Mao’s Great Famine
Rs 650, pp 448
Lack of transparency hampers any concrete understanding of the developments in China. Though China opened up to the outside world only in the last decade, and only recently overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world, a complete picture of various facets of China is still missing. More so because the early history of the socialist rule in the country, when the Communist Party’s rule resulted in massive social engineering projects, remains a black box till today.
This book by Frank Dikötter is then a useful correction to our understanding of this period, which was devastated by famine and hunger that devoured an estimated 30-40 million Chinese. With the aid of several archival sources and interviews, Dikötter deconstructs the period and, in the process, throws light on the political aspirations and intrigues, plans and changes on the bucolic people as well as in urban areas of China. At its centre lies the theme of policies that led to the worst famine that China witnessed in the late 1950s.
Famines and their extensive effects on a society and polity are legion in global history. The Bengal Famine of the 1930s wrecked millions of lives, and some of the now declassified documents hold then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s obsession with exporting hundreds of thousands of tonnes of foodgrain to Britain for the War effort responsible for the tragedy. Nevertheless, as Amartya Sen had indicated, post-Independence India was hardly affected by famines, as relative transparency in governance and media coverage alerted the powers-that-be who could then mitigate any disaster. However, for a “closed” China, it appears from the book, human-induced policies contributed to a large extent to the making of the famine.
Comparisons between India and China on the subject are relevant here, as both nations followed different policies, which led to different outcomes — with mass graves becoming a common and unfortunate phenomenon in China during this period. As Dikötter points out, China’s experiments came all too often and abruptly and devastated the social fabric that provided cushions to the elderly, children and women — the major victims of the famine. Frequent abuse of the system by the cadres worsened the situation. In contrast, India followed a gradualist policy of land reforms, opting for planning and sluggish growth.
To better explain this subject, one must discuss the two schools of thought that exist in the oeuvre. First, several western scholars, like Dikötter and including Roderick MacFarquher, Frederick Teiwes and others have argued that essentially the collective enterprise and its lopsided priorities are at the roots of mega disasters. But Chinese scholars are divided on the subject with one predominant group acknowledging the problems of this period, viz, the political leadership’s failure to gauge the extent of damage and introduce timely remedial policies, export of grain or cotton despite domestic demand and connivance and high-handedness of the local communist party cadres.
On the other hand, there are a new breed of scholars and others like Han Dongping and Qinghua Lu who suggest that it is not the collectivist project but different political lines in the Communist Party that led to the inexorable violence in the country. Dikötter’s intensive analyses outline many such issues.
All in all, the events leading to the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and the great famine of 1962 tell a story of societal transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, painful as it were in terms of mounting pressures and deaths.
Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi