Nils Petter Gleditsch
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Just three years after his widely read history of the Great Leap Forward (cf. JPR 48(2)), Frank Dikötter has now written a history of Communist China 1945–57. Like his earlier book, this one draws heavily on party archives in China. The author estimates that some five million people were sent to an earlier grave as a result of the policy of the Maoists. Although the numbers are much smaller than in the subsequent four-year period described in his previous book, they are high enough for Dikötter to characterize the first decade of Maoism as ‘one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century’. While the communist government set itself some laudable targets, like the elimination of illiteracy in the countryside (a campaign abandoned later), they failed on the whole to move the country forward to their own aims of equality, justice, and freedom. Rather, they governed by slogans, with one campaign following on the heels of another. A recurrent theme is that Mao would make promises to disaffected groups, be they farmers or intellectuals, only to turn on the same groups later. ‘The communists wanted to woo before they tried to control.’ Of course, estimates of the lethal consequences of government policy are difficult and even controversial. Dikötter places more emphasis than some historians on human agency and less on outside events like war and natural disasters. But his discussion of this first decade of the Peoples Republic lays bare the limitations of the available data. The reader can now look forward to a third volume on the Cultural Revolution.