Thursday, April 16, 2015

Mao's Great Famine - a book review

Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 by Frank Dikötter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Using access to recently opened provincial and county archives, the author is able to paint a picture of China's decent into madness known as the Great Leap Forward. He weaves together individual stories with events and statistics from the village, commune, county and provincial level. One is not overwhelmed by numbers but by horror.

The new data allowed estimates of the death toll to be revised upwards to 45 million people, 50% higher than previously thought. People died of beatings, torture, live burials, disease, exposure and in the tens of millions by over work and starvation.

The country became "governed by slogans" promulgated by Chairman Mao and any dissent was swiftly punished. Disagreement with method or statement of negative results, anything other than fawning compliance was deemed 'rightist conservative". From the highest level down, Party members were bullied and the people brutalized to force production. There was no "central planning" other than setting impossible production targets and preventing individual initiative

Every activity propagandized as producing a cornucopia leading to the Utopian of "Communism" produced the exact opposite. In turning the countryside into huge communes, people were stripped of all personal belongings including household utensils and even clothing. Not only did production fall precipitously but in order to save face, cadres would announce harvests of double the earlier projections. Consequently requisitions both to feed to cities and for export to repay debts for manufacturing equipment purchases, left no food for the peasants.

In 1958 the push to make steel in backyard furnaces stripped the country of anything that could be melted including pots and pans and even needles and well as denuding the hills and mountains of all trees to feed the fires. The result was a huge decrease in steel production and tonnes of useless pig iron. In 1959 the big project was "water conservancy" to irrigate everything. Dams were built, canals and ditches dug by millions of conscripted workers often to the detriment of planting and harvest. Progress was measured in cubic meters of earth moved and the area of irrigated land fell by half, dams collapsed and rivers silted up.

Finally official investigations into the actual situation were begun in 1961 and a few dared to report the truth. However great care had to be taken to protect Chairman Mao from any and all criticism as he was all knowing and the only source of truth in all China. But he got the message and was furious. The seeds of the Cultural Revolution which followed soon after were sown in the Great Leap Forward as Mao used the Red Guards to destroy all who had opposed him in the Great Leap Forward.

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  1. I have put this to the top of my list. I intend to order it through the inter library loan program at my local library; Have you read the Chairman's little red book; it gives an idea of of Mao's dream for China?
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. It is a gut wrenching read, I warn you. The scary thing is that any society governed by ideology and leader worship is capable of the same kind of thing.
      I have not read Mao's little red book, no.

  2. It sounds like a thoroughly horrifying book... which means the author did a good job. It's mind-boggling how one man's ego could cause such widespread suffering.


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