Mao Tse Tung was once seen as the hero of the left in the West; his Red Book was recently waved by an MP in Britain’s House of Commons.
But Chinese archives are now being opened, and Frank Dikoetter in the current History Today explains the great man now appears one of the great criminals. Dikoetter talks of the once praised Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, intended to catapult his country into the modern age. Everything was collectivised, food was distributed according to merit and used to direct and control their behaviour. Starving farmers were forced to work on ill planned works while their farming was neglected, and millions starved to death.
What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers of history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people. It is not merely the extent of he catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died; between 2 and 3 million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a 10kg stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling rod- punishment for digging up a potato.
The discriminate killing of ‘slackers’, weaklings or otherwise unproductive elements increased the overall food supply for those who contributed to the regime through their labour. As report after report shows, food was also used as a weapon. Throughout the country those who were too ill to work were routinely cut off from the food supply. The sick, vulnerable and elderly were banned from the canteen, as cadres found inspiration in Lenin’s dictum: ‘He who does not work shall not eat.’
As the minutes of leadership meetings show, Mao was aware of the extent of the famine. At a secret gathering that took place in … 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to 1/3 of all grain. He announced that: ‘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.’