Jonathan Mirsky

Mao devours his foes

Cannibalism is added to Maoism’s many other crimes in Frank Dikötter’s final searing volume of A People’s History

Frank Dikötter, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and winner of the Samuel Johnson prize in 2011, is the author of many studies on China, most notably two on Mao’s dark rule. This new book completes the trilogy. The first volume, The Tragedy of Liberation, made plain, more exhaustively than previous accounts, that from the beginning of his time as Chairman, Mao was paranoid and murderous, and that Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping egged him on. The second volume, the prize-winning Mao’s Great Famine, examined, in characteristic detail, the Chairman’s responsibility for the 1959–1961 famine, which killed 30 to 50 million Chinese.

Now we are shown that millions continued to starve for years after 1961. Dikötter doesn’t explain how he obtained access to hitherto unexamined archives, but for this third volume he has trawled through a vast range of central and regional material, including both official and unofficial reports on disasters and horrors, and commentaries on what happened to ordinary Chinese throughout the country, including the sadists who obeyed Mao’s deranged ukases. What comes over more clearly than ever is how accurate Roderick MacFarquhar’s epitaph on the Cultural Revolution was: that ‘the mark of Cain’ hung heavily on it from the start. As Li Rui, one of Mao’s secretaries, told a Harvard conference on the centenary of the Chairman’s birth: ‘Mao liked killing.’ According to Dikötter:

Mao was easily offended and resentful, with a long memory for grievances. Insensitive to human loss, he nonchalantly handed down killing quotas. The Cultural Revolution, then, was also about an old man settling personal scores at the end of his life.

Here are some consequences. In the summer of 1968, 80,000 were slaughtered in Guangxi alone and some were eaten:

There was a hierarchy in the consumption of class enemies.

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