Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
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"Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives." So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,"--at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death--but also of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble). The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. In a powerful mesghing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power-the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders-with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.
people died each day in December 1960: the last thing on the minds of local officials would have been to do the rounds each day to produce a neat list of mortality figures, even if they were specifically asked by their superiors to do so.12 When local cadres or police officers did try to report the full extent of death they were generally labelled rightists. Zhao Jian, head of the Public Security Bureau in Wenjiang county, Sichuan, systematically compiled statistics for 1959 and discovered that
ladle.’23 The grip cadres had over the food supply was reinforced even further as everywhere pots and pans were routinely taken away. In the cities too the campaign was tough on ordinary people. In Nanjing one furnace alone set a record of 8.8 tonnes in a single day, but the fires had to be fed constantly and some teams went so hungry that they fainted by the smelters. Despite huge pressure, still people protested. Wang Manxiao simply refused to work more than eight hours a day. When challenged
harvest, more orders were placed for 1959. As the bills were coming in, the reputation of the country hinged on its ability to meet foreign commitments. From the end of 1958 onwards, Zhou Enlai, with the support of his colleagues and the backing of the Chairman, relentlessly pressed the countryside into fulfilling ever greater procurements for the export market. To ensure that the cities were fed and foreign contracts were honoured, no retreat on the ground was possible. 10 Shopping Spree
Beijing. In 1959–60 some 3.6 million party members were labelled or purged as rightists, although total membership surged from 13,960,000 in 1959 to 17,380,000 in 1961.13 In a moral universe in which the means justified the ends, many would be prepared to become the Chairman’s willing instruments, casting aside every idea about right and wrong to achieve the ends he envisaged. Had the leadership reversed course in the summer of 1959 at Lushan, the number of victims claimed by famine would have
the workforce were related: here was a solid basis for wheeling and dealing in the goods he was supposed to safeguard.1 Everywhere people were pressurising those below them to protect and further their own interests. The planned economy, with its dedication to the greater good, spawned a system in which the individual and his personal network prevailed. But people in the party were in a better position to use the system for their own personal benefit than those outside it. And they showed