.”

An important model for the land reform campaigns in the early 1950s was in fact a novel by Zhou Libo, entitled The Hurricane, which won the Stalin Prize for Literature in 1951. In this story, peasants in a Manchurian village named Yuanbao rise spontaneously in righteous anger against the local tyrants, who are subjected to public trials and then beaten to death. As Dikötter shows, reality in Yuanbao was not at all what the novel describes. There were no landlords there, just peasants, some of whom were richer than others. The violence that erupted was not spontaneous, but carefully orchestrated. For several weeks, people were whipped up into a frenzy by Party cadres in public rallies, then armed with sticks, hoes, or even guns, and unleashed on those who had a little more education, or a bit more land, or a slightly nicer dwelling. In Dikötter’s words:

Many of the victims were beaten to death and some shot, but in many cases they were first tortured in order to make them reveal their assets—real or imagined.

In this type of mob savagery (think of what happened to Jews in Polish villages under Nazi rule), greed, envy, and personal resentments are useful human instincts for officials to exploit. Since class categories were often so arbitrary, and the instigators of violence usually came from the outside, people were in effect set upon one another, friends upon friends, children upon parents. This was the point of the exercise. Through organized violence, the Party made everyone complicit in the mayhem it stirred up. The aim was to tear apart the fabric of traditional Chinese life, leaving the Party as the only permitted focus of loyalty and authority.

As would be true of other campaigns and purges that followed, the torturers and killers in one “hurricane” would themselves be tortured or killed in another. Rao Shushi, for example, the Party boss in eastern China, was one of the most powerful figures in the country when he urged Mao in 1951 to persecute not only “spies,” collaborators of the Guomindang, and other class enemies, but unreliable elements inside the Communist Party itself. This was part of the Great Terror, during which the Party leadership set killing quotas (about one person per thousand, but a certain flexibility, mostly upward, was allowed). Rao himself was university-educated, had traveled abroad, and was, like certain other notorious hunters of the people’s enemies, from a privileged class. Three years later, caught up in a leadership struggle, Rao was accused of being a member of an “anti-party clique” and thrown in jail, where he soon went mad.

Once the bureaucrats and businessmen, whose experience was badly needed to stabilize and administer the country after the revolution, were no longer deemed necessary, they too had to be squashed. As is still true today, though on a much lesser scale, campaigns against “corruption” were used to get rid of inconvenient people, sometimes by murdering them, sometimes by consigning them to the gulag, sometimes both. One of the main figures in the anti-corruption purges was Bo Yibo, the finance minister, and father of Bo Xilai, who was recently given a life sentence for corruption. (Bo Yibo, too, would later become a victim in the Cultural Revolution, as would Deng Xiaoping and other Party leaders who had bloodied their hands in earlier campaigns.) Some bureaucrats were no doubt corrupt, but the truth of these accusations was beside the point. It was all about politics, about the enforcement of absolute obedience to the Party. Once again, colleagues, family members, and friends were set upon one another. Dikötter writes:

First major culprits…were forced to admit their own corruption, then they were made to inform on the corruption of others below them in an effort to save themselves. Suspects were also unleashed on other suspects in mutual-denunciation sessions: this was called “using a tiger to bite a tiger.”… Soon “confessions” began to pour out of every government office.

* * *

When Mao and other Party leaders were still ensconced in the caves of Yanan during the war against Japan, similar techniques were used to whip thinkers and writers into line. Some of the most brilliant Chinese intellectuals had joined Mao in Yanan as staunch Communists. But they still claimed the right to be critical. The novelist and short-story writer Ding Ling criticized the shabby treatment of women by senior Party cadres. She also published an essay by a young activist named Wang Shiwei, in which he protested against abuses of power by the Party leaders. In 1942, Mao soon put an end to this kind of criticism. Mass meetings were held to condemn Wang as a “hidden Trotskyist.” Ding Ling was forced to denounce him in public, and was then purged herself. Wang was kicked out of the Party, put in prison, and stabbed to death five years later.

The psychology of mob terror did not just work with illiterate peasants. A great writer could be swept up in bloodlust too. Lao She, author of Rickshaw, Cat Country, and other famous stories and plays, was one of the leading figures of twentieth-century Chinese literature.3 He returned to China from the U.S. in 1949 as an act of patriotism. Here is how this deeply civilized writer described his participation in a political lynch mob:

Men and women, old and young, one after another came onto the platform to make accusation. When a speech reached its climax of feeling many in the audience would shout “Beat them!” I myself, like the intelligentsia sitting by me, yelled out involuntarily, “Beat them! Why don’t we give them a beating?” As police restrained those who went forward to strike the bullies, my own voice mingled with the voices of hundreds roaring, “They’ve asked for it! Beat them!” And this roar changed me into a different man! I used to be a man with pretentions to cultivation!

A little more than ten years later, during the Cultural Revolution, Lao She himself was hounded to his death by Red Guards. He was found dead in a lake in Beijing. It is still unclear whether he committed suicide, was drowned, or was tossed into the water after a beating.

The importance of aesthetics, of make-believe, is hard to overstate in the early years of revolution. Dikötter puts this rather well:

China was a theater. Even outside the tourist circuit, people were required to smile. When farmers were asked to surrender a greater share of their crop, they had to do so enthusiastically, with fanfare. When shopkeepers were required to hand over their assets to the state, they had to do so voluntarily, with beaming faces.

What the eminent philosopher Hu Shi said about China under Mao was true of most Communist regimes:

We know, of course, that there is no freedom of speech. But few people realize that there is no freedom of silence, either. Residents of a communist state are required to make positive statements of belief and loyalty.

There was no chance in China, or indeed the Soviet Union under Stalin, of what Germans during the Third Reich called “inner emigration.” Everyone had to take part in the revolutionary theater. Even foreign visitors. When I was a student of Chinese in the early 1970s, we had to read long and tedious articles in The People’s Daily denouncing the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. As a well-known fellow traveler, Antonioni had been asked to make a documentary film in China during the Cultural Revolution. The resulting movie, Chung Kuo—Cina (1972), was by no means unsympathetic. But Antonioni had made the mistake of showing Chinese faces that were unsmiling, and he could not disguise his aesthetic appreciation of traditional culture. He tried, despite severe restrictions, to present what he saw as the truth. This was regarded as a hostile act. The film was banned, and the director was branded an anti-Chinese counterrevolutionary.

* * *

There may have been an element of sadism in the way Mao made businessmen fall over themselves to hand over everything they owned while praising the Party and its leader for the privilege. Forcing often world-famous intellectuals, who had returned to China as hopeful patriots, to denounce their own life work as the noxious product of bourgeois thinking might also have afforded the deeply insecure Chairman, who had never felt accepted in the higher seats of learning, some satisfaction. But sadism may not be the most plausible explanation. If the Party leaders wished to make even the best minds swear that black was white, it was because they wanted to believe it themselves. Mao did not wish to know about famine or disaster. Every season had to produce a bumper harvest, every factory ever-higher production figures, and every scientific experiment more extraordinary results, because that is what he wanted to hear.

Potemkin reality was not only designed to impress the outside world, but also for the benefit of Mao himself. The radicalism of Mao’s projects was often so extreme because he wanted to not just copy, but to outdo Stalin’s Soviet model. The misery this caused was a direct result of the make-believe. Production quotas were absurdly exaggerated, while people were squeezed to the point of starvation. If local bosses failed to come up with figures to please the Great Helmsman, they themselves would suffer.

The chief aim of revolutionary theater was to transform the highly diverse population of a huge and complex country into a regimented mass of New Men and Women who were not just obedient to the Party and its leaders, but willingly, smilingly, eagerly so. “Reeducation through labor” was an essential part of this. The idea of putting enemies of the people in slave labor camps, where they can be transformed into convinced revolutionaries, has sometimes been described by admirers of Mao’s China as a sign of humanity. Instead of just punishing people, the Maoists gave them a chance to reform, to renew themselves, to cleanse their minds of counterrevolutionary thoughts. Parallels have been drawn with the Confucian stress on virtuous self-cultivation.

In fact, as Dikötter shows, it was a particularly awful form of cruelty. For it was never enough to engage in self-criticism, in writing or in public meetings; the cadres had to be convinced that the criticism was “sincere.” You could say you were the most poisonous of weeds, but this would not save you from further torments if your interrogators were unconvinced that you really meant it.

In most accounts, the distress caused by endless indoctrination, public denunciation, and self-criticism was worse than physical torture. Physical pain still allows the victim to retreat into himself. After days, months, years of mental torture there is no longer a self to retreat into. Besides self-abasement, victims were made to show their sincerity by persecuting others, sometimes friends or relatives. In many cases, suicide was the only way out. But ideally, if a person had finally reached the stage when his confessions were totally convincing, there was no longer any gap between acting and natural behavior, between faked and true thoughts. The process ended, in the phrase of a Chinese former victim, with “the physical and mental liquidation of oneself by oneself.” The theater had become real.

One former victim, quoted by Dikötter, called this type of thought reform a “carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind.” There is something particularly awful about the systematic destruction of fine minds. This is why the persecution of intellectuals who had not yet abdicated all their critical faculties, in Yanan in 1942, and after the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” in 1956 and 1957, strikes the reader as particularly painful.

* * *

In one of his periodic efforts to stir up the bureaucracy and unbalance potential rivals for the Party leadership, Mao in the mid-1950s invited people to voice their criticisms of the New China. Intellectuals were told that the policy of letting “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” was meant to promote the arts and scientific progress. Mao saw little risk, since by then, he thought, the intelligentsia had been effectively tamed. He was proved right at first. But slowly, more and more people came forward with criticisms, not just of local instances of abuse or corruption, but of the Party dictatorship itself.

Panicked by what he had unleashed, Mao quickly decided to crack down on “rightists” and other “enemies of socialist thought.” Victims of this latest “anti-rightist” campaign were not just writers, scientists, or university professors, who were humiliated in public “struggle sessions,” expelled from their homes, sent to the gulag, or assaulted by mobs, but anyone who had annoyed, for whatever reason, a Party official with the authority to dispose of him or her.

However, the sourest irony of those first years of Communist rule is that intellectuals, however badly treated, were not the worst victims of Maoist class struggle. The suffering was far worse in the rural areas, among the very peasant class that the revolution had promised to liberate from their traditional hardships. By squeezing the farmers for more and more grain (often to be shipped to the Soviet Union in a show of Chinese bountifulness), forcing them into large, inefficient collective state enterprises overseen by ignorant and incompetent cadres, and mobilizing villagers as unpaid laborers to build dams and other huge projects, the state killed the individual peasant economy and caused widespread destitution. Stalin had done much the same two decades earlier, with devastating results. As usual, Mao wanted to be even more radical; what took more than ten years in the Soviet Union had to be accomplished in a year or two in China. Here is what Richard L. Walker wrote in 1955:

For the sake of an outmoded doctrine maintained by a few people in power, the Chinese peasant is to be brought under a system which according to figures released by Stalin’s successors has failed to solve the problem of increasing agricultural production. And this will be and has already been at a cost in human destruction which staggers the imagination.

What Walker didn’t know, because he couldn’t know, is that far worse was still to come. Three years later, Mao embarked on one more effort to outdo the Soviet Union—spurred in this case by Nikita Khrushchev’s vow to overtake the U.S. economy in fifteen years. China would do so in less time. Steel production would be doubled in one year. So farmers would have to abandon their land to build steel backyard furnaces. Crops would be boosted by experiments copied from the Soviet crank Trofim Lysenko. Workers would be conscripted for gigantic construction projects. Ever bigger, ever greater, and always with a smiling face. It was called the Great Leap Forward, the subject of Frank Dikötter’s previous book. In his estimation, at least 45 million people died an early death as a result.4


  1. Yale University Press, 1955. I thank Roderick MacFarquhar for alerting me to this important book.
  2. Quoted in Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (Norton, 1990), p. 515.
  3. For an account of Lao She’s Cat Country, see Ian Johnson, “China: When the Cats Rule,” NYRblog, August 26, 2013.
  4. Mao’s Great Famine (Walker, 2010), reviewed in these pages by Roderick McFarquhar, February 10, 2011. Yang Jisheng, whose book Tombstone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) was published earlier in Chinese, puts the figure at 36 million. See Ian Johnson’s review in these pages, November 22, 2012.