Despite the horrors of the Maoist regime, the Communist Party dictatorship in the People's Republic of China continues to exist and retain control, even though tens of millions of people suffered from persecution or were executed for political reasons while he lived. 

Even less likely, the perpetrators and victims have managed to continue living together long after the death of Mao Zedong and the beginning of the reform era in 1978.

Was there a reckoning with the Maoist past? And how did the Communist Party succeed in keeping hold of its monopoly on power despite its disastrous political record?  Those are a few of the key questions Daniel Leese, professor in history and politics of modern China at the Institute of Sinology of the University of Freiburg, is going to attempt to answer with the help of a 1.44-million-euro ERC Starting Grant for pioneering projects from the European Research Council (ERC). They say that the sole evaluation criterion is the scientific excellence of the applicants and their proposals, which are evaluated in a two-stage selection procedure, so a humanities project getting funded this way has to be somewhat rare.

Despite Mao being well-known as far surpassing Adolf Hitler and even Joseph Stalin in the deaths he caused, public discussion and scholarship on Maoist crimes is still only possible within strictly defined limits. 

There was a symbolic trial against members of the so-called Gang of Four, which was led by Mao's widow Jiang Qing and controlled the Communist Party of China through the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution. The resolution dealing with the crimes states that while Mao was politically accountable for straying from the "right" path of communist development, in contrast to the Gang of Four he was not found to be guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. In order to avoid endangering the basis of its legitimacy, the Communist Party did not tolerate more complex attempts at accounting for Maoist crimes in public.

Yet some of the families of the victims were paid off and some of the perpetrators were punished through bureaucratic means - reprimands, relocations, or exclusion from the party. Even though the archives remain confidential, the historians believe there is a wealth of quasi-archival material from the Maoist period they can access for answers. Along with internal party documents, local chronicles, and interviews with contemporary witnesses, this material will form the basis of the research project by Leese and will be made available in a database.

During the five-year funding period, seven researchers plan to conduct selected case studies on the political and societal consequences of the break with Maoism with support from project partners including the Max Planck Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg. In this way, the researchers hope to make this period accessible for comparative research on nations coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorial despotism.