Mao’s Great Famine couldn’t happen again (but June 4th could)

I recently finished reading Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikötter, which outlines the full scope of horror that was the Great Leap Forward which in four years claimed 45 million lives. However, that number fails to capture the suffering and individual abuse that was pervasive throughout the country.  While it is by far the most complete account of that period, it makes for rather dark summer reading.

I felt a need to push myself through the unpleasant details as a kind of penance for my years of absolving Mao of any wrong doing. In the past I would have argued that Mao had been fed inaccurate information and was clueless about the actual situation, it was a terribly naive position, and one made completely indefensible by the fact that Mao simply did not care that millions were starving in the countryside. As the Chairman saw it, China was still in a revolution, and death was a small price to pay for the rapid development that would supposedly benefit the rest of the country. They were unwilling martyrs for a worker’s paradise that never materialized.

You may have noticed a slight change in my stance since then (and you’ll notice I’ve changed since starting this blog too). After finishing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is also a mistake to blame the Great Famine entirely on Mao. While it could have only happened with a person like Chairman Mao at the helm, it also could have only happened with the complicity of Party officials at every level. There is no single individual to blame for the catastrophe, it was an epic failure of the entire system created by the Party.

The troubling realization I took away from this book was that many of the underlying causes of the famine have never been resolved, and continue to be perennial issues:

  1. Central gov’t officials were aware of abuse and deception in the lower ranks, but were unwilling to investigate the situation and ignored reports that were presented.
  2. Problems were swept under the rug to maintain the illusion of progress.
  3. A pervasive attitude of fear was propagated to ensure that projects were not questioned openly, and those who dissented were labeled as traitors and then silenced. 
  4. General directives were given without any guidance and were interpreted with shocking results by local officials, but no system was ever created to monitor the outcomes.
  5. The Central gov’t placed urban residents far above rural residents, and were willing to deny benefits to rural residents for the sake of stability.
  6. Environmental devastation allowed for a burst of economic “growth,” which later led to massive health problems and natural disasters that were far more costly than the gains.
  7. Massive, poorly-constructed vanity projects were built at great expense to the public, while other more pressing issues were ignored.
  8. Aid and goods to foreign countries were emphasized over meeting the needs of the Chinese people. Rural and urban residents suffered for the sake of “face” abroad.

This list is but a fraction of the parallels one could draw between the past and present, but fortunately, this kind of disaster could not repeat itself in present day China. One major reason for this is that the role of Hu Jintao is radically different from that of Chairman Mao,  and it would be difficult for an individual politician to silence rivals within the Party in the same way Mao did (although Bo Xilai seems to have managed this at provincial level). Secondly, China’s news (aided by microbloggers) is far more open than it was at this time, which makes it more difficult to cover up problems and exaggerate gains at the local level (note: this isn’t a very high bar. problems are still regularly covered up, but failures of this scale would likely be noticed). Thirdly, I doubt that Chinese people would be as willing to suffer for “the greater good” as they were during the Great Leap Forward.

One note that Dikötter makes, but doesn’t really explore, is that the provincial leader in Jiangsu province resisted the absurd goals and was not denounced for this moderate stance. Perhaps he survived because while he did not participate in Mao’s delusions, he also did not criticize them. According to the author, this resulted in a drastically lower death toll in the province. It makes me wonder how many lives could have been saved if just a few other key officials had decided to stay above the mindless rush for accolades.

Mao’s Great Famine, is a powerful reminder of what can happen when power is left unchecked and how quickly society can descend into utter chaos. While some have questioned Dikötter’s claim that 45 million people died, the country he describes based on Party documents is one that would make even the most hardened Mao supporter question the great helmsman. While many detractors have zeroed in on this figure, claiming that it is actually grossly inflated, it does not change the amount of suffering endured during this period by millions of peasants (it’s interesting that deniers of the Rape of Nanking and those who deny the Great Famine have adopted similar arguments).

On a side note: In this week of remembering June 4th, one realizes that while China is safe from the devastating campaigns of Mao’s reign, Tian’anmen Square could very well happen again. One needs to look no further than the Party’s overblown response to whispers of the Jasmine Revolution and its willingness to support brutal regimes that slaughter their own civilians for reasons to worry. While the Party is far less likely to launch impossibly ambitious campaigns to boost production or encourage destructive waves of blind nationalism that undermine stability, it is also no more likely to allow vocal calls for change.

13 responses to “Mao’s Great Famine couldn’t happen again (but June 4th could)”

  1. Kostas says:

    very good post, I’d agree with most of your remarks although I don’t think Dikkoter;s research is 100% objective. You are very right to observe that despite Mao’s ultimate political responsibility, the trend to draw parallels with Stalin and even Hitler are completely misguiding( for a fair account of Mao I would highly recommend a collection of essays ”Was Mao Really A Monster?”) if we want to comprehend political change(or continuity) and identify today’s Chinese pathogenies. Mao is dead but some key reason that caused the famine are still here

  2. ron753 says:

    I read this book some time ago and it is a devastating reminder of the dangers of ‘cult of the personality’. I have just completed reading ‘The Death of Mao’, James Palmer (Published 2012), which covers the intrigue and disaster in the closing day of Maoism.

  3. Tom says:

    The Great Leap Forward and the resultant famine
    I think the first book in English was Hungry Ghosts by Jasper Becker published
    around 1998. As I recall the estimate of those who starved and those who were
    murdered by being beaten up by the cadres and their thugs was 35 million plus.

    Then there is this one
    杨继绳 ( Yang JiSheng ) Author of墓碑 (Tombstone)
    “I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my [foster] father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book.”
    Published Hong Kong – English Translation will be available ? this year.

    Yang was upset by some of Dikotter’s comments on his research.
    See Xujun Eberlein below.

    • Tom says:

      I think ultimately to focus on a specific number of deaths isn’t very useful in the discussion of the Great Famine. While these two historians might bicker about individual points, they do agree on several major issues. 1. That tens of millions of people starved to death or were beaten to death by cadres. 2. That Mao alone was not responsible, but the entire system had broken down. 3. That many top officials were complicit in this man made catastrophe.

  4. […] intangible idea that has never been seen by the majority of people. In this way, the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution have helped to cement the Party’s […]

  5. Dave says:

    There is a very different review here
    I am always surprised that this famine is not compared to the preceding famines in China in the 20th Century, Minqi Li documents how during the GLF the death rate per thousand simply returned to its pre-1949 level. Also the massive increase in life expectancy from ’49 till the the 70 deems to be left out of too.
    This is not doubting the horror or tragedy of this event but rather we need a more complex view, and if we grasp the numbers as a percentage then we see this tragedy is not that unique globally, sadly. Is it Sen who remarks that we don’t see the 100 million Indians who starved to in a 50 year period precisely because the basic forms of welfare and land reform were not constructed or undertaken?
    This excellent article locates the tension between the desire to form communes as a mode of peasant empowerment and the desire of the central government to accumulate capital, the idea that China under the Maoist period was torn between a drive for equality and emancipation and that for development (all done under the auspices of a party-state that was formed under a long period of militarisation) concurs with the argument made by that great historian Meisner.

    • Tom says:

      The idea that this man made famine is excusable in anyway because there had been natural famines in the past is a fairly disgusting position. The Pre-1949 death rate reflects civil war and a war with the Japanese, and I’m not sure that is a comparison anyone would see as symbol of a well functioning gov’t. Life expectancy figures are also troubling for the same reason, China was in a state of almost constant war from the mid-19th century, and so these figures should not be compared. It would be like the U.S. gov’t claiming that life in Afghanistan has improved because life expectancy now is higher than it was during the Russian occupation – just because it’s better than the past doesn’t make it a measure of good.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Where did I say it was excusable? And how is it different from the violence or suffering of any other period of primitive accumulation?

    • Dave says:

      Sorry that was me,..not this guy Anonymous who ever he is. I just think there is a certain blindness to comparative horrors that happen in different contexts, a certain liberal blindness

      • Tom says:

        I’m sorry if I thought you were trying to excuse these deaths, I have read a number of apologists from this period, and they make the same arguments, so I assumed you were heading in the same direction. The point I make in the article is that the Party greatly exacerbated the situation, and that a different political system would likely have had a better outcome.

  7. Dave says:

    This is Dongping Han’s opinion on the topic based on his research in Jimo County ( where he grew up)

    • Tom says:

      “There is no question that Mao bore tremendous responsibility for the Great Leap Forward famine. If he had not pushed for the Great Leap Forward and the establishment of peoples’ communes in such a hasty manner, the Chinese people would have been in a better position to deal with the natural disasters. Without the wastefulness of the public dining halls, the impact of the natural disasters would have been much less. On the other hand, without the organized relief efforts of the Maoist state, the impact of the natural disasters of 1959, 1960 and 1961 would have been much greater in Jimo for all we know. That was why many farmers say ‘without the Government’s relief efforts, more people would have died. In 1960, six southeast provinces donated 215,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos of dried vegetables and large quantities of winter clothes to Jimo County. In the same year, Qingdao municipal government provided Jimo County with 110,000 suites of clothes, 12,790 quilts, 10,052 meters of cloth, 8,010 kilos of cotton, 54,677 pairs of shoes and hats, 125,000 kilos grain, and over half of the households in Jimo County benefited. In November of 1960, a Shanghai municipal delegate brought to Jimo 60,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos dried sweet potatoes and other relief materials.In 1961, Shandong provincial government donated 15,000 tons of grain to Jimo and provided 200 grams of grain per villagers each day before the next harvest.Mao’s mistakes and Mao’s merits were paradoxically entwined to such an extent that any effort to separate the two would be simply impossible. For that reason, few Chinese workers and farmers ever blamed Mao for what happened during the Great Leap Forward. It is not that Chinese farmers and workers are too dumb to know any better, as many Chinese elites suggest. It is their wisdom to see both Mao’s mistakes and his merits at the same time.”

      I appreciate this addition to the conversation, but I think the author is somewhat compromised in that he is writing explicitly for a Leftist study group. His conclusion that farmers were wise enough to see Mao’s mistakes and merits at the same time ignores the steady dose of propaganda and Mao worship that came throughout the 30 year period. The argument I would make is that it is very difficult for anyone who lived through that period to have an objective view of Mao, just as it would be difficult for anyone who served as a soldier in Vietnam to have an objective view of Ho Chi Minh. I wouldn’t suggest that these farmers and workers were dumb, but I don’t see them as objective either.

      • Dave says:

        Well no one ever has ever been objective, we are all caught in our own subjective position with is unspoken and sometimes unseen ontology. I think because his work draws on people who opinions are not often asked – the peasants in this area – it is such a welcome addition to the debate.
        And as much as we may criticize the Mao cult ( and we should), we should check our own ideological interpolation as well. What I see again and again is how commentary on China carries its own unacknowledged liberal world view.

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