I have an “old” friend who often takes conservative theories, opinions and conjecture fueled by emotions, and believes in them as if God wrote them with His own hand.
In addition, many people believe any claim if it supports their own biased opinions and will attack anyone that disagrees with them no matter how valid the evidence presented. However, when it comes to China, that reaction is understandable due to Western democracies partnership with capitalism, which is the polar opposite of communism/socialism.
It makes sense that many in the West will bend over backwards (even fabricate evidence) to demonize anything from a rival seen as evil that was already demonized for decades during the West’s Cold War with global communism. In addition, the West fought three wars with communism in Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. The first ended in a stalemate and the other two were lost.
In other words, prejudice in the West of any country linked to socialism/communism is hardwired to be biased.
In this case, Mao has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion of the crime of mass murder based on exaggerated theories and opinions supported by inflated evidence.
I wrote on this topic before in China’s Great Famine (1959-1961) Fact of Fiction. That doesn’t mean I was finished with it. If you shake a few trees, something falls out and you learn something new and compelling on a controversial topic, it’s time to return to the subject.
This time, I went looking for recent books about China and ran into several titles that perpetuated the myth that thirty to forty-five million (or more) people died during the Great Leap Forward (GLF) when in fact there may have been no massive loss of life due to the GLF — at least not in the numbers the mostly biased Western theorists and sources keep inflating higher in book after book, which is an example of the old saying that if you tell a lie enough it grows like cancer into a malignant ruth.
droughts cause famines, people starve and die
In Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (April 1998), Jasper Becker claimed, “Population statistics made public since 1979 reveal that at least 30 million people starved to death in the wake of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.”
However, in one sentence the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health reveals that Becker’s claim is a fraud. “Though population, disease and mortality statistics of modern China are spotty and sometimes questionable, common consensus among the researchers is that since 1949 the public health situation in China has improved tremendously.”
Then in Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China (May 2005), Ralph A. Thaxton Jr. says, “This book documents how China’s rural people remember the great famine of Maoist rule, which proved to be the worst famine in modern world history.”
If we examine “modern world history”, Thaxton’s claim is easily dismissed.
To claim this famine on Mao’s watch was the worst in “modern world history” is false once we learn more of global famines and what “modern history” means.
In the West, “modern history” may describe the beginning of a new era, such as the European Renaissance (about 1420-1630).
The term “modern history” may also be marked by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. If so, then “modern history” started between 1760 and 1830.
If we use 1760 as the beginning of “modern history”, then there are other famines that may claim the title of worst famine in “modern world history.” [Note: only famines with one million or more verified deaths will be listed here — there were many more than what's on this page.]
In 1769 to 1773, there was the Bengal famine with 10 million deaths while India was part of the British Empire. To understand the British corruption that led to these deaths, I suggest reading Three Episodes in the Criminal History of the British Empire
In 1883-84, the Chalisa famine in India killed 11 million while India was still part of the British Empire.
Between 1810 and 1849, there were a series of four famines in China that took an estimated 45 million lives.
In 1845 – 1849, the Great Irish Famine killed more than one million people while Ireland was part of the British Empire.
Then in 1850 to 1873, because of the Taiping Rebellion in China, drought and famine caused the population of China to drop by over 60 million people. (Note: the Taipings were converted Christians influenced by Western religious beliefs and one goal of the rebellion was to convert China into a Christian nation.)
The Great Irish Famine manufactured by the economy of the British Empire
In 1866, the Orissa famine in India led to one million deaths from starvation, while India was still part of the British Empire.
Three years later in 1869, the Rajputana famine in India took another 1.5 million lives when India was part of the British Empire.
In Persia in 1870-71, famine took two million lives.
Between 1878 – 1880, there were famines in India, China, Brazil, Northern Africa and other countries. Thirteen million died in Northern China and more than five million in India, which was still part of the British Empire.
In 1921, famine in Russia took 5 million, while in 1937 another famine in China took the lives of another five million and then the Soviet famine of 1947 added one million more to the death toll.
The last major famine during British rule in India was the Bengal famine of 1943. It has been estimated that some three to five million people died. [Note: at this point, almost 60 million died of famines in the British Empire—You may want to read How the British Empire Starved Millions... to learn more.]
Then, when we look at the number of major famines that have hit China since 108 BC, there were 1,828 or one nearly every year in one province or another and the famines varied in severity (except for the last fifty years while China’s Communist Party has governed the nation).
Moreover, in 1958-61, not all of China suffered from the so-called great famine. The provinces that suffered were Shandong, Henan, Shanxi, Anhui, Jaingsu and Sichuan — six of the twenty-three provinces in China.
To blame the famine and all loss of life due to starvation on Mao and the Maoists during the Great Leap Forward (1958 -61) and claim it was murder is a false accusation and an injustice. Mao was not a saint, but he was not guilty of this.
Before I reveal new evidence to cast doubt on the claims of Mao’s Western critics, two more books blame Mao for the loss of life due to the famine.
In Mao’s Great Famine (September 2010), Frank Dikotter claimed, “that as many as 45 million Chinese died from starvation, execution, and maltreatment under forced labor.”
Then, in Eating Bitterness (February 2011), two editors that compiled this book claimed that some “30 million peasants died of starvation and exhaustion during the GLF”.
I find it interesting how two editors claim the loss life was from starvation and exhaustion while another author claimed it was from starvation, execution, maltreatment and forced labor with a difference of 15 million deaths, which is a huge disparity.
In addition, In Henry Kissinger’s On China (pg 184), he says, “The Great Leap Forward’s production goals were exorbitant, and the prospect of dissent or failure so terrifying that local cadres took to falsifying their output figures and reporting inflated totals to Beijing.”
Kissinger says this led to the deaths of over twenty million people from starvation—twenty-five (25) million less than Dikotter’s inflated claim. Other’s have estimated the loss of life closer to 15 million and even as low as 3 million or less.
Famines throughout the Ages: 19th to 21st Century
It appears that as the false accusations and the fraud grows, so does the emotional language.
There is a name for books of this sort, and it is “Yellow Journalism” where writers take advantage of popular opinions and without valid evidence spread lies and exaggerations as if they were the truth. I’m sure those authors also laugh all the way to the bank.
Before I continue, I want to mention that in 1949, the average life expectancy in China was 36 and in 1960, it was 36.3 years of age, as you shall eventually see from a reliable source. It has been estimated that it took at least a decade for the Chinese Communist Party to establish a political/governmental infrastructure in all or most of China, which means goals to develop the country and improve health were not in full swing until about 1959. However, impelling evidence shows they were improving from the beginning.
As for how many starved, opinions abound and cover a wide spectrum and all the deaths above 20 million are easily challenged as two Amazon reviewers of Dikotter’s flawed and biased book demonstrate with impressive facts.
From these two Amazon reviewers, I learned something new.
Amazon reviewer W Y Lu of Hong Kong said, there is absolutely no evidence the atrocities Dikotter mentions were ordered from the top. In fact, quite the opposite – they were often uncovered, even by Dikotter’s own admission, by investigatory teams sent out by the central authorities (Note — and later by members of Mao’s personal bodyguard sent to verify the claims of starvation Mao was hearing from Party members, which he doubted at first, since “local cadres took to falsifying their output figures and reporting inflated totals to Beijing”.)
Lu says, the fact is, even using Dikotter’s figures (grossly inflated as they are), China’s mortality during the Great Leap Forward (GLF) was in fact slightly lower than that of India’s at the end of British rule – just 9 years earlier.
“The calculation is very simple,” Lu says. ‘Excess’ deaths are calculated by counting all the deaths that happen in one year, and subtracting them from a mortality the researcher assumes would have been the case had the GLF not happened. “
Dikotter adopts a ‘normal’ crude mortality in China of 10 per 1000 people annually. He then counts deaths above this number as the excess deaths caused by Mao’s GLF.
facts about extreme poverty and hunger
Lu then points out that Dikotter also increased (inflated) the mortality numbers by 50% to allow for under-reporting (assuming there was any) and came up with an average annual mortality of around 27.3 per 1000 during the GLF.
However, Lu then says, “A crude mortality of 27.3 per 1000 in the late 50s & early 60s was in fact quite typical for developing countries. “
Lu then points out that India and Indonesia’s mortality rates were 23 and 24 per 1000 respectively, and China’s mortality in 1949, just 8 years before the Great Leap Forward was 38 per 1000 (Source: China’s Changing Population by Judith Banister published by Stanford University Press).
In her well researched work, Banister mentions evidence that a famine did take place in China at this time due to reduced fertility rates but says the fertility rate rebounded at least one year earlier than would be expected on the basis of grain production statistics, which can only be explained if supply and distribution of food improved considerably during 1961 as the government imported grain (from Canada and Australia—both allies of the US that broke ranks with the complete American embargo of China) and tried to ensure minimum supplies in famine areas.
In addition, Banister’s data makes it clear that the death rates for China in the years 1958, 1959, and 1961 were certainly far below anything known in China previously and loss of life from famine took place only in 1960 and was dealt with in 1961 once Mao and Beijing recognized the truth.
To wrap up his rebuttal, Amazon reviewer W Y Lu of Hong Kong says, Dikotter gets his 45 million by (a) inflating mortality rates gleaned from the archives by 50%, and (b) assuming a ridiculously low ‘normal’ death rate (the same as developed countries in the West) – even though China throughout the 1950s was one of the most wretchedly poor countries on earth.
A second review by M Chen uses similar evidence to refute Dikotter’s bogus claims of what happened in China during the GLF as mass murder.
Chen says 10 per 1000 deaths annually was the mortality rate in the advanced industrialized West in 1960, while mortality rates for the other big Asian countries in 1960 for India was 24 per 1000, Indonesia 23 per 1000, and Pakistan 23 per 1000
Chen says, “Dikotter claimed the GLF started early 1958 and ended in late 1962.” However, Judith Banister proved that theory false showing that the famine ended as early as 1961, while other valid evidence proves the droughts and floods that caused the famine and loss of life didn’t hit until 1959.
If China lowered the mortality rate between 1949 and 1958 from 38 per 1000 to 10 per 1000, a miracle must have taken place because the mortality rate Dikotter claims as normal for China was lower than the UK (11.5 per 1000) and France (11.4 per 1000) in 1960.
In addition, World Life Expectancy.com shows that in 1960, life expectancy in China was 36.3 years while India was 42.3 and Indonesia 41.5, which supports the higher mortality rate in China that Lu and Chen defend.
World Life Expectancy.com (WLE) shows that in one decade between 1960 and 70 (Mao did not die until 1976), life expectancy in Indonesia was 47.9, India 49.3 and China 61.7.
Did you do the math and see the results of Mao’s policies regardless of the suffering during the GLF and the Cultural Revolution? From 1960 to 1970, China added 25.4 years to life expectancy while Indonesia only added 6.4 years (six “point” four in case you missed the dot) and India seven years.
Then by 1980, Indonesia was 54.8, India 55.7 and China 65.5.
In 1990, Indonesia was 61.7, India 59.7 and China 68.3.
In 2000, Indonesia was 67.5, India 62.5, and China 71.4
In 2010, Indonesia was 71.1, India 66.5 and China 74.5
NCBI.gov (the US National Institute of Health) says, “Since the establishment of a new social order in 1949, China’s attempts to feed and nurture its large population has been a topic of serious study in many disciplines… In 1949, the life expectancy in China was only 36 years. By the early 1980s, it increased to 68 years.”
Since the NCBI says life expectancy in 1949 was 36 years and in 1960, it was 36.3 years (according to WLE), it is safe to say that the mortality rate in China in 1960 was still closer to 38 per 1000 and not 10 per 1000 as Frank Dikotter, the author of “Mao’s Great Famine” claims.
This increase in life expectancy is attributed mostly to improved nutrition and lowering of mortality rates due to decreases in infectious diseases. In fact, during the most dramatic gains in life expectancy, Mao ruled China (1949 – 1976).
Overwhelming facts from reliable sources show that Mao’s policies increased life expectancy and decreased mortality rates during the era he ruled, which included the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
That does not mean suffering did not take place but it does prove that even during hard times, life expectancy in China (on average) improved dramatically while mortality rates dropped.
mentions the British caused famines in India/Ireland and who really managed the Great Leap Forward in China
In addition, this video makes a case that only three million may have died from the famine.
After reading Lu and Chen’s figures, which were supported by Judith Banister’s scholarly and well researched work, China’s Changing Population (Stanford University Press – 1987), along with facts from the WLE and NCBI.gov, I sat down with my wife, who as a child grew up in Shanghai during the GLF and experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand. She lived with hunger but only remembers hearing of a few people that died of starvation in rural China and never saw anyone starving to death in Shanghai.
When I asked my wife her opinion, she doubted if the number of people that died of starvation in China during the GLF were anywhere near the massive numbers Western authors such as Frank Dikotter claims.
My wife then mentioned a few memoirs (published in Mandarin) she had read of troops from Division A-341 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which guarded Mao, the Forbidden City (where Mao lived) and Beijing during the GLF.
The memoirs of a number of Mao’s personal PLA bodyguards from Division A-341 revealed that when Party members told Mao that rural Chinese in a few provinces were starving due to droughts and low crop yields, Mao did not believe what he was told.
However, to verify these claims, Mao sent people he trusted [troops from PLA Division A-341 that came from rural China] to their villages to investigate the claims of famine.
one in eight children in the United States go to bed hungry daily
When Mao’s trusted bodyguards returned in late 1960 or early 1961 and reported that the claims were true, Mao acted swiftly, cancelled the GLF several years early sending the peasants back to their villages from the larger collectives, and directed the Party to seek help from other countries to feed the people.
As my wife said, (due to Piety—considered the First of all Virtues, which I wrote of here) the Party would never have ordered an end to the GLF without Mao’s permission. The orders had to come from Mao and according to the memoirs of his personal bodyguards, he was the one that made the decision to end the GLF, five-year plan early and have China ask for outside help, which started to arrive from Canada and Australia in 1961.
In fact, Roderick MacForquhar wrote in his book, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, that in May 1961, China entered into long-term arrangements with Canada and Australia to insure grain supplies until production in China recovered in addition to imports of American grain laundered through France to avoid the complete American embargo.
MacFarquhar makes it clear that drought, typhoons, plant disease and other forms of natural disaster were the principal cause of the famine of 1960.
More than one book has examined this topic from a scholarly perspective (instead of inflammatory unsubstantiated claims), but Mao’s Western critics have mostly ignored this work.
In China: Land of Famine (published in 1926 by the American Geographical Society) by Walter H. Mallory , we have a book that casts doubt on the inflammatory claims, which have been popularized in the West about the post-1949 Mao era. Mallory offers another perspective for understanding what really may have happened during Mao’s GLF.
Then from Stanford University Press, in the Economic Cold War by Shu Guang Zhang (August 2002), “the author argues that while the immediate effects (of the complete American embargo of China) may be meager or nil, the indirect and long-term effects may be considerable; in the case he reexamines, the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Anti Rightist campaign (The Cultural Revolution) were in part prompted by the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.”
In other words, if the West had been supportive of China by ending its complete embargo after the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), these events may never have taken place.
Once all the facts are taken into consideration and weighed without bias and emotional baggage, there is only one conclusion to reach regarding the editors of “Eating Bitterness” and the authors of “Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine“, “Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China” and “Mao’s Great Famine“.
These books are frauds supporting a hoax.
It is also a fact that there are millions of people with closed minds that will refuse to accept this verdict that if Mao was guilty of anything, he was guilty of distrust and/or incompetence and not murder — at least not the deaths from the famine that took place during the GLF in the land of famines.
If you have watched the nine videos embedded with this series, ask yourself, who is guilty of murder by starvation today? That “old” friend of mine I mentioned earlier is against abortions and believes we should trust in God in all things, which is based on this “old” friend’s interpretation of the Bible.
World Hunger.org reports, “Poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of the 10.9 million child deaths each year, which is more than five million deaths.” This means every four years, the number of children that die from hunger in the world equals the number of people that died of famine and starvation in China during the GLF.
In fact, between 13 and 18 million men, women and children die of starvation each year, which is one person every three and a half seconds.
Nevertheless, World Hunger.org says, “The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase.”
Ask yourself, will God feed the thousands that starve in the world daily, while 75% of Americans are overweight and 25% are obese?
Meanwhile, a few well-fed authors are writing books that perpetuate a hoax about Mao, who has been dead for 35 years, so who will they blame next? Maybe they should look in a mirror.
Recommended reading on this topic for those who seek the unblemished truth:
From the Monthly Review, Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward? by Joseph Ball
From Griffith University, Australia, Poverty, by David C. Schak, Associate Professor
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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Note, this revised post first appeared on November 11, 2011 as an eight-part series starting with Mao’s ‘alleged’ Guilt in the Land of Famines – Part 1