A New Record for Mass Murder?

The Independent has an article summarizing a new study of Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong’s mass murders that concludes that he killed even more people than previously thought:

Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, qualifies as the greatest mass murderer in world history, an expert who had unprecedented access to official Communist Party archives said yesterday.

….Frank Dikötter, a Hong Kong-based historian, said he found that during the time that Mao was enforcing the Great Leap Forward in 1958, in an effort to catch up with the economy of the Western world, he was responsible for overseeing “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known”.

Mr Dikötter, who has been studying Chinese rural history from 1958 to 1962, when the nation was facing a famine, 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…

Mr Dikötter is the only author to have delved into the Chinese archives since they were reopened four years ago. He argued that this devastating period of history – which has until now remained hidden – has international resonance. “It ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century…. It was like [the Cambodian communist dictator] Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over,” he said.

If Dikotter’s figures are correct, this makes Mao by far the greatest mass murderer in world history, surpassing the death tolls “achieved” by Stalin and Hitler. Previous estimates of Mao’s death toll still numbered in the tens of millions, but were “low” enough to make it difficult to tell whether or not he had killed more people than Stalin.

The deaths caused by the Great Leap Forward were even less defensible than those inflicted by Lenin and Stalin’s earlier collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union, on which Mao’s policy was modeled. The first (abortive) Soviet effort at collectivization in the early 1920s led to several million deaths, while Stalin’s successful resumption of the effort in the early 1930s caused 7 to 14 million more, according to Robert Conquest’s study. The previous Soviet experience made the consequences of going down this road clear, and thereby ensured that the Chinese leaders could not have had any reasonable doubts about the likely effects of their actions.

The Independent is wrong to suggest that the mass murders of the Great Leap Forward have “until now remained hidden.” Although Dikotter’s estimate of the death toll is higher than that of previous scholars, the Great Leap was covered in some detail in earlier works such as Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts and the Black Book of Communism.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the Great Leap Forward has made very little impression on public consciousness and that most Westerners (including even most otherwise knowledgeable intellectuals) are largely unaware of it. Certainly, it has not received even a tiny fraction of the attention accorded to the Holocaust or even the smaller mass murder of the Armenians by the Turks (which has been the subject of extensive debate in Congress and elsewhere).

This widespread ignorance of history’s biggest mass murder is part of the more general neglect of communist crimes that continues to this day. Hopefully, Dikotter’s book will help to remedy that neglect.

UPDATE: In this related series of posts, I discussed Stalin’s terror famine in the USSR and its implications for the legal distinction between genocide and mass murder.