“Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives." So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,"--at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death--but also of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble.
A Look Inside Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
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In 1958, Mao Zedong, perhaps influenced by Khrushchev’s boast that the Soviet Union would surpass the U.S. in key aspects of industrial production within 10 years, launched China’s Great Leap Forward. This was a tragically delusional effort to dramatically improve agricultural and industrial production, far beyond any realistic possibility, given China’s limited economic base. The human costs of this folly were catastrophic. Dikötter, professor of modern history of China at the University of London, utilizes newly available material, including Communist Party archives and accounts by individual Chinese citizens, to chronicle these horrors in stomach-churning detail. By the time even Mao recognized his failure in 1962, Dikötter credibly asserts that as many as 45 million Chinese died from starvation, execution, and maltreatment under forced labor. Ultimate responsibility rests with Mao and his indifference to individual human suffering, but Dikötter also condemns other high-ranking party officials who recognized the failures early on but lacked the courage to challenge Mao. This is an important work illustrating the dangers of one individual holding power to force millions to fulfill his personal fantasies. --Jay Freeman