The Great Leap Backward: Frank Dikotter Looks at How Historians' Understanding of China Has Changed in Recent Years with the Gradual Opening of Party Archives That Reveal the Full Horror of the Maoist Era

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In the People's Republic of China archives do not belong to the people, they belong to the party. They ate often housed in a special building on the local party committee premises, which are generally set among lush and lovingly manicured grounds closely guarded by military personnel. Access would have been unthinkable until a decade of so ago, but over the past few years a quiet revolution has been taking place as increasing quantities of documents older than 30 years have become available for consultation by professional historians armed with a letter of recommendation. The extent and quality of the material varies from place to place, but there is enough to transform our understanding of the Maoist era.

Take, for instance, the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, when Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors by herding villagers across the country into giant people's communes. In pursuit of a utopian paradise everything was collectivised. People had their work, homes, land, belongings and livelihoods taken from them. In collective canteens, food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party's every dictate. As most other incentives to work were stripped away, coercion and violence were used instead to compel famished farmers to perform labour on poorly planned dams or irrigation projects, while the fields were being neglected.

A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine.

My recent research relies on hundreds of hitherto unseen party archives, including 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 collectivisation campaign, secret police opinion surveys, letters of complaint written by ordinary people and much more.

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Chairman Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in human history, responsible for the premature deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten-kilo stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool--as punishment for digging up a potato. The discriminate killing of slackers, weaklings, or otherwise unproductive elements increased the overall food supply for those who contributed to the regime through their labour. As report after report shows, food was used as a weapon.Throughout the country those who were too ill to work were routinely cut off from the food supply. The sick, the vulnerable and the elderly were banned from the canteen, as cadres found inspiration in Lenin's dictum: 'He who does not work shall not eat.'

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As the minutes of leadership meetings show, Mao was aware of the extent of the famine. …