Andrew Holgate

The Sunday Times, 10 July 2011

Fusty historians do not generally receive hate mail about their books. But Frank Dikötter does — bucketloads of it — since last autumn when he published Mao’s Great Famine, his heartbreaking exposé of the horrors caused by China’s Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, which last Thursday won the non-fiction equivalent of the Booker, the BBC Samuel Johnson prize.

The insults have ranged from the relatively benign — “running dog”, “imperialist”, claims of fabricating history — to the more personal (he is evasive about specifics).

“In the beginning it depressed me because I took it very seriously,” says the mild-mannered Dutch academic, sitting in his publisher’s office still jet-lagged from flying in for the awards ceremony.

“It took quite a long while to realise these were not necessarily independent people expressing their opinion... but the wumaodang, the 50-cent party people who are actually paid [by the Chinese Government] to send out hate mail. That is what they do for a living. They all log on on Sunday and I’m just their caseload for the morning.”

What caused this sustained, organised and continuing vitriol are the shocking, previously unknown stories about China’s great famine that Dikötter unearthed for his book. A historian at Hong Kong University who took leave from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies to move east seven years ago, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time when, from the late 1990s, the Chinese started opening some of their archives in what he calls “a sense of goodwill and openness leading up to the Olympics”.

Journeying to archives far away from the central administration, organising interviews with local people and asking for seemingly bland and unenticing files on what he disingenuously called “economic history”, Dikötter managed to uncover explosive material about the hidden history of the famine.

It was a “golden moment” for his research that, he says, lasted about three years before some of the files he had been reading started disappearing again. But the documentation he found, in folders with benign titles such as Investigation into Conditions in the Countryside, was more horrifying and revealing than anything he, or any other western historian, had seen. “Once I discovered how much evidence was there, I realised this was a story that just had to be told.”

Many of the stories Dikötter, 49, found beggar belief. “It was terrible to read how ordinary people had been reduced to doing the most horrendous things — forced to work naked in the middle of the winter, otherwise they wouldn’t get their work points [which replaced money], or a father forced to bury his son alive because the child stole a handful of grain. He later died of grief.”

One starving peasant, Wang Ziyou, had “one of his ears chopped off, his legs were tied up with iron wire, a 10kg stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool — as punishment for digging up a sweet potato”. Others sold their children for a bowl of rice or ate grass, bark, mud and corpses in their desperation to stay alive. There were reports of cannibalism. In one village a man was discovered by officials simmering vats of human flesh.

If the stories chill the blood, what is more extraordinary are the numbers involved — at least 45m deaths, Dikötter calculates, up to 15m more than the generally accepted figure: “I just can’t get my head around what happened, the sheer number, just the scale of it.”

Of these, between 1m and 3m committed suicide and as many 2.5m were simply beaten to death by party cadres “because they didn’t work hard enough”, he says bitterly, “because they spoke out, because they were dragging their feet, because they didn’t turn up in the morning, because in some cases they were considered to be too old or too sick and what are you going to do, continue feeding this person?”

Little of this is known in China, where the disastrous famine is officially called “three years of natural disasters”. In reality, says Dikötter, it was an almost entirely man-made catastrophe, which happened after the Communist Party herded the country’s hundreds of millions of villagers into communes to boost agriculture and industry and compete with the world’s superpowers (their target was to surpass British steel production inside 15 years): “This radical collectivisation simply destroyed any incentive to work.” Agricultural output collapsed — hence the famine.

If the disaster was entirely man-made, responsibility for it, insists Dikötter, lies almost wholly with one man, Chairman Mao, whom he calls “the biggest murderer in history”.

“One of the key documents [I found] dates from April 25, 1959 when Mao says — this is the smoking gun — that when people die it is better to have half of them starve to death so that the other half can eat their fill. He’s fully aware of what is happening and at that point he actually increases the procurements from the countryside, dictating that one third of all the food should be taken away from the countryside.”

Ironically, it is the Chinese people’s ignorance about the famine that may have helped Dikötter get such extraordinary access. He occasionally had to resort to some subterfuge — he won’t reveal his methods for fear of jeopardising his research on the 1949-58 period — but more often than not a simple official letter giving him permission did the trick. Many of the archivists he dealt with simply did not realise the explosive nature of the material they were handing over.

Talking to Dikötter, you worry he is taking considerable risks with his career in publishing this book. Married to an Englishwoman whom he met after he came to London in 1987, he has recently resigned from the School of Oriental and African Studies and from September will be based permanently at Hong  Kong University. Has he been put under any pressure? “I’ve been back. I attended a conference in Shanghai last week — so far so good,” he says cautiously.

What he is nervous about is protecting the identities of the archivists he has encountered — at one point he stops mid-sentence as he is about to let slip the name of a particular library: “I don’t want to give any names. I wouldn’t want to embarrass wonderful people, in particular frontline archivists who do a professional job.”

Embarrassed — or something more? “Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to put anyone in a difficult position.”

There is no chance, Dikötter thinks, of his book being published in mainland China but it is about to come out in Hong Kong where, he says, there is much greater debate than on the mainland. He hopes Chinese people will “come to Hong Kong, buy a copy and take it back home”. Do their books get confiscated? “Rarely.”

For all Dikötter’s gentleness and self-effacement, he is bulldog fierce in defence of his work. “If you piss off the right people, you’re doing a good job,” he says. He is particularly critical of what he calls “old-fashioned left-wing Sinology”.

“You saw the review in The Times Literary Supplement by Michael Dillon?” (The piece had criticised Dikötter for capitalising “on the fashionable wave of crude anti-Mao feeling” and for not detailing “his visits to any of the archives, only that he has used the documents”.) “You think, what kind of world are we living in where someone who is a professor of modern history of China can somehow start asking whether these archives actually exist? What kind of world do we live in when you get that level of debate? It is so low, so petty. It’s extraordinary and he’s not the only one.”

What gets to Dikötter in particular is the silence surrounding the tragedy. “There’s a quotation by Elie Wiesel, ‘The executioner always kills twice, the second time through silence’. And it’s that silence, more than the execution at the time, which I find horrendous. Because you can’t go back and stop the execution, but you can do something about the silence. That to me is the real emotional point, that kind of silence, that way of tiptoeing around those massive black holes in 20th-century history.”