Mao’s Great Famine is a sensational account of China during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961. The Great Leap Forward was an attempt to promote very rapid simultaneous growth of agriculture and industry. The intention was to boost food production by using agricultural labour for rural infrastructure projects, such as water conservancy projects. At the same time agricultural labourers would develop rural industrial projects and some peasants would move to urban areas to work in heavy industry. Based on figures released by the Chinese state after Mao’s death, historians now routinely claim that this policy led to a very large number of deaths due to hunger. Dikotter’s book argues the death toll in the Great Leap Forward was at least 45 million.

A general theme of the book is that Mao knew his policies would lead to very widespread suffering and was indifferent to this fact. Dikotter’s book uses many documents from Communist Party archives that have not been published. However, a crucial document has now emerged which appears to show that Dikotter has seriously misinterpreted some of the evidence before him. Dikotter’s book quotes a document from a 1959 Communist Party meeting that was deposited in a local Communist Party archive in Gansu, China. Dikotter seems to believe that this document shows that Mao was willing to let half of China starve to death to fulfil his plans. However, an analysis of the section of the document where the statement in question is recorded shows that this was not Mao’s meaning. This section not only shows Mao trying to prevent excesses during the Great Leap Forward but it also shows Mao struggling to promote democracy and the mass involvement of the people in decision-making. The document consists of the notes of a private meeting with Communist Party officials. They were not meant to be made available to the public. Yet they show Mao strenuously advocating mass popular involvement in the policy-making process. It is well known that Mao made commitments to democracy in public but it has always been possible for his critics to dismiss these as attempts to deceive the outside world. By unearthing a document where Mao is making these comments in private, where he would have had no incentive to mislead his audience, Dikotter has in fact done a great service to the historical image of Mao.

The document consists of Mao’s comments on 25 March 1959 at a meeting with other Party leaders in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai. Dikotter quotes Mao as saying in relation to the Great Leap Forward: ‘When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’

The full passage where Dikotter quotes Mao contains various statements by Dikotter which give the quotation from Mao a very unwarranted context. Dikotter writes: ‘Exports trumped local needs and had to be guaranteed: ‘we should eat less’. A firm (zhuajin) and ruthless (zhuahen) approach was warranted in times of war when confronting practical problems.’

In the next sentence Dikotter quotes Mao as saying: ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.'(1)

Dikotter is implying that Mao’s statement about half of China starving was made in order to advocate a ruthless policy of expropriating and exporting grain. In the text of his presentation to the Laogai Foundation Conference, Dikotter makes his view even more specific when he accuses Mao and the Communist Party of intentionally starving large numbers of people to death. Dikotter writes:

‘In most cases the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death. At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated 25 March 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting he announced that “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” ‘(2)

The actual context of Mao’s statement is very different and I reproduce a translation of the page we have from the meeting notes below. This page of the document was sent by Dikotter to one of his correspondents who put it on the web here . You may also view a JPEG of the document here. Before I became aware of this page being put online, two correspondents of mine were shown the document in its entirety by Frank Dikotter in his office. He did not allow them to take a copy of it, citing a contract he signed with the Chinese government (see Appendix). One of my correspondents has seen the page of the document that was put online and has confirmed it is from the document they saw in Dikotter’s office. I have asked Dikotter why he was unable to let my correspondents take a copy of the document while he was able to send a page of it to someone else but I did not get a response.