It was surely one of the great crimes of the last century. It was also one of the greatest crimes in human history.
No one knows about it. No one much cares.
In part, because it doesn’t look like a crime. It wasn’t the kind of genocide where people are lined up and shot. It wasn’t the kind of genocide where people were thrown into gas chambers. In many ways it was more a failed policy than a criminal act.
China’s Great Famine was a deadly mistake. In the end it killed far more people than even the Holocaust.
When a leader sees that his policy is failing, he ought rightly to change the policy. If he continues on a deadly road, blaming others for his failure, his dereliction becomes criminal.
Mao Zedong did not wake up one morning and decide that he wanted to produce a famine that ended up starving some 45,000,000 people. Not at all. To his mind, he had the best of intentions. He wanted the best for his people. And yet, he brought them a horror that was so unspeakable that we rarely discuss it, even today.
He was just trying to bring Communism and industry to China, especially to China’s enormous peasant class. He was trying to impose his ideology on a recalcitrant population, to drag them into a modern Worker’s Paradise.
In 1958 Mao instituted a policy called the Great Leap Forward. In part he wanted to industrialize the nation rapidly. And he also wanted to collectivize agriculture. By force, of course. Mao’s policy abolished private farms and reorganized it all into agricultural collectives.
Wikipedia explained the policy clearly:
The central idea behind the Great Leap was that rapid development of China's agricultural and industrial sectors should take place in parallel. The hope was to industrialize by making use of the massive supply of cheap labour and avoid having to import heavy machinery. The government also sought to avoid both social stratification and technical bottlenecks involved in the Soviet model of development, but sought political rather than technical solutions to do so. Distrusting technical experts, Mao and the party sought to replicate the strategies used in its 1930s regrouping in Yan'an following the Long March: "mass mobilization, social leveling, attacks on bureaucratism, [and] disdain for material obstacles." Mao advocated that a further round of collectivization modeled on the USSR's "Third Period" was necessary in the countryside where the existing collectives would be merged into huge People's Communes.
And Mao also commanded peasants to neglect their land in order to produce backyard steel furnaces. It looks like a grim caricature of the Industrial Revolution:
Huge efforts on the part of peasants and other workers were made to produce steel out of scrap metal. To fuel the furnaces the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants' houses. Pots, pans, and other metal artifacts were requisitioned to supply the "scrap" for the furnaces so that the wildly optimistic production targets could be met. Many of the male agricultural workers were diverted from the harvest to help the iron production as were the workers at many factories, schools and even hospitals.
Anyone who resisted or who disagreed was subjected to political re-education, and worse. The more the policy looked like a failure, the more the peasants were subjected to indoctrination and brainwashing.
The result was famine:
Despite the harmful agricultural innovations, the weather in 1958 was very favorable and the harvest promised to be good. Unfortunately, the amount of labour diverted to steel production and construction projects meant that much of the harvest was left to rot uncollected in some areas. This problem was exacerbated by a devastating locust swarm, which was caused when their natural predators were killed as part of the Great Sparrow Campaign. Although actual harvests were reduced, local officials, under tremendous pressure from central authorities to report record harvests in response to the innovations, competed with each other to announce increasingly exaggerated results. These were used as a basis for determining the amount of grain to be taken by the State to supply the towns and cities, and to export. This left barely enough for the peasants, and in some areas, starvation set in.
In a culture where everything is propaganda, real information about the situation on the ground was ignored by officials who feared for their careers.
Mao also felt a dire necessity to maintain the illusion that all was well in China. So, he increased grain exports and refused offers of foreign aid. To send food out of the country when your people are starving certainly makes it genocidal:
During 1958–1960 China continued to be a substantial net exporter of grain, despite the widespread famine experienced in the countryside, as Mao sought to maintain face and convince the outside world of the success of his plans. Foreign aid was refused. When the Japanese foreign minister told his Chinese counterpart Chen Yi of an offer of 100,000 tonnes of wheat to be shipped out of public view, he was rebuffed.
In the end Mao lost control of the government. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping took over in the early 1960s and set to work reversing Mao’s collectivist policies.
Since they achieved some measure of success, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966 in order to restore the purity of Communist thought. Liu and Deng were denounced as the number one and number two capitalist roaders. Liu was murdered and Deng, protected by powerful members of the military, barely escaped.
Mao continued to believe that his failed policy was not really a failed policy. He saw no fault in his thought or in Communist ideology. It lay in the way Chinese people had been acculturated. Just a little more reeducation and all would be well.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution was the most important effort to change a nation’s culture in human history. One ought to recognize that sophisticated Western student intellectuals at the time were enthralled by the vision of China in the grip of a Cultural Revolution.
The event was massively destructive in its own right.
Wikipedia described it well:
Millions of people were persecuted in the violent factional struggles that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced, most notably the transfer of urban youth to rural regions during the Down to the Countryside Movement. Historical relics and artifacts were destroyed. Cultural and religious sites were ransacked.
The Cultural Revolution continued, though in less virulent form, until Mao’s death in 1976. In that year, Deng Xiaoping took charge and had the Gang of Four arrested. Led by Mao’s wife, these four were the last remnants of the leadership of the Cultural Revolution.
Deng picked up from where he left off in the 1960s, beginning by privatizing Chinese agriculture. We often grant Margaret Thatcher the credit for having introduced privatization into the British economy when she became prime minister in 1979. And yet, the first and perhaps the most important gesture in this direction was instituted by the man who Mao called, perhaps with reason, the number two capitalist roader.
The rest, as they say, is history.