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Question: Who Killed More – Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?

It’s a bone of contention which regularly features in today’s debates between the political left and and conservatives: who was the biggest mass murdering political leader of the 20th century? 

Many might assume that it is Nazi Germany’s mercurial Adolf Hitler with the Holocaust, while others might opine its communist icon and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose terror famine that likely took more lives than the Holocaust.

However, both seem to be trumped by Communist China’s Mao Zedong, whose “Great Leap Forward” turned out to be a tragic leap backward in terms of Chinese history and human development.

Ian Johnson of the New York Review of Books writes…


In 2011, Timothy Snyder asked the provocative question: Who killed more, Hitler or Stalin? As useful as that exercise in moral rigor was, some think the question itself might have been slightly off. Instead, it should have included a third tyrant of the twentieth century, Chairman Mao. And not just that, but that Mao should have been the hands-down winner, with his ledger easily trumping the European dictators’.

While these questions can devolve into morbid pedantry, they raise moral questions that deserve a fresh look, especially as 2018 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Mao’s most infamous experiment in social engineering, the Great Leap Forward. It was this campaign that caused the deaths of tens of millions and catapulted Mao Zedong into the big league of twentieth-century murders.

But Mao’s mistakes are more than a chance to reflect on the past. They are also now part of a central debate in Xi Jinping’s China, where the Communist Party is renewing a long-standing battle to protect its legitimacy by limiting discussions of Mao.

The immediate catalyst for the Great Leap Forward took place in late 1957 when Mao visited Moscow for the grand celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution (another interesting contrast to recent months, with discussion of its centenary stifled in Moscow and largely ignored in Beijing).

The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had already annoyed Mao by criticizing Stalin, whom Mao regarded as one of the great figures of Communist history. If even Stalin could be purged, Mao could be challenged, too. In addition, the Soviet Union had just launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, which Mao felt overshadowed his accomplishments. He returned to Beijing eager to assert China’s position as the world’s leading Communist nation. This, along with his general impatience, spurred a series of increasingly reckless decisions that led to the worst famine in history.

The first signs of Mao’s designs came on January 1, 1958, when the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, published an article calling for “going all out” and “aiming higher”—code phrases for putting aside patient economic development in favor of radical policies aimed at rapid growth.

Mao drove home his plans in a series of meetings over the next months, including a crucial one—from January 11 to 20 in the southern Chinese city of Nanning—that changed the Communist Party’s political culture. Until that moment, Mao had been first among equals, but moderates had often been able to rein him in. Then, in several extraordinary outbursts, he accused any leader who opposed “rash advance” of being counter-revolutionary. As became the pattern of his reign, no one successfully stood up to him.

Having silenced party opposition, Mao pushed for the creation of communes—effectively nationalizing farmers’ property. People were to eat in canteens and share agricultural equipment, livestock, and production, with food allocated by the state. Local party leaders were ordered to obey fanciful ideas for increasing crop yields, such as planting crops closer together. The idea was to create China’s own Sputnik—harvests astronomically greater than any in human history.

This might have resulted in no more harm than local officials’ falsifying statistics to meet quotas, except that the state relied on these numbers to calculate taxes on farmers. To meet their taxes, farmers were forced to send any grain they had to the state as if they were producing these insanely high yields. Ominously, officials also confiscated seed grain to meet their targets. So, while storehouses bulged with grain, farmers had nothing to eat and nothing to plant the next spring.

Compounding this crisis were equally deluded plans to bolster steel production through the creation of “backyard furnaces”—small coal- or wood-fired kilns that were somehow supposed to create steel out of iron ore. Unable to produce real steel, local party officials ordered farmers to melt down their agricultural implements to satisfy Mao’s national targets. The result was that farmers had no grain, no seeds, and no tools. Famine set in.

When, in 1959, Mao was challenged about these events at a party conference, he purged his enemies. Enveloped by an atmosphere of terror, officials returned to China’s provinces to double down on Mao’s policies. Tens of millions died.

No independent historian doubts that tens of millions died during the Great Leap Forward, but the exact numbers, and how one reconciles them, have remained matters of debate. The overall trend, though, has been to raise the figure, despite pushback from Communist Party revisionists and a few Western sympathizers.

On the Chinese side, this involves a cottage industry of Mao apologists willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Mao name sacred: historians working at Chinese institutions who argue that the numbers have been inflated by bad statistical work. Their most prominent spokesperson is Sun Jingxian, a mathematician at Shandong University and Jiangsu Normal University. He attributes changes in China’s population during this period as due to faulty statistics, changes in how households were registered, and a series of other obfuscatory factors. His conclusion: famine killed only 3.66 million people. This contradicts almost every other serious effort at accounting for the effects of Mao’s changes.

The first reliable scholarly estimates derived from the pioneering work of the demographer Judith Banister, who in 1987 used Chinese demographic statistics to come up with the remarkably durable estimate of 30 million, and the journalist Jasper Becker, who in his 1996 work Hungry Ghosts gave these numbers a human dimension and offered a clear, historical analysis of the events. At the most basic level, the early works took the net decline in China’s population during this period and added to that the decline in the birth rate—a classic effect of famine. Later scholars refined this methodology by looking at local histories compiled by government offices that gave very detailed accounts of famine conditions. Triangulating these two sources of information results in estimates that start in the mid-20 millions and go up to 45 million.

Two more recent accounts give what are widely regarded as the most credible numbers. One, in 2008, is by the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng, who estimates that 35 million died. Hong Kong University’s Frank Dikötter has a higher but equally plausible estimate of 45 million. Besides adjusting the numbers upward, Dikötter and others have made another important point: many deaths were violent. Communist Party officials beat to death anyone suspected of hoarding grain, or people who tried to escape the death farms by traveling to cities.

Regardless of how one views these revisions, the Great Leap Famine was by far the largest famine in history. It was also man-made—and not because of war or disease, but by government policies that were flawed and recognized as such at the time by reasonable people in the Chinese government…

Continue this story at the NY Review of Books

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