Review of Mitter and Dikötter

Jeremy Brown's picture

Hi everyone,

Last month on the original PRCHistory email list Felix Wemheuer asked about reviews of Dikötter's Tragedy of Liberation.  A joint review of Mitter's China's War with Japan and Dikötter's book was just published here:

Best wishes,

Jeremy Brown

Keywords: Book Review

Thanks for sharing this thoughtful review, Jeremy. 

First, I’ll be stealing your class discussion question: “imagine that China held an open presidential election after Japan surrendered in August 1945.  For whom would you have voted?”

Second, I have also been thinking about the trend you mention in relation to Dikötter’s book – new scholarship that marshals newly uncovered archival materials but then uses them to make arguments that are pretty much identical to older cold-war ideas about the experience of Maoism.  Obviously scholars can productively return to the conclusions of earlier researchers, but in this case, I too am troubled by Dikötter’s selective use of evidence.

As you note, he discusses the English-language eyewitness accounts that were incredibly popular in the U.S. during the cold war.  As you also note, a new reading of this literature could be valuable. But Dikötter gives us an old reading, and a very selective one.

Most of the memoirists he discusses were hostile, and it is true that the majority of such accounts were anti-Communist.  But there was, as we all know, a significant and fascinating minority of people who were targeted and even imprisoned by the Chinese Communists but who maintained more sympathy for the Party and its efforts.  The most famous of those might be the last emperor, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi.  His autobiography我的前半生 (1960) was translated as From Emperor to Citizen (1965).  Of course this book has long been dismissed as nothing more than propaganda because Mao and Zhou Enlai apparently encouraged Pu Yi to write it.)  Also noteworthy were the many autobiographical pieces written by the “21”  -----American prisoners of war who chose to refuse repatriation from Korea and move instead to the PRC.

Dikötter does briefly mention that even some “victims” of liberation remained sympathetic to the Chinese Communists.  He devotes no more than a paragraph to Harriet Mills and Allyn and Adele Rickett, American Fulbright fellows in Beijing who were arrested as spies and held in thought-reform centers during (and after) the Korean War. In a footnote (note 26, p. 313) Dikötter diagnoses Mills with “Stockholm Syndrome” for standing by her confession that she and other Americans were working as spies in China.   All three of the jailed Fulbrighters were, according to Dikötter, “subjected so often to thought-reform sessions that they themselves ended up believing they were spies” (114).  However, at least in the case of Allyn Rickett, Dikötter’s on thin ice. On the surface it does seem a bit bizarre that some graduate students confessed to espionage, bizarre enough that such stories served as great fuel for brainwashing rumors in the U.S.  But if we actually read the first-hand account (Prisoners of Liberation, 1957), we learn that case was fairly complicated.  Allyn Rickett provided a great deal of evidence to suggest that he actually was spying, although he claims that he didn’t think it was a big deal at the time: “Even while I was regularly supplying information to the American Consulate in Peking after the Communists took control of the city I had no really clear realization that my espionage activities would involve me in any serious danger (3).  In 1957, a year and a half after their release from prison, Allyn and Adele Rickett both expressed clear support for the PRC government, even suggesting it was superior to the U.S. government in some ways (331).  And in 1972, as the Ricketts completed a new epilogue for the 1973 edition of Prisoners of Liberation, they still argued that thought reform had created positive changes in their lives:

In our own personal lives we have found that the experience in China has been of tremendous value.  The knowledge that criticism, even though often painful and sometimes not one hundred per cent correct, is bound to be helpful has made our marital relations and relations with other people much smoother. Though we have admittedly fallen far short of the goals we once set for ourselves, nevertheless we are both convinced that what we learned during our prison experience has made us happier and more active people than we otherwise would have been (344).

Obviously this and other more sympathetic accounts don’t disprove, or even undermine, the probably correct claim that terror played a fundamental role in the success of the Communist Party.  But paying attention to these conflicting accounts does, as you note in your review, encourage us to question our preconceived notions and consider the ways that terror was a crucial but unevenly experienced fact of the 1950s.


I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read Jeremy’s review to check it out! (It's linked in the original post.)


There are similar (and more anguished) memoirs, written and oral, of people who stayed from the 1950s (and earlier) through the CR, ended up in prison (or in horrible conditions) but maintained their allegiance to the PRC and the CCP: The Crooks, the Epsteins, at least one Italian. They are usually evaluated in exactly the same way Mindy mentioned (brainwashing, some  form of psychological twist, etc.). And, in these later cases, these people insisted on maintaining their "fidelity" to the revolution at a time when the revolution was over. 

And just to clarify, I mentioned some English-language memoirs because Jeremy discussed Dikötter’s use of one such text in his review.  There are, obviously, tons of Chinese-language memoirs (and archival documents) in which people express positive views of the 1950s and even remember imprisonment and thought reform as largely positive experiences.  Of course, these are also dismissed as mere propaganda most of the time.

I know I may be sort of veering off-topic here, but anyway: historians looking for new or more records of remarks made back then by the handful of Americans who (either of their own free will or because they were incarcerated) ended up remaining in Mao’s China may want to look at Public Security Intelligence, a classified Central Ministry of Public Security serial that regularly reproduced statements on unfolding domestic and international events made in China by persons of interest. Every now and then it would, for example, quote what imprisoned CIA officers John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau ( ) had to say about this or that. When he heard about the amnesty of selected War Criminals in October 1960, Fecteau for one is said to have told some of the Chinese prisoners around him that  “思想改造确有成效,我已经起了质的变化” as well as add that he hoped when he had himself served a full ten years, he would also be pardoned and released.