The Maoist Legacy: A Research Project on PRC History
University of Freiburg, Institute of Sinology

The Institute of Sinology at the University of Freiburg, Germany, was reestablished in 2010 with a clear focus on the history of modern China. Current research centers primarily on China’s transformations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The editors of H-PRC kindly invited me to briefly outline a specific project, entitled “The Maoist Legacy: Party Dictatorship, Transitional Justice and the Politics of Truth”, which will start on March 1, 2014, generously funded by the European Research Commission. The main aim of the five-year project is to analyze and document how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dealt with the legacy of mass atrocities committed under Maoist rule.

Most accounts of the period mention the trial against the “Gang of Four” and the accompanying resolution on party history from 1981, which held former party chairman Mao Zedong accountable for grave political errors but not for criminal deeds. However, as yet there has been no in-depth analysis of the millions of cases and petitions handled by courts and party committees at lower levels between roughly 1978 and 1987. Despite its enormous scale and relevance to societal stability, this so-called “reversal of unjust, wrong, and false verdicts” (pingfan yuanjiacuo’an 平 反冤假错案) has so far received little scholarly attention.

The current project aims at diminishing this gap by studying the CCP’s strategies and the societal consequences of this major policy change. It proposes to analyze the partial break from the Maoist legacy as an important, yet by and large overlooked example of transitional justice, albeit confined by the party dictatorship’s overarching aim to stay in power. The project relies on three case studies (Beijing, Jiangxi, and Guangxi) to reveal the great regional variances in implementing these policies between center and periphery. The case studies will be carried out by two PhD students and myself.

What might be of further interest to researchers of PRC history: The project also aims at building an electronic database to bundle the relevant party documents, statistical information, and, ideally, oral history interview transcripts in digitized form. For this reason, the project employs a database infrastructure programmer and a digital archivist, who will draw on a wide variety of official and unofficial sources. The project is envisioned to include a website with general information and the actual password protected database for researchers across the globe.

We would very much welcome exchange with scholars working on PRC History or on related attempts of authoritarian regimes at coming to terms with a dictatorial past.

Best regards,

Daniel Leese (