Among all the incidents of mass murder caused by states in the 20th century, the least known in the English-speaking world is the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong. I first read about it in the Black Book of Communism, in a description so horrifying it haunts me to this day.
In some ways, the experience illustrates everything wrong with the rule by some over others. The rulers presumed to know a better path. They beat the population into submission in order that the plan could be implemented. It was intensified by a wild political enthusiasm among the population. In fact, the citizen enforcers were often worse than the tyrants at the top.
The stories of surviving a famine have burned deeply into my consciousness. For example, all livestock was eaten or died, and the pillaging of property effectively ended the possibility of domesticating animals. In time, there were no animals.
Here was a result we don’t think about: there was no fat for cooking whatever food was left. (I will spare you the details of how people used human corpses.)
Think about this the next time you prepare dinner. Think of cooking without oils at all, no butter, corn oil, bacon, or any other fat at all. Because I read about this China experience, I remember it almost every time I cook. And I whisper a small thank you for private property and markets that make oil — and my whole life that I take for granted — possible.
The Nobel Prize in economics this year was given to Angus Deaton for his empirical work in measuring poverty and prosperity. His excellent book is called The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. It includes his own short summary of Mao’s famine, on pages 38-40. It should be quoted not merely because of his new prominence but also because this stunning horror is too little known. The lessons must not be forgotten.
In spite of overall progress, there have been catastrophes.
One of the worst in human history was China's "Great Leap Forward" in 1958-61, hewn of deeply misguided industrialization and food procurement policies led to the deaths of around thirty-five million people from starvation and prevented the births of perhaps forty million more. Weather conditions were not unusual in these years; the famine was entirely man-made.
Mao Zedong and his fellow leaders were determined to show the superiority of communism, to quickly overtake production levels in Russia and in Britain, and to establish Mao's leadership of the communist world. Outlandish production targets were set to match the food needs of rapidly industrializing cities and to earn foreign exchange through exports of food.
Under the totalitarian system maintained by the Communist Party of China, rural communes competed to exaggerate their output, further inflating the already unattainable procurement quotas and leaving nothing for people to eat.
At the same time, the Party caused chaos in the countryside by ordering that all private land be turned into communes, confiscating private property and even private cooking utensils, and making people eat in communal kitchens.
Given the enormous increases in production that were confidently expected, peasant labor was diverted to public works projects and rural steel-making plants, most of which achieved nothing.
Draconian restrictions on travel and communication prevented word from getting out, and the penalties for dissent were clear: three-quarters of 1 million people had been executed in 1950-51. (In any case, in these early years of the revolution, the Party was widely trusted.)
When Mao learned of the disasters (though probably not of their full scale), he doubled down on the policies, purging the messengers, labeling them "right-deviationists," and blaming peasants for secretly hoarding food.
To do otherwise and admit the error of the Great Leap forward would have imperiled Mao's own leadership position, and he was prepared to sacrifice tens of millions of his countrymen to prevent that happening.
If Mao had reversed course when the extent of the mass starvation first became clear to the leadership, the famine would have lasted one year, not three, and in any case there was more than enough grain in government stores to prevent everyone from starving.
According to several accounts, life expectancy in China, which was nearly 50 in 1958, fell to below 30 in 1960; five years later, once Mao had stopped killing people, it had risen to nearly 55. Nearly a third of those born during the Great Leap Forward did not survive it.
We sometimes have a hard time identifying the benefits of policies, or even convincing ourselves that policy makes a difference. Yet the catastrophic effects of bad policies can be all too obvious, as the Great Leap Forward shows. Even in the absence of war or epidemic disease, bad policy within a totalitarian political system caused the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Of course, bad policies happen all the time without causing millions to die. The problem in China was that the policy took so long to be reversed because of the totalitarian system and the lack of any mechanism to make Mao change course.
The political system in China today is not so different from the system that Mao created; what is different is the flow of information. In spite of continuing state control, it is hard to believe that such a famine could happen today without the Chinese leadership, and the rest of the world, finding out very quickly. Whether the rest of the world would be able to help any more today than it could then is far from clear.
Read The Great Escape here.