As well, as the quotation of Mao from the Jinjiang Hotel meeting, Dikotter cites numerous other documents from local Chinese archives that he believes provide evidence for a massive famine death toll and violent atrocities committed during the Great Leap Forward. Given Dikotter’s very serious misinterpretation of Mao’s statement at the Shanghai meeting, we must ask if all the other documents Dikotter has seen really say what he seems to think they do. Although Dikotter cites many anecdotes and statistics from these documents, his direct quotes from them tend to be rather brief. In addition, Dikotter does not tell us very much about the particular document he is quoting from at any one time. We tend to just get the information Dikotter wants to present without much context as to who produced the document he is citing from, what the purpose of the document was and what the rest of it says. This makes any kind of evaluation of them very difficult. Rather worryingly, some of the documents Dikotter quotes from were bought in ‘ flea markets’ (17). He says that he only quoted ‘very few ‘ of these but we really need to know which of his quotations do come from the documents he acquired in this way. In addition there would be nothing to stop Dikotter putting these documents on the internet or circulating copies, as they could hardly be covered by any restriction from the Chinese authorities (see Appendix).

Before, turning to these documents and their allegations of deaths and atrocities, readers of this book should heed a general warning about all evidence concerning the Great Leap Forward. As I have stated previously, there was a sustained campaign by the Chinese government after Mao’s death to create a negative historical verdict about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (18). Therefore statistics and documents, relating to these periods, compiled in the post-1976 era should not simply be taken at face value. They need to be authenticated and corroborated. However, another point needs to be remembered too-it should not be just assumed that because a government document has been found in an archive, even from before 1976, that its content must be true. From the late 1950s a big struggle in the Communist Party took place between the right-wing and the left-wing. This went on right until 1976. For long periods of time the Right were in the ascendancy in different areas and in the central government itself, even before Mao’s death. Reports drawn up by different factions in this struggle may well contain large doses of political truth. China has gone through massive turmoil since 1949. This has included complete reversals in political line by the Communist Party and related radical changes in the Party’s verdict on historical events. It would be wrong to assume any historically contentious document in a Chinese Communist Party archive is genuine without properly determining its authenticity and that it is what it purports to be. In addition reports of historical events in archival documents need to be corroborated from other sources such as mutually supporting first-hand witness accounts and physical evidence.

Dikotter writes that investigation teams fanned out over the country from October 1960, to investigate the behaviour of provincial leaders during the Great Leap Forward. These investigations led to the removals of many provincial leaders. The rightists, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi made investigations at this time (19). Although Dikotter says that these teams were dispatched by Mao, we must remember that Liu Shaoqi was officially in charge of the government by 1960. Mao had stepped down as Head of State in April 1959 and was only in charge of the ‘Second Line’. This meant he dealt with policy but not the day to day affairs of state . Liu was in charge of the ‘First Line’, which was the role of actively leading the nation. It would most likely have been Liu who ultimately oversaw the practical process of investigation .

Assuming that the evidence Dikotter cites of atrocities are taken from the results of investigations, what we most likely have are indictments used in a series of political struggles, with Liu Shaoqi ultimately presiding over the whole process of the investigation. The purpose of these indictments, according to Dikotter, seems to have been to get rid of local leaders blamed for implementing Mao’s line in an over-zealous manner. One possible thesis is that the intended effect of these removals would have been to oust more left-wing leaders in favour of more right-wing leaders, which would increase Liu Shaoqi’s power base. Overall, a stream of reports from the investigation teams to the centre documenting atrocities would clearly strengthen Liu and the political line he represented, while weakening Mao.

Of course, bourgeois authors tend to argue that Liu Shaoqi only became a rightest, once he saw that the Great Leap Forward was a failure. But this begs the question somewhat. Could it not be that when he saw problems with the Great Leap Forward occurring he sensed that he could use this in a competition for power with Mao? Could not encouraging investigation teams to exaggerate the failures of the Great Leap Forward have been part of his strategy? Dikotter should at least consider such possibilities but he does not.

The view of the radicals in the Cultural Revolution was that Liu had opposed Mao before the Great Leap Forward as part of a two-line struggle between those taking the socialist road and those taking the capitalist road. Western historians tend to discount this. However, Liu’s record is rather mixed in terms of taking the socialist road before 1960. It is true he seemed to make a ‘left error’ over land reform in 1947-8 (20). He did however, criticise collectivization in 1951 and did endorse a proposal in 1955 to dissolve 20,000 agricultural co-operatives, a move Mao bitterly criticised. It may be that some of the criticisms levelled against Liu during the Cultural Revolution were one-sided, as authors like Teiwes and Dittmer claim. It is also claimed that he supported the Great Leap Forward, but if it is not clear if this was just due to Mao’s attack on him in 1955 (21). However, there is certainly a case that, at least after the 1940s, Liu did support the capitalist road in agriculture and he may not have been pre-disposed to the ideas of the Great Leap Forward from the start. The post-Mao story that Liu only opposed, the Great Leap Forward when he visited his home village and witnessed heart-rending scenes probably needs to be assessed a bit more closely.

Part of the reason why we should be sceptical about the documents allegedly found by the investigation teams is the extreme nature of what they depict. Dikotter says that the documents he has seen, show that mass violence on a huge scale was used against the population in the Great Leap Forward by local officials and their militias. This charge simply cannot be upheld without corroboration. These allegations are not backed up by a sufficient quantity of mutually corroborative witness statements and by forensic evidence such as mass grave evidence. Without such evidence it is not possible to convict any individual or a political regime of mass murder or genocide. Indeed the lack of such evidence, at least of a sufficient quantity of documented witness evidence, would give good reason for doubting the archival evidence. As a minimum we must find out how many of the stories are about things people have actually seen and described to investigators or are hearsay. This can only happen when these documents are published.

It must also be said that some of the stories that have emerged from people who have seen what they were told were Party documents in the past have been outlandish in the extreme. For example, Jasper Becker said he had unearthed a party record that claimed a Party Secretary in Qisi, Henan had boiled 100 children to make fertilizer (22). He quoted this in his book Hungry Ghosts This prompted Berlusconi’s infamous jibe at a political rally in 2006 about the Chinese ‘boiling babies for fertiliser’ that went too far even for the post-Mao Chinese government who criticised Berlusconi’s comment. I think this incident clearly shows that it is highly foolish to accept the various Great Leap Forward atrocity stories that have been spread without a lot more evidence. Authors like Becker and Dikotter really need to find a way to allow their sources of evidence to be properly examined.

Ultimately Dikotter should not be blamed for the one-sided view of Mao that his book has promoted. Rather it is those many educated people who have accepted this strange book as the last word on the subject of Mao who are to blame for this gross distortion. This includes many regarded as experts on the Chinese history of this period.

After all Dikotter is honest enough reveal his own partisan viewpoint when he says in the Preface that:

‘In a far more general way, as the modern world struggles to find a balance between freedom and regulation, the catastrophe unleashed at the time [of the Great Leap Forward] stands as a reminder of how profoundly misplaced is the idea of state planning as an antidote to chaos.’ (23)

It is clear that Dikotter wants his work to play an important role in the right-wing project of burying socialism as an alternative to capitalism once and for all. Reading the book it is abundantly clear that, whatever Dikotter’s intentions may have been, the product of his work is a right-wing polemical tract rather than an objective work of history.


The aspect of his project the reviewers have got most excited about are Dikotter’s Great Leap Forward death statistics. Dikotter wants to establish a new headline figure for Great Leap Forward deaths of 45 million. To understand how Dikotter tries to do this it must be understood that he is discussing two separate sets of documentary evidence concerning the death toll. One is an estimate of 32 million excess deaths by Cao Shuji, who bases his figure on a survey of county gazetteers written by local Communist Party committees (24). These gazetteers were produced after 1979, when the Party line had swung decisively and finally against the principles of the Great Leap Forward. The second set of documentary evidence consists of the documents in the local Party archives that Dikotter himself has discovered. These were discussed above-the reports of the investigation teams sent by the central government to investigate the provinces from 1960-62 (25). Dikotter calculates that the excess death tolls he has found in the local Party archives, compiled from 1960-62 tend to be 50% higher than those in the reports Cao Shuji cites, which were compiled after 1979. Therefore Dikotter decides the death toll must have been 45 million. Dikotter favours the reports he has found from 1960-62 from the investigation teams over the gazetteers because he believes the writers of the latter would have given more conservative figures for deaths, as they were trying to hide things (26).

This reasoning is not very convincing. Why would there have been any remaining reason for local Party officials to try to hide the figures after 1979, if the Great Leap Forward deaths had supposedly been investigated nearly twenty years before by the central government? Moreover, the Party as a whole was trying to promote the idea there had been a big death toll in the Great Leap Forward from 1979. Senior Party leaders openly attacked the Great Leap Forward after the death of Mao. Marshal Ye Jianying made a speech about disasters in the Great Leap Forward in 1979. A Party resolution talked of ‘serious losses to our country and our people between 1959 and 1961’ (27). Local party organisations would certainly have been aware of the new line when compiling their reports and would have known that they were expected to go along with it. If the choice really was between endorsing a figure of 32 million and a figure of 45 million, then Dikotter’s book gives us no real reason for choosing one figure above another.

It is not clear at all where the death rate figures for the Great Leap Forward came from. National figures were released by the Chinese authorities in the early 1980s during the political campaign against Mao’s socialist legacy. Uncertainty about the origins of the death rate figures makes any of the death toll figures given for the Great Leap Forward speculation. This applies to the 16.5 million figure originally calculated from death rate figures publicised by the Chinese government, to the estimates of local investigation teams and to Dikotter’s 45 million. Judith Banister, a leading western demographer of the Great Leap Forward period, expresses severe doubts about the extent to which a viable death registration system existed in China in the 1950s and the 1960s. Banister writes:

‘In all years prior to 1973-75 the PRC’s data on crude death rates, infant mortality rates, expectation of life at birth, and causes of death were non-existent, useless, or, at best, underestimates of actual mortality.'(28).

Given the lack of certainty about the quality of death rate statistics how can huge excess death tolls for the Great Leap Forward be bandied around with such a degree of certainty by so many writers on the subject? Even Banister herself does this, claiming the figures that she expresses so much doubt in can be used to calculate a figure of 30 million deaths. It often seems like a conventional wisdom has been created on very shaky foundations that few dare to challenge for fear of being labelled as apologists for communism. In the interests of objectivity, writers on the subject should consider the possibility that the death rate figures were made up by the post-Mao regime in order to discredit Mao’s policies.


The real danger of Dikotter’s book is that it makes many of the previous, extreme estimates the Great Leap Forward death toll seem superficially reasonable. There is a tendency for people when assessing historical controversies to reject the extremes of the debate and assume that the middle position must be the true one. Of course, this is an absolutely unscientific approach. Historical controversies can only be resolved by empirical enquiry, not by simply choosing the version of events that is put forward by the person who seems more fair-minded.

To illustrate this danger, we should look at the figure of 8.1-14.8 million deaths for the province of Sichuan alone, given by Chris Bramall. Bramall appears to be on the liberal left and seems to look with sympathy on many aspects of the economic record of China in the Mao era. However, he also has a great deal of faith in the death toll figures that appear in the county gazetteers published after 1979. The county level statistics for Sichuan might seem to back up the case for a very large death toll in this province. Such a large death toll for one province would obviously add credence to a very large death toll for the nation as a whole, if it was correct (29).

It might seem unlikely to some that so many county records showing increased death tolls could have been either falsified or just put together on the basis of subjective estimates rather than evidence. I do not believe it is really so unlikely. In relation to his research on education in the Cultural Revolution, Han Dongping warns about the dangers of using information from the local county histories. Han studied the gazetteer for Jimo County for the Cultural Revolution period which was published in 1991. He writes that given that the local histories were put together after the late 1970s, when the regime changed, those writing them had to follow the new right-wing line of the Party and this led to bias (30).

But might such bias extend to the production of inaccurate or baseless Great Leap Forward county level death rate statistics across China from the late 1970s? There are reasons to think this is more than possible. One is the high level of organisation and unity of the Chinese Communist Party. Anyone who has studied its history knows that a new party line could be communicated from the centre to the smallest village with amazing efficiency. The uniform loyalty of local officials to the party line often looks astonishing for anyone used to the more individualistic political system of the western world, especially in the light of the sudden reversals in political line that the cadres have had to contend with.

Another reason is that Bramall himself acknowledges that county level data could be falsified. In the case of the Tibetans in Sichuan, Bramall rejects official figures showing a death rate of only 4 in a 1000 in 1961 for a county heavily populated by Tibetans as well as a figure of 11 in 1000 for Tibetans as a whole in Sichauan for 1959-61. He states these must be falsifications, as they are lower than the rates for ethnic Tibetan areas of Sichuan taken from the 1982 census (31). Bramall is surely correct. The question probably needs more research but it is likely that the authorities who compiled these figures were trying to make Chinese rule over the Tibetans seem benign to counter the political line of the Tibet pro-independence lobby. But if the Chinese authorities could falsify county level statistics for one political reason, why not for another-to discredit the Great Leap Forward?

This point is reinforced by the post-Mao death toll statistics for Anhui given for the Great Leap Forward period. As Bramall points out, it is very odd that a death toll of 17 per thousand is reported in 1959, 69 per thousand in 1960 and only 8 per thousand in 1961. Bramall suggests that all the excess deaths were put into 1960 for statistical convenience (32). However, this point undermines the whole idea that the county level records provide evidence for the massive death toll in the Great Leap Forward. County level records were published for Anhui and the figures, as presented, corroborate a province level death toll of 69 per thousand in 1960 (33). Therefore, if the province wide figures are unbelievable, we have further evidence of the unreliability of the county level statistics.

Bramall argues that a local history of Anhui points to massive deaths during this period, implying that it is not a great issue which year they occurred in. But his citation of this source illustrates precisely all that is wrong with the uncritical acceptance of evidence about the Great Leap Forward publicised by the post-Mao Chinese regime. The work is entitled Mao’s Legacy in Anhui. Rural Reform 1978-80. It was written by Wang Lixin and is centred on his home county of Fengyang. It does indeed provide detailed statistics for mass deaths in Fengyang County in the Great Leap Forward and also makes the statement that millions died in Anhui during this time. It is written as a ‘a long panoramic piece of reportorial literature’ that was endorsed at a conference that was chaired by the ‘People’s Liberation Army Literature and Arts Press Deputy Director’ and attended by ‘most of the leaders of the Anhui Provincial CPC [Communist Party of China] Committee, Anhui Provincial Government, and Anhui Provincial People’s Congress.'(34). The author was born at the end of the Great Leap Forward but he said he had assistance from the ‘Rural Economic Committee of the Anhui Provincial CPC Committee, the Standing Committee of the Anhui Provincial People’s Congress, the Anhui branch of Xinhua News Agency [the state news agency of the People’s Republic of China]’ among others in the writing of the article (35).

The article itself is an odd mixture of literary description, poetry, statistics and reports of meetings. The statistics and reports of meetings were presumably provided by the local Communist Party. The whole purpose of the account is to defend the break-up of the communes and the creation of the more or less privatised household responsibility scheme in agriculture. The post-Mao authorities have promoted the story of Fengyang County in China where the household responsibility scheme is meant to have started in Xiaogang village, after the death of Mao. According to the Party account, this began as an initiative from below that was only endorsed by the Party later (36). Wang’s account repeats the same story for 1961. He claims there was a previous attempt to start the household responsibility scheme in the immediate aftermath of the Great Leap Forward. It is claimed that the household responsibility scheme was suggested by an old peasant and then taken up by the provincial First Secretary Zeng Xisheng (37). However, it is stated that the experiment was later ended due to pressure from the central government. Wang writes of the responsibility fields, following their abolition after 1962:

‘The “responsibility fields” were like extremely strong seeds of the life force carried in the bottom of people’s hearts, awaiting, in the hard and frozen ground, the arrival of the spring breezes and the spring rains, and awaiting the time when they might grow into a bumper harvest. They were not only just surviving, they were also seeking an opportunity in the extremely cold and inhospitable soil to show the power of life…’ (38).

Throughout, the article follows the post-Mao government political line very closely. It may be that commitment to a given political viewpoint and the semi-literary nature of the work left the author uncertain how far he should interrogate his sources. The article certainly should not be taken as evidence of a massive death toll in Anhui without a lot more corroboration from non-government aligned sources.

Wang recounts various struggles around the introduction of the household responsibility system, until he gets to the iconic story of Xiaogang, where according to the official history a group of peasants secretly agreed to divide up the land and farm as individual households again in 1978 (39). The story of Xiaogang village in Fengyang is quite central to the propaganda of the post-Mao period. It is meant to show that decollectivisation and the movement towards capitalism in the countryside was a spontaneous movement against rural poverty. The role of Anhui in post-Mao party history gives a clearer reason than ‘statistical convenience’ for the way that all the Anhui death rate figures in the official county and provincial statistics are so high in 1960 and so low in 1961. It was very possible done for political reasons, to make the death rate figures in Anhui during the first period of the household responsibility system in 1961 look good.

Ultimately, the county level death rate statistics are not likely to do much to boost the general credibility of the death rate statistics for the Great Leap Forward released by the post-Mao regime. Overall, there are just too many serious anomalies in the Great Leap Forward death data, as a whole. As I have alluded to previously (40) there are huge discrepancies between overall death rates and child mortality in different years that cannot be explained in any satisfactory way. I believe these discrepancies must create a great deal of doubt over whether some or all of the underlying data used to calculate death tolls is correct.


Dikotter has wider ambitions beyond the famine death toll. He wants to prove that authorities in the Great Leap Forward were responsible for a massive toll of deliberate violence and destruction. This effort leads, frankly, to absurdity. Dikotter’s figures for deaths by violence and home demolitions appear little short of delusional. Dikotter states that 2.5 million people died of violence during the Great Leap Forward. His evidence again comes from the investigation teams. The figure appears to come from an extrapolation from figures given for one Prefecture (Xinyang), two counties and one commune (41). Dikotter tells us that as a ‘rough approximation’ 30-40% of all houses were turned to rubble in China in the Great Leap Forward. Dikotter’s source for this astounding figure is, Liu Shaoqi, who apparently claimed that 40% of all houses in Hunan had been destroyed. The other main source is a figure that 45-70% of homes in ‘the most affected counties’ of Sichuan were demolished (42). Even if both these reports were completely true, one could hardly extrapolate from these two figures and say that 30-40% of homes in the whole of China were destroyed. These were just two provinces and we do not even have an estimate for the total number of home demolitions in Sichuan, just those for the allegedly most affected counties.

The question we have to ask about such figures is where is the witness evidence? Of course the media in China is fairly stringently censored. But especially in the last three decades, millions of people have travelled into and out of China. If 40% of all homes had been demolished in the whole of China in the Great Leap Forward, would not this fact have come out before now?

Other somewhat strange claims in Dikotter’s book bear even less analysis. He writes about the Ming Tombs (Shisanling) Reservoir, that was built in 1958. Dikotter states (43): ‘As the reservoir was built in the wrong location, it dried up and was abandoned after a few years.’

Those who have been there recently will testify that it is actually rather full of water. The fact is that Dikotter just assumes the whole project must have been a total failure because it was carried out during the Great Leap Forward. Such errors illustrate the need for rather more even-handed historians to go over the evidence that Dikotter has presented in more detail than I am able to do here.


Overall, Dikotter’s book is grossly unconvincing. His claims are just too exaggerated and his analysis of the veracity of his sources is just too underdeveloped. It is part of a trend towards death toll inflation which sees the numbers of those allegedly killed by Mao increase year after year as alleged new historical evidence is published. Deng Xiaoping released figures that gave rise to the 16.5 million death toll. Judith Banister raised this to 30 million. Now, Dikotter has taken Banister’s 30 million and raised it to 45 million. But this of course is only meant to be a minimum. Some historians put the figure at 50 to 60 million, Dikotter tells us (44). But as the death rate totals inflate towards the 100 million mark, it will get harder and harder to fit in all these excess deaths between the figures provided by the two censuses of 1953 and 1964, unless the death toll in the non-Great Leap Forward years is pushed down to a ridiculous level. We will enter into a state of pure statistical nihilism about the Great Leap Forward.

Of course, there is a real story about the Great Leap Forward buried under all the nonsensical death toll figures. Certainly, that story includes the tragedy of the hunger that occurred in China in the Great Leap Forward. The story must include the fact that the deaths that occurred may have been due to policy errors, as well as the very adverse natural conditions of the time. Whatever the cause of the errors let us also not forget that this is a story of a nation surrounded by adversaries, desperately trying to pull itself out of the economic backwardness that had repeatedly condemned it to famine in the past.

Finally, we must examine precisely which factors led to loss of life. An interesting account of this is given by Han Dongping in his study of events in Henan and Shandong, including his home county, Jimo (45). Han argues that the precursor to the famine was the initial policy of supplying food in a reckless way. Inevitably the over-supply of food was followed by a period of rationing. Farmers began to resent rationing and started to eat the crops before they were harvested. Natural disasters struck causing a big food crisis. The old were not working in the fields so they could not eat grain before it was harvested. The old received a food ration but it was less than the food ration for the workers in the fields, as the workers were doing manual labour and it was assumed they needed more food. The state did provide old people with additional food aid but it was not enough to prevent some deaths. Although the practice of eating grain in the fields started because everyone was hungry, in the end it was mostly the old that died of hunger-related causes, Han says. If Han’s findings could be generalised nation-wide, it might be argued that a full-blown entitlement food shortage or famine took place. By eating food in the fields those of working age reduced the amount of food available in the canteens. Under the rationing system the same workers were entitled to more of what food could still be provided in the canteens as well. In all famines, unfortunately, it is the old and vulnerable who tend to suffer the most.

This is not to blame the farmers for the famine, they were reacting predictably to a crisis caused by China’s poverty, imperialist encirclement, some wrong government policies and natural disaster. The most common response among the farmers Han interviewed was that the famine was mainly due to natural disasters, with the government bearing the lesser responsibility. We might ask if the Chinese state went too far in distributing grain according to work. In the initial period of the Great Leap Forward, the principle had been more geared towards distribution according to need, but this changed in 1959. Han’s account suggests this policy change may have made things worse but this would need to be investigated a lot more.

However, we should not fall into the fashionable trap of claiming that all famines are man-made and that any government that presides over a famine, or severe food shortage, is therefore guilty of genocide. This is an absurd approach. All famines are due to an interaction of natural factors, human factors and government policy. The underlying cause of famine in any country is poverty. Economic policy errors or indeed natural disasters do not create the threat of famine in advanced western countries. By building the industrial base and improving the rural infrastructure, Mao’s policies during and after the Great Leap Forward prevented famine recurring.

No-one argues that the Great Leap Forward should be repeated in the future in exactly the same way as it was in the past. However, although many problems occurred in implementation due to over-ambition, the actual ideological and economic principles behind it were sound. Mao had looked at the example of industrialisation in Stalin’s Soviet Union and wanted to find an alternative. Stalin had been faced with the problem of developing industry in a mainly peasant country. Mao felt that Stalin had developed heavy industry at the expense of the peasant. Mao highlighted the problems that he believed had occurred at the time of the First Five Year plan in the Soviet Union and wanted to avoid them. (Mao did not address the issue that Stalin raised of the need to industrialise very quickly in order to face the threat from the imperialist powers, one of which went onto threaten the Soviet people with absolute destruction in the Second World War.)

Stalin’s problem was that in a mainly peasant country much of the saving necessary for investment would have to come from the peasants themselves. Peasant saving (ultimately of grain) would enable the new urban workforce to be fed, while they were developing heavy industry. The procurement of grain by the state facilitated this. Under Stalin’s plans, industrialisation would then allow for the mechanisation of agriculture which would boost productivity in agriculture. Thus heavy industry would lead the development of food production. The obvious problem was that this might mean big initial sacrifices by the peasants while they were waiting for the tractors to arrive and help them increase their productivity.

Mao hoped to avoid this problem by simultaneous increases in food (especially grain), light industrial goods (textiles were important here) and heavy industrial goods (especially steel). Mao hoped to boost food production, prior to the introduction of tractors, by means of deep ploughing, controlling pests and water conservancy. The water conservancy and irrigation schemes would have to be carried out mainly by manual labour, without the help of mechanical diggers and so on. If food production could be increased in this way, while some labour was being diverted to industry, then investment could take place without the peasants getting less food to eat. Peasants would be paid for their agricultural and non-agricultural labour with work points which they could spend on food and other items.

The problem was that this all got bound up with a very ambitious plan to catch up with the economies of the advanced countries in a short space of time. The principle of boosting food production at the same time as industry was fine but the targets were too ambitious, for example the target of rapidly achieving production of 30 million tons of steel.

However, as we have said, Mao recognised these problems from late 1958 and this led to a change in course. The unrealism of the first few months was dampened down and efforts were made to deal with the developing problems. Once the difficulties of the Great Leap Forward had been overcome, the basic principles of the Maoist economic policy were implemented in a steadier manner until the late 1970s. The policy of boosting food production to enable the development of industry was continued. Agricultural production under Mao is usually described as a disaster but the figures do not bear this out. As Bramall shows, the gross value of agricultural production in China rose by 3.3% a year between 1963 and 1981 against 4.5% during the period of family farming from 1981-2006, according to the post-Mao figures (46). According to a calculation of GDP growth based on 1952 prices (which Bramall argues are the most reasonable to use), China’s GDP increased by 7.5% from 1963-78 (47). Of course, the equivalent figures for the Mao era are lower than for the post-Mao era but they are still good. Most importantly progress in health care and life expectancy was stunning in China in the Maoist era. It is true that lower population growth after Mao’s death has flattered the per capita food production and GDP growth figures, but few would condemn Mao for not adopting the ‘One Child Policy’.

Like most of the rest of East Asia, post-Mao China solved the investment problem by allowing in a great deal of foreign capital attracted by the prospect of using cheap labour to produce products for export to the West. This has allowed a boost in its growth figures. However, given the economic crisis in the West, it must be wondered how long this strategy can be successful. The West’s problems are long-term, caused by the way that globalisation erodes the higher wages of workers in imperialist nations, creating imbalances and debt bubbles and ultimately leading to economic decline. The end of the economic boom in 2008 has exposed a fundamental problem for the imperialist nations. It must be asked if catch up with western living standards is any more realistic for the general body of lower income countries now than it was when China attempted the Great Leap Forward. Better by far, surely, for under-developed countries to build on the basic Maoist economic strategies, updated for the modern world, without attempts at massive economic leaps in too short a space of time. Income equalisation between nations could come as nations de-couple from the globalised system, cutting off the flow of cheap products to the imperialist nations and forcing them to provide for their own needs without the subsidy provided by the exploited labour of the developing countries. In addition the developing struggle between oppressed nations and imperialist nations should give rise to the demand for reparations from the wealthy of the imperialist nations for the centuries of exploitation these nations have carried out up to the current time. This would obviously be a further factor in equalisation.

This strategy would not only provide for the welfare needs of the people of the developing countries but would put these nations in the vanguard of the struggle to liberate the world from the alienation and oppression of the world capitalist system.

The successes and failures of the Great Leap Forward need to be explored with a far greater degree of objectivity than has so far been the case. We see here, how even in the case of one document the now established view of Mao is over-turned, giving us a very different view of Mao-someone who cared passionately about advancing mass democracy in China. Mao was struggling to bring development and socialism to a poor famine prone country. It is true that the negative features of the Great Leap Forward exposed many of the systems failings, not least its ‘democratic deficit’ but unlike those who wanted to respond to the problems of the Great Leap Forward by entrenching hierarchy and bureaucracy Mao learnt from the Great Leap Forward the need to expand the role of grass roots democracy.

There is much confusion over Mao’s attitude to democracy both among his opponents and his supporters. Mao’s concept however, was relatively simple to grasp. He believed in democracy among the people- those classes such as the proletariat, peasantry and national bourgeoisie that had made the revolution. However he also believed in the exercise of dictatorship over the reactionary classes, such as landlords and those who had sided with imperialism (48). This is a concept which seems to horrify some, even many ex-Maoists. Along with other Marxists they embrace the idea of bourgeois multi-party democracy. There is also a group of ex-Maoists that seeks to encourage the work of bourgeois intellectual opponents of socialism while continually pouring cold water on the idea of mass democracy among the proletariat. We must wonder about the naivety of these former Maoists. Even in the current Arab Spring there have been moves to prevent former supporters of the old regimes participating in the new bourgeois democratic processes, albeit with varying degrees of success. The suppression of old elites seems to be a necessary part of any revolution, including bourgeois ones.

Many of the ex-Maoists and bourgeois ‘Marxists’ constantly harp on the ‘failures’ of the former socialist regimes and use a false analysis of these failures to justify capitulation to the bourgeoisie and imperialism. It would be good for these people, along with progressives generally, to study how China was able to recover from the problems of the Great Leap Forward and create a new paradigm for socialist economic development and popular power.


(1) Dikotter, F. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62, (Bloomsbury, 2010) p. 88.

(2) Dikotter, F. The Grey Zone, p.7,accessed 31/05/2012.

(3) MacFarquhar, R. Cheek, T. and Wu, E. (eds.) The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward, (Council on East Asian Studies/Harvard University, 1989),p.494-5.

(4) Dikotter, F. (2010), p.133.

(5) State Statistical Bureau (1983) Chung-kuo, t’ung-chi nien-chien 1983 , p.103, 393 quoted in MacFarquhar R. and Fairbank J. (eds.) The Cambridge History of China. Volume 14 The People’s Republic, Part I: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949-1965, (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.381.

(6) Han Dongping, ‘The Great Leap Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Post- Mao Rural Reform: the Lessons of Rural Development in Contemporary China.’, 2003 accessed 31/05/2012

(7)Chung-kuo t’ung-chi nien-chien, p.422, 438 quoted in MacFarquhar R. and Fairbank, J. (eds.), 1987, p.381.

(8) For example, Short P. Mao: A Life. (John Murray, 1999), p. 502.

(9) Dikotter, F. (2010), p.103.

(10)Zhonnguo Tongji Nianjian 1983, p. 120, 122 quoted in MacFarquhar The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Volume 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961-66, (Oxford University Press and Columbia University Press, 1997,p.34)

(11) ‘Communique of the Eighth Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’,Peking Review, September 1, 1959, p.5.

(12) ibid., p6.

(13) ‘Resolution on Developing the Campaign for Increasing Production and Practising Economy.’ in Peking Review,, 1 September 1959, p. 9.

(14) ibid., p.10.

(15) ‘Report on the 1959 Economic Plan. Premier Chou En-Lai.’ Peking Review,, 1 September 1959, p.14.

(16) Ministry of Agriculture Complete Statistics on China: Rural Economy, Beijing Nongye Chubanshe, 1989) and Chinese State Statistical Bureau Chinese Labour Statistical Yearbook (Beijing Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 2005), quoted in Bramall C. Chinese Economic Development, (Routledge, 2009), p.131.

(17) Dikotter, F. (2010)., page 345.

(18) Ball, J. (2006) ‘Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?’,<;.

(19) Dikotter, F. (2010), p. 118-9, p.328.

(20)Teiwes, F. Politics at Mao’s Court. Gao Gang and Party Factionalism in the Early 1950s, (East Gate, 1990), p.41.

(21) Dittmer, L. Liu Shaoqi and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Revised Edition, (East Gate 1998), p.205.

(22) Becker, J. Hungry Ghosts. China’s Secret Famine, (Murray, 1996), p. 116.

(23) Dikotter, F. (2010), p.xii.

(24) ibid. p.324-5.

(25) ibid. p.327-8.

(26) ibid. p.329 and p.333.

(27) see Ball (2006).

(28) Banister, J. China’s Changing Population,(Stanford University Press, 1987), p.87-8.

(29) Bramall, C. In Praise of Maoist Economic Planning. Living Standards and Economic Development in Sichuan Since 1931, (Clarendon Press, 1993), p.297.

County level death rate statistics for Sichuan in the Great Leap Forward can be viewed at: accessed 31/05/2012.

(30) Han Dongping (2001) ‘Impact of the Cultural Revolution on Rural Education and Economic Development: The Case of Jimo County’, Modern China, 27:1, p61.

(31) Bramall, C. (1993), p.300.

(32) Bramall C. (2009), p.127. Bramall makes a mistake when he states that the excess deaths were concentrated in 1961 for statistical convenience, he clearly means 1960.

(33) Available online at, accessed 29/06/2012.

(34) Wang, L. Mao’s Legacy in Anhui. Rural Reform 1978-80, Kunlun 6, December 1988, translated in Joint Publications Research Service (1989) China Report. Agriculture CAR-89-079; 1-65. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, p.1.

(35) Wang (1989), p.65.

(36) see ‘The Xiaogang Village Story’, People’s Daily, 11/11/2008, accessed 29/06/2012.

(37) Wang (1989), p. 15-19.

(38) ibid. p21.

(39) ibid. p55.

(40) Ball, J. (2006)

(41) Dikotter, F.(2010) see page 297-8.

(42) Dikotter, F. (2010) p.169-170.

(43) ibid. page 30.

(44) ibid. page 333.

(45) Han (2003).

(46) Bramall, C.(2009), p. 227-8.

(47) ibid. p. 292.

(48) Mao Tse-tung On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, from Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung,(Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1969), p.417-418.