This post originally appeared at Asia Times. It can be reposted if AT is acknowledged and a link to AT is provided.
The Great Leap Forward, a calamity that killed tens of millions, afflicted China with the misery and morals of a concentration camp, and spawned the Cultural Revolution, was once a shunned and shameful topic.
But convenient myths—such as the threadbare explanation of “Three Years of Natural Disasters”, fingerpointing at the Soviet Union, and exculpatory emphasis on quixotic but seemingly admirable revolutionary enthusiasm—are now crumbling as a new generation feels enough distance to confront the painful past, and at the same time races to record the memories of the citizens who suffered through the period before they pass on.
Through the efforts of Chinese and foreign researchers, a more complete history of the Great Leap Forward is emerging from archives and personal accounts, as a parade of folly, viciousness, and cruelty. This history—and the current regime’s incomplete willingness to confront it—is finding resonance in the campaign to discredit Chongqing neo-Maoist firebrand Bo Xilai, and the effort to shape the agenda of the new leadership cadre that is expected to assume power in 2013.
In the process, the era of the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath is acquiring a new name: The Great Famine.
The Great Leap Forward was born of hubris: Mao Zedong’s bet that his version of socialism could unleash unprecedented productivity from the Chinese economy and show the supercilious commissars of the Soviet Union who was the best and greatest Communist leader.
In 1958 and 1959, China was convulsed by massive, disruptive labor projects, collectivization, and a mad rush to steelmaking. Agriculture was disrupted by diversion of labor and misapplied programs of deep planting, marginal land recovery, and over-irrigation. At the same time, local leaders made extravagant claims of increased agricultural output attributed to the new socialist system, figures that were further padded as they traveled up the chain of command to Beijing and, fatally, became the basis for central government grain requisitions.
Things turned very dark very quickly as local cadres emptied granaries in order to meet their requisition targets and demonstrate their ability, zeal, and loyalty to their superiors.
One county in Henan claimed production of 7 billion jin of grain—but actually produced only 2 billion jin—of which 1.6 billion jin was requisitioned.
By the late months of 1958, throughout China communal kitchens—where farmers in the new collectives went to get fed—were either handing out thin gruel or were no longer bothering to light their fires at all. People began to starve.
Despite concerted efforts by local and provincial leaders to cover up, it was soon apparent at the center that something was seriously amiss.
And things got worse.
Mao Zedong adopted the self-serving explanation that the shortfall in grain was the result of a counter-revolutionary resurgence in the Chinese countryside, with ex-landlords and rich peasants conniving to conceal their bumper grain harvests from the state.
Ironically, his convictions were buttressed by the party secretary of Guangdong province, who conducted a successful campaign to root out one million tons of grain hidden by desperate peasants. His name: Zhao Ziyang.
As the situation deteriorated in the Chinese countryside, therefore, the afflicted areas were not regarded as disaster areas needing outside assistance; they were nests of anti-state criminals who had to be compelled to give up their ill-gotten grain.
Then things got even worse. As news of widespread suffering trickled up to the party leadership, sub voce dissatisfaction with Mao’s policies was amplified at the Lushan plenum in the summer of 1959 as open criticism of the Great Leap Forward as a whole by defense minister Peng Dehuai and party elder Zhang Wentian.
Mao interpreted the criticism at Lushan as an attack on himself by a cabal of candidate Khrushchevs and launched an all-out political war, loyally abetted by Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, and most other senior leaders, against Peng, Zhang, and any cadre that presumed to criticize the Great Leap Forward.
The full human and political dimensions of the Great Famine—and a damning portrait of Mao as a leader who was happy to slay the messengers, by the tens of millions, rather than endure the humiliation of acknowledging the failure of his policies before his peers in China and the Soviet Union, or accept diminution of his authority and political power—are found in the book Mao’s Great Famine by Dr. Frank Dikӧtter (New York: Walker & Co., 2010).
In the words of Dikӧtter:
Had the leadership reversed course in the summer of 1959 at Lushan, the number of victims claimed by famine would have been counted in the millions. Instead, as the country plunged into catastrophe, tens of millions of lives would be extinguished through exhaustion, illness, torture, and hunger.