Join 3,432 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Mao's Great Famine
July 7, 2011 4:56 AM   Subscribe

The £20,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction has been won by Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter. Mao's quest to transform China through rapid industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture in the "Great Leap Forward" left up to 45 million people dead.
posted by joannemullen (34 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah I read the news this morning; this book looks fabulous. Would love to hear some of the resident Mefi Sinologists like Abiezer to weigh in with their thoughts on it.
posted by smoke at 5:01 AM on July 7, 2011


This was in The Economist's Book of The Year list. And is now in my Amazon wishlist. :-)
posted by falameufilho at 5:03 AM on July 7, 2011


It sounds really good, but goddamn that's an expensive paperback.
posted by Malor at 5:10 AM on July 7, 2011


I learned about this from listening to the Red Sparowes album "Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun".
posted by longbaugh at 5:11 AM on July 7, 2011


I read Jasper Becker's "Hungry Ghosts" a while back, and I've been fascinated with the Great Leap Forward and Mao's "secret" famine ever since. Looking forward to see what this new book has to say...
posted by jhandey at 5:25 AM on July 7, 2011


I've not read Dikotter's book yet, but have seen this review (PDF) by Cormac Ó Gráda which leads me to believe it won't be the last word on the Great Leap famines.
posted by Abiezer at 5:54 AM on July 7, 2011


His premier, Zhou Enlai, relentlessly pushed for higher grain requisition to sell abroad in order to pay for such things as steel mills, cement kilns, glass factories, and oil refineries.

I wonder if the full book mentions the cost of Chinas nuclear program in with that. Mao: The Unknown Story by Jon Halliday and Jung Chang* made the claim that vast amounts of food were sent to the Soviet bloc in payment for detailed assistance in developing nuclear bombs and submarines.

*Yes, the Wild Swans author.
posted by WhackyparseThis at 6:36 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is anyone else getting sick of how negatively China gets portrayed in 'the west'? Everything I hear is tainted milk powder, lead in paint, nice job on the olympics (but those performers looked so robotic -- like brainwashed communists), jailed artists, Tianammen Square, and that horrible Great Leap Forward... To even things up, the Chinese should get Noam Chomsky to write all their coverage of America.
posted by Net Prophet at 7:19 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Net Prophet, you forgot suppression of minorities, the ongoing ecological train wreck, factory worker suicide sprees, selective abortion and a bunch of other stuff.

Yes, I'm a bit sick of it - but I think it's largely a reaction to the prohibition of such discussion inside China. If they were talking about it themselves then one day it might be fixed, but until that's allowed there's really no chance.

I'm also sick of OMGThoseCrazyJapaneseFilter, which is as good as it'd get about China around here even if China were perfect - Asia constitutes "the other" in this US/Eurocentric environment.
posted by dickasso at 7:31 AM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Net Prophet, it seems to me that since it's factually correct, its not really a negative portrayal. The problem is we refuse to subject ourselves to the same treatment. Instead of running Rah Rah PRC fluff pieces, we should probably just make the constant stream of US News unadulterated coverage of all those people we're killing, torturing, potential war crimes, wealth-gap, the suffering and ignoring of old people, legal slavery in the country, etc. They shouldn't be the exclusive province of leftist outfits. Factually correct means its not negative. If it seems negative, perhaps both sides should just, you know, fix it.
posted by Chipmazing at 7:33 AM on July 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


*the suffering and ignoring of old people was supposed to be "the suffering and ignoring of poor people". I am on MeFi while visiting my grandparents though...guilt-ridden Freudian slip?
posted by Chipmazing at 7:35 AM on July 7, 2011


Last year the Samuel Johnson went to Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea a similar theme of East Asian fail. Samuel Johnson himself never left the country other than a jaunt through Scotland late in life.
posted by stbalbach at 7:53 AM on July 7, 2011


Abiezer -- I got a copy the last time I was down in HK, if you're interested in borrowing it. Have only flipped through it briefly. My understanding is that it draws upon Yang Jisheng's county-level research for "Tombstone" (墓碑) (English language coverage in the Washington Post and NYRB, for those interested), which is generally pretty well-regarded as far as I know.

In the meantime, there's a fairly good roundup of responses to Dikotter's book on the Wikipedia page for it, including Ó Gráda's. Mortality rates of 10 per 1,000 seem bizarrely low to me too, but since I haven't read the book I don't know whether or not Ó Gráda is cherrypicking there, and I can't imagine Yang Jisheng adducing a similar figure in Tombstone.
posted by bokane at 7:54 AM on July 7, 2011


Everything I hear is tainted milk powder, lead in paint, nice job on the olympics (but those performers looked so robotic -- like brainwashed communists), jailed artists, Tianammen Square, and that horrible Great Leap Forward...

So, which one of those (other than the facile Olympics thing) is incorrect? Believe it or not, the CCP has done lots of fucking evil shit. My nanny was from Anhui. Every single member of her family including her parents, her husband, and her children died in the famine. My grandparents were beaten during the Cultural Revolution, and other relatives committed suicide. I saw the Tiananmen square protests with my own eyes. Would you prefer we covered all that shit up?
posted by kmz at 8:04 AM on July 7, 2011 [17 favorites]


I am busy reading Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler" where it looks at various scholars/writers attempts at answering "Why?" in regards to the Holocaust and the war. WWII was around 55 million dead. Stalin was responsible for 35 or more million dead. Mao has been estimated at 70 million dead. And not in war time. The 45 million of the Great Leap Forward was just a part of that. Hitler has always been labeled as evil. Souvenirs of Nazi regalia are considered dirty by most people. I can go to Chinatown here in San Francisco and buy Mao chachkies, no different than Mickey Mouse chachkies at Disneyland. Given the history, isn't this rather sick?
posted by njohnson23 at 8:09 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is anyone else getting sick of how negatively China gets portrayed in 'the west'?

I don't believe that most Americans understand that the most deadly famine in history occurred just 50 years ago in China. Dikotter's book is an important milestone in telling the story of the Great Leap Forward. It's a sobering read (as are Chung's book and Nothing to Envy). To me, the ultimate tragedy of China's famine, and the famine in North Korea, is that they were preventable, but nasty dictators with insane political beliefs were allowed to run their countries into ruin. It took China decades to emerge--North Korea still has not.
posted by mattbucher at 8:09 AM on July 7, 2011


Net Prophet, it seems to me that since it's factually correct, its not really a negative portrayal.

That's not actually correct. To take a quasi-domestic example, Fox News often broadcasts true things, but it's truth without context, it's selective reporting, it's like when a presenter gets into a froth about MILLIONS of dollars being WASTED on some SOCIAL PROGRAM, when it's small potatoes compared to the hundreds of billions being wasted fighting wars. Fox isn't the only one guilty of it though, it's rife throughout the media wherever it may be, and it does a good job of perpetuating popular narratives, about China, and about everything else.
posted by JHarris at 8:21 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is anyone else getting sick of how negatively China gets portrayed in 'the west'?

Try this.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:52 AM on July 7, 2011


So, which one of those (other than the facile Olympics thing) is incorrect? Believe it or not, the CCP has done lots of fucking evil shit. My nanny was from Anhui. Every single member of her family including her parents, her husband, and her children died in the famine. My grandparents were beaten during the Cultural Revolution, and other relatives committed suicide. I saw the Tiananmen square protests with my own eyes. Would you prefer we covered all that shit up?

The problem is that the West narrates China for its own ideological reasons (or at least the pop-scholarly/mainstream narrative of China). (I say this based on living/working in mainland China for a few years, majored in Asian studies/Chinese concentration, had friends who had been at Tiananmen, etc.)

Basically, the West always uses state communism as a stick to bash social democracy, under a "this is what happens when you try to enforce egalitarianism!!" rubric. We do this by refusing to understand Soviet and Chinese state communism as artifacts of pre-existing Russian and Chinese conditions, treating everything that went wrong in the Soviet Union and China as if it stems directly from the perfect enactment of an ideology rather than from the use of an ideology to enforce a continuation of authoritarian rule of large, diverse, poor countries.

There's also this creepy porny way of writing about the Cultural Revolution...I don't know how to describe it, books for people who are just fascinated by the material details of human suffering as long as it's elsewhere. There's a vast market in the US for people's terrible, terrible suffering under the regimes of our enemies.

Also, there is a refusal to understand the current CCP as basically capitalist/fascist. At least per my students, even in the nineties there was already abandonment of the commitment to equal education and medical care - when I was teaching in Shanghai in the mid-nineties, I had lots of students from the countryside, but there was a declining commitment to making sure that rural kids got into good quality higher education programs equally with city/privileged kids. That's huge. Similar stuff was going on with medical care.

And yet everything that happens in mainland China is "communist" in the US media - holy crap, I'm an anarchist and don't love state communism, but what's going on in China right now is no more communist than Ronald Reagan.

The CCP came in after basically a horribly corrupt imperial regime, a horribly corrupt and brutal nationalist regime, truly unbelievable exploitation of ordinary workers (in 20s Beijing, you could if you were rich hire a rickshaw guy to run you at full speed from the city to the New Summer Palace - those rickshaw guys died pretty damn fast, and they weren't even the most exploited). And then a big, long war. The CCP had to govern a large, impoverished country with decades of instability and poverty behind it.

Under those circumstances, the people who could govern were unlikely to be good people. They were likely to be war-hardened authoritarians who had lived through a tremendous amount of violence - which is just what they were. They faced some truly tough choices and had no experience generally of how to govern in a stable state. They faced international hostility from all sorts of regimes. Unlike the US, they couldn't export their brutality through neo-colonialsim (the US doesn't look so awesome if you figure in our support for dirty wars in South America and the genocide in East Timor, for example.)

Dude, how could things not go horribly, horribly wrong? You could have airlifted Adlai Stevenson and Gandhi in to run the country backed by a million Girl Scouts with advanced degrees, and it would still have gotten fucked up.

Don't get me wrong - I loathe the CCP for fucking up. I would love it if there were a boring, mao-jacketed communist state where people were basically happy and safe; I would emigrate in one minute even if I had to leave all my stuff behind.

I hate the way China is portrayed in the West because it's always portrayed in terms of the state - either we reject US enemy-ization of the Chinese state or we accept it. Chinese people are not the Chinese state, and to my mind understanding popular movements in China - good bad and indifferent - is what's useful and humane.

nasty dictators with insane political beliefs were allowed to run their countries into ruin. It took China decades to emerge

Has it? The primary differences to me are that 1. capitalism does the killing for the state (mines, pollution, disease, labor exploitation) and 2. the West isn't interested in bashing capitalism. It's easy to pinpoint a famine caused by Mao; it's harder to pinpoint the lives ruined or ended by unfettered Chinese capitalism.

The bitterest thing to me is to read the labor organizers' writing from 1920s Shanghai - kids with holes burned in their hands from industrial chemicals making stupid tiny crap like fancy scissors - and then think about the kids doing toxic scrapping work on the fringes of the electronics industry. Death then, death now, and death inbetween.
posted by Frowner at 9:04 AM on July 7, 2011 [18 favorites]


Well, yes, as I've said before the history of China is basically a line of giant assholes taking over from other giant assholes, while the people get trampled by everybody, foreign and domestic.

Obviously there's incredibly stupid rhetoric from the right about China, but as a liberal I guess I'm often oversensitive when I see liberals trying to excuse the CCP. I remember being very happy that the Beatles' "Revolution" denounces Mao, but then being super disappointed when I read that John Lennon regretted that lyric. (I can't actually find a cite for that right now, so if somebody wants to debunk it that'd be awesome.) At least Mao imagery hasn't become a cultural cliche like Che.

An abiding lesson that I think people often forget is that the enemy of an enemy is very rarely actually your friend. Communism (as practiced by actual states, not the idealized whatever, which I don't think is even actually possible given human nature) and anti-communism have both contributed great evils to the world.
posted by kmz at 9:34 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


This NYT article is a good example of the sort of hypocrisy that pisses me off. China Quietly Extends Its Footprints Deep Into Central Asia Half way through they quote a Kazakh man-on-the-street complaining that his government makes free trade agreements with China in an undemocratic way. Then they quote a Chinese general talking about a plan to stimulate "feverish consumerism" in the region.

If the New York Times wants to champion the cause of democratic input into 'free trade agreements,' and question the value of "feverish consumerism," I will be overjoyed. They won't have to go all the way to Kazakhstan. I'm available for comment any time.
posted by Net Prophet at 9:49 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


We do this by refusing to understand Soviet and Chinese state communism as artifacts of pre-existing Russian and Chinese conditions, treating everything that went wrong in the Soviet Union and China as if it stems directly from the perfect enactment of an ideology rather than from the use of an ideology to enforce a continuation of authoritarian rule of large, diverse, poor countries.

No true Scotsman alert. Sound exactly like Hitchens' arguments that Soviet and Chinese state atheism wasn't truly atheistic because of the "backwardness" of their cultures.

I'll go further and say that the idea that Russian and Chinese history is such a catalog of sheer horror and disgust that, gosh darn it, the twentieth-century Communist regimes just didn't have any other choice than to kill off untold millions of their own people is amazingly culturally chauvinistic. Not to mention also being a shining example of Whig history - the kind of history that has justified colonialism and other associated atrocities for hundreds of years. I don't deny things weren't all that peachy at the end of the Qing, but I think you're ignoring the thousands of years of Chinese culture that don't fit easily into the thesis of "what could you expect from people like that?".
posted by jhandey at 9:55 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


No true Scotsman alert. Sound exactly like Hitchens' arguments that Soviet and Chinese state atheism wasn't truly atheistic because of the "backwardness" of their cultures.

Okay, obviously I wasn't clear enough.

1. I'm talking about how Chinese history gets narrated in the West for a series of dubious Western purposes - Western purposes which, amusingly, cause many of the same evils for which the CCP gets denounced.

2. I don't think there is a "communism". I think that narrating any state history as if it's the intentional enactment of an ideology rather than the use of an ideology is bunk. There's no "communism", no "democracy. If it makes you feel better, I'll make the same argument about US democracy as conditioned by the material history of the US.

3. How can I say this clearly enough? If you blame "communism" instead of, you know, actual material conditions that condition the choice and expression of ideology, your politics don't work because you don't have a theory that effectively explains why things happen. The Cold War enemies of the US are always written about really stupid terms; this is one reason why the US was caught flat-footed numerous times during the Cold War. You could make a similar argument about the apparent American incapacity to understand terrorist movements in the Middle East.

4. Of course, it's wonderfully convenient to narrate the history of enemy states in a way that mobilizes your base and bloats your ego. But eventually you bump up against the real existence of the enemy states in question and then there are problems.

I don't deny things weren't all that peachy at the end of the Qing, but I think you're ignoring the thousands of years of Chinese culture that don't fit easily into the thesis of "what could you expect from people like that?".

Perversely, it is exactly because I have a tremendous amount of respect for and interest in 19th and 20th century popular and intellectual movements in China that I resist the "and Communism made them do it because they were puppets of ideology or else craven victims" line of reasoning.
posted by Frowner at 10:07 AM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, and I add - lots of people made choices against state authoritarianism during the Qing, Nationalist and Communist periods. But their choices are mobilized in the West as endorsements of Western-led democracy - witness the persistent bad analysis of Tiananmen Square.

It's precisely this monolithic view of history - where ideology is a puppetmaster and where the rhetoric of an authoritarian state are used as a explanations for what of ordinary people say and do - that seems false and useless to me.
posted by Frowner at 10:12 AM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


And I'll triple post!!!

Imagine that I am talking about the disaster that overtook New Orleans. I could say that the Bush administration was a mere puppet of neo-liberal ideology and that this is a sufficient explanation for what happened - obviously they were all intentionally enacting neo-liberal democracy step by step, as they learned from the Trilateral Commission or Bretton Woods or whatever. Or I could unpack the things that brought the Bush administration to power, regional power in the south and the set of things that meant that inevitably storms and massive flooding in New Orleans in the early 21st century were going to result in a horrible, unjust disaster, no matter who was president. Which of those lines of reasoning has more explanatory force? Which leaves room to describe the agency of actual people in New Orleans? Which leaves room for the history of resistance to racism and political corruption in New Orleans? The "neo-liberalism made a few evil people cause this disaster!!!! It could all have been totally different if we'd elected Gorr!" line of reasoning is...hm...not very useful, even though certain small things would have been different if Gorr had been elected.

There are pivotal moments in history but not every moment is pivotal. Which is really sad - sometimes you can fight and fight and fight with no possibility that you'll win.

Now I'll stop.
posted by Frowner at 10:19 AM on July 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


Which of those lines of reasoning has more explanatory force?

Very interesting example. In the case of New Orleans, I'd say any explanation would be incomplete without both. You're absolutely correct that you'd have to look at the material conditions, but the beliefs that drive how people respond to an event are at least as important as the event themselves. And power influences to what extent people can act on those beliefs. Ideology and belief are extraordinarily powerful - while faith may not always be able to move mountains, it can convince a lot of people for a long time that they've been moved. When you have powerful people who believe so strongly a certain way, it would be strange to imagine it having no impact. As, indeed, it did.

Your puppet analogy is interesting - I think that people give ideologies their power, that they can choose to become puppets through the Spectacle or old fashioned propaganda or plain self-interest.

I'll give you another example: our (global) economic system. Lots of people believe that growth can go on forever. It's a very strong belief - stronger among many professed religious poeple than the doctrines of their faiths. Gaia doesn't agree, though, and Gaia will have the last word. We've all heard over and over about how many Earths are required to support current levels of consumption. In spite of the words of a former U.S. politician that the American way of life in non-negotiable, eventually, Reality will force us to the negotiating table. But for now, belief is carrying the world through the first bumps in the road. And it'll likely continue to do so when those bumps become bigger, and bigger, and probably even after we start noticing sinkholes opening up, too.

We see what faith in ideology can do all the time. Having a more "correct" belief doesn't insulate one from that truth, but if I had to choose a belief that would immunize a person from those kinds of cognitive blinders, Maoist Communism in the 1950s and 1960s certainly wouldn't be it.
posted by jhandey at 11:13 AM on July 7, 2011


Great posts, Frowner. Not sure if you've read Maurice Meisner's The Significance of the Chinese Revolution in World History (PDF); he's one of the best Western historians of 20th century China, has no illusions about the realities of the CCP regime and yet can place the revolution and its consequences in a context (not least, what it meant for Chinese people) that the crude reductionism of the anti-communists isn't even interested in.
posted by Abiezer at 11:16 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting paper by Meisner. His attempt at a cost-benefit analysis of mass death on page 12 is intensely offensive. Alas, it isn't surprising. The Great God Progress, like Huitzilopochtli, seems to demand these kinds of sacrifices. His prophets have been declaring the gospel of "you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs" since the time Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean. And they always imagine themselves as among the elect who won't end up on top of the sacrificial pyramid.
posted by jhandey at 11:46 AM on July 7, 2011


His attempt at a cost-benefit analysis of mass death on page 12 is intensely offensive.
And this is the reductionism I mean - he's addressing the fact that absent the revolution, many millions would have died or be dying for reasons other than the fuck-ups or crimes of the particular post-1949 authoritarian state. This is clear from the paper as a whole, and from Prof Meisner's oeuvre overall. Or are you gearing up for a defence of the infant morality rates of Republican China?
posted by Abiezer at 12:03 PM on July 7, 2011


Morality, mortality; all ends up in the same place.
posted by Abiezer at 12:06 PM on July 7, 2011


I strongly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
posted by neuron at 8:10 PM on July 7, 2011


Dennis Kucinich recently paid a visit to Bashar Assad in Syria. Assad is currently brutally suppressing Syrian protesters in the fashion that many autocrats in the Middle East have been post-Mubarak. I've always admired Kucinich. I think he's fought the good fight more times than anyone can count. But on this, he was absolutely wrong. He implicitly supported a mass murderer. And why? Because he's against the U.S.? He's against Israel?

Too many people on the left have a serious hard-on for authoritarianism. It doesn't matter who authoritarians say they're serving or how they justify they're actions - they're still authoritarians. What makes them authoritarians? Their actions. Not whether they have revolutionary councils set up, not how many adjectives they can jam in front of the word "republic" in their country's name - their actions. Mao was a monster, and if Dante's Inferno is an accurate map of the netherworld, deserves a place in the lowest pit of hell being chewed in one of Satan's mouths, alongside Hitler and Stalin.

All I can say is that I'm not sure why communists - or Baathists, or whatever Qaddafi's people are calling themselves these days - killing people are any better than capitalist running dogs killing people. People are still dead. And isn't that what's it's supposed to be about - people? If an ideology requires joyous human sacrifice to keep running, it's not much of any ideology.
posted by jhandey at 1:16 PM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Too many people on the left have a serious hard-on for authoritarianism.
Good job Maurice Meisner's not one of them. You do though wonder why he spent a career critiquing authoritarianism and state murder in the context and specifics as it actually happened in China when he could have just offered such shattering insights as 'Mao was a monster' instead.
posted by Abiezer at 4:24 PM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


...when he could have just offered such shattering insights as 'Mao was a monster' instead.

Well, it's worked pretty well for Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Monsters sell.

(I was working my way up to a description of Mao: The Unknown Story as "the Twilight of foreign histories of China, but it seemed too harsh.)
posted by bokane at 10:18 AM on July 10, 2011


« Older When Smith writes long soliloquies, he doesn't do ...  |  The best social network you've... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments