The Tragedy of Liberation:

A History of the Chinese Revolution

Frank Dikotter, Bloomsbury; 400 pages; $30

The first years of the People's Republic under Mao Zedong were a golden age, according to Chinese Communists and many in the West. After all, "liberation" in 1949 brought to an end a period encompassing two brutal and overlapping wars: Japan's invasion and occupation of China and the Chinese civil war with the Nationalists.

A decade later, China was charging into the Mao-made Utopian catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, in which tens of millions were worked or starved to death, and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still to come.

By this view, the years from the republic's founding to, roughly, the so-called Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956 were constructive, even benign in a paternalistic way.

Frank Dikotter, a Dutch-born historian at the University of Hong Kong, destroys this illusion in his new book, "The Tragedy of Liberation." With a mixture of passion and ruthlessness, he marshals the facts, many of them recently unearthed in party archives. Out of these, Dikotter constructs a devastating case for how extreme violence, not a moral mandate, was at the heart of how the party got to power, and of how it then governed.

Toward the end of the civil war, word of how the Communist armies waged war went before them. In Manchuria alone, some 500,000 civilians had fled the Communist advance and sought shelter in the city of Changchun. Lin Biao, the general laying siege to it, called for it to be turned into "a city of death." In all, 160,000 civilians died, mainly of hunger.

By 1956, Mao was ready to lead the country into the giant experiment of the Great Leap Forward. Dikotter has already written about that in "Mao's Great Famine," which this book only betters. The final volume of his planned trilogy will be on the Cultural Revolution, bringing the curtain down on a truly disastrous period.

The Economist