In the road to urbanisation these shops — in Beijing in 2007 — are about to be destroyed, but keep trading until the last minute

The long shadow of the Great Helmsman

Frank Dikötter’s China is perpetually over-leveraged, over-producing and overdue a bust

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Dutch historian Frank Dikötter’s works on Mao, the “People’s Trilogy”, have rightly garnered superlative praise. Through painstaking work in increasingly inaccessible provincial archives, he has documented the horrors of Mao’s rule, made only more chilling through Dikötter’s calm, clear prose and methodical process. 

Readers need a strong stomach to endure the tales of famine, disaster and political violence that accompanied the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, stories that have percolated through to the West in memoirs and testimonies but were never before so thoughtfully catalogued.

China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower, Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury, £25)

Now, like a Hollywood producer intent on extending his hit franchise, comes a fourth in the trilogy, a Mao book without Mao. China After Mao begins with the death of an elder statesman — not, in fact, Mao, but his Premier Zhou Enlai a few months earlier in 1976 — before charting the years up to Xi Jinping’s ascendancy as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. An epilogue continues the story to the present day. 

The musty whiff of a dozen or so of those provincial archives permeates throughout, along with unpublished sources — not least the diaries of Mao’s personal secretary, Li Rui, who continued working in the governmental machine up until 2012. This is a historian’s view of “Reform and Opening Up” and of the shadow that Mao continues to cast over China.

China After Mao is comprehensive. Readers will find pre-echoes of the issues that dominate coverage of China: Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, for instance (although it was Tibet, largely absent here, that was the principal concern of human rights watchers in the 1980s to the 2000s); China’s resource-hungry foreign policy in Africa, along with the blatant anti-African prejudice within China; and the embarrassing state of its environmental policy.

14.4 million abortions took place in 1983 alone

For the most part, however, Dikötter’s book focuses on economic policy and political manoeuvring behind the curtain of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s headquarters. Expect snappily-titled policies and campaigns such as “Practice as the Sole Criterion of Truth”, “Four Cardinal Principles” and “Three Emphases and Three Represents”. “Mao Zedong Thought” is squabbled over by his successors in a matter resonant of Byzantine Christology — one of Deng Xiaoping’s theoreticians, for instance, concluded that Mao himself departed from Mao Zedong Thought. Dikötter’s sober prose is put to admirable use plotting the cycles of inflation and retrenchment of the 80s; the real estate boom and IPO and M&A fever of the 90s; the local and global impact of WTO accession in 2001; and the 2000s building boom, which used more cement than the US did in the entire 20th century. 

Dikötter masterfully blends the micro-level examples from archives with patient explanations of the economic policies and circumstances behind them and bigger picture narratives of the Chinese state. His wry observations (“a basic skill in any planned economy was the ability to subvert the master plan”) and controlled anger contribute to rendering a complex subject very readable.

One of the narratives Dikötter pulls out, for instance, is of the sad fate of the Chinese countryside. There is a constant tension between city folk and the poor, scorned but resourceful nongmin (peasants), who set about finding innovative commercial ways to improve their lot, particularly after the dismantling of People’s Communes in 1982. But government always finds a way to intervene and, by the late 1980s, village children would bang gongs to warn of the approach of government inspectors. 

That decade’s rural boom ended with millions of enterprises closed down. A decade later, country schools would contract out whole classes to work in urban sweatshops. By 2010, thanks to the real estate boom, farmers whose land had been confiscated had lost out on around $5 trillion in land value.

While there is certainly less violence in this book compared to Dikötter’s previous books on Mao, there is still plenty to shock. As part of the efforts to control the population, 14.4 million abortions took place in 1983 alone, with 97 per cent of pregnancies terminated in one Guangdong commune in 1981. Li Rui’s private diary illustrates how Deng would openly advocate using state violence and dictatorial means: “kill a few … be ruthless”, he recommended in 1985. 

A worker who took a piece of chicken was sentenced to 13 years in prison

The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is at the heart of the book. Dikötter lays out the events of the massacre in stark, day-by-day drama with evocative details — residents handing out ice lollies to workers marching in solidarity, sympathetic Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang surveying events through binoculars on a nearby rooftop, diarist Li Rui counting a hundred bullet holes on his building, where a neighbour’s maid had been killed by a stray shot. The massacre is desperately grim and wholly avoidable, shown to emanate from successive acts of government incompetence and brutality. Justice was swift and cruel — a worker who took a piece of chicken from an abandoned military vehicle was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

The implicit thesis of China After Mao is that China stills suffers under the Great Helmsman’s shadow, like his portrait that hangs at Tiananmen (which was targeted by protesters in 1989 and the Falun Gong in 2000). This is apparent in the early years after his death, with the party leadership consumed with succession and defining Mao Zedong Thought.

The country was exhausted after Mao’s rule — living standards were lower at his death in 1976 than after twelve years of war in 1949. However, although unreconstructed Maoists like Deng Liqun played prominent roles well into the 21st century, and whilst leaders’ minds still seem to flit back to asking “What would Mao do?”, it is harder to demonstrate Mao’s continuing impact in the later years, where skyscrapers achieved what Mao couldn’t: eradicating the “last vestiges of the old society”. 

Deng Xiaoping

Very few personalities emerge well. Certainly some, especially reformers like Zhao Ziyang and Zhu Rongji, appear politically astute and authentic. George Bush, who considered himself an old China hand, seems oblivious to the provocation of inviting a dissident to a Beijing reception. After Tiananmen Square he found himself exonerating Deng Xiaoping. 

His successor Bill Clinton was, with hindsight, comically naïve in his expectation that China would become democratic in his lifetime. Deng Xiaoping himself is inaccessible and inconstant; developing policy by chain-smoking, airily waving his hand and plucking numbers from mid-air before hacking into a spittoon. His death in 1997, unlike Mao’s, was met with “widespread indifference”. 

It is the apparatus of the Chinese government in general that comes off worst. Dikötter is profoundly, and not unjustifiably, pessimistic. Statistics are “man-made and therefore unreliable” — not a quote from Dikötter but from Li Keqiang, the current Chinese Premier. Decision-making is arbitrary, corrupt and shameless. Every economic miracle is too good to be true. China is perpetually over-leveraged, over-producing and overdue a bust. Dikötter’s China is a land of crushing debt, state-sanctioned intellectual property theft, shoddy products and poor management. There is no masterplan, and nothing really changes.

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