As historians have only begun to detail, Mao Zedong’s economic policies from 1958 to 1962 subjected his people to what we know now was the world’s most devastating famine. “The death toll stands at a minimum of forty-five million excess deaths,” according to Frank Dikötter, of the University of Hong Kong, author of “Mao’s Great Famine,” which uses newly opened archives and original interviews to detail the calamity in calm, if unavoidably grisly, detail. (Out in the U.K., scheduled for the U.S. later this month.)
Among the stories of cannibalism and people eating mud, there is also the grand narrative: Why? The answer lies in Mao’s misguided ambition to overtake Britain in the output of iron, steel, and other products in just fifteen years, which triggered a political mania of coercion and deprivation, as people struggled to fulfill unachievable goals. I have often marvelled at the scale of the catastrophe not only because of what it reminds us about the perils of demagoguery, but also for how recent it all was. The vividness of that memory—the sheer determination of today’s Chinese adults to leave behind the deprivation of their parents and grandparents—is an extraordinarily powerful engine, and it helps us understand the drive behind China’s headlong rush into the age of consumption.
Which leads us to the other notable book of the moment: “Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing a Nation.”