This book sheds light on many other aspects of the famine but its great importance is to remind us of why we need to revise our understanding of 20th-century history. If you add up the death tolls from the famines caused by communist leaders in China, the Soviet Union (Lenin and Stalin oversaw three mass famines), Cambodia, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, you reach a figure of close to 90 million.You might think all this would merit serious study, but it has taken 50 years for a professional scholar like Dikötter to examine the Chinese famine in a major book.
Take Professor Amartya Sen, awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on famines and development. He chose to study the Bengal famine in 1943, when under British rule up to 3 million died, and the Ethiopian and Sahel famines in the 1960s and 1970s. He then developed the theory that ‘famine is a widespread failure of entitlements’. In other words, famine and poverty are not about governments forcibly seizing peasants’ grain and closing down markets but failing to intervene enough and provide them with their ‘entitlements’.
He later published, together with other scholars, a three-volume work, The Political Economy of Famine, which somehow finds no space to examine Mao’s famines or indeed any of those under other communist governments. Yet in the 1980s, we already knew that over 20 million had died in the Leap and Robert Conquest had published Harvest of Sorrow, the harrowing account of the Soviet famines.
In review of
MAO’S GREAT FAMINE: THE HISTORY OF CHINA’S MOST DEVASTATING CATASTROPHE, 1958-1962
Bloomsbury, 448pp, £25