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This review is from: Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (Paperback)
When one thinks about the disasters of the 20th century, we tend to focus on the conflagration of the Second World War - where the Nazis systematically murdered with surgical precision via a series of death camps, 6 million Jews. His erstwhile ally and then enemy, Stalin, who himself was no stranger to genocide, once remarked "one person's death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic" - a horrific quote, but when we are faced with such a barrage of numbers, it is perhaps inevitable that our ability to personalize or at least humanize such an thought is lost to the winds of time.
Frank Dikotter's book concentrates on "The Great Leap Forward" of 1958-62, Mao's relentless drive to haul China into the modern age with a series of command-economy style reforms to both the industrial and agrarian base. The result - an estimated 45 million deaths, mostly due to forced starvation, but also around 10-15% of that via beatings, torture and straight forward murder - and all with no tangible achievement, as, to be expected, the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster of unparalleled scale. Mao wanted to push China onto the global stage, setting unobtainable targets for his minions, who inevitably would resort to violence to try to ensure they were met.
The sheer baseness of what happens is almost unfathomable - you couldn't call it "medieval" because that would be a disservice to the achievements of that age. To think that this sort of thing went on whilst say, the Beatles were just about to hit the western world doesn't almost compute. A country with a rich civilized history reduced to a year zero, manichaen duality of those who could work and eat, and those who couldn't and therefore died. Dikotter's analysis is blunted a little by the somewhat workmanlike nature of the prose, and it's a little difficult at times to follow it due to the somewhat atomized nature of his examples. China is a huge country with a vast population and to see him zoom in on the example of one person's experience in one village does sometimes cloud one's perception of the overall picture. That's not to demean his efforts because there's still so much to be learnt about this truly dark period of the country's history - much of the official documentation is still kept securely behind closed doors.
The sheer range of disasters is meticulously detailed by Dikotter; from woefully planned hydroelectric projects that wiped out entire regions of villages to insane drives to wipe out birds because they ate precious seed, only realizing too late that the avians were essential as they ate insects that attacked the grain. All the while Mao was keen to distance himself from Soviet Russia and project themselves as a global power - sending abroad grain for trade whilst the people starved to death. The main upshot of this book's analysis is that the 20 year struggle of the Chinese communist revolution between 1929 and 1949 had turned the upper echelons of the party into hardened, violent psychopaths (with a few exceptions), who for them, death and misery was an inevitable part of life. Eager to please Mao, violence dripped down from the top to the bottom in an escalating fashion to the point where there was no other option for cadres faced with insurmountable production targets to meet.