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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dry - and with a hidden agenda, 27 Dec. 2007
This review is from: The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market (Paperback)
The author of this book clearly knows what he is talking about. His familiarity with the PRC stretches back several decades, and he quotes extensively from a wide range of sources in Chinese. Since I specialise in ancient China, I cannot lay claim to any authority in the field of modern history, but, nevertheless, I think a few remarks about this book are in place.

For my taste, G.'s narrative remains far too much within the ideological framework of Communist discourse. It creates the impression that not much else happened in China after 1949 except of discussions about the right path to Communism within the Party leadership. Sometimes, though deplorably rarely, we read about people's reactions to these discussions, but the top-down approach to history is never abandoned throughout the book.

While ideological and power political struggles were certainly of primary importance, the disruptive and at the same time repressive impact Communist ideology had on the population right into the 1980s merits closer attention. As it is, the book is neither fish nor flesh. For a social history, it simply does not say enough about society, and for a political history, it is not sufficiently systematic. For example, it does not even describe the constitutional and institutional foundations of the PRC, its formal and informal power structures or its official and civil organisations. The focus on ideological discourse also impairs the books readbility since the constant regurgitation of garbled Party prose makes absolutely dire reading.

However, there is a more serious point to discuss. I strongly suspect that G. consciously pursues an apologetic intention and tries to play down the unimaginably devastating effects of Communist rule. For instance, as an illustration of how improvements in sanitation and health care raised people's life expectancy immediately after the Communist takeover, we learn that "[t]he mortality rate fell from 25 per thousand before 1949 to 17 in 1951 (and 10.8 by 1957)" (p. 23). It is hardly surprising that a society ravaged by war such as China before 1949 should have a higher mortality rate than in peacetime. To be in a position to gauge the effect of new health measures, it would be necessary to identify the places where they were actually carried out and calculate their effects in comparison with other, neglected locations. But it is even more conspicuous that G.'s comparison of mortality rates stops with 1957, since mortality rose again dramatically in the following years as a result of the so-called "Great Leap Forward". This omission may not be accidental, as G.'s treatment of the "Great Leap" shows. His narrative of this nationwide mass-mobilisation campaign focuses on rather harmless-looking inner-party struggles about the proper Socialist economic policy for China. In the section devoted to the "Great Leap", he does not lose a single word about the things that happened outside the Party offices and cadre gatherings. He remains completely silent about the 20-30 million people who died as a result of these ideological disagreements within the Party leadership (pp. 32-35). Later, though, G. does acknowledge that there were "more than 20 million 'excess deaths'" (p. 121), and he mentions that as the result of a local famine "out of a population of 380,000, more than 60,000 died" during this period (p. 126). At some other point, however, he cannot restrain himself from applauding the "Great Leap" for "absorb[ing] the energy and mobiliz[ing] the enthusiasm of a large activist minority" (p. 64). One just wonders whether all this "energy" and "enthusiasm" was cleverly employed in the smelting of useless iron and other mass campaigns that diverted vital parts of the labour force from agriculture and thereby caused widespread starvation.

In sum, although it would be difficult to sustain the claim that G. twists the truth or lies by omission in this particular case, he certainly scatters crucial information in such a way over the entire book that a reader who lacks familiarity with the topic and does not pay close attention might easily get a completely skewed impression of what was actually going on. This is, by the way, a very common technique in ancient Chinese historiography used to achieve obfuscation without having to resort to outright lies.

In a long and tortuous endnote to his "Introduction", G. takes pain to assure his readers that he is aware of the human costs of Communist rule but will nevertheless not daemonise the PRC or its leadership. Symptomatically, however, he also states "that Mao was an original thinker whose arguments should be taken seriously" (p. 17). Although he seems to feel slightly embarrassed about it, it appears that G. is one of the last believers in Maoism - and it shows in his book.
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Initial post: 21 Jul 2009 12:31:56 BDT
I think your comments are unfair to the author. Taking people seriously and even regarding them with some sympathy is not the same thing as agreeing with them or exonerating them for the disasters and even crimes for which they may be responsible. In fact it's probably essential to being able to write effectively about any subject. But your presentation of a strongly critical perspective was very helpful in making me think a bit more deeply about the implications of what he presents and how he does so. Thank you.
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