Intro. [Recording date: July 24, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is historian Frank Dikötter,.... He's written numerous books on China, including Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. It won the 2011 Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction, and it is the subject of today's episode.... This is a very depressing book about an extraordinarily tragic topic. But it's a topic that I think everyone should know something about and that few do, which is the famine in China from 1958, roughly, to 1962, that resulted incredibly in the deaths of tens of millions of people. So, let's begin with some background. What were the origins of what is called the Great Leap Forward? What was Mao [Mao Tse-tung, alternately spelled Mao Zedong --Econlib Ed.] trying to do? And how did that lead toward the famine?
Frank Dikötter: Well, in a nutshell, what is the Great Leap Forward--what does it leap into, so to speak? It leaps from socialism into communism. It's a utopia, the idea being that--this is Mao Tse-tung's idea--that if you can somehow use those hundreds of millions of people in the countryside and turn every man, every woman, into a foot soldier in a giant army that you can then deploy and make them work--till the fields, produce iron in the evening--deploy them like an army, you can somehow catapult your country past your competitors. You can have that Great Leap Forward.
Russ Roberts: And at this point in Chinese history, it's important to remember--we're in the mid-1950s, towards the late 1950s. The Chinese Revolution, Mao's ascent to power, had only been 1949.
Frank Dikötter: Yes.
Russ Roberts: And the Soviet Union was the long-standing communist success story--at least people thought so. And Mao had an ego, desire to best the Soviet Union as well as the capitalistic countries.
Frank Dikötter: Yes. Dictators always want to best each other. 1949 is the date that the red flag goes up over the Forbidden City in Beijing--Beijing becomes the capital of the People's Republic of China. And from the beginning, Mao is very keen to transform his country into a mirror image of the Soviet Union: literally thousands of Soviet advisers come in. But, oddly enough, the one man who restrains the Stalinization of China is Stalin himself. Stalin is the one who views Mao as a potential competitor. He's had Yugoslavia and Tito, with all the issues that that entailed. He's obviously not that keen on having a very great power right next door to his own empire. So, on the one hand, he supports China and Mao's revolution; on the other hand, he tries to rein it in. So, he is the one who advises Mao to slow down the pace of collectivization. Stalin dies in 1953, and this truly is Mao's liberation. For the first time, there is no one to restrain him. The first thing Mao does is accelerate the pace of the collectivization. By the end of 1953, he imposes a monopoly on the grain. This sounds complicated; but in effect, ordinary villages in the countryside have to sell the grain they produce to the state at state-mandated prices. In other words, they are no longer masters of what they produce. A few years later, 1955, 1956, comes the first wave of collectivization, as state farms copied from the Soviet Union are set up. None of this is quite enough. Mao wishes to go much further. And, his really challenge here in the wake of Stalin's death is, of course, not only to carry out collectivization in China and transform that country from a relatively backward power into a world power, but also to become the leader of the socialist camp. Stalin is dead. Who becomes the leader? Of course, it's not Mao; it's Khrushchev, as we all know. So, the real challenge here is to somehow best Khrushchev--
Russ Roberts: Khrush'chev [American pronunciation as opposed to Dikötter's British pronunciation--Econlib Ed.], to you American listeners. Go ahead.
Frank Dikötter: I remember this vaguely from my lessons in Russian at university--it's pronounced Khrushchev [Russian pronunciation--Econlib Ed.]. Best remembered of course for the man who used his shoe to bang on the podium at a session of the United Nations in New York. Anyway, in October 1957, to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917, all the leaders of the socialist camp are invited to Moscow, and there Khrushchev announces that he will overtake your country, the United States, in the production of dairy products. Mao doesn't miss a beat: he says, without even standing up, 'If you wish to overtake the United States, we will beat England--the United Kingdom--in the production of steel within 15 years.' That's the start of the Great Leap Forward. In a nutshell, while the Great Leap Forward is an attempt to overtake capitalist countries, in effect, it's rivalry between Beijing and Moscow--between Mao Tse-tung and Nikita Khrushchev.
Russ Roberts: And so, besides this grandiose and grossly unattained goal of passing the United Kingdom in steel in 15 years--and I remember in your book, they soon make it 5 years, because 15 is not bold enough--they are very ambitious on how they change agricultural practice. So, besides the selling of the grain to the state, in addition--well, the phrase 'collectivization' doesn't really cover the range of stuff that they try, because they also want to catapult their grain production: they want to increase it dramatically. And so they launch a massive set of top-down, both technique changes and allocation of labor to agriculture. It's quite complicated--we can't--we could spend the whole hour just on this; but we won't. So just give us a summary of some of the practices that were put in place at this time to try to increase grain production.
Frank Dikötter: Yes. When we talked, before our talk, about the specific practices: when we talk about collectivization, some listeners might not quite understand what that really means. Collectivization is, in effect, in particular with the Great Leap Forward, the abolition of private property. I re-explain that by the end of 1953, the state imposes a monopoly on the grain, meaning that in effect the grain no longer belongs to the farmer. But, the soil, the land is taken back by the state. And then in 1958, hundreds of millions of villagers in China are herded into giant collectives called People's Communes. So, in effect, a Chinese villager no longer has any property that is his own. The land belongs to the state; his schedule is determined by a local party official, a cadre--cadre, sometimes pronounced as 'ca-dray'. His pots and pans have been taken away. Sometimes his house has been destroyed and he lives in a collective dormitory; children sent to collective kindergartens. People work in collective units--brigades--outside, at the beck and call of these political cadres.
Russ Roberts: But, what proportion would you say--and of course it's crude because it's not easily measured. But, what proportion of farmers at this point are literally mobilized for what I would call military agriculture?
Frank Dikötter: You might say that collectivization is based on the military model. In other words, the vision here is that if you turn men, women, children into foot soldiers, if you have them work along military lines, it would be much more effective. So there's this vision of freedom and liberty which is highly negative. Somehow, a villager who decides to plant watermelons is not contributing grain to the state; and the state needs the grain to sell it on the international market, to buy massive turnkey projects, which will fuel this Great Leap Forward. The same model as Stalin: Stalin wants the grain to go straight from the field into the granaries so he can sell it on the international market and fuel his own modernization from 1929 to 1934 with the famine that ensued [?] 10 million people in the Ukraine. Mao is very much doing the same thing. There's deeply ingrained resistance against anything that smacks of private enterprise. Private enterprise is generally described as 'speculation'--as something--
Russ Roberts: That's a nasty term, obviously.
Frank Dikötter: It's a nasty term, as 'bourgeois liberalism', as 'capitalist', as: all the terms are highly negative. So, if you can run your country like a giant army, if you can run the countryside as if these people are foot soldiers, it would be much more effective. The vocabulary comes straight from the army: the brigades are units.
Russ Roberts: So, they take, in addition to this mobilization, they impose a whole set of practices that weren't in place previously for agriculture. They plant seeds closer together; they have massive irrigation projects. They try to reroute the Yellow River, clear out the Yellow River--I forget what--they have all these grandiose schemes. And, who is in charge? Is there a meaningful sense in which Mao is steering this from the top in any actual way? Or is it--the impression I get from reading your book is there's almost this set of, I would call them, political entrepreneurs, between Mao and the people who are 'letting a thousand flowers bloom,' which of course they are not blooming. But, they are trying a bunch of trial and error things--in total ignorance, because they know nothing about agriculture relative to people on the ground they are in. But they are trying a bunch of stuff that ultimately fails horribly, in terms of output.
Frank Dikötter: Yes. So, it's based on only a very negative vision of private enterprise and freedom, but also to some extent, you might say, based on a very negative vision of these villagers, rather than listen to them and have them tell you what works best. After all, they've been working the soil for hundreds of years, and you might think they would know how to do it. But, instead, everything comes from the top: grandiose plans. People are deployed in units, brigades sent to countryside to work on water conservancy plans, or, for instance, do close cropping or deep plowing. These are two of the schemes that are advanced by Beijing: close cropping means that you are going to really plant these seedlings close together.
Russ Roberts: Get more per acre.
Frank Dikötter: Far more per acre than you would normally get. Deep plowing, meaning that you are going to go 30 centimeters deep, possibly up to 1 meter or even 3 meters. But, of course, what is so important here, is that reason has been abolished some time ago. This is all guided by political imperatives. So, if the Chairman from Beijing tells you that deep plowing is good, then you, as a political commissar, in charge of your brigade, you will try to outdo the next-door village by plowing even deeper. So, at some point you have people who go 3 meters deep with [?] lights in the middle of the night to out-do each other.
Russ Roberts: To show their devotion to the wisdom of--
Frank Dikötter: To show their devotion. Fertilizer becomes important--which it of course is. But if all of a sudden there is a competition to get more fertilizer, and hence a greater crop per acre, then it will lead to the most absurd schemes--where one foreigner passes through fields in North China and sees that some of them are covered in sugar. Where houses have been torn down in the belief that somehow these mud huts contain organic matter and will contribute to a better crop.
Russ Roberts: Which, of course, it doesn't.
Russ Roberts: So, at this point--there's two things, as I understand it, going on at this point. The actual output goes down: we have loss of incentives; people are basically being treated as close to slaves. They are being pushed out into the fields, like, you say, at night sometimes under lights. Beaten, if they show insufficient zeal and work effort. So, it moved to almost, it seemed like, a slave economy. Plus, the know-how that was, as you say, present in these villages for centuries, was thrown out. And, at the same time, China is selling a lot of grain that it does have on the international market. But the bottom line is: The crop goes down dramatically. And the part of that crop that's available for domestic consumption also goes down. Is that accurate?
Frank Dikötter: Not entirely. You say that they are treated almost like slaves. They are treated like. They are serfs. This is treated[?] in Hayek's book, The Road to Serfdom.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's crazy.
Frank Dikötter: This road, in the People's Republic is covered from 1949 to 1958. By 1958, farmers have lost every incentive to work. The land is not theirs. The tools are not theirs. The schedule is not theirs. Nothing is theirs. So, how do you get a man or a woman to work when there is no incentive to do so. If they work, of course they can go to the canteen; and they earn work points. The work points entitle them to a meal, which will be extremely frugal and in the event frequently not enough to sustain somebody who works all day long. Because, of course, all of this is being cut, since so much has to be delivered to the state.
Russ Roberts: And people have made forecasts, projections, promises.
Frank Dikötter: Absolutely. These local officials are keen to show that they are the ones who really know how to carry out the Great Leap Forward. And they make promises. They promise higher and higher quotas, deliveries of grains, steel, you name it--cotton--to the state. So, all of this has to be taken away from the very people who produce it. But, the key question still is: How do you motivate a man or a woman to work when there is no incentive? At some point you have to [?] it's fear.
Russ Roberts: Fear of violence.
Frank Dikötter: Fear of violence. Not only that, but you can beat them--which they do. You can cover them in urine and excrement. You can make them work naked outside in the middle of the winter. All of this will incite them to work. But, ultimately, your best weapon is food. In other words, food becomes a weapon. If you do not work hard enough, you will not be fed in the public canteen. Or, you will banned from the canteen. It goes back to Lenin. He put it in a nutshell: He who does not work shall not eat. That principle is applied literally. In other words, a great many people do not simply starve because there is no food. They are being starved by the regime. People who do not work hard enough because they are sick, women who are pregnant, children, elderly people--those who simply can't produce enough are being cut off from the food chain.
Russ Roberts: So, we'll talk in a little bit about the toll this takes, but before we do that, I want to talk about some of the other things that are going on in the economy. So, steel was a big focus. I just want to mention this, because it's one of my pet peeves: the focus on a particular industry as the road to prosperity. There's a certain romance about steel. It's a sign of modernization; obviously primitive economies import steel if they have any at all. So, there was, again, a matter of national pride here, an ego, I think, for Mao. And, I've known about this for a long time, but your book describes it in more detail than I've understood it: He actually encourages people to build steel furnaces in their backyard, and to devote all kinds of metal from their household--pots and pans, etc., doorknobs, to these foundries of ridiculous, inefficient scale. But, the tragedy of this isn't that--to me, the tragedy isn't that they devoted too many resources to steel. The tragedy is: they didn't get much steel for it. It was a total and utter failure in terms of quality and output.
Frank Dikötter: Yes. You take a good tool; you melt it down in a backyard furnace--a backyard furnace being some improvised, small furnace set up in the village--and what comes out is pig iron which is of such poor quality that you can't make the very tool that you used in the first place to produce it. It's absurd. But there is something almost magical about steel in the socialist universe. Steel is the marker of progress. I mean, Stalin means steel. And not just because Stalin is a hard man, tempered by the revolution and unafraid of smashing all enemies who stand in the way of the revolution, but also because steel is a sign of progress. That's what you want. So, there's an obsession around the production of steel. And, of course, grain. These countries--not just China, but others as well who go through collectivization--become monocultures: they produce one or two things. You know, grain on the one hand, steel on the other.
Russ Roberts: Oil, in some countries. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, this goes terribly. Although, it's not exactly publicized how badly it's going. You can actually, online, watch videos of cheerful Chinese peasants lining up to bring their woks and other household utensils to dump into the furnaces. It raises the question of: What was the person on the ground thinking? You know, there are different levels; and you actually capture quite a few of them in the book. You have some of the internal discussions of the Chinese leadership where they are optimistic and doing their best, and hopeful of achieving these goals like passing Britain in 15 years. Then you have the person on the ground, which of course we don't have as much knowledge about. These people were ultimately fighting for their lives. Did they resist this from the beginning intellectually? Did they see this as patriotic? In the Ukraine they saw it for what it was: They knew it was war, effectively. But, here, how much of this, the response of the person in the street, if we know it at all, was just optimistic patriotism versus just fear?
Frank Dikötter: It's war on them. On the countryside, on their livelihood, on their tradition. And they know that perfectly well. Perfectly well. You see these propaganda posters. And, it's a good question. I had an eminent professor in Sinology who was somehow upset--
Russ Roberts: That's the study of China--sinology.
Frank Dikötter: --sinology, the study of China--at Columbia, somehow upset at the conclusions I had drawn from my research on the Great Leap Forward, and told me that surely some of those villagers would have been enthusiastic, because you can see it from the photos. But all these photos are staged. This is state propaganda. People smile. They are condemned to perpetual enthusiasm. They must embrace the state, and embrace every decision made by a superior. So, people smile when they have to hand over their property to the state. There are images in 1955, 1956, just before the start of the Great Leap Forward of shopkeepers who have had their shop for a generation and are happy to hand it over to the state when all industry becomes a function of the state and is nationalized. Of course, I wondered myself: Why would you be smiling when you hand over your assets to the state? Well, there are two very simple reasons. First, if you don't, you get beaten up. If you are lucky. In the worst case scenario, you get labeled a rightist or a counter-revolutionary, which is very much the end of any likelihood of you being able to survive in this regime. It basically means you will be sent to a camp. Whereas another reason: As your shop becomes the property of the state--in other words, property of the Party--as the industry that had built up over several generations becomes property of the state, as the field you used to till for many generations in the countryside becomes property of the state, you need a job. So, you had better job. You've become an employee of the state: you'd better smile.
Russ Roberts: So, I just want to remind listeners: In a few weeks, probably about a month, when this episode airs on China, we're going to have the first of what I hope will be at least two episodes on In the First Circle--Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece, his novel about the sharashka--a particular kind of prison camp in the Soviet Union. And, in that book there is a character, Lev Rubin, who stands in--it's actually based on a friend of Solzhenitsyn's during his time in the camps--who is a very devoted Marxist, and is clearly torn by the fact that the regime that he respects intellectually has put him in prison for something that he probably either didn't do or something that he did that wasn't particularly bad. And, it certainly was the case in the Soviet Union, in the worst of the purges, that the loyal Party members--you know, someone like Bukharin, who is basically murdered by Stalin and forced to confess beforehand, and does confess; and potentially even sees himself as a counter-revolutionary, sees himself as the equivalent of a rightist in the Soviet system. So, the Soviet Union has this great intellectual Marxism among its intellectual class that is troubled by Stalinism deeply when they are forced to be ground under its gears, its wheels. Was that there in China? So, I'll kind of take your sinologist professor's viewpoint here for a minute. Were there people who saw Mao either as, you know, either an incredible exemplar who served the people, or as espousing a theory that, okay, so maybe it didn't work but they wanted it to? Which I think is true in the Soviet Union--not all of them, of course, but most of them saw it for what it was. But in China I don't have that feeling. Is that--am I missing something? Is there something there?
Frank Dikötter: There is. I think the operative term there is the one you used to describe one of the protagonists in Solzhenitsyn's book: namely, an intellectual. And there is no lack of intellectuals--other than in the West or inside China--who embrace the Communist cause, and are devoted Maoists. And many members[?] in the Communist Party in China who are absolutely convinced that this is the thing to do: Collectivization is the way to go. Abolition of private property is a basic fundamental principle of Communism. But, these are intellectuals. And what is an intellectual? An intellectual is a person who works with ideas. One might say, an idealist if not an ideologue. But I can assure you that your farmer in the North, the Middle, or the Southeast or West whose livelihood depends on their ability to cultivate the soil is not one of them. They no perfectly well what happens when you start close cropping, deep plowing, smothering your crop with fertilizer or carrying out collectivization.
Russ Roberts: So, let's shift--and by the way, I brought up the Solzhenitsyn because I encourage listeners to read the book in advance and follow along. We managed, after I tweeted on it, to sell it out at Amazon; but I hope by the time this episode airs there's a few more left. And I strongly encourage people to read it in the paperback or hardcover rather than the Kindle version. I read it myself in the Kindle version recently: It's a little hard to keep up with the characters. I think the paperback is a little easier. So, I'm just recommending that, if you want to follow along. You will be able to enjoy the episodes without reading the book, as well.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So one other thing I want to talk about, which is, just, you couldn't make it up. This is such an extraordinary thing that, even though I find it deeply confirming of all my strongest biases and priors, I find it hard to believe it actually happened. Because, it's too good, as an example of my worldview. Which is: At some point in the middle--I think at the beginning of this or maybe the middle, you'll tell me--Mao starts a campaign against the Four Pests, or the Four Vermin, which are: flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows. And encourages people to kill them en masse--because, there are a lot of reasons but which, for the sparrows, which are what I want to focus on, they eat grain and seeds, obviously. So, the idea is: If we can get rid of the sparrows, we'll have more grain. And, talk about that campaign and how it was carried out and what happened. I mean, it's--we have some video footage of that we'll put up on the page for the episode. But, Frank, tell us what happened.
Frank Dikötter: Well, as you said, there's a war against Nature. Mao says it very clearly: We are in a war against Nature. You have to tame Nature. And, one of the biggest thieves, besides locusts and insects, are of course sparrows. They steal grain. So, what do you do? You get rid of them. And, how? Well, you have an entire nation, in lockstep, so to speak, where it's timed in such a way that every village comes out at the same time making as much noise as possible--banging on Chinese gongs, [?]--
Russ Roberts: pots and pans--
Frank Dikötter: pots, pans--if they still have them before these backyard furnaces--you know, because much more it is possible to wave these big, white sheets, you make as much noise as is possible and you wave big white sheets to make sure that these sparrows are so afraid they never have a moment where they can have a rest.
Russ Roberts: And there's video footage of peasants with long flags, long sticks with flags on the end which are maybe, I don't know, 30 or 40 feet, 10 to 15 meters long; and they are waving them in the air near trees to discourage the sparrows from landing. And the claim is: Sparrows, literally--some are shot: some are shot with guns, some are shot with slingshots--but many of them fall dead out of the sky, because they are so harassed. Now, I find that a little hard to believe. But, there's footage--again, I don't know how representative it is--there's footage online of people with truckloads of dead sparrows. And children parading around a string of dead sparrows in triumph: They've climbed into the trees; they've crushed the eggs. So, the claim is: A billion sparrows are killed. I don't know if--do we have any idea if that's true?
Frank Dikötter: Well, it's surreal, if it's--
Russ Roberts: It is surreal. It is. It's a big number. But there are probably a billion sparrows in China. In the 1950s.
Frank Dikötter: Well, the numbers are surreal. When you say 'a billion' that might almost be plausible. But, the most surprising thing is the sense of specious precision, false precision, that is used in reporting some of these figures. So, here I have one for the city of Shanghai, where they claim that they have eliminated 1,367, 440 sparrows. You think, 'Really, was there somebody counting these sparrows?' I doubt that very much.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it was probably 443 at the end. But, yeah, there's a terrible rounding and inaccuracy. I'm sure long-time listeners will remember my joke about macroeconomics: 'How do you know an economist has a sense of humor? They use decimal points.' So, here's the same kind of ridiculous--tragic, really. There's a comic element to it. But it's tragicomic. Because, what happens?
Frank Dikötter: Well, of course, once you get rid of birds, your insects have a field day. So, here we are, a few months later--
Russ Roberts: What year are we in, roughly?
Frank Dikötter: 1958. You see the sky darken as this swarm of grasshoppers--
Russ Roberts: locusts--
Frank Dikötter: approach. And they cover the fields, in a bristling blanket; eat everything. And it isn't just locusts. There are all sorts of insects that thrive. Some of them, I had never heard of. There's one call the Red Spider, for instance. There's a whole series of insects that are there to profit from this whole campaign against sparrows.
Russ Roberts: So, defeat[?]. And, I heard this on a--I don't think it's in your book, but I saw this on a video online that they had to--they did realize that it was a mistake. That, they imported sparrows from the Soviet Union in the aftermath of this to try to reduce the locust crop.
Frank Dikötter: I didn't know. It's perfectly plausible. I was a student in China in the middle of the 1980s. We're talking several decades, a quarter of a century after this disaster. A bird was a rare sight. A bird was a rare sight.
Russ Roberts: It's hard to believe. But, there was just--as you say, it was a war against nature. I don't know how effective or ineffective it actually was. But the whole idea of it is just a perfect metaphor for my favorite Hayek quote: 'The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.' Here, you think you are increasing the grain crop, but you are actually destroying it. So, there's--at this point--and you can all drink now. I know some of you have a drinking game for when I say that quote. So, I know you are excited when I brought up the sparrows because you saw it coming.
Russ Roberts: So, there's, at this point--by 1958, 1959, the grain crop is down. The amount that's available is down to the people. And, a set of horrific things takes place that it's almost--it's difficult to read about. And I'm sure it was difficult for you to research. But, people are eating mud. They are stripping trees of bark; there's bark stripped everywhere in villages. People are selling their children for food. They are being buried alive, because just the dealing with corpses is a problem. And there's cannibalism. Those are the worst of it. But otherwise, people are dropping dead from disease, weakened by malnutrition, and dropping dead from hunger. How widespread were the worst of these? Are these a tragedy here and there of this kind of grotesque destruction of human dignity? Or, is this widespread throughout the country? Do we have any idea--how much cannibalism there was, for example? Or, whether people--I mean, it's horrifying that one person would sell a child. But, was it common? Do we know? And how would you know, as the historian?
Frank Dikötter: Well, you don't know. There is--it's very ironic, but in a Socialist country, and all the collectivization when private property is abolished, everything can be traded. Because, of course that's what people do. They must survive at all cost. So, they open black markets. They have a parallel economy. They will sell whatever bricks they still have in their homes. They will sell the clothes they have on their back--literally, you see, you have descriptions in Party archives of throngs of people who, a bedraggled humanity who walk naked in the countryside to actually escape from the famine. And, of course, they sell their own children. Not in order to make a gain, but because they believe--rightly, possibly--that by selling their child, their child will at least have some sort of future. There's one man who sells their--a woman--a woman and a man, a couple that sell their child for, I believe, 2 kilos of unshelled peanuts. That's what they sell their child for.
Russ Roberts: So, in the face of this kind of apocalyptic catastrophe, why don't more people head to the city? Why don't they try to get somewhere where there is food?
Frank Dikötter: Oh, they do.
Russ Roberts: So, talk about the flows of people [?] and what restraints [?]
Frank Dikötter: Oh, they do. These are not people who are just waiting for death. They've learned, since 1949, that there's very little point in opposing the Communist Party of China head on. They've been already through a number of campaigns, including a campaign of terror from 1950 to 1951 to literally eliminate counter-revolutionaries. They've been through the first phases of collectivization in 1955, 1956. By the time it's 1958, they know what is what. They realize that you do not say no to a cadre who tells you to deep plow or do close cropping. You go along. But you try to get by on the sly, as I say. You try to survive as best as possible. You try to steal. I interviewed a man once who told me that his father died of hunger because there was a very simple principle: if you were able to steal--steal anything--a handful of grain--you walk through the fields and very quietly you clip off a spike of grain and you eat it raw, the raw, green kernels. You eat them directly. There's no such thing as cooking this food. But that will help you survive. If you refuse to steal--his father refused to steal, his father was [?] to steal--you die.
Russ Roberts: There are people who cooked leather shoes.
Frank Dikötter: There was a woman who told me she was a child. Her parents died. She was on her own, looking after her sister who was 6 years old; she was about 9, 10, 11. And at one point she was living in a mud hut with a thatched roof: she got onto the roof and started eating the thatch on the roof. She thought that it tasted delicious. I can still remember her face when she said it tasted delicious. She still has a very good memory of that. People eat anything that you can eat. Mud, as you said. Bark from trees. Cooking leather. They steal at every level: Those who are in charge of granaries steal. Boatmen, when they ship the grain will use a bamboo tube to suck out some of the grain and then replace it with sand--with of course the result that somebody down the line will be chewing on grit, right? Everybody tries to get by as best as they possibly can. And oddly enough, there's a thriving black market: as this famine is claiming more and more people, by the time that we are 1950, 1960, you find a thriving black market in just about everything, everywhere.
Russ Roberts: You digressed to talk about theft; you were going to talk about migration. So, when you see that there's no grain in your village, your first thought is going to be, 'I'm going to the city. I'm trying to go to the city.' It's a very large country so it's very hard to get out of the country, although you talk about how people try to get to Hong Kong, which is at the time under British control--with not much success. But, could they get to the city?
Frank Dikötter: They could. In the beginning it is tolerated--in 1958, since this is the Great Leap Forward--
Russ Roberts: a lot of optimism--
Frank Dikötter: Exactly. So, industry will expand; some 15 million people migrate from the countryside to the cities are employed more or less illegally by factories that wish to contribute--
Russ Roberts: that will pad[?] their numbers--
Frank Dikötter: to the increasing quotas in every product that you can think of.
Russ Roberts: Well, I asked the question, both from your book and read elsewhere on the famine is that it was much worse in the countryside than in the city. So, most of the deaths were in the countryside. They couldn't get to the city? Why did they get stuck there? Were they too weak? Did they get surprised and stuck there because they were too weak to leave?
Frank Dikötter: Once you have that initial migration of some 15 million people, which is more or less allowed, by the time the famine really starts kicking in, in 1959, 1960, 1961, these cities are fenced off from the countryside. Literally[?] So, it is as if you live in two worlds: the cities are quite literally fenced off. You cannot get past guards who stand out there. But, not only that, but in China, as of course in the Soviet Union, by 1955, an internal passport system is instituted which ties the farmer to the land. Which means they can't travel without permission. Which is not to say that they don't do it. They will try to escape in the middle of the night. There will be village leaders who will actually allow them to go, in the hope that if they reach the city, and manage to work in an underground factory, they will send some remittances back home. The people try as best that they can. But of course there are also examples where, in some villages, people become so weak that--
Russ Roberts: they are bedridden, effectively--
Frank Dikötter: they can't even walk down the road to the next village, never mind find their way to a city.
Russ Roberts: So, we should pause here for a second. Talk a little bit about how you wrote the book--the research that you did, how much time you spent in the archives, and how there was an opening in the archives that allowed you to have access to some information that wasn't previously available.
Frank Dikötter: Well, I was very lucky. I had been working in archives in China, but on the [Chinese] Republican Era--in other words, the first half of the 20th century before that red flag goes up in 1949. I had noticed that occasionally you would be able to see archives on post-'49, the Communist Era. So, when I moved to Hong Kong from the University of London, I thought that I should explore it a bit more. I was quite lucky in the sense that in the years leading up to the Olympics in 2008 there was definitely a sense of good will, of opening up, of allowing people to just get on with it. And of course there was an archival law that stated, as in most countries, that archives should be opened up after a period of 30 years. So, a lot of material was there. And you could read a great deal of stuff about topics that normally would be taboo. I'll give you one example. You mentioned cannibalism: How many cases were there? We will never know, simply because there weren't enough people to go around finding out what had happened. But you can find documents which tell you a great deal about it. So far, I think, both for the Soviet Union and for China, the documentation is very flimsy. There are rumors about cannibalism. There are reports about it. But, one document I found was compiled by the Public Security Bureau and listed 50 cases of cannibalism in one village in Linxia[?] county, Gansu Province[?]. And it listed name of the victim, the manner in which his or her body had been obtained--was this person killed--you know, whacked in back of the head? Was it a body that had been taken out--
Russ Roberts: a corpse--
Frank Dikötter: a corpse taken out from a grave? How many people are eaten? How was the body prepared? Was there a family relationship? Etc., etc. Complete list--which only communists can produce--about 50+ cases, for one village in Linxia. Then extraordinary documentation about what was in there. So, of course I was in there like a ferret. I would spend a good 3 years traveling from Hong Kong, I would say every couple of weeks or so, in total probably 5, 6 months, in archives, everywhere--the North, the Middle, the East, West. Across the border: you take a train from Hong Kong, you take a high speed train, two years later--to how it was--sorry--you can read the provincial archives of GuangDung [?Gansu?] Province. Very exciting. Of course, it went downhill from 2008 onwards. And today, a lot of the material has been, unfortunately re-classified. In other words, it would be very difficult to do the same kind of research today. Conditions have changed enormously.
Russ Roberts: So, how did this horrific episode--which lasts for years--it's not just one growing season--how does it come to an end? What changes? Why? Your book ends with a recrimination at a Party meeting of--that this was a failure. And someone other than Mao takes responsibility for it, I think--which I think is--you know, extraordinary. But then, what happens? You can't just, "Let's just go back to normal." How does it possibly get reversed?
Frank Dikötter: Well, I think in October 1960 a report lands on Mao's desk. And it talks about the famine, in a particular province. And it's given to him by a very close confidant--somebody who Mao can really trust. I think Mao at that point realizes that he simply doesn't have a choice. He's tried to push this through again and again and again. But it's reached a point where the famine has caused such massive devastation--not just in human lives, but, for instance, housing in the countryside. Destroyed for up to about 40% in some provinces, like the province of Hunan, where he comes from. Forests cut down--again, up to half of the trees cut down in some provinces--
Russ Roberts: to fire the [?] furnaces--
Frank Dikötter: Exactly. And, the transportation system has pretty much come to a halt. Stuff accumulating by railway sidings--in the tens of thousands of tons. The whole system is about to collapse.
Russ Roberts: So, how do you turn that around? There comes a point where--I'm sure he realizes, and I don't know if I'm being fair to the man or not, not that it really matters--but you get the impression he doesn't care whether it has killed tens of millions of people: It's all just part of, you know, the process that he's--that exact expression, you'll get it right, about--for every finger that's off there's 9, that are 5. So, whatever: it didn't go well. There's a lot on the good side. But here, this is pretty much reversed. There's almost nothing good and everything bad. And, once he accepts that, how does he possibly reset things to get going again? What does he reverse?
Frank Dikötter: Well, there are two things he does. First, he allows ordinary villagers to cultivate their own small private plot. Now, as you know from the Soviet Union, most of the produce came from private plots--
Russ Roberts: A huge portion.
Frank Dikötter: Yeah. A huge portion. Of course, many villagers are already doing it, somehow--
Russ Roberts: Right. Because not everything--this idea that you can run China from the top down isn't exactly true.
Frank Dikötter: And you asked me earlier on, 'Was it the same throughout the country?' Of course not. It's a huge country. And, in some cases you'll have village leaders who will quietly side with the villagers. Some of them might even take the grain and distribute it to them, and tell them, 'You should eat this or hide it before the grain inspector comes.' There are entire provinces that manage to somehow get through [?] whereas in others, it's utter devastation. If you have a sort of gong ho hard[?] provincial data, it's going to be very tough all the way down to the village. But, in any event, they are allowed to somehow cultivate their private plot. And that's pretty much enough--
Russ Roberts: Or it's maybe a [?]
Frank Dikötter: [?] Yeah. To pull them out of famine, that's enough. Frequently it's a matter of percentages, right? Five percent more, 5% less: it's a very poor country in the first place; that makes a big impact. But, politically, you get to a--by doing the same thing that Stalin did: How did Stalin explain the widespread resistance against collectivization and the famine that ensued? Well, he blames saboteurs. People who are opposed to the Socialist system and tried to wreck--
Russ Roberts: Speculators.
Frank Dikötter: Speculators. So, he blames them. He says at one point, 'I had no idea. I had no idea that there were so many counter-revolutionaries in the countryside.' But, most of all, he takes responsibility. But he does it because he's a very astute politician. And he realizes that if he steps forward and takes at least a share of the blame, all of his colleagues will immediately volunteer self-criticism themselves. So, it's a very clever move.
Russ Roberts: But, the rest of the economy--like--does he [?] shut down the backyard furnace project? How does he--how does he get the non-agricultural parts of the economy back on some kind of normalish footing?
Frank Dikötter: Well, the radical collectivization is abandoned. So, it goes back to where collectivization was roughly in 1955, 1956, in the sense that these People's Communes continue to exist, but farmers have their own private plot. Some markets are allowed in which the produce that comes from private plots can be traded or bartered. So, not a great deal is done. But enough is done to get the country more or less out of famine. But, let me add one point. Frequently we have scholars of the Mao era who point out that the famine ended in 1962 and the regime learned a great deal from this. But, if you continue to read in these archives, all the way up till 1976 when Mao dies, you realize that people continue to die of hunger. All the way. All the way to the death of Mao in the 1970s.
Russ Roberts: Just not in the same--
Frank Dikötter: Not in the same--not in the millions. Not even in the hundreds of thousands. But they do die. Sometimes a reasonably large percentage in some poor region do die of hunger.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about the toll during the famine itself, during the 1958-1962 period. What's our--we'll never know--
Frank Dikötter: We'll never know--
Russ Roberts: Because there are not careful records in rural areas in particular, probably in the cities as well. But, how do people go about trying to estimate the number of deaths, and what do you think the best estimate is?
Frank Dikötter: It's very difficult to do, because simply, as you said it yourself, it's not like in the middle of a gigantic catastrophe. There's enough time for a bookkeeper to go around, knock on doors and find out how many--
Russ Roberts: [?] Yeah.
Frank Dikötter: people starved to death. But, of course, on the other hand, it is a system that is obsessed with secrecy; but also with information. People do wish to know, within the Party system, they wish to know what is happening. So, most of the numbers that have been advanced--all the numbers that have been advanced--come from two sets of figures: the official census in 1953, I believe in 1964, and again one in 1984 if I'm not wrong. But roughly censuses every 10 years or so. But also, on the officially published statistics made available from 1984 onwards. So, a number of demographers have used that to project for all sorts of calculations, backwards. And the numbers vary from 30 million, at most, down to 12 million. Twelve million used to be official estimate of the Party itself, which I think is an extraordinary admission. It's not a number you will see [?]
Russ Roberts: Right. It's still a [?]--
Frank Dikötter: It's quite shocking, indeed. But, most demographers take 30 million as a sort of reasonable figure--30 million people who died unnecessarily doing this.
Russ Roberts: And, as you point out in the book, people weren't just dying of hunger. There's industrial accidents. People in business--it's not a very pleasant time on lots of dimensions. But, let's say, 30 million. But, you'd think the number is bigger.
Frank Dikötter: Well, once you gain access to the archives, of course, you do see unpublished figures that have been compiled by, for instance, the Bureau of Statistics. Or been compiled by very powerful teams who were sacked to investment the countryside after 1962 to find out what had really happened. And if you compare those numbers with the published statistics, you find a very large gap. Sometimes 30%; sometimes 50%. Sometimes all of 3 to 4 to 5. So, it varies enormously. So, what I did on the number of whole set[?] of figures is by comparing it to the official statistics I realized that the mismatch is at least 50%. So, what I did is take 30 million, and I said you have to add at least 15 million to that. So, I don't have a figure: I say it should be at least 45 million.
Russ Roberts: And some have put the number at 55 million.
Frank Dikötter: I have a very good colleague, from Hunan incidentally, who spent a decade working in county archives, and he comes up with the number of 55 million. Which, incidentally, is very close to a number produced by a team of researchers sent in the 1980s to the archives to find out what happened; and the head of that investigation fled to the United States, Chen Yi-tse [?sp.?] fled after the Tian An Men massacre in 1989. And his figure was round about 48 million.
Russ Roberts: What's the population of China at this point?
Frank Dikötter: At this point it would be 600- to 680-million
Russ Roberts: How many?
Frank Dikötter: 600- to 680 million.
Russ Roberts: So, 600 million, plus. So, the number is something just short of 10%.
Frank Dikötter: Yes, but over a period of several years. So--I've been criticized for this number, as you can imagine: 'It's far too high, and it's utterly implausible.' I don't really see what's so implausible about it. We're talking about 4 years--1958-1962. If you take the Khmer Rouge, they managed to get rid of 2.4 million--1.6 to 2.4 million are the estimates--out of a population of 8 million.
Russ Roberts: Well, I look at it a different way. I don't know whether it's 12 or 48 or 55--it's just--
Frank Dikötter: mindboggling.
Russ Roberts: Right. It's just a horrible tragedy. I was talking to my father this morning and I told him I was doing an interview on the famine in China; I said, 'How many people do you think died?' And he said, 'I don't know.' I forget; I think he guessed something, and I said, 'It's actually probably 45-55 million. At least 18 million,' which is another one of the lower numbers that you hear. And he said, 'Well, that's impossible.' And I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'I've never heard of it.' And of course, most Americans have never heard of it. Obviously, most American don't know anything about the Ukraine and the Soviet--it's actually murder of millions of people in the--was it the 1930s? early 1930s? Late 1920s?
Frank Dikötter: I think 1934.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, we're not so good at history. But, my father is interested in history, and the fact that he doesn't know about it is interesting to me. It doesn't have the--we don't have the awareness of this incident in world history. And I wondered--so I'm glad you wrote your book, and I'm glad we're talking about it. But I wonder how well known it is in China. Obviously, people told their children. People were alive. People are alive today who remember it. Do you have any feel for, one, how well understood it is by young people who were not alive, and second, whether people can talk about it?
Frank Dikötter: I think at the time there was a massive divide between the countryside and the cities. Which, by the way, was not just a social/political divide: It was a legal divide. And it lasts to this very day. In other words, at the time to this day, one is classified as being born in the countryside or born in the city. And it leads to a very different series of entitlements. It's a status which is inherited through the mother. In other words, if you are born to a mother who is classified as a peasant, you are a peasant whether you live in a city or not. Peasants don't have the same entitlements to schooling, to medical care, to any type of social service. So, these differences are quite important. To put it slightly differently, if you drive a car and you kill someone, first thing you want to find out is: Did you kill someone registered as a peasant or registered as an urbanite? Because, the amount of compensation would be very different. It's like a caste system. Or, if you wish, it's like an apartheid system. Where a large proportion of the population, as in South Africa, is treated in a discriminatory manner. The point I'm trying to make is that the cities were protected during the famine; and people in the cities at the time didn't always realize what was going on. They realized it was bad and that things were not working at all. But they didn't see entire villages starve to death--quite literally. So, there's a completely different set of, a very different way of remembering in the countryside versus remembering in the city. Intellectuals are in the cities. Workers tend to be in the cities. I very much doubt that today you would be able to walk into a village and nobody would remember what happened during the Great Leap Forward. I very much doubt that.
Russ Roberts: They would remember, you are saying.
Frank Dikötter: They would remember. Very well. On top of that, there have been events which have been filmed--by a wonderful documentary filmmaker called Hu Jie. He films--in one case, an attempt by a village to erect a memorial arch, as one tends to do in China, with the names of all the victims of the Great Leap Forward. And they try to do this about 10, 15 years ago. Not very long ago. The 21st century. Within a day, the Public Security Bureau came. They bulldozed the memorial art and arrested the village leaders for good measure. So, clearly, the People's Republic of China is a state of enforced amnesia [omnescia?] about the past. When it comes to the Great Leap Forward, this is easier to enforce in the cities, because many people didn't go through it. Whereas[?] in the countryside. But in both cases, there is no attempt to really remember or memorialize or write about it. Or put up a museum. Or have a remembrance--They..... Which is not to say that there isn't a great amount of interest among historians. As well as readers and ordinary people. There very clearly is. But it's very difficult.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Frank Dikötter: It's a terrible topic. It's become even more of a terrible topic since the last man, Xi Jinping, came to power in 2012. So, within months of him coming to power, the emperor[?] Xi, the one who has now become a leader for life--within months of coming to power a few years ago he made it clear that any attempt to undermine, criticize, the history of the People's Republic of China and its leaders is tantamount to committing the 'crime of historical nihilism.' I'll scratch the back of my head because I didn't quite know what 'historical nihilism' means.
Russ Roberts: Doesn't seem like a good thing.
Frank Dikötter: But it doesn't sound good. It sounds suitably intimidating.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Frank Dikötter: And I can assure you that most of my friends' colleagues across the board are from Hong Kong. And the People's Republic and Beijing and Shanghai have become very, very quiet. The ones who work professionally on this entire Mao era have become very quiet.
Russ Roberts: So, let's close with some observations about Mao. There's a reasonably lengthy part of the book that describes the prelude to this era, and Mao's interactions with his colleagues. And you've since written a lot more about Mao. So, you know about the aftermath of this, obviously, in great detail. The impression I got was quite different from the impression I got--that I have--of Stalin. And Stalin--no one would publically criticize--as far as I understand it--would publicly criticize Stalin. It would be a death sentence. No one would confess. Well, they would confess, but it usually meant they were going to be executed. And yet, here, there is a sort of a theaterish drama of interaction, of where--it's just a very different picture of Mao as almost buffoon or clownish compared to the totalitarian that he clearly was. And so, I want your reaction to that. Did I understand that correctly? And, secondly: Do you have any feel for how Mao is viewed in China today? Stalin is, unfortunately in my view, having a bit of a resurrection in his reputation. There is some romance about him. He was an extraordinarily evil person, in my view--a murderer of the worst kind. Mao, I would put in the same group. It's a different kind of feeling I have about him. And, I'm curious if I have that accurately from your book, and if people in China today see Mao--how they see him. To the extent it's public. Obviously, we've just suggested it's not so public any more. But--
Frank Dikötter: Of course. It's very difficult to find out what people think, about any one think about any one person. In a one-party state. We can talk about in Russia about Stalin because the Communist Party in the Soviet Union is gone. This regime is gone. One might not like Putin. And one might even say that the great continuities from the Soviet Union to Russia. But, it's very different compared to the People's Republic of China. These are the same people, the same structures, the same institutions. Same families sometimes who are in control. I mean, in Moscow, there is a museum to memorialize the Gulag. There's absolutely no chance whatsoever there being a museum in Beijing or Shanghai to memorialize--
Russ Roberts: the labor camps--
Frank Dikötter: the labor camps--the Great Leap Forward is not going to--
Russ Roberts: To make it clear: The memorialization is not a positive. Of the Gulag[?]. Right? I don't know.
Frank Dikötter: No, it's not.
Russ Roberts: So, you are saying it's something then to be talked about. In China.
Frank Dikötter: You can't even talk about this. You can. of course--but it's not something to be talked about--
Russ Roberts: But you can't talk about it publicly. It's not written about. You are not going to see a columnist, in a newspaper--
Frank Dikötter: [?] buy a book. You are not going to take a course on the history of the Gulag in Beijing University. It's not going to happen.
Russ Roberts: The Chinese Gulag.
Frank Dikötter: Yes. It's not going to happen. What--there is one thing to be said, positively, if you wish, about Mao. That is, his team. Namely that decided in the middle of the 1940s that, unlike the Soviet system, they wouldn't really kill each other off. So, you could be purged. But to be purged meant being sent away. Somewhere to cultivate your plot or to work on your memoirs. You would lose your power, your prestige, your access to servants, good housing, food.
Russ Roberts: But they didn't kill you.
Frank Dikötter: But they wouldn't kill you. Not that it didn't happen. Of course, some did get killed. And, of course, during the Cultural Revolution which comes after the Great Leap Forward, quite a few got killed--tortured to death. In the case of Liu Shaoqi, the number two, who stood behind Mao during the Great Leap Forward, and becomes a critic in 1961, 1962. But overall, you don't get dragged away into a dungeon, as happened under Stalin. But that doesn't make Mao a less frightening person. He has a great memory for any slight committed by any one person. He's got a tremendous memory. He's a master at pitting people against each other. He's very good at the politics of the corrigible[?]. He finds out about people. He undermines them very slowly. He can bide his time. He's very patient. As Stalin was, of course. But, take the example--since we are talking about the Gulag--take the example of the terror inflicted by Stalin and say, land reform. Stalin sends his agents to kill those who oppose it. But Mao wants people to do it against each other. Mao pits farmers against other farmers during land reform. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao will pit ordinary people against other ordinary people. He's a master at having people bloody their own hands so they can become complicit in a great crime. And to some extent you can say that's what he did with the Great Leap Forward, too. Everybody was implicated, to some extent. Even, of course, ordinary people who stole from their neighbors, or sometimes members of their own family. So, he was a very different character when you compare him to Stalin. Stalin, to me, strikes me as rather cold. Mao could be very good, appearing to be an avuncular, open-minded person--could crack a joke to put people at their ease. He could mislead you very, very well. You wouldn't walk in with a sense of dread. You would walk in, of course, with a sense of slight fear and apprehension; but he would put you at your ease. That's of course a mistake many people made. Including all the victims. Like Liu Shaoqi and others misread him throughout their entire careers and became victims, to a degree, during the Cultural Revolution later on.
Russ Roberts: And do you have any feel for his reputation today in China?
Frank Dikötter: It's difficult, very difficult to say. My feeling is in the countryside he's not liked.