'If the Truth Were Known', interview with Noah Buchan, The Taipei Times, 12 December 2010

“Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell” — so begins the latest book by Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikotter, one of the world’s top experts on Republican and, now, early Communist China. It is a hell from which the country has only begun to recover in the past couple of decades.

Germany had Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin and Cambodia Pol Pot; the 20th century certainly witnessed its fair share of murderous dictators. But according to Dikotter, China’s Mao Zedong (毛澤東), founder of the People’s Republic of China, trumps them all when it comes to the death toll: at least 45 million, comparable to the estimated total of 55 million killed during World War II.

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe documents Mao’s brutality over the people that he ruled in what the author calls “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known.”

Dikotter draws on extensive archival research to dispute the view that the famine that ravaged China from 1958 to 1962 was the unintended consequence of disastrous government policies.

Citing secret reports from China’s Public Security Bureau (公安局), detailed minutes of top Chinese Communist Party meetings, surveys of working conditions in the countryside, investigations into cases of mass murder, and much more, the author uncovers evidence that “coercion, terror and systematic violence” underpinned the Great Leap Forward.

In an interview with the Taipei Times last month, Dikotter said the CIA probably knew about the famine as early as 1958, and suggested that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is “playing with fire” as he draws Taiwan closer to China.

Dikotter is currently in Taipei teaching a course at the National Chengchi University.

Taipei Times: Mao’s Great Famine is among a growing number of books about early Communist China that rely on recently available archival material. What’s available now that wasn’t before?

Frank Dikotter: First, there is a law that theoretically — if not always in practice — opens up material older than 30 years to members of the public; second, a climate of relative openness and goodwill before the Olympics helped a lot.

TT: You’ve criticized some historians of China for relying too heavily on secondary or tertiary sources when they write history, rather than basing their work on archives.

FD: Let me put it this way: A challenge of the China field is that unlike in other parts of the world, [researchers have] had very weak access to primary sources because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was closed for so long. I mean, just imagine that from 1949 to roughly 1985, or so — the best part of four decades — historians were trying to get hold of sources as best they could, but they were barred from the PRC. The same is true for anthropologists and sociologists. It’s a real challenge. And only [in 1985] did it start opening up very gradually. So whereas all of us, including myself, are still learning how to work with archives, that’s a pretty solid tradition for most historians of Europe or the US.

TT: What portrait of Mao emerged based on the your archival research?

FD: He was rambling in his speeches. He was obsessed with his own role in history. He jumped from one thing to the next. He was quite paranoid, constantly pointing out how great he was. And he was a bully. That’s the thing that comes across most clearly — not only in the major unexpurgated leadership speeches, but also in the one-to-one meetings that took place in the corridors of power.

When Mao meets a representative of Hunan Province, for example, he starts comparing what they have done with what others have accomplished. He tries to put them down, demean them, debase them, challenging them to do better. He was very good at that.

He was also an extraordinarily good judge of people and very manipulative too. What you’ve got to acknowledge is that the man got a lot of support. For all the key decisions and at all the key points, he was getting a lot of support from other major players.

TT: The book offers an interesting portrait of Zhou Enlai (周恩來), who is often written about with great respect.

FD: Zhou was the diplomatic face of China; Mao was the visionary. But Mao was not going to sit down and actually run the whole machinery — Zhou was the man who did that. When the party was talking about grain procurements, it wasn’t some abstract notion. Someone had to calculate how much grain was going to be extracted from Sichuan Province, for example, and that was Zhou.

To give him some credit, he was very reluctant to go along at first. And for that, he was demeaned and debased in a whole series of leadership meetings, and he had to write a series of self-confessions. But once he was on board, he mercilessly extracted grain from the countryside.

TT: The book also shows that the bullying extended far beyond just the leadership.

FD: Beyond the leaders who supported Mao, there were millions of cadres on the ground who I would now refer to as “willing executioners.” Hard, unscrupulous men who were willing to step in when somebody was purged from the party for being too weak. They were prepared to cast aside every idea of right and wrong to achieve the ends envisaged by Mao.

TT: Famine, you’ve written, is too blithe a word to describe the circumstances surrounding the death of 45 million people during the Great Leap Forward. Why is that?

FD: It’s inadequate for several reasons. First of all, famine implies that there simply wasn’t enough food to go around and that people died of hunger as a consequence. In a great number of cases people weren’t dying because there was no food. They were deliberately starved to death. There is a difference.

They were cut off from the food supply chain, banned from the canteen. There wasn’t enough food to go around, so what cadres did in the countryside was to deal with these shortages by selectively killing people through starvation. Villagers who were too weak, too vulnerable, too sick or too old to work were considered to be a waste of space. Lenin said it very clearly: “He who does not work shall not eat.”

It’s a pretty ruthless principle. And on top of that, 6 to 8 percent of the victims who died unnecessarily were violently tortured, beaten to death, sometimes even buried alive. That’s got very little to do with the word “famine.”

Also, famine doesn’t really go around destroying a transportation system or nature or industry. What you have here is radical collectivization, a command economy that is so destructive in its effects that in Hunan Province, for example, 40 percent of the housing was destroyed. That’s not a function of some man-made or natural disaster. That is the result of a forced campaign of collectivization.

TT: According to your book, England and the Soviet Union play minor but crucial roles leading up to the Great Leap Forward.

FD: England isn’t really that important, except to serve as a symbol of a developed country. It’s about rivalry, it’s about who can assume the leadership of the whole socialist camp. After the death of Stalin, Mao thinks he’s pretty much the man in charge. He’s brought a quarter of humanity to the socialist camp. He’s fought the Americans to a standstill in Korea.

Khrushchev announces that he’s going to overtake the US in the production of butter and milk in 1957, and that’s when Mao proclaims to all the assembled leaders in Moscow for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution that China will overtake the UK.

Now how is he going to do it? Well, I’m not so sure he actually knows at that point in time. But he knows that he has a labor force of millions and millions in the countryside. If he can harness them like an army, turn them into soldiers and deploy them like a battalion in a continuous revolution tackling one task after the other, surely they will catapult their country past the others.

Collectivization was based on a military model, and that’s the term they used at the time: junshihua (軍事化). They turned ordinary people in the countryside into soldiers.

TT: In another part of the book you discuss beating squads (打人隊). What did they do?

FD: When the farmer knows that the grain will be confiscated and when the cultivator has no land to look after, there is no incentive to work. So of course there must be a stick to get these famished people back into the fields.

The beating squads are very interesting because I’ve seen them mentioned on many occasions, which shows that there was more than just random use of violence against people who somehow slacked off or fell asleep or didn’t work hard enough. There was actually organized violence to get rid of very specific groups of people.

TT: Your book says that “the country was mobilized in an all out war against birds.” What happened there and is that symbolic of a more general attitude toward the environment or nature?

FD: First of all, what is so extraordinary is that it really was a campaign in the sense that people were used as an army to tackle one campaign after another. This campaign was against what the party referred to as the four evils [rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows].

At one point they focused on sparrows, the idea being that the great laboring classes produced grain that was then filched by sparrows. So why not exterminate those sparrows? It was a disaster. The campaign created a distressed environment where nothing was left behind to really stand in the way of locusts, which covered the land a year later and seriously contributed to the disaster.

More generally, the assault on nature, even without the attack on sparrows, was a disaster. Massive irrigation projects resulted in land salinization, river silting, erosion and devastating inundations. Trees were cut down to feed backyard furnaces, resulting, in some places, in a loss of over half the forest coverage.

TT: Your book shows that there was an active dismantling of the entire infrastructure of cities. Even the Great Wall didn’t escape destruction.

FD: Anything old had to go. When it came to city walls and temples, these were considered old stuff, so let’s get rid of them. I don’t mention this in the book, but Mao envisioned Beijing as a city of smokestacks. Industry, that’s what he wanted. Not some old imperial wall. He destroyed [the old] Tiananmen Square and turned it into some massive equivalent of Moscow’s Red Square.

Any trace of the past, any reminiscence of the past was seen as bad. And when it comes to the countryside, farmers became pretty desperate for any building materials that they could get their hands on. So they started hauling away big chunks from the Great Wall or the Ming Tombs — the notion here being that it all belonged to the people anyway so it didn’t really matter.

TT: You found archives stating that people had committed crimes stemming from so-called “livelihood issues.” What are these?

FD: Cannibalism. “Livelihood issues” is a very euphemistic way of writing about people who were starving to death. People dug up and ate corpses. At the time, the term famine wasn’t used; talk about “edema” was only just acceptable. Famine was one big taboo topic.

TT: Has the Chinese Communist Party changed its use of violence as a mechanism to control its rural population?

FD: Of course people are no longer starved or beaten to death in the millions, but the same structural impediments to the building of a civil society are still in place, leading to similar problems: systemic corruption, massive squandering on showcase projects of dubious worth, doctored statistics, an environmental catastrophe and a party fearful of its own people, among others.

And let’s not forget that to this day “peasants” are considered to be second-class citizens as a direct consequence of the household registration system. That system was introduced during the Great Leap Forward to keep famished farmers from flooding the cities. What protection do villagers have against violence from the state and its representatives?

TT: How has the book been received in China?

FD: Many haven’t read it because of the language barrier. But I have received a whole stream of e-mails from people from the mainland who are very eager to read the book in translation. They say they are glad that there is more work coming out now on this catastrophe. On the other hand, I do get hate mail. For every 12 positive e-mails, I get one hate mail.

I’ve been harassed in a number of cases by people literally flooding my inbox with hate mail copied to hundreds of others.

TT: Has this happened with any of your other nine books?

FD: No, it hasn’t. This is the first time.

TT: Had the Great Leap Forward and the famine that ensued not occurred, would China have been well positioned to take Taiwan?

FD: No, I don’t think so. I think that on the one hand, the very gradual but almost inexorable descent on the road to serfdom was determined already in 1949 … I actually think it’s the other way around. Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) could have invaded the mainland if he wanted to.

If there was one person who knew very well what was going on in the mainland, it was Chiang. When you look at the archives in Taiwan, they give an extremely accurate depiction of the famine. Now I don’t quote them in the book, but they are extremely accurate, very detailed and there are many of them. In other words, Chiang had enough knowledge about what was going on in the mainland to pick a moment to go back.

TT: So why didn’t he?

FD: He needed the support of the US, and [Washington] feared a conflagration with the Soviet Union. Which is one of the reasons why there wasn’t an awful lot of enthusiasm by the US about acknowledging the extent of the mass starvation in China.

TT: Did Chiang pass this intelligence on to the US?

FD: I haven’t seen any evidence about intelligence being given to the CIA. But I find it very difficult to believe that two powers [Taiwan and the US] that collaborated so closely would not have been briefed extensively about that.

The US was concerned about the Soviet Union. And also Mao’s gamble was very good because by bombing Quemoy [Kinmen] in 1958 he more or less forced Khrushchev’s hand and got him to publicly declare that if there were to be a war with the US, the Soviet Union would intervene and protect China.

TT: How do you view President Ma Jing-jeou’s policies of forging closer ties to China?

FD: I call it playing with fire. I’m not really a specialist on this and I’m always somewhat reluctant to extrapolate from my own study of the past. But it’s a common mistake, it’s a very common pattern of outsiders, including Ma, to think that you can somehow control the parameters of engagement with what is an extraordinarily large and developed entity, and one that has manipulated outside opinion and manipulated outsiders since 1949. They are very good at it.

For example, former French president Francois Mitterrand visited China in 1960 in the middle of the worst possible year when tens of millions were starving, yet he declared that there was no such thing as starvation, only shortages.

And then there is the fact that the more economic clout the Communist Party in China accumulates, the more ready it is to bully people around. They were willing to bully people in the beginning; they are even more willing to do it now.

This interview has been condensed and edited.