Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
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"Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives." So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,"--at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death--but also of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble). The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. In a powerful mesghing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power-the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders-with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.
Chinese, can be found in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, 16 July 1960, 109-924-1, pp. 4–8. 6 Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, London: Jonathan Cape, 2005, p. 465. 7 Wu, Shinian lunzhan, p. 337. 8 Gansu, 5 Aug. 1960, 91-9-91, pp. 7–11. 9 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, 1960–1, 109-2248-1, p. 38. 10 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, 20 Aug. 1963, 109-2541-1, pp. 12–13. 11 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, 28 March 1960, 109-2061-1, p. 3; Ministry of
winter.10 Despite all the violence, the crop yield was nowhere near what Zhang had promised. When Zhou Enlai passed through Hebei in December 1958, he was approached by a humbled Zhang, who confided that Xushui had produced only 3,750 kilos per hectare, a far cry from the fifteen tonnes he had boasted over the summer. Xushui, in effect, was starving. Zhou promised to help.11 Much, but not all, of this came to light in a report written in October 1958 by the Office of Confidential Affairs at
People’s Hall spacious enough to convene a gathering of 1,500 people.12 In the three years up to September 1961, a total of 99.6 billion yuan was spent on capital construction, to which had to be added a further 9.2 billion in housing projects ostensibly earmarked for ordinary people. Most of the money ended up being invested in prestige buildings and offices with no tangible benefit for anyone but party members.13 But that did not take into account all sorts of accounting tricks used to fund
neighbouring Hubei, during the drought of 1959 which the party leadership identified as one of the catastrophes to have ravaged the country, water from the mighty Yangzi could not be diverted into the fields because more than three-quarters of all new sluices were too high. The river passed along arid fields, as people and cattle went thirsty.48 Along the 100-kilometre stretch between Jianli and Jingzhou, in the midst of the drought, farmers dug holes into local dykes to irrigate the fields, but
freewheeling treaty port, trading habits died hard. Zhao Jianguo, a woman entrepreneur with little money, dealt mainly in small commodities such as light bulbs, but she also made a good profit on a prestigious Phoenix bicycle. Li Chuanying, also a petty trader, bought goods in Shanghai and sold them in Anhui province. Hu Yumei travelled to Huangyan, Zhejiang, to deal in straw hats, mats, dried fish and shrimps, often doubling her money. Ma Guiyou made about 100 yuan a month buying up jewellery