'The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History' exposes the appalling reality under the dictator's regime

The other day a newspaper supplement arrived, tagging along with the Daily Telegraph. It was China Watch, produced and published by China Daily in the People’s Republic of China.

It contained articles on protecting Tibet, flooding on the Yangtze River, diplomatic problems with islands in the South China Sea and so on. I read it with some curiosity, having just finished reading The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, by Frank Dikotter.

I couldn’t help thinking how strange to be reading a bland and unexciting piece of advertising when, a mere 40 years before, with the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the country had just come to the end of a 10-year period of appalling social engineering, industrial and agricultural chaos that had resulted in millions of deaths.

The author who, with this book, completes a trilogy about the life and times of Chairman Mao, provides a graphic account of what life was like under a Communist dictator, whose failed economic policies – the “Great Leap Forward” – and deliberate decision to create an internal revolution as a ploy to shore up his own power, caused untold misery to his own people.

He deliberately incited masses of young students – always a volatile group – to form themselves into “Red Guards”, sworn to defend Mao from his “enemies”.

These were categorised as all reactionaries, capitalists, revisionists, rightists, counter-revolutionaries, the bourgeoisie, as well as “demons” and “monsters”. Essentially, this meant anybody and everybody.

In the misery and mayhem that followed, with crime, murder, suicide and starvation rampant among the population, Dikotter provides one hopeful note: the survival of the family unit against all odds.

Parents “stubbornly protected their beliefs in the relative privacy of their home.” Filial piety, which had been a linchpin of Confucian ethics, proved “remarkably resilient”; few children, though encouraged to do so, actually denounced their parents to the authorities.

Home-schooling, now increasingly popular among western families at odds with state education, allowed Chinese parents “to instil the values they cherished into their offspring.”

Having a “bad class background” denied many young people secondary education. This meant they were spared much of the state propaganda.

Mothers, in particular, played an important role in instilling traditional values in their children. No wonder under Communism there was a deliberate attempt to destroy the family unit. And thank God that, despite Mao’s evil intent, the Chinese family survived.