The famine which occurred in China during the Great Leap Forward was perhaps the greatest crime in history. Between 1958 and 1962 at least 45 million people died. This figure is much higher than the number killed in World War One. The real death toll could be higher, and may even exceed the number killed during World War Two.
Calling it a famine muddies the picture of what actually happened. Unlike during a natural famine, disease was remarkably absent as a cause of death. The reason is both easy to comprehend and terrifying to grasp.
During a natural famine, people generally suffer lingering deaths from prolonged starvation. Such prolonged suffering allows illnesses to incubate and spread, causing epidemics that kill large numbers of already weakened people.
Major epidemics did not happen during Mao’s famine because people died too quickly for disease to set in. The reason was simple. All over China, people were worked until they were too weak to continue. They were then deprived of food. Death quickly followed. As one cadre later admitted, ‘commune members too sick to work were deprived of food – it hastened their deaths.’
The Great Famine of 1958 to 1962 was a man-made catastrophe in which hundreds of millions of Chinese were herded into collective communes, deprived of private property and the ability to feed themselves, and worked to the limits of their endurance. Those who became too weak to meet their work targets were then murdered by deliberate starvation.
This policy was sufficient to kill more men, women and children than all the trench warfare of World War One, and perhaps as many as all the bombing raids, gas chambers and atomic bombs of World War Two put together.
The architect of this immense evil – Mao Tse Tung – rests today in a place of honour in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. His picture is carried by every Chinese citizen as it still adorns the nation’s currency. But the truth of what history’s greatest psychopathic murderer did is at last becoming more widely know.
Mao’s Great Leap Forward
Mao’s Famine shows clearly the processes through which a psychopathic elite bring about the stratification of society into a brutal minority ruling by terror over a cowed and suffering majority.
It also demonstrates the hallmarks of pathological tyranny – a simplistic narcissistic vision reflective of the frozen state of mental development of its leader; the psychopathic means of achieving that vision at the cost of enormous human suffering; and a pathological inability on the part of the leader to change course in the face of overwhelming evidence of failure.
The Great Leap forward was Mao’s attempt to catch up with and overtake Britain as an industrial power. Britain, the country in which the Industrial Revolution began, had experienced two hundred years of technological change, industrialisation, infrastructural development, and scientific and technological progress. Mao proposed to outdo all of that – in just fifteen years – in a country whose population was predominantly rural and whose scant industrial base had just been devastated by Japan during the Second World War.
Such madness of course was not novel. It was the heartless blueprint for communist development that had already been used in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin’s mania for rapid industrialisation had led to collectivisation and famine, a network of slave labour camps that spanned the breadth of the USSR, and mass arrests to feed the Gulag’s immense slave labour force.
Mao’s Great Leap Forward to overtake Britain was to be based on two pillars – agricultural development in the countryside and industrial development across the country. Mao would soon exceed Stalin in the scale of his barbarity. As hundreds of millions of people were herded into collective communes, terror and starvation became the weapons used to ensure compliance. At least two and a half million people were tortured to death or executed during the forced collectivisation process. As people were deprived of cooking utensils and forbidden to cook for themselves, communal canteens, under the control of the Party, became the only source of food.
Mao as Cretin – The Idiocy of Psychopaths
Mao demanded total subjugation of those around him. ‘What is wrong with worship?’ he declared, ‘Each group must worship its leader, it cannot but worship its leader.’ Those around him flattered, grovelled and complied in order to maintain their share of power. As a result, Mao’s idiotic ideas were enthusiastically and violently enforced right across China.
Mao personally outlined how the enormous increases in agricultural output were to be achieved. The primary innovations were massive projects to improve the irrigation of land, and forcing farmers to plant seeds closer together and to use more fertiliser.
Tens of millions of farmers were forced to join massive irrigation projects, the vast majority of which were costly failures. Seeds were planted close together to increase yields; as Mao pronounced, ‘With company they grow easily, when they grow together they will be more comfortable.’ Every conceivable fertiliser was then dumped onto the fields. Enormous numbers of houses made of mud and straw were torn down and thrown on the fields as fertiliser – the scale of destruction was such that it represented the greatest demolition of human property in human history, with up to 40 percent of all housing being destroyed.
The farmers who had worked the land for generations knew this was nonsense – the seeds had no room to grow and were being suffocated by the layers of rubbish covering them – but anyone who dared speak out was either beaten or starved.
Overtaking Britain, however, depended not only on miraculous increases in agricultural production, but also on rapid industrial development. In Mao’s ultra-simplistic vision, overtaking Britain was equated to exceeding Britain’s annual output of steel. In the absence of major industrial steel plants, the onus once again fell on China’s villagers. Small furnaces were built in every commune to enable every villager to take part in the effort to exceed Britain’s steel production. Not surprisingly, most of the steel made in these amateur furnaces was unusable.
Mao’s Psychopathic Means of Enactment
Mao’s innovative farming techniques, allied with the diversion of farm labour to enormous irrigation projects and amateur steel making, caused an enormous drop in food production. In 1959, when mass starvation was already apparent, some in the Party dared to raise the issue with Mao. His response was to act in the only way he knew how. He punished those who dared challenge him and launched a purge to replace any cadres who were lax in enforcing his commands. Hundreds of thousands of officials were targeted across the country and replaced by those prepared to follow Mao’s every whim.
Mao, and the other leaders of the CCP, emerged from twenty years of brutal war to win power in China. They glorified violence and cared nothing about massive loss of life. And they shared an ideology in which the ends justified the cruellest of means. Through successive purges those exhibiting any trace of humanity were flushed away and replaced by cadres who showed little conscience or compassion, and whose greatest asset was their brutality. From top to bottom within the Party, whatever checks there had been on violence had all been swept away.
In anticipation of the enormous increases in food production that the Great Leap Forward would produce, Mao had ordered a shopping spree of foreign technology, purchased primarily from the Soviet Union, to support rapid industrialisation. This included the construction of steel mills, factories and power stations. The scale of investment was such that branches of Soviet industry had to reorganise their production system to meet China’s prodigious demands. The food surplus was the means to pay off these foreign debts. But of course the food surplus did not exist.
Faced with food shortages, the Party now enforced a clear set of priorities. From 1958 onwards, war was waged on the countryside to extract this non-existent surplus of food for export to pay China’s foreign bills and to feed China’s cities. Mao justified the starvation in the countryside saying ‘When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’
As China’s people were worked and starved to death in a hopeless attempt to meet the quotas for export and for the cities, Mao and the Party leaders continued to eat their fill. Special farms produced high quality food for the leaders, while special shops stocked with scare goods were reserved for their use only. Luxurious villas staffed by chefs and attendants were kept at Mao’s beck and call in every province and major city right throughout the famine.
As Mao and his cronies feasted, as Frank Dikotter describes in Mao’s Great Famine, ‘in countless villages, starving children with swollen bellies and pipe-stem limbs, their heavy heads wobbling on thin little necks, were left to die in peasant huts, by empty fields or along dusty roadsides.’
Mao was living his dream. His doctor Li Zhisui recalled, ‘All of China was a stage, all the people performers in an extravaganza for Mao.’
But as millions of innocent Chinese discovered, the dreams of psychopaths are always a nightmare for anyone with a heart.
 Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, Bloomsbury, 2011, pxii
 Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, Bloomsbury, 2011, p302
 Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, Bloomsbury, 2011, pxiii
 Quoted in Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, Bloomsbury, 2011, p19
 Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, Bloomsbury, 2011, p252
 Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, Bloomsbury, 2011, p41
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