I read a very basic and general history about the Chinese dynasties as part of an ongoing attempt to educate myself more about the history of the most populous nation in the world. In an attempt to further my education in this particular field a while back I picked up a copy of Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikoetter. This is probably the most recent text to be published about Mao's Great Leap Forward, an attempt to enable China to jump from a predominately agrarian relative backwater to an industrialized superpower surpassing Great Britain in a matter of years. But the road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions, and a nation-wide project that was supposed to launch China into the modern era ended up killing millions of people.
I will say first of all that this book is depressing as hell. And I don't mean that to be a criticism that history that isn't happy or enjoyable shouldn't be studied. In fact, quite the opposite, it's important to study tragedies and horrible incidents in history because within them is the potential to learn and avert future tragedies of similar caliber. And it would be folly to claim that any country hasn't done something horrible in its past either. But, this doesn't make reading and researching about these tragedies any less difficult. I personally had to put the book down a few times when it started getting to be a bit too much, just so people are aware of that going into this book.
To provide a very basic outline of events as explained by Dikoetter, after Mao and the Communists finally gained control of mainland China, they remained very much in the shadow of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Mao sought to propel China into a position of leadership in the Communist bloc, and the further world as well. When the U.S.S.R. announced a fifteen year plan to eventually surpass the United States as an industrial and economic power, Mao also declared that China would surpass Britain in a Great Leap Forward, focusing on agricultural output and important statistics like steel production. (I do get the impression that Mao may have confused correlation with causation, assuming that if a country produces a lot of steel it will become industrialized, rather than say an industrialized country producing a lot of steel.) The hope was to bring China into the modern era and challenge both the Soviet Union and the Western bloc on the world stage.
The Great Leap Forward begins with increased collectivization of agriculture and implementation of new agricultural techniques, such as deep-plowing, close-cropping, and extreme use of fertilizer. (All of which have since been discredited as pseudoscience gibberish.) Traditional terraced farms were dismantled for large, rectangular fields, orchards and rice paddies were removed to grow wheat, and in some cases crops were planted, torn up, replanted, and torn up again as administrators changed their minds about what crops should be planted where and how. (All the while, of course, ignoring the advice of experienced farmers.) There then became an ongoing competition to see who could produce the most food, with many administrators highly exaggerating their numbers to unrealistic levels. Assured that there will be enough food the leadership at the top, Mao included, begin encouraging people to waste food, throwing it away in the streets, because so great is the expected bounty from collectivized agriculture. In reality, the amount of food would actually being to decline, specifically because farm labor began being diverted to two separate projects.
Mao also encouraged massive irrigation and water conservancy projects, exhorting the people of China to build massive dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs so that previously arid and unproductive land could become a lush garden to further increase China's agricultural output. Unfortunately many of these irrigation projects were poorly thought out and executed anyway, despite the protests of Soviet hydro engineer advisers. These irrigation projects carried off a large number of the able-bodied men from farming villages all across China and meant that necessary labor was not available at key points during the farming season. Labor was also diverted into backyard steel furnaces set up in many of the villages to try and help increase the nation's overall steel production. In addition to iron ore, pots, pans, and even farming tools were tossed into the scrap pile to be melted down in the backyard furnaces, which were so poorly managed that they produced nothing but lump after lump of useless brittle pig iron. These drains on farm labor, as well as the ill-planned agricultural "improvements" meant that agricultural output actually fell much shorter than the wildly exaggerated predictions made earlier in the year. However, state requisitions of food only grew more and more onerous as time went on, leaving less and less food available for a diminishing and weakening population of farmers.
There are many other aspects which I didn't really go into, such as the tearing down of houses for the use of fertilizer, creating a housing shortage in rural China and exposing much of the population to the elements, but there is a lot of stuff that goes on in these five or so years. Probably the most important other thing pointed out in the book is that at multiple points dissent with Mao's vision was voiced and people raised legitimate concerns with his programs of modernization. However any and all dissent was immediately quashed by Mao, resulting in greater and more fervent support of his policies, if nothing else than out of fear that any hesitation would be mistaken for treason within the ranks. As the situation rapidly degrades, Mao is quick to blame it on capitalist and imperialist saboteurs, resulting in yet another round of purges and witch-hunts.
Dikoetter does a very good job outlining all the aspects of this five year tragedy, explaining how such a collective madness could occur, and utilizing what resources are available to a Western researcher delving into a darker part of the Communist Party of China's history. This is probably the hardest part in researching events like the Great Leap Forward, because of a different cultural attitude regarding the freedom of information. However, Dikoetter works with the resources available, including municipal and provincial records, diaries, letters, interviews, and newspapers. Granted, there is a certain amount of censoring in even primary documents, but these limited resources are valuable in increasing our knowledge of the situation from almost nothing to a little more beyond that. His final tally of the deaths caused by the Great Leap Forward, estimating at least 45 million deaths, is certainly greater than any previous estimate, but inaccessibility of records make that claim difficult to refute entirely out of hand, and he makes a convincing argument for his calculations. But through Dikoetter's own admission, his research even fifty years later remains fairly limited by China's less open policy regarding information and only time will tell if better and more accurate sources will come to light.
Overall this is a very good book in that it exposes a lot of details about an unfortunate event in recent history. Of course, it doesn't make for easy reading, but history isn't always an easy subject to study.