Mao Was 30% Wrong (+/-30,000,000 deaths)

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.

The Famine

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).

20 responses to “Mao Was 30% Wrong (+/-30,000,000 deaths)”

  1. Chopstik says:

    Reminds me of one of my favorite sayings:

    “Live and don’t learn”

    Or maybe it was “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”?…

    No, it was the first one… *sigh*

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Read Frank Dikotter’s latest book “Mao’s Great Famine”. Published last year, it is based on new research and a gripping read. Frank Dikotter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and on leave from the University of London where he is Professor of the Modern History of China.

  3. […] 中国见红– 毛主席的三分过(约三千万人的死亡)——对中共统治神话进行系列分析的第四篇文章 […]

  4. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← Mao Was 30% Wrong (+/-30,000,000 deaths) […]

  5. Tim Corbin says:

    Chopstik, you are fortunate I hadn’t just taken a sip of my drink, else I would have spit it out. Good stuff.
    Michelle & I have been having some interesting conversations about Mao, I wanna have some more before I report on her feelings, but I’ll just say for now that she’s pretty loyal – but waking up slowly. 😉

    • Chopstik says:

      Let’s face it, Mao was a very interesting and intriguing individual (like the alliteration ;-)). It is easy for Westerners to demonize him for being a mass murderer, megalomaniac, manipulator and any number of other bad traits. It is not so easy to sometimes reconcile that with the many positive things he contributed to China (some of which has been mentioned here by Tom). Indeed, many Westerners who are critical of Mao are flabbergasted by the continuing Chinese adulation and adoration of him.

      Perhaps the key is seeing him and then viewing the situation in China prior to his arrival. The chaos and anarchy of the many warlords who ruled China before the rise of the CCP defined China in a way that has not been easily forgotten (and one that the CCP will not allow the people to forget lest they think there are better alternatives to the CCP). China was, at that time, referred to as the weak man of Asia – a harsh blow for a country and people with such a long and storied history. Mao brought the nation back to prominence and restored its pride. Therein, I suspect, lies much of the reason for his continued admiration by people who were not even alive at the time of his death.

      I am not suggesting that this is a panacea to the question of 70/30, merely one contributing factor. Many people are still alive who were hurt by him and his policies and they have not forgotten. But they can still view his overall accomplishments (or at least those touted by the inheritors of his governing legacy) in a kinder light than those who have only studied him within a singular context. Just something to think about…

      • Tom says:

        The Chinese relationship with Mao is very hard to describe. I think part of it is that Chinese people tend to be pragmatic, and see that life is better now than it was in the 1940’s, and so Mao get’s a lot of credit for that. It is important to remember that much of the messes around China were caused by the civil war, which pitted to egomaniacs against each other, and left the people in the middle.

      • Chopstik says:

        Something that just dawned on me and figure that Tom (or others currently in various areas of China) may be better positioned to address: is the veneration of Mao equal across the board (rich vs. poor, educated vs. uneducated, urban vs. rural) or are there some segments of society that are more likely than others to view him and his accomplishments positively (or not)? I think that we have a tendency to look at this subject through a narrow lens and apply it across the board where that might not always be the case. Just curious for any feedback that others might feel inclined to offer…

      • Tom says:

        I’m not sure how it breaks down exactly. I know in the countryside it’s more common to see Mao posters, but they are probably the only art available to those people. Also publicly everyone likes Mao, but when you ask them if they like Deng or Mao more, they usually pick Deng.
        I’ll try asking around for you.

  6. Godfree says:

    Let’s not over-focus on Mao, or even Communism when discussing famine.

    Amartya Sen, whose Nobel was awarded for his study of famine, concluded that ALL famines are political. More to the point, he says that India TODAY (when its economy is supposedly booming) kills more of its citizens by starvation every 4 years than did Mao.

    At least Mao took responsibility for the disaster. Perhaps more importantly, The Party learned from it: the CCP vowed that no single person would ever call the shots again.

    As a side note, how many millions of innocent people has Capitalism killed since Mao’s day?

    • Tom says:

      Actually Godfree for decades after Mao’s death it was known as the three years of natural disasters, that doesn’t really sound like taking responsibility for his mistakes. Also as you may remember only a few years later Mao launched the cultural revolution, which was yet again one person calling all the shots, so that lesson was not learned from the famine.

      I have been unable to find this Amartya Sen quote, but I do know that his most famous quote is that famines do not occur in democracies. If you could find the source of that quote, I would appreciate it.
      A more detailed look at all of the factors that went into the mass deaths during the great leap forward can be found here (

      Finally Capitalism is not a single person, compared to Communism though I’m not sure how it would compare given Mao, Stalin, Pol pot, Kim Jong-il…

      • It took me about 4 hours of digging to unearth the quote so I’m not surprised that you couldn’t find it! Here it is–still more digging to get back to the statement date and forum (it turns out that Sen is one of the most prolific writers, speakers, and interviewees on earth!):

        “A good test case would be to compare China, the largest communist country, with India, the largest democracy, using labels for convenience. The Novel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen makes the point that although India never suffered a ‘politically induced famine’ like the Great Leap Forward in China:

        ‘[India] had, in terms of morbidity, mortality and longevity, suffered an excess in mortality over China of close to 4 [million] a year during the same period. … Thus in this one geographical area alone, more deaths resulted from ‘this failed capitalist experiment’ (more than 100 million by 1980) than can be attributed to the ‘failed communist experiment’ all over the world since 1917.” (Black 2000: “Work and Inequality in Urban China”)

        The interpretation may be disturbing to some and uncomfortable to others but Sen’s argument does show that it is important to distinguish between what was intended and what was not intended during the Cultural Revolution.”

        To this I would append the following observations:
        1. When Mao said “a revolution is not a tea party”, he wasn’t kidding. Revolutions by their nature are incredibly destructive–which is why most of the time most sane people avoid them at almost any cost.

        2. The Cultural Revolution upset both (the remnants of) the old and (the just-formed) new elites of China AND ALL ELITES EVERYWHERE ON EARTH. That’s one reason it is so roundly condemned on all sides today.

        3. For a first-hand view of the Cultural Revolution by someone who lived through it and now teaches in the US, I warmly recommend “The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village” by Dongping Han

      • Tom says:

        Thank you Godfree for taking the time to look up that quote. I’m not sure that he is completely accurate in his argument that there were more deaths in India (100 million) than in all of the failed communist experiments. The great leap forward alone is roughly 30 million, plus purges, prisons and revolts throughout the previously mentioned states seems like they would quickly surpass that.
        I would be interested in reading Dongping Han’s account. Thank you for the recommendation.

  7. […] Great Leap Forward, followed by millions of deaths in the great famine. This destabilizes China forcing the government to relax some controls on collective farming, but […]

  8. […] I said, going through in my mind the one hundredth time the purges in the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the famine, the Cultural Revolution, and many more smaller but nonetheless a… that should not be lost in the […]

  9. […] way my co-worker explained why it was that China exported food to Vietnam and North Korea as nearly 45 million Chinese died during the great famine. I think it may be one of the few traditional aspects of Chinese society that was barely effected […]

  10. […] has historically been large, there was massive growth during Mao Zedong’s rule (even after tens of millions died due to decisions made at the time), which has made China the most populous country in the world. […]

  11. Joshua Bortz says:

    I heard that many foreigners didn’t know about the famine because foreigners tended to be in the south, while the famine was killing many in the north

  12. […] that they were eating the crops, but in fact they were eating the insects, this further exacerbated the great famine that killed nearly 45 million Chinese. The famine also lead to a desperate search for food of any kind which effected many other […]

  13. […] I said, going through in my mind the one hundredth time the purges in the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the famine, the Cultural Revolution, and many more smaller but nonetheless a… that should not be lost in the […]

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