Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?

Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?
by Joseph Ball

Over the last 25 years the reputation of Mao Zedong has been seriously undermined by ever more extreme estimates of the numbers of deaths he was supposedly responsible for. In his lifetime, Mao Zedong was hugely respected for the way that his socialist policies improved the welfare of the Chinese people, slashing the level of poverty and hunger in China and providing free health care and education.

Mao’s theories also gave great inspiration to those fighting imperialism around the world. It is probably this factor that explains a great deal of the hostility towards him from the Right. This is a tendency that is likely to grow more acute with the apparent growth in strength of Maoist movements in India and Nepal in recent years, as well as the continuing influence of Maoist movements in other parts of the world.

chairman mao great leap forward

Most of the attempts to undermine Mao’s reputation centre around the Great Leap Forward that began in 1958. It is this period that this article is primarily concerned with. The peasants had already started farming the land co-operatively in the 1950s. During the Great Leap Forward they joined large communes consisting of thousands or tens of thousands of people. Large-scale irrigation schemes were undertaken to improve agricultural productivity.

Mao’s plan was to massively increase both agricultural and industrial production. It is argued that these policies led to a famine in the years 1959-61 (although some believe the famine began in 1958). A variety of reasons are cited for the famine. For example, excessive grain procurement by the state or food being wasted due to free distribution in communal kitchens. It has also been claimed that peasants neglected agriculture to work on the irrigation schemes or in the famous “backyard steel furnaces” (small-scale steel furnaces built in rural areas).

Mao admitted that problems had occurred in this period. However, he blamed the majority of these difficulties on bad weather and natural disasters. He admitted that there had been policy errors too, which he took responsibility for.

Official Chinese sources, released after Mao’s death, suggest that 16.5 million people died in the Great Leap Forward. These figures were released during an ideological campaign by the government of Deng Xiaoping against the legacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, there seems to be no way of independently, authenticating these figures due to the great mystery about how they were gathered and preserved for twenty years before being released to the general public.

American researchers managed to increase this figure to around 30 million by combining the Chinese evidence with extrapolations of their own from China’s censuses in 1953 and 1964. Recently, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book Mao: the Unknown Story reported 70 million killed by Mao, including 38 million in the Great Leap Forward.

Western writers on the subject have taken a completely disproportionate view of the period, mesmerized, as they are, by massive death toll figures from dubious sources. They concentrate only on policy excesses and it is likely that their views on the damage that these did are greatly exaggerated. There has been a failure to understand how some of the policies developed in the Great Leap Forward actually benefited the Chinese people, once the initial disruption was over.

U.S. state agencies have provided assistance to those with a negative attitude to Maoism (and communism in general) throughout the post-war period. For example, the veteran historian of Maoism Roderick MacFarquhar edited The China Quarterly in the 1960s. This magazine published allegations about massive famine deaths that have been quoted ever since.

It later emerged that this journal received money from a CIA front organisation, as MacFarquhar admitted in a recent letter to The London Review of Books. (Roderick MacFarquhar states that he did not know the money was coming from the CIA while he was editing The China Quarterly.)

Those who have provided qualitative evidence, such as eyewitness accounts cited by Jasper Becker in his famous account of the period Hungry Ghosts, have not provided enough accompanying evidence to authenticate these accounts. Important documentary evidence quoted by Chang and Halliday concerning the Great Leap Forward is presented in a demonstrably misleading way.

Evidence from the Deng Xiaoping regime Mao that millions died during the Great Leap Forward is not reliable. Evidence from peasants contradicts the claim that Mao was mainly to blame for the deaths that did occur during the Great Leap Forward period.

U.S. demographers have tried to use death rate evidence and other demographic evidence from official Chinese sources to prove the hypothesis that there was a “massive death toll” in the Great Leap Forward (i.e. a hypothesis that the “largest famine of all time” or “one of the largest famines of all time” took place during the Great Leap Forward). However, inconsistencies in the evidence and overall doubts about the source of their evidence undermine this “massive death toll” hypothesis.

The More Likely Truth About the Great Leap Forward

The idea that “Mao was responsible for genocide” has been used as a springboard to rubbish everything that the Chinese people achieved during Mao’s rule. However, even someone like the demographer Judith Banister, one of the most prominent advocates of the “massive death toll” hypothesis has to admit the successes of the Mao era.

She writes how in 1973-5 life expectancy in China was higher than in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and many countries in Latin America 1. In 1981 she co-wrote an article where she described the People’s Republic of China as a ‘super-achiever’ in terms of mortality reduction, with life expectancy increasing by approximately 1.5 years per calendar year since the start of communist rule in 1949 2. Life expectancy increased from 35 in 1949 to 65 in the 1970s when Mao’s rule came to an end.

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4 Responses to “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?”

  1. haisanlu Says:

    Good to see this article I have wriiten some myself criticing the “Unknown Mao”

    Take a look at my article on stsp called “Feast of Lies and Famine of Truth”

    comradely greetings

    haisanlu

  2. haisanlu Says:

    Good to see this article I have wriiten some myself criticing the “Unknown Mao”

    Take a look at my article on stsp called “Feast of Lies and Famine of Truth”

    comradely greetings

    haisanlu

  3. Abhay Says:

    Thank you comrade

    Will look it up

    Regards

    Abhay

  4. Abhay Says:

    Thank you comrade

    Will look it up

    Regards

    Abhay

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