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Frank Dikötter, an expert on Chinese communism, joins the show to talk about the nature of dictatorships.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Frank Dikötter is the author of the People’s Trilogy, a series of books that document the impact of communism on the lives of ordinary people in China on the basis of new archival material. The first volume, entitled Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non‐​Fiction, Britain’s most prestigious book award for non‐​fiction. The second instalment, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945–1957, was short‐​listed for the Orwell Prize in 2014. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 concludes the trilogy and was short‐​listed for the PEN Hessell‐​Tiltman Prize in 2017.

After the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward that claimed tens of millions of lives from 1958–1962, an aging Mao Zedong launched an ambitious scheme to shore up his reputation and eliminate those he viewed as a threat to his legacy. He called this The Cultural Revolution. Trevor and Aaron ask Frank Dikötter about Mao’s legacy and how he came to power, which leads to a larger discussion about the nature of dictatorships.

Where did Mao come from? What is the history of the Communist Party of China? What happened in China during the Great Leap Forward? Why does communism lead to millions of deaths? Why do dictators hate ideology? How unfree is daily life in China?

Further Reading:

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, written by Frank Dikötter

Mao’s Little Red Book

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962―1976, written by Frank Dikötter

‘The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976,’ by Frank Dikotter, book review in the New York Times



00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:08 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Frank Dikötter, Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of the acclaimed People’s Trilogy, which documents the impact of communism in the lives of ordinary people in China. His newest book is How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Frank.

00:27 Frank Dikötter: Thank you for having me.

00:28 Trevor Burrus: So I’d like to start with Mao and the story, actually, of communist China. It’s a big story you’ve written. It’s three books on it, and we’ve never actually talked about it much on this show. So at the beginning, where did Mao come from? Where was he actually from? Did he come from upper class, lower class, educated class? What’s the beginning?

00:51 Frank Dikötter: Would it be the birth of Mao? Would it be 1921, the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party? I think the starting point really is 1945. That may sound a little bit glib to just move straight over the 1920s and ‘30s and go to the end of the Second World War, but I’ll do it for a reason. If I were sitting here and you’d asked me a question about why did Poland turn communist in 1945? Or, why did Estonia turn communist in 1945? Well, I’m sure it’d be interesting to look at the origins of the Polish Communist Party or the Estonian Communist Party, if there is one, but the answer is pretty obvious. The Red Army invaded half of Europe. Now equally, in August 1945, Stalin had a million men who marched into Manchuria, the industrial powerhouse to the north of Beijing, above the Great Wall of China, and they were on their way to Korea, where they met the Americans along the 38th parallel. But they didn’t leave Manchuria even after Japan surrendered. They turned over the countryside to Chairman Mao and his ragtag army of guerilla fighters, who few people would have noticed otherwise.

02:16 Frank Dikötter: The Americans abandoned Chiang Kai‐​shek and the Nationalists, who were their wartime ally, and imposed an arms embargo. Whereas, in the meantime, Stalin built up Mao Zedong’s party and turned them into a formidable fighting machine. Some 16 academies were established in Manchuria, military academies, including aircraft engineering, you name it. Chinese officers were sent to Moscow for advanced training. Logistical aid arrived constantly with some 2,000 wagon loads allocated to the task from North Korea alone. So by 1948, the Communists were powerful enough to start attacking cities in the northern plains of Manchuria. In the case of Changchun, Lin Baio, a general under Mao’s command, surrounded the city and blockaded it for five months. His command was turn Changchun into a city of death. In other words, make sure that these people are starved into surrender, and that is precisely what happened. Some 160,000 ordinary people were locked into Changchun, starved to death. The city fell. In its wake, other cities were unwilling to undergo the same fate. Beijing surrendered. One by one, like dominoes, these cities fell. In October ’49, the flag went up over the Forbidden City in Beijing. In short, the Chinese victory was the result of a brutal war of conquest.

04:01 Aaron Ross Powell: Taking a step back from that, though. So Stalin, they’re coming through, and they meet up with Mao and his ragtag band, as you said. But how did Mao get to there? Was he… So was he already ideologically Marxist Communist at that time? How did he come to… Why did they pick Mao on this track, and why did they enable him?

04:22 Frank Dikötter: In the early 1920s after the Communist Party of China is established, membership is in the thousands. In other words, it is insignificant in a country that has roughly half a billion people. Yeah, they were spotted by first Lenin and then Stalin, and forced into an alliance with the Nationalist Chiang Kai‐​shek simply because they were too insignificant. But Chiang Kai‐​shek turned against them in 1927, and for good reason. He didn’t like their methods. He thought they were brutal. This forces Mao and others to flee to the countryside. But again, Mao was stripped of his positions on several occasions by some of his rivals, peers inside the Communist Party of China. But in 1935, Stalin comes to the rescue. The reason is simple. The Soviet Union is afraid of Fascist Japan, and again, wishes to have a united front between the Communists and the Nationalists in China. That strategy demands that the status of the leader of the Communist Party be elevated to the same level as Chiang Kai‐​shek and the Nationalists.

05:34 Frank Dikötter: That’s where you have the whole mythology around Mao. And Mao, of course, seizes the opportunity to promote himself. 1942, 1943 are two years, not so much of fighting against the Japanese, but of purges inside the party as everyone who had ever spoken up against Mao is somehow forced to confess or otherwise subject to his rule.

05:58 Trevor Burrus: So is that confess heresy against Marxist doctrine, or Leninist doctrine, or just going up against Mao, or any of the above, I guess? That’s what they were confessing?

06:08 Frank Dikötter: So these are two different things. We always think in terms of Marxism/​Leninism. But of course, very few of any of these dictators were Marxist/​Leninists. Marx wanted a world revolution carried through by the world proletariat, yet Stalin turned it on its head and said, “No, we will have a revolution in one country only.” Marx predicted that it would be the proletariat to lead the revolution, yet Mao embraced the peasants instead. Why did he do so? Because in China at the time 0.5% of the population were workers, 80% were villagers. He did so out of sheer pragmatic concern, so forget about loyalty to a creed, it is loyalty to a person that mattered most, whether as in the case of Stalin, in the case of Mao, or other dictators for that matter. So what I’m trying to say here is that Mao used the opportunity to purge those who didn’t show sufficient loyalty to him as a person.

07:10 Aaron Ross Powell: So does this mean that Mao wasn’t a true believer?

07:13 Frank Dikötter: Either you are a dictator or you are a true believer. These are mutually incompatible. If you take the case of Kim Il‐​sung, North Korea, imposed on an unwilling population in 1945 by the Russians, he moves by 1968 against all books that appear to be foreign, including those written by Marx and Engels. In 1972, has Marxism written out of the constitution, replaced by Kim Il‐​sung thought. So to put it simply, one is never a Marxist‐​Leninist in any one of these regimes, one is a Stalinist under Stalin, a Maoist under Mao, a Kim Il‐​sungist under Kim Il‐​sung. It’d be a dangerous thing to read Marx at the height of the Cultural Revolution in China.

08:07 Trevor Burrus: In your People’s Trilogy, it’s three parts, do you see it, is it really cleanly kind of divided, this post‐​communist revolution China into three, nothing is clean in history, but…

08:21 Trevor Burrus: No, I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, I just started off by trying to get as much material from the archives as possible and something interesting, and the Great Leap Forward really stood out. There was so much material on this famine from 1958 to ’62 that I dug in and discovered of course sheer horror with tens of millions of people beaten, starved, worked literally to death during that period, a huge crime against humanity. And only then did I think that I should return to the archives and look at the earlier years. Hence the Tragedy of Liberation, where I narrate what happened during the Second World War, but most importantly after 1949, years that are sometimes still seen as a sort of golden age, but which in fact was a pretty ruthless elimination of all organizations outside of the organization of the Communist Party of China. Where by 1956, private property has been confiscated, entrepreneurs have had to give their property to the state, farmers no longer have the land, and they’re used as bonded servants of the state. And then only at the very end did my mother actually tell me I wanted to hear and read about what happened after the Great Leap Forward, namely the Cultural Revolution, so I started doing that one at the very end.

09:49 Trevor Burrus: Which is its own form of crazy, but a different type.

09:51 Frank Dikötter: Yes, of course, they all overlap.

09:52 Trevor Burrus: Yes, yeah.

09:53 Aaron Ross Powell: These archives, these are the Communist Party’s archives that you’re… So what’s the process like of getting access to… You’re going into… You’re not going into this to write a book that is going to be overwhelmingly positive of the Communist Revolution.

10:08 Frank Dikötter: Well, I would have had I found, you know…

10:12 Aaron Ross Powell: Okay, but it was unlikely. What’s the process like of getting access to that, and were the Communist Party, were they skeptical of granting you access to it?

10:20 Frank Dikötter: Well, there are many party archives. They exist at the central level in Beijing, for, say, a Ministry, the Provincial Archives that belong to the Provincial Party Committee. The Communist Party’s basically a very sophisticated hierarchy, and at every level there is an archive, it could be a neighborhood archive, could be a city archive, so literally just dozens and dozens of them. All you need to do is turn up with a letter of reference. What is astounding is not so much that I did it. What is astounding is that so few other people do it, except oddly enough, until recently historians of the POC inside the People’s Republic of China, but very few Europeans and Americans.

11:03 Trevor Burrus: There was a language barrier, if nothing else.

11:04 Frank Dikötter: No, it’s not a language barrier. If you go to Moscow, you have to get your seat, you have to turn up very early in any of those archives because of plenty of eager German PhD students and Americans who are busy researching the Soviet Union, but not [11:22] ____ from the People’s Republic of China, unfortunately there is a predominant tendency towards what I call armchair sinology.

11:33 Trevor Burrus: So this is a dumb question and I’m sure I know the answer to it, but I imagine your books are not available in China.

11:40 Frank Dikötter: Indeed.

11:41 Trevor Burrus: And maybe that’s one reason why they let you go in, because they knew they weren’t going to let you write about this in China.

11:46 Frank Dikötter: Well, you can’t Google me in China because of course there is no Google, but if you use the local equivalent, Baidu, then of course my name means nothing. Thank you very much.

11:56 Trevor Burrus: Now, the Great Famine, you’re really talking about getting into the numbers of who killed more and all these things, which are some of the distasteful conversations about 20th century dictators. But I have some idea, a better idea, of Stalin’s Ukraine Great Famine and kind of what the point was for the collectivization of the farms, was this the same thing happening?

12:20 Frank Dikötter: Very much so. Yeah, a question some of my students have is, “Why do they do what they did when they know that it will go pear‐​shaped?” Stalin did it with the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union, ’29 to ’33, roughly ’34, and Mao did it, Pol Pot will do it later on, and of course you have roughly the same in northern Korea. But the whole point is that Mao and his allies, they know perfectly well what happened under Stalin, they don’t think this is a bad thing. What you want in a one‐​party state is have the grain from the fields move straight into state granaries, the coffers, so to speak, and then sell it abroad to earn the foreign currency with which you can buy the equipment needed to fuel modernization, industrial plants. That’s what Stalin did, that’s what Mao did. What Mao sees in Stalin is a man who managed to transform a backward Russian empire into a major world power capable of defeating Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and occupying half of Europe. Who wouldn’t want to do the same thing?

13:35 Trevor Burrus: That’s a great country, yes, yes.

13:37 Aaron Ross Powell: So, how many people total died in…

13:39 Frank Dikötter: Well, I don’t come up with a number. I say at least 45 million, which by the way is a figure that has been used by at least three other people who’ve used Communist Party archives, but is disputed by everyone who has never set a foot in the archive.

13:56 Aaron Ross Powell: Okay. So they’ve seen this play out in other places and have seen that it leads to a lot of deaths, and so they’re aware, maybe they’re not aware that it’s gonna be 45 million, but they’re aware that it’s gonna be a lot. Does that factor into the thinking at all? Even if you think, you’re like, “Well, it would be great if we made our country industrial.” Like if you told me like, “We can change America, and we make it a whole lot better but oh, yeah, there’s gonna be millions of deaths.” You’d think most people are like, “Well, but maybe we should slow down there”?

14:29 Frank Dikötter: Well, I don’t think they predicted there would be any deaths, they wouldn’t have liked that to happen except in a few cases where the people who are starved to death are considered to be politically unreliable, if not enemies of the people. Why would you feed them? So the key point really is that it’s the military model that is attractive. The idea is that you will transform every man, every woman in the countryside to a foot soldier in one giant army that you can deploy day and night to transform the economy and somehow catapult that country forward past the Soviet Union, the real rival, of course. But the result is that when you start approaching people in a military way, when you put them in collective canteens and collective dormitories, when you separate out children and send them to collective kindergartens, every incentive to work is lost when people no longer have tools or utensils, pots, pans, never mind the land, or control over their own schedule. They truly are bonded servants of the state and the local officials are referred to as cadres, sometimes pronounced as cadres by Americans. The local cadres have to whip up the workforce in one drive after the other. And so that’s the point where they clash.

15:49 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, then, so how do you, you being the people instituting these policies, react when the deaths start piling up and you start getting to that 45 million? And I guess, a sub‐​question to that is, how aware were they of the 45 million? China is a big place, they didn’t have the communication technologies.

16:04 Frank Dikötter: Well, they’re not. Not. So there’s two different things. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, Mao and the others weren’t aware of it.” And it’s another thing to say they didn’t know it was 45 million, or at least 45 million as I claim. They were well aware all along that there were major mishaps and that the major issues with forcibly collectivizing people the way they did and herding them into what were referred to as people’s communes. But the point is, all of them were military men. Now, what kind of war will you wage if you start crying every time you lose a battle? Remember, Stalin means steel; Molotov means hammer, you must push through, you must have an iron will to go through with this. It is the bourgeoisie that spends time crying over loss of life. And that’s exactly what they do. They push through, till of course the inevitable happens. Around about 1961, the scale of destruction, not just of human beings but of buildings, of infrastructure, everything is traded, cannibalized, so to speak. The scale of destruction is as such by one estimate, by number two, Liu Shaoqi, some 60% of all housing in Mao’s native province of Hunan has been destroyed. The scale is such that the party has to step back.

17:37 Trevor Burrus: So the Great Leap Forward… I’m trying to get my timeline correct here. Does that come after the famine or is that part of the famine? The famine is part of the Great Leap Forward?

17:46 Frank Dikötter: Oh, it’s one and the same thing.

17:47 Trevor Burrus: One and the same thing?

17:47 Frank Dikötter: Yeah. There are those who say Great Leap Forward was a political campaign and the famine came later. But the moment you start collectivizing people in December ’58, the deaths appear.

17:58 Trevor Burrus: And then we have…

18:00 Frank Dikötter: The key point about the Great Leap Forward is really… I mean, Li Rui, Mao’s secretary, put it… He passed away earlier this year, wonderful man, I think he lived to the age of 100. He said it in a review of Mao’s Great Famine, my book, he said, “The core reason of all this is because human beings didn’t treat other human beings like human beings, they were treated just like cattle.”

18:24 Trevor Burrus: Cattle. Yeah. And then we have the Cultural Revolution, which I’ve heard in some senses, the party at least and maybe Mao himself was, they were a little bit… They believed that there were failures that were involved with Great Leap Forward and those failures were, I guess, related to cultural inconsistencies or heretics or some sort.

18:46 Frank Dikötter: It’s really quite straightforward. 1934, Congress of Victors, a number of people are disgruntled with collectivization and deaths in the Ukraine, they secretly vote against Stalin. What happens over the following years, a Great Terror. There’s some 1.5 million people are arrested, tortured, interrogated. The vast majority of them shot. What happens in 1962? Some 7000 cadres convene in Beijing, discuss the Great Leap Forward and the disaster that happened and Mao’s star is no longer shining all that brightly. He is afraid that he will meet the same fate as Stalin who was, of course, denounced by Khrushchev in ’56.

19:26 Frank Dikötter: So, same thing, Mao starts planning something equivalent to the Great Terror. And it will appear a few years later, starting in 1966, as the Cultural Revolution. The idea is that there are still bourgeois, superstitious, feudal ideas, culture that must be destroyed and replaced by pure proletarian culture. But of course underneath Mao uses the campaign to unleash Red Guards against anyone at any level of the hierarchy who has ever expressed any doubt about his leadership. Millions of lives are trampled. Mao, at the end of his life, feels reasonably secure.

20:06 Trevor Burrus: And he also tries to reify his position, or at least… The Little Red Book is really coming around that time, the Cultural Revolution and the Little Red Book. I don’t know if it existed before, but pushing it.

20:19 Frank Dikötter: Yes. But, of course, all dictators have the equivalent. Stalin had his handbook. Mao had one. Kim Il‐​sung. In fact, even Mengistu in Ethiopia had an informal little manual with quotations from Chairman Mengistu, because everybody knew that you must demonstrate loyalty to the Chairman, whoever he may be, by learning his writings, committing his learnings, his writings to memory as a token of your loyalty, but also because you do not wish to be denounced by anyone else.

20:54 Aaron Ross Powell: What kind of writings were in the Little Red Book? What does its contents look like?

20:57 Frank Dikötter: Well, you can talk about Mao as a philosopher, or Stalin as a philosopher, Duvalier as a philosopher. There is a body of work called Duvalierism. But, ultimately, none of these dictators are philosophers. What they really seek is an ism that can be attached to their name and have people learn it by heart in order to betoken their loyalty to them. You have to bear in mind… We’ve talked so much… From the moment I went to university there was so much talk about ideology and how important this is. But for any dictator, what they want is loyalty to their person, not loyalty to a creed. Ideology’s divisive. Look at the Bolsheviks and Lenin. They seized power 1917. Their enemies are the Mensheviks, but both, of course, get their inspiration straight from Marx. Dictators don’t really like ideology all that much.


21:54 Trevor Burrus: Now, the other thing that you always hear about with the Cultural Revolution is the students, the involvement of the students and the universities to some extent. Do you have any sort of, I don’t wanna say favorite, ’cause it’s such a horrific time, but in terms of the kind of purges that were going on either of artifacts, different cultural items of various sorts…

22:17 Frank Dikötter: Well, of course, any sign of the past becomes suspect. If you have an old photograph album, that’s suspect. If you play piano, that’s suspect. If you read a foreign novel, that’s suspect. If you had any link with any foreigner before 1949, that’s suspect too. So in Shanghai alone in the summer of 1966 Red Guards carry out house raids in about a quarter of a million homes, either confiscating or burning any trace of the past, whether these are ordinary books or rare bronzes and scrolls.

22:56 Trevor Burrus: Well, about anything Western too, or were they…

22:58 Frank Dikötter: Well, Western by definition means capitalist.

23:01 Trevor Burrus: So that would be the piano but not the Chinese instruments?

23:04 Frank Dikötter: Yes, several hundreds of pianos are confiscated. And then at least in this particular case the news is quite good, they’re redistributed to schools, as opposed to ending up on a bonfire, but very large bonfires. Libraries are raided and books are burnt.

23:20 Aaron Ross Powell: That’s the destruction of the artifacts, the objects and whatnot. But the people who get caught up in this, like you… They have reason to believe that you’re suspect in some way, what happens to you?

23:35 Frank Dikötter: By the end of the month of September in 1966 in Beijing alone some 1,700 people have been literally beaten to death, killed, a few electrocuted or set on fire. There are several cases of people being buried alive outside Beijing in the suburbs. In other words, enemies of the people are hounded out of the cities or liquidated otherwise. But what is so fascinating, of course, and this is the true goal of the Cultural Revolution, is that Red Guards soon enough start fighting each other. And then Mao appeals to the people at large, including the workers, to go and help the Red Guards carry through the Cultural Revolution. But the workers become divided.

24:24 Frank Dikötter: And then in February 1967 he asks the army to come in and support the true proletarian left, and the army is divided too about the true intentions of and voice of Chairman Mao. So by 1967–68 people are fighting each other in the streets with anti‐​aircraft artillery, all of them convinced that they represent the true voice of Chairman Mao. It seems like chaos, but Mao relishes it because he’s in control of the entire game. He feeds a cycle of violence in which people have to constantly prove their loyalty to him and him alone. So in the end it produces a very atomized society in which links between family members, neighbors, colleagues are broken up.

25:14 Trevor Burrus: And so does the Cultural Revolution… So Mao, I think, dies in ’76, is that…

25:20 Frank Dikötter: Yeah, ’76.

25:21 Trevor Burrus: Does the Cultural Revolution end before he dies, or just does it just sort of continue until his death?

25:27 Frank Dikötter: There are different ways of looking at it, the purists who will tell you that ’66–69 is the Cultural Revolution and what follows is the aftermath, but all of it really is the Cultural Revolution. But I would say there is a big difference in 1971. The army is purged in turn, with the death of Lin Biao, the man who…

25:49 Trevor Burrus: In a plane crash, I think, correct?

25:51 Frank Dikötter: In a plane crash.

25:52 Trevor Burrus: Was he murdered or…

25:53 Frank Dikötter: Of course, it’s an arranged crash, although I don’t say that in the book because I don’t have the evidence. Obviously it’s done on purpose. The very man who starved Changchun to death in 1948 brings an end to the rule of the army which in the meantime has turned China into literally a military garrison. But then something very interesting happens from 1971 onwards: Ordinary people in the countryside realize that the credibility of communism has been destroyed in the Great Leap Forward, ’58 to ’62, but the organization of the party has been undermined by the Cultural Revolution. In other words, there are no longer enough cadres who have sufficient faith to force farmers to stay within these collectives called People’s Communes. So very gradually, in what I call a silent revolution, ordinary people in the countryside start setting up black markets. They open underground factories, they claim back their land, they redistribute the tools among themselves, they wrench away from the state some very basic economic freedoms.

27:01 Trevor Burrus: Just because the state didn’t have the attention or the manpower to stop them.

27:06 Frank Dikötter: The party doesn’t have it anymore, the party has been weakened, if not largely destroyed…

27:12 Trevor Burrus: In those areas.

27:13 Frank Dikötter: By Chairman Mao.

27:14 Trevor Burrus: By Chairman Mao?

27:16 Frank Dikötter: Yes.

27:16 Trevor Burrus: So on his death, we have a… There’s usually some sort of power jostling of course that happens upon any dictator’s death, and we do see a pretty transforming China coming out of the ‘70s with Mao’s death, but there’s never a disavowal of him.

27:36 Frank Dikötter: No.

27:36 Trevor Burrus: Not in the same way as Stalin.

27:37 Frank Dikötter: Of course, he picked the right man, Deng Xiaoping.

27:40 Trevor Burrus: Deng Xiaoping.

27:41 Frank Dikötter: Mao was obsessed with what happened to Stalin, namely de‐​Stalinization, and he made sure it wouldn’t happen with him by picking Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping is the occasionally described as the man who started economic reform, but as I alluded to earlier on, the true architect of economic reform is really the people.

28:02 Trevor Burrus: The individual people.

28:03 Frank Dikötter: The people manage to wrench away basic economic freedoms. Deng Xiaoping was smart enough to realize that he could use economic growth to rebuild the party and use a rebuilt party to ruthlessly crush the political aspirations of ordinary people, which he did again and again and again with note of course on June 4th, 1989, when the tanks move into Tiananmen Square.

28:28 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but is it fair to say… We have growth in China, the poverty level is changing a lot from the ‘70s onward.

28:38 Frank Dikötter: Well, it couldn’t be any more poor, could it?

28:40 Trevor Burrus: I guess.

28:40 Frank Dikötter: The party says says that it pulled hundreds of millions of people from poverty, but it didn’t. It dispossessed them, it beat them, it stripped them of their most basic fundamental freedoms, and it’s ultimately the people who lifted themselves out of poverty from roughly 1970 onwards, although it is true that Deng had the wisdom to not stand in the way from 1979 onward.

29:03 Trevor Burrus: ‘Cause you have… The China of 1990 looks very different than the China of 1970 in terms of, you’d just walk down the streets of Shanghai, I think you’d see more…

29:12 Frank Dikötter: Yes, indeed.

29:13 Trevor Burrus: It couldn’t be more abysmal.

29:15 Frank Dikötter: It couldn’t be more abysmal in 1970. By by 19… Even when Mao dies, living standards of ordinary people are lower than what they were in 1949, so that’s what we’re talking about. Just getting back to the level of 1949 and then somehow catching up with the rest of Planet Earth. If you look at the gross domestic product per capita, China in 1979 is not an awful lot worse off than in, say, 1989 or 1999. It is roughly below Turkestan and Zimbabwe at the end of the 20th century.

29:52 Aaron Ross Powell: How much of this story that you’ve just been telling are ordinary Chinese today aware of, and what’s their view of the Communist Party, given the horrors that it inflicted on China in the twentieth century?

30:08 Frank Dikötter: Well, it’s a huge population, and we don’t know what they think because they haven’t been granted the freedom to say what they think. In fact, they’ve never been encouraged to look back at the past, so I have no doubt that many of them know perfectly well what happened among their own family members or in their own village, but none of them have been encouraged to do so. It’s very difficult to know what people think in a dictatorship; the first casualty of a dictatorship is freedom of speech and that’s no different in China today. My feeling is that there must be an extremely broad spectrum of ideas about the past from those who embrace the party and profit from it to those who detest it very thoroughly, but we don’t know, how would you?

30:54 Trevor Burrus: In your experience talking to Chinese… So Tiananmen Square is a great example where, you can’t Google, as you pointed out, but if you googled Tiananmen Square in China, you’re going to get nothing, but do you think that most people know that it happened? There’s no way of knowing, it’s partially, I guess…

31:15 Frank Dikötter: I don’t trust this…

31:16 Trevor Burrus: You don’t wanna speak out…

31:17 Frank Dikötter: I know there is a journalist who went on the street and asked people, “What do you think of Tiananmen Square?” and then people pretend that they don’t know. There’s one thing you must realize, in a dictatorship, whether this is under Adolph Hitler or Stalin or Duvalier or Mao or Xi Jinping today, people are great actors, they know how to chant the slogans, they know how to extol their leader, they know how to cry on command or denounce with proletarian anger every enemy on command. They’re great actors, they have to do so. So when some foreign journalist with a camera asks somebody in Beijing what they think of Tiananmen Square, and the person says, “Oh, I don’t really know,” one shouldn’t really be too surprised, it’s a dumb methodology, sorry.

32:00 Aaron Ross Powell: How unfree is daily life in China now? So yeah, the people are kind of keeping whatever knowledge they have on Tiananmen Square on the down low and so on, but the day‐​to‐​day life, how much does it feel like this oppressive dictatorship?

32:15 Frank Dikötter: Well, it depends on who you are, it depends where you are. If you’re a party member, you’d be rather content with your lot. If you’re a city dweller and chances are you profit from from the wealth accumulated by the party you’re probably quite happy too. I very much doubt that there will be an uprising tomorrow morning in Beijing, Shanghai or Wuhan. On the other hand, if you go to the countryside now, every basic freedom is missing. Fundamentally although you can move, you do not really have the freedom to go to a city and open a lemonade stand, as you could do in India or anywhere else. Not only that, but of course it remains to this day, a caste system or an apartheid system. Where people classified as peasants don’t have the same legal, social, economic benefits as those who are classified as city dwellers. So that’s the line that… There are two lines that run through China, one is party members and those outside of the party, and then there is one between city dwellers and those classified as peasants, quote, unquote.

33:19 Aaron Ross Powell: How do you react to… Among a certain set of American intellectuals right now, I’m not talking about communist intellectuals and whatnot, but more mainstream, there’s a romanticization of China as a place where the government can get things done. Where we in America, we haven’t solved green energy because we just don’t have the will, but over in China they can do it because they know how to get together and do things.

33:46 Frank Dikötter: Yeah, isn’t Italy wonderful? Trains run on time under Mussolini, yes. Well, if that’s what you want, go ahead and transform, get rid of your checks and balances, abolish your judicial independence which is a safeguard for your private property, destroy the political institutions you have, start stripping away your civil society, close down every organization outside of the one organization you think will accomplish the task, and good luck with that. There’s no such thing as some Chinese miracle here. When a one‐​party state like China has access to the deposits of 1.4 billion of its subjects it can do a great number of things. It can build new airports, new highways, bullet trains, you name it.

34:40 Trevor Burrus: Large empty apartment buildings.

34:42 Frank Dikötter: And a great number of skyscrapers, that are completely empty.

34:48 Trevor Burrus: It’s such a bizarre…

34:49 Frank Dikötter: Airports that are empty.

34:50 Trevor Burrus: Really?

34:51 Frank Dikötter: Like the one in Wuhan which I use roughly once a month, both international and domestic terminals, empty, a mile to the left, a mile to the right. Who needs it?

35:02 Aaron Ross Powell: Why are they building empty stuff?

35:03 Frank Dikötter: Well, why wouldn’t you? If you are a local cadre, if you are in charge of an entire province or in charge of a city, or in charge of a neighborhood, you must produce a quota of growth. Here in the United States and elsewhere, in Europe, Japan, gross domestic product is something that you must calculate. Econ 101 tells you there are three different ways of calculating it, I will not summarize it. But in the People’s Republic of China it is a quota, you must achieve 6.5% of growth. So what do you do if you’re Mayor of a city? Well, you just have more of your local factories produce cement, if you have to dig a hole and pour the concrete into a hole, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you can prove you achieved 6.5%. If what you build stands empty, it doesn’t matter either.

35:55 Trevor Burrus: China, I think, is confusing to a lot of people because we’ve had tourism open up, in a way that it wasn’t true, of course, in 1970, before the opening of China. But they can go to places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, which of course had its own history, and we can get a little bit of what’s happening there, but these vast, very, very well lit, seemingly technologically advanced, “The future is now, I’ve seen the future and it works,” kind of thing. People say, “These people are opressed? This is the most capitalist place I’ve seen on the planet.” What’s going on in, let’s say, Shanghai”

36:27 Frank Dikötter: Well, that’s a misunderstanding of the term capitalism. Capitalism is based on private property, it’s based on markets, it’s based on trade, but how can you trade something if there’s no protection of your private property? You can be a billionaire and vanish, and all of a sudden all of your property now belongs to the state, thank you very much. So this happens on a regular basis. So it’s not capitalism, it’s state corporatism, where state‐​owned enterprises are dominant. The land belongs to the state, the banks belong to the state, industry belongs to the state, most enterprises are directly or indirectly controlled by the state. The state is the party, wealth flows to the party. The party decides how this wealth should be used, it’s obviously used to build up places that will attract more foreign investment so that they can paper over all those black holes that they’ve created with their command economy. From 1979 onwards, foreign trade, the currency earned on the international market, has been used to keep afloat the rest of the sector, which remains dominated by an old‐​fashioned state model. That’s what you have to bear in mind. So yes, Shanghai looks good, and parts of Beijing look very good indeed. But that’s what you do when you play SimCity.


37:53 Aaron Ross Powell: Does this mean then that we can expect to see the Chinese economy collapse at some point or is all of this papering‐​over going to stop working?

38:02 Frank Dikötter: You can paper over issues in an open, accountable, democratic system for a little bit of time. If you have a one‐​party state, you can do it for a much longer time, but of course these problems just accumulate and become bigger and bigger and bigger. They were huge in ’79, bigger by 1988, very large by ’99, but the key point really is 2008, with the international crisis, when the people in Beijing look around the world and think that they have arrived, this is the collapse of capitalism, this is the moment where they will prevail, and they start printing money like there’s no tomorrow. All those skyscrapers, all those airports, bullet trains, a lot of it dates from the last 10–11 years, so that that is enormous.

39:00 Trevor Burrus: And so we now have other types of… That’s the thing that I think has been noticed in the last 10 years is… Well, at least in my opinion and what I’m paying attention to, I keep hearing about new forms of oppression that weren’t in China, I think maybe in 2000. Whether it’s the social tracking system that’s coming up and more dictatorial type of things coming down from the top…

39:24 Frank Dikötter: Well, indeed, you asked me earlier on, do people… Are they ready to rebel? I said, “Well, probably not if you live in the city,” but if you go all the way to Xinjiang or if you’re in Tibet, yeah, cameras everywhere. Yes, large camps. Yes, people sent to camps for next to nothing… Uighur camps, wearing a beard is enough to get you convicted and sent off to a camp. So clearly this is an empire. Don’t forget, the Bolsheviks inherited the Tsarist empire, Mao Zedong inherited the Qing empire, the boundaries of the empire that were there in place as it collapsed in 1911. So it is still an empire and, of course, Beijing is very worried about the borderlands, very worried, from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere.

40:19 Trevor Burrus: And that’s what’s happening just now in Hong Kong. And I don’t see how Hong Kong can resist, overall. It’s such a strange history in its own little place, where you have this liberal place that was given to a very illiberal country, and I think one of those is gonna have to give, and it’s probably not gonna be China.

40:42 Frank Dikötter: Well, yes, exactly. It’s referred to as one country, two systems. Namely that Hong Kongers were allowed, after the handover in 1997, to preserve their own unique system including the freedoms they had. And the promise was made that the chief executive would be allowed to be elected by universal suffrage at a certain point in time. Now, when you say one party, two systems and the one system has 1.4 billion people, and the other one has 8 million, it doesn’t strike me as exactly very balanced. Besides the fact that you shouldn’t really trust anything a one‐​party state says or signs, as Hong Kongers have found out. Namely that all these promises have been broken again and again and again.

41:33 Trevor Burrus: So maybe with this story that we’ve gone through, and still we had a brutal, particularly brutal dictator in Mao, and we had other dictators throughout, and we have a… Would you call, is it… It’s Xi Jinping, is that how you say it?

41:47 Frank Dikötter: Mm‐​hmm. Xi Jinping.

41:50 Trevor Burrus: Would you call him a dictator in a sense?

41:52 Frank Dikötter: Well, of course, why would you not, tell me?

41:54 Trevor Burrus: I agree. I’m just caught… I would call him a dictator…

41:57 Frank Dikötter: Is there a plurality, is there separation of powers at every… At any one level? I don’t think there is. What would you call a country that does not have an independent judicial system? That does not have protection of private property? That claims in the constitution that socialist property is sacred? That does not have separation of powers? Etcetera, etcetera.

42:21 Trevor Burrus: Individual rights?

42:23 Frank Dikötter: Yes, overall I would call it…

42:24 Trevor Burrus: A dictatorship.

42:25 Frank Dikötter: I’d call it that, a dictatorship.

42:26 Aaron Ross Powell: So then, how does this play out in Hong Kong? Like what is…

42:29 Frank Dikötter: Well, it’s a clash of systems, isn’t it?

42:31 Aaron Ross Powell: Right, so what’s the endgame or what can we expect to see? Is China just going to come in and crush?

42:37 Frank Dikötter: Well, I don’t know…

42:38 Aaron Ross Powell: Will the rebellion peter out?

42:41 Frank Dikötter: How would I be able to tell you what will happen in future? I’m a historian of the past.


42:46 Trevor Burrus: Well, Santayana, the…


42:47 Frank Dikötter: They probably don’t even know in Beijing what they’re going to do. They’re probably running around, just scurrying around trying to come up with a solution, but they can’t, because they’re trapped, because of one‐​party dictatorship. It is always limited by a very short playbook. If repression is your only response to political aspirations of people, then there’s not an awful lot that you can do.

43:17 Aaron Ross Powell: Well then what’s stopping them from just doing that?

43:23 Frank Dikötter: Well, the comparisons with 1989 are are not very good. In 1989, it wasn’t just people in Beijing, a million of them, but it was people in literally dozens and dozens and dozens of other cities, who were up in arms and demanded reform. Political reform. So the very life of the party was threatened. Now, Hong Kong is not a threat to the life of the party. Moreover, Hong Kong is a massive place for investment into China, and investment out of China. I told you earlier on, there’s no such thing as an independent judicial system, never mind rule of law, which means that the vast majority of very big companies in China want to have a seat in Hong Kong. In fact, every Communist Party member who has acquired some wealth will want to place it outside of the People’s Republic of China, preferably first in Hong Kong, and then London, Vancouver, Washington, you name it. So Hong Kong remains absolutely vital.

44:37 Trevor Burrus: So going over this story and then looking at your newest book, which is not out yet, it will be coming out in December. And it’s about more than just China, you talk about Kim Il‐​sung and some others too, but in this story what have we learned about, in maybe way of summary, “How to Be a Dictator”?

44:57 Frank Dikötter: Well, “How to Be a Dictator” is one title. The subtitle is “The Cult of Personality.” So these are two things. And the reason I focus on the cult of personality is because I think that ultimately dictators have two main instruments. And one is fear and terror, the other one really is image, or what I call the glorification of the dictator. And I think we’ve tended to overlook that cult of personality or see it as a sort of marginal aberrant phenomenon, when in fact it is absolutely at the heart of a dictatorship. Now, a dictatorship really is power seized through violence, and power seized through violence must be maintained through violence. But violence is a very, very blunt instrument, you can’t go on with this purging and killing and repressing.

45:46 Aaron Ross Powell: So it is much better if a dictator can somehow compel ordinary people to acclaim him in public. And this is particularly true for his entourage, the very people around him. Since he seized power, it raises the prospect of a stab in the back, somebody else could do the same thing to him. So how do you prevent your potential rivals from moving against you? Well, you force them, your allies and your rivals alike, to acclaim you in public, in front of all the others. And by doing so, you gradually transform the people around you into liars. And when everybody lies, nobody knows who thinks what. So it becomes very difficult to form an alliance and organize a coup. Of course, that’s what dictators are truly obsessed about, is maintain their power and expand it to avoid the very fate they inflicted on others.

46:52 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/​FreeThoughtsPodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.