Speaking at The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, Frank Dikötter, a Hong Kong-based historian, said he found that during the time that Mao was enforcing the Great Leap Forward in 1958, in an effort to catch up with the economy of the Western world, he was responsible for overseeing “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known”.
Mr Dikötter, who has been studying Chinese rural history from 1958 to 1962, when the nation was facing a famine, compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.
One of the strangest things about visiting modern China is the extent to which Mao continues to be valorized in the iconography of the regime. To any outside observer, today’s China looks like an amazing success story and a quick summary of the story is “stop implementing Mao Zedong’s insane policies.” The difference between Mao and not-Mao is probably the most dramatic improvement in human welfare ever. And yet there he is on every single unit of currency.
It’s clear enough how this came about, but history has left the present governors of China in the odd position of tying the legitimacy of their rule to a narrative that obscures the actual main merit of their regime, namely that it isn’t the China Mao built. It seems to me that it’s very plausible to imagine that if China had spent the entirety of the post-war period governed by merely bad policies they’d be as rich today as, say, the Belorussians are. And though Belarus is nobody’s idea of a great success story, its per capita GDP in PPP-adjusted terms is nearly double China’s.