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'.