Charlie Hore reviews China after Mao, finding a work with large omissions which fails to explain why China has changed so much since the 1970s.

China after Mao by Frank Dikötter, 2022, Bloomsbury Publishing, £30. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC2.0 license.

Frank Dikötter is the best-selling popular historian of China in English, known mostly for his ‘People’s History of China’ trilogy[1]. The three books are highly detailed and deeply ideological histories of each period, written to argue that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule has been an utter disaster for China. His earlier The age of openness: China before Mao[2] extended the argument backward, depicting China before 1949 as having been a freer and more prosperous society. At 140 pages, The age of openness is much shorter than his other works, reflecting perhaps the paucity of evidence that even this most committed of cold warriors can find to make the case.

For all that the ‘People’s History’ trilogy are right-wing histories, they have to be taken seriously as carefully researched works with a wealth of references, Mao’s great famine in particular. With his latest work, China after Mao, Dikötter attempts something much more ambitious: an overview of China’s rise to being a major world power since 1976 (though it oddly stops at 2012 – more on this later.)

China has changed out of all recognition in the last 45 years, and any good history of the period should describe and explain how and why this has happened. Unfortunately, this book does neither properly. Dikötter’s basic argument is summed up in the title of the first chapter ‘From One Dictator to Another (1976-1979)’. Despite everything that has changed, for Dikötter, the CCP’s dictatorship is essentially the same as it was under Mao, and because they haven’t properly embraced capitalism (by which he means private ownership), the economy is necessarily headed for the rocks.

The book is strongest on what used to be called ‘Pekingology’, the dissection of policy and personal differences inside China’s ruling class, and on the many things that have gone wrong with the economy: the debt mountain, uncontrolled competition between different local governments, repeated bouts of inflation, and massive environmental degradation. What’s missing is any attempt to explain how the economy has repeatedly recovered from or managed these crises and continued to grow, or even an acknowledgement that the many stresses and strain are products of growth. And the search for every scrap of evidence of failure does at times lead him into error.

For instance, he states on page 234 that; ‘In 1976, according to the World Bank, the country’s gross domestic product, when calculated per capita, ranked 123rd in the world. By 2001…it had dropped to 130th.‘ Yet just eighteen lines later he notes that ‘…China had achieved Deng Xiaoping’s goal of quadrupling the economy by the turn of the century.’ It is hard to see how both statements can be right, and there is no attempt to explain the contradiction.[3]

Dikötter is also right to see Tiananmen Square as a hinge point in China’s modern history, and the chapter on 1989-91 is arguably the best one, though even here his over-reliance on British Foreign Office reports means the account of events outside Beijing isn’t the sharpest.

Getting change wrong

The huge economic changes in China since the 1970s have been accompanied by equally profound social and political changes, but this is where the book is weakest. It’s not just that everyday life has changed out of all recognition, but also that the post-Mao era has seen far more strikes, protests and other forms of dissent, with very varying levels of repression and tolerance. The worst instances of repression are highlighted, but for a ‘people’s historian’ his account of popular resistance is curiously patchy.

So he notes of strikes and peasants protests in the 1990s ‘…in most cases protesters dispersed quietly after their point had been made, resilient yet resigned, fully aware that they stood no chance against the implacable machinery of the state’ (p222). What this misses is that the two very distinct protest waves – peasants revolting against excessive taxes, and workers sacked from state-owned enterprises demanding redundancy payments – both won their key demands. In both cases the central state changed the law to head off further protests.

Over the period covered in the book, the state has been forced by both action from below and demographic change to grant in practice far greater rights than existed under Mao. Although there is no legal right to strike, most strikes take place without police intervention, and many win – and the central ruling class are well aware of this. In China: fragile superpower, former US official Susan Shirk recounts meeting the then Chinese Premier in 2002: ‘Without referring to any notes, he continued, “Between January 1 and March 28, 2002, there were 265 protests of groups of more than 50 workers”’[4] The numbers may have declined since then, but as the China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map shows, they haven’t gone away – most recently with mass worker resistance at Foxconn plants.

The same is even more true of everyday life – in part because the extension of the market into all aspects of social life demanded a relaxation, but also because people have repeatedly pushed at the edges of what is allowed, and become used to a standard of living unthinkable 40 years ago. To give just one example: he notes that in 1980 ‘the average factory worker would have to invest his entire earnings over five to eight months to pay for a standard Chinese [television] set’ (pp 29-30), but not that almost every household now has a television.

The book ends in 2012, with only a brief epilogue covering the decade since. This is ironic, since under Xi Jinping the CCP has tightened up their economic and social control, with the result that China today more closely resembles the unchanging dictatorship of his account. His reason for this is that the book relies heavily on the (unpublished) diaries of a senior member of the ruling class, which end in 2012. This means that the book doesn’t even mention the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s global infrastructure investment plan, a quite astonishing omission for a work that’s meant to give an overview of China’s changing relations with the world. Covid gets a very brief mention, with no account at all of the huge impact on Chinese economy and society, nor the coercive lockdowns that led to the explosions of protest in late November.

There has long been an audience for books predicting the imminent demise of the CCP, and in the current political climate China after Mao is likely to do as well as its many predecessors. But as Thomas Orlik noted in his contrarian China: the bubble that never pops ‘collapse theories have been many and varied. So far, they have one thing in common: they have all been wrong.’[5] A full explanation of this lies beyond the scope of this review, but one key part of the answer is that the CCP’s tight control of the economy is a feature, not a bug – something that writers who equate capitalism with private ownership cannot grasp. Of course the CCP cannot forever outrun the basic contradictions of capitalism, but that’s true of all ruling classes, and the CCP are far from the most incompetent of them. Readers who know something of modern China will find far more to disagree with than I have noted here, and anyone looking for a good account of how China has changed since Mao will need to keep looking.

[1] Mao’s great famine, The tragedy of liberation and The cultural revolution, all London: Bloomsbury, respectively 2010, 2013 and 2016.

[2] The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.

[3] The answer turns out to be that the World Bank data is flawed. There are a lot more countries listed in 2001 than for 1976 – partly because of the creation of new states (the break-up of Yugoslavia, etc) and partly because a lot of states are missing from the 1976 data (see ). And without getting too technical, it’s worth noting that the World Bank has six different ways of measuring GDP per capita (expressed as US dollar value of 2015, the US dollar value today, and so on), but he doesn’t explain which one he’s using.

[4] Susan L Shirk, China: fragile superpower (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p56.

[5] Thomas Orlik, China: the bubble that never pops (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), p199.

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