Review: Mao’s Great Famine, by Frank Dikötter

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962, by Frank Dikötter. New York: Walker & Company, 2010. 448 pp. $30 (hardcover).

The term “command economy” was coined by the Nazis, but it was later used to describe the economies of the Soviet Union and sundry other “people’s states.” On paper, it sounded like this:

Instead of allowing dispersed buyers and sellers to determine their own economic activities according to the laws of supply and demand, a higher authority would issue commands determining the overall direction of the economy following a master plan. The command principle entailed that all economic decisions were centralized for the greater good, as the state determined what should be produced, how much should be produced, who produced what and where, how resources should be allocated and what prices should be charged for materials, goods and services. (p. 127)

In practice, it led to one catastrophe after another—wherever, whenever, and to whatever extent it was implemented.

Until recently, the full extent of what happened when Mao Tse-tung implemented a “command economy” has been unclear. Following the release of some key archives, however, a clearer picture of the hell that was Mao’s system has emerged. Frank Dikötter presents the facts in Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962.

Dikötter begins his history with Stalin’s death in 1953, arguing that Mao saw the event as an opportunity to “claim leadership of the socialist camp” (p. 6). Mao’s first attempt to “develop” China was a disaster, leading to shortages and bottlenecks across the country—until the party stopped trying to “develop” the country by means of forcing farmers to join communes and meet government-mandated production targets.

In late 1956 and early 1957, Mao encouraged a more open political climate in order to avoid an open revolt and to deal with detractors in small numbers, but garnered more criticism for this than he expected. In fact, he received a salvo of complaints from farmers to party leaders, some questioning “not only the very right of the party to rule, but also his own leadership” (p. 9).

According to Dikötter, Mao’s response was to carry out an “anti-rightist” campaign “targeting half a million people” who were “deported to remote areas to do hard labor” (p. 9). Anyone who had so much as slightly criticized Mao’s policies was targeted, and the “provinces were encouraged to launch their own witch-hunts, as a wind of persecution blew through the country” (p. 21).

By the summer of 1957, when Mao announced that China would overtake the British economy within fifteen years by following an expanded version of what had already failed, none dared to disagree. A party leader summed up the general response within the party, Dikötter says, when he quivered enthusiastically: “We must have blind faith in the Chairman! We must obey the Chairman with total abandon!” (p. 19). This is how the “Great Leap Forward,” a new campaign to “develop” China, began.

As Dikötter shows, in detail after detail, the “development” was madness. By the end of 1958, the state forced everyone in the countryside into twenty-six thousand giant communes (p. 48). It took farmers from their fields during harvest time and forced them to create dams and reservoirs, despite the fact that nobody knew what they were doing (p. 29). It commanded citizens to throw their pots, pans, and farming tools into backyard furnaces for steel; to tear up their floorboards in order to feed the flames—all in an effort to meet arbitrary quotas set by some faraway communist official (pp. 59–62).

The state forced farmers to dig deep furrows, often by hand, and to plant seeds close together because the Chairman thought they would feel more comfortable that way (pp. 135–36, 140). It commanded them first to destroy their chicken coops for the fertilizer that could be used from excrement in the floorboards—then it commanded farmers to collect their own feces, shave their heads, or raze their mud and straw houses for still more fertilizer (p. 38). And, as they starved, farmers were commanded to plant less, not more. “People in China on average cultivate three mu,” said Mao, “but I think that two mu [or .32 acres] is enough” (p. 136).

Dikötter shows that the state’s allocation of resources was no more rational—or efficient—than its attempt to command production. For instance, it forced those farmers who managed to produce in spite of the controls to hand over their crops, which made their way to state granaries, to be eaten by insects and rats; to the sides of dusty roads, where they rotted waiting for wagons that never came; to the banquets of party members, who ate and drank until they puked; to the Soviet Union, where they were presented as early payment for debts; and to other nations, who were given the crops free of charge.

Dikötter shows how the resulting shortage of crops in China pitted city against city, village against village, and family member against family member. He further documents how the almost-dead took the food of the barely-living and how everyone stole, fought, and killed in a world where people survived only to the extent that they were brutal.

Given this much, few will be surprised at some of the carnage that followed. But, according to Dikötter, coercion, terror, and violence were not merely the outcomes of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Rather, they were the foundations of it (p. 292).

For instance, Dikötter points out that when farmers were told to do some nonsensical thing such as plant seeds in the bitter cold, they did not speak up. Why? “We knew about the situation,” explained a farmer, “but no one dared to say anything. If you said anything, they would beat you up” (p. 40). And what kept them working? “A vicious circle of repression was created, as ever more relentless beatings were required to get the starving to perform whatever tasks were assigned to them” (p. 300).

Dikötter shows that violence and terror were omnipresent. Leaders who refused to beat “slackers” were themselves beaten or murdered. “[A]s party members were terrorized themselves, they in turn terrorized the population under their control” (p. 301).

That such a system led to a pile of corpses should surprise no one. The final tally and the details, however, remain shocking. Dikötter estimates that the death toll “stands at a minimum of 45 million excess deaths”—and that it could be even higher (p. 333). (By “excess deaths,” Dikötter means deaths that would not otherwise have happened.) For the horrific details, read the book.

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