David R. Henderson  

Mao's Murderousness

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In the most important Marginal Revolution post this month, Alex Tabarrok quotes from Frank Dikotter's "Looking back on the Great Leap Forward," in History Today. If you're feeling bad about the two grim major-party choices for president in November, remember that it could be much, much, much worse.

One quote:

A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine. My study, Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe (2010), relies on hundreds of hitherto unseen party archives, including: secret reports from the Public Security Bureau; detailed minutes of top party meetings; unexpunged versions of leadership speeches; surveys of working conditions in the countryside; investigations into cases of mass murder; confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people; inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward; general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign; secret police opinion surveys; letters of complaint written by ordinary people; and much more.

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool - punishment for digging up a potato.

And what about Zhou Enlai?

A tantalising glimpse of the wealth of material that might one day become available is offered in Gao Wenqian's extraordinary biography of Zhou Enlai, first premier of the People's Republic. Gao, a party historian who worked with a team in the Central Archives in Beijing on an official biography of Zhou for many years, smuggled his notes out of the archives before absconding to the United States in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The premier portrayed in the ground-breaking biography Gao subsequently published is not the suave, well-mannered diplomat we are used to, but instead a devious figure, always willing to turn against his own friends in order to further his career. Gao describes him as Mao's 'faithful dog'. And Zhou was not only unique in his willingness to endure humiliation at the hands of his master as a way of surviving politically the many purges initiated by Mao: he acquiesced, as Gao puts it, in carrying Mao's 'execution knife'.


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CATEGORIES: Economic History




COMMENTS (8 to date)
eMarkM writes:

FWIW, it was Alex Tabarrok, not Tyler who wrote that post.

David R. Henderson writes:

It’s worth a lot. Thanks, eMarkM. Change made.

Pajser writes:

Mao was cruel dictator, of course, and Great Leap was bad, on many ways. However, how many people died in capitalist countries due to malnutrition and poor health care? Billions. I'll make more meaningful comparison. Mao grabbed power in 1950, when China was at 20% world average GDP(PPP)/cap. Slightly wealthier (10-50%) capitalist countries were India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal. Almost, but less then twice wealthier were Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea. I'll add Subsaharan Africa - as whole, to simplify, and because it is well known failure, but it was also on average about twice wealthier than China. All other capitalist countries were more than twice wealthier than China (or there is no data). I think it is fair comparison.

Even on the top of Famine, 1960, China had roughly equal life expectancy as slightly wealthier capitalist countries.

Afghanistan (32)
Nepal (35),
Subsaharan Africa (40),
India (41)
China (43),
Pakistan (45),
Bangladesh (46).
Indonesia (49)
World average (52)
South Korea (53)
Thailand (55)

Ten years forward, 1970.

Afghanistan (37)
Nepal (41)
Subsaharan (44)
Bangladesh, India (48)
Pakistan (52)
Indonesia (55)
Thailand, China, World average (59)
South Korea (62)

Forward to 1978, last year before market reforms:

Afghanistan (41)
Nepal (45)
Subsharan (47)
Bangladesh (52)
India (53)
Pakistan (56)
Indonesia (59)
World average (62)
Thailand (63)
South Korea (65)
China (66)

Don Boudreaux writes:

Pajser: Do you really believe that in 1960 India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal were capitalist countries?

To be sure, these countries weren't the hell that was then Maoist China. And I believe that none of these five were formally communist countries. But capitalist? Really? Really?

Jeff writes:

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Mark Bahner writes:

I share Don Boudreaux's skepticism that India was "capitalist".

There are an awful lot of mentions of socialism and five year plans in this review of the role of state-owned enterprises in India's development history:

The objective of India’s development strategy has been to establish a socialistic pattern of society through economic growth with self-reliance, social justice and alleviation of poverty.
India launched its First FYP in 1951, immediately after independence under socialist influence of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Industrial Policy Resolution – 1956 was shaped by the Mahalanobis Model of growth, which suggested that emphasis on heavy industries would lead the economy towards a long term higher growth path. The Resolution widened the scope of the public sector. The objective was to accelerate: 1. Bombay Plan prepared 3 by leading Indian industrialists in 1944- 45 had recommended government support for industrialization, including a direct role in the production of capital goods. 2 economic growth and boost the process of industrialization as a means to achieving a socialistic pattern of society. Given the scarce capital and inadequate entrepreneurial base, the Resolution accorded a predominant role to the State to assume direct responsibility for industrial development.
The seventh plan had strived towards socialism and energy production at large.
In 1991, India faced a crisis in Foreign Exchange (Forex) reserves, left with reserves of only about US$1 billion. Thus, under pressure, the country took the risk of reforming the socialist economy.

Not a lot of capitalism there! ;-)

Pajser writes:

Mark Bahner, According to Jones and Papanek, The efficiency of public enterprise in less developed countries, in 1961/62 South Korea and India had 6% and 5% of industry (including agriculture) in public ownership, respectively. In 1971/72 it has grown to 9.7% and 9.4% respectively. Authors hypothesized that, in despite of opposite rhetoric, both countries were pragmatic - and invested in public enterprises only when they thought they saw market failure.

Larna Diaz writes:

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