Saturday, June 11, 2016

Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

On tap for the summer I’ve got two tomes on Communist atrocities.  I kicked it off with Frank Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which explores the devastating policies of The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) during which roughly 45 million people died.  The book is a thorough exploration of the Party’s follies in this period.  In large part, Mao was motivated by Kruschev’s maneuvers in this period.  With Stalin dead, Mao felt he could become the leading light of the Communist world.  When Kruschev vowed to outproduce the US in short shrift, Mao responded by claiming the Chinese would soon outproduce Britain.  What followed were a series of policies of sheer madness.  Mao called for a rapid collectivization of agriculture and industry. Personal property and farms were seized.  Collective farming began. The party handed down  experimental farming techniques like close cropping and deep plowing to help increase rice and grain yields.  Of course, yields declined in a devastating fashion. Foolish water conservancy projects were enacted.  Backyard steel manufacturing came next.  Output dropped and the quality of goods produced were terrible.  Putting on a brave face to the outside world, the Chinese honored all their trade agreements, exporting grain while their own people starved. In short, everything went wrong and people paid with their lives on a grand scale.The book does a great job chronicling the policies, analyzing Mao’s role in the debacle, looking at the party bosses, examining the brutality of the local cadres, exploring the culture of fear, and showing how such devastation could come to fruition.  The book is not so successful in exploring the lives of the millions that die.  The book doesn’t have that personal quality or the human touch that many historical works carry.  The book showcases the “complete lack of connection between people and party”, but the book’s focus clearly lies on the side of the party.  That’s valid.  The level of hubris, fear, and folly within the party is staggering.  I also imagine the tales of survivors and the dead would be hard to come by.  Were these ever documented by the party? If they were, in all likelihood they would be sealed tightly in a vault somewhere.  That said, throughout the book, you get lists of atrocities within a region, followed by a short paragraph or anecdote focused on a citizen.  These little glimpses into the lives of the people are spread throughout, and though they are enough to give you a true sense of the calamity on the ground, there is a clinical remove at play.  I would have liked the book to get to the heart of the horror just a little more.  

I’ll take a couple weeks away from this grizzly fare, but Voices From Chernobyl  loom in my future.

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