Four years ago, historian Frank Dikötter found himself with an opportunity few foreign academics had ever experienced before. In the years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China opened up some of its secret archives. The Hong Kong University professor seized his chance and began a detailed investigation into one of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century: the Great Leap Forward.
The resulting book Mao’s Great Famine, is a groundbreaking account of a catastrophe of which little is known in the West.
“Between 1958 and 1962,” Dikötter explains in the preface, “China descended into hell.” The reason? Chairman Mao’s reckless pursuit of a strategy to transform a largely pre-industrial country into a modern-day superpower.
“The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives,” says the Dutch historian, who is also a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Dikötter starts the tale with Stalin’s death in 1953. Mao was determined that China would overtake the West and (perhaps more importantly) wrest leadership of the socialist bloc from the Soviet Union. Four years later the USSR launched the world’s first space satellite. Khrushchev then announced the Russian economy would soon outpace that of the US, which left Mao wanting to set a few targets of his own (even though his own boast – “In 15 years we may we catch up with or overtake Great Britain” – was less headline-grabbing in comparison).
The goal was an arbitrary one, but officials and administrators were soon tasked with fast-tracking China’s industrial build-up all the same. Dissent was dangerous as Party members were regularly purged or jailed for perceived criticism of Mao’s plan.
Not that Dikötter absolves the rest of the government from complicity in the string of policy initiatives that followed.
“[Mao] would never have been able to prevail if Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, the next two most powerful Party leaders, had acted against him,” Dikötter says, going on to explain that the three men stood at the head of “chains of interests and alliances that extended all the way down to the village.”
The countryside was the first area to feel Mao’s modernising impulse. Mao wanted to import modern munitions and industrial machinery – and to pay for it he needed a spike in grain production. The policies that followed were expected to deliver the grain boom. Farmers were duly regimented into ‘People’s Communes’ tens of thousands strong. This created a labour force capable of taking on massive irrigation, dam and reservoirs projects. The trouble was that most of those plans were useless at best, and often destructive.
The disruption was widespread. Country-dwellers were forced to work on short rations, often through harvest time (meaning that their own crops often rotted in the fields). According to Dikötter, as much as 40% of all housing in the country was destroyed (bricks were commandeered for other purposes, such as to make fertiliser). He says the damage to dwellings “far outstripped any of the Second World War bombing campaigns” in Europe.
Perhaps better known is that farmers were forced to melt down their pots, pans and tools in ‘backyard furnaces’, in a futile attempt to increase steel output. Dictatorial cadres also enforced ludicrous farming methods on the communal fields. These included ‘deep ploughing’ (sometimes through several metres of topsoil), and ‘close cropping’, which suffocated much of the plant crop. Ill-informed apparatchiks rode rough-shod across thousands of years of agricultural heritage and understanding.
Since officials had to constantly inflate their grain numbers to meet Mao’s ballooning targets, farmers were ultimately left with little of the harvest themselves. Hunger led to starvation.
Mao was unmoved: “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill,” he pronounced.
As the state demanded more and more grain, the incentives to farm within the system began to collapse. Quota could only be collected with the threat of violence. “Food was commonly used as a weapon,” writes Dikötter, “Hunger was the punishment of first resort, even more so than a beating.” And that meant that those who were weak or ill were the first to lose out.
The environmental damage was also extensive. “We will never know the full extent of forest coverage lost,” Dikötter explains, “but a sustained attack on nature claimed up to half of all trees in some provinces.”
The statistics are alarming, but some of the book’s most powerful passages are the tragic stories of individuals and families caught up in struggle for survival in the Great Leap Foward era. Dikötter describes children being sold and women forced to trade sex for food. In one Hunan village, a father “died of grief” after he was forced to bury his young son alive for stealing “a handful of grain”.
Getting an accurate tally of just how many died as a result hasn’t been an easy task. Until now, scholars have usually extrapolated from population statistics. But one of the book’s major contributions is a new death toll compiled from the Party’s own records.
The estimate: at least 45 million people were killed, many as a result of torture and execution but the bulk from starvation (more than the 40 million civilians worldwide that historians believe to have died during the Second World War).
In 1962 the devastation became too obvious to deny, and senior Party leaders began to try to reverse many of the worst policies (all the while careful to avoid direct criticism of Mao himself). That change in policy would eventually lead to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution four years later, as Mao sought to regain control. Both of those events continue to have a profound influence on China’s current crop of leaders – and remain central to how they see the world today.
A warning: this is a graphic and at times stomach-churning book, in particular part five ‘The Vulnerable’ and part six ‘Ways of Dying’. One chapter, for example, is titled simply ‘Cannibalism’. But when describing such an era, the sense of horror is largely unavoidable.
Roderick MacFarquar – who wrote another excellent book about the Cultural Revolution – is unstinting in his praise of Dikötter’s achievement: “A first-class piece of research… [Mao] will be remembered as the ruler who initiated and presided over the worst man-made human catastrophe ever. His place in Chinese history is assured. Dikötter’s book will have done much to put him there.”
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