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Chinese communists carry placards bearing pictures of Stalin as they celebrate the first anniversary of the new regime in China

Revolutions repeat themselves. First time as violence and every subsequent one as even more violence. The Terror introduced by Robespierre in the French Revolution was practised with even greater vehemence by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in Russia, in the course of the Russian Revolution and in the years following it. In China, in the process of “liberating’’ the people, millions died. Frank Dikötter’s gripping narrative recollects the early years of the revolution in China in gory but gripping detail.

The end of the Second World War also brought to an end a bloody civil war within China. And by 1949, Mao Zedong had unfurled the red flag over Beijing. This was hailed by the Chinese Communist Party and by communists across the globe as a great triumph and a significant step towards building a more just and equitable world. The real story was one of terror, violence and death. Dikötter unearths this story from newly opened archives, from memoirs and interviews. Even today, after all that has been revealed about communist regimes — from the brutalities of Stalin to the killings of Pol Pot — it is difficult to stomach what was unleashed in China in the name of communism, in the name of liberation.

As the communists tried to win back the country from Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists, they, as a matter of strategy, laid siege to one city after another, and starved them to submission. Changchun, in the Manchurian plains, north of the Great Wall of China, was under siege for five months in 1948. Lin Biao, the commander in charge of the communist troops, ordered that Changchun be turned into a “city of death’’. The city was surrounded and starving civilians were prohibited from leaving even to search for food. The city was bombarded day and night. At least 1,60,000 people died of hunger, disease and starvation. Other cities surrendered to escape prolonged blockades.

The hope of liberation was mired in death. In rural China, land reforms followed the coming of the communist regime. Violence was an indispensable part of land distribution: the majority became implicated in the elimination of a “carefully designated minority’’. Dikötter writes, “Work teams were given quotas of people who had to be denounced, humiliated, beaten, dispossessed and then killed by the villagers who were assembled in their hundreds in an atmosphere charged with hatred. In a pact sealed in blood between the party and the poor, close to 2 million so-called ‘landlords’, often hardly any better off than their neighbours, were liquidated. From Hebei, Liu Shaoqi, the second-in-command, reported that some of them had been buried alive, tied up and dismembered, shot or throttled to death. Some children were slaughtered as ‘little landlords.’’’

Less than one year after the “liberation’’, came a Great Terror unleashed by Mao, who handed a killing quota of one per thousand. But in many parts of the country, two or three times more were executed on the most trivial of pretexts. Children were not spared: they were tortured. Villages were burnt to the ground. Cadres picked up people and killed them to meet their quotas. People were shot during public rallies, but, most often, away from the limelight, in forests and ravines. By the end of 1951, nearly 2 million people had thus been eliminated and many more imprisoned. This was the triumph of the revolution.

In 1952, the business community was made the target. Entrepreneurs were dragged to denunciation meetings. In Shanghai, in two months, more than 600 entrepreneurs, businessmen and traders had committed suicide. All existing laws were abolished and a legal system inspired by the one prevailing in the Soviet Union was introduced. In the countryside, collectivization proceeded apace. Farmers lost their tools, their land and their livestock. They became bonded labourers at the beck and call of the party cadre. The regime itself admitted that in 1954, peasants had a third less food to eat compared to the years before the “liberation”. Starvation stalked rural China.

Next was the turn of the intellectuals. In a drive to eliminate dissent and opposition, half a million intellectuals were sent to the gulag.

Side by side, there was the “re-education’’ (read brainwashing) of the people. They were taught to learn the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans according to the diktats of the party.

Yet, Dikötter argues, at the micro level there were benefits: a dam worked somewhere, somewhere else there was a prison where the inmates were treated well and so on. But these individual acts or programmes cannot be seen in isolation from the overall horror and the State-driven violence. It was a mockery of civilization in the name of freedom, justice and equality.

It was this regime that was deified in the 1960s by communist and left intellectuals across the world, just as Stalin’s Russia had been in the 1930s and 1940s. Dikötter’s books should shame such people and discredit the books and articles they wrote. One day historians will have to explain the process through which Marx’s vision produced monsters like Lenin, Stalin and Mao and the regimes they gave birth to.