The more we learn about China under Chairman Mao, the worse it gets. Frank Dikötter - author of a number of books on the period, including Mao's Great Famine - writes in History Today about the gradual opening of the archives:
In the People’s Republic of China, archives do not belong to the people, they belong to the Communist Party. They are often housed in a special building on the local party committee premises, which are generally set among lush and lovingly manicured grounds guarded by military personnel. Access would have been unthinkable until a decade or so ago, but over the past few years a quiet revolution has been taking place, as increasing quantities of documents older than 30 years have become available for consultation to professional historians armed with a letter of recommendation. The extent and quality of the material varies from place to place, but there is enough to transform our understanding of the Maoist era....
What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.
The discriminate killing of ‘slackers’, ‘weaklings’ or otherwise unproductive elements increased the overall food supply for those who contributed to the regime through their labour. As report after report shows, food was also used as a weapon. Throughout the country those who were too ill to work were routinely cut off from the food supply. The sick, vulnerable and elderly were banned from the canteen, as cadres found inspiration in Lenin’s dictum: ‘He who does not work shall not eat.’
As the minutes of leadership meetings show, Mao was aware of the extent of the famine. At a secret gathering that took place in Shanghai on March 25th, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all grain. He announced that: ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’
Other key events of the Maoist era are also being revisited thanks to party archives, more often than not by Chinese historians themselves. Yang Kuisong, a historian based in Shanghai, has cast new light on the terror that followed ‘liberation’ in 1949, showing how power seized with violence could only be maintained with violence. Up to a million people described as enemies of the people fell victim to a killing frenzy, in which ordinary citizens were encouraged to take part. In remote villages bystanders were sometimes allowed to cut the flesh from the dead and take it back home. The party itself decreed quotas for the killings, but these were often exceeded when mass murder was driven by personal vendettas and lineage feuds.
Fresh evidence is also being unearthed on the land reform that transformed the countryside in the early 1950s. In many villages there were no ‘landlords’ set against ‘poor peasants’ but, rather, closely knit communities that jealously protected their land from the prying eyes of outsiders – the state in particular. By implicating everybody in ‘accusation meetings’ – during which village leaders were humiliated, tortured and executed while their land and other assets were redistributed to party activists recruited from local thugs and paupers – the communists turned the power structure upside down. Liu Shaoqi, the party’s second-in-command, had a hard time reining in the violence, as a missive from the Hebei archives shows: ‘When it comes to the ways in which people are killed, some are buried alive, some are executed, some are cut to pieces, and among those who are strangled or mangled to death, some of the bodies are hung from trees or doors.’
There is hardly a topic that is not being explored thanks to fresh archival evidence, although the Cultural Revolution, for the greatest part, remains off limits....
Plenty more horrors, then, yet to be revealed.