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:
- 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.
- Problems were swept under the rug to maintain the illusion of progress.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Massive, poorly-constructed vanity projects were built at great expense to the public, while other more pressing issues were ignored.
- 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.