Mao’s Great Famine

The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, Frank Dikötter, Walker Books.

“Mao’s Great Famine” is the story of how Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into chaos with the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), a disastrous attempt to transition from socialism to communism via radical collectivization. Mao’s goal was to slingshot China into the ranks of the world’s superpowers, while at the same time proving the power of communism. “The experience ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying millions of lives,” writes Frank Dikötter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, who spent four years researching the subject.

Dikötter begins by explaining how and why the Great Leap Forward took place, then considers the scale of the destruction. Until recently, there has been very little thinking and writing about the Maoist period, but thanks to the author’s pioneering research (including six months spent studying recently opened archives), Dikötter has greatly advanced our knowledge of the five years in question, particularly in regard to how the term “great famine” fails to accurately convey the many ways in which people died, including disease, torture, murder, suicide and starvation. Notably, he also takes issue with other recent scholarship, challenging the idea that there was enthusiasm for Mao’s initiatives, for example.

Ultimately, the Great Leap Forward turned out to be such a catastrophic failure that its effects could no longer be concealed. By October 1960, so many tens of millions had died that the country’s agriculture, industry, and transportation systems were in ruins. In 1961, Mao allowed his key players to re-allow some of the free market, and by 1962 the Great Leap Forward was pretty much abandoned. The author estimates that 45 million people died prematurely in those five years, but acknowledges that the death toll may have been higher. “It is unlikely that we will know the full extent of the disaster until the archives are completely opened,” he concludes. Some historians speculate that the true figure stands as high as 50 to 60 million.