China under Mao: What We Know Now, and What We Should Have Known Then

By Berg, Chris; Wolff, Sabine | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, January 2011 | Go to article overview

China under Mao: What We Know Now, and What We Should Have Known Then


Berg, Chris, Wolff, Sabine, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


From the Left Bank to the Australian parliament, many in the West chose to praise Mao's regime by dismissing evidence of the horror of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, writes Chris Berg and Sabine Wolff.

here's no longer an excuse for any illusions about the horrors of China under Mao Zedong.

Frank Dikötter, Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, has taken advantage of new laws regarding the archiving of Chinese Communist Party records to produce a meticulous catalogue of the horror and tyranny of the early years of the Maoist regime.

His new book, Mao's Great Famine , does two things comprehensively: it provides a gruesome and impeccably sourced account of the Great Famine that accompanied the 1958-1962 Great Leap Forward, and it attributes the ensuing destruction to Mao's particular brand of communism and rapid forced industrialisation. Stories of the hunger, fear, and brutality of the Maoist regime are interspersed with criticisms that cut to the core of communist ideology: the reader is left in no doubt that Mao was a paranoid tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions, but equally, one is forced to appreciate the importance of individual incentives and private property, and the disconnect between Maoist idealism and the realities of the human condition.

Mao's Great Famine is not particularly long, but it makes for challenging reading. The total number of excess deaths from Mao's famine is estimated at a minimum 45 million, with some scholars suggesting that in light of new evidence, the number of dead could be as high as 50-60 million. The figures, official and estimated, are shocking, but the great power of this book is in the stories of hunger, disease and violence taken from official records and occasionally, from survivors. By the time one reaches the second last chapter, on instances of cannibalism during the famine, a sort of intellectual and emotional exhaustion sets in.

Dikötter begins by characterising the Great Leap Forward as a direct consequence of Mao's paranoia and fears of inadequacy. Spurred on by a desire to outdo Khrushchev, and in the belief that China had been slighted and should be the centre of the global communist movement instead of the Soviet Union, Mao claimed:

I speak on the strength of considerable evidence ? 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 strategy for achieving this ambitious target was the Great Leap Forward, a rapid program of forced socialisation of farming and industry, with production targets set by the central party leadership without any reference to market-determined price signals, all informed by Mao's opinion that ?there is something ideologically wrong with you if you are afraid of coercion.'

China had experienced a small taste of the famine to come during the 1955-56 Socialist High Tide; rapid collectivisation and inflated production targets for commodities such as grain, steel and coal during this period produced shortages and famine in some parts of the country.

However, Mao chose to ignore this early warning, branding those who expressed doubts about the efficacy of rapid forced collectivisation ?rightist conservatives', ?landlords', and ?counter-revolutionaries', and subjecting many to torture, forced labour and abuse.

It is clear from the accounts detailed in Mao's Great Famine that for Mao, maintaining the appearance of a successful communist state was of far more importance than the reality on the ground. Dikötter takes great care to remind the reader that China continued to export grain, among other goods, to the Western world, despite simultaneously importing grain from its communist bloc neighbours to feed its starving population. …

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