Chinese History: The Great Leap Backward

Frank Dikötter looks at how historians’ understanding of China has changed in recent years with the gradual opening of party archives that reveal the full horror of the Maoist era.

 

Take, for instance, the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, when Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors by herding villagers across the country into giant people’s communes. In pursuit of a utopian paradise everything was collectivised. People had their work, homes, land, belongings and livelihoods taken from them. In collective canteens, food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party’s every dictate. As most other incentives to work were stripped away, coercion and violence were used instead to compel famished farmers to perform labour on poorly planned dams or irrigation projects, while the fields were being neglected.

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.

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