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Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' and the Power of History

We have known for some time that Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, was one of the last century’s most brutal and vicious mass murderers.  In 2005, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao was published in this country to wide acclaim, and for the first time, many of the myths surrounding his rise to power and the nature of his rule after 1949 were brought to light. The authors estimated that Mao “was responsible for over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.” My own discussion of their findings can be read here.

One period they covered was Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” his attempt to rapidly industrialize China in the five years between 1958 and 1962. Chang and Halliday had argued that not only did the program fail; it produced mass starvation, with areas of China resorting to cannibalism. Peasants and city dwellers alike were forced to build home steel furnaces, and all metal implements -- including pots and pans used for cooking -- were to be smelt, turning each home into a mini local steel producing factory. Mao also ordered that all sparrows be killed, since they ate grain. The “bourgeois” bird was condemned; the result was the upsetting of nature’s ecological balance, as pests and other birds once killed by sparrows began to attack crops. Before long, Mao was asking the Soviet Union to send them 200,000 sparrows from the Soviet Far East.

Mao had said: “Half of China may well have to die,” and he was prepared for such an outcome. It almost came true. Thirty-eight million people died of starvation and overwork during the Leap and the subsequent famine, which lasted for four long years. This greatest of 20th century manmade famines exceeded the deaths caused by Stalin’s collectivization of the Ukraine. As Mao told his staff, “50 million (might have to) die … you can’t blame me when people die.”

Now Frank Dikötter, a historian who lives in Hong Kong, has written the first major book about these disastrous years, which Dikötter calls “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known.” It is titled Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. Using regional archives in rural areas, he has unearthed many gruesome details. A British newspaper covered the author’s recent book talk, noting that Dikötter “compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.”

Calling the period a virtual war between the peasant and the State, Dikötter said: "It ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three grimmest events of the 20th century. ... It was like [the Cambodian communist dictator] Pol Pot's genocide multiplied 20 times over.” It is not only a period that official China has conveniently forgot -- wiped out of the historical memory of China’s newly prosperous populace -- but of course it is one also forgot by those legions of American leftists who in those years maintained that Mao and the Chinese Communists were successfully creating a new world.

The records Dikötter found revealed:

State retribution for tiny thefts, such as stealing a potato, even by a child, would include being tied up and thrown into a pond; parents were forced to bury their children alive or were doused in excrement and urine, others were set alight, or had a nose or ear cut off. One record shows how a man was branded with hot metal. People were forced to work naked in the middle of winter; 80 per cent of all the villagers in one region of a quarter of a million Chinese were banned from the official canteen because they were too old or ill to be effective workers, so were deliberately starved to death.

All of this raises the question of what this means for the people of today’s China, whose real history is carefully hidden from them by the Party’s leaders. As we read of the great progress China has made in the past few decades, it is tempting to think that China is no longer what anyone would call a Communist state -- since it is so far removed from these horrible events of Mao’s day.