The subtitle of the book which is the focus of this conversation is, appropriately, “The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe.” It’s a tough listen, but also I think an important one. Host Russ Roberts talks with the author, Frank Dikotter, an historian from the University of Hong Kong, who has done extensive work in Chinese archives- many of which have again been closed.

1- Who did Mao regard as China’s greatest competition? What is odd about this, according to Dikotter?

2- In describing the changes to agricultural techniques dictated by the Party, Dikotter mentions practices such as “close cropping” and “deep plowing.” How does the practice of deep plowing backfire, and what does this suggest generally about the role of incentives in an economy? What other such examples Dikotter offered struck you, and why?

3- What does Dikotter mean when he says, “food becomes a weapon” during Mao’s regime? How does this distinguish Mao from history’s other notorious dictators?

4- Roberts and Dikotter have a fascinating discussion on Mao’s campaign against the “four vermin,” as well as the need to communism to wage war on nature generally. What were the unintended consequences of Mao’s war against the sparrows?

5- The conversation toward the end of the episode is chilling. One might understand why the great famine is little talked about still today in China. But why do you think so few Americans, even those relatively literate and interested in history as Russ point out, know so little about this tragedy? How might this be rectified?*


P.S. This might be my favorite tweet ever: