The Impact of Mao

Frank Dikötter writes for the New York Times that China is quietly de-classifying tons of documents related to the “Great Leap Forward” that began in 1958. Dikötter has traveled all over China looking at these documents, mostly housed in local party headquarters, and has determined that Mao’s policies in the Great Leap Forward — not famine or natural disaster — were responsible for the deaths of 45 million people.

Further, it is apparent Mao knew full well that he was causing these deaths, and he shrugged it off.

Some of the details are horrific. People died of starvation when what little food people had was taken away by the government. Between 2 and 3 million were killed by torture or summary execution.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.

One report dated Nov. 30, 1960, and circulated to the top leadership — most likely including Mao — tells how a man named Wang Ziyou had one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilo stone dropped on his back before he was branded with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.

When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, the local boss, Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury his son alive on the spot. The report of the investigative team sent by the provincial leadership in 1969 to interview survivors of the famine records that the man died of grief three weeks later.

I was too young to have been paying attention to international relations at the time, and I don’t remember how much news of the Great Leap leaked to the West. But people need to know this.

I hope that someone finds documents related to the invasion and subjugation of Tibet. The official Chinese history of the Peaceful Liberation is, shall we say, somewhat different from other accounts. Tibetans in exile claim up to a million and a half Tibetans were slaughtered and hundreds of monasteries destroyed. The Chinese version, which you can read at Wikipedia, is that the peaceful Chinese troops of liberation handed out cash and candy bars and quickly won the loyalty of the oppressed Tibetan people.

It may be that the truth is somewhere in between, but the Chinese version simply is not credible, especially in light of the truth about what happened in China. The violence in Lhasa that brought about the exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many other high lamas occurred in March 1959, during the Great Leap Forward, when China officially had gone crazy.

One of the few high lamas to remain in Tibet after the uprising, the 10th Panchen Lama, spent years in prison and was subjected to torture. He eventually was released and considered “rehabilitated.” But in 1989 he returned to Tibet and delivered a speech mildly critical of Beijing, and died five days later of a “heart attack.” He was 51.

In 1995 a six-year-old boy was recognized by the Dalai Lama as the rebirth of the Panchen Lama. Within the week, this boy and his parents disappeared. They have not been seen since. Beijing chose another ethnic Tibetan boy who was the son of a high Communist Party official, named him the Panchen Lama, and had him enthroned. Today the faux Panchen Lama is a highly prized mouthpiece, appearing in public frequently to praise Chinese rule over Tibet.

I notice the Wikipedia web page on the Panchen Lama glosses over the fact that Beijing very probably executed the 10th and 11th Panchen Lamas. I run into way too many people who brush aside the brutality visited upon Tibetans, saying that Tibet is better off with China running things. But accounts of what happened in Tibet, and what is happening now, amount to “he said, she said.” Some corroboration would be nice.

11 thoughts on “The Impact of Mao

  1. Of course Tibet’s better under Chinese rule! Just like Ukraine and Cechnya were/are better for for being under the USSR’s thumb.
    Mao and Stalin actually made Hitler look like a piker. It’s just that Hitler did what he did in Germany, and lost his war(s), so that everything came out. The total number of dead under both Mao and Stalin constantly grows, the more information becomes available.
    Let’s not forget that Mao not only had “The Great Leap Forward,” but also “The Cultural Revolution” later, which also cost millions of lives, if no ten’s of them. And of course there was the Civil War against Chiang Kai Shek (and the losses fighting the Japanese).
    The USSR had its own Civil War. Lenin, until he died, due to economic necessity, had a kind of mix of capitalism and some communism in the country (I won’t bore you with the details). Then, under Stalin, there was forced collectivization leading up to “The Harvest of Sorrow,” where Stalin starved Ukraine into subjugation, and my grandfather (my father’s father) was involved in the government and the horror. My father is 85 and still can’t talk about what he saw and lived through as a child. About 15 million died of hunger and disease in a couple of years. Millions more were sent to Siberia:,9171,963051,00.html
    And then there was Stalin’s “Reign of Terror,” in the late ’30’s, where millions more were executed or sent to Gulag’s. That was also when my father’s father was executed (a long, but horrible, story, and a bit more complex than the shot behind the ear which was the standard method of execution).
    Then, during WWII, Stalin moved the Chechen people out of Chechnya. All of them. And the Chechens weren’t alone. Stalin moved people a lot – which, I guess might be preferable to being starved to death, or killed outright:
    The Chechen’s weren’t allowed to move back until years after Stalin died.
    Ukraine is now nominally independent, but Putin would love nothing more than to have it as a total puppet state again.
    Chechnya is still fighting against Russia.
    And Tibet is still under Chin’s bootheel.

    Now, I’d like to remind everyone about another group of people responsible for millions of displaced persons and deaths. The US government and its dealings with the Native Americans here resulted in nothing short of a Holocaust. Look around the country. It was a Holocaust, and we still keep the people subjugated in tribal areas. Sure, it started before there even was an organized, independent government here. But, in our wonderful ‘exceptionalism,’ our Manifest Destiny, think about what we did to the indigenous peoples here as we moved west.
    Of course, now typically Liberal of me, showing my ‘hatred’ of this country, pointing this out.
    What’s is my point then? I guess that when we look at Tibet and Chechnya today, and before we scold China and Russia, we need to look at the native people in the Four Corners area. Here’a little bit about the area:
    I’ll leave you to your own research to find the statistics for unemployment, life expectancy, death during childbirth, drug and alchohol addiction, crime, etc. It ain’t pretty.

    • One other thing about mass atrocities that’s been rattling around in my head for a while — we’ve enshrined the Holocaust in our collective memories as the Official Worst Atrocity of All Time, and gone overboard erecting monuments and museums dedicated to remembering it, while atrocities that arguably were just as depraved and sometimes on an even larger scale were and are going on nearly unnoticed. People thumped their chests and declared “never again” even while millions were dying in China and Pol Pot was piling up skulls in Cambodia. And there have been uncounted deaths in several civil wars in Africa.

      Obviously part of why the Holocaust struck a nerve is that it happened in Europe, Ancestral Homeland of White People. I think the urge to “memorialize” it is to reassure ourselves that this awful thing was a singular event in White People History that is now in the past and can’t happen again. It’s like we’re using Holocaust remembrance as a means of denial.

  2. Thanks for addressing this topic. Even now, the sadness of remembrance of those days overcomes me. I was only an American student, but I recall the news from abroad and the monks who came here.
    It’s a pity that so many millions have to suffer and die in order to revise history to please governments of the world.

  3. Fox Butterfield’s ALIVE IN THE BITTER SEA from 1982 was a fine work I recall reading about the Maoist outcomes. It is focused on the experiences of individuals within China, including how the “elites” were treated. Wearing glasses was enough to make you an “elite” and subject to “rehabilitation” sessions, which were sometimes fatal.

  4. Not to diminish the horrors that occurred under Mao and Stalin, but as Cundgulag says it is worth looking at some of our own historical record. In addition to the genocidal treatment of Native Americans, there was the slave trade. If I have it correctly, the slave population of the US in 1860 was 3,950,546 although some sources have it slightly lower. In 1790 it was 694,207 and by 1810 it was 1,130,781. James Burke noted that the life expectancy of a slave was about seven years. I am not sure if this factors in the many who died en route, but certainly the number of people who were kidnapped in order to meet the demand for slave labor over the course of just those 70 years would number many millions. Their life expectency was cut short, which is barely short of murder. And lets keep in mind that slavery was a market phenomenon.

    A study by Harvard University has estimated that 48,000 Americans die each year because they don’t have access to healthcare. ( I have a neighbor who is likely to become one of them. Dying when she could have been saved by preventive care. So, I am a bit emotional about this.) So, how far do you go back to reach the point when people clearly understood that we were capable of building a better healthcare system that would save lives, but we chose profits instead? There must be another few million martyrs for the free market.

    The Dutch East India Company is considered to be one of the first modern corporations. I heard the author of “The Spice Trade” interviewed on NPR. He noted that tens of thousands of native people were murdered by the Dutch East India Company in the spice islands and other areas simply because it made stealing the spices easier, more profitable and less of a hassle. He noted that according to company records, the decision to kill those people was made by an accountant. Some things never change. I wonder how the Randoids would explain the benfits taht sort of sound business decision.

    Regarding Tibet, I found a website years ago, something like “The New China Century” not to be confused with PNAC. It purported to explain the necessity for the Chinese takeover of Tibet by public records found in Tibet. It had the usual strange style that is the hallmark of Chinese translations into English. But, from what I read, their “evidence” was trivial at best and their reasoning was nonsensical. I suppose that much of this might be due to the difficulty of translation, but that is being very charitable. It is clearly a baldfaced atrocity,

    • goatherd — without knowing what is on the The NCC site — there’s no question that pre-1950s Tibet was extremely poor and not necessarily a nice place to live, if you weren’t a monk. People did have very hard lives, and the Buddhist establishment for the most part was in the way of modernization. The 13th Dalai Lama (the guy before the current one), who had lived outside Tibet for a brief time while a young man, made some real efforts at modernization, such as building hospitals and schools and bringing in electricity and other technological advances. He also made some headway at reforming Tibet’s medieval justice system and giving laypeople a greater say in government. But at every turn, he had to fight a hyper-conservative religious establishment who liked the 11th century just fine, thank you very much. (The Dalai Lamas were never “god-kings,” and there were some limits on their authority.)

      So pre-invasion Tibet was hardly a peasant’s paradise, and China has made considerable capital investment in Tibet, and you can say that the material standard of living of most Tibetans has improved as a result. But China in Tibet is behaving as most imperialist powers have always behaved toward their colonials. Tibetan culture and language are being systematically wiped out and replaced by Han Chinese culture and language. Tibet has been flooded with Han Chinese immigrants, to the point that they may outnumber the ethnic Tibetans. Han Chinese get the good jobs and most positions of authority, and the wealth generated by Tibetan resources is mostly enjoyed by the Han Chinese and not ethnic Tibetans.

      The monasteries are allowed to operate as tourist attractions, but the Chinese closely supervise everything that goes on in them, to the point of overseeing and approving liturgy and ceremonies. In China, clergy, monks, and nuns of lawfully operating religious establishments are, in effect, government employees who receive salaries from the government, so Beijing owns them.

      Because the Chinese people are perpetually being told the Tibetan people are giddily happy at being ruled by China, all the unrest there has to be blamed on outside influence. Hence, the demonization of the 14th Dalai Lama as the splittest who is stirring up enmity toward China. Like it would never occur to Tibetans to dislike China otherwise.

      But people in the West take Beijing’s side for all kinds of reasons, and not just the Marxist fringe. One of the most surreal examples is in Reason magazine, in an article by Brendan O’Neill called “The Truth About Tibetan Buddhism.” One of the “truths” O’Neill uncovered was this:

      The Lamaling Temple also brings home the fact that Tibetan Buddhism, like every other religion on Earth, is made up of various, sometimes horn-locking sects.

I excitedly lined up an interview with one of the monks and asked if he’s looking forward to the day when the Dalai Lama returns from exile in northern India. He patiently told me—dumb Westerner that I am—that he doesn’t worship the Dalai Lama, because he is a member of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism while the Dalai Lama is head of the Gelug school. Then there’s the Kagyu school and the Sakya school—making four in total—which have hot-headed disagreements and have even come to blows in recent years over which deities should be worshipped and which should not. Religion of peace? Yeah, right.

      And it doesn’t even occur to O’Neill that the monk he arranged (with the government, I assume) to interview was not free to say anything but what the Party told him to say. Indeed, his role in the monastery might well have been that of Party informant. The Reason guys complain that Social Security is totalitarianism, and then confronted with real totalitarianism they don’t recognize it. Monks in Tibet are routinely hauled away for “re-education” merely for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama, and anyone publicly asserting loyalty to the Dalai Lama is liable to be imprisoned and tortured.

      In fact, the Ganden Tripa, not the Dalai Lama, is the head of the Gelug school. The Dalai Lama is of the Gelug shool, but since the 17th century has been the temporal and spiritual ruler of the Tibetan people, meaning he has some — although not absolute — administrative and spiritual authority over all of the schools. What O’Neill was told is not factually accurate, but he didn’t bother to check further.

      From the Far Left, I occasionally get hysterical emails from people who have just learned the CIA provided some covert assistance to Tibetan resistance in the late 1950s and early 1960s (too little and too late, obviously), and possibly helped, or at least encouraged, the Dalai Lama to go into exile in 1959. In their minds, any association with the CIA is a black mark so outrageous that Mao Zedong was justified in doing whatever he did. You can find some websites claiming that His Holiness to this day is a CIA spy.

      The Marxist crew at International A.N.S.W.E.R. at one time had articles on their website that praised China for its role in liberating Tibet from the clutches of theocracy, although it’s possible they’ve removed them in recent years, after “Free Tibet” became a popular cause in other leftie circles.

  5. ” the decision to kioll those people was made my an accountant”
    Actually, not a total surprise.
    Those Neo-con think tankers like Perle, Wolfowitz, Pipes, Feith, etc are cut from the same cloth.

  6. China may well become an economic powerhouse the way things are going these days, but Chinese CULTURE peaked around the 13th century– and Mao killed it fully dead. The country, now a few decades after the death of Mao, still a military dictatorship kept under control at the muzzle of a gun.

  7. Frank Dikötter just published his book about Mao’s famine, and I have checked it out from the library. The diary and comments here are excellent.

  8. It is a sadness to see all these things done by fellow men to each other in the present, the near past and the long past. These “excuses” in the name sake of totalitarian(usually of blind power) ideal and guise could set such madness among men against each other. Off with this excuse!! we should face and remember it. It is the future we should be standing by and guarding for the sake of our children.

    Many have to suffer and die for ambitions of few. It also robs us of our family legacy. I feel it still deep in my bone. My biological grandfather had a bullet behind his head because of his political belief and action. I never knew him in person. I can still feel my father’s grief ,even though he did not speak of it.

  9. Marcus Lim,
    My biological grandfather also had a bullet put into his brain – for being an enemy of the people of the USSR, in whose revolution he fought, and who worked for the Soviet government until he was picked-up, interrogated, and shot in 1939. Stalin felt he had to cull the herd every once in awhile. It aslo caused the natives to be restless but fearful, which made them easier to control.
    THe loss of this man, was my father’s loss, and his whole families as well. But it was mine also. I was born in the US 19 years after he was killed. I never had a chance to know the man, a man my father revered, as I revere my father. That tells me he was a good man. But, I’ll never know…

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