Thursday, 7 June 2012

Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

Probably the most harrowing book I've ever read - and I've read Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang.

45 million now looks like the best estimate for how many people died between 1958 and 1962.  Much of Dikötter's research comes from Chinese archives never before seen by historians, so I tend to trust his judgement on that.   This makes it almost certainly the worst man made disaster in history.

It was caused by a series of stupid and evil decisions.  Mao decided in the late fifties (as part of an internal party struggle, as was so often the case) that China needed to modernise fast.  Overtake Britain in just a few years, in fact.  He did this by destroying almost half of the homes in the country, and putting everyone in communes, where everything was controlled by party cadres, and troublemakers were banned from the canteen.  He forced millions to build dams and take part in irrigation projects - generally in the wrong places, with disastrous consequences.  He also championed new, more socialist agricultural practise from Soviet idiot Trefim Lysenko, which ruined the crops.

Then he told everyone to make steel in the backyards of their communes.  Oh, and he declared war on sparrows for eating grain, and drove them to near exinction in China.  Which caused a plague of locusts.  It's still hard to tell how much of this regime was evil, how much insane and how much just stupid.

At the same time, the state took a higher and higher proportion of the grain being grown.  Part of it went to feed the cities, where there was often so much it was left to rot.  People even took part in eating contests - 2kg of rice in a single sitting was considered a good effort.  But an even larger proportion was exported - to Russia, Eastern Europe, Cuba and Africa.  Showing a successful China off to the world was much more important to Mao than the deaths of millions.

What really shook me about this famine was the cruelty, rather than the stupidity.  The communes became death camps with party officials regularly murdering people.  There are so many heartbreaking stories - from the 8 year old boy who was beaten to death for stealing a handful of rice, to the parents who were forced to bury their 12 year old child alive for a similar crime.  A mother commits suicide, so her young children are bricked up in their home to starve to death.  The violence seems to have become more and more systemic as people got more desperate, and those in charge learned exactly how much power they really had.

Other stories are now seared in my memory.  Corpses were dug up and eaten - the heart was popular because it rotted more slowly than other parts.   People eating mud from riverbanks to fill their bellies, then having to dig out each others' faeces because of the chronic constipation.  I also now know more about prolapsed uteri than most people would ever want to.

In a secret meeting in 1959 Mao told the other party leaders that it was better to let half the people die, so the other half could live.  This at a time when officially a third, but in fact a great deal more, of the grain was being sent to other countries, who didn't really want it in the first place.

Mao learnt his lesson from the Great Famine.  He was sidelined for a few years and returned with the Cultural Revolution.  It's easier to see now how he managed to instigate such hatred from the people towards party officials, and indeed anyone in power.  All that anger and frustration and hatred which should've spelled the end of Mao was instead channeled towards those party cadres who'd been carrying out his policies just a few years before.  And at the end the disgusting psychopath was more powerful than ever before.

Not the easiest of reads this, what with all the unthinkable horror and reams of statististics, but it's easier as a book on tape and I recommend it highly.  It shows us exactly what happens when society is ripped down to its most basic elements and rebuilt by thugs.


Ed said...

Incredible that Mao is still revered by portions of Chinese society - even some younger people are apparently.

I saw a dramatization of Wild Swans recently, but it really didn't bring home the extreme privations of Mao's reign. I haven't read the book but I suspect it's more of a personal account than a grand historical perspective like this book.

Muhammad Azim said...

Maybe read the book called remembering socialist china.

Muhammad Azim said...

Maybe read the book called remembering socialist china.

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