45 million died in Mao's Great Leap Forward, Hong Kong historian says in new book

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 6:27pm

At least 45 million people died unnecessary deaths during China's Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, including 2.5 million tortured or summarily killed, according to a new book by a Hong Kong scholar.

Mao's Great Famine traces the story of how Mao Zedong's drive for absurd targets for farm and industrial production and the reluctance of anyone to challenge him created the conditions for the countryside to be emptied of grain and millions of farmers left to starve. It is due to be published by Bloomsbury tomorrow.

The shortages were exacerbated by Mao's insistence on repaying debts to the Soviet Union and other communist countries - in the form of foodstuffs - years before he needed to and donating them to Third World countries as foreign aid.

The author is Frank Dikotter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and professor of the modern history of China on leave from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The book estimates a death toll nine million higher than the 36 million given in Tombstone, the last major work on the subject published in 2008 by Yang Jisheng, a senior reporter for Xinhua. An English translation is due to appear this year.

Dikotter, a native of the Netherlands, uses new material from China. 'While Communist Party archives are still very closely guarded, over the past four or five years, they have gradually opened up to the extent that serious research has become possible on the famine,' he said.

Most of the material comes from 10 provincial archives chosen on the basis of openness, including those of Gansu , Guangdong, Hebei , Hubei , Hunan , Shandong , Sichuan , Yunnan and Zhejiang .

'Provincial archives are not only much richer than the smaller collections which can be found in counties, cities or even villages, but they also tend to keep copies of important files that were sent to them from above, namely Beijing,' he said.

'The death toll stands at a minimum of 45 million excess deaths ... Coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundations of the Great Leap Forward. Thanks to the meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that, between 1958 and 1962, by a rough approximation, six to eight per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, amounting to at least 2.5 million people.

'Other victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. Many more vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work - and hence unable to earn their keep. People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked, for whatever reason, by the man who wielded the ladle in the canteen.'

He estimated that at least three million died of starvation and disease in gulags - labour and re-education camps set up by local governments - out of the eight to nine million detained in such camps during the Great Leap Forward. Between one and three million committed suicide.

The book traces how the roots of the catastrophe were the ambition, conceived by Mao in the summer of 1957, to overtake Britain in output of iron, steel and other industrial products within 15 years. When his economists tried to tell him that this was impossible and that they needed to balance the budget, he shouted them down and humiliated them.

Huang Jing, chairman of a commission on technological development, jumped out of a window at a military hospital in Guangzhou and died of his injuries in November 1958, aged 47.

This climate of terror reached its peak at the Lushan Conference in July 1959 when defence minister Peng Dehuai challenged Mao. In Xiangtan , Hunan province, his and Mao's hometown, Peng had seen children in rags and old people crouching on bamboo mats in the freezing winter. He had also received letters about widespread starvation. In a letter to the 150 participants at the conference, Peng attacked considerable waste of natural resources and manpower, inflated production claims and leftism.

Mao was enraged. Peng was dismissed and put under house arrest. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards beat him more than 100 times, crushing his internal organs and splintering his back. He died of cancer in 1974. When officials saw the fate of one of China's most distinguished generals, no one dared to challenge Mao.

By the end of April 1958, the famine had begun. 'In Guangxi , one person in six was without food or money and villagers died of hunger in parts of the province. In Shandong, some 670,000 were starving, while 1.3 million were destitute in Anhui . In Hunan, one in every ten farmers was out of grain for more than a month. Even in subtropical Guangdong, close to a million people were hungry, the situation being particularly bad in Huiyang and Zhanjiang , where children were sold by starving villagers. In Hebei, grain shortages were such that tens of thousands roamed the countryside in search of food ... from the devastated villages; 14,000 beggars made it to Tianjin , where they were put up in temporary shelters. In Gansu, many villagers were reduced to eating tree bark; hundreds died of hunger.'

As the famine took hold, people did unspeakable things to each other, even their own relatives. 'In Nanjing , about two cases of murder inside the family were reported every month in the middle of the famine ... In the majority of cases, the reason behind the murder was that the victims had become a burden. In Liuhe, a paralysed girl was thrown into a pond by her parents. In Jiangpu, a dumb and probably retarded child aged eight stole repeatedly from both parents and neighbours, putting the family at risk; he was strangled in the night ... Wang Jiuchang regularly ate the ration allocated to his eight-year-old daughter. He also took her cotton jacket and trousers in the middle of the winter. In the end, she succumbed to hunger and cold.'

The campaign not only killed millions of people but also devastated the animal population. In Hunan, the number of pigs fell from 12.7 million in 1958 to 7.95 million in 1959, 4.4 million in 1960 and 3.4 million in 1961. Pigs, poultry and cattle died of hunger, cold, disease and neglect after the establishment of people's communes, one of the main instruments of the campaign.

In Dongguan, the death rate for pigs rose from nine per cent in 1956 to 25 per cent in 1959 and more than 50 per cent in 1960. 'It was left with a million pigs where more than 4.2 million had existed a few years earlier. In Zhejiang, the death rate in some counties was 600 per cent, meaning that, for every birth, six pigs died. In all of Henan, the situation with livestock was better in 1940, in the middle of the war against Japan, than in 1961.'

Buildings were also targeted. 'The [campaign] constitutes, by far, the greatest demolition of property in human history. As a rough approximation, between 30 and 40 per cent of all houses were turned into rubble.' They were torn down to provide nutrients for soil, for fuel, to steal the materials or for redevelopment projects.

'According to comrades from the provincial party committee, 40 per cent of all houses in Hunan have been destroyed,' Liu Shaoqi , then head of state, wrote to Mao on May 11, 1959. 'Besides this, there is also a portion that has been appropriated by state organs, enterprises, communes and brigades.'

The number of people per room in Hunan doubled during the campaign. In Sichuan, people had to live in toilets or under the eaves of somebody else's house.

Even the dead were evicted, with graves destroyed to make farmland. In Mouping, Shandong, local cadres used corpses to fertilise the land. In Fengxian county, Hunan, a party member saw coffins disinterred and left strewn about the field in front of his house. The local deputy secretary was burning the corpses in four large cauldrons in his house, to make fertiliser to be thrown on the fields.

An enormous area of forest was also lost, due to felling for fuel, to clear land for grain, to produce fertiliser and due to a collapse in effective forestry management. Up to 70 per cent of the shelter forest was destroyed in some counties in Liaoning , 80 per cent in east Henan. In Kaifeng it disappeared altogether and 27,000 hectares were given up to the desert.

Left in ruins

Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward campaign lasted from 1958 to 1962

By the end of April 1958, this many people were destitute in Anhui: 1.3m