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Mao's Great Famine

On a website providing exposure for the book, Dikötter detailed his key arguments. First, he stated that the famine lasted at least four years (early 1958 to late 1962), not the three sometimes stated. After researching large volumes of Chinese archives, Dikötter came to the conclusion that decisions coming from the top officials of the Chinese government in Beijing were the direct cause of the famine. Beijing government officials, including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, increased the food procurement quota from the countryside to pay for international imports. Dikötter wrote: "In most cases the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death." In 1959, Mao was quoted as saying in Shanghai "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."[13]

Mao's Great Famine

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Overall, Dikötter estimated that there were 45 million premature deaths, not 30 million as previously estimated. Some two to three million of these were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death, or summarily executed for political reasons, often for the slightest infraction. Because local communist cadres were in charge of food distribution, they were able to withhold food from anyone of whom they disapproved. Old, sick and weak individuals were often regarded as unproductive and hence expendable. Apart from Mao, Dikötter accused several other members of the top party leadership of doing nothing about the famine. While famine was ravaging the country, free food was still being exported to allies, as well as economic aid and interest-free or low-interest loans. In addition to the human suffering, some 30 to 40 percent of all rural housing was demolished in village relocations, for building roads and infrastructure, or sometimes as punishment for political opposition. Up to 50 percent of trees were cut down in some provinces, as the rural system of human ecology was ruined.[2][14]

Steven Yearley, Professor of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh, said that the book "stands out" from other works on the famine "on account of its basis in recently opened archives and in the countless compelling details which are provided to clarify the interlocking themes of the text."[19]

Essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra wrote that the "narrative line is plausible" but Dikötter is "generally dismissive of facts that could blunt his story's sharp edge", and said that Dikötter's "comparison of the famine to the great evils of the Holocaust and the Gulag does not, finally, persuade", citing Amartya Sen's research on India, which compared unfavourably with China under Mao. Mishra added that Dikötter purposely omitted Mao's achievements in improving social stability, economic growth, and living standards by 1956, and made no attempt at people's history to contextualise the events and Chinese people's relations with Mao.[21]

Journalist Aaron Leonard criticised Dikötter's failure to address the Great Chinese Famine in a larger historical context, and made no mention of pre-1949 famines in China under the Kuomintang regime. Leonard stated that "Dikötter looks at China under Communist rule in a narrow vacuum, thus dispensing with the inconvenient fact that famine in this part of the world has been a recurring phenomenon, which Mao did not invent or even magnify."[22]

Cormac Ó Gráda, famine scholar and professor of economics at University College Dublin, criticised the book as "more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument", and stated that it failed to note that "many of the horrors it describes were recurrent features of Chinese history during the previous century or so." Ó Gráda wrote that the "10 per thousand" normal mortality rate adopted by Dikötter is "implausibly low" and used to maximise his death count. Ó Gráda posited: "The crude death rate in China in the wake of the revolution was probably about 25 per thousand. It is highly unlikely that the Communists could have reduced it within less than a decade to the implausibly low 10 per thousand adopted here (p. 331). Had they done so, they would have 'saved' over 30 million lives in the interim! One can hardly have it both ways."[5] China specialist historian Timothy Cheek wrote that Dikötter remained locked in a Mao-centered history. According to Cheek, the major limitation of Dikötter's work is the florid, "ohmy-gosh" tone that clouds sober reflection. He also wrote that Dikötter's overblown claims would "drive many a serious China scholar away."[7]

Anthony Garnaut, a social historian of China, posited that Dikötter's juxtaposition and sampling techniques fall short of academic best practice. According to Garnaut, the allegations Dikötter levels at Yang Jisheng's work ("At times it looks like a hotchpotch which simply strings together large chunks of text, some lifted from the Web, a few from published sources, and others transcribed from archival material.")[28] are either sloppily drawn or disingenuous. Garnaut wrote that Dikötter's interpretation of Mao's quotation ("It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill") not only ignores the substantial commentary on the conference by other scholars and several of its key participants but defies the very plain wording of the archival document in his possession on which he hangs his case.[nb 1] According to Garnaut, people whom Mao was saying turn out to be a metaphor of large-scale industrial projects, and Mao's saying seems not mean pushing to extract more resources out of the countryside to feed industry.[29] Mao's quotation "let half the people die" is also quoted in the introduction of the book by Zhou Xun, who is Dikötter's collaborator. Zhou's book provides extracts of the documents Dikötter refers to. According to Zhou, Dikötter's book "makes a key contribution to our understanding of how, why, and what happened during the Great Famine in China."[30] Dikötter responded to Garnaut, saying that "if [Granaut] is right and it was no more than a metaphor, just what kind of metaphor was this? I have never heard of it before, unlike, say, 'kill a chicken to scare the monkey'. And what kind of metaphor would 'let half the people die' be, right in the middle of mass starvation? The conference was convened to address a collapsing economy and the mounting famine. If it is merely a form of hyperbole, then it is, to say the least, a strange one."[8] There is a discussion about interpretation of Mao's quotation in the H-PRC section of the H-Net.[31] Dikötter posited that it is not a metaphor, commenting that "so much sinological energy spent on one sentence, it leaves one slightly bemused."[32] Shen Zhihua, historian of Sino-Soviet relations, also pointed out that Dikotter's quotation was out of context.[33] Warren Sun, Chinese Studies specialist at Monash University, criticised Dikötter for having deliberately distorted documentary evidence about Mao's saying, calling Dikötter's work is "fraud".[34]

Mao's biographer Philip Short wrote that "Dikötter's errors are strangely consistent. They all serve to strengthen his case against Mao and his fellow leaders." About Dikötter's errors and misleading comments, Short said the main problem of Dikötter's book is that it does not offer credible explanation of why Mao and his colleagues acted as they did. Noticing that other parts of Mao's remark ("If we want to fulfil the plan, then we need greatly to reduce the number of projects. We need to be resolute in further cutting the 1,078 major projects down to 500") are omitted from both Dikötter's and Zhou's works, Short posited that Dikötter's book "set out to make the case for the prosecution, rather than providing balanced accounts of the periods they describe."[36]

Adam Jones, political science and genocide studies professor at UBC Okanagan, criticised Bloomsbury Publishing for using a cover photograph on their editions of the book of a starving child that was from a Life depiction of a 1946 Chinese famine.[9] Jones said that the majority of book covers "are designed by the publisher, often using stock images, rather than by the author", but also accepted a blogger's point that it was unlikely that Dikötter would have been unaware of the deception because Dikötter had stated in an interview with Newsweek that, to his knowledge, no non-propaganda images from the Great Leap Forward had ever been found.[10] The Walker & Company edition of the book has a different cover, using a 1962 image of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong begging for food as they are deported back to China.[10]

How could this famine have lasted so long? How tenable is it to excuse the actions of so many people throughout the party and state bureaucracy by blaming solely their leader? Had they no other choice but to follow orders and to carry out, often against resistance, mindless collectivisation and reduced planting of grain, to falsify harvest statistics, and to forcibly take grain away from evidently starving peasants? Germany has spent two generations trying to understand the horrors of the Third Reich and to atone for its transgressions. Russia began to face its dark past soon after Stalin's death, when Khrushchev opened the gates of the Gulag and had the dictator's embalmed corpse removed from the Red Square mausoleum. China's turn is yet to come.

Almost all resources in the village have been transferred to the city.If you work in a factory or mine, you can get enough food to support your family.In fact, most people in the city have a great sense of superiority to farmers.

Russ Roberts: My guest is historian Frank Dikötter,.... He's written numerous books on China, including Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. It won the 2011 Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction, and it is the subject of today's episode.... This is a very depressing book about an extraordinarily tragic topic. But it's a topic that I think everyone should know something about and that few do, which is the famine in China from 1958, roughly, to 1962, that resulted incredibly in the deaths of tens of millions of people. So, let's begin with some background. What were the origins of what is called the Great Leap Forward? What was Mao [Mao Tse-tung, alternately spelled Mao Zedong --Econlib Ed.] trying to do? And how did that lead toward the famine? 041b061a72

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