It’s not every day you see ‘cannibal-chinese-starved-by-mao-ate-earth-bartered-sex-for-food’ in a URL for an article at a reputable business news website. Frank Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine has that sort of effect. Using previously unavailable provincial party archives as well as interviews and other sources, Dikotter attempts to assemble enough information about what happened in various parts of China from 1958 to 1962 to enable a picture of the full-scale, nationwide horror. The consensus among the anglo China fraternity (Mirsky and Fenby, for example) is that he succeeds.
Dikotter starts with the local and international political background, then the decision-making, and the implementation before getting to the gory results: a minimum of 45 million deaths (out of a population of 650 million) due mostly to starvation, but also disease, persecution, murder, accidents and suicides, plus mass-destruction of housing stock and wrecking of the natural environment.
The story starts after Mao lures opposition into the open in the ‘100 flowers’ campaign. Rather than rely on the intellectuals, he decides the muscle power of the rural masses is the best bet for dynamic economic progress. Envious of Sputnik-launching Khrushchev’s vow to surpass the USA’s economic production in 15 years, Mao declares that China will overtake Britain in the same period, notably in steel production.
The Great Leap Forward requires top-down central planning and a degree of mobilization possible only through collectivization. As ever-higher targets come down the chain of command, local officials turn much of rural China into little more than vast slave labour camps. People are stripped of possessions and land, forced away from homes to build dams, then forced back to communes to meet impossible food production targets, using disastrous agricultural methods and sacrificing their own housing materials and even hair as fertilizer. The state appropriates food and other commodities to ramp up exports as a show of economic strength – rice becomes a staple in East Germany – leaving the beaten masses to starve, often naked, by the roadside. (The book contains full, vivid details: not for those squeamish about clubbings-to-death, child-selling, the digging up of human remains for food and what happens when animal survival instincts displace the last shreds of morality.)
The economy collapses. Shaken by the eventual failure of the project and the dissent it provokes among his deputies, Mao goes back on the offensive and launches the country into 10 more years of lunacy in the form of the Cultural Revolution. Official history downplays the ‘years of difficulty’ and blames the weather and/or the USSR.
Although it is hardly the first, this book is probably one of the most damning indictments yet of Mao. This mass-killing was his doing, and he is therefore clearly a monster every bit as evil as Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot. And yet there he is today, on banknotes, on a portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square, in a glass case in his mausoleum, on T-shirts, in millions of people’s hazy nostalgic feelings and as a national icon. With its ideology mangled as it places its aristocracy atop a corporatist state, the Communist Party relies on Mao for its claim to legitimacy. China may have overtaken the UK now – by feeding people more rather than less – but the government is built on a myth, which this book exposes.
There is a local angle here. Dikotter is Chair Professor of Humanities at Hong Kong University. Hong Kong U, like many of our educational institutions, is keen on expanding over the border and forging closer links with the Mainland, where colleges and academics exist to toe political lines and serve political ends. To patriots, HKU is a disgrace for having someone on the faculty who dares write such heretical nonsense as Mao’s Great Famine. The university’s top management are apparently hoping the whole issue will vanish. Dikotter’s supporters are half-jokingly referring to the professor as Hong Kong’s best chance of having a Salman Rushdie. It would be required reading anyway, but all this makes the book that much more essential.