September 30, 2010

THE DEATHS WERE THE AIM:

Mao-made Famine (MICHAEL BURLEIGH, October 2010, Standpoint)

Forty-five million is a large number to comprehend. It is around five million short of the current population of England. Forty-five million is also the number of Chinese who died in the Mao-made famine otherwise known as the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962. This is the era that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once wistfully referred to as having "a culture of total state provision" and "something which guaranteed everyone's welfare".

The Archbishop would be well-advised to read Mao's Great Famine (Bloomsbury), a powerful new book by Frank Dikötter, a Swiss-born historian at the University of Hong Kong. Dikötter has calculated the total number of deaths, saying that the real figure may be 55 million. The Great Helmsman claimed that if half the Chinese people starved, the surviving half would eat better. In fact, they ate Szechuan white mud or each other. Dikötter tells me that this implacable mindset was forged by two decades of civil war and party purges, in which the ends of the Chinese Revolution justified any means. [...]

At the end of this fine book, I wondered why the death of 45 million people in four years had made such slight impression on the world's consciousness. The term "genocide" is too specific to be of much use. The word "famine" conceals more than it reveals, as if this was an act of nature. The term "peasant" also distances us from the victims, it being "easier" to empathise with the mainly urban victims of the later Cultural Revolution — killed, Dikötter says, partly to obliterate anyone who had criticised Mao's responsibility for the famine. Similarly, Stalin's 1930s purges of 600,000 party members have eclipsed the earlier terror famine waged against seven million Ukrainian farmers and Kazakh herdsmen. Dikötter tells me: "A strong Orientalist streak implies that loss of life in China matters less than elsewhere."

But as the Archbishop of Canterbury's crass intervention also reveals, a naive, residual belief that the aims were worthy, or the goals progressive, seems to excuse much, too — 45 million or 55 million lives too many in this case.



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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 30, 2010 7:54 PM
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