Apparently new Communist Party archives are becoming available to scholars in China, and the true story of the Great Leap Forward appears to be even worse than we imagined.
A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine. My study, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe (2010), relies on hundreds of hitherto unseen party archives, including: secret reports from the Public Security Bureau; detailed minutes of top party meetings; unexpunged versions of leadership speeches; surveys of working conditions in the countryside; investigations into cases of mass murder; confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people; inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward; general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign; secret police opinion surveys; letters of complaint written by ordinary people; and much more.
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.
There is more like this in the article. When I read this, I can't help thinking about Hannah Arendt and her classic "Origins of Totalitarianism." During the 60's and 70's, this fabulous work was targeted for marginalization by the academic Left because many in academia were admirers of Stalin and the Soviet Union and deeply resented the parallels Arendt raised between European fascism and Soviet communism. Arendt's partial rehabilitation came after 1989, when Eastern European scholars and historians coming out from under communism looked around for a framework to describe their experiences under communism, and found Hannah Arendt to be most compelling. This new wave of scholarship on communist China likely will vindicate Arendt as well.
American university campuses, in their current orgy of admiration for socialism, will have to work extra hard to whitewash this, but I am sure they are up to the task.