Frank Dikötter on Mao’s Mass Murders

Back in September, I wrote a post about historian Frank Dikötter’s excellent new book on Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” terror famine of the early 1960s. Dikotter recently published a New York Times op ed summarizing his thesis:

The worst catastrophe in China’s history, and one of the worst anywhere, was the Great Famine of 1958 to 1962, and to this day the ruling Communist Party has not fully acknowledged the degree to which it was a direct result of the forcible herding of villagers into communes under the “Great Leap Forward” that Mao Zedong launched in 1958.

To this day, the party attempts to cover up the disaster, usually by blaming the weather. Yet detailed records of the horror exist in the party’s own national and local archives…..

Historians have known for some time that the Great Leap Forward resulted in one of the world’s worst famines. Demographers have used official census figures to estimate that some 20 to 30 million people died.

But inside the archives is an abundance of evidence, from the minutes of emergency committees to secret police reports and public security investigations, that show these estimates to be woefully inadequate…..

In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction….

The term “famine” tends to support the widespread view that the deaths were largely the result of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs. But the archives show that coercion, terror and violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.

Mao was sent many reports about what was happening in the countryside, some of them scribbled in longhand. He knew about the horror, but pushed for even greater extractions of food.

At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

Even the previous estimates of 20 to 30 million dead qualify the Great Leap Forward as the biggest single case of mass murder in world history. If Dikötter’s revised figure of 45 million withstands scrutiny, Mao will have definitively surpassed Joseph Stalin’s overall record as a mass murderer (Stalin’s death toll was more evenly spread between several different episodes of mass murder than Mao’s).

Even if the earlier figures turn out to be more accurate than Dikotter’s, it is still inexcusable that the mass murders inflicted by Chinese communism remain so little known in the West. As I noted in my earlier post on the subject, Dikotter’s study is not the first to describe these events. Nonetheless, few Western intellectuals are aware of the scale of these atrocities, and they have had almost no impact on popular consciousness.

This is part of the more general problem of the neglect of communist crimes. But Chinese communist atrocities are little-known even by comparison to those inflicted by communists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, possibly because the Chinese are more culturally distant from Westerners than are Eastern Europeans or the German victims of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the Wall (one of communism’s relatively smaller crimes) is vastly better known than the Great Leap Forward – the largest mass murder in all of world history.

Hopefully, Dikötter’s important work will help change that.

UPDATE: In this series of posts, I described the similar terror famine that occurred in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and its implications for international law; see also this post on whether Stalin’s crimes qualify as genocide.

In some ways, Mao was an even worse oppressor than any of the Soviet communist leaders. He combined Lenin’s role as the founder of a totalitarian state with Stalin’s role as the implementer of its largest-scale atrocities. Having a larger population to work with, he also (if Dikotter’s figures are correct) managed to kill more people than all the Soviet leaders and Adolf Hitler combined. There’s no one quite like him in all of world history. Let’s hope there never will be again.