Grant Evans

Inside Story, 22 November 2010


MOST people are familiar with the upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), led by Mao Zedong and the youthful legions of Red Guards who wreaked havoc across Chinese society. Less well known but more catastrophic was the Great Leap Forward – the period between 1958 and 1962 that Frank Dikötter calls the Great Famine.

The highest estimate of deaths during the Cultural Revolution is three million; at a minimum, Dikötter writes, forty-three million Chinese died in the famine years from 1958. Mao, the supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was architect of both of these enormous tragedies, yet his benign visage still hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace in central Beijing.

Dikötter’s aim is to draw the earlier period out of the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. In thirty-eight short chapters he throws a spotlight on personalities, policies, delusions and the specific consequences of the famine, especially for children, the elderly and those locked away in the Chinese labour camps. His extraordinarily detailed account provides an avalanche of depressing statistics and personal stories to demonstrate the impact of the utopian policies of Mao and his comrades.

The opening chapters set the international context, in which China was increasingly in competition with its ally, the Soviet Union. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had boasted in October 1957 that the USSR would overtake the United States economically within fifteen years. This was also seen as a challenge among Chinese leaders, who said they would catch up with Britain within a few years, and launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958 to achieve it.

Central to their aim was the formation of huge communes. Land had already been collectivised at the village level, but the massive communes spread across whole counties. As one party secretary explained: “Now that we have the communes, with the exception of a chamber pot, everything is collective, even human beings.” Communal kitchens, communal child care and communal work went hand in hand with military metaphors and techniques applied to production. “Everyone is a soldier,” Mao proclaimed as the formation of people’s militias increasingly regimented society. The end result was voiced in a common quip: “What you eat is yours, what you don’t is anyone’s.”

The saying sums up a major paradox of communist central planning: when the state assumes full responsibility it simultaneously relieves the population of any responsibility, and so a kind of anarchy develops in tandem with rigid organisation. This tendency is most apparent in the third part of the book, labelled simply “Destruction,” in which the waste generated in every sector of the economy piles ever higher. For instance, and not surprisingly, the proclamation of the communes was followed by an orgy of slaughtering and eating farm animals among peasants who felt that they might as well eat their fill before their animals were handed over to others. Soon there were shortages, not least because the animals that were collectivised were neglected and often died from disease.

That the waste was generated by a political dynamic can be seen in Mao’s increasingly delirious claims that the communes provided a fast track into a state of abundance. Anyone who questioned or opposed this line was labelled a “rightist” and purged. So, from the top to the bottom of the political structure opportunistic or terrified cadres inflated production figures and competed to offer ever more “revolutionary” harvest results that bore little relation to the increasingly dire situation on the ground. (As Dikötter observes, the period left behind a plethora of statistical distortions for the historian to try to unravel.) State requisitions were, as a result, driven ever higher while the peasants starved. Tragically, much of what was taken rotted in poorly constructed warehouses or at sidings as the transport sector too slid into a state of disrepair.

Claims that China would surpass Britain in steel production led to one of the more bizarre features of the Great Leap Forward, the setting up of village steel furnaces across the country. These country furnaces wrought havoc: household utensils were seized (there were now communal kitchens) to feed them, houses were cannibalised, orchards destroyed and woodlands laid waste to provide fuel. Most of the ingots produced were useless. In the factories there was a culture of waste, with machinery poorly maintained and output inflated by adding sand to manganese ore, for example, which resulted in a useless mixture. By 1961 industrial output collapsed.

While the total figure of forty-three million dead in this period is appalling, what is even more shocking is the degrading way in which most Chinese died. People in cities who received their rations from their workplaces were relatively privileged while the countryside was plundered on their behalf. But the demand for increased industrial production was fed by a huge underclass of immigrants from the famished countryside who lived and worked in horrible conditions. They were expendable and many died from accidents or chemical poisoning, or simply from exhaustion.

The countryside was worse, and many villages became ghost towns. As hunger intensified, brawls over food erupted between villages, work teams and neighbours, and inside families too. Children and old people were especially vulnerable. When the rice or corn was gone the people ate grass or leaves. Dikötter cites a case from Sichuan where, when nothing else was left, people turned to geophagy, eating a soft mud they called after the Goddess of Mercy, “Guanyin soil.” “[R]anks of ghostly villagers queued up in front of the deep pits, their shrivelled bodies pouring with sweat under the glare of the sun, waiting for their turn to scramble down the hole and carve out a few handfuls of the porcelain-white mud.” Cases of necrophagy also occurred, and cannibalism. Those bold enough took to the road; lucky ones in the south made it to Hong Kong. Others joined gangs and pillaged granaries or trains; the secret societies suppressed forcefully after 1949 resurfaced. But such rebellion was scattered and easily crushed by the armed forces and militias.

Macro-tyranny bred micro-tyranny as cadres at lower levels in the state resorted to violence to satisfy the demands of those above. Millions were tortured or beaten to death because they opposed or seemed to oppose the party line or were accused of stealing food, or simply at the whim of local tyrants. Dikötter estimates “that at least 6 to 8 per cent of all famine victims were directly killed or died as a result of injuries inflicted by cadres and the militia.” Once in the hands of the local militia people would be paraded through the towns and humiliated – by being forced to strip, for example, which was especially common for women. Not surprisingly, many committed suicide. Dikötter cites the strange case of a manager forcing females in his factory to work nude. Perhaps as a final refinement of the macro-to-micro exercise of violence, in some cases husbands were forced to beat “criminal” wives.

“Rightists,” of course, ended up in the state gulag run by the Ministry of Public Security, but less well known is how local militias set up their own parallel prison system in which millions were incarcerated. “The size of this shadow world will never be known,” writes Dikötter.

No one talked to Mao about “famine.” He did not want to hear bad news and when so-called model communes faltered he shifted his attention elsewhere. It was, he said, a matter of errors being only one finger out of ten. But the economy had collapsed by 1961, and leading party figures who had backed Mao were stunned by conditions they found on the ground in their home provinces and turned against him. In January 1962 Liu Shaoqi, now head of state, led the attack on Mao’s policies, for which he would be persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution when Mao launched his attack on his opponents in the Party, calling on his Red Guards to “bombard the headquarters.” As Dikötter argues, the roots of the Cultural Revolution lie in the Great Leap Forward, in political style as well as in the break-up of the family hierarchy by the communes. The youth from this period joined the Red Guards and attacked their elders for their “feudal” views.

One figure who trips through these pages is Deng Xiaoping, celebrated today as the person who set China on its path to modern capitalist prosperity. Dikötter never misses a chance to show how Deng supported Mao uncritically during the Great Famine. He only fell out with Mao, along with many others, during the Cultural Revolution, and this would lead to his radical break with Maoism after Mao’s death. But Deng was a ruthless apparatchik, as he showed again when he ordered the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Dikötter wishes to destroy the Mao myth, and his book delivers a major blow. The myth of Mao, however, continues not least because the current Chinese regime still can’t bring itself to denounce his many political crimes. Dikötter ends his book with an interesting “Essay on the Sources” in which he observes that, although “for many decades the best specialists on the Maoist era were to be found in Europe, the United States and Japan, the centre of gravity has decidedly moved back to China,” and cites the work of some pioneering scholars there. In fact it will be Chinese scholars like these who will finally grind the Mao myth into dust, but there is no doubt they will be inspired by Dikötter’s iconoclastic work.