China fact (book) of the day

When it comes to the overall death toll, for instance, researchers so far have had to extrapolate from official population statistics…Their estimates range from 15 to 32 million excess deaths.  But the public security reports compiled at the time, as well as the voluminous secret reports collated by party committees in the last months of the Great Leap Forward, show how inadequate these calculations are, pointing instead at a catastrophe of a much greater magnitude: this book shows that at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962.

That is from Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, which is one of the scariest books I have read.  Here is another passage, I am not sure how well it is sourced:

Mao was delighted.  As reports came in from all over the country about new records in cotton, rice, wheat or peanut production, he started wondering what to do with all the surplus food.  On August 4 1958 in Xushui, flanked by Zhang Guozhong, surrounded by journalists, plodding through the fields in straw hat and cotton shoes, he beamed: "How are you going to eat so much grain?  What are you going to do with the surplus?"

"We can exchange it for machinery," Zhang responded after a pause for thought.

[Showing a poor understanding of Say's Law] "But you are not the only one to have a surplus, others too have too much grain!  Nobody will want your grain!"  Mao shot back with a benevolent smile.

"We can make spirits of out of taro," suggested another cadre.

"But every county will make spirits!  How many tonnes of spirits do we need? Mao mused.  "With so much grain, in future you should plant less, work half time and spend the rest of your time on culture and leisurely pursuits, open schools and a university, don't you think?…You should eat more.  Even five meals a day is fine!"

Here are some reviews of the book.

Comments

That's what happens when you have private ownership of a nation, in this case by Mao and his party.

Right wingers like to blame it on socialism or communism, but they miss the point: it's private ownership of a nation by a tiny aristocracy. It doesn't require a communist party for such atrocities: Leopold of Belgium did just fine in the Congo when he owned it.

The liberal idea of public control is the solution.

I think that Mao's personal conversations may be more like the Sunna of the Prophet. And I wouldn't be surprised is there was a whole hadith industry in China with conflicting chains of transmission.
"No, the great Helmsman said...!"

The second link doesn't work for me.

"How are you going to eat so much rain?"

I wonder if a lot of transcendent Chinese wisdom is just typos.

To avoid such madness never accept the idea that the goal justifies the means. It is this vile idea that is common to Stalin, Mao, and in his comparatively modest way to George W. Bush.

Mike Huben,

How do you enforce public ownership?

The wikipedia article on the Great Leap Forward includes these paragraphs in the "alternative conclusions" section:

Former Chinese dissident and political prisoner, Minqi Li, a Marxist Professor of Economics at the University of Utah, has produced data showing that even the peak death rates during the Great Leap Forward were in fact quite typical in pre-Communist China. Li (2008) argues that based on the average death rate over the three years of the Great Leap Forward, there were several million fewer lives lost during this period than would have been the case under normal mortality conditions before 1949. [60]

Utsa Patnaik,Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, argues that some of the very high mortality estimates attributed to the Great Leap Forward, are in part a statistical construct, motivated by an underlying political agenda. Patnaik points out the following: "....because China in the single preceding decade of building socialism, had reduced its death rate at a much faster rate (from 29 to 12 comparing 1949 and 1958) than India had, this sharp rise to 25.4 in 1960 in China still meant that this "famine" death rate was virtually the same as the prevalent death rate in India which was 24.6 per thousand in 1960, only 0.8 lower. This latter rate being considered quite "normal" for India, has not attracted the slightest criticism. Further, in both the preceding and the suceeding year India's crude death rate was 8 to 10 per thousand higher than in China."[61][unreliable source?]

The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra raises the point made by the Indian economist Amartya Sen that “despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former.” Describing China’s early lead over India in health care, literacy, and life expectancy, Sen wrote that “India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.”[62]

I'm not claiming these views as my own, but I am curious to see some responses to the views above. In particular: does anyone have any evidence (for or against) on whether the death rate during the Great Leap Forward was actually comparable to either China's before Mao or India in the same period? The Marxist professor at U of Utah doesn't inspire much confidence, but Amartya Sen cannot be simply dismissed.

That's what happens when you have private ownership of a nation, in this case by Mao and his party.

Right wingers like to blame it on socialism or communism, but they miss the point: it's private ownership of a nation by a tiny aristocracy. It doesn't require a communist party for such atrocities: Leopold of Belgium did just fine in the Congo when he owned it.

The liberal idea of public control is the solution.

Except that public ownership is a myth. The person who owns something is the person who controls it. Everything else is simply ceremony and rhetoric.

In all command economies, capital is owned by a dictator or oligarchy. The economy is centrally planned, by a person and/or small group of people, by definition. Even if the dictator or oligarchs are chosen via a ballot box (which they almost never are), they are the defacto owners of all economic resources... people would simply be voting for who they want to effectively be owner of all capital.

But, even then, there can't really be any democracy in a command economy. If all media is owned and centrally planned by the state, if all printing presses are owned by the state, if all schools/education are owned and centrally planned by the state, there is no viable way for non-ruling political parties to function.

You can't deny history by playing word games. Regardless if you want to call dictators and central-planners "capitalists" or "communists", all command-economies end in mass-murder. No rhetorical games are going to make your preferred version of a command-economy less bloodthirsty.

LoneSnark: private ownership of countires by aristocracies predates socialism and communism by millenia. Warlords, kings, etc.

Yancey Ward and Bernard Guerrero: I recommend The Federalist Papers to you.

Vehicle Driver: All modern first-world governments have public ownership of the nation rather than private ownership by aristocrats. And of course, the US during WWII was a fine example of a command economy in a democratic and publicly owned nation.

Eric: there is no "classical sense" of liberal. That is a propaganda term of libertarians. The liberal idea I am talking about is the idea of power being publicly held (not privately, as in feudalism or dictatorship) which is one of the bases of the US Constitution.

Vehicle Driver: All modern first-world governments have public ownership of the nation rather than private ownership by aristocrats. And of course, the US during WWII was a fine example of a command economy in a democratic and publicly owned nation.

No, most first-world governments are mixed economies, with the vast majority of property being private and the vast majority of economic activity being conducted in the free-market, with exceptions (i.e. public roads/parks, welfare state, military, etc. being controlled by state oligarchs).

During WWII, the United States was not a democracy... entire races of people had their property seized where where forced into concentration camps, all broadcast film and print media was subject to government censorship, secret police had the power to indefinitely hold war-dissenters... The U.S. was the least oppressive of WWII participants, but the United States during WWII was most definitely a temporary dictatorship. However, the U.S. did not abolish most forms of private property... the U.S. only nationalized resources that it considered to be vital to the war effort, so that your claim that the U.S. was a "publicly owned nation" is certainly false.

Mike: "Classical liberalism" is a term that was hardly ever used until the 60's and 70's when libertarians started claiming it. That's easy to check with Google Books Ngram Viewer.

But of course it wasn't used before then. There was little need to draw such a distinction prior to American liberals' conscious dissociation from previously held views that at the time fell within the liberal camp. Now, if you wanted to argue that there were liberals who were not very libertarian in say the 19th century, tending in a leftward direction (eg: Mill), that's fine. I wouldn't deny it. But if you deny that there was, also at that time, a strand of liberalism that hewed closer to libertarian tendencies, then that is definitely wrong. Your implication seems to be that those professing to be "classical liberals" are somehow usurping the term liberal, which rightfully belongs to the left. But that is not accurate historically, nor is it quite fair, as those who label themselves "classical liberal" usually wish to draw a distinction between their views and the current fare of libertarianism in some respects (by hearkening back to some particular liberal thinker or thinkers of an earlier era).

"Right wingers like to blame it on socialism or communism, but they miss the point: it's private ownership of a nation by a tiny aristocracy."

I guess those agricultural communes had nothing to do with it?

We can only gain the respect we want from others if we do so ourselves. We simply cannot overdominate others and act as if we don't care always. Life is only unfair because people forget to respect the ways of life of other people. This is what's the real score here.

Mao's Famine is described by Dikotter and fellow travellers the worst catastrophe anywhere.

They are quite wrong. The mortality rate during the worst year of the GLF (1960), while exceptional by the standards of socialist China, was quite unexceptional when compared to the mortality rates of the two other big Asian countries, Indonesia, and India of the time (26/1000, 24/1000, 25/1000 respectively). In the other years of the GLF the mortality rate was actually less than that of India (refer work by Patnaik).

Furthermore, pre-revoultionary China, consistently had mortality rates which were at or exceeded the rates of the worst year (1960) of the GLF.

The GLF was a catastrophe relative to the otherwise tremendous accomplishments of the new regime in reducing mortality and raising life expectancy.

Dikotter is patently dishonest. He calculates excess deaths based on deaths over 10/1000. 10/1000 was the mortality rate of advanced countries like the US at the time. Yet Banister puts the mortality rate at 38/1000 in 1949, only 8 years before the GLF. If the communists really had achieved a 'normal' mortality rate of 10/1000 by 1958 (the same as the developed countries), then they surely deserve all the credit for saving millions of lives, up to that point.

If you accept the massive excess deaths calculations of Dikotter and you then have to accept that mortality in revolutionary China was normally extremely low for a developing country - and then credit the number of lives saved to Mao.

The fact is that the number of people (as a proportion of the population) who died in the three or four years of the GLF was less than over any chosen consecutive three year period in pre-revolutionary China. More people died in India as a proportion of the population than in China, over the same period as the GLF.

So how can one logically proclaim the GLF to be humanity's greatest catastrophe?

In fact the most rapid increase in China's population happened under the Mao era --- but in a time of falling fertility. Why? Obviously the only possible explanation is a dramatic decline in mortality. Amartya Sen calculates 4 million excess deaths on average for the Indian 'democratic' experiment over China's socialist system. I trust Sen over Dikotter anyday of the week. He is a Nobel prize wining economist.

Mao's system probably saved close to 100 million lives (refer Chomsky on Sen's work). That is had China followed the development model of other backward countries, one hundred million more people would have died than under the Maoist system. Thus it could possibly argued that Mao was the greatest humanitarian in history.

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