Friday, March 23, 2012

Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter.

I think 'masterful' is the word that comes into my mind as I try to summarise Frank Dikköter's Mao's Great Famine. The writing is excellent, but maybe it is the unbelievable horror of what happened that mesmerised me each time I picked it up.

After reading Zhisui Li's The private Life of Chairman Mao, and accidentally coming across the symptoms of bipolar disorder shortly afterwards, I found certain commonalities. Mao didn't sleep. He had grandiose plans involving steel output, communes and control, and a notorious low regard for human life that shocked even the Russians. When he met opposition he became depressed and withdrawn. The rest of the time he was a charismatic dictator and only the brave or foolish dared defy him. If they did they would be manoeuvered from their position of influence. How do these men persist? Why can't everyone see that they have a tenuous grasp on reality? Is it because their vision is, in some way, attractive to those around them?

Perhaps it is because, at the very start of things, he tried to establish a Utopia. He swept away the idea of ownership: from now on no one would own land, property or even cooking utensils. The state would provide everything. It would look after them from the cradle to the grave. It would feed and house each citizen and they would want for nothing. In return the people gave their labour: the men to poorly conceived and ultimately useless irrigation schemes, and the women taking the men's place in the field. Maybe if that was the sum of his vision all would have been such a disaster, but unfortunately Mao's vision was international. The grandiose element kicked in. He wanted to show the rest of the world that China was great and munificent enough to hand out aid to ideological partners: even Albania was a recipient. He promised grain in return for manufactured goods like steel mills, and once these had been promised there was the concept of 'face' to be considered making it impossible to renege.

Unfortunately, Mao had relied on a series of exaggerated production figures to calculate his promises. Each local leader tried to outdo his neighbour, and these figures became inflated as they travelled up the bureaucratic chain to Beijing. They were unrealistic, and because the state procurement was based on them, the people were left with too little to eat. The cadres were obliged to ensure that the villagers contributed their share, and since they had few carrots relied instead on the stick.

The stick was deprivation of the already insufficient rations and then, when people became less productive as a result of malnourishment, a horrific range of punishments familiar from my reading of the first emperor's time. The end of the book is devoted to these and how the most vulnerable in society, the young and elderly, suffered the most. People were buried alive, beaten with sticks, branded, hung, forced to swallow excrement, humiliated into committing suicide, mutilated and grew so desperate from hunger that they queued to eat white clay - which would kill them too through constipation. The last chapter in this section is on cannibalism, and by that time I felt so numbed by what I was reading that it felt reasonable. Dikköter points out that the Russians have different words for eating people (presumably after killing them for that purpose) and eating a corpse.

He finishes with a discussion on figures and sources. He concludes that a likely conservative figure is 45 million deaths above normal.

It took a brave man called Lui Shaoqi to make Mao see things must change. There is a picture of Lui talking to villagers in his home province of Hunan. He is white haired and looks scholarly and intelligent. Even though he was a member of the Red Army and had been through the hardships of the wars with the Nationalistic army and the Japanese, he was moved to tears with what he found happening to the villagers at home. In 1962 he spoke for three hours about the disaster of Mao's Great Leap Forward in front of 7,000 delegates. When he said that the disaster was 70% man-made there was an intake of breath.

Later he told Mao 'History will judge you and me, even cannibalism will go into the books!' Thanks to the investigative work of Frank Dikötter it certainly has.

I now find myself looking at the rest of Dikötter's output: for a student of the history of modern China they look like essential reads.


Blogger Anne S said...

I didn't know Mao was bi polar. Freaky! I know several bi polar folk, and can imagine how awful it would be to have one in charge of a country.

Anyway, the book sounds like a grim read, but I understand how the gruesomeness of it all keeps one riveted.

Sat Mar 24, 10:00:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I think he might have been, Anne! I'm no medical expert - but he certainly seemed to have at least some of the symptoms.

Yes, very grim - but important too if you can stand it.

Sat Mar 24, 12:02:00 pm  

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