New documentary evidence revises what was known about Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62). His drive to surpass Britain in industrial and agricultural output within 15 years meant mobilizing millions of peasants and housing them in communes. They moved billions of cubic meters of earth by hand in ill-advised water conservation schemes that ultimately failed. They melted down metal of all kinds in backyard furnaces in an effort to boost steel output, but produced mostly useless pig iron. Ever-higher grain quotas were demanded for export. All of this was done at great individual cost, only to bring on the ravages of possibly the worst famine in human history.
Mao’s Great Famine (2010) by historian Frank Dikötter, chronicles the ghastly four-year period that resulted in the peacetime death of millions. The word “famine” disguises the brutality of the catastrophe, for many were deliberately deprived of food and rest. The revised estimate of those lost is more than 45 million -- a number based solidly on Chinese sources.
Mao was not able to bring about the progress he proposed. Nor did he care about the human suffering he was engendering. According to Dikötter, “At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated March 25, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting he announced that ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’”