Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

Books are frequently described as ‘must reads’, or ‘essential reading’. This is as close to that description as any book I have read. It is the second in a trilogy of history books about post-1949 China from this Dutch historian. This book deals with the Great Leap Forward, from about 1958 to 1962. It was a period when political theory was treated as axiomatic and policies were enforced by self-interested bureaucrats with no residue of decency to restrain them and no means of escaping the pressures of the system.

The book, like the others in the trilogy, is founded on hard scholarship, drawing on archives only relatively recently opened. Many remain closed in the authoritarian state that is modern China.

The author’s estimate, the best available I imagine, is that 45 million people died in the famine and associated horrors brought about by Mao’s policies. That is, 45 million more people than would have died anyway. Most died of starvation, some were murdered, some committed suicide and some were killed and their bodies boiled down for fertiliser. The old and children were worst affected. The catalogue of horrors is harrowing reading.

But what is most awful and most astonishing is that the whole thing was entirely man-made. Crazy ideologically-founded ideas, like letting peasants, with no education or tools, build tractors from scratch, on the basis that proletarian zeal can work miracles, took hold and were promulgated and enforced with vigour and violence. The greatest destruction of property in human history saw many buildings broken up and ploughed into the land as fertiliser. Enormous irrigation projects, badly designed and failures from day one, were executed by thousands of poor farmers who were forced to abandon their crops in pursuit of Socialist modernisation.

The Great Leap Forward must stand as the worst example of ideological lunacy in human history. But the reason it is important to read this book is that the period is within living memory. The Party that did all this is still in power. Makes you think.


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