The Corner

A Great Leap Forward

Much as has been the case with Stalin’s earlier Ukrainian Holodomor, the history of the nightmarish famine associated with Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” remains shamefully too little known. Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts (1996) was one excellent introduction to this topic and a new work by Frank Dikotter (Mao’s Great Famine; The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe) appears to be adding a great deal more detail to this terrible story.


The Independent reports:

Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, qualifies as the greatest mass murderer in world history, an expert who had unprecedented access to official Communist Party archives said yesterday.

Speaking at The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, Frank Dikötter, a Hong Kong-based historian, said he found that during the time that Mao was enforcing the Great Leap Forward in 1958, in an effort to catch up with the economy of the Western world, he was responsible for overseeing “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known”.

Mr Dikötter, who has been studying Chinese rural history from 1958 to 1962, when the nation was facing a famine, compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million…His book, Mao’s Great Famine; The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, reveals that while this is a part of history that has been “quite forgotten” in the official memory of the People’s Republic of China, there was a “staggering degree of violence” that was, remarkably, carefully catalogued in Public Security Bureau reports, which featured among the provincial archives he studied. In them, he found that the members of the rural farming communities were seen by the Party merely as “digits”, or a faceless workforce. For those who committed any acts of disobedience, however minor, the punishments were huge…


That helps put all the posters of Chairman Mao that decorated Western campuses back in the 1960s into some sort of context. Sadly, the attitudes that made such posters so popular are still with us today. Reviewing Dikotter’s book for Bloomberg News a week or so, George Walden noted how Rowan Williams, the embarrassment now masquerading as Archbishop of Canterbury, had relatively recently ”lamented the loss of a China that, under the chairman, had ‘guaranteed everyone’s welfare.’” Interestingly (as I noted over at Secular Right the other day), if you look at Williams’ words in their original context you can see that he is specifically referring to the time before the Cultural Revolution, in other words to a time that included the great famine.

I wish I could say that was surprising


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