MAO’S GREAT FAMINE:
The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62
by Frank Dikötter
(London: Bloomsbury /
Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 444 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
In 1968, the controversial British politician Enoch Powell made a comment second only in notoriety to his “rivers of blood” speech: “Often when I am kneeling down in church, I think to myself how much we should thank God, the Holy Ghost, for the gift of capitalism.”
Some deplored it as blasphemous — economically, politically, theologically — and I, like most people, regarded it as a trifle over the top and in questionable taste.
It takes Dikötter’s account of the horrors wreaked upon the Chinese people by a deranged command economy to make Powell’s words sound pretty reasonable.
Not that Dikötter sets out to be lurid or emotionally manipulative, even though the opening sentence of his preface reads: “Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell.”
For the rest of the book, he justifies that assertion by systematically and dispassionately setting out the background, events and effects of the famine, and undergirding his narrative wherever possible with references to primary sources.
Mao worshipped prestige and power. His aim was to exploit China’s greatest asset — its millions of peasants — to transform its agriculture and industry, so that China would bypass Britain, begin to rival the United States, and replace the Soviet Union as communism’s global leader.
From the apex of the pyramid he therefore issued decrees in the form of plans and goals, which became more and more wildly unrealistic, and more and more cruelly enforced, as they travelled down the hierarchy.
Mao’s chief henchman in this megalomaniac crime was the supposedly urbane and moderate Zhou Enlai. Writes Dikötter: “Mao Zedong was the visionary, Zhou Enlai the midwife who transformed nightmares into reality.”
All agricultural land was organised into huge collectives under the direction of party cadres, with the peasants eating in communal dining halls and their babies cared for in communal nurseries.
Everyone, young and old, male and female, healthy and sick, was forced to labour day and night, under the threat of beatings and reduced (or terminated) rations.
Grandiose but ineffective irrigation projects, and ”enlightened” but wrongheaded cropping methods, reminiscent of Lysenkoism, produced massive failures in food production.
The shortages were exacerbated by nation-wide corruption, inefficiency, chaotic administration, and transport, storage and distribution breakdowns.
Nor was the situation helped by China’s exporting scarce foodstuffs to buy military supplies.
Industry was meant to be revolutionised by the use of village furnaces, into which peasants were forced to pour every piece of available metal, from agricultural implements to household cooking-pots. The steel ingots which were churned out in their millions across the country proved to be brittle and useless.
China’s environment was also devastated, but don’t expect to hear any criticism of this from today’s Greens; pollution is only worthy of notice and condemnation when it can be attributed to liberal democracies.
Dikötter places the death toll from the resultant economic chaos at 45 million, and, while this figure can be disputed, the total is undoubtedly in the tens of millions.
This autochthonous communist autogenocide liquidated more Chinese than the Japanese invaders had killed 1937-45.
Lives were lost not only through starvation during this era, but also through executions, beatings, torture, suicide, overwork, industrial accidents, neglect, exposure, incarceration, polluted food, filthy working and living conditions, escape attempts across China’s borders, and a variety of horrific and virulent diseases.
Naturally children, old people and women suffered disproportionately.
In one area, desperate peasants ate mud, which the human body cannot process, and which therefore solidified in their digestive systems.
Elsewhere, a mother facing starvation tied her two small children to her clothes before drowning herself, knowing they would not survive without her.
These incidents, just two among millions of others, are worth bearing in mind when reflecting on the icons of a serene and avuncular Mao which adorned the walls and lapel badges of our baby-boomers back in the seventies.
The Great Helmsman’s insight into the issue consisted of: “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
He might have been pleased to learn that some took his dictum literally by turning to cannibalism.