Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Book review: Mao’s Great Famine, Frank Dikotter (2010)

I have no recollection of where I bought this volume, but it happened sometime in or soon after August 2011, the sticker on the back cover tells me. I like the design of the front cover: the use of a contemporary photo lends gravitas and immediacy to the production, and the colour – red, which in China denotes luck – is an index of the scale of the tragedy the story relates.

Dikotter gets down to brass tacks immediately, wasting no time on preliminaries. His study covers a period of about five years – 1958 to 1962 – and takes you from one extreme point to another. It includes accounts of a foreign government meeting in Russia, for example, the death of a child in Hunan, and everything else in-between. The story is deeply upsetting and this book is not recommended for people who are triggered by accounts of suffering or indiscriminate violence. Parts I didn’t read and at times, while reading, I was tempted to put it down, but persisted because I felt it was important to at least be a witness to the wickedness Mao was responsible for in the pissing contest he entered into with the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in order to be seen as the leader of the Communist sphere of influence.

Mao began the Great Leap Forward – which was to result in the deaths of so many people – upon the death of Stalin, followed as it soon afterward was by a repudiation of Stalin (so many deaths resulting from his policies), which was a policy change orchestrated by Khrushchev. In response, thinking that the new Soviet leader’s move equalled a criticism of himself, the egotistical Mao took to patronising Khrushchev. Mao’s subsequent policy, on which the book focuses in considerable detail, reflected the depths of his feelings on this issue.

The title of the book reflects the Dutch historian’s own feelings on learning of the events, mostly from documents he consulted in provincial archives. Central government archives remained, at the time of publication, unavailable except to approved researchers sympathetic to the Party, but despite some odd incongruities – especially relating to the low number of deaths from disease – Dikotter does a good job with the material he has. He is able to paint a vivid portrait of the terrible suffering many Chinese experienced, sometimes leading to death, in the late 1950s and early 60s, although I was unsure about some of his figures. Access to archives is going to continue to be a barrier for authors and their readers who want to know more about the Party’s history.

In fact, even such basic things as population numbers remain contentious. Dikotter uses a 1984 source to set the population in 1960 at 650 million – a figure that has to be taken on faith and which includes, in any case, the separate country of Tibet – and since then China has existed for most of the time under the one-child policy – it was introduced in 1979 – so a population today of over twice that number seems, to me, to be impossible or, at least, highly unlikely.

If not for the extent of the harm they caused other people, Mao’s actions – which saw at least 50 million people die unnecessarily (this figure seems conservative given the contents of the book under review) – would be comical. In the effects of his pathological obsessions – an attempt to come to terms with the suffering he and the Party’s members had experienced because of war, with the shame China had experienced at the hands of foreigners since the 19th century, and with damage to his own standing in the Communist world resulting from actions of Joseph Stalin – you can see the poverty of a system where the franchise is limited to one man, or to a small coterie of men. The wellbeing of the collective was sacrificed for the sake of the vanity of a few, the irony being that collectivisation – the leitmotiv of the book and the gist of the Great Leap Forward – was meant to serve the interests of all, though it only served those of a small number of people, at the apex of the pile being the Chairman.

Contemporary echoes can be felt due to the way Mao and his deputies ran roughshod over experts for example by accepting outblown production estimates from provincial cadres, which led, in some cases, to produce that might have kept starvation at bay being routed to cities or, even, to foreign countries. Mao couldn’t bear to lose face and his overweening need to be seen to exceed Britain, on an economic basis, within 15 years – this was his boast, backed up by no reasonable minds – inexorably led to chaos. Schemes that Mao thought would lead to excesses of food proved, in practice, to be the opposite of useless, as resources that should have been put into the making of grain and other produce were diverted to other activities, such as the construction of irrigation infrastructure and cackbrained smelters that produced nothing of value.

All because Mao thought these were good ideas. If you could’ve dreamed up a bad leader for China, then the suspicious, vindictive, over-sensitive, and cruel Chairman of the Party would’ve been it. The paradox being that it was precisely such qualities that helped him to get to the top.

Why you might want to read this book – if you have no particular interest in China – is because it shows what happens when ideas trump facts; when ideology is given free rein at the expense of expertise. Donald Trump would be bowled over by Dikotter’s version of Mao – so different from the official, Party-approved version that has been offered for consumption – because the two men are so similar. Mao would’ve wholeheartedly embraced the idea of “fake news”, but rather than criticising the media, Mao would’ve had the journalists – and their managers – sent to re-education camps, or worse.

The scale of the chaos being however much worse under Mao than under Trump. The ideology that was used to force through undesirable policies and that led to millions of deaths in China was, of course, an extreme left-wing one. Reading this book you come to a different level of appreciation for Capital, or, in other words, a political settlement where self-interest is allowed to determine the allocation of resources. The book is well-written although the occasional oddity escaped the editing process – “obverse” doesn’t mean “reverse” (though possibly only people who collect coins will be likely to get this right).

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