When 45 millions lives were needlessly lost in China
Destruction, like never before
It was to be China's Great Leap Forward.
But between 1958-62, instead of achieving the stated objective of putting China on the road to overtaking Great Britain in 15 years, the mindless mass mobilisation of hundreds of millions of peasants by the Chinese state under Chairman Mao Zedong claimed 45 million lives.
The most visible culprit was a great man-made famine that ravaged the entire country.
Yet, it was far, far more devilish than that, as Dr Frank Dikotter's seminal and must-read book Mao's Great Famine now reveals.
The book, based on pathbreaking research of official documents, shows how Chinese civil society crumbled utterly during this descent into a hell built on the foundations of coercion, terror and systematic violence. It uncovers that at least 2.5 million deaths were due to torture or summary executions.
In an interview to R Rajesh Kumar, Professor Dikotter sheds further light on the madness that reigned during China's most devastating catastrophe, which also saw the greatest destruction of property in human history.
One of the world's foremost China experts, he also explains why he feels Sino-Indian relations could stay troublesome, and shares his thoughts on the Nobel Peace prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo.
A wonderful case study
You were born in Netherlands and educated in Switzerland. Then came the two years you spent in China. Your fascination with the country has only grown since. Explain the chemistry.
I graduated in modern history as an undergraduate student before going to China.
My aim was to become decentered, so to speak, or to learn how to see the world from a less euro-centric point of view.
I stopped to travel for three weeks in India before reaching China, and have since continued to visit and read on South and Southeast Asia - in order to avoid the common mistake among Sinologists of seeing China as some unique, incommensurable culture.
What struck me is how India, Thailand, China and other countries in Asia were so different from Europe and yet so global in their interactions.
My aim was to approach the history of the modern world from a perspective that viewed people outside Europe and the United States as active agents who contributed to shaping the twentieth century, and China provided me with a wonderful case study. Here is a country that went from empire to a republic and then to a socialist regime in less than half a century.
Coming to your book, it is titled Mao's Great Famine. But you state in your preface that even that term fails to capture the many ways in which at least 45 million people died needlessly under radical collectivisation. Can you give our readers a sense of China's utter descent into hell in this period?
The term 'famine' lends support to the widespread view that all these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programmes. But as fresh archival evidence demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.
People died prematurely of many man-made causes, from torture and summary execution to deliberate starvation.
Many vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work - and hence unable to earn their keep.
People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked, for whatever reason, by the man who wielded the ladle in the canteen.
Countless people were killed indirectly through neglect, as local cadres were under pressure to focus on figures rather than on people, making sure they fulfilled the targets they were handed by the top planners.
As ordinary people had to survive as best as they could, mass destruction also went hand in hand with routine degradations.
Villagers took to eating tree bark and foraging for roots. Some boiled leather until it was soft enough to be forced down or ate the thatch of their roof.
People ate mud. A few were sufficiently strong to digest it and helped one another prise the solid faeces (that resulted) from their bodies. But the weak choked on it or died as the mud solidified in their guts.
And, of course, people ate each other.
They also stole from each other, or bartered their meagre belongings, including the clothes on their backs, for scraps.
In Shandong province, a man called Yan Xizhi gave away his three daughters because he could not feed them, then sold his five-year-old son for about a pound sterling (70-odd rupees) and his 10-month-old son for a pittance.
Some stole from their own children: Wang Jiuchang regularly ate the ration allocated to his eight-year-old daughter. He also took her cotton jacket and trousers in the middle of the winter. In the end, she succumbed to hunger and cold.
The real Mao
At the Woodstock literary festival, you denounced Chairman Mao as the biggest mass murderer in human history. What kind of a man was he?
So far, Mao has been studied on the basis of official statements, semi-official documents or Red Guard material released during the Cultural Revolution, but none of these censored sources reveal how he behaved behind closed doors.
Of course, the full picture of what was said and done in the corridors of power will only be known once the Central Party Archives in Beijing open their doors to researchers, and this is unlikely to happen in the near future. But extraordinarily detailed minutes of many key meetings can be found in provincial archives. They show the vicious backstabbing and bullying that took place among party leaders in all its rawness.
The portrait that emerges of Mao is hardly flattering, and far removed from the public image he so carefully cultivated: rambling in his speeches, obsessed with his own role in history, often dwelling on past slights, a master at using his emotions to browbeat his way through a meeting, and, above all, insensitive to human loss.
Here is what he said about the famine on 25 March 1959 to other top leaders: 'When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.'
War on birds... and cynicism
One of the more bizarre episodes, as you term it, during the Great Leap was the all-out war that Mao declared against birds. You paint a vivid picture of one such campaign in Beijing. Can you touch upon that?
Mao viewed nature as an enemy to be overcome, an adversary to be brought to heel, an entity fundamentally separate from humans which should be reshaped and harnessed through mass mobilisation. He raised the call to eliminate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows in 1958.
Sparrows were targeted because they ate grain seeds, depriving the people of the fruits of their labour - or so the propaganda went.
Banging on drums, clashing pots or beating gongs, a giant din was raised to keep the sparrows flying till they were so exhausted that they simply dropped from the sky. Eggs were broken and nestlings destroyed; the birds were also shot out of the air.
Timing was of the essence, as the entire country was made to march in lockstep in the battle against the enemy, making sure that the sparrows had nowhere to escape.
In cities, people took to the roofs, while in the countryside, farmers dispersed to the hillsides and climbed trees in the forests, all at the same hour to ensure complete victory.
Mao, of course, initiated the campaign, but the book shows how these orders were actually carried out.
Even before the Great Leap Forward started, ferocious purges took place inside the communist party, as lacklustre cadres were replaced with hard, unscrupulous men who trimmed their sails to benefit from the radical winds blowing from Beijing: they were Mao's willing executioners.
And on the ground, ordinary people were all to well aware of the consequences of speaking out against campaigns they knew very well would backfire. For speaking out or merely falling asleep during a meeting, people were beaten, tortured, covered in urine, forced to eat excrement or banned from the canteen.
In Yanqing county, north of Beijing, the merest suspicion of slacking resulted in detention: a sixty-two-year-old man spent a month in confinement for not having caught enough sparrows.
Violence and coercion were the foundations of the regime
The conditions in many of the communes, as you describe them, were as horrific as those prevalent at Nazi concentration camps. What kind of an impact has this had on Chinese society?
It has made them very cynical towards power and led to a more general erosion of the moral fabric of society.
War on property
The Great Leap also triggered the greatest demolition of property in human history. Even the Great Wall of China was not spared, you observe. Can you elaborate?
At first, old walls and abandoned huts were destroyed to make fertiliser, but as the campaign gained momentum, entire rows of houses were systematically razed to the ground, the mud bricks shattered and strewn across the fields.
On the ground, the pressure to increase the amount of fertiliser was unremitting, wild boasts and false figures vying for attention.
In one commune, the head of the Women's Federation took the lead by moving out of her house and allowing it to be turned into rubble: within two days 300 houses, 50 cattle pens and hundreds of chicken coops were pulled down. By the end of the year, some 50,000 buildings had been destroyed.
But homes were also pulled down to build collective canteens, to relocate villagers, to straighten roads, to make place for a better future beckoning ahead or simply to punish their occupants.
Across China, up to 30 or 40 per cent of all housing was turned into rubble, by far outstripping any of the World War II bombing campaigns.
Ancient city walls, old temples, historic monuments and cultural relics too became objects of official wrath and were torn down.
In the north, the Great Wall of China was plundered for building material, while bricks from the Ming Tombs were carted away with the approval of local party secretaries.
A stretch of wall measuring 40 metres long and 9 metres high at Dingling Tomb, where the Yongle Emperor was buried, was razed to the ground.
China and India
A question from a purely Indian perspective. Do you think the Great Leap in any way impacted the preparedness of the Chinese army ahead of the 1962 Sino-Indian war?
The army was fenced off from the famine. In fact, they were called in repeatedly to quell popular rebellions.
But there is no doubt that the destructive effects of collectivisation, for instance dismal production standards and a failing distribution system, had an impact on the army.
As a report by Marshal He Long showed, it was not only assault rifles that failed to fire, but even jet fighters produced in Shenyang that were substandard.
Yet, ultimately, the willingness to sacrifice one wave of soldiers after the other in extremely harsh conditions would have outweighed any defects in war material, as it had done in the Korean War in early 1950s.
On a related note, how do you perceive the Sino-Indian relationship? Where do you see it headed?
The People's Republic of China has waged wars against virtually every one if its immediate neighbours. Few of these conflicts are perceived, by the communist party today, to have been settled in its favour. The border with India is no exception.
And then there is the deep antagonism between an authoritarian one-party state and democratic countries. Here again India, with its flourishing democracy and extraordinary cultural pluralism, is no exception.
Let us hope that China will manage to evolve towards a more open, accountable and democratic government capable of nurturing cultural and political differences instead of constantly trying to eradicate them.
Access... and the Nobel
Your book became possible because the Communist Party has granted access to some of their archives. How significant a move was this? Or is it foolhardy to read a wider meaning into it all?
A new archive law has recently opened up vast amounts of archival material older than thirty years to the public, but I think that the climate of openness and goodwill in the years just before the Olympics (2008 Beijing Olympics) also helped. That climate has now changed.
The Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo - Could it prove significant? And how famous is he in Hong Kong, where you live currently?
I have nothing but respect and admiration for Liu Xiaobo and his steadfast advocacy for basic freedoms and human rights.
A few years ago, he denounced the virulent racism against Condoleezza Rice that appeared on Chinese websites after her visit to Beijing, showing that he is also willing to take to task ordinary citizens and not just the communist party.
He is very famous in Hong Kong, which is of course a city built by waves of refugees from the mainland.
Let's hope he will be released soon.