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The Great Leap Forward was Chairman Mao Zedong’s grand strategy to industrialize China and build an economy that would have surpassed the economies of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and even the United States (Chen 52; Dikötter 26-27).
According to Dikötter (27), Mao Zedong saw an opportunity in the masses, and he was convinced that by substituting labor for capital, China would have transformed into an industrial economy within months. Accordingly, Mao with the help of his provincial heads started the Great Leap Forward in 1958 by encouraging the masses to participate in preparing the farms, setting up irrigation projects, and building water reservoirs (Dikötter 27).
However, the ambitious economic modernization project that was the Great Leap Forward gave birth to the world’s worst or even the biggest humanitarian disasters ever witnessed.
According to unofficial sources, an approximated 20-50 million people lost their lives due to famine and the other activities of the Great Leap Forward in the period between 1958 and 1961 (Chen 66-69). This has not been confirmed since the official documents are held as confidential, closed, or sensitive.
However, with the opening of some government archives to the public, Frank Dikötter, a renowned author, claims to have had access to useful evidence from the archives.
He claims that the “Great Leap Forward” was nothing, but a big strategic failure characterized by coercion, violence, and terror (Dikötter 30). The purpose of this essay is to evaluate Frank Dikötter’s claims and arguments regarding the Great Leap Forward and provide personal views on the same issue.
Frank Dikötter’s Key Arguments
From the onset, Dikötter believed that the humanitarian disaster that arose from the Great Leap Forward was a manmade mistake. First, the author argues that the famine that lasted for almost four years was a direct consequence of the decisions that trickled down from the Chinese government officials to the provincial heads and the people who were in direct control of the projects (Cheek 1565; Dikötter 35).
Furthermore, Dikötter accuses the government and its officials of ignoring the plight of tens of millions of ordinary people who were starving to death.
More specifically, the author points out that the government of Mao Zedong and his premier, Zhou Enlai, was responsible for the increased food procurement quotas, which affected millions of people in the countryside. The returns from such increased food procurement quotas were meant to cover the cost of international imports (Dikötter 28-35; Lizhi 373).
According to Dikötter’s analysis, Mao Zedong was already aware of the consequences of the Great Leap Forward even before the first warning signs appeared.
However, Mao chose to ignore the warning signs and assumed that the death of half of the population would have helped to safeguard the interests of the other half of the population (Dikötter 40). As a result, approximately 45 million Chinese people died prematurely (Dikötter 324-326).
This is contrary to the figures previously reported by the government and other historians, which show that around 20-30 million people died because of the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward.
In Dikötter’s own words, around 2-3 million deaths arose from torture or summary executions, which targeted those who were weak, old, or deemed lazy by the authorities. Most of these people were beaten, hanged, or lowered into the depths of ponds to die.
In other extreme cases of violence against the masses, mutilation and forceful feeding on human excrement were common ways of punishing those deemed to be a liability to Mao’s projects. Surprisingly, some of the crimes that attracted the above-mentioned forms of punishment were as insignificant as stealing a potato to feed a starving family member (Dikötter 38-60).
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Sources of Evidence
According to Dikötter (341-344), until the last few years, it was impossible for a member of the public to gain access to party archives that contain the details of the government’s activities before and after the Great Leap Forward. However, the author claims to have had access to most of the party archives, which are currently open to the public (Dikötter 341).
As noted earlier, the author contends that the number of people who lost their lives due to the activities of the Great Leap Forward could be anywhere between 45 to 50 million instead of the 20-30 million that previous historians have reported (Dikötter 324). The author settled on the final tally after reviewing hundreds of party documents from different provinces in China.
After examining the party documents, the author discovered that they contained useful evidence to support his claims regarding the number of deaths as well as the inhumane activities carried out by the administrators of the Great Leap Forward.
Some of the documentation examined by Dikötter ranged from official census figures to minutes of provincial committees involved in the execution of the Great Leap Forward as well as public security reports and police reports (Dikötter 343).
According to the author’s analysis, a combination of all the fundamental documentation proved that previous demographers were wrong in their estimations of the number of deaths arising from the famine and the unorthodox implementation of the Great Leap Forward.
More Specifically, Dikötter points out inadequacies in the figures provided by the government and other historians. For example, the author reports that in 1962, the then public security official located in the province of Sichuan reported to his seniors that the number of casualties in his jurisdiction was around 10.6 million people (Dikötter 325).
This figure, according to Dikötter (325), does not appear anywhere in the official records on the number of casualties related to the Great Leap Forward and the famine.
Hence, the author concludes that if all the unpublished party archives including reports by the provincial Public Security Bureaus, reports by the local party committees, and documents from the local Statistical Bureaus were to be analyzed systematically, the number of deaths related to the famine would amount to a minimum of 45 million people (Dikötter 325).
Critique of Dikötter’s Arguments
Frank Dikötter’s analysis of the consequences of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the causes of the tragic outcome of the ambitious project is yet another masterpiece that exposes Mao’s insane ideas and nasty utopia (Cheek 1565; Lizhi 373).
The author presents well-documented stories and official statements from the people who worked under Mao to show how the communist leader treated his people recklessly and rashly instead of being their savior and protector (Cheek 1565). Furthermore, the author exposes previously undocumented evidence on the high levels of violence, killings, and terror that characterized the implementation of the Great Leap Forward.
However, instead of relying on hearsay and the content of previous historians as well as the official reports provided by the government, the author takes it upon himself to research and insightfully examine volumes of undocumented party archives to support his arguments.
On the other hand, Dikötter’s reliance on a strong documentary base is not an indicator of the completeness of the story behind the Great Leap Forward. The author is quick to add a letter at the end of his book to inform readers of the limited nature of the sources used to support his arguments.
Hence, while Dikötter managed to present a strong case and lay down an exemplary framework for future scholarship on China’s Great Leap Forward and Chinese communism, several weaknesses can be pointed out of the author’s arguments. First, the author is biased toward blaming Mao and his supporters for everything that went wrong during and after the Great Leap Forward.
This biased focus on the factors that hindered the successful implementation of the Great Leap Forward overlooks the contribution of social, economic, environmental, and even political factors toward the project’s failure (Cheek 1565).
Secondly, the author’s focus on Mao may imply that he does not undertake an objective analysis of the thousands of documents that he claims to have reviewed. If this were to be the case, then it means that Dikötter does not analyze the contribution of the system under the leadership of Mao, which failed as a whole in the planning, development, and implementation of the Great Leap Forward.
Moreover, the author’s analysis and extrapolation on the number of deaths arising from the Great Leap Forward and the famine could be biased to some extent.
For instance, the author’s claims contain overblown estimations of the death toll without a clear and substantiated picture. Hence, it is difficult for readers to follow the author’s statistical analyses that led him to conclude that the number of people who died is more than what previous historians have reported.
A Personal Evaluation of the Great Leap Forward
Many things have been told about the horrifying experience that the Chinese people underwent in the hands of their respective leaders, particularly during and after the Great Leap Forward. However, from a personal perspective, the Great Leap Forward was a huge misinformed economic strategy meant to satisfy Mao’s reckless approach to Cold War competition.
The truthfulness of this statement lies in the analysis of Mao’s reasons for initiating and implementing the Great Leap Forward.
According to Shen and Xia (860-861), Mao Zedong’s main motivation toward implementing a new economic modernization strategy was the idea that China could follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union and develop rapidly along the socialist road to the extent of surpassing the economies of the two western powerhouses, Great Britain and the United States.
This implies that there was no strong economic reasoning behind the development and implementation of the Great Leap Forward, but instead, a political motivator was being passed off as an economic policy.
More specifically, it is evident from historical records that the Soviet Union leader, Khrushchev’s boast that his country was capable of surpassing the economy of the United States in just a few years inspired Mao into thinking that China could also do the same.
Therefore, without further consideration, Mao embarked on a journey to transform China into an industrial powerhouse within a few months. Subsequently, Mao rolled out his unrealistic plans in 1958 in the form of the Great Leap Forward, which saw the Chinese people being forced into unplanned farming so that enough money could be raised from agriculture to support the launch of different industrialization projects (Chen 51-54).
If Mao planned to be successful, China would have transformed into an industrial economy within just a few months, and this move would have come as a surprise to the likes of the United States, which had taken decades to industrialize.
Unfortunately, the outcome of the Great Leap Forward was a catastrophic agricultural failure, which caused the death of tens of millions of Chinese people, particularly the peasant farmers who were left to starve to death despite their hard work in producing grain.
According to Chen (55), the ruthless implementation of the project coupled with the mismanagement of agricultural produce and a couple of bad decisions at the highest levels of governance contributed to the agricultural failure and huge food shortages that caused the death of millions of people.
The Great Leap Forward was Chairman Mao Zedong’s most favorable economic strategy meant to transform China into an industrial economy and help the country to surpass the economies of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States.
However, instead of producing the desired outcome, the Great Leap Forward caused a huge catastrophic agricultural failure that saw the death of tens of millions of Chinese people in the period between 1958 and 1961. For many years, authorities in the Chinese government have blamed the weather for the bad ending of the most ambitious project in Chinese history.
However, a recent exposé by Frank Dikötter backed by a strong documentary base of party archives from different regions in China shows that Mao and his leadership is to blame for most of the failings that characterized the Great Leap Forward.
While there is some truth to these recent claims, there is the need for further research and analyses of additional archival documents to come up with a conclusive answer on the major causes of the Great Leap Forward’s failure.
Cheek, Timothy. “Frank Dikötter. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962.” American Historical Review 117.5(2012): 1565-1566. Print.
Chen, Yixin. “Cold War Competition and Food Production in China, 1957-1962.” Agricultural History 83.1(2009): 51-78. Print.
Dikötter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. Print.
Lizhi, Fang. “Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962.” Common Knowledge 18.2(2012): 373-374. Print.
Shen, Zhihua, and Yafeng Xia. “The Great Leap Forward, the People’s Commune and the Sino-Soviet Split.” Journal of Contemporary China 20.72(2011): 861-880. Print.