“Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell” — so begins the latest book by Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikotter, one of the world’s top experts on Republican and, now, early Communist China. It is a hell from which the country has only begun to recover in the past couple of decades.
Germany had Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin and Cambodia Pol Pot; the 20th century certainly witnessed its fair share of murderous dictators. But according to Dikotter, China’s Mao Zedong (毛澤東), founder of the People’s Republic of China, trumps them all when it comes to the death toll: at least 45 million, comparable to the estimated total of 55 million killed during World War II.
Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe documents Mao’s brutality over the people that he ruled in what the author calls “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known.”
Dikotter draws on extensive archival research to dispute the view that the famine that ravaged China from 1958 to 1962 was the unintended consequence of disastrous government policies.
Citing secret reports from China’s Public Security Bureau (公安局), detailed minutes of top Chinese Communist Party meetings, surveys of working conditions in the countryside, investigations into cases of mass murder, and much more, the author uncovers evidence that “coercion, terror and systematic violence” underpinned the Great Leap Forward.
In an interview with the Taipei Times last month, Dikotter said the CIA probably knew about the famine as early as 1958, and suggested that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is “playing with fire” as he draws Taiwan closer to China.
Dikotter is currently in Taipei teaching a course at the National Chengchi University.
Taipei Times: Mao’s Great Famine is among a growing number of books about early Communist China that rely on recently available archival material. What’s available now that wasn’t before?
Frank Dikotter: First, there is a law that theoretically — if not always in practice — opens up material older than 30 years to members of the public; second, a climate of relative openness and goodwill before the Olympics helped a lot.
TT: You’ve criticized some historians of China for relying too heavily on secondary or tertiary sources when they write history, rather than basing their work on archives.
FD: Let me put it this way: A challenge of the China field is that unlike in other parts of the world, [researchers have] had very weak access to primary sources because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was closed for so long. I mean, just imagine that from 1949 to roughly 1985, or so — the best part of four decades — historians were trying to get hold of sources as best they could, but they were barred from the PRC. The same is true for anthropologists and sociologists. It’s a real challenge. And only [in 1985] did it start opening up very gradually. So whereas all of us, including myself, are still learning how to work with archives, that’s a pretty solid tradition for most historians of Europe or the US.
TT: What portrait of Mao emerged based on the your archival research?
FD: He was rambling in his speeches. He was obsessed with his own role in history. He jumped from one thing to the next. He was quite paranoid, constantly pointing out how great he was. And he was a bully. That’s the thing that comes across most clearly — not only in the major unexpurgated leadership speeches, but also in the one-to-one meetings that took place in the corridors of power.