A few years ago an important historical document emerged which cast serious doubt on allegations that Mao was responsible for mass deaths in China in the Great Leap Forward. This document showed how Mao was actually attempting to promote democracy and restrain excesses during this period. Frank Dikotter’s book Mao’s Great Famine contains a quotation from this document which he tries to use as evidence that Mao was absolutely indifferent to the fate of the Chinese people and responsible for vast numbers of deaths during the Great Leap Forward. Mao is quoted as saying: ‘It is better to let half of the people die so the other half can eat their fill.’
The document that came to light is a page from an 8 page set of notes of Mao’s comments at a private meeting of Communist Party leaders in a hotel in Shanghai in 1959. This page gives us a clear idea of the context of Mao’s comments about half of China starving. Once the context is understood, it is clear that Dikotter’s interpretation of Mao’s comments is absolutely wrong. The document actually shows Mao strenuously advocating mass popular involvement in the policy-making process and trying to prevent the imposition of an excessive workload on the people. Mao’s comments about half the people dying appear to be an ironic criticism of the over-ambitious plans of others. By pointing us to 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.
It should be said that Anthony Garnaut interpreted Mao’s comment about ‘half of the people’ dying as only relating to a cut in resources for industrial projects, i.e. half of them not being resourced in the new plan:
This is obviously a correct interpretation but I believe that Mao probably was also part thinking of the dangers for the people’s welfare if the Great Leap Forward was carried out in an overzealous fashion as my article tries to show.
This article contains a translation of the page of the document where Mao makes the statement about half the people dying. It also gives a general evaluation of Dikotter’s book and its Great Leap Forward atrocity stories. The article finds that Dikotter does not provide his readers with an adequate assessment of the evidence he uses in his book. It goes on to examine other evidence presented by Dikotter, as well as evidence from other sources about the Great Leap Forward. The article provides further evidence for questioning the thesis that tens of millions died at this time. It points out that once the natural disasters and errors of the Great Leap Forward were overcome, the Maoist economic strategy was very successful. It still provides a model for countries that want to break free from globalization and capitalism. It provides a far better model of economic development than those prescribed by western countries.
Look at the page of the document showing Mao’s comments at the meeting in Shanghai in 1959 here . This page is in Chinese, read the article above for a full English translation.