Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine

When Mao Tse-Tung was alive he was cast alternately as bandit, communist leader, ruthless dictator, elder statesman, and mass murderer. Since his death the characterization is less ambivalent: hedonistic despot, reckless utopian, unbridled monster. The change is anchored in the twists and turns of history. The unfettering of capitalism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s manic opening to western capitalism has no interest in seeing Mao in shades of grey. He is part of the troika of twentieth century “Evil:” Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung.

Mao’s rap sheet encompasses two convulsive periods: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The former is the evidently clinching event proving Mao’s personal culpability in the murder of tens of millions. So now we get the latest entry in the teeming “Mao is a monster” literature. Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958-1962 is an examination of the Great Leap Forward period of rapid collectivization in the late 1950s early 60s, which coincided with a massive famine and the loss of life for many people. This book presents a revised and even more horrifying picture of what happened during the Great Leap. Dikötter’s claim to originality is that not only has he studied this extensively, he has examined regional records in the provinces of China and thereby proclaims to etch a truly accurate picture of what really happened. The following breathless declaration gives us the flavor of Dikötter’s approach:

As the fresh evidence presented in this book demonstrates coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward. Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed — amounting to at least 2.5 million people.[1]

This declaration, if true, is damning and staggering. Yet a closer read reveals it as fallacious, as artful writing full of extrapolation and conjecture. Here we have reports that are “often meticulous,” (and what of the ones less so?) yet nonetheless we can only arrive at a “rough approximation.” To get to that dubious approximation we are given, without any explanation or elaboration, an arbitrary mathematical formula. Nowhere is there a table documenting the quantitative breakdown. There are no charts showing X number of victims in Y Province, or any other means for grounding us in exactly where these awesome numbers supposedly come from. What we have, in sum, are assertions based on tendentious guesswork. In short this claim — like others in the book — is incredible. This rather glaring handicap ought to have led to the work being taken with a large grain of salt, if not rejected out of hand. Instead there are only mainstream raves. This is a “masterly study” (the UK Guardian). Dikötter is “extremely careful with his evidence” (the New Republic), and this is “the best and last word on Mao’s greatest horror.” (Literary Review, Edinburgh). So what is going on?

First and foremost this analysis is ripped out of the larger historical context. There is no mention of famine ever occurring before benighted Communist rule. An earlier work on the same subject, Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts at least offered background — albeit through its own skewed lens — noting that pre-Communist China “suffered no fewer than 1,828 major famines.”[2]  In other words in the modern era China — like India and other parts of Asia — has been racked by famine whose toll of suffering is beyond human comprehension, and certainly beyond anything Mao’s opponents care to acknowledge. By not addressing previous famines Dikötter looks at China under Communist rule in a narrow vacuum, thus dispensing with the inconvenient fact that famine in this part of the world has  been a recurring phenomenon, which Mao did not invent or even magnify.

This distorted lense, however, serves Dokotter’s central thesis that the Great Leap famine was the progeny of the diabolical Mao Tse Tung alone. Dikötter has to stretch to get there, but stretch he does, “Unlike Stalin, he [Mao] did not drag his rivals into a dungeon to have them executed, but he did have the power to remove them from office, terminating their careers — and the many privileges which came with a top position in the party.”[3]  In this world, having your career unfairly terminated is a crime on the level of being unjustly executed. Actually looking at what Mao had to say — something the author is loath to do — might have been instructive:

People may be wrongly executed. Once a head is chopped off, history shows it can’t be restored, nor can it grow again as chives do, after being cut. If you cut off a head by mistake, there is no way to rectify the mistake, even if you want to. [4]

Mao is repudiating Stalin’s method here — which ought to be of interest for someone wanting to understand this fraught period. For Mao execution was not a moral issue, rather it was a matter of calculating how the practice fit into the overall aim of achieving his Sinified version of socialism and communism. This approach was too often instrumental and problematic — a point that lends credence to the book’s attributing to Mao a certain ‘ends justify the means’ philosophy. But there seems to be no interest in exploring that practice in any nuanced way (such as comparing it with how his opponents behaved). Refusing to consider Mao on his own terms, if only as a device to sharpen the argument, makes such writing as Dikotter’s the very kind of propaganda it is so incensed by when glimpsed in the work of enemies.

Also tellingly absent in this analysis is any political sense of proportion regarding the geopolitical situation. For example, we learn,“ever since the United States had started to provide military support for Taiwan and after the Americans introduced tactical nuclear missiles in March 1955, Mao had been set on having the bomb.”[5]  What Dikötter doesn’t explore is the reason why, i.e., that the United States was preparing for the option of nuclear war with China. As a headline in New York Times from the period unambiguously put it, “US Called Ready to Use Atom Arms.” The article quotes James H. Douglas, then Secretary of the US Air Force who coolly lays out the strategy, “the nuclear-armed missiles had a dual capability and were not limited to nuclear retaliation; they could use conventional high explosive as well.” [6] This was the threatening context in which China was racing to achieve modernization, self-sufficiency and yes, nuclear weapons. It is hardly an exaggeration to say the situation was a life and death struggle. It was not a good thing China ultimately obtained those weapons — or that any country did, including the United States — but to argue that Mao was “paranoid” in the abstract is disingenuous and misleading.

Under Mao’s leadership China decisively broke the grip of colonialism, defeating both Japan and the US-backed Chiang Kai-Shek regime. This radical upstart regime was a major obstacle to the US in its quest for hegemony in post World War II Asia — and the US defeat in Vietnam cannot be understood fully without understanding the role of Communist China. Through a torturous and contentious process Mao and his adherents transformed China from the “Sick man of Asia” into a country that by the mid-1960s was able to feed, clothe and supply healthcare for its people, all done in conscious opposition to a market-based economy. While it is legitimate to argue as to how costly, even at times horrific, this process was, from the stand of virulent defenders of current capitalism to assert anything good about Mao is absolutely out of bounds. To do so would suggest that the miseries of capitalism that abound amid the splendor of present-day China, actually have an alternative. The desirability and content of such alternative is beyond our scope here, but the very idea of alternative is anathema in such neoliberal quarters. In order to reinforce the status quo, Mao must be cast ignominiously into the dustbin of history.

It is in this skewed context that we witness a proliferation of memoirs and biographies whose sole aim is to depict Mao as among the worst people to ever walk the earth. In this familiar enterprise  there are elements that range from base to surreal. You encounter a former board member of the New Left Review, Jon Halliday who co-authored Mao: The Unknown Story, a biography so unrelentingly and sensationally harsh that a group of China scholars felt compelled to publish, “Was Mao Really A Monster?” in an effort to bring the debate somewhere back into the realm of rationality.[7] Here too you find a New York Times reviewer castigate an author for being “chillingly cavalier about the tens of millions of people who lost their lives during Mao’s years in power,”[8] for failing to make a point of Mao’s monstrousness. That the book under review was by Henry Kissinger  — no stranger to crimes against humanity — is an irony completely lost on the critic.

Which brings us back to Dikotter. This is a large volume whose key selling point is that the author spent ages researching dusty local archives. Yet when he presents his data he repeatedly undercuts the legitimacy of these archives. For example he writes, “Even when cadres were willing to confront the harsh reality of famine, who could have kept track of an avalanche of death?”[9]  While this may be true, what does it suggest about the punctilious accuracy he seeks?  He further undercuts his claims when he writes of existing statistics, i.e., those compiled by local Party officials, investigations carried out immediately, and investigations conducted in the years after:

The result is not so much a neatly arranged set of statistics revealing some absolute truth in a few telling numbers, but rather a mass of uneven and at times messy documentation compiled in different ways, at different times, for different reasons, by different entities, with different degrees of reliability.”[10]

We might then conclude it is speculative to settle on a final figure. Instead we get the following:

Some historians speculate that the figures stand as high as 50 or 60 million people. It is unlikely we will know the full extent of the disaster until the archives are completely opened. But these are the figures informally discussed by a number of party historians. And these are also, according to Chen Yizi, the figures cited at internal meeting of senior party members under Zhao Ziyan. Yu Xiguan, an independent researcher with a great deal of experience, puts the figures at 55 million excess deaths.[11]

Here Dikötter is having his cake and eating it. At the very end of his book he throws out numbers 10 million higher than his introductory estimate and validates them by invoking “figures cited at internal meeting [s],” as if that makes them authoritative. At the same time he covers himself saying we will not know the actual story until the archives open up. He does not and cannot now know, yet he is saying he does.

All this foregoing criticism is not to say bad things did not take place in China in this period, that people died as a result, and that Mao bears no responsibility. They did and he does. That said — and this verdict will elicit a howl of outrage in certain quarters — these questions are not settled in any way. In this respect it is worth bearing in mind that common knowledge has held that “millions” were executed during the Great Purge in the Soviet Union and that “tens of millions” were executed during Stalin’s rule. Because the Soviet archives opened up in an unprecedented way in the early 1990s historian J. Arch Getty was able to access formerly secret  records and show such figures as wildly inflated — things are more in the realm of hundreds of thousands executed during the Great Purge and on the level of 2 million deaths overall due to repression.[12]  That revised figure does not diminish the horror – but facts do matter.

The totality of what happened during the Great Leap Forward needs to be understood without blinkers. To the degree reckless policy, instrumentalist design, and utopian voluntarism played a role in causing enormous human suffering it needs to be identified and rejected. Yet to the degree that a dynamic was set loose that went beyond the control of those sitting at the levers of power –including natural forces such as drought — those factors too need to be understood. With this there is a need for a respect for history. What China went through in the twentieth century —and there were hideous things long before the Great Leap — is of a piece with what much of the rest of the world had to undergo in striving for development and some degree of justice . We do not need another simple-minded screed justifying a priori verdicts and the status quo. We need to understand what happened in China because any effort to get to a different and better future requires it.



[1] Frank Dikötter. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, Walker and Company, 2010, xi.

[2] Jasper Becker. Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, Henry Holt, 1996, 9.

[3] Dikötter, xiii.

[5] Dikötter,11.

[6] Jack Raymond. ”US Called Read to Use Atom Arms.” New York Times, September 28, 1958.

[7] For a fuller discussion see, Tariq Ali, “On Mao’s Contradictions.” New Left Review 66, November-December 2010

[8]Kakutani, Michiko, “An Insider Views China, Past and Future,” New York Times, May 9, 2011.

[9] Dikötter 327.

[10] Dikötter 328.

[11] Dikötter 333-334.

[12] J Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-39, Yale University Press, 2002, 590-91.

Aaron Leonard
is a freelance journalist based in New York. He is regular contributor to the History News Network, truthout,, and His writings can be found at


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