The Famine that Mao Created

Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (Bloomsbury, 2010), 448 pages, $59.95

There is a view current in respectable circles that the Chinese economy was market-driven for the first ten years of the reform period, but that after the Tiananmen events of 1989 it became “Leninist, statist and dirigiste”. My personal view is that that is an inaccurate observation. There have been thirty years of reform and we still have massive improvements in people’s livelihood and an annual growth rate which regularly exceeds 10 per cent. If, for the most recent two thirds of that period, this has resulted from Leninism, dirigisme and statism, we market-based economists should pack our bags and think of something else to do.

It was therefore with some enthusiasm that I picked up Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, an excellent book which shows exactly how real Leninism and dirigisme work in an economy and how fast and disastrously they work. Dikötter describes in horrifying detail Mao’s Great Leap Forward of 1958 and the great famine which rapidly followed and which killed a great number of people—the real number remains hotly disputed but it is at least in the tens of millions, which makes it possibly the greatest man-made disaster in history.

Dikötter is Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He has worked tirelessly in debunking the leftist orthodoxy on Mao and the role of the Chinese Communist Party in the history of China between 1921, when the party was founded, and the Cultural Revolution. He first came to my notice with The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, which deals with the great intellectual and economic flourishing of China under Chiang Kai-shek, surely the most misunderstood and abused statesman of the twentieth century. 

Dikötter works meticulously through the wide range of Chinese archival material now available. This includes government and Party archives. At the central level he has access only to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs archive but at provincial level he gains access to a wide range of archives right down to county level, including Xianyang county in Henan, which became synonymous with poverty, starvation and death. Internationally he has access to Russian and German archives. The East Germans were among the best friends of the Chinese regime (why are we not surprised?) but even they parted ways with China when the results of the Leap started to become apparent. Dikötter also makes some use of British archives but is scornful of the level of understanding among British diplomats in Beijing of the unravelling situation. 

The picture which emerges is ideology gone mad. The Party centre decides that China will leap over Marx’s intermediate stages of socialism and go straight to the promised nirvana of pure communism. Mao is heavily influenced in his thinking by the military organisation of the party in Yan’an during the 1930s and 1940s. He decides that much of the impetus for the leap to communism will come from the peasantry. They will be the focus of new industrialisation and massive increases in food production. Increased food production will come from two sources. The first will be new water conservancy and irrigation works, the second will be new technology, supposedly from Stalin’s favourite biologist Lysenko, involving very deep ploughing and close planting of crops. As for increased industrial production, Mao promised that, although China was backwards in industry, within one year it would surpass Britain in steel production, utilising small-scale steel furnaces in rural areas.

The result was disaster on a scale never before seen. Even though Mao distrusted the cities, like many communists before and since he was unfamiliar with the two-sided nature of the price mechanism. The city consumer had primacy in the equation, which meant that prices to the farmer were low, as Dikötter demonstrates, often below the cost of production. 

The peasant has rarely had a good run in Chinese history and Mao managed to make this even worse. He reorganised the whole countryside into military-style groups. Farmers’ land was taken from them and they were assigned to production brigades and “communes”. Farmers rarely saw cash. Payment was made on the basis of work points assigned in such a way that at the end of the year when the cash was divided, hardly any remained for individual farmers. Individual kitchens were abolished and people were forced to eat communal meals in mass kitchens, a form of the communist nirvana. If you have ever wondered what the Left wants for us when the Great Commune in the Sky eventuates, look and be very afraid. 

So even before they started work, farmers’ incentive to produce had been taken away from them. The planning system exacerbated the situation. Top-down demands were made on the basis of reports at the provincial, county and commune levels. At each level of this process there were lies and exaggerations, leading to utterly unachievable targets. Meanwhile the labour force needed for this miracle was busy on other things. Enormous numbers of people were “employed” on water diversion projects. Few of these projects had been subjected to any professional engineering scrutiny, with the result that they either endangered lives with collapsing dams or caused salinity in the soil. Dikötter cites the famous case of the collapse of a Great Leap Forward dam in Henan which caused the deaths of 250,000 people. The paranoid Maoist government managed to hide this from the world until many years later.

The labour force was also busy at the small-scale furnaces, collecting wood for charcoal and collecting “scrap” iron. Except it wasn’t scrap. Usually the process involved melting down domestic pots and pans and knives to produce steel to produce … pots and pans and knives. Most of the steel was poor quality and unable to be used for making new pots and pans. Dikötter also demonstrates that the frantic search for scrap led to a shortage of farm implements, many of which had been melted down. The farm animal population was also decimated. As hunger hit, people killed their horses, mules and cattle for meat. The result was a whole peasantry, hundreds of millions of people, starving and destitute in rags, pulling wooden ploughs, all in the name of reaching nirvana. By the time I first reached China in the early 1970s, beasts of burden were a rarity. I still remember my shock when I first saw a man in rags pulling an enormous cart by hand up a steep slope in Guangzhou’s Liberation Road.

When the promised abundance failed to appear, the official reaction was predictably paranoid and violent. The figures looked good but there was no food. This was attributed not to lying but to hoarding, and gangs of thug local officials were charged with liberating the supposed hoards by force. Starving people were beaten to death for concealing non-existent grain.

Dikötter also gives us some insight into death by ideological science. Following the supposed dictates of Stalin’s biologist, Lysenko, farmers were forced to plough deep, often several metres, and plant close. The theory was that the result would be like the class struggle. Plants would compete to get to the light, which would result in bumper harvests. Dikötter cites, from archival sources, several cases of farmers rightly prophesying disaster if this path was followed. These farmers were at best ignored, but usually punished severely by local officials. It appears that when there is a direct conflict between Holy Writ and the “experience of the masses”, the former always prevails, even if the results are plain to see. Something that was new to me was that Lysenko, no doubt encouraged by the KGB, denounced this policy as unscientific. 

If you think this situation is isolated and unique to China, just look at the worldwide record of the planned economy in agriculture, where it appears starker than in other areas of the economy. Look at the Ukraine in the 1930s, where collectivisation led to mass starvation; Vietnam, which went from being one of the world’s largest exporters of rice to being one of the biggest importers (now collectivisation has been reversed, it is once again a major exporter); Ethiopia after the communist takeover in the 1970s (why did Bob Geldof never use the socialist word when looking for blame for all the deaths? Of course it was capitalist greed that caused it all); and North Korea today. My personal favourite of these grim tales of disaster is Castro’s plan in the 1960s to achieve socialist abundance in sugar production with an enormous harvest. Everybody was mobilised (sound familiar?), sugar was produced, but nothing else was. The ultimate result was an economic disaster so profound that the management of Cuba’s economy was handed over to Soviet specialists, surely a very scary outcome.

The other area which Dikötter brings out successfully is the random and oppressive nature of the power of local officials. People were beaten, raped and murdered for the most minor infractions and there was no appeal or redress. We also see the lying, the exaggeration of figures, the hiding from official scrutiny. We see how those at the centre are either wilfully ignorant or so blinded by ideology that they refuse to see what is in front of their eyes.

Criticisms? Very few. One of the many moral outrages of this period was that while most of its people were starving, China continued to export food to other communist countries. There is some controversy, mainly generated by Chang and Holloway’s biography of Mao, as to whether the amount exported would have been sufficient to feed the population. Dikötter spends too much time on the sums here. The figures from China on just about everything during this period are meaningless and the assumption that any food so diverted would go where it was needed is heroic. Surely the point that the export was insane and immoral stands by itself.

I also feel that, paradoxically, the long lists of disaster stories tend to detract from the total effect of the tale, especially since the stories come from archival material. I constantly found myself asking whether the fact that these stories were officially recorded meant something else. Were the incidents described unusual occurrences? Of course they weren’t, but the long catalogue left me wondering. I also felt that Dikötter didn’t pay enough attention to how people coped with these circumstances. Communism isn’t conducive to hard work. People don’t do much and there is always somebody who is prepared to be complicit in giving an official excuse not to work. In the mid-1970s I spent several weeks in Beijing’s Anti-Imperialist Hospital. The queues would start at 5 a.m. and by 8 a.m. when the clinic opened they were miles long, all of people waiting for their sickie certificate.

My other criticism is Dikötter’s use of non-archival material. China’s bookshops are now full of memoirs of various leading party and government officials of the day. They are often quite frank and open and Dikötter uses them liberally, even to the extent of quoting conversations. These books can be useful but need to be treated with great scepticism, something which I feel Dikötter fails on some occasions to do. I have a particular place in my heart for the memoir of Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, which I believe is very selective in its revelations, and yet Dikötter quotes him constantly. Quite a lot more can be learnt about Mao from reading between the lines of the officially sanctioned memoir Mao Zedong, Man not God by Quan Yanchi, ghosting Mao’s bodyguard Li Yinqiao. 

So buy this book but be prepared for a cathartic experience. Read it in conjunction with Jasper Becker’s masterful book on the famine, Hungry Ghosts, which I believe is one of the two or three best books written about modern China. He lacks Dikötter’s access to high-level archival material but his book has the advantage of being well structured, possibly broader in its scope, and highly readable.

Ted Rule is a semi-retired investment banker and sinologist who lives in Shenzhen, China. 

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