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The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying what had gone wrong in China as they were growing up. Especially after the Tiananmen massacre, many stayed on after their Ph.D.s, some to become professors.

But when Chinese began arriving in the US in significant numbers as college freshmen in the late 1990s,1 the situation was different: the Cultural Revolution had ended before they were born, Tiananmen was a blurred memory, China was booming, and many, perhaps most, planned to return home after gaining work experience in a laboratory or on Wall Street. In addition to having to adjust to different educational methods and lifestyles, Chinese undergraduates, like their graduate student predecessors, had the opportunity to learn about their country’s recent history untrammeled by the requirements of Party propaganda. Unlike their predecessors, however, the undergraduates had concerns.

The natural thing for students everywhere is to learn their nation’s history from their countrymen. Why would Westerners know better about modern Chinese history? Would American professors insult Chairman Mao? Would they too offer up propaganda, only anti-Chinese? And yet most Chinese students realized that there were important periods of China’s past of which they had been taught little. The Cultural Revolution was a subject on which their parents and grandparents rarely dwelled, and most Chinese professors covered it only in passing.2 Further back in time there were the “three bitter years” between 1959 and 1961, brought about, according to official texts, by “Left” errors, characterized by excessive economic targets, the issuing of arbitrary directives, boastfulness, the stirring up of a “communist wind,” “a succession of natural calamities,” and the “perfidious” withdrawal of Soviet aid.3

But those texts do not spell out the terrible human costs of the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward (GLF) of 1958–1960, or indicate that, even at the time, most peasants and some officials recognized that the catastrophe was largely man-made, and not by Russians but by Chinese. For those Chinese students who want a reliable and readable account of what really happened, my standard advice has been to read Hungry Ghosts, by the British journalist Jasper Becker.4 But Becker’s work has now been largely superseded by the pathbreaking Mao’s Great Famine by the social historian Frank Dikötter.

Dikötter is a polyglot scholar on leave from the London School of Oriental and African Studies who is currently chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. From this base on the South China coast, he and his colleague Dr. Zhou Xun have made frequent forays into the interior and managed to gain access to archives in thirteen of China’s thirty-one provincial-level administrations, and to fourteen municipal or county archives, including the important cities of Canton, Wuhan, and Nanjing.5 As far as I know, such widespread access is unprecedented for unofficial academics, especially a foreign researcher, especially on so sensitive a topic. This is a first-class piece of research. Dikötter, who also consulted East German and Soviet archives as well as the British Public Records Office, describes and analyzes the value of his Chinese documentary treasures in an essay on sources in this volume.

In the various Chinese archives, Dikötter and Zhou discovered a mother lode of reports by local government officials and, more importantly, by investigation teams dispatched by Beijing in belated attempts to discover what was really happening at the rice roots. It is mainly on the basis of these reports that Dikötter has fashioned his fascinating but gruesome narrative of the oppression and famine foisted upon the people of China by their leaders during the terrible times of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

* * *

Ironically, the inspiration for the policies that led to the famine came from a man whom Mao came to despise as a traitor to the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism: Nikita Khrushchev. At the Moscow celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1957, Mao heard Khrushchev vow to overtake the US in important economic indicators within fifteen years. The Chinese Party chairman had long espoused the idea of high-speed development, but in 1956 Premier Zhou Enlai and other economic planners had managed to rein in the overheating economy that his policies had produced.

Now, encouraged by the boasts of the leader of the Communist world, Mao was inspired to try again. He told the assembled ranks of international Communist leaders that China would emulate the Soviet Union by overtaking the United Kingdom over the same period. Back home, Mao was ruthless, cowing Zhou and the other planners into humiliating self-criticisms. With potential opposition squelched, Mao’s promise became the fateful harbinger of the Great Leap Forward launched in 1958.

The basic strategy of the GLF was to substitute a plentiful factor of production, labor, for a scarce one, capital. During the winter of 1957–1958, the Chinese Communists had organized millions of peasants to undertake large-scale water conservancy and irrigation schemes throughout the country, schemes that, as Dikötter points out, were often useless or even damaging to local ecologies. In the spring, Mao turned up at the Ming Tombs Reservoir near Beijing to provide an exemplary photo-op of a leader performing manual labor (briefly). However, this flagship project “was built in the wrong location, it dried up and was abandoned after a few years.” According to an official report, three large, nine medium, and 223 small dams or reservoirs collapsed in 1960 because they were badly built. The two dams completed in 1959 to harness the Huai River broke during a typhoon in 1975, drowning an estimated 230,000 people. But at the time the Party cadres impressed themselves and their leaders with their continuing ability to organize large masses of people for such major projects. As they saw it, the only problem was having to recruit labor from many collective farms for the campaign.

The conclusion was reached that the recently formed collective farms were not big enough for organizational purposes. Amalgamated collectives were tried out, and these were transformed with Mao’s blessing into a new type of rural unit, the commune, an ideological leap toward communism in which families would be broken up, and men, women, children, and old folks would be housed in separate facilities, and husbands and wives would come together only to eat in collective canteens. As one county Party secretary explained, “Now that we have communes, with the exception of a chamber pot, everything is collective, even human beings”; or as a very senior provincial leader put it: “Even shit [for fertilizer] has to be collectivized!” The labor force was “militarized, combatized and disciplined.”

By this time, the Chairman and his enthusiastic deputy Liu Shaoqi were living in a fantasy land. They thrust Britain aside as a target: China would be overtaking America in steel output in a few years, and the communes would be the way by which the Chinese would thrust the Soviets aside en route to communism. When thousands of county cadres in Shandong province pledged to pass over the bridge to communism by 1960, Mao commented: “This document is really good, it is a poem, and it looks as if it can be done!”6

By the end of 1958, collectives everywhere had been combined into 26,000 huge communes. Though only a minority had formally advanced all the way toward the post-Soviet collectivist and egalitarian ideal, as in every CCP campaign, local cadres at the provincial and subprovincial level strove to overfulfill the targets set by the center. Even where peasants were still supposed to be paid according to their labor, sometimes they received little or nothing; work points, the official indicator of wage entitlement, became devalued; savings were spent on conspicuous consumption for fear they would be confiscated; livestock was slaughtered and eaten before it could be collectivized. In Guangdong the saying was: “What you eat is yours, what you don’t is anyone’s.” In the new canteens, too, “to each according to his needs” was taken literally and people stuffed themselves. The reckoning was not long off.

The euphoria of Mao and his senior colleagues in 1958 is accounted for in large part by a bumper summer harvest that year, an indication that the main harvest in the fall would also be excellent. It was, but it rotted in the fields.7 All over China, citizens had been mobilized to make steel, peasants along with everybody else. There was no way the projected doubling of steel output could be achieved by the existing plants; instead “steel” would be made in primitive backyard furnaces, three or four yards high, built of sand, stone, fire clay, or bricks. By September, 40 million workers were operating 500,000 furnaces nationwide; according to Mao, the total later rose to 90 million, all making an iron that was brittle and useless.8 Moreover, millions of peasants had been drafted into urban industrial plants. Only the aged and children were left behind in the villages to tend the fields. There was no way they could bring in the harvest.

Citing data from the Yunnan archives, Dikötter points out that already in 1958 there were many cases of starvation in the province; the death rate was more than twice the national average. The head of a model commune in Hebei province had created a labor camp for those who failed in their duties, but despite his draconian measures, including executions, he had to confess to Premier Zhou that the commune was effectively starving. Chinese leaders who had emerged victorious after twenty-eight years of civil war and foreign invasion were not deterred. As Marshal Chen Yi, Politburo member and foreign minister, put it:

Who knows how many people have been sacrificed on the battlefields and in the prisons [for the revolutionary cause]? Now we have a few cases of illness and death: it’s nothing!9

* * *

But there was worse to come. The first two sections of Dikötter’s book are a useful chronology of the politics behind the GLF and the beginnings of recovery measures. There is new material here, but the general outline of the period is well known and has been written about at length and with more nuanced analyses by many Western scholars.10 But Dikötter is less interested in elite politics at “Mao’s court” than in the history of the vast society that is China.11 The heart of his volume lies in the subsequent sections in which he details the destructive impact of the “three bitter years”—on different areas of the economy, on social cohesion, and on vulnerable segments of the population. His concluding section describes how people died during the famine.

It is an irony frequently remarked upon that Mao and his colleagues came to power on the back of a peasant army, and indeed were themselves largely of peasant origin, but dealt far more harshly with the countryside than the cities once they established the People’s Republic. “Urban bias” is inevitable in developing countries,12 and the PRC, unlike the Soviet Union, did not have rich natural resources with which to supplement grain exports to pay for industrial equipment from abroad. But as Dikötter makes clear, the degree of exploitation of the peasantry during the GLF and into the famine was so unprecedentedly excessive that provinces were left with virtually no food for the people who had produced it.


iconAFP/Getty Images

From left to right: Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping at the Party conference known as the Seven Thousand Cadres Assembly, January 1962. It was at this conference, Frank Dikötter writes in Mao’s Great Famine, that Liu openly blamed ‘human errors’ rather than ‘nature’ for the famine.

Grain procurement—the amount the government required be shipped out of the area in which it was grown—had varied from 20 to 25 percent in the years before the GLF, but now it rose to 30 to 37 percent. Dikötter has located in the archives a report of an in camera statement by Mao at a meeting on March 25, 1959: “If you don’t go above a third, people won’t rebel.” Some of the procured grain was sold back to the peasants at a premium, but most was used to feed the cities, provide aid abroad, and pay for industrial imports. The breadbasket province Sichuan was led by an ultra Maoist whose willingness to overfulfill procurement quotas helped to worsen starvation. In 1959, 1960, and 1961, the province had negative population growth rates of 30.26, 42.24, and 17.61 per thousand.13 Dikötter reports that there were at least 7.9 million “excess deaths” in the province, and believes that figure to be a considerable underestimate.

The desperate rural situation was compounded by the forced transfer of new agricultural techniques from experimental plots to fields across the country, no matter what the local ecology. These technologies included deep plowing and close planting, which tend to exhaust the soil and require additional labor; and allowing one third of the land to lie fallow because the Chairman thought that so much grain was being grown. Animal husbandry and fishing also declined drastically due to bizarre cadre orders and peasant carelessness with collective property.

Dikötter’s accounts of the tornado of destruction that the GLF unleashed continue with industry, including the trashing of a modern iron and steel plant in the capital of Shandong province; with commerce and the breakdown of the transportation system; with housing and the destruction of between 30 and 40 percent of all dwellings, rural and urban; and with the environment, including the decimation of forests to provide fuel for the backyard furnaces and for homes and construction.

As he remarks:

The damage varied from place to place, and even in the archives statistics are political artefacts rather than objective reflections of reality. What is certain is that never before had such a large diversity of forests, from the bamboo groves in the south to the alpine meadows and boreal stands of fir and pine in the north, suffered such a prolonged and intense attack.14

* * *

For the fortunate, mainly Party members, the direct human cost could be low. Officials attended as many meetings as they could, staying and eating at the state’s expense; some conferences lasted over a month. Shanghai was a favorite venue—the number of official visitors rose from 50,000 in 1958 to 100,000 by 1960—but humbler settings had their perks: Mao’s Great Famine tells how in one county in “famine-ravaged Guizhou province, 260 cadres spent four days working through 210 kilos of beef, 500 kilos of pork, 680 chickens, 40 kilos of ham, 130 litres of wine and 79 cartons of cigarettes as well as mountains of sugar and pastries.”

Canteen staffs were also fortunate: they could pilfer provisions. But the survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend on “the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, slack, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state.” The chapter “Wheeling and Dealing” gives multiple examples of popular ingenuity as state mechanisms broke down. And if wheeling, dealing, and petitioning local or national authorities failed, a final recourse was robbery or even rebellion.

Dikötter cites examples of attacks on state granaries in various areas and the revival of secret societies banned since the CCP conquest. But he seems uncertain about how to describe the situation. At an earlier point he had written that “through a combination of destructive policies initiated from above and covert forms of self-help pursued from below, the country imploded.” But later, having rightly pointed out that starving villagers were not in a condition to rebel and that rioters were brutally suppressed, he adds: “What also prevented the country from imploding, even as tens of millions perished, was the absence of any viable alternative to the communist party.” Are these different kinds of implosion? And anyway, rebels are never put off by the possibility that their victory might leave a country in an anarchic state because there would be no nationwide institution to govern it. Starvation and repression were the keys to the CCP’s survival.

The groups most vulnerable to the famine were children, women, and the aged. Children in deplorable care centers died of disease and neglect; even worse, parents sold, abandoned, or murdered children they could no longer feed. Women, in addition to being raped, were subjected to various humiliations such as working nude in some factories. For a peasant woman who escaped to a city, prostitution or a bigamous relationship were common survival strategies. There was also trafficking in women, with teams from Inner Mongolia “spread out over the country, hauling back hundreds of women every month.” As for the aged, the “happiness homes” established for them during the early GLF were as subject to abuse by the cadres who ran them as the child care centers. As the famine deepened, the aged were regarded as burdens by cadres and even by their own families and often left to starve. In some cases, the dead were eaten by the living; in a few cases uncovered by Dikötter, the living were killed to be eaten.

Starvation was the major killer during the famine: “The archives are replete with reports about oedema [swelling caused by excess fluids] and death by starvation.” But it was not the only way people died. In the early frenetic days of the GLF, accidents were frequent and sometimes fatal. Epidemics common to many other famines were not conspicuous on a large scale in the GLF famine, though there were localized outbreaks of typhus, cholera, plague, measles, polio, meningitis, hepatitis, malaria, and diarrhea caused by poor hygiene in the food industry. Dikötter suggests that the speed with which the military was called in to quarantine disease-stricken areas may have prevented nationwide epidemics.

In addition to starvation and disease, there was violence, which

became a routine tool of control…. It was directed systematically and habitually against anybody seen to dawdle, obstruct or protest, let alone pilfer or steal—a majority of villagers…. The stick was the weapon of choice in the countryside.15

Dikötter gives sickening examples. In Xinyang prefecture in Henan, a disaster area so horrific that it was later investigated by a team led by a member of the Politburo, over a million people died, of whom 67,000 were beaten to death by the militia. This emphasis on the terror component of the GLF and the famine is consistent with the findings of Yang Jisheng, a senior journalist whose father starved to death. In his book Tombstone, he has written the major Chinese account of the famine.16 Dikötter and Yang have enlarged our understanding of the full ramifications of the famine.

* * *

How many died during those terrible years? Dikötter correctly concludes that there will “never be a satisfactory answer to that question, if only because in the midst of the great famine so few reliable statistics were kept.” He discusses the range of estimates, most based on public official statistics. In 1984, the demographer Judith Banister estimated some 30 million excess deaths, and this has been the solid academic analysis that other writers have used.17 Yang Jisheng suggests 36 million. Perhaps the crucial source is the finding of a team of two hundred officials sent out by Premier Zhao Ziyang at the beginning of the reform era in the 1980s to assess the human impact of the famine. They visited every province and examined the records of the Party committees, the public security offices, and the statistical bureaus. The report was never published, but according to a senior member of the team, Chen Yizi, in exile in the US since the Tiananmen events, the conclusion was that the number of excess deaths ranged from 43 to 46 million.18 On the basis of his archival work, Dikötter concludes that Chen’s is a good ballpark figure and gives a minimum of 45 million as his estimate. Dikötter’s extrapolations from the minority of archives to which he obtained access seem reasonable, but we will not get a satisfactory estimate of the death toll until all the archives are open to independent scholars, Chinese or Western.

Nevertheless, a verdict can be passed on Chairman Mao. He seemed to relish being compared to Qin Shi Huangdi, the harsh ruler who welded warring states together into China’s first empire, but with such draconian measures that he has been excoriated by Chinese historians down the ages. On one occasion Mao admonished Marshal Lin Biao for implying that the CCP had treated intellectuals less oppressively than the emperor had! But Mao can rest easy. He will be remembered as the ruler who initiated and presided over the worst man-made human catastrophe ever. His place in Chinese history is assured. Dikötter’s book will have done much to put him there. If Chinese undergraduates hesitate to accept Dikötter’s severe indictment, they will be able to turn to Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone.


  1. According to the Institute of International Education, there were 8,000 Chinese undergraduates in US colleges in 2000–2001 and more than 26,000 in 2008–2009; see Dan Levin, “The China Boom,” The New York Times, November 7, 2010.
  2. In fall 2006, I gave a guest lecture at Shanghai’s Fudan University in what I was told was the first course on the Cultural Revolution anywhere in the country.
  3. Resolution on CPC History (1949–81) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981), pp. 28–29. This was the Party leadership’s explanation of past disasters, mainly the Cultural Revolution.
  4. Free Press, 1996.
  5. Beijing and Shanghai, to which they also gained access, have provincial status.
  6. Mao Zedong sixiang wan sui (Long Live Mao Zedong Thought) (n.p., 1969), p. 240.
  7. For instance, in Liu Shaoqi’s home village.
  8. Chinese Law & Government, Vol. 1 , No. 4 (Winter 1968–69), pp. 39, 41.
  9. Dikötter, p. 70.
  10. Dikötter lists many in his essay on sources, p. 348, but somewhat ungenerously says that most look “rather dated.”
  11. The concept of Mao’s court was most strikingly advanced by Frederick Teiwes; see his Politics at Mao’s Court: Gao Gang and Party Factionalism in the Early 1950s (M.E. Sharpe, 1990).
  12. See Michael Lipton, Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (Harvard University Press, 1977).
  13. Quanguo gesheng, zizhiqu, zhixiashi lishi tongji ziliao huibian (1949–1989) (Compendium of historical statistical material for the nation’s provinces, autonomous regions, and cities directly under the central government, 1949–1989), edited by Guojia Tongjiju Zonghesi (Beijing, 1990), p. 690.
  14. Dikötter, p. 178.
  15. Dikötter, pp. 292–293.
  16. Yang Jisheng, Mubei (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, two volumes, 2008); a shortened English version is being prepared by American scholars. I have been asked to collaborate on a foreword to Mubei.
  17. See, for instance, Becker, Hungry Ghosts , p. 270; see also my Origins of the Cultural Revolution: The Coming of the Catastrophe, 1961–1966 (Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 4.
  18. Becker, Hungry Ghosts , pp. 271–272. The figure vouchsafed to me by Mr. Chen was 42 million.
Roderick MacFarquhar is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and formerly Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. His...
Reviewed in This Article

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962
by Frank Dikötter
Walker, 420 pp.

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This article was first published in the February 10, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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