Author: 'Great Leap Forward' Death Toll Was 45 Million; Nick Kristof in 2005: Mao 'Not All Bad'

September 19th, 2010 11:10 AM
MaoA UK Independent item about an unreleased book by historian Frank Dikötter made me think about New York Times columnist NIcholas Kristof. Readers will see why shortly.

Amazon says that Dikötter's "Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962" will be released on September 28. The Independent's Arifa Akbar relays Dikötter's core conclusion that "At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years." This is a significantly higher number than the highest previous estimate of Jung Chang, who asserted in her 2005 book, "Mao: The Unknown Story," that "38 million people were starved and slave-driven to death in 1958-61." The seven million extra deaths would move Chang's 2005 total of "more than 70 million" into the neighborhood of 80 million, padding Mao's lead over Stalin and Hitler as the worst mass murderer in human history.

The Independent's Akbar also writes that "Mr. Dikötter is the only author to have delved into the Chinese archives since they were reopened four years ago." If true, this reflects a startling lack of curiosity.

I hope Nick Kristof is just a little curious, and will peruse what Mr. Dikötter has documented when it becomes available. Perhaps it will move him to reach conclusions a bit different from those he reached when he reviewed Chang's book in October 2005 (bolds are mine):

Finally, there is Mao’s place in history. I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao’s legacy is not all bad. Land reform in China, like the land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today. [1] The emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea.[2] Indeed, Mao’s entire assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon.[3]

Perhaps the best comparison is with Qinshihuang, the first Qin emperor, who 2,200 years ago unified China, built much of the Great Wall, standardized weights and measures and created a common currency and legal system – but burned books and buried scholars alive. The Qin emperor was as savage and at times as insane as Mao – but his success in integrating and strengthening China laid the groundwork for the next dynasty, the Han, one of the golden eras of Chinese civilization. In the same way, I think, Mao’s ruthlessness was a catastrophe at the time, brilliantly captured in this extraordinary book – and yet there’s more to the story: Mao also helped lay the groundwork for the rebirth and rise of China after five centuries of slumber.

Just a few notes about Kristof's assertions:
  • [1] - According to the Independent's Akbar, Dikötter writes that "a third of all homes in China were destroyed to produce fertiliser and when the nation descended into famine and starvation." This is "land reform"?
  • [2] - Thanks to China's one-child policy, 30-40 million more girls than boys have been aborted. And Nick Kristof has the gall to favorably comment on the status of women in China?
  • [3] - Kristof's highly debatable assertion that "Mao’s entire assault ... made it easier" is one of the most horrific "end justifies the means" statements I've ever read.
I noted when I posted on Kristof's 2005 review ("Nicholas Kristof and Mao: He Just, Can’t, Let, Go") shortly after its appearance that he spent an "inordinate amount of time" quibbling with Chang's body count. I had forgotten until I went back to the review about just how determined he was to tamp down Chang's estimate:
Take the great famine from 1958 to 1961. The authors declare that "close to 38 million people died," and in a footnote they cite a Chinese population analysis of mortality figures in those years. Well, maybe. But there have been many expert estimates in scholarly books and journals of the death toll, ranging widely, and in reality no one really knows for sure - and certainly the mortality data are too crude to inspire confidence. The most meticulous estimates by demographers who have researched the famine toll are mostly lower than this book's: Judith Banister estimated 30 million; Basil Ashton also came up with 30 million; and Xizhe Peng suggested about 23 million. Simply plucking a high-end estimate out of an article and embracing it as the one true estimate worries me; if that is stretched, then what else is?

Now that Frank Dikötter, based on new, extensive information that was not available to Chang, has come up with an even higher death toll, perhaps Nick Kristof will rethink his skepticism about the Great Leap Forward's death toll.

It would be nice to think that Kristof might also reconsider his outrageous defense of Mao's "legacy," or that former White House Communications person Anita Dunn might decide that Mao isn't one of her "favorite political philosophers." Don't count on either.

Cross-posted at