Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine

In the four-year span between 1958 and 1962, some 45 million Chinese people lost their lives, mostly as a direct or indirect result of starvation. Within China, the figures have been downplayed or denied, and the causes obfuscated. Food shortages were blamed on natural disasters, crop failures, wild fires, and the policies of “imperialist” Western governments. In the last two decades, however, the Communist Party of China has made a concerted attempt to confront its own past, allowing a group of carefully selected historians access to previously sealed government documents, including official statistics, census reports, economic production figures, and the minutes of important government meetings. From 2005 to 2009, Frank Dikötter, a Dutch historian and professor at the University of Hong Kong, combed through these documents, not only in the major cities but in the remoter villages of rural China. In addition, he conducted or presided over countless hours of interviews, to gather first-hand accounts from survivors of what Chairman Mao termed the “Great Leap Forward,” China’s desperate gambit to not only industrialize its mostly agrarian economy, but to catch up or surpass in production those Western nations that had been industrialized for more than a century. What he discovers, and recounts to us, is a narrative of unbroken misery and suffering, on a scale that surpasses even the cataclysms of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

At the center of this narrative is Mao Zedong, the self-appointed ruler of China, whose egomaniacal vision for the nation was implemented at gunpoint, across the vast countryside. It was at Mao’s bidding that the campaign of collectivization was, by 1958, largely complete. Private ownership of land was replaced by collective farms, which were in turn further collectivized into “people’s communes.” The pace was so rapid that, by “the end of 1958, the whole of the countryside was collectivized into some 26,000 communes.” With the abolition of private property came the abolition of wages. Instead of earning money directly, from the sale of their harvest, the farmers were given credits (“work points”) by their commune leaders. The troubles were evident early on, when production quotas were set from above, rather than below, and squad leaders – whose only incentive was to please their higher-ups – acquiesced to increasingly impossible demands. More and more of the harvest went to the central government, leaving less and less food for the workers. And as food shortages emerged, production figures tanked, for a starving workforce can scarcely be expected to work at maximum capacity. The overseers concocted a diabolical solution to this problem of food shortages: work credits were given on the basis of production. The most productive workers – mostly young and male – were given the full share of their wages (though this, it should be said, still scarcely proved adequate), whereas those workers who were least productive (women, the very young, and the very old) were given reduced credits. As the food shortages increased, inflation eroded the value of the food credits. “In Jiangning county, just outside Nanjing, one work day was equivalent to 1.05 yuan in 1957. A year later it was worth no more than 28 cents. By 1959, its value had declined to a mere 16 cents.” By the close of the decade, then, you could work a full day in the fields, under a sweltering sun, and still receive such inadequate compensation that you could not afford to feed yourself, let alone any dependents.

It was not only the quota system that worked from the top down. Farming is a demanding profession, not simply because it is physically exhausting, but because it requires remarkable precision and knowledge to bring a crop to harvest. Experienced farmers know when to sow, in what soils, and in what amounts; they know what crops their land can produce, and which it cannot; they have learned, through painstaking trial and error, how to squeeze the maximum efficiency from their land. By collectivizing the farms, Mao not only dispensed with the wisdom of the farmers and their influence over agricultural techniques, but he empowered a group of inexperienced bureaucrats to make important decisions about the techniques to be applied, the seeds to be planted, and the amount of seed to be used. In a bid to increase the harvest, seeds were sown much more densely (a technique known as “close cropping”), and planted at much greater depths (“deep ploughing”). The consequence of this – predictable to experienced farmers – was not a greater yield but widespread crop failures: seeds sown too closely together compete for nutrients, and the soil was often tilled to such great depths that the subsoil was damaged, impairing its ability to retain moisture. These techniques were also excruciatingly labour-intensive. Without mechanized ploughs, and often without shovels, the commune farmers were reduced to digging by hand, often well into the night.

The troubles did not end once the harvest came in. As we have already seen, production quotas were set from on high, and the commune leaders were accountable only to their superiors. In order to inflate their grain shipments, and therefore boost their esteem in the eyes of the Party, the commune leaders had two main strategies. The first was to exaggerate the size of the harvest, which meant that the government received a larger proportion of the actual harvest than they would otherwise, further reducing the farmers’ share. The party itself was aware of this dishonest reporting, and even, at times, encouraged it. But the second strategy was even more devastating. Harvest sizes were measured by weight, and so one way to inflate the size of the harvest was to water down the grain, or store it at higher humidities, causing the grain to store more water, and therefore weigh more. But these same strategies that were effective in inflating the size of the harvest also compromised it: watered down grain, or grain stored in humid conditions, is vulnerable to rot and infection, both of which claimed large shares of the already depleted grain harvest.

In Guandong close to a third of 1.5 million tonnes of state grain contained too much water, so that one granary after another succumbed to rot. In Hunan one-fifth of all grain in state granaries was either infested with insects or corrupted by a high water content. In Changsha, the provincial capital, over half of all stored grain was contaminated. Temperatures in the state granaries were often too high, accelerating the blight, and in turn benefitting the insects, which took advantage of the heat and moisture.

In the former, market system, farmers were responsible for the grain, and were at pains to store it in good conditions; under collectivization, a proliferating series of middle men took responsibility of the grain between its harvest and its redistribution, and the more middle men emerged, the harder it became to hold any one person accountable for the health of the harvest.

But Dikötter’s book is not just a chronicle of inept policy decisions and their disastrous consequences. At every turn, he connects the troubles of the average Chinese peasant to the policies of Mao, and his callous unconcern for the human cost they were exacting. Even as his citizens were starving by the millions, Mao was exporting grain, meat and other foodstuffs to the Soviet Union and East Germany, unwilling to sacrifice the trade agreements that were providing China with Soviet weapons and factories. He went even further, refusing to accept much-needed international aid (which would amount to an admission of failure on his part), and even sending food aid to poor Eastern European countries, presumably to bolster his image among Communist countries. From these macro decisions, we turn to the vivid consequences: the peasants reduced to eating bark or boiling their leather goods in order to survive; the systemic sexual exploitation of village women and girls by the commune leaders, who would trade sexual favours for the food the girls needed to survive, or to feed their children or grandparents; the exhumation of corpses, either for fertilizer or – in some cases – for meat. Dikötter is meticulous and exhaustive in his reporting: we get comparative birth rates, before and after the famine; workplace accidents (which rose dramatically as food supplies dwindled); even a comprehensive account of the ecological devastation wrought by Mao’s drive to industrialize the entire country. For this, we owe him – and the numerous other historians working to recover China’s forgotten past – a debt of gratitude: so large a loss of life should not go unremembered – or unpunished.