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Thread: Mao's Great Famine

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    Mao's Great Famine

    Context of the thread

    I have just finished the book, Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter about the famine of 1958-1962 in China. I found it to be a fascinating account of one of the most catastrophic events in human history, and one that is largely ignored in our history books. I hope to give a general account of some elements of the book that I found interesting. This thread serves as only a partial summary of the book. Partial being the operative word. Furthermore, it is biased by my personal subjective interpretation of some of the content. My thread, my liberty I guess. My understanding of this period in chinese history is limited and heavily tied to the perspective of this book alone, but I still want to give an account and motivate people to read it. I have read this book, that means I possess only the minimal qualification required to start a thread on it, hopefully others better placed will weigh in on the whole.

    Context of this book

    Dikotter was one of a few historians to gain access to a series of chinese archives relevent to the famine. Subsequently the documents he analysed are largely unavailable, so cannot be verified. Nevertheless, the archival evidence has allowed him provide a fresh, painstaking analysis of the famine. Endless detail and often idiosyncratic accounts are dispersed throughout the book. That said, their insights are rare due to the nature of forgetting history and the fact that chinese archives are hidden from us, every one of them deserves to be accounted and heard and I don't begrudge their place in the book. Spoiler: I'm not really sure you need a spoiler for a book of this nature, but this thread will reveal an often lot about the book, personally, I don't think that should be considered a major problem before reading it.

    Context of the famine

    Mao, driven by a desire to lift China to the head of the communist bloc over the soviet union, stated that the backward agrarian economy of China would pass out Britain in 15 years on an industrial basis. Mao, amongst others, envisioned the Great Leap Forward (GLF), a series of economic policies that would transform the economy utilising China's massive labour force to rapidly increase economic output. The policies undertook created a complex, inter-related series of events that shattered chinese society and starved the country. This was a man-made famine.

    Some of Dikotter's claims include
    -45 million unnecessary deaths – minimum and conservative
    -40% housing destroyed – a level of intensity of destruction exceeding either world wars
    -2.5 million actively murdered

    However, in some ways its the little details that are vital to an analysis of the famine. How the policies created chaos and how communist idelogy led to subtle failures on the ground. The best word for the famine is CHAOS, and I believe in a way that cannot be normally attributed to most other famines if any. Although 1930s Ukraine is referred to in the book. I hope I can construct a lucid account of this, but suffice to say, the little details matter, endless little details, because the extent of the famine can only be accounted by understanding the many different, interconnected ways that the chinese economy was gutted and chinese society was destroyed by a myriad of destructive policies. The book gives a remarkable range of examples of which I will take a few.

    The political environment

    There was political opposition and criticism of the GLF early on, and in the end it forced Mao to ease the policies and end the famine in 1961/1962, but through the threat of demotion and utilisation of purges, Mao won the day and silence feel on the party for most of the 4 years. Dikotter goes into much detail in regard to the political wranglings and no doubt they are of momentous importance, sealing the faith of the chinese people with Mao's political victory. Ultimately you were purged if you spoke ill of the GLF, and Mao silenced most opposition in his party.

    A significant element was the desire of local leaders to report back exaggerated figures in agriculture and industry to please Mao. An endless cycle of lies followed. As the state procured a certain amount of the grain, they were procuring a higher total percentage of the actual grain, as the official figures stated there was far more. And in the desire to deliver, local leaders simply allowed the locals to starve to meet the quotas and remain in favour. In industry, slave labour and horrendous violence upon the chinese people descended in the desire of each local leader to win favour and outproduce the neighbouring village, county or province. To understand the famine, it is important to grasp the threat of purges, the inflated figures and the desire to impress Mao and the party and how this affected leadership at a local level who enforced violent regimes to meet targets. The nature of the policy flowed top-down.
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 02:45.

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    Specific policies in brief

    Irrigation schemes
    In an attempt to irrigate all of china, millions were forced to work night and day to alter waterways and build dams on a massive scale, many of them abandoned or ultimately failed due to lack of expertise in design from the outset. Hundred of thousands died. Irrigated land actually declined by about over 50% comparing 61 to 57 and changes to natural systems actually resulted in destruction of a great deal of soil through alkalisation and salinisation and the ultimate reduction in total cultivated land. Alleged scapegoats such as natural disasters like flooding that Mao was fond of blaming were actually often created by the alteration of the waterways creating massive collapse in agricultural output that normally would not have resulted. Actual harvest even went uncollected as there was not enough people available to harvest it.

    As an aside, a poorly constructed dam during the GLF broke and drowned 230,000 people in 1975.

    Deep ploughing and Close cropping
    Erroneous agricultural techniques preached from the party, actual farmers who knew better were silenced. The first, deep ploughing involved mass slave labour to dig the soil to great depths, bringing up topsoil and altering various soil properties to the detriment of crop yield, not least the massive waste of labour as thousands were worked to death. Close cropping involved sowing at unheard plant densities to give magical increase in yields, yields subsequently declined. Early in 1958 people even consumed large quantities of rice in the light of promises of massive increases in yield. Reports of eating competitions are described, just a single insight of many to the bizarre nature of the CCP propaganda machine at the time.

    Fertiliser campaign
    The dumping of massive amounts of fertilser on fields to increase yields. In typical fashion of the time, everyone was to contribute materials as part of the utilsation of the chinses populace for growth of the state. This campaign was one of the factors that lead to the destruction of housing on a massive scale as straw and other materials were used to fertile the land.

    Steel drive
    Dikotter spends a great deal of time on the steel drive and explaining the obsession of the communist bloc and china's desire to increase steel output as a mark of prestige. The policy was to set up furnaces in every village, tapping into the labour force of china, everyone was to contribute metal as part of the drive to meet steel targets which inflated to ridiculous proportions. Local leaders desperately struggled to meet targets and what resulted was a huge proportion of poor grade or useless steel rusting at depots. Millions of chinese agricultural tools and cooking equipment were lost to the furnaces, further limiting agriculture. One anecdote regarded a woman who queued in a village for hours on end for the only needle to repair clothes. As part of procurement of virtually all cotton for export to meet the growing trade deficit, people sometimes had literally nothing, nothing, literally nothing to wear in the winter. Later on the book, Dikotter gives an account of endless clothes piled up in the cities needing repair, but that workers were not motivated to work because the state owned everything through collectivisation and they also lacked needles due to the steel drive. Inter-related policies creating chaos and mismanagement. For me, the absence of the profit motvie runs throughout the book as a key theme with endless, fascinating consequences in the minute. This leads to one of the most important policies.

    Collectivisation and the communes
    Everything brought under the state's control, land, equipment, money, but most importantly food. Because people didn't own their farm tools, they left them in fields at the end of the day, exposed, they didn't repair them, between this and the steel drive, 30%-50% of farm tools were estimated to have been lost in one particular province that had a report was filed on the matter. The state eventually procured virtually all the food in some areas and housed people in communes across the country. This meant that local leaders controlled access to food for each individual and you can imagine what followed. Eventually when there wasn't enough food to go around, they often concentrated on feeding the stronger who could continue implementing local policy targets via slave labour. The weaker starved first by design. Any opposition was also starved.

    The communes were organised at a local level along military lines. They were run by a few powerful local figures in with the aid of local militias. Millions working under slave labour, underachievers beaten and shamed, rations reduced. Practices varied greatly across the countryside. People's houses were knocked for building materials for communes, many never built and millions went homeless or crowded into few remaining structures. The militias enforced harsh regimes, as the ministry of Justice was closed and the judicial system removed, procured hidden grain , procurement at its highest ever levels simultaneously while harvest was at its lowest. Mao actively encouraged higher rates of procurement. In addition, many more houses were knocked during these searches.
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 02:56.

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    Waste and corruption

    A huge problem in modern food production is waste, a great deal of food is lost in transport and storage. China in 1958 was an undeveloped agrarian economy yet very rapidly the state took control of the transport, processing, storage and distribution of the country's food supply. The local vendors who normally insured distribution even to remote areas were largely removed. The state simply didnt have the equipment to undertake this task. Endless amounts of food rotted in trucks on the road which were broken down or had no fuel, rotted in depots, were infected with rodents, insects or diseases in processing factories.

    The author regularly gives account in this context and others of the terrible standards that inflicted the factories of China as well other elements of the chinese economy, and a digression is worth the while at this point. People were not motivated to do their jobs properly as they didn't get paid, they were focused on survival, stopped working when not being observed, productivity declined. Equipment rusted and became useless on a massive scale. Safety standards were abandoned, huge numbers died as a consequence in accidents. Managers were focused on meeting targets, quantity over quality. A whole series of factors linked both to reckless policies and systematical failures in the economic ideology of communism created an environment of waste and poor products. This resulted in part to the loss of food in transport, storage and processing, one of the many smaller ways that the chaotic nature of the whole system starved millions more to death. If you read the book you will see how every small detail linked to create more waste, each one contributing to more people to starving unnecessarily. In this way, one can appreciate the complex nature of accounting the reasons for the true extent of the famine, policies led to failure in every imaginable way, complete chaos reigned.

    The focus in industry solely focused on output, rather than its quality or the financial cost of producing it. Poor quality steel production led to problems in railway lines, further crippling the transport infrastructure. All of this had significant knock on effects when one considers the state's policy in regard to the trade deficit to be discussed below. Dikotter summarises disastrous factory performance due to uncontrolled capital expenditure, waste, defective products, transport bottlenecks and lack of labour discipline. He discusses life in the factories in length and this stuff is want ultimately really matters. People living with 0.5 metre living space, handling dangerous chemicals with no protective gear, starvation, disease, bullying, rape, thousands dead by accidents, and far more, truly shocking accounts of life for the masses, and this was better than the countryside.

    Also, a massive shadow economy developed as various party members and branches of government directly bartered goods that passed through their hands, excluding the state. Party members stole goods to sell on to the black market, everyone had their cut. Factories declared double their actual workforce so they got more food. As Dikotter puts it, A planned economy where everybody traded.

    In addition as standards collapsed in factories, and agriculture yields plummeted, the state had been purchasing expensive equipment and had less to trade in response, the trade deficit grew, providing an insight to the real interests of the leadership.

    I found interesting the point that unlike normal situations of poverty, waste actually soared, as nobody recycled or reused, as no one owned anything. The psyche of this whole period in chinese history is unusual because of the effects of collectivisation.
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 02:33.

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    Trade and reputation

    In part foreign purchases soared due to the inflated forecast in output in gri and industry. If th stupidity stopped there it would have been something. But the leadership valued international reputation over the lives of its own subjects, especially in competing with the soviet union for prestige amongst the communist bloc. Policy became that they would pay back what they owed and sooner than planed. Food exports rose dramatically, grain doubling in 1959. Dikotter dismisses the myth, commonly held in China, that Soviet pressure forced the chinese to export the food. At one point, the chinese even declined soviet aid. Mismanagement of industry affected the ability of the chinese to pay, they compensated with food exports further deepening the famine.

    At the height of the famine, china exported food for free or for cheap to other poor communist countries to win favour over the soviets. 660 million yuan from a 35 billion budget given in aid in one year. He also reports chinese authorities declining aid, including one offer behind the scenes from (remarkably I thought, of all people given recent history) the japanese foreign minister to deliver 100,000 tonnes of wheat secretly. China also dismissed efforts from charities such as the red cross. If other offers had followed, they surely would have been declined, international reputation came first.
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 03:02.

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    Housing

    A frenzy of large scale projects arose around the country to celebrate Mao and the party led to massive destruction of housing to clear space or provide materials. Billions were spent on pointless structures. Since nobody owned property, destruction reigned supreme, maintenance and motivation absent, other curious consequences of collectivisation. Dikotter describes the destruction of housing as a series of waves...

    -Fertilser camapign in early 58
    -fuel for bonfires at night to allow continued work on deep ploughing schemes
    -materials for commune construction
    -steel drive – wood for furnaces – steel fittings for metal
    -grain procurement hidden in walls
    -cannibalisation of homes to sell materials for food
    -cannibalisation of homes to consume directly – to eat straw in thatched roofs or plaster in the walls

    Largest demolition of of property in human history, 30-40% housing reduced to rubble, but he admits it's very difficult to estimate.

    Nature

    I will skip over this except to say that China is surely still living with the consequences of the massive environmental damage. Furthermore, the food system was adapted to a certain environmental system, once heavily disrupted by man-made actions, environmental factors fed-back to further exacerbate the famine. Deforestation, silting, flooding, soil erosion et alia all interacted to lead to further disaster.
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 02:48.

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    double post - sorry
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 02:47.

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    Suffering and death

    Dikotter has various chapters for elements of society who fared the worse. Ultimately the weakest died first. Moral boundaries blurred, and many who survived stole or did worse. One person's survival resulted in the death of another. It makes for harrowing reading and the book has many idiosyncratic (more or less) stories. With cruelty at a level which matches the second world war in depravity.

    The author believes that the famine was unusual in that it was not characterised by 2 or 3 major epidemics that spread and claimed the majority of the death toll. He speculates on this, but one reason may be people starved too quickly, another that the state controlled outbreaks ruthlessly. The general chaos of the states policies meant people ultimately died in a wide variety of ways, death increased drastically in virtually every way people normally die due to the complete breakdown of every element of the society and unlike some famines, quite a lot of people actually did starve.

    One particular account that I wont forget related to how millions of people ate mud, enduring painful deaths as there digestive system literally dried up.

    In brief, millions probably starved or were worked to death in labour camps, one set relating to the state, the other, larger series of camps formed at the local level, the slightest demeanour could earn you a place.

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    Violence

    There was no motivation to work, therefore motivation was channeled by violence on a mass scale to force starved people to continue working in the various schemes and to meet production targets. One investigation team sent out by the state reported that “everywhere is a torture field”. Estimates in one province reported 67,000 deaths out of a million due to beatings. Overall, Dikotter estimates 6-8% of all excessive deaths were murdered. Interviews of some leaders indicate that they felt they had to beat workers otherwise they would be beaten or purged from above. Once again you have to read the book for all the individual stories of immense evil and cruelty. Some modern research indicates that as much as 1-2% of the world's population have significant sociopathic tendencies, no doubt these people come to the fore under such an environment.

    In a way, the account I have given on this thread sorely lacks a description of the real life sufferring that the chinese people endured on a daily basis, a description never lost in the book. Testimony should be beared, and I look forward to the day that the chinese people to get to fully bear it.

    Final death toll

    Dikotter utilises Cao Shuji detailed analyses figure of 32.5 million derived from official local histories as a baseline, comparing fresh archival evidence against his work. He makes a strong case for a serious underestimation varying from 30-100% in the various local estimates. Ultimately estimates are fraught with difficulty to to the unreliability of the data. He concludes that 45 million excessive deaths is a minimum and conservative estimate. He refers to a key chinese official who fled China after Tiamanmen Square who claimed to be involved in an internal investigation in China that estimated 43-46 million deaths. Some experts estimate figures into 50s, others in the 30s, but ultimately it is a matter of dispute. Until the archives are completely opened, we won't know for sure.

    Has anyone else read this book?
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 02:48.

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    I haven't read it, but its on my list now. Great review Tantalus.

    One of the lesser know impacts of the GLF and one of its most tragic outcomes was its influence on the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary & the other leaders of the Cambodian Communist Party were captivated by Mao's 'mobilization of the masses' in a great campaign of modernization. They were also impressed by the ideas that rhetorically underpinned the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (I say rhetorically, as the GPCR was at base a naked power grab). These ideas informed the belief that Cambodia's path to modernization lay in sending the whole population to the countryside to farm and create great irrigation projects. The results of all that are well known.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Bigfella View Post
    I haven't read it, but its on my list now. Great review Tantalus.

    One of the lesser know impacts of the GLF and one of its most tragic outcomes was its influence on the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary & the other leaders of the Cambodian Communist Party were captivated by Mao's 'mobilization of the masses' in a great campaign of modernization. They were also impressed by the ideas that rhetorically underpinned the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (I say rhetorically, as the GPCR was at base a naked power grab). These ideas informed the belief that Cambodia's path to modernization lay in sending the whole population to the countryside to farm and create great irrigation projects. The results of all that are well known.
    When people discuss the importance of history, this is a nice example, an accurate and widely known account at the time could have helped to deter disastrous policies elsewhere. On second thought, perhaps that is a bit optimistic, but maybe it would have discouraged less crap being talked about communism at the time, and shattered the illusion if only communism wasn't usurped by dictators at key moments and locations it could have worked.

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    In a way its curious that Pol Pot has entered western history books and consciousness a great deal more than Mao and the GLF/famine.
    Last edited by tantalus; 11 Nov 14, at 21:48.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tantalus View Post
    When people discuss the importance of history, this is a nice example, an accurate and widely known account at the time could have helped to deter disastrous policies elsewhere. On second thought, perhaps that is a bit optimistic, but maybe it would have discouraged less crap being talked about communism at the time, and shattered the illusion if only communism wasn't usurped by dictators at key moments and locations it could have worked.
    I'm curious as to why you think that such crap could have been discouraged. After the disastrous GLF, the Chinese went into the GPCR, all because Mao believed in his own bullshit and he had enough charisma/power to force everyone else to believe it.
    Chimo

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    Quote Originally Posted by Officer of Engineers View Post
    I'm curious as to why you think that such crap could have been discouraged. After the disastrous GLF, the Chinese went into the GPCR, all because Mao believed in his own bullshit and he had enough charisma/power to force everyone else to believe it.
    I was musing in regard to outside China, and also in regard to general attitudes of sympathy of an apologist nature that you get from some people in regard to the failure of communism.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tantalus View Post
    Trade and reputation

    In part foreign purchases soared due to the inflated forecast in output in gri and industry. If th stupidity stopped there it would have been something. But the leadership valued international reputation over the lives of its own subjects, especially in competing with the soviet union for prestige amongst the communist bloc. Policy became that they would pay back what they owed and sooner than planed. Food exports rose dramatically, grain doubling in 1959. Dikotter dismisses the myth, commonly held in China, that Soviet pressure forced the chinese to export the food. At one point, the chinese even declined soviet aid. Mismanagement of industry affected the ability of the chinese to pay, they compensated with food exports further deepening the famine.

    At the height of the famine, china exported food for free or for cheap to other poor communist countries to win favour over the soviets. 660 million yuan from a 35 billion budget given in aid in one year. He also reports chinese authorities declining aid, including one offer behind the scenes from (remarkably I thought, of all people given recent history) the japanese foreign minister to deliver 100,000 tonnes of wheat secretly. China also dismissed efforts from charities such as the red cross. If other offers had followed, they surely would have been declined, international reputation came first.
    "Face" is very important in Chinese culture.

    We have a proverb for this: 打腫臉充胖子

    A man would slap his own face to make it swell as to appear to be well-fed.

    Being fat in the old days meant being wealthy.

    Great review of the book. I don't plan to read it. I don't think I can stomach the description of tremendous human suffering.

    I have 2 uncles and an aunt on my dad's side whom have lived through that period in China. My mom's aunt was sent to "re-education camp" in inner Mongolia during that time. According to my parents' recounting of the bits and pieces they've heard, things were as bad as what the book had described.
    "Only Nixon can go to China." -- Old Vulcan proverb.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gunnut View Post
    "Face" is very important in Chinese culture.

    We have a proverb for this: 打腫臉充胖子

    A man would slap his own face to make it swell as to appear to be well-fed.

    Being fat in the old days meant being wealthy.
    I find it difficult to place myself in such a psyche, but reputation is a fundamental part of the human condition, it just takes a strange form in that proverb. A reoccurring theme of the book was the utilisation of public shaming as a tool to keep people in line. Also, local leaders would often go to great lengths to hide evidence of the famine when party officials came to investigate "progress".

    Quote Originally Posted by gunnut View Post

    Great review of the book. I don't plan to read it. I don't think I can stomach the description of tremendous human suffering.

    I have 2 uncles and an aunt on my dad's side whom have lived through that period in China. My mom's aunt was sent to "re-education camp" in inner Mongolia during that time. According to my parents' recounting of the bits and pieces they've heard, things were as bad as what the book had described.
    The re-education camps were local based and popped up across the country, where as the reform-through-labour camps were located in inhospitable regions such as inner mongolia so its likely she was sent to one of them.

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