Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?

Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward? Monthly Review version, click here for article

Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward? 2nd version, click here for article

First published in 2006, this remains an important article. This article is an analysis of the evidence that Mao ‘killed’ 30 million Chinese people in the Great Leap Forward. This evidence is shown to have emerged during a campaign against Maoism and the Maoist legacy by his successor Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. The demographic evidence is of very questionable origin. Other evidence presented by Western authors about massive deaths in this period, such as Jung Chang and Jasper Becker, lacks sufficient authentication. This article also contains a discussion of the work of Roderick MacFarquhar.

This article was clearly not the first challenge to the ‘Mao killed millions’ narrative, nor the last.

Utsa Patnaik wrote a very important piece querying the death toll in 2002 in her chapter in  S. Patel, J. Bagchi and Krishna Raj (eds.), Thinking Social Science in India, Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner, Sage, New Delhi.

Some of the main points were later summarised by Patnaik here:

Monthly Review Revisiting Famine Deaths

Patnaik made the point that the official death rate in the Great Leap Forward really did not push death rates much higher they were at the start of the Maoist era. According to the official death toll, death rates had halved in the ten years between liberation and the start of the Great Leap Forward.  In addition, these death rates were only the same as ‘normal’ death rates in India at the time.  Patnaik pointed out that efforts to double the official death rates by demographers such as Banister relied on some very arbitrary assumptions: the official death rates were wildly wrong but the census figures were very reliable, the pattern of unrecorded deaths followed the pattern of recorded deaths, a survey that indicated deaths were underreported was accepted, one that indicated the opposite was dismissed etc.

Patnaik made these points about the official death toll figures despite doubting them.   My own article was an effort to demonstrate at greater length why the figures should not be relied on.

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