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Newly Released Documents Detail Traumas Of China's Cultural Revolution


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When scuffles broke out at a Donald Trump rally in March, it made national headlines. Imagine what it would be like to see political factions of tens of thousands battling each other in cities across the country, inflicting serious injuries and death.

That's what happened in the late 1960s in China when Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Party, urged students and later workers to take to the streets to denounce and root out those who had strayed from the Socialist path. The movement, known as the Cultural Revolution, lasted for years and led to escalating violence, but it was little understood at the time since China was largely closed to Western observers.

Our guest, historian Frank Dikotter, has plumbed newly-opened Chinese archives to get a deeper understanding of the Cultural Revolution - the motives of its leaders, the scale of the violence and its lasting effects on the country. Dikotter argues in his new book that the turmoil destroyed the credibility of the Communist Party and laid the basis for economic reforms that transformed the country. Dikotter is chair of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. One of his 10 books on China won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke to him about his new book, "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Frank Dikotter, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've studied China for a long time, and the events in this book are incredibly tumultuous, often violent events that occurred in decades when the country was closed, pretty much, to Westerners. What new material is now available, and how did you use it to study this?

FRANK DIKOTTER, HISTORIAN: Well, indeed, one of the great things about the People's Republic of China over the last I would say five, six, seven, eight, nine years is that it has very gradually been opening up archives. So you can imagine that if you can get into the party archives to study episodes like Mao's Cultural Revolution, you'll get a very different sort of insight than if you were to rely on semi-official or official publications released by the state itself.

DAVIES: So we're talking about what, diaries of students who participated?

DIKOTTER: Well, the term archives does sound a little bit stark, doesn't it? And we tend to contrast it to, say, memoirs written by people or official sources. But the reality is that in archives, you could find all sorts of documents. You could find, for instance, reports written by the public security bureau. You could have verbatim transcripts of debates between top leaders in the corridors of power.

You could read about investigations into mass murder, if not cannibalism, in the countryside. You would find poor villages who somehow put pen to paper and wrote right to the chairman himself - you know, the letter will start by dear Chairman Mao, if only you knew what is happening in our village. All sorts of material that really allow you to get much closer to the pulse of life.

DAVIES: Now the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949 after a civil war, which followed years of harsh occupation by the Japanese army during World War II. Your book begins in the 1950s. Describe the China of the 1950s. This is in the decade after the Chinese Communist Party had taken control. What kind of society was it?

DIKOTTER: Right. Well, if I would have to describe what happens in the years following the red flag going up over Beijing - 1949, an event referred to as liberation - over to 1957, I would say that it is an effort to gradually close down all very basic civil liberties. The freedom of speech, the freedom of movement, the freedom of association, of belief, you name it - one by one are being gradually shut down as a - as the one-party state starts pretty much consolidating its power. So by the time that you're in 1957, in particular in the countryside, most ordinary villages have lost control over their own land, over their own tools, sometimes even over their schedules. They've become pretty much bonded servants at the beck and call of local party officials. So it gradually - a gradual closing down of all liberties.

DAVIES: Now in 1956, there are tremors from the Soviet Union, the other great Communist power of the day. Nikita Khrushchev has come to power, and he denounces Joseph Stalin, you know, the leader who had ruled the Soviet Union from the 1930s and through World War II. What effect did the denunciation of Stalin have on Mao - Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader?

DIKOTTER: It had a huge effect. On the one hand, Mao very much viewed himself as the Joseph Stalin of China, so he perceived it as a personal attack on himself. But of course, he must also have wondered who in China might denounce him. If Khrushchev denounced Stalin, would there be somebody in China denouncing Mao, in particular for the cult of personality? And then, something much broader happened. Mao must've wondered how one man, Nikita Khrushchev, could single-handedly turn against his erstwhile master and engineer a complete reversal of policy as Khrushchev opens up the Soviet Union and becomes somebody who is in favor of so-called peaceful co-existence with the West, which is viewed as a betrayal of revolutionary principles by committed Communists around the world.

DAVIES: Now Mao Zedong, in the late 1950s, took the country into a campaign of modernization called the Great Leap Forward. What was the idea here?

DIKOTTER: The idea is very much linked to de-Stalinization in 1956. As Khrushchev denounces Stalin, Mao thinks that he somehow is an even greater leader than Stalin himself. And he wishes to steal the thunder from the Soviet Union so that people understand that he is the one leading the Communist world - half of planet Earth at the time - into an era of plenty for all. In other words, he wishes to steal Khrushchev's thunder.

The Great Leap Forward is an effort to harness the vast potential of the hundreds of millions of people living in the countryside. Mao thinks that if he can turn those villagers into foot soldiers in a giant army deployed in a continuous revolution, working day and night, then he can transform the economy of China, catapult his country past the Soviet Union and lead mankind into a world for plenty for all. Of course, it backfires very badly. The Great Leap Forward turns into a catastrophe that claims the lives of tens of millions of people.

DAVIES: Yeah, when you say he's going to turn the hundreds of millions into a vast army, we're not talking about a military force. The idea was to transform the economy and surpass, you know, the capitalist countries. What specifically did he have people doing in their villages and cities?

DIKOTTER: Well, he doesn't turn them into foot soldiers literally, but he does herd them into giant collectives referred to as people's communes. And in these people's communes, pretty much any and every type of private property is abolished in favor of radical collectivization. In other words, the land belongs to the state.

Tools, pots, utensils become collective property. Even the very schedule that farmers follow is now determined by a local carter on the ground. And this is one of the reasons why this backfired so badly. Once you strip farmers of any incentive to work, including any sense of private property, of course it becomes very difficult to have them work, and violence replaces incentives.

DAVIES: So what were the circumstances that people lived in before the Communist takeover in 1949? Did they own their own plots? And how did that change as the '50s unfolded?

DIKOTTER: Well, very much so. Before 1949, farmers, villagers, people in the countryside - extraordinarily complex arrangements about the use of the land. And private property was very much the rule. But with the event of communism, Mao Zedong pits people against each other in a campaign of land reform in which a small number of large property holders are literally executed in public and land is redistributed in particular to poor people.

Now some of them might have been rather pleased in particular, the poor ones after 1949. But gradually from '49 up to '56, the state takes back that land and starts collectivizing most of the private property in the countryside. So you would have small-scale collectors already by 1953 expanded into state farms by 1956.

Now, the introduction of people's communes in 1958 is something quite extraordinary in that they are absolutely giants, and they are based very much on the monologue "The Army," with man and woman separated from each other, meant to sleep in dormitories, children sent to kindergartens, people deployed very much like brigades and platoons - that's what they are referred to. So if you were - '58 is a sense of absolute radical collectivization with the abolishment of any sense of private property.

DAVIES: And what was the impact?

DIKOTTER: Famine. The effect is famine on a devastating scale. As local party members have to use the stick in order to compel these villagers to carry out work for which they're barely paid. Not only that, but all sorts of half-baked schemes to increase the crop backfired rather badly.

So already by '59, you can see famine appearing. By '61 we're talking about tens of millions of people, not just starved to death but also neglected, worked, if not beaten to death.

DAVIES: And how did the regime respond? I mean, this obviously is not sustainable.

DIKOTTER: It's not sustainable. Chairman Mao 1961 is very much forced by circumstances to somehow step back and allow at least an element of economic freedom to be reintroduced in the guise of small, private plots, which farmers used to more or less survive. So the famine is over by 1962.

DAVIES: Now, when you describe this mass collectivization, you know - there's been a lot of dispute over the years about the way Chinese communism was characterized. And some would say, no, that's, you know - that's a reactionary point of view that, in fact, things weren't as bad as they were or that, you know - that there were many people who were treated more fairly than they had been under the previous system in which they were, you know, feudal overlords in some cases. How can you be sure of the picture you're getting?

DIKOTTER: Well, this is the great thing about gaining access to the archives of the party itself. Until recently, it would've been very difficult to come up with real factual information with evidence. Whereas once you can get into the party archives, you are exposed to a whole mass of evidence that very clearly points towards a catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

It is sometimes said that China, even before communism, went through famines. But they were not man-made, and they did not take place at a time of peace. And they certainly weren't on the scale of what happened in China between 1958 and 1962.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Frank Dikotter. He is a professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. He's written several books about China. His latest is "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with historian Frank Dikotter. He's written many books about China. His latest is "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History." The upheaval that people refer to as the cultural revolution got going, I guess, early in 1966. How did this start and why?

DIKOTTER: The official accounts tend to start in 1966. But the reality is that already by 1962, Mao fears that there are party members who will stab him in the back, who will claim that he is responsible, after all, for that massive disaster he caused by starving tens of millions of people to death with the Great Leap Forward.

So really, in 1962, he starts plotting his way. And '66, with the start of the Cultural Revolution, he unleashes students against their teachers and a few months later, in the autumn of '66, incites ordinary people to remove revisionist elements from the very ranks of the party itself.

DAVIES: Now these attacks of students on their professors, on local party officials - it wasn't simply a matter of polite criticism on posters. There was very direct action. What started to happen?

DIKOTTER: Indeed. Students, Red Guards in particular, first turned their attention towards any public display of the so-called old world. They vandalized shops. They turned over street signs with names that come from the past or invoke a feudal culture. They will vandalize churches, tear down temples, overturn tombstones, burn books in public - massive bonfires. But also, bit by bit, they start raiding homes of people suspected of still having sympathies for the old regime - of playing piano, of reading bourgeois literature, of harboring capitalist thoughts.

In Shanghai alone, a quarter of a million homes of ordinary people are raided by Red Guards. Much of what is seized is being destroyed. And then, of course, Red Guards attack the very people they believe are opposed to communism, attack them physically. Tens of thousands are hounded out of cities like Shanghai and Beijing in an effort to purify these cities. And some of them are literally taken to task, spat upon, beaten - some of them, very much to death.

DAVIES: You use a term Red Guards. What were Red Guards?

DIKOTTER: Red Guards are students who, over the summer, start donning uniforms and use a red armband to signify that they are the soldiers. They are the ones who will fight for Mao Zedong and make sure that the Cultural Revolution is carried out to the very end. They are students who identify themselves as defenders of Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong thought.

DAVIES: Did they torture people to exact confessions, or did they impose terrible punishment of people?

DIKOTTER: Yes. When Red Guards take their teachers to task in the beginning, the first months of the summer of 1966, it is merely ritual debasement, humiliation, possibly a few slaps around the face. But bit by bit, there is a cycle of violence that builds up with Red Guards who volunteered to take it much further.

So by August, you see teachers who have their hair torn out, who are being beaten, pummeled by Red Guards. There are in cases of people being caned literally to death - one case of a man who was covered in petrol and set alight, some of them stoned. In the outskirts of Beijing, not so much by Red Guards, but by people who'd joined the Cultural Revolution, a grandmother and her child are buried alive. So very quickly, violence starts assuming quite extraordinary proportions.

DAVIES: You write that the cult of Mao Zedong, which was already quite prevalent, became even more pronounced, to the point where the demand for Mao badges (laughter) created a black market. They couldn't keep up with the demand.

DIKOTTER: This is one of the great ironies of the Cultural Revolution - that it's supposed to be pure communist ideology. So there are two issues. First of all, if Red Guards go around to destroy all remnants of the old world capitalist thought - bourgeois novels, you name it, what exactly is the new world? This becomes, of course, Mao Zedong thought.

People want to buy the "Little Red Book" by Mao because there's nothing else to buy. They want Mao statues. They want Mao badges. They want anything that is seen, at the time, to be, if I may say so, politically correct. But this in itself feeds such a demand for Mao gadgets that the planned economy simply cannot respond to that popular demand. So before you have it, there's a black market. Mao badges become a substitute for money. People are able to put a certain value on very different types of badges. So even within that attempt to eliminate all forms of capitalism, a black market thrives. And the Mao badge becomes its center.

DAVIES: Tell us about the "Little Red Book." It's something that we remember from the period. What was its purpose?

DIKOTTER: The "Little Red Book" is really nothing but a compilation of quotations by Mao Zedong. It is compiled and produced by the Army, which is very much behind the Cultural Revolution already in 1963, '64. And by '66, it really becomes the one thing that you have to have if you are a Red Guard and the one thing, very soon, that you must read whoever you are. As the old world is being condemned as bourgeois, capitalist, feudal, the "Little Red Book" becomes the one thing that is not only tolerated but positively encouraged.

And of course, by 1969 we reach a stage where some people are able to recite the whole thing by heart - or backwards. So you have the sort of competition on who can recite the quotations of Chairman Mao better than somebody else. And this quickly becomes compulsory, so ordinary people, too, might have to show that they have truly studied the work of Chairman Mao. They must demonstrate this by being able to quote from the "Little Red Book."

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Frank Dikotter, author of the new book "The Cultural Revolution." They'll talk more after a break, and rock critic Ken Tucker will weigh in on Beyonce's new album and on the interpretations of it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Frank Dikotter about his new book "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History 1962-1976." It's based on newly opened Chinese archives.

The revolution was officially about purging the country of bourgeois values and the enemies of communism. But Dikotter says it was also about Mao settling scores with his colleagues and subordinates and turning people against each other to shore up his own power. People were tortured to extract confessions. Many people were beaten to death.

DAVIES: Do we know how many people died?

DIKOTTER: Overall? The entire cultural revolution? Probably if you take 1966 to 1976 - in other words a good decade - until the very moment that Chairman Mao dies, you can probably count about 1.5 to 2 million people who were hounded to their deaths.

But the point must be that in comparison to "Mao's Great Famine" which took place earlier from '58 to '62, that appears to be a rather low figure. But the point is that it is not so much death which characterized the Cultural Revolution, it was trauma.

It was the way in which people were pitted against each other, were obliged to denounce family members, colleagues, friends. It was about loss, loss of trust, loss of friendship, loss of faith in other human beings, loss of predictability in social relationships. And that really is the mark that the Cultural Revolution left behind.

DAVIES: And, you know, initially it was students who used their fists or maybe, you know, sticks or clubs in the combat. Eventually Mao encourages the People's Liberation Army to become involved, and they do. What's the effect of that?

DIKOTTER: Exactly. In January 1967, Mao orders the army to support what he refers to as the revolutionary left. But military leaders don't know who the true revolutionary left is. Different leaders, different parts of the army support very different factions.

All of them believing firmly that they speak in the voice of Mao Zedong. They are the true defenders of Mao Zedong. They are the ones who interpret precisely what it is that Mao Zedong has in mind.

So the people are armed by soldiers, and around about spring of 1967, you start seeing people fighting each other literally with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery.

DAVIES: And in some cases there are people who take over factories because they feel the people have run the factories, have managed them unfairly. And then the people who run the factories get their own red guards and their own weapons.

What was the scale of the violence? And could you even discern whether there were clear battlelines or clear sides?

DIKOTTER: The problem here is that pretty much everybody's convinced that they are on the side of the chairman. But, of course, the chairman intervenes constantly. A mere utterance of his pretty much condemns thousands of people as he pronounces this or that faction to be counterrevolutionary.

And, of course, he can change his mind overnight. He can throw a close comrade in arms to the wolves. He can rescue a loyal follower. He to be - I think, to characterize what is happening here, he relishes a game in which he can change the rules constantly. He improvises bending and breaking millions of people along the way.

DAVIES: You describe how bad things got - and I don't know if I'm going to get the name right - in a place - in a market town called Wuhan. Do know what I'm talking about?

DIKOTTER: Indeed, yeah.

DAVIES: Tell us about that.

DIKOTTER: A major city, Wuhan, a province in Hubei. Around about early summer 1967, there are major confrontations between armed factions, and Mao happens to be in town - although this is not known - and has to be very much flown out on a special plane for his own security.

DAVIES: And what kind of atrocities occurred there?

DIKOTTER: Well, most of the atrocities actually occurred somewhere else. If you look at the south of China, in particular Guangxi province, which is not all that far away from where I live in Hong Kong, there you see that throughout 1967 but also '68, there are factions in the countryside that start not just eliminating each other physically, but literally in a couple of small towns they start ritualistically eating each other.

In other words, it is not enough to eliminate your class enemy. You have to eat his heart, so there are very well-documented cases of ritual cannibalism.

DAVIES: And here's what's so mysterious about the whole thing. I mean, you have Mao who is the head of a one-party state, and in the period before, the Cultural Revolution had successfully initiated many purges of the ranks in which people were jailed, imprisoned or executed. I mean, it didn't seem like he had trouble controlling things.

And in this episode, he turned - he deliberately churns things up from the bottom. And you noted that the Central Committee in August of '66 issued a statement on the great proletarian Cultural Revolution. And among its guidelines were, quote, "trust the masses, rely on them and respect their initiative."

It just seems so odd that Mao would have risked, you know, this kind of upheaval that it would have been hard for him to control.

DIKOTTER: Yes. It does seem odd. And in the entire history of one-party states throughout the 20th century, there really is no other example of somebody in charge - a Stalin, a Pol Pot, a Kim Il-Sung, an Adolph Hitler - unleashing the people against that very machinery that he has built up the party itself.

But you must bear in mind that by 1962, there are many within the ranks of the party who view the chairman as being responsible, not only for the catastrophe of the famine but being possibly innumerate, dangerous if not delusional. Not only that, but Mao has watched from a distance how Khrushchev has attacked his erstwhile master Stalin. So he probably reaches the conclusion that a drop-down purge wouldn't be sufficient, wouldn't be effective. He might very well have thought that there were those party officials, who were unreliable. But you remove them.

How can you be sure that there wouldn't be somebody else who might stab him in the back? So in effect what he does by unleashing the people against the party is that he keeps everybody on their toes making sure that no clique, no group can ever emerge that might challenge his leadership.

DAVIES: Frank Dikotter's book is the "Cultural Revolution: A People's History." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with historian Frank Dikotter. He's written many books about China. His latest is "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History."

So things stabilize a bit in 1968, I guess, as the army takes control of the country. But there are other fascinating episodes - developments here. I mean, you note that in 19 - I guess in 1968, there was a move for students to go to the countryside. Mao wanted people - students to go to the countryside - and not just students but professionals and others - to learn, you know, life in the agrarian world, to appreciate the masses, to work alongside peasants.

And, you know, this was sort of romantically admired in a lot of places in the world who felt, you know, professionals need to get their fingernails dirty and experience a different kind of life. What was the experience in China?

DIKOTTER: Well, indeed, the ideological justification is that people from the cities - students, scholars, professionals, in particular - must be able to bridge that big gap there is between the city and the countryside and must, to some extent, be reeducated by the "peasants," quote, unquote. That was the slogan of the time. But in effect, what the party is doing in the summer of 1968 and for a number of years following from here, is to send millions of people to the countryside as punishment for ever having spoken out at the height of the Cultural Revolution, including the students who took the chairman at his word.

In other words, it's a form of punishment. It's a form of getting rid of those who participated in the cities in the Cultural Revolution. Many of them are sent without much support. In the case of students, in one province the size of France, Hubei, about half of them spent years living in caves, in abandoned pig sheds, in structures that have collapsed - very few of them have enough to eat.

There are girls who are sent to the countryside who are raped literally in the thousands by local bullies. Some of these girls are as young as 14. The reality is that many of them are just abandoned by the party state and dumped in the countryside.

DAVIES: You know, the events in this book - I mean, it's remarkable to see the leaders of the party set into motion these efforts which had, in many cases, such catastrophic effects. And they - in your book, they appear to me as, you know, essentially - the cynical manipulation by these Chinese leaders to maintain their own authority and privilege, always finding a new reason to purge, an enemy to get people frightened about.

Was there any of these initiatives that - were they motivated in any way, do you think, by some belief that they really would, you know, reduce oppression, promote equality and bring a more prosperous and equitable society?

DIKOTTER: Well, it's probable that the young people who turned themselves into Red Guards at the height of the summer 1966 probably believed that there was something in communism and something in the Cultural Revolution that was worthwhile pursuing. But I think that for most people who would've lived through the 1950s, they would have been very well aware of the dangers of not going along with the flow. In other words, let me put this simply. If you have to attend an indoctrination class week in, week out from 1949 onwards, it will not take you very long to realize that it is in your own interest to just pretend that you're willing to go along.

In short, I think that already by the mid-1950s, most people in China - and in other one-party states for that matter - after a couple of years, people become great actors. They know what to say, they know that they have to say it and they know how to say it. It doesn't necessarily mean that they believe it. In other words, I think that even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, with the exception possibly of young students, many ordinary people would've given no more than a sign of outward compliance.

They would've kept their innermost thoughts to themselves. They'd have been very, very careful to just play the part that they were asked to play without necessarily believing in it.

DAVIES: I want to go back to an earlier period. You know, back in the '70s, a lot of people read this book by William Hinton called "Fanshen." I'm sure you're familiar with it. It's about land reform in this Chinese village in northern China.


DAVIES: And, you know, he was there. He was clearly a friend of the communist regime. But it's very detailed. And you get a sense that however flawed the party may have been, that its strength was routed in a real popular uprising against an earlier ruling class that had oppressed and exploited people and that was, in effect, more interested in protecting its own privileges than, for example, fighting the Japanese invasion.

And that the reason Mao and his followers won control of the country in the 1940s was because so many people were in fact poor and oppressed - oppressed by the old order. And they saw the other side in that civil war as siding with the oppressors. It affected the Communist Party at least in the '40s and at least at the beginning, represented a real popular revolt that was based on a genuine economic grievance. Is there some truth in that?

DIKOTTER: No, I don't think so. Let me put it to you differently. Why did half of Europe become communist after 1945? Well, the reason is very simple, because half of Europe was conquered by Stalin and the Red Army. Why did half of Korea become communist? Same answer, the North was conquered by Stalin. In fact, they were very polite and waited for the Americans to arrive at the 38th parallel. China is slightly more complicated.

But the Red Army did invade Manchuria, that vast part to the north of Beijing, the industrial hard land of China, occupied it for close to a year, handed over that countryside to Mao Zedong and his ragtag army of guerrilla fighters and armed them very much to the teeth.

DAVIES: When you said the Red Army, you mean the Soviet Army, right?

DIKOTTER: The Soviet Red Army, indeed. And they transformed Mao's army into a formidable fighting machine. So no Stalin, no Mao.

DAVIES: So they were just better armed, more ruthless?

DIKOTTER: They were much more ruthless. The Americans very much dropped Chiang Kai-shek. And I think it would be best to view liberation in 1949 as the result of a military conquest than as the result of some popular peasant uprising, which somehow didn't take place. The proof is very much in the number of cities that the Communists, during the Civil War 45 to 49, had to quite literally starve into surrender, including, for instance, the city of Changshun (ph) all the way up in Manchuria - surrounded for some six, seven, eight months and starved into submission with a number of deaths estimated to be at least 120,000, if not more.

DAVIES: Well, Frank Dikotter, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DIKOTTER: Thank you.

GROSS: Frank Dikotter is the author of the new book "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Our rock critic Ken Tucker is fascinated by Beyonce's new album "Lemonade." We'll hear what he has to say about it after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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