Greeting Misery with Violence

Article excerpt

Byline: Isaac Stone Fish

The great leap forward, the period from 1958 to 1962 that saw the deaths of an estimated 45 million Chinese, lacks the heft of horror associated with Hitler's and Stalin's genocides. Indiscriminate and directed inward, it is still often viewed as a quixotic campaign to build a communist paradise that led instead to grain shortages. The Chinese refer to this era as "the three years of natural disaster." But according to Mao's Great Famine, a new book by Frank Dikotter, a historian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the party is largely to blame not just for causing the disaster, but also for heightening it through "coercion, terror, and systematic violence." Using a wealth of recently released material--including letters from farmers, surveys of factory working conditions, and reports compiled by the party itself--Dikotter shows that at least 2.5 million of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed.

This emphasis on how party violence exacerbated the death toll sets Dikotter's book apart from other studies of the Great Leap Forward. "I think historians have seriously underplayed the violence that accompanied the Chinese Communist Party rule under Mao," says Jasper Becker, author of Hungry Ghosts, one of the first full accounts of the famine to appear in English. "Frank's book redresses the balance."

During the Great Leap Forward, local cadres terrorized peasant to reach grain-production targets. "As many as half of all cadres regularly pummeled or caned the people they were meant to serve," Dikotter writes. He quotes an official as saying, "If you want to be a party member, you must know how to beat people." Resting or pilfering food could be a capital offense. "Liu Desheng, guilty of poaching a sweet potato, was covered in urine," Dikotter writes. "He, his wife, and his son were also forced into a heap of excrement. …