Frank Dikötter

Senior Fellow

Frank Dikötter is chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Before moving to Asia in 2006, he was professor of the modern history of China at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was born in the Netherlands, educated in Switzerland, and received his PhD from the University of London in 1990. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Leiden.

Frank has published a dozen books that have changed the way we look at the history of China, from the classic The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Stanford University Press, 1992) to China before Mao: The Age of Openness (University of California Press, 2007). His Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (University of Chicago Press, 2004) used archives from China, Europe, and the United States to challenge one of the cornerstones of current international drug policy, namely, the idea that opium changed China into a nation of addicts.

Most recently he has published a People's Trilogy, using newly opened files from the Chinese Communist Party’s own archives to document the impact of communism on the lives of ordinary people under Mao. The first volume, Mao's Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, won the 2011 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, Britain’s most prestigious book award for non-fiction. It was selected as a Book of the Year by The Economist, the Independent, the Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard, The Telegraph, the New Statesman and the Globe and Mail, and has been translated into thirteen languages. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2014. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 concludes the trilogy and was published in May 2016. He is currently working on a history of the cult of personality seen through the lives of eight dictators, from Mussolini to Mao and Mengistu.

Filter By:



Recent Commentary


‘How To Be A Dictator’ Review: A Poetics For Tyrants

by Tunku Varadarajan featuring Frank Diköttervia The Wall Street Journal
Friday, November 29, 2019

A dictator cannot lead through oppression alone. He must also create the illusion of public support.

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century

by Frank Diköttervia Books by Hoover Fellows
Wednesday, November 20, 2019

No dictator can rule through fear and violence alone. Naked power can be grabbed and held temporarily, but it never suffices in the long term. In the twentieth century, as new technologies allowed leaders to place their image and voice directly into their citizens' homes, a new phenomenon appeared where dictators exploited the cult of personality to achieve the illusion of popular approval without ever having to resort to elections.


Frank Dikotter: Inside The Dictator's Mind

interview with Frank Diköttervia ABC Radio
Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Hoover Institution fellow Frank Dikotter discusses his book How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century.

Photographic portrait of the “Great and Generous Leader,” Joseph Stalin.
In the News

A Chilling Study Of The World's Worst Dictators

featuring Frank Diköttervia The Sidney Morning Herald
Friday, November 1, 2019

There is an astonishing scene in the 1994 Russian film Burnt by the Sun. A giant celebratory hot-air balloon bearing a portrait of Stalin is released at the same time, in June 1936 during the great purges, that the Soviet secret police arrest a legendary Red Army hero and "old Bolshevik". This moment juxtaposes the two elements that sustained Stalin’s Russia: public worship and political terror. They lie at the core of Frank Dikotter’s impressive and authoritative new book. Dictatorships employ violence to seize power and eliminate opposition. But to entrench themselves and survive, they also need popular consent, created and sustained through personality cults.

In the News

How To Be A Dictator By Frank Dikötter Review – The Cult Of Personality

featuring Frank Diköttervia The Guardian
Saturday, October 26, 2019

Charisma, a lust for power, an absence of principles … what links Mao, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and other 20th-century dictators?

Adolf Hitler, courtesy of the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
In the News

How To Be A Dictator By Frank Dikötter Review — Top Tips For Tyrants

featuring Frank Diköttervia The Times
Friday, October 4, 2019

[Subscription Required] How to be a dictator? Ruthlessness matters a lot more than talent, but luck most of all. That is the upshot of Frank Dikötter’s elegant and readable study of the cult of personality in the 20th century.


The People’s Republic Of China Was Born In Chains

by Frank Diköttervia Foreign Policy
Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Communist Party calls 1949 a liberation. But China was far freer beforehand.

Must Read | Watch | Listen

The People’s Republic of China Was Born in Chains: The Communist Party calls 1949 a liberation. But China was far freer beforehand

by Frank Diköttervia Foreign Policy
Tuesday, October 1, 2019

On Oct. 1, 2019, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, an event referred to by the government as a liberation. It was a liberation that plunged the country into decades of Maoist cruelty and chaos.

In the News

How To Be A Dictator By Frank Dikötter — The Tyranny Of Strongmen

featuring Frank Diköttervia Financial Times
Friday, September 27, 2019

A timely and enjoyable look about the personality of dictators and the need to defend democracy.

In the News

Book Of The Week: How To Be A Dictator By Frank Dikötter

featuring Frank Diköttervia Evening Standard
Thursday, September 5, 2019
For Dutch historian Frank Dikötter, the purpose of a dictator’s personality cult is clear. It is not to convince or persuade but rather to “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity”.