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Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' and the Power of History

Ronald Radosh

We have known for some time that Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, was one of the last century’s most brutal and vicious mass murderers. In 2005, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao was published in this country to wide acclaim, and for the first time, many of the myths surrounding his rise to power and the nature of his rule after 1949 were brought to light. The authors estimated that Mao “was responsible for over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.”

One period they covered was Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” his attempt to rapidly industrialize China in the five years between 1958 and 1962. Chang and Halliday had argued that not only did the program fail; it produced mass starvation, with areas of China resorting to cannibalism. Peasants and city dwellers alike were forced to build home steel furnaces, and all metal implements — including pots and pans used for cooking — were to be smelt, turning each home into a mini local steel producing factory. Mao also ordered that all sparrows be killed, since they ate grain. The “bourgeois” bird was condemned; the result was the upsetting of nature’s ecological balance, as pests and other birds once killed by sparrows began to attack crops. Before long, Mao was asking the Soviet Union to send them 200,000 sparrows from the Soviet Far East.

Mao had said: “Half of China may well have to die,” and he was prepared for such an outcome. It almost came true. Thirty-eight million people died of starvation and overwork during the Leap and the subsequent famine, which lasted for four long years. This greatest of 20th century manmade famines exceeded the deaths caused by Stalin’s collectivization of the Ukraine. As Mao told his staff, “50 million (might have to) die … you can’t blame me when people die.”

Now Frank Dikötter, a historian who lives in Hong Kong, has written the first major book about these disastrous years, which Dikötter calls “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known.” It is titled Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. Using regional archives in rural areas, he has unearthed many gruesome details. A British newspaper covered the author’s recent book talk, noting that Dikötter “compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.”

Calling the period a virtual war between the peasant and the State, Dikötter said: “It ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three grimmest events of the 20th century. … It was like [the Cambodian communist dictator] Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over.” It is not only a period that official China has conveniently forgot — wiped out of the historical memory of China’s newly prosperous populace — but of course it is one also forgot by those legions of American leftists who in those years maintained that Mao and the Chinese Communists were successfully creating a new world.

The records Dikötter found revealed:

State retribution for tiny thefts, such as stealing a potato, even by a child, would include being tied up and thrown into a pond; parents were forced to bury their children alive or were doused in excrement and urine, others were set alight, or had a nose or ear cut off. One record shows how a man was branded with hot metal. People were forced to work naked in the middle of winter; 80 per cent of all the villagers in one region of a quarter of a million Chinese were banned from the official canteen because they were too old or ill to be effective workers, so were deliberately starved to death.

All of this raises the question of what this means for the people of today’s China, whose real history is carefully hidden from them by the Party’s leaders. As we read of the great progress China has made in the past few decades, it is tempting to think that China is no longer what anyone would call a Communist state — since it is so far removed from these horrible events of Mao’s day.

Yet an important essay by journalist Ian Johnson, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, makes the point that “today, the Party is arguably stronger than ever but few outsiders are aware of its enduring reach.” It is at the center of events as varied as shifts in global currency markets, New York stock market listings, and clashes over North Korea.

While China’s economy may be a market communism and many of its policies cannot be called anything resembling traditional Communism, “the Party is still Leninist in structure and organization, resulting in institutions and behavior patterns that would be recognizable to the leaders of the Russian Revolution.” Johnson provides a particularly striking example showing how powerful the Party is. China’s new thriving giant corporations are not actually run by its board of directors, but by the Party:

All have Party secretaries who manage them in conjunction with the CEO. In big questions, such as leadership or overseas acquisitions, Party meetings precede board meetings, which largely give routine approval to Party decisions. The Party’s overarching control was driven home a few years ago when China’s large telecom companies had their CEOs shuffled like a pack of cards because of a decision by the Party’s Organization Department. It would have been like the US Department of Commerce ordering the heads of AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to play musical chairs. For the Organization Department, which acts as the Party’s personnel department, it was normal; it often shifts senior Party officials every few years to prevent empire building and corruption.

A similar structure guides the political decisions that are made. The National Congress is nothing but a rubber stamp institution for the Party, which runs the government through what Johnson calls a “parallel structure of behind-the-scenes control.” Even in a high school, it is the Party leader, not the principal, who decides how the school is to be run. The Party has 78 million members, which are led by the nine-man Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo. In other words, it is not incorrect to call the regime one of “market Leninism.”

Rather than declining in power as the economy grows, the Party seemingly has perfected a mechanism to maintain control while it presides over a controlled capitalism. Those brave enough to demand real democratization, a multi-party system, and a weakening of control from above, face years in brutal prisons.

The Party presides over economic growth, and so far, the results of a better life for some — especially in the cities — have worked to curb mass demands for democracy. Johnson thinks the Party is not threatened at present, but that it “lacks the impetus to reform.” Thus he concludes, “With China on top of the world, the Party’s perch atop the country seems impregnable and yet more vulnerable than ever.”

Knowing this, it is not really surprising that China’s current rulers prefer that its people not learn the real history of the Party and the Maoist years, since its own legitimacy stems from the Revolution Mao and his comrades made. That is why getting this history to the people of China is so important. At times, true history itself can play a revolutionary role.

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