Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Great Leap into Famine

Last week, NMC flagged a roundup of topics that China experts would love to know more about. Leading the list was the famine of 1959-62, during the "Great Leap Forward" under Mao.

All the details may never be known, but there's a new book about it:
In brutal fact, between 1959 and 1962, at least forty-three million Chinese died during the famine .... Most died of hunger, over two million were executed or were beaten or tortured to death, the birth rate halved in some places, parents sold their children, and people dug up the dead and ate them.

The cause of this disaster, the worst ever to befall China and one of the worst anywhere at any time, was Mao, who, cheered on by his sycophantic and frightened colleagues, decreed that before long China's economy must overtake that of the Soviet Union, Britain and even the US. Mao suggested that 'When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill,' and declared that anyone who questioned his policies was a 'Rightist', a toxic term eventually applied to thirteen million Party members. * * *

Now Frank Dikötter, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and at Hong Kong University, has laid out the vast horror in detail, drawing on local and provincial archives that have only recently become available to approved foreign scholars.
An interesting assertion is that local archives are sometimes more accurate than central ones:
Until recently, Dikötter states, most accounts of the famine have been based on central government sources that are often incomplete or untrue. What he found during his years rummaging in archives throughout China was that such central documents were transmitted in fuller, less censored versions to the provinces and below. In addition, the archives he saw contained letters of complaint or justification from local officials and even ordinary people, minutes from local and even central meetings, and statistics which were either falsified to hoodwink Mao or local superiors, or were subtle enough to reveal that awful things were happening. For example, in 1960 in the 'model province' of Henan, in Xinyang alone 'over a million people died ... Of these victims 67,000 were clubbed to death with sticks'. When this came to Mao 'he blamed the trouble on class enemies'. On another occasion, when the Chairman learned that there had been terrible deaths in one town he had hitherto admired, 'Mao simply switched his allegiance to the next county down the road willing to outdo others in extravagant production claims.' Mao and his cronies insisted, as one of them put it as reports of deaths rolled in, that 'This is the price we have to pay; it's nothing to be afraid of. Who knows how many people have been sacrificed on the battlefields and in the prisons [for the revolutionary cause]? Now we have a few cases of illness and death; it's nothing!' Every detail was locally recorded and explained - or obscured. Take this report from 25 February 1960 in Yaohejia village: 'Name of culprit: Yang Zhongsheng ... Name of victim: Yang Ecshun. Relationship with Culprit: Younger Brother ... Manner of Crime: Killed and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.'

Society completely unravelled. In the newly established communes, peasants following Mao's lunatic advice ploughed their paddies uselessly deep. They dismantled their houses to use as fertiliser, and melted down their tools to make the steel Mao had decreed was the mark of an advanced socialist country (after all wasn't Stalin 'the man of steel'?). Other peasants abandoned their fields and marched miles to work all night constructing mammoth water schemes that often came to nothing, while their families died without grain at home. The only reason millions more didn't starve, as Dikötter describes in detail, is because of their desperate ploys to steal food.
Naturally, few Chinese learn about this today, and what they do learn is mostly lies.


  1. And the name of this book is? I can't find it on Amazon.

  2. Shoot, Rebelyell, I forgot the link -- see the edited post.

  3. Thanks, TBA. Amazon just added it to their line up for pre-order, to be released in the U.S. on Sept. 28. A couple of days ago when I searched the author's name it didn't show up, but now it does. The pre-order price is $19.80.