The book’s title is somewhat misleading. Horrific as it was, with its cannibalism and people eating mud in search of sustenance, the famine generated by the Great Leap’s failure and the diversion of labour from farming was only part of a saga of oppression, cruelty and lies on a gargantuan scale. Initially launched to enable China to overtake Britain in steel production, Mao’s programme took on a deadly life of its own. At the apex of the system, the chairman refused to recognise reality, spoke of people eating five meals a day, insisted on maintaining food exports when his country was starving and indulged in macabre throwaway remarks such as: “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.”
The depth of Dikötter’s research is enhanced by the way in which he tells his terrible story. The book is extremely clearly written, avoiding the melodrama that infused some other recent broadbrush accounts of Mao’s sins. He also puts the huge disaster that befell China into the context it needs – the Sino-Soviet split, Mao’s ambitions for the People’s Republic and the acquiescence of most of those around him until it was too late.
Finally, somebody had to confront the leader. As China descended into catastrophe, the second-ranking member of the regime, Liu Shaoqi, who had been shocked at the conditions he found when he visited his home village, forced the chairman to retreat. An effort at national reconstruction began. But Mao was not finished. Four years later, he launched the Cultural Revolution whose most prominent victim was Liu, hounded by Red Guards until he died in 1969, deprived of medicines and cremated under a false name.
The Cultural Revolution is widely remembered, the Great Leap much less so. Having gone through those two experiences, not to mention the mass purges that preceded them and the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989, it is little wonder if the Chinese of today are set on a very different course that rejects ideology in the interests of material self-advancement.