Mao's Great Famine:
The History of China's Most Devastating
Catastrophe, 1958-1962

by Frank Dikötter. 2010. Walker, xxiii + 423 pages.

The world has hardly noticed the connection between Marxism and famine. Stalin deliberately caused a famine in Ukraine in order to kill the kulaks—peasants who were seeking independence. An estimated 7 million people died as a result. Pol Pot evacuated the cities of Cambodia and sent residents into labor camps, where perhaps 3 million people died, some because of starvation, others because they were executed. Nowadays, famines still take place in North Korea, where a man killed two of his children and ate them. Worst of all was the famine that took place in China because of the policies of Chairman Mao—the most destructive famine in human history.

I first learned about China’s great famine shortly after my family and I arrived in Baoding, China, in 1984. We were there to teach at Hebei University as part of a faculty exchange agreement. The January 16, 1984, issue of Beijing Review, an English-language news weekly, had an article entitled “Age Distribution of China’s Population.” It was a report on China’s efforts to stem its growing population through its one-child policy. The various charts and tables did indeed show that population growth had been stabilized. They showed something else as well: In a sample of 10% of China’s population, there were 2,737,743 19-year-olds; 1,067,672 21-year-olds; and 1,944,603 24-year-olds. It seemed impossible. The number of 21-year-olds was less than half the number of 19-year-olds and almost less than half the number of 24-year-olds.

How could the number of children born have dropped by half in three years and then zoomed back up two years later? I started asking people questions. Generally, they said they didn’t know about population figures and couldn’t answer. One young man told me there had been a famine during which his grandmother had died. That explained it.

The editors of Beijing Review, one assumes, didn’t need any explanation. Apparently, they thought nobody would associate the drastic zigzags of population with a disaster, and they were more or less correct. The information was available to all foreign experts living in China in 1984, and yet nobody paid attention.

A year after I got back to America I came across an article in the December 1985 issue of Scientific American by Vaclav Smil, who wrote about the years 1959-61 that census figures in China “put the number of excess deaths in that period at 30 million and the number of postponed births at about 33 million. No other famine has been so devastating.”

30 million plus 33 million equals 63 million. “Postponed births” might mean more than birth control or even abortion; it could refer to killing newborn children—a possibility Smil does not raise. Be that as it may, Smil recognized the famine as unprecedented. He obtained his information from census figures—provided by the Chinese government. Once again, nobody paid attention.

I started asking around, just as I had done in China in 1984. Nobody knew anything. Nobody seemed interested. It was just like being in China. Finally, in 1996, Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine appeared. It got reviewed. The knowledge became widespread, but it still never became a major subject of discussion or conversation. Becker reported the number of victims as at least 30 million but probably more. A few people paid attention; nevertheless, the famine never became a major issue, and the general public remained ignorant.

Now that Mao’s Great Famine is available, more details—more horrible details—are known than before. Dikötter explains how this happened: “But a new archive law has recently opened up vast quantities of archival material to professional historians, fundamentally changing the way one can study the Maoist era” (pp. ix-x).

There was no crop failure. The disaster was man-made. It was caused by the Great Leap Forward, a series of policies designed to make China richer and stronger—policies that could not possibly have worked.

The first of these policies was diverting water to use for irrigation. “Some 30 million people were recruited in October 1957. By January one in six people was digging the earth in China. … At its peak, some 160,000 people had been made to work on the project, and most of these were villagers diverted away from agricultural work. At least 2,400 died, some in accidents, but many more as a result of a brutal regime which forced workers to slave day and night in order to reach ever higher targets” (pp. 27-28).

The regions of China that suffered most from Mao’s policies were those where people were evicted from their farms and homes in order to make room for reservoirs—reservoirs that were never completed. “A special group of victims were displaced by the irrigation and reservoir schemes launched during the Great Leap Forward. There were several million of them. In Hunan alone well over half a million people were evacuated. A third of a million, if not more, were evicted in each of the giant projects that were started at the Three Gate Gorge in Henan, Xin’anjiang in Zhejiang and Danjiangkou in Hubei” (p. 170). These areas are all in central China.

The second policy was forcing farmers to follow a policy of deep plowing. Mao somehow believed that this would increase productivity. “Villagers, of course, knew better. They had tilled the land for generations, and knew how to care for a precious resource on which their livelihoods depended. Many were incredulous, trying to reason with the cadres. … But advice was ignored. … Most villagers, having witnessed a series of anti-rightist campaigns since 1957, were too wily to object in public” (p. 40).

The third policy, and by far the most destructive, was ordering farmers to build backyard furnaces and to melt their tools and produce steel to make China a powerful industrial nation. They also were told to cut wood to use to melt the metal. “Villagers dispersed into the forests in search of fuel … Trees were randomly felled, keeling over on villagers” (p. 58).

The cost of losing tools and spending time hunting for wood to make steel was enormous. Famine followed as the night the day. The steel turned out to be useless: “Iron ingots from rural communes accumulated everywhere, too small and brittle to be used in modern rolling mills” (p. 61).

Farmers were the victims who suffered most. China’s major cities—Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin—suffered as well, but less than villages. “All three cities, as well as Liaoning, were placed under special protection” (p. 71).

Mao, more than anybody else in China, was deceived by the system of thought control he had instituted. The official who accompanied Mao on his visits, Li Zhisui, was told that farmers had been ordered to transplant rice plants along the Chairman’s route to give the impression of a bumper harvest. … Mao was delighted. As reports came in from all over the country about new records in cotton, rice, wheat, or peanut production, he started wondering what to do with the surplus food” (p. 41).

Li Zhisui, alas, did not say a word to Mao about this. Mao didn’t learn that his deep-plowing policy was nonsense. He didn’t find out that the steel was useless. The countless party officials kept their mouths shut. “At every level party officials badgered their subordinates for the truth but were deceitful to their own superiors, contributing to a maze of self-deception” (p. 327).

There was one hero who tried to tell Mao the truth. His name was Peng Dehuai, and he was China’s Secretary of Defense. There was a meeting of party leaders that took place in the city of Lushan and began in July, 1959. He tried to tell Mao and other party members what was really happening in China. “Mao delivered an ultimatum: leaders would have to choose between Peng and himself, and the choice would bring about enormous political consequences for the party” (p. 97). Not a soul at the Lushan meeting dared to confirm the information Peng had produced. Peng lost his position and was placed under house arrest for the next 16 years.

Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s right hand man, never ever expressed the slightest opposition to anything Mao did. Two years after the Lushan conference, in 1961, the destruction caused by the famine could no longer be hidden. “Zhou Enlai, always circumspect, acknowledged some of the errors made in the wake of the Lushan plenum, and then, to help the Chairman save face, openly accepted blame for everything that had gone wrong” (p. 121).

The silence of Zhou Enlai and the consistent dishonesty of the party officials followed from the nature of a society built according to Marx’s dream, a time when the state will wither away because there will be no more disagreement since there will be no economic differences. Believing that this situation is one’s goal is necessarily destructive, since it involves believing a lie. In order to protect this lie, the state must be designed to eliminate freedom of thought. Thought reform, sixiang gaizao in Chinese, was an explicit goal of all Marxist societies, not only China’s.

Stalin engineered a famine as part of his war against the kulaks. Pol Pot’s regime led to about 2 million deaths in Cambodia, out of a population of 7 million. Most of those deaths were by starvation. In North Korea starvation still continues. Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, wrote in his book Development as Freedom (1999), “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”

China, unlike the USSR, did not have a moment of relative improvement after the takeover by the Communist Party. Mao’s victory took place in 1949. A year later, China entered the Korean War. John King Fairbank, in his major book China: A New History, writes, “Altogether the PRC sent into Korea more than 2.3 million troops, including about two thirds of its of its filed army, artillery, and airforce and all its tanks” (p. 348). During the period of the Korean War, China began its policy of purges. “In 1951-52 the Three-Antis Campaign (against corruption, waste, and bureaucratism) was targeted on officials in government, in industry, and in the party. The concurrent Five-Antis Campaign attacked the capitalist class, who at first had been left in place. Under charges of bribery, tax evasion, theft of state assets, cheating in labor or materials, and stealing of state economic intelligence, nearly every employer could be brought to trial” (p. 349).

China, of course, has no history of democracy, although Sun Yat-Sen, who died in 1925, attempted to bring democracy to China. There have been famines in China throughout history, with one recorded as early as 875 C.E. But there was never anything anywhere in the world equal to the Mao-made famine. According to Dikötter, “The death toll thus stands at a minimum of 45 million excess deaths. It could be even worse than that. Some historians speculate that the figure stands as high as 50 to 60 million people. It is unlikely that we will know the full extent of the disaster until the archives are completely opened. … Yu Xiguang, an independent researcher with a great deal of experience, puts the figure at 55 million excess deaths” (pp. 333-334).

China’s principle philosophy, Confucianism, is relatively open to freedom of thought but at the same time demands respect and obedience to one’s elders. The Daoist (Taoist) and Buddhist religions have no history of religious persecution in any way comparable to what went on in Europe. However, the first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang, who ruled from 221 to 210 B.C.E., burned most existing books and ordered 460 scholars to be buried alive for owning forbidden books. Perhaps he was the ruler who most resembled Chairman Mao.

China’s history is long and complicated, but compared to Europe in the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and the religious wars in response to the Protestant Reformation, it was a stable and functioning society.

During the Mao era, however, society broke down. “As famine set in, the villagers started cannibalising their homes, either bartering the bricks for food or burning the wood for fuel. If the thatch on the roofs had not been consumed by fire, it was taken down and eaten in desperation. … The situation varied tremendously from place to place, but overall, the Great Leap Forward constitutes, by far, the greatest demolition of property in human history” (p. 169).

The loss of property should in no way be interpreted as the beginning of an egalitarian society. “A wall was created between cities and the countryside, but an equally important fault line ran between ordinary people and party members. … Even the quality of cigarettes varied according to rank. At the apex of the party stood the leadership, who had special residences ensconced between high walls, security guards around the clock and chauffeured cars. … Above them all was Mao, living in opulence near the Forbidden City where emperors had once dwelled, his bedroom the size of a ballroom” (p. 192).

People were so desperate that they sold their children. “Before they died they sold their offspring, more often than not to couples who could not have children of their own. … Wu Jingxi got five yuan for his nine-year-old son from a stranger, a sum which covered the cost of a bowl of rice and two kilos of peanuts. His heartbroken wife, an inquiry discovered, cried so much that her swollen eyes were losing their vision” (pp. 207-208).

Cannibalism occurred, not surprisingly. “A few people ate human flesh. … Soon the practice appeared in every region decimated by starvation, even in a relatively prosperous province such as Guangdong.” (p. 320). Furthermore, cannibalism led to an increase in practices that were decidedly not socialist. “Human flesh, like everything else, was traded on the black market” (p. 321). And cannibalism was not restricted to humans. “Before the pigs died of hunger they turned on each other. … In parts of Jiangyin county, for instance, many of the pigs froze to death, but quite a few were cannibalized by larger hogs” (p. 142).

Throughout the famine, China continued to export food. “President John Kennedy, apparently, noted coolly that Beijing was still exporting food to Africa and Cuba even in time of famine, adding that ‘we’ve had no indication from the Chinese Communists that they would welcome any offer of food’”(p.114).

Chairman Mao had decided that farmers should not own property but should live in communes. Peasants should not live in homes but in dormitories. In addition, the family should be replaced by the commune. “ Homes were also pulled down specifically to separate men from women in the great drive to regiment the countryside. … Most of the displaced people ended up not in dormitories as envisaged by model communes but living on the streets, destitute” (p. 53).

The source of this information is very surprising indeed. It comes from Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), China’s national daily newspaper. It was reported in the paper way back in 1958, in two separate stories, on October 6th and 13th. There is no mention of the numbers of people living on the streets. As for the reason for this destructiveness, it reflects a slogan used by some of the people who tore down homes: “Destroy Straw Huts in an Evening, Erect Residential Areas in Three Days, Build Communism in a Hundred Days” (p. 53). In other words, it was sheer idiocy for the sake of a cause.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jewish Currents, Summer 2011.