Yesterday we looked at some of the key changes Mao made in China during his rule that can be linked to China’s current success. Today we’ll be looking at some of his devastating policies, and how they are explained away in China.
At one point in my life, when I thought communism was a sensible model, I thought Mao had simply been unaware of the damage he was doing. I still don’t think that Mao set out to kill millions of people (although directly he is probably responsible for a few thousand), but that he simply didn’t care about the human cost for his projects. His vision for a stronger nation made him a leader, but personally he cared very little about individual lives. This was something Mao was unashamed of, he once stated,
“He (Qin Shihuang, first emperor of China) buried 460 scholars alive, we have buried 46,000 alive… You intellectuals revile us for being Qin Shihaungs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shihuang a hundred fold.”
Like the first emperor, Mao reunited a long-divided country and launched projects meant to restart a crippled nation. Ultimately both men fell victim to their own vanity and hubris, which brought untold suffering to the masses. Yet, somehow, both remain honored founders of China.
Of Mao’s numerous “mistakes” the great famine is perhaps the best known, and will serve as our example of how his reign lead to such massive man-made disasters.
During the Great Leap Forward Mao ordered collective farms not only to double as steel producers, but also forced new unproven agricultural techniques. The result of these actions led to drastic drops in food production, which led to at least 15 million deaths according to Chinese statistics (other observers estimate that it was closer to 20-45 million).
A popular response/excuse is that Mao simply didn’t know the extent of the situation.
Mao had created such a culture of fear around him by this point that reporting crop failures would have been worse for the local leaders than letting the peasants starve. The Chairman was not a man who could accept criticism, he had made that clear in the crack down that followed the 100 Flowers Campaign, so not meeting the quotas would mean be seen as a personal failure. Local officials only had one option, so they started boasting about their production. This lead the Central Gov’t to demand more grain sent be to the cities.
This would be a tempting excuse, except that it seems like in a country where some were so desperate that they were turning to cannibalism, someone would notice the largest famine in the history of the world.
When talking with Chinese friends individually it seems that every family has quietly shared their stories of suffering through this period. Since these are still private, I think it is hard for the students to realize how widespread the misery was at this moment.
I think, when taken with the full character of the man, it is far more likely that Mao simply did not care that the people were starving. It is even reported that he said, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” During this period, China increased it’s food exports by 50%, and North Korea and Vietnam received free aid.
The Party claims to have learned from these disastrous policies. However, China at the moment is preparing to announce that for the 8th year in a row it has had a record harvest, despite suffering from some of the worst droughts in decades, followed by widespread flooding. Bad news is still not allowed to interfere with the Party’s celebrations (full story from WSJ).