Paul Callen

The Daily and Sunday Express, 3 September 2010


FOR the first time a historian has shown how China’s communist ruler killed 45 million of his people in the world’s biggest man-made famine. Chinese propaganda posters of the late Fifties show smiling young workers marching jubilant unity towards the benevolent figure of their Great Leader, Chairman Mao. The reality was shockingly different.

Workers were more likely to be found lying dead in the gutters of rundown towns or falling, weak from starvation,in the paddy fields. All around would be the stomach-churning signs of neglect, food shortages and deathdealing poverty.

Between 1958 and 1961,
China had descended into the depths of hell. Chairman Mao, not the warm father of his people that propaganda would have it but a foul, heartless dictator, had thrown his country into a frenzy.

In both town and country disease and widespread hunger were rife. Rather than being imbued with single-minded patriotism and love of their Great Leader, the people often risked their lives stealing grain from the fields.

He had instituted the Great Leap Forward, an ambitious attempt to compete with the West (Britain in particular), overtaking its power in 15 years. But the social experiment would end in monumental catastrophe, destroying up to 45 million lives.

The extent of the atrocity is contained in a gripping new book, Mao’s Great Famine, by Frank Dikotter, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong.

Until recently, access to Chinese Communist Party archives has been forbidden but remarkably a new law now permits scrutiny of thousands of hitherto secret documents about the Mao era.

Prof Dikotter’s painstaking analysis of the archives shows Mao’s regime resulted in the greatest “man-made famine” the world has ever seen. Mao had instituted what amounted to a crazed attempt to vault over Soviet Russia and elect himself as the leader of the world’s largest socialist regime.

The Chairman’s aim was to, as he put it, “walk on two legs”. This entailed boosting farm production and modernising industry simultaneously – an impossible task in a country as vast as China. In the countryside such a grotesque programme would mean the end of all private property to be replaced by enforced farm collectives.

The result was that the peasant farmers would gobble up whatever they had – animals, grain or seeds – rather than patriotically hand them over to the collectives.

Nor did the super plan work in the towns. The result was often highly visible – the imports of machines lay rusting or broken. Undernourished and starving workers simply collapsed from the impossible hours they were required to work.

In both town and country disease and widespread hunger were rife. Rather than being imbued with single-minded patriotism and love of their Great Leader, the people often risked their lives stealing grain from the fields.

Those caught were often beaten to death by local party police. Worse, scared workers would hoard food, which was often stolen by officials.

Some of the really desperate even bartered food for sex. No foreign reports ever came out of what was happening in some of the rural areas. Here, the roads were often lined with naked, dying women and children. Often, so desperate were they for food that they would sell their rags for a mouthful of grain.

In some of the worst cases, children were even sold for food and even cannibalism was practised by people crazed with hunger. On some occasions, burial grounds were up and corpses used for fertiliser.

In other rural areas it was common to see people eating leaves, roots, poisonous berries and lumps of leather. The worst example, according to the newly opened archives, came when starvation drove some peasants to actually eat the earth itself before dying.

Many houses in the smaller towns were pulled down to provide building materials and the former occupants were forcibly herded into collectives – or, worse, just left to live wild.

Quotas for making steel were so unrealistic that agricultural tools were melted down and home-made backyard furnaces were established to keep up with the demand. Needless to say, such “steel” was absolutely useless.

The mounting problems created by Mao’s ill-thought-out Great Leap Forward were always denied by the regime in Beijing. Even China’s Western apologists claimed that floods were to blame, having ruined harvests. But all this was far from the truth. Half-baked schemes put into action by semi-literate party officials usually wrecked local drainage and irrigation schemes.

THERE were many horrendous side effects. There was, for instance, immense corruption at every level of Chinese society – from those in Chairman Mao’s own coterie (all of whom lived a luxurious life) right down to the small local officials.

Everyone bartered what they had to survive – and always kept an eye on production figures which were usually grotesquely inflated in order to keep up with Mao’s predictions.

The long-reaching effects of Mao’s programme could be seen in the thin, pained faces of the children. Although common nurseries and kindergartens were set up in the summer of 1958 to allow women to leave their homes and work in fields or factories, the children were often neglected – in some cases for weeks on end.

Many of the kindergartens had only rudimentary equipment and children were forced to eat and sleep on the floor. Many of the buildings had leaking roofs and some lacked doors and glass in the windows. Accidents were frequent and neglect was such that, in one kindergarten, children aged three to four were unable to walk.

Abuse was rife. Food was frequently stolen from the kindergartens as desperate adults pilfered the rations intended for helpless children.There were frequent fights for food among children and violence within the family also increased.

Women, too, suffered greatly during Mao’s experiment. They became even more marginalised in a male-oriented world and were frequently victims of sexual abuse.

Huge power had been given to local cadres and officials took advantage of women. Rape spread like a disease, particularly in rural areas. In the north, the secretary of Guyjiang village raped 27 women and had “taken liberties” with virtually every unmarried woman available. If the women were not raped they were often subjected to sexual humiliation.

In a factory in Hunan, local bosses forced women to work naked and those who refused were tied up. A competitive system was callously devised in which the women most eager to strip were granted a reward, with a top gift of an entire month’s salary. There was also a vigorous trade in sex when women provided favours for virtually anything – from a small morsel of food to a better job earned through a regular relationship with an official who could offer some security.

In a country which traditionally views the elderly with great respect and honour, it is remarkable to learn that during Mao’s experiment the old often faced a grim existence.Again, abuse was widespread. Some were beaten and those with a few meagre possessions were often robbed. Some elderly workers, too frail to keep up with unrealistic production quotas, were put on slow starvation diets. In a town just outside Beijing, the head of a retirement home systematically stole food and clothes earmarked for the elderly, condemning them to a winter without warmth or padded jackets. Most died as soon as the frosts appeared and their bodies were left unburied for over a week.

In Chongqing county, Sichuan, the director of one old people’s home forced the residents to work outdoors nine hours a day followed by two hours of compulsory study in the evening. Slackers were tied up and beaten or deprived of food.

In another village, all medicine for the elderly went to officials in charge of the retirement home. There, the cook told the starving inmates: “What point is there in feeding you? If we feed the pigs, at least we will get some meat.” In the province as a whole by the end of the famine a mere 1,058 out of a total of more than 7,000 had managed to survive.

In Dangyang, Hubei, seven  were all that remained of a once lively village – four were elderly, two were blind and one was handicapped. They ate leaves from the trees to survive. For centuries, China has been a secret society, reluctant to share its inner turmoil with the outside world. After the country fell into the grip of communism, it became even more secretive. Only now, nearly 50 years after Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, do we learn what it was – a massive step backwards into hell.