The Great Leap Forward to Famine

Review of Mao’s Great Famine, Directed by Patrick Cabouat and Philippe Grangereau (film can be viewed here for free)

By KENDRICK KUO

In recent years, the famine accompanying Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward has achieved the title of “The Great Famine.” Previously, it had been known as the “Three Years of Natural Disasters,” which shifted the blame to the neutral forces of nature rather than to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or to Mao personally. The topic has been a taboo subject in public discourse until June, 2012. Some speculate that it had something to do with the downfall of Bo Xilai (who was gaining popularity through Maoist rhetoric and policies). In any case, a documentary by Patrick Cabouat and Philippe Grangereau became popular around the same time. Titled Mao’s Great Famine, they don’t hide where they place the blame.

The number of people that died in the Great Famine has been debated over the years. Official statistics by the CCP are likely far too low. Frank Dikotter, a Dutch historian featured in the film and author of the much-lauded book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, puts the number at 45 million. Forty-five million out of 650 million Chinese at the time. Staggering.

Not many survived the famine, and of those who did, few have spoken out. Mao’s Great Famine compiles never before seen footage from the famine with testimonies of these silent ones. A student from the University of Hong Kong trekked four years across China to collect these testimonies—and you can tell these were from all over China since a number were conducted in non-Mandarin dialects.

The Great Famine is without a doubt a scar on the history of the CCP and joins a long list of skeletons that it tries to keep in the closet. The interviewees recount tales of cannibalism, government corruption, and mass starvation. While this is going on, the Great Leap Forward demanded provinces to reach quotas of steel and grain production. Collectivization, labor projects, and rapid exhaustion of land were all meant to bolster the regime’s claim that their socialist system was going to bring China out of poverty into the developed world within 15 years. Its failure was so overwhelming that Mao entered into a form of retirement, only to return several years later to unleash the Cultural Revolution.

The weight of suffering is of the kind created by Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps.  What is our reaction as an audience to this display of human depravity? What is our hope? Not in this life. Not in political systems, whether authoritarian or democratic, because in the end they all fail to implement perfect justice. Not in political institutions, though they may improve our lives when functioning for the good of the people. Not in individual leaders, who have chipped away at our trust with each new scandal.

Mao’s Great Famine is just over an hour long and available at the link provided above. If you have the time and an interest in Chinese history, take a look. And after you’ve gazed upon the evidence of what Dikotter has termed “the most devastating catastrophe” in the history of China, ask yourself: where is hope? Then look to Calvary, upon which hung our Perfect King whose government is just. Then yearn for His return. Come Lord Jesus.


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