Mao Zedong and a Great Leap with 45 million

Saturday, Apr 02, 2011

New research most likely cements Mao Zedong's place as history's most brutal dictator (Mao > Stalin > Hitler). The Great Leap Forward killed approximately 45 million Chinese, but that was only 5 years of his brutal rule.

This book is based on well over a thousand archival documents, collected over several years in dozens of party archives... The material includes secret reports from the Public Security Bureau, detailed minutes of top party meetings, unexpurgated versions of important leadership speeches, surveys of working conditions in the countryside, investigations into cases of mass murder, confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people, inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward, general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivization campaign, secret opinion surveys, letters of complaint written by ordinary people and much more.

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier transforms our understanding of the Great Leap Forward. When it comes to the overall death toll, for instance, researchers so far have had to extrapolate from official population statistics, including the census figures of 1953, 1964 and 1982. Their estimates range from 15 million to 32 million excess deaths. But the public security reports compiled at the time, as well as the voluminous secret reports collated by party committees in the last months of the Great Leap Forward, show how inadequate these calculations are, pointing instead to a catastrophe of a much greater magnitude: this book shows that at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962.

In May 1957 Khrushchev had crowed that within the next few years the Soviet Union would catch up with the United States in per-capita production of meat, milk, and butter, and "the calculations of our planners show that, within the next fifteen years, the Soviet Union will be able not only to catch up with but also surpass the present volume of output of important products in the USA"... Mao wasted no time, saying, "... Comrade Khrushchev tells us that the Soviet Union will overtake the United States in fifteen years. I can tell you that in fifteen years we may well catch up with or overtake Britain." The Great Leap Forward had begun.

Mass killings are not usually associated with Mao and the Great Leap Forward... But as the fresh evidence presented in this book demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward. Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 percent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed -- amounting to at least 2.5 million people.

As everyone cut corners in the relentless pursuit of higher output, factories spewed out inferior goods that accumulated uncollected by railway sidings. Goods worth hundreds of millions of yuan accumulated in canteens, dormitories, and even on the streets, a lot of the stock simply rotting or rusting away. It would have been difficult to design a more wasteful system, one in which grain was left uncollected by dusty roads in the countryside as people foraged for roots or ate mud.

Up to 40 percent of all housing was turned into rubble, as homes were pulled down to create fertilizer, to build canteens, to relocate villagers, to straighten roads, to make room for a better future or simply to punish their occupants... the greatest demolition of property in human history... outstripping any of the Second World War bombing campaigns.

After the famine came to an end, new factional alignments appeared that were strongly opposed to the Chairman: to stay in power he had to turn the country upside down with the Cultural Revolution.

We know that Mao was the key architect of the Great Leap Forward, and thus bears the main responsibility for the catastrophe that followed.

So destructive was radical collectivization that at every level the population tried to circumvent, undermine or exploit the master plan... As famine spread, the very survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend on the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state... Survival depended on disobedience... It may be tempting to glorify what appears at first sight to be a morally appealing culture of resistance by ordinary people, but when food was finite, one individual's gain was all too often another's loss.

In some Guangdong villages women were forced to shave their heads to contribute fertilizer or face a ban from the canteen.

Explained party secretary Zhang Xianli in Macheng: 'Now that we have communes, with the exception of a chamber pot, everything is collective, even human beings.' As Li Jingquan, the leader of Sichuan, put it: 'Even shit has to be collectivized!' This was understood by a poor farmer in Lin Shengqi to mean: 'You do whatever you are told to do by a cadre.' As Zhang Aihua, who lived through the famine in Anhui, later explained: 'You did as you were told, otherwise the boss gave you no food: his hand held the ladle.' Tan Zhenlin was blunt, addressing some of the leaders of South China in October 1958: 'You need to fight against the peasants... There is something ideologically wrong with you if you are afraid of coercion.'

Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, Frank Dik├Âtter, 2010,