Home China How Much Do You Know About the Horror of Mao’s Great Famine?

How Much Do You Know About the Horror of Mao’s Great Famine?

Forty-five million people is a lot of people. It’s nearly twice the amount of Australia’s population. It’s also the number of people estimated killed by the so-called Great Famine that devastated China during the years 1958-62.

So how much do you know about this man-made tragedy and the inept and murderous policies of communist leader Mao Zedong, who brought it on? I was pretty much clueless until 2008 when I came across a secondhand copy of Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, which was published in 1996. Apart from that, I couldn’t find much else.

Then in 2010, the next great English language contribution to the subject, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, was published.

Written by Frank Dikötter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, it is a well written account that was very well received. And in the above video, you’ll see that Dikötter speaks as well as he writes.


Just prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Dikötter was able to access Party archives at county and provincial levels. He studied hundreds of documents. Like all one party states, the Chinese communists kept meticulous records, and he was stunned by what he read.

Based on the research he did, Dikötter estimated 45 million people died as a direct result of Mao’s disastrous economic and social reforms known as the Great Leap Forward.

“I still can’t get my head around that number; it’s an extraordinary large number of people; it must rank surely as one of the great three horrors of the 20th century, if not the greatest case of man-made disaster in the whole of human history,” he says in the video.

Of that figure, at least 2 to 3 million people were tortured to death or executed.

To help put the tragedy into perspective, Dikötter says what happened in China was like what happened with Pol Pot in Cambodia, just magnified by 20.

“What comes across very clearly is the extraordinary amount of violence that was exercised from 1958 to 1962. Violence, by that I mean people being beaten to death by having stolen a mere handful of grain,” Dikötter said.

One of the examples he gave was about how Party officials forced a man in Hunan Province to kill his 12-year-old son by burying him alive for the crime of stealing grain. The father died of grief three weeks later.

“Across the country, from archive to archive, there are abundant examples of the use of extraordinary levels of violence to get people to do things that weren’t very keen on doing,” Dikötter said.

On top of that, there were also reports of cannibalism.

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Starving children in Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward 1958-1962. (Image: Topography/TopFoto)

Interestingly, towards end of the video, Dikötter says that the U.S. and the British governments knew about the famine, but he said that it was easier for them to sidestep the issue and ignore it rather than to actually confront it openly.

Dikötter also makes the point that books about the Jewish Holocaust are well stocked in book stores, as are the crimes of the Soviet Union. He says that the reason why the Great Famine is not well known is because: “The communist regime that perpetuated it is still very in power today, and there is very little documentation available, unlike the collapse of Nazi Germany, and unlike the collapse of the USSR.”

In Mainland China, the Party’s version of the event is maintained, that being: the famine was due to bad environmental conditions and they say it “only” killed 15 million people. The Party has called the famine the Three Years of Natural Disasters, or the Difficult Three Year Period.

Either way, there are no monuments or museums for the millions who died.

In the below video, Dikötter talks about another of his books, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957.

James Burke
What keeps the world ticking? James is always looking for the answer and the latest news from around the globe. When he's not behind his computer, he's basking in the Thailand sun, or dreaming of the southern hemisphere, where he grew up in rural Australia.

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