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The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

Sigg Collection
Chen Yanning: Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside, 1972. This painting, from Asia Society’s recent exhibition ‘Art and China’s Revolution,’ shows Mao’s visit to the outskirts of Guangzhou during the first year of the Great Leap Forward, the initiative that propelled China into a famine resulting in millions of deaths.

When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying what had gone wrong in China as they were growing up. Especially after the Tiananmen massacre, many stayed on after their Ph.D.s, some to become professors.

But when Chinese began arriving in the US in significant numbers as college freshmen in the late 1990s,1 the situation was different: the Cultural Revolution had ended before they were born, Tiananmen was a blurred memory, China was booming, and many, perhaps most, planned to return home after gaining work experience in a laboratory or on Wall Street. In addition to having to adjust to different educational methods and lifestyles, Chinese undergraduates, like their graduate student predecessors, had the opportunity to learn about their country’s recent history untrammeled by the requirements of Party propaganda. Unlike their predecessors, however, the undergraduates had concerns.

The natural thing for students everywhere is to learn their nation’s history from their countrymen. Why would Westerners know better about modern Chinese history? Would American professors insult Chairman Mao? Would they too offer up propaganda, only anti-Chinese? And yet most Chinese students realized that there were important periods of China’s past of which they had been taught little. The Cultural Revolution was a subject on which their parents and grandparents rarely dwelled, and most Chinese professors covered it only in passing.2 Further back in time there were the “three bitter years” between 1959 and 1961, brought about, according to official texts, by “Left” errors, characterized by excessive economic targets, the issuing of arbitrary directives, boastfulness, the stirring up of a “communist wind,” “a succession of natural calamities,” and the “perfidious” withdrawal of Soviet aid.3

But those texts do not spell out the terrible human costs of the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward (GLF) of 1958–1960, or indicate that, even at the time, most peasants and some officials recognized that the catastrophe was largely man-made, and not by Russians but by Chinese. For those Chinese students who want a reliable and readable account of what really happened, my standard advice has been to read Hungry Ghosts, by the British journalist Jasper Becker.4 But Becker’s work has now been largely superseded by the pathbreaking Mao’s Great Famine by the social historian Frank Dikötter.

Dikötter is a polyglot scholar on leave from the London School of Oriental and African Studies who is currently chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. From this base on the South China coast, he and his colleague Dr. Zhou Xun have made frequent forays into the interior and managed to gain access to archives in thirteen of China’s thirty-one provincial-level administrations, and to fourteen municipal or county archives, including the important cities of Canton, Wuhan, and Nanjing.5 As far as I know, such widespread access is unprecedented for unofficial academics, especially a foreign researcher, especially on so sensitive a topic. This is a first-class piece of research. Dikötter, who also consulted East German and Soviet archives as well as the British Public Records Office, describes and analyzes the value of his Chinese documentary treasures in an essay on sources in this volume.

In the various Chinese archives, Dikötter and Zhou discovered a mother lode of reports by local government officials and, more importantly, by investigation teams dispatched by Beijing in belated attempts to discover what was really happening at the rice roots. It is mainly on the basis of these reports that Dikötter has fashioned his fascinating but gruesome narrative of the oppression and famine foisted upon the people of China by their leaders during the terrible times of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Ironically, the inspiration for the policies that led to the famine came from a man whom Mao came to despise as a traitor to the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism: Nikita Khrushchev. At the Moscow celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1957, Mao heard Khrushchev vow to overtake the US in important economic indicators within fifteen years. The Chinese Party chairman had long espoused the idea of high-speed development, but in 1956 Premier Zhou Enlai and other economic planners had managed to rein in the overheating economy that his policies had produced.

Now, encouraged by the boasts of the leader of the Communist world, Mao was inspired to try again. He told the assembled ranks of international Communist leaders that China would emulate the Soviet Union by overtaking the United Kingdom over the same period. Back home, Mao was ruthless, cowing Zhou and the other planners into humiliating self-criticisms. With potential opposition squelched, Mao’s promise became the fateful harbinger of the Great Leap Forward launched in 1958.

The basic strategy of the GLF was to substitute a plentiful factor of production, labor, for a scarce one, capital. During the winter of 1957–1958, the Chinese Communists had organized millions of peasants to undertake large-scale water conservancy and irrigation schemes throughout the country, schemes that, as Dikötter points out, were often useless or even damaging to local ecologies. In the spring, Mao turned up at the Ming Tombs Reservoir near Beijing to provide an exemplary photo-op of a leader performing manual labor (briefly). However, this flagship project “was built in the wrong location, it dried up and was abandoned after a few years.” According to an official report, three large, nine medium, and 223 small dams or reservoirs collapsed in 1960 because they were badly built. The two dams completed in 1959 to harness the Huai River broke during a typhoon in 1975, drowning an estimated 230,000 people. But at the time the Party cadres impressed themselves and their leaders with their continuing ability to organize large masses of people for such major projects. As they saw it, the only problem was having to recruit labor from many collective farms for the campaign.

The conclusion was reached that the recently formed collective farms were not big enough for organizational purposes. Amalgamated collectives were tried out, and these were transformed with Mao’s blessing into a new type of rural unit, the commune, an ideological leap toward communism in which families would be broken up, and men, women, children, and old folks would be housed in separate facilities, and husbands and wives would come together only to eat in collective canteens. As one county Party secretary explained, “Now that we have communes, with the exception of a chamber pot, everything is collective, even human beings”; or as a very senior provincial leader put it: “Even shit [for fertilizer] has to be collectivized!” The labor force was “militarized, combatized and disciplined.”

By this time, the Chairman and his enthusiastic deputy Liu Shaoqi were living in a fantasy land. They thrust Britain aside as a target: China would be overtaking America in steel output in a few years, and the communes would be the way by which the Chinese would thrust the Soviets aside en route to communism. When thousands of county cadres in Shandong province pledged to pass over the bridge to communism by 1960, Mao commented: “This document is really good, it is a poem, and it looks as if it can be done!”6

By the end of 1958, collectives everywhere had been combined into 26,000 huge communes. Though only a minority had formally advanced all the way toward the post-Soviet collectivist and egalitarian ideal, as in every CCP campaign, local cadres at the provincial and subprovincial level strove to overfulfill the targets set by the center. Even where peasants were still supposed to be paid according to their labor, sometimes they received little or nothing; work points, the official indicator of wage entitlement, became devalued; savings were spent on conspicuous consumption for fear they would be confiscated; livestock was slaughtered and eaten before it could be collectivized. In Guangdong the saying was: “What you eat is yours, what you don’t is anyone’s.” In the new canteens, too, “to each according to his needs” was taken literally and people stuffed themselves. The reckoning was not long off.

The euphoria of Mao and his senior colleagues in 1958 is accounted for in large part by a bumper summer harvest that year, an indication that the main harvest in the fall would also be excellent. It was, but it rotted in the fields.7 All over China, citizens had been mobilized to make steel, peasants along with everybody else. There was no way the projected doubling of steel output could be achieved by the existing plants; instead “steel” would be made in primitive backyard furnaces, three or four yards high, built of sand, stone, fire clay, or bricks. By September, 40 million workers were operating 500,000 furnaces nationwide; according to Mao, the total later rose to 90 million, all making an iron that was brittle and useless.8 Moreover, millions of peasants had been drafted into urban industrial plants. Only the aged and children were left behind in the villages to tend the fields. There was no way they could bring in the harvest.

Citing data from the Yunnan archives, Dikötter points out that already in 1958 there were many cases of starvation in the province; the death rate was more than twice the national average. The head of a model commune in Hebei province had created a labor camp for those who failed in their duties, but despite his draconian measures, including executions, he had to confess to Premier Zhou that the commune was effectively starving. Chinese leaders who had emerged victorious after twenty-eight years of civil war and foreign invasion were not deterred. As Marshal Chen Yi, Politburo member and foreign minister, put it:

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!9

But there was worse to come. The first two sections of Dikötter’s book are a useful chronology of the politics behind the GLF and the beginnings of recovery measures. There is new material here, but the general outline of the period is well known and has been written about at length and with more nuanced analyses by many Western scholars.10 But Dikötter is less interested in elite politics at “Mao’s court” than in the history of the vast society that is China.11 The heart of his volume lies in the subsequent sections in which he details the destructive impact of the “three bitter years”—on different areas of the economy, on social cohesion, and on vulnerable segments of the population. His concluding section describes how people died during the famine.

It is an irony frequently remarked upon that Mao and his colleagues came to power on the back of a peasant army, and indeed were themselves largely of peasant origin, but dealt far more harshly with the countryside than the cities once they established the People’s Republic. “Urban bias” is inevitable in developing countries,12 and the PRC, unlike the Soviet Union, did not have rich natural resources with which to supplement grain exports to pay for industrial equipment from abroad. But as Dikötter makes clear, the degree of exploitation of the peasantry during the GLF and into the famine was so unprecedentedly excessive that provinces were left with virtually no food for the people who had produced it.

  1. 1

    According to the Institute of International Education, there were 8,000 Chinese undergraduates in US colleges in 2000–2001 and more than 26,000 in 2008–2009; see Dan Levin, “The China Boom,” The New York Times, November 7, 2010. 

  2. 2

    In fall 2006, I gave a guest lecture at Shanghai’s Fudan University in what I was told was the first course on the Cultural Revolution anywhere in the country. 

  3. 3

    Resolution on CPC History (1949–81) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981), pp. 28–29. This was the Party leadership’s explanation of past disasters, mainly the Cultural Revolution. 

  4. 4

    Free Press, 1996. 

  5. 5

    Beijing and Shanghai, to which they also gained access, have provincial status. 

  6. 6

    Mao Zedong sixiang wan sui (Long Live Mao Zedong Thought) (n.p., 1969), p. 240. 

  7. 7

    For instance, in Liu Shaoqi’s home village. 

  8. 8

    Chinese Law & Government, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter 1968–69), pp. 39, 41. 

  9. 9

    Dikötter, p. 70. 

  10. 10

    Dikötter lists many in his essay on sources, p. 348, but somewhat ungenerously says that most look “rather dated.” 

  11. 11

    The concept of Mao’s court was most strikingly advanced by Frederick Teiwes; see his Politics at Mao’s Court: Gao Gang and Party Factionalism in the Early 1950s (M.E. Sharpe, 1990). 

  12. 12

    See Michael Lipton, Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (Harvard University Press, 1977). 

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