A Great Leap Forward - Into a Moral 'Grey Zone'

In New York on Oct. 13, 2010, historian Frank Dikötter recounts the most upsetting surprise he found in researching China's famine. (1 min., 35 sec.)

NEW YORK, October 13, 2010 - Frank Dikötter, author of Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, on Wednesday spoke to an audience at Asia Society's New York headquarters about his research into the widespread famine that followed the Great Leap Forward, and the social toll it had on Chinese peasants. 

Dikötter told Asia Society’s Arthur Ross Fellow, Susan Jakes, that when people are faced with starvation, the rule of survival dominates. For a person to survive, they have to bend the rules and rely on their wits, many times resorting to trickery or theft. He added, “I would see China from 1958 to 1962 as one giant [moral] grey zone.”

During the Great Leap Forward, farmers, working on newly collectivized plots, faced intense pressure to fulfill production quotas. Often these quotas disregarded local limitations, and many collectives were left with insufficient food reserves. Deprivation, combined with a lack of individual investment in the collective farms, bred a culture of violence, Dikötter explained. “Collectivization means collective violence," he said. "When you strip every incentive to work from the people, you have to beat them to get to do things.”

Dikötter mentioned a particularly brutal record of violence he uncovered when researching a village in Anhui province. He said while he expected to read about starvation, he was surprised to read reports of beatings and torture. 

Dikötter's work is the product of unprecedented access to classified Communist Party archives. Previously closed, the documents were made available during a period of openness in China in the years prior to the Beijing Olympics. 

Reported by Elizabeth Reynolds 

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Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962