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Researching the Hidden History of Modern China

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As the gateway to the mainland for more than 150 years Hong Kong’s geo-political position also made the city a key China-watching centre. None more so than in the cold war decades following the start of communist rule in 1949 when refugees flooded across the border seeking a safe haven in the British-ruled colony during periods of upheaval and turmoil. They brought with them news and personal accounts of monumentous events taking place behind the bamboo curtain long before they became public knowledge. And some of those events that unfolded half a century ago are still shrouded in secrecy.

But details of these political and human dramas that affected hundreds of millions of people, like the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), were fully documented by communist officials at every level of society. And those details, covering everything from Politburo Standing Committee meetings to permission to take a cow to market, were all carefully written down and filed away in local, county, provincial and national archives.

They have remained locked away since then, and in many cases simply forgotten about. But as part of a gradual relaxing of the rules controlling access to the archives, many of these documents have now been declassified allowing researchers to fill the information void covering this period. Across China, archives of all types are being opened up to outside experts. For the first time academics and researchers are able to read first hand accounts of what happened to the people during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution.

Frank Dikötter, Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and the author of a series of books on the history of modern China, believes access to declassified records is crucial to academics studying the mainland. "It seems to me that the real great opportunity to re-write the history of the People's Republic with the people at the very heart of it is the opening of the archives," Professor Dikötter said.

"Archives sounds like a very stark term, a little bit intimidating, but it's just paper. It's evidence. There are archives where a large amount of material has been declassified and you can literally read for days on end. Extremely interesting reports which range from confessions of people to the secret minutes of top leadership meetings, and private matters written by ordinary people who wished to complain about what was happening to them."

Professor Dikötter used his access to archives across China as part of extensive research into his latest book, Mao’s Great Famine, that was caused by the Great Leap Forward’s failure and the diversion of labour from farming. The information he gleaned allowed the historian to calculate that under Mao’s direct orders 45 million people died in the devastating famine.

As part of the overall research, Professor Dikötter’s colleague Dr Xun Zhou conducted "insider interviews" with famine survivors in their native dialects. Over a four-year period Dr Zhou traveled to remote parts of China and recorded more than 100 oral interviews detailing personal accounts of the period, many for the first time. "They wanted to tell somebody about what happened to them but they never had the opportunity," she said.

As a result of the flow of information in the 1950s and 1960s Hong Kong became a China-watching Mecca for spies, academics, journalists amongst many others. It was a window for the West into an otherwise closed and little understood authoritarian world. Professor Dikötter believes the city is again well placed to become a centre for research into China with the opening up of the archives and that Hong Kong U is also well placed to become a centre for historians, including Chinese academics, as he explains is this video.

Professor Dikötter is the author of a series of books on China including Mao’s Great Famine for which he won the 2011 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.