Mao Zedong wrote the book on guerilla warfare, literally, and was the godfather of Communist China. But thanks to scholarship like Frank Dikotter’s 2010 book, based on the latest archives out of Beijing, there’s more hope that Chairman Mao will be solely remembered as an asshole of the first order—even before he unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Why isn’t Mao, responsible for the deaths of at least 25 million people within four years, a supervillain in the vain of Stalin or even Pol Pot? (Ho Chi Minh is more of a household name.) A couple big factors inform Mao’s lack of mainstream infamy. Most notably, the slow death of neglected peasants isn’t compelling Middle-American entertainment. It lacks cinematic drama. Unlike WWII, there’s no happy ending and there are no heroes. Another notoriety tamer: Mao didn’t specifically order Stalin-style show trials, executions and massacres. Nor did his henchmen dress in stylish black leather or shoot people, like the Nazis. Cable channels, like National Geographic and History, have never given Mao’s China its due.
The title Mao’s Great Famine puts the blame squarely on the Chairman. This specific ‘Fuck You’ is necessary to drive home his complicity because Mao is rather far from the actual carnage. As such, he is conspicuously absent from the second half of the book, especially in the long section called ‘Ways of Dying.’ It almost seems as though he has plausible deniability. He does not. The subtle evil of the Chairman is that he caused a famine then neglected to save his subjects. And it would have been so easy. Mao’s advisers, his planners and his enemies in the party whole-heartedly—yet silently—welcomed an end to his counterproductive policies.
The author takes care not to romanticize Mao and his cult of personality. Mao comes off as a flat character: impetuous, spoiled and often moronic, he seems to lack any skepticism. He’s described thusly:
“Mao spewed disdain” “Mao now demanded full allegiance” “left Mao seething with resentment”
But Mao had seen his share of hardship, leading his communist guerillas on the Long March of retreat in the Chinese Civil War. That Mao was desensitized to the suffering of others is not explored in the book—and it’s to his credit that Dikotter won’t allow Mao to escape responsibility via diagnosis.
The word ‘Great’ in the title is a reference to Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962. Irony doesn’t come much more blatant than this name: The Leap was one of the most insane self-inflicted steps backward in world history.
After WWII, Joseph Stalin was world communist No. 1—the most powerful soul in the eastern hemisphere. He bankrolled Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War against General Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists in 1947-48. But Stalin treated Mao like an illegitimate child.
“For thirty years Mao had suffered humiliation at the hands of Stalin, willingly subordinating himself to Moscow out of sheer strategic necessity.”
Mao’s accomplishments were nothing to sneer at. He was a pioneer of guerilla warfare and fought off Imperial Japan before driving the Nationalist army to the sea. As a fierce-willed proproganda-spewing prophet, he then cemented Communist China.
Mao had once respected Stalin’s vision but by the early ’50s he was plotting China’s course to match Soviet power. When Stalin died in 1953 of a brain hemorrhage, the Chairman saw no reason he couldn’t become the one true god of communism. Soviet successor Nikita Khrushchev, a loyal Stalinist thug, was not particularly respected inside or outside Moscow—which is why he survived Stalin’s frequent purges.
In 1957, the Sputnik satellite orbited the earth and earned the Soviets the superpower championship belt. Khrushchev boasted loudly about the advances of the industrial wonderland communism built. He proclaimed the USSR would overtake America in everything from color TVs to steel production. Mao began to echo these boasts and assured the world that China would soon outproduce Britain in steel. Soviet communism flourished, so surely China could achieve a Great Leap Forward to industrialization, a la Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.
THE LEAP IS ON
Mao solidified top-level party support through fear and sold the Great Leap Forward as a way to both cure poverty and industrialize the countryside. But the phrase was first used “in the context of a water-conservancy drive” for which 30 million people had been recruited in 1957.
The Leap was China’s second get-power-quick scheme—Mao’s mid-50s Socialist High Tide faltered and drew heavy criticism. But Mao soon purged non-believers and continued collectivizing the vast rural population—seizing its property and forcing it into hard labor—as the People’s Republic sought an edge in prestige, goods and geopolitics. Ideology was a key method of oppression as Mao and his central committee instituted a military-based society: ‘villagers were “footsoldiers” who had to “fight battles” on the “front line” … while “shock brigades” might “stage a march.”‘ Beijing corralled peasants into the continuous revolution, the People’s communes.
Dikotter quotes Mao: “If we can provide food without cost, that would be a great transformation. I guess that in about ten years time commodities will be abundant, moral standards will be high. We can start communism with food, clothes and housing. Collective canteens, free food, that’s communism!”
Like five-star generals, Beijing’s economic planners gave orders that ran down the totem pole of party officials, from province to region to county to brigade and finally to individual cadre. Wielding authority and clubs, cadres stripped millions of poor villagers of their land, herded them into communes or collective farms, and put them to backbreaking work.
Not that the cadres were necessarily evil, they were simply under a lot of pressure to produce tons of steel and grain and other commodities. Cadres were responsible for getting giant damns built, irrigation systems dug and iron ore mined. To motivate workers, they threatened to withhold food.
County chiefs—who wanted to gain favor with the province boss, who wanted to gain favor with Mao—demanded production targets be met and projects be completed quickly. From cadres on up, everyone had to stay on the party’s good side.
Competition was fierce among counties to earn a coveted Red Flag, like a gold star, from Beijing. The state assigned ill-conceived projects and demanded high yields of crops, then provided no oversight, no quality control and no incentive to work effectively. Cutting corners became policy down the line. Tried and true farming methods were scrapped, so attempts to develop more foodstuffs directly resulted in serious food shortages. Entire villages were razed for steel and fertilizer in probably the most prolific residential destruction of all time. Quickie dams collapsed and reservoirs leaked dry. Irrigation schemes salinized—or salted—millions of hectares of soil, making it less fertile. Half-assed industrialization was rampant.
“One chemical workshop in Nanjing, put together in a residential dwelling, had a bamboo roof and paint peeling from mud walls…. Radioactive waste permeated nooks and crannies…. Some of the women had the cartilage separating their nostrils eaten away by constant inhalation of chemicals.”
Indeed, no examples were spared in Dikotter’s comprehensive exposé of dangerously shoddy Great Leap Forward campaigns. Brigades worked the malnourished villagers longer hours but it only wore them out or made them lazy with spite.
As pieces of the sky fell, local leaders buried them, hiding the horrors.
Though the last two-thirds of the book isn’t much fun to read, a relatively enjoyable part of Mao’s Great Famine comes in the ‘Survival’ section. In chapters such as ‘On the Sly’ and ‘Wheeling and Dealing,’ Dikotter concentrates on how regular people defied the party and managed to squeak out an existence. In a society where the lowliest bureaucratic functionaries held life and death in their hands —in the form of ration cards—smart folks learned fast to barter, bribe and network. Savvy businessmen found ways to outwit the state, bypassing the ‘planned economy’ with creative accounting and developing a ‘shadow economy,’ a vast black market.
“Li Ke, a cadre from Jianguomen commune to the east of Beijing, wrote himself a certificate for sick leave for nine months and started trading in sewing machines, bicycles and radios, investing the profit in a bulk acquisition of electric bulbs and cables. These he sold in Tianjin, purchsing in turn furniture which he unloaded in the suburbs precisely when the market contracted…”
Dikotter’s unromantic anecdotes, when they finally arrive, feel like tall tales of capitalist cowboys sticking it to the communist empire.
Cadres and county officials regularly stole from the state, smuggled goods and ran under-the-radar factories and even complex trading operations. What might be considered unconscionable corruption in a socialist democracy became survival in a totalitarian kleptocracy.
Other sections of the book, such as ‘Destruction’ and ‘The Vulnerable,’ detail the wide range of awfulness. The chapters therein, while fascinating in scope, offer up repetitive, depressing statistics for scholarship. One titled “Nature” reveals how Mao’s vainglorious delusions led him to declare war on the physical land.
The famine mentioned in the title is presented mostly as a sequence of brief images or as reams of statistics.
“In a hamlet once humming with activity, two children with drumbstick limbs and skeletal heads, lying by their cadaverous grandmother, were the only survivors. One in four people in a local population of half a million had perished in Guangshan.”
Though he’s wise to avoid drawn-out scenes of family’s cannibalizing one another, Dikotter could have found more room for peasants with names and character traits. Instead the reader sometimes sees the rural Chinese as Mao saw them: numbers.
The most sympathetic character, whose story would make fine historical fiction, is Liu Shaoqi’s, Mao’s head of state. He finally returns to his hometown in Huaminglou, Hunan, after 40 years, to investigate the results of 18 months of the Great Leap Forward.
One passage from Liu’s journey sums up how the Leap begat the famine.
‘He [Liu Shaoqi] tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959. Duan Sucheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a Red Flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions [taken by the state], villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.’
In short, Beijing took more and more food from the counties as they produced less and less.
Those who criticized the Leap were labeled ‘rightist’—like ‘commie’ during 1950s America’s Red Scare, a derogatory term that meant you could be blacklisted or worse. The scrutiny by cadres tasked with finding rightists led to the discovery that farmers had been hiding grain.
After a report was issued to Beijing, a furious Mao sent the orders that translated into brigades rampaging through small towns and villages, beating, looting and terrorizing peasants. As tons of hidden grain were violently confiscated, starvation increased exponentially.
When Liu Shaoqi returned home it was April 1961, after several rounds of rightist purges and grain confiscation, and the results of a famine, which had been severe since 1959, were hard to hide. Liu saw with his own eyes the obvious destitution and ‘clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer [Liu's] team from speaking with villagers.’ Liu called the provincial Bureau of Security ‘completely rotten’ and immediately shut down the wretched canteen in his native village of Tanzichong.
Liu, clearly shocked with the conditions on the ground, was also disturbed that he had stopped getting mail. Dikotter quotes Liu: ‘My home town is such a mess but nobody has sent me a report…. I am afraid they were simply not allowed to write, or they did write and their letters were inspected and confiscated.”
Liu Shaoqi spoke truth to power a month later at a gathering of leaders and called on the party to accept blame for their errors, revealing: ‘in Hunan the peasants have a saying, “30 percent is due to natural calamities, 70 percent to man-made disasters.”‘
For his challenges to Mao and criticism of the Great Leap Forward, Liu’s stock tumbled until he was officially purged in the Cultural Revolution of 1966.
As early as 1959, Mao had to admit that mistakes were made, but he didn’t change the policies of the Great Leap Forward. A phrase he often used to explain it away was, ‘Out of ten fingers, only one fails, where nine succeed.’ And Zhou Enlai, the senior economic planner, routinely insisted on taking the heat for Mao.
When it was to his advantage, Mao did pretend to care about the rural population. By October 1960, as reports of mass starvation finally made it to Beijing, ‘Mao was visibly shaken’ and party leaders (such as Liu Shaoqi) were finally dispatched to the countryside on fact-finding missions into 1961. The state rounded up, imprisoned and/or purged the most abusive and neglectful county leaders and cadres. Mao called those offenders ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘rightists’ who were taking revenge against the communist vision. But “at no point did the Chairman acknowledge that the regime of terror he modeled at the top was being mirrored at every level down the party hierarchy.”
By the end of 1960, Zhou Enlai and members of the central committee made subtle adjustments in economic policy to slowly reverse the catastrophic death and destruction. A year later, they even convinced Mao that imports of grain were needed to heal the countryside. Most of the famine-fueling elements had been rooted out, and conditions, which had nowhere to go but up, improved considerably by late 1962.
As Dikotter continually points out, a final damage assessment is hard to verify, given all the fraudulent information passed up and down the chain of command. An estimate of 25 million avoidable deaths is the low end of the spectrum—45 million the high. And he argues convincingly that Mao, who expelled experts overseeing an irrigation project for reporting that hundreds had died, knew what was up from the getgo.