The publication of Dikötters well reviewed new work on the Cultural Revolution led me to reading this earlier prequel in his Moa's China histories as preparation for the recent book.
This book covers the period from 1958 to 1962 when Mao Zedong ordered the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with Great Britain in less than 15 years. The reality was very different. Farmers were taken from the fields to work on enormous irrigation projects, which themselves were largely flawed. The split from the Soviet Union saw remaining villagers involved on village level schemes of industrialisation to produce the materials once obtained from the USSR using backyard furnaces to manufacture products that were of very poor or unusable quality. To replace the shortfall imports were required which were largely paid for in grain and other agricultural produce. The reduced rural workforce and hair-brained farming techniques from the centre cut food production that the population could be fed with and produced a perfect storm that led directly to a widespread famine that may have led to upwards of 45 million deaths.
In a clear and well supported structure Dikötter shows how this disaster fell into place and grew in magnitude illustrating points consistently with examples drawn from careful research. Chapters are laid out methodically so that the work is convenient to use for studying aspects of the famine. The role of party officials, the apparent need to disguise and inflate production figures and the inability of Mao to be presented with, or to accept, the true reality of his policies until too late form the first part of the book. Later chapters also examine the of the famine on specific groups such as children, women and the elderly.
Ideally suited to the general reader this is at times overwhelming in the magnitude of the (very necessary) specifics provided to support the narrative and reinforce the extent of the famine and its consequences. The reader is left wondering just how it was that policies so clearly failing could be followed so blindly (or drawn up in the first place). Ultimately there is central criticism of the policies, but not of Mao explicitly, which sees amendment to the policies and ending of the famine - but also the unleashing of the Cultural Revolution, to be used by Mao to rid himself of those who opposed his policies of the Great Leap Forward.
Readers should not put the book down without reading the very useful Essay on the Sources. This does exactly what it says, commenting not just on the sources used, but also on the particular problems relating to researching the history of post Revolution China. Finally the historical debate in calculating the actual numbers who died as a consequence of the famine is surveyed in the context of sources used by different researchers.
As an introduction to Mao's China this is highly recommended. This was not genocide or mass murder as was the case with Hitler, but the callous disregard by a war hardened elite of the devastating impact of their unopposed policies on the vulnerable masses they believed themselves to be serving. The result though was the same: death on a massive scale.
linked casahistoria site: Mao's China