Showing What Happened: an Interview with Frank Dikötter

November 18, 2010 4:18 am Last Updated: November 20, 2010 12:40 pm

[xtypo_dropcap]F[/xtypo_dropcap]rank Dikötter is a professor of modern Chinese history. He works at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, but he is on leave from the latter. He regularly writes books that change the way people think about modern China, and has so far covered narcotic history, prisons, sex and culture, the Republican Era, and the construction of racial identity in China. His latest book is Mao’s Great Famine, on the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), reviewed by The Epoch Times.

The Epoch Times spoke with Dikötter when he was in Washington promoting this new book.

Why the Book is Unique

The thing with the People’s Republic of China is that the Party is still in control. It’s a lot easier to talk about major disasters that happened in Nazi Germany, or under Polpot, under Stalin, in particular after 1952. But there’s still a great reluctance to look at what happened in the early days of the PRC, because it’s still the same government, because there is so little material on which you can actually base your discussion. And that’s the beauty of that book: for the first time, there’s access to real party archives that show you what happened.

Response from Chinese People

I receive several emails each week from people in the PRC telling me how they’ve read about the book and how keen they are to read it, and what it will be like. They’ve seen a review somewhere, gone to the website, heard of it, and sent me an email.

New Century Press, Bao Pu, the son of Bao Tong, is doing a translation [into Chinese] right now—it will be available in a couple of months time. Hopefully people will actually buy it, but probably it will be copied in the mainland, and distributed—but that’s good. Hire the book, steal it, smuggle it, as long as people read it I think that’s great. But maybe it will be published in the mainland, we don’t know, who knows. He’s only responsible for the Fantizi [traditional Chinese character] publication, I don’t know about the Jiantizi [simplified Chinese] yet.

Response from Chinese Communist Party

I haven’t heard of any [official response]. The problem is that it’s very easy to be flippant and dismissive but if you actually want to refute some of the evidence you’d have to do some very serious work in the archives, and that takes time. It’s not so easy.

One of the major ways of resolving conflicts since 1949 is to denounce somebody without any proof, so it’s very much part of the whole political culture. But they may have other things to do than to look at some book written by some foreigner about something that happened 60 years ago. They have other things to do. They have more urgent tasks. There may very well be people inside the Party who think it’s actually quite helpful to have a foreigner write about this period, and how could you do it if you’re based in China—it would be very, very difficult. There’s one book by Yang Jisheng called Mubei, not bad at all, it’s quite courageous, so clearly there is a willingness to read about what happened during that period. I can see how it would be easier if the guy was a foreigner.

How the Book Might Benefit the Chinese People

Well, there is no monument, no remembrance day, no museum, no real public memory, so my hope is that this will contribute to, minimally, remembering those who died during that period, and minimally keeping that memory alive. And hopefully stoke up some interest in that period.

Reasons This Period Has Been Somewhat Overlooked, and ‘Reverse Orientalism’

First of all, there’s still a racist stream that runs through a lot of thinking about Asia. Obviously the deaths of millions of people in China mean a lot less than the deaths of millions in Europe or the United States. And then there is a Reverse Orientalism—in the sense that there must be something outside of the West that is an alternative to the West. But it’s not Africa, for various reasons that are obvious enough, it’s not the Soviet Union, so hopefully it’s China. And it’s the same debate to this day.

There are people today who see an authoritarian China as an alternative to democracy, and that was even more so the case during the Cold War. So there is a great willingness to overlook what happens on the part of foreign observers, because there is this vain hope that somehow there is an alternative, that whatever happened could be justified by the ends, by a better world, a better utopia, a socialist paradise.

What is so striking is that during this period of the Great Leap Forward, of course there were many refugees who managed to cross to borders to Hong Kong—or other countries surrounding China, including the Soviet Union—and very little was done with it. A very few, interesting interviews, a couple of journalists interviewed them and published these interviews, but otherwise there was no systematic effort to actually collect the interviews of these people who had so much to say at the time.

On the Cold War

The Cold War is a tragedy because you’re either on the left or on the right. It can’t have helped, with the whole McCarthy persecutions in the 50s and 60s, with this whole search for spies inside the whole field of China watchers, the persecution of Owen Lattimore. The tragedy is that when it comes to communist regimes, a lot of these right wing people were actually right.

It’s a tragedy because you know right wing ideology is not exactly very different from left wing ideology. The tragedy is that very often they were right. I think that’s the beauty of getting access to archives. It no longer becomes a matter of ideology, it becomes a matter of evidence, and you can shift the debate from an ideological position to evidence. It’s much more difficult. And I think it’s fair to say, too, while there is still a Cold War in Asia—you know, lots of missiles pointed directly towards Taiwan—overall the climate is much less split to a right and a left.

The Joys of Archival Research

You’ll never get into a basement, you won’t get that far. What happens is that there is a catalogue, and the catalogue tells you what is in each particular collection, and these collections reflect the organization of the Party. In other words, each particular department, or unit, or institute, will have its own archives.

If there is a committee to look at agriculture, there will be a collection that contains the files left behind by that particular committee, so you need to know the structure of the Party quite well to know how this all works out. For instance if you’re looking at women’s issues, it’s a good idea to look at the Women’s Federation, because they will all be in one particular collection. Each file will have a name, and in some cases the catalogue is on the computer so you can do some sort of rough search by title—but of course the title might not tell you a whole lot. And there are some things separate of that, namely that a lot of these archives are now digitizing the material, which means you can read it from the screen, which has advantages and disadvantages—but we won’t go into that, it’s too specific.

Why the Party Keeps Such Details

To start with, the one-Party state is constantly monitoring the one-Party state. And that happens at every single level, because at every single level the person in power knows that something might be going on that is not being reported to him. So every person at every level will have means and mechanisms to find out what is happening. That’s one thing.

The second thing about one-Party states is that they purge themselves all the time. So it may be true that this particular prison at this point in time will not keep detailed records of how it interviewed its prisoners, but there’s a very good chance that over a period of three or four or five years time there will be some investigation, there will be some purge, there will be somebody dismissed, there will be some evidence that comes to light, which is of course kept very much within strict boundaries, but there is bound to be some investigation somewhere.

Everybody is being constantly scrutinized. It may well be that a particular unit might go on for a very long time without interference from the outside, but that’s unlikely. Again, this is not a democratic society, these are people struggling for their little position, they’re trying to get up the ladder. They might denounce number one or number two.

Chances of Archives About Recent Persecutions

Indeed there will be, though I’m not saying that every little interview of every prisoner will yield a detailed transcript, of course not. But the chances are, an awful lot of material will be produced, if you look at it over all. Out of ten labor camps there will probably be one camp somewhere where somebody or something was investigated over a period of three to four years. So, a big country like that, a big one-Party state: an abundance of material. But it won’t be systematic. If you want to find out what happened in this particular unit or that particular village, from exactly April 1958 to June 1959, you might not find out an awful lot.

The Party and the State

They’re one and the same thing. It’s very straightforward; you talk about the propaganda department, well the propaganda department has its own archives. The structure of the Party, of the state, if you wish, is reflected in the structure of the archives. Now, the government and the state, that’s a different matter. But the principle, when you go to a provincial or a city or a county archive, most of it will be just the units on the ground who do this, I mean, there’s no such thing outside of the Party. There’s very little outside of the Party. Theoretically, the only thing that would be more or less outside of the party would be these third party organizations, Democracy League, these officially sanctioned groups, they may be theoretically outside of the Party.

You have to think in terms of structure, every unit has its own archive. If you find a [Party] organ, there will be an archive; if there is an institution, a unit, an organ, whatever you want to call it, it will have archives. If it is a one man committee, it will have archives. If it’s a ten thousand man unit it will have its archives. Any period, there will be archives, any movement there are archives. The question is whether these archives are open or not.

My feeling is that anything that has a slight political slant to it is bound to be much more strictly classified than topics that seem to be politically less touchy. Clearly there are some very touchy topics. But the chances are, in the archives, you will not gain access to a lot of material. But if you’re going to look at agricultural policy or tool making, chances are there will be a fair amount, because somebody’s got the classified information and has decided whether it will be available to the public or remain classified—someone has to make the decision, and often those decisions are made rather quickly. There’s just too much, far too much.

Current Project

I’m working on the 1949-1957 period. It’s a very interesting period, but it’s been overlooked. I can tell you what I’ve told others, namely that I’m looking at a rich social history of that period, that actually tries to find out what the experiences of “Liberation” were, for people from all walks of life. It’s a work in progress, so I don’t want to say too much.

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