Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Book #14: Mao's Great Famine

I finished this book about a week ago, but writing about it had to wait until the new year. Reading 14 books this year puts me two above last year's two, though I thought that I had done a much better job of reading this year. Clearly, I was wrong. Nevertheless, things are clearly moving in the right direction, as the 'books' tag has become one of the more popular topics on this blog.

Mao's Great Famine is writen by Frank Dikotter, a professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and professor of modern Chinese history at the University of London's School of Oriental and African studies. On the latter point, I'll concede that I had never heard of it before 2011 and thought it to be a rather racist-sounding degree mill at the time, when in fact it is one of the finest places to study in the world.

Dikotter places the blame directly on the actions undertaken by the Chinese government, which would be utterly comical if they hadn't produced quite possibly the single worst event in history. The book begins with a description of the political background that led China to undertake the Great Leap Forward. In the late 1950s, the USSR claimed that it would surpass the economy of the United States in fifteen years. By 1975, the per capita GDP of the US was $7500 against $3000 for the USSR.

Much of the impetus for the Great Leap Forward, Dikotter explains, is that Mao was ever-conscious, if not downright obsessed to the exclusion of reality, with his status in history. Eager to jockey for leadership of the communist world, he proclaimed that while the USSR surpassed America, China would surpass Great Britain. Judging Soviet socialism to be impure, he declared that China could do better and that it would progress from socialism to communism almost instantly. For those keeping score at home, Chinese GDP per capita stood at $92 in 1960 and progressed to $175 by 1975. In that same period, the British numbers went from $1382 to $4204.

The sort of political culture that Mao was creating domestically took what was essentially a delusional claim and bolstered it to the point that Mao's claim of surpassing Great Britain in fifteen years was ceaselessly revised down. Politicians who did not want to appear as anything less than enthusiastic declared Mao's ideas to not only be possible, but as likely, followed by imminent and inevitable. China would overtake Britain in a few years, they said, then Russia, and would pass even America within 20 years.

To do this, Mao claimed it was necessary to "unleash the masses". The idea that China's greatest resource was its large population is not entirely untrue, and it has played a part in making China a wealthier country today, though there's more to it than simply having hundreds millions of people willing to do work (why do factories locate in China but not India or Nigeria?). However, Mao held in their limitless potential and was hostile to expertise and intellect.

If what had transpired so far was delusional thinking of the highest order, what would transpire was horrifying on a scale that defies imagination and description. The masses were mobilized along military lines. The country was divided into communes. Possessions, from furniture and food to even sewing needles, were confiscated for a variety of purpose. Houses were demolished so that they could be used for fuel, fertilizer or to create metal in horrendously ill-conceived backyard furnaces.

With farms turned into communes that no one and everyone owned simultaneously, and with many of the farmers sent to work in urban factories, farming suffered. Compounding matters was the fact that the state promoted supposedly innovative farming techniques which produced crop failure after crop failure. This alone might not have produced catastrophe still, if China had not exported grain in this time. The exports, too, like the delusionally cheerful projections of parity with the United Kingdom, were ceaselessly revised up as local politicians lied about how much food they had actually produced.

The last component of the famine was the authoritarian state that the Communist Party produced, which gave out food in exchange for work, and only in exchange for work. Those who were sick, hurt, could not work as much as others, or completed even the slighest infraction were given less food, creating a vicious cycle that almost invariably ended with death. About eighty percent of those who starved to death had had food withheld for one reason or another.

In the end, Dikotter and other historians are left to compile a death toll. While records from the era are hard to come by and even harder to access, par for the course when dealing with a secretive dictatorship in what was then a country as poor as any other in the world, some counties kept detailed records. Rather than compile a a list of all those who died, an impossible task, it is easier to access provincial and local archives to consider the issue of excess deaths.

Most historians had put the death toll at between ten and forty million, hardly a paltry sum, but Dikotter uses evidence from party researchers to arrive at a minimum death toll of 45 million. This ranks not just Mao, but the Communist Party that continues to rule China and continues to be fiercely protective of its past, as guilty of the worst atrocity in history. This truth is worth bearing in mind when we start making equivalencies in international politics: if America has to answer for ceaseless interference in the affairs of foreign countries, and if China can be smug in noting that it hasn't baselessly invaded countries in the way of the Iraq war, America can politely note that it didn't cold-heartedly kill one out of every ten people in its own borders.

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