“We can start communism with food, clothes and housing,” Mao declared. “Collective canteens, free food, that is communism.” Communist cadres in the provinces competed for Mao’s attention and praise, striving to outdo one another with highly inflated estimates of harvests. Radical new planting techniques, supposed to yield massive amounts of wheat and other grains, were backbreaking failures or ruinous fakes.
On Khrushchev’s last visit to Beijing in 1958, before the split between the two communist giants became a chasm, Mao boasted to Khrushchev that China had more rice than its citizens could eat; his chief worry was how to deal with the surplus. In reality, the people were already starving.
By the end of 1958, as agricultural production fell sharply and government quotas were raised to fantastic levels, famine spread. In July 1959, at a conference of senior leaders at the hilltop resort of Lushan, China’s defense minister, Marshal Peng Dehuai, led a move to review the Great Leap Forward and to halt, or at least rein in, the drive to total collectivization.
Peng, a peasant hero and veteran of the communists’ revolutionary war, had visited his and Mao’s home province of Hunan and seen the suffering first hand. He would be destroyed by Mao, branded a “right deviationist” and the leader of an “anti-party clique.” From then on, any attempt to relieve the peasants’ suffering was crushed, as purges swept through the country.
The famine lasted until 1962, when Mao was finally outmaneuvered by his lieutenants, including China’s president Liu Shaoqi and the chairman of the State Planning Commission Li Fuchu. Liu Shaoqi, while not directly criticizing Mao, told a mass meeting of 7,000 leading cadres from across China that farmers believed their problems were due 30% to natural calamities and 70% to man-made disaster. In the words of Frank Dikötter, the leading historian of the Great Famine, “the very use of the term ‘man-made disaster’ was a bombshell, drawing gasps from the audience.” The communes were dismantled and China’s peasants were able to cultivate and grow and cook their own food once more. Harvests improved rapidly.
Mao never forgave his opponents for this affront. In his eyes Liu Shaoqi had become China’s Khrushchev, and Mao set about plotting his revenge. What followed, in 1966, was the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a decade of anarchy and violence. The Communist Party was torn apart. Suspect leaders and cadres, along with their families, were crushed, or were killed, or were scattered to China’s remotest and impoverished regions. Liu Shaoqi was tortured and allowed to die.
Calvin Coolidge: “It is a great advantage to a president and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” The authoritarianism of the malignant narcissist almost always masks itself as profound concern for others, making it powerful and scary.
Update: In the new China, Wen Jiabao’s family is worth $2.7 billion or so.