Mao’s Great Famine : The History Of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 / Frank Dikötter

In 1958, in an attempt to have China catch up and overtake Great Britain economically in fifteen years’ time, Mao Zedong announced a program called the Great Leap Forward. Mao believed this push would lift his country to become an equal among the world’s superpowers and prove that its brand of communism was superior to Russia’s. The program failed miserably and led to the death of 45 million Chinese who were worked, starved, or beaten to death in its implementation.

In this detailed chronicle, Frank Dikötter delves into the archives of the Communist Party to show how the Great Leap Forward propelled the country in the opposite direction of its intended results. In the book’s opening chapters, he presents the story of how Mao came up with the program and rushed forward its implementation. It was meant to quickly increase agricultural outputs and industrial production. To do so, Mao forced the country’s citizens to contribute their possessions and labor in projects meant to increase the country’s exports. He stifled dissent among his advisors and empowered local party leaders to use bullying tactics to make the peasants and workers take part. Anyone who resisted faced loss of status, arrest, or were beaten.

The programs instituted were ill conceived from the start and riddled with corruption. Citizens were enlisted en masse to contribute labor to State sponsored projects such as dam building, new agricultural techniques, and steel production. This meant that farmers often had no time left to plant their own crops or attend to the necessities of life. Most of what they produced was claimed by the State and did nothing to contribute to local economies. As a result, the economy collapsed and this led to a nation-wide famine.

In an effort to meet impossible production targets, local Party officials terrorized the populace and inflated production numbers to ensure they kept their jobs. Even after the famine become evident to all, Mao and his associates refused to provide assistance to lessen its effects. Instead, they doubled down and demanded even more from the citizenry, feeling the glory of the country’s achievements was more important than lives lost.

Dikötter’s book relies heavily on statistics to show the devastation caused by the Great Leap Forward. By its end, I felt overwhelmed by all the numbers presented. Mao’s Great Famine would have been helped by focusing more on the human side of the story. The author does attempt to personalize the famine’s toll on families, but since his work is based on government documents, the presentation remains clinical in nature. For the most part, the sufferers remain nameless, mere statistics on the page.

Even so, the author has done an amazing job of uncovering and deciphering documents that the Communist Party has long tried to keep hidden. It is a coherent record that condemns the Great Leap Forward’s spasm of revolutionary extremism. Some catastrophes cannot be avoided; this man-made one sadly occurred because of Mao’s vanity and the greed and cowardice of other Party leaders. Unfortunately, more than half a century later, the world is still threatened by totalitarian states ruled by leaders whose thirst for power too often has led their countries to ruin.

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