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.


(Mao)'Why was this not handed to the masses for discussion? There were only meetings of industrial secretaries and party secretaries of the factories. Why were there no workshop secretaries, team leaders, and activists taking part? Without opposing sides, without the majority taking part, there would not be the mass line. We've been talking about following the mass line for ten thousand years. Then why was this not handed to the masses for discussion? It may seem that following the mass line is just like this in China, but in fact it is wrong. In the rural area, there are only county committees' and commune party committees' lines; there is no mass line. It is the same situation in the factories. When Yan Xishan took charge of the army, he paid special attention to regimental commanders. In taking charge of the industries, we need to learn from him: paying special attention to workshop leaders and workshop secretaries. When we have industrial meetings, we need to have them to participate.'

When discussing "production arrangement" for the second quarter," Mao said:

'It would be good if this list can be accomplished. Is this list Marxist? If 90 percent or above can be completed, it is Marxist.'

When discussing "There are two ways for arranging the second quarter's production and construction," Mao said:

'This can be regarded a lesson. This analysis is good. For industries, we need to pay close attention during these 3 months. There will be a Qin Shi Huang [the first emperor of China] in the leadership of the industries. In order to complete the plan, there needs to be big cuts in projects. We should cut the number of the projects from 1078 to 500. Applying the force evenly is a way of undermining the Great Leap Forward. All going hungry and starving to death is worse than having one half die and one half eat their fill.'

When discussing "In order to guarantee the completion of the yearly plan, we need to concentrate limited resources and personnel, shorten the front line, and accomplish the tasks one by one, batch by batch," Mao said:

'This is good.'

[Document Extract Ends]

So we see Mao complaining about the lack of consultation with the masses concerning industrial plans. Then we see Mao asking for the number of Great Leap Forward projects to be cut in half. Then he makes the controversial comment.

There is nothing here to suggest Mao is seriously proposing to let anyone starve to fulfil his plans. What we see here are notes of some of the comments Mao made in a debate over policy. It seems like he is responding to the reports or statements of others but we only have his comments here, we do not know the content of these reports or other statements . We do not know, therefore, quite why Mao made his comment about people dying. So is it sensible to take this comment literally, as Dikotter appears to do? Is Mao really saying that under the Great Leap Forward plans he is criticising, 90 million people, for example, would starve to death so he wants to cut the number of Great Leap Forward projects down to 500, so only 45 million people, for example, starve to death? What is more, at the same time he is proposing to consult the masses and to have a plan for industrial growth that actually comes from the masses-'the mass line'. Would Mao really have been saying there needs to be greater consultation among the people about plans intended to starve tens of millions of them to death? It hardly seems likely that this is what Mao is saying. It appears that Dikotter's way of thinking about the whole issue has prevented him interpreting this document in an objective manner.

What is far more likely is that Mao is making a sarcastic comment about plans that have not been consulted on and go too far. There is good evidence for this because four months before at the Wuchang conference, when Mao had also talked of the need to scale back Great Leap Forward plans, he is recorded as warning that no would should die as a result of the Great Leap Forward. Crucially he is recorded as making a rather hyperbolic comment at Wuchang about half of China dying while warning his audience not to go too far with their Great Leap Forward projects.

Mao is quoted as saying at the Wuchang Conference:

'In this kind of situation, I think if we do [all these things simultaneously] half of China's population unquestionably will die; and if it's not a half, it'll be a third or ten percent, a death toll of 50 million people... If with a death toll of 50 million, you didn't lose your jobs, I at least should lose mine; [whether I would lose my] head would be open to question. Anhui wants to do so many things, it's quite all right to do a lot, but make it a principle to have no deaths.'

Then a little later in the same discussion Mao says: 'As to 30 million tons of steel, do we really need that much? Are we able to produce [that much]? How many people do we have to mobilize? Could it lead to deaths?'(3).

When we put the two statements together we can see that Mao's comment about half of China dying was something he tended to say when he was angry or worried about over-ambitious or undemocratic plans in the Great Leap Forward. According to the quote from the Wuchang Conference, it is quite clear that Mao wants no deaths at all due to the Great Leap Forward, he certainly was not prepared to risk tens of million deaths as some are trying to claim.

The comments of my correspondents, who saw the whole document, reinforce the view that Dikotter's interpretation of what Mao is saying is very mistaken. My correspondents made the following comments.

They confirmed the document contains meeting notes of Mao's speech in a meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959. It does not list who attended the meeting. The entire meeting covered quite a lot of issues, mainly agrarian issues and food supply. My correspondents remember the following points from the body of the document.

(1) Mao urged other officials to set the grain collection quotas as early as possible. He is recorded as saying that if grain collection does not exceed 1/3 of the harvest, peasants will not rebel. However, this must be seen in the context of a lot of other comments. He also said: 'Set the quota earlier so peasants can be relieved. Even if peasants want to give us their surplus, we will not accept it [because the quota has been set]. It is better to leave more grain to peasants.' Importantly, my correspondents believe that Mao is recorded as asking local officials not to set the target too high like before.

(2) Although the new quotas are still very possibly too high, the main tone of the speech, according to my correspondents, is to protect the peasants' interests, stabilise people's life at a time of food shortage, further expand mass participation in decision making, etc.

As a minimum Dikotter must publish the full document before we can start to consider this issue. This is because, as stated, my correspondents believe that Mao is asking for a lowering of quotas in this document. However, Dikotter is accusing Mao of deliberately doing the opposite when he knew that there was a food shortage. Dikotter argues that the grain procurements for years before 1958 varied between 20 and 25%. He states that some have believed excessive procurements in 1959 were due to the government believing the harvest in 1959 was bigger than it actually was. He then uses Mao's statement that a maximum of a third should be procured to indicate that Mao himself wanted to procure more than before in 1959 (4) .This is in line with a general approach that the famine deaths in 1959 and 1960 were due to deliberate policy decisions. However, if Mao is saying at the Jinjiang Hotel that the procurement figure of a third is lower than before, then Dikotter's account becomes incoherent. According to figures released by the Chinese state in 1983, 48.040 million tons of grain out of 195.045 million were procured in 1957, of these 14.170 million tons were sold back to the rural population. So 24.6% of grain was procured in 1957 with a net procurement, after resales to the rural population, of 17.4%. In 1958 the figures were 29.4% and 20.9%. In 1959 the figures were 39.7% and 28% (5). So it is very hard to see why Mao would be saying that procuring not more than a third is a decrease on previous years. Some possibilities are:

1. Mao did not know the true figures for production and procurement in this or previous years. In this case it is hard to accuse Mao of a crime, as he was trying to reduce procurements but with the wrong figures.
2. When Mao says not to procure 'more than a third' he does not mean nation-wide. He means do not procure more than a third even in areas producing a big surplus. Therefore he believed the average procurement for China would be less than a third in 1959.
3. Procurements were higher than a third before 1959 and only a third in 1959. Therefore the figures released in 1983 are wrong.
4. Whoever recorded Mao's comments, at the Jinjiang Hotel, made serious mistakes in which case the document as a whole probably could not be used as reliable evidence of anything.
5. The full document does not, in fact, clearly show Mao as advocating a reduction in the grain quota and his words could be interpreted in other ways. In this case the matter could only be settled by the publication of the full document.

Some might argue, that setting any grain quota at all, at a time of food shortage, was in some sense a crime. However, this would be very simplistic. Mao was setting a limit here, not saying the government should procure a third of the grain in all areas. Presumably in areas of food shortage, the quotas could have been set lower. For one thing, food had to be redistributed to areas most in need. Han Dongping, a Professor at Warren Wilson College in the USA did some research into the effects of the famine in the Great Leap Forward in Jimo county in Shandong. On the subject of famine relief he noted that many farmers said they would have died without state assistance. Han writes:

'In 1960, six southeast provinces donated 215,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos of dried vegetables and large quantities of winter clothes to Jimo County. In the same year, Qingdao municipal government provided Jimo County with...125,000 kilos grain, and over half of the households in Jimo County benefited. In November of 1960, a Shanghai municipal delegate brought to Jimo 60,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos dried sweet potatoes and other relief materials. In 1961, Shandong provincial government donated 15,000 tons of grain to Jimo and provided 200 grams of grain per villagers each day before the next harvest.'

Han Dongping's evidence comes from interviews with local farmers and local official records that he studied (6).

If the record of Mao's speech is authentic, it may be that Mao believed that some reduction in quotas would be enough to allow for a fairly high quota for the relief of food deficit areas and for the needs of the cities and industry, without the quotas themselves leading to more hunger. Whether this was, objectively speaking, correct is a question beyond the scope of this article.

Some food exports were necessary to buy the raw materials and machinery needed to prevent industry and transportation collapsing. A collapse of the transportation system and the urban economy would have just made distributing food aid and economic recovery harder while creating more hunger in the urban areas. Even figures released in the post-Mao era show China only exporting 4,157.5 thousand tons of grain in 1959 or 2.4% of the total harvest of 170, 000 thousand tons. The figure for exports in 1960 was only 2,720.400 thousand tons (7). Contrary to Dikotter's implication, it is inconceivable that food exports could have played a major role in a generalised food crisis during the Great Leap Forward, still less starve 45 million people to death. Surely, by far the most important cause of the food shortages was a decline in production, not the level of export. The reasons for this should be investigated, along with allegations that more was done to protect the town-dwellers from the effects of food shortages than the country dwellers. However, the implication that keeps recurring in Dikotter's book that Mao deliberately starved millions of people to death to finance imports is obviously wrong.


Mao in the extract from the Jinjiang Hotel meeting notes is arguing for a reduction of Great Leap Forward schemes. It is usually argued that Mao was indeed willing to scale down the Great Leap Forward in the period when this meeting occurred, in early 1959, but changed his mind after the battle with the Defence Minister, Peng Dehuai, at the Lushan conference in August 1959. It is claimed that Mao recognised there were problems with the Great Leap Forward at the end of 1958 and started to moderate policy, for example by ending the 'backyard steel furnace' program. However, the conventional wisdom among historians has become that when Peng attacked Mao over the Leap at Lushan, Mao responded by ordering a new leftist upsurge (8). Dikotter adopts the same approach to Lushan in his characteristic style: 'Had the leadership reversed course in the summer of 1959 at Lushan, the number of victims claimed by famine would have been counted in the millions. Instead, as the country plunged into catastrophe, tens of millions of lives would be extinguished through exhaustion, illness, torture and hunger.' (9).Dikotter then ploughs on heroically through another 200 pages of his diatribe against Mao without ever making clear any connection between the policies announced at Lushan and the alleged deaths of tens of millions of people. Dikotter is clearly trying to make the alleged famine deaths after 1959 look like examples of Mao's wilfulness, rather than error or natural disasters but he cannot present real evidence of this.

There is a possibility that less extreme critics of Mao than Dikotter will ultimately make the same type of argument. They may accept that Mao's comments in Shanghai in March are indeed an example of Mao trying to prevent deaths. However, they will then say that this cannot save Mao's reputation because he changed direction and pursued a wilfully reckless course after Lushan.

However, we must ask whether this is what really happened. The best evidence for this thesis is the fact that procurements went up in 1959, according to figures released by the post-Mao regime. As we have seen, this issue needs more investigation, as Mao seems to have believed they were going down. Other evidence sheds even more doubt over these figures. Why would the Chinese state have decided it needed to procure such a greater proportion of grain in 1959? It could be argued the food was meant for a rising industrial workforce to carry on a reckless industrialisation process but there is not much indication that this was what was happening. According to figures released by the post-Mao regime the total number of industrial workers rose from 28.81 million in 1959 to 29.79 million in 1960, out of a 1960 total Chinese workforce of 258.8 million. The agricultural workforce actually expanded to 170.19 million in 1960 from 162.73 million in 1959, although this was still lower than the 1957 total of 193.10 million (10).

Certainly there was a great deal of left-wing political rhetoric after Lushan, in political statements and official publications, condemning those that had been attacking the Great Leap Forward. However, this was Maoist China and left-wing rhetoric tended to be the norm whatever the circumstances. If the critics of Mao really want to prove there was a reckless upsurge of ultra-leftism after Lushan, then they need to look at what happened in practice. Most of the indications are that policy carried on moderating after Lushan. It is interesting that western historians rarely quote much from the actual communique of the Lushan conference. For example, the communique states that in the light of that fact that production statistics for 1958 had been revised downwards and:

'the recent occurrence of serious floods and drought over large areas of the country, the Eighth Plenary Session re-examined this year's plan for development of the national economy and found that the original targets set in this plan were somewhat too high and need to be appropriately adjusted.'

Then the communique states of 1958:

'...the labour power allocated for the bumper autumn harvest was inadequate, with the result that reaping, threshing and storing were all done in a somewhat hurried manner.'(11).

It then states:

'In view of the fact that this year there is a certain shortage of labour power for agricultural production, it is suggested that the production of steel by indigenous methods for local use [the so-called backyard steel furnaces] be decided upon by the local authorities in accordance with local conditions.' (12).

The Central Committee also decided at Lushan that:

'Where natural calamities have occurred, the Party organizations must resolutely lead all people urgently to organize manpower and material resources, make full use of all existing water conservancy facilities and fight tenaciously to overcome the serious natural calamities, safeguard the autumn harvest and organize relief through production....After the autumn, labour power must be rationally deployed and diverse undertakings in forestry, animal husbandry and, side-occupations and fishery strengthened.' (13).

These two quotes show that the Party regarded it as important not to divert labour needed for food production into the so-called backyard steel furnace campaign and that other rural side occupations should only be pursued once the Autumn harvest was gathered. There is hardly much evidence of ultra-left excess or lack of concern for the food needs of the population here.

It is true that the policy of communal eating was upheld at Lushan but could communal eating really have been the cause of massive famine? The same resolution affirmed that there should be vigorous economy in the community dining-rooms with a fixed allocation of food per individual and participation in communal eating to be voluntary (14). According to Chou En-Lai, speaking ten days after the Lushan Plenum, the Party was aware that initially:

'some dining halls failed to manage their grain and non-staple foods well, so that a little too much was consumed. This is understandable. This defect has now been corrected. After the summer harvesting, such measures as distributing grain to each family, voluntary participation in dining-rooms, allocating food according to each individual's capacity and returning unconsumed grain to the person who saves it, have been introduced in various localities, with the result that most of the dining-rooms have been put on a sound basis.' (15).

It is also true that industrial output was planned to increase very rapidly in 1959 and 1960, though by a lot less than originally envisaged. However, given the small rise in the industrial workforce it is not at all clear how this could have created a massive famine.

It also might be argued that the diversion of the rural workforce to rural activities other than grain production might have been to blame for famine but as we have seen the Central Committee stipulated that these activities should take place after the harvest. According to figures released by the post-Mao Chinese regime, the number of rural non-agricultural workers decreased from 45.1 million in 1959 to 27.5 million in 1960 and only 5.1 million in 1961. The area sown to grain increased from 116.00 million hectares in 1959 to 122.4 million hectares in 1960 (although it had been 136.3 million hectares in 1956) (16). It is true that much labour was used for water conservancy but organising efforts to build water conservancy schemes at a time of drought was surely more a response to somewhat desperate circumstances than 'leftist excess'.

These comments should not be taken as a full analysis of the aftermath of Lushan. However, they do provide a very good prima facie case that Lushan carried on the efforts of the previous few months to address the problems of the Great Leap Forward and to try and safeguard the nation's grain supply. Especially in agriculture, sober planning and organisation took the place of the alleged utopianism of 1958. We have to ask ourselves why modern historians always repeat that Lushan led to a resurgence of the alleged excesses of 1958 and that political in-fighting led to the deaths of millions in 1960, given the very inconsistent evidence for this.


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% a year 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.


Correspondence between Frank Dikotter and Joseph Ball

According to Dikotter, he had to sign a contract promising not to lend the documents he found to anyone else or let them be copied, as a condition of access to the archives. I have reproduced Dikotter's email statement regarding this in this appendix. Only those judged by the authorities to be professional historians can get access to the archives.

Dear Mr Dikotter

I am currently studying your book Mao's Great Famine. I would [be] very interested to know how I could access some of the documents cited in your work. The one I am most interested in is the document which includes Mao's speech on 25 March 1959. You give the reference as Gansu 19-18-494,p.48. You give this reference on p.379, its note 13. I am very interested in the quote you give on p.134 from this speech where Mao says 'It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.' It's interesting because in November 1959 Mao made a speech (in 'Mao's Secret Speeches' p.494-5) where he gives orders that no-one should die as a result of the Great Leap Forward.

The other documents I'm interested in are: Xinyang diwei zuzhii chuli bangongonshi...etc. p.1-2 cited on page 378, note 6. This is the reference for the figure of 66,000 clubbed to death in Xinyang. Also the documents Sichuan May-June 1962, JC 67-4 and JC 67-1003, p.3. cited in note 16 on page 403. This is the reference for deaths in Sichuan. I hope you don't regard my requests as too much of an imposition.

Obviously, I would find it very useful if I could access scanned versions of these documents. Do you put your sources on the internet? I haven't been able to find them. Please note: as I always say I regard information on the accessibility of sources in works I discuss [is] information I need to share with my readers. Therefore I will quote from your reply to my enquiries in any review or article I publish about your book. Please be aware of this and do not say anything in an email that you do not want to be shared with the public.

Yours sincerely
Joseph Ball
Dear Joseph,

The answer to this is quite simple: when I use party archives, I have to sign a contract, as I am sure you know, to the effect that I will not duplicate or circulate any of the files I see. If I send them to you I have no idea where they will end up and I will be in breach of contract, resulting, possibly, in a ban from the archives in future And of course you have not been able to find these sources on the internet, how would that be possible? You need to go to the archives I cite, i.e. Lanzhou, Chengdu ad Xinyang. However, my colleague Zhou Xun is in the process of publishing documents, including the ones you cite, for a documentary history of the famine. This may take another year or two. I would be happy to show you these documents in my office if you have time.

With best wishes,