Mao’s famine was no dinner party


There are many books on the Great Leap Forward (GLF) that detail the horrific suffering inflicted on the Chinese people, and the instigating role of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is well known, so why yet another?

MAO’S GREAT FAMINE: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62, by Frank Dikotter. Bloomsbury, 2010, 420 pp., £25. (paper)

Frank Dikotter brings fresh evidence to the analysis gathered from various newly accessible archives and makes a strong case for raising the death toll estimates to a minimum of 45 million. He also provides further details about the debate within top CCP circles, including Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi and others that eliminates any doubt that they knew what was happening and chose not to act before it was too late for far too many.

Dikotter notes: “Mao was the visionary, Zhou Enlai the midwife who transformed nightmares into reality.”

Forty-five million deaths, a bit more than the population of Spain, is grim evidence of the CCP’s ruthless disregard for a people in whose name they ruled. Dikotter argues that the GLF left Mao discredited and vulnerable, driving him to initiate the horrors of the Cultural Revolution to retain power and exact revenge on his detractors, real and imagined.

Dikotter’s well-written book not only explains how Mao’s fingerprints were all over this man-made tragedy, but also how opportunists and those who feared Mao’s wrath did nothing to stop the madness. The author also addresses Mao’s “useful idiots,” the dismissive expression coined by Stalin to describe the naive foreign toadies who defended his colossal misdeeds.

Many China hands remain convinced even today that Mao basically had it right, taking refuge in his aphorism, “Revolution is not a dinner party.” True, but as Dikotter explains, it does not have to be a famine. The useful idiots make all sorts of apologies for Mao’s magnificent blunders, saying the GLF death toll is exaggerated, insist it was a short-lived aberration, that rogue cadres were the one’s wreaking havoc and that the Soviets and U.S. share blame because they refused to provide grain that could have averted widespread starvation. Dikotter eviscerates all of these excuses and many more in building a richly sourced indictment of Mao and the CCP.

It is clear that the simultaneous breakneck industrialization and collectivization of the countryside, the essence of the Great Leap Forward, was Mao’s brainchild, an epic blunder doomed to failure. Not only did he browbeat the CCP leadership into adopting this policy, he refused to acknowledge that it was causing sharp reductions in harvests while contributing nothing to industrialization. Voices of reason were sidelined or purged, replaced by cadres and leaders who understood that their careers depended on implementing disastrous policies.

Mao was not in the dark — he knew what was happening but blamed “rightists” for sabotaging the project. Cadres who criticized the GLF were hunted down, stripped of power, often beaten and jailed and replaced by thugs who had few scruples about enforcing compliance by any means necessary. The death tolls include 2.5 million people who were beaten to death and another 3 million who died in the Chinese gulag. In the archives the author found a curious GLF era document, “Why and How Cadres Beat People,” suggesting it was a matter of state concern.

Dikotter argues that famine could have been averted, but only at the cost of Mao’s pride. The GLF was his strategy to overtake and outshine the Soviet Union and thus Soviet offers of grain were turned down because it would entail an embarrassing admission of failure. Exports of grain from China were maintained throughout the famine in order to pay off loans while grain purchased on international markets was used to fulfill pledges to Albania, Cuba and other countries in Asia and Africa.

There is no evidence that the Soviets were pressuring China for accelerated repayment as apologists assert, but again China had to maintain appearances and so squeezed starving farmers, actually raising targets while harvests declined. Despite U.S. reluctance to help China, Beijing had access to international grain markets and purchased all they needed as part of their battle with Moscow to win global influence. They even spurned a discreet offer of grain from Japan.

Collectivization caused rural society to disintegrate, making everyone “depend on the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state.”

And lets not forget the bizarre bird killing campaign and subsequent infestations of crop-devastating insects. Dikotter mines the provincial and local archives for telling details such as parents selling their children for a bowl of rice and two kilograms of peanuts or peasants who resorted to eating mud only to die painfully from blocked intestines.

The GLF was the maelstrom Mao inflicted. By instigating a climate of fear and frenzied witch hunts, Mao ignited target fever among local leaders who made unrealistic projections to prove their value and loyalty. The author maintains that “Terror and violence were the foundation of the regime. Terror, to be effective, had to be arbitrary and ruthless.”

Since it had so few carrots, the CCP relied on the stick, literally its weapon of choice in the ubiquitous beating sessions.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan