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Mao’s Great Famine

Rob Attar on a vivid account of Chinese catastrophe that was recently declared winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize

Published: August 1, 2011 at 8:26 am
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Reviewed by: Rob Attar
Author: Frank Dikötter
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £9.99


In a brilliant and horrifying book, Professor Dikötter lays bare the devastating consequences of China’s Great Leap Forward.

From 1958 to 1962 Chairman Mao’s communist regime forced through a programme of breakneck industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation that resulted in the worst famine in human history.

Dikötter’s thorough research reveals that, at a conservative estimate, 45 million Chinese people were killed as a direct result of their own government’s ineptitude and callous disregard for human life. Nor was the destruction limited to loss of life. For example, Dikötter states that between 30 and 40 per cent of houses in the country were reduced to rubble as the state snatched materials from wherever they could be found to feed its industrial development.

One of the most troubling aspects of the story is how often those on the ground went beyond the already appalling demands of their leaders. Some 2.5 million of the people killed did not die of hunger or disease but were actually tortured or beaten to death by local militias.

This malevolent attitude was summed up in 1960 by county leader Zhang Donghai who said: “Having a campaign is not the same as doing embroidery, it is impossible not to beat people to death.”

If any doubts remained that Mao Zedong deserves a place among history’s greatest monsters, this book should conclusively lay them to rest.

Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine


Mao's Great Famine wins the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize


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