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Mao Zedong Killed 45 Million People In Four Years, The Most In History

People | January 5, 2020

The morbidity of the question "Who is the worst mass murderer to ever live?" is hard to comprehend. How do you calculate the sheer numbers that some world leaders have racked up? Most casual history readers likely believe that the top spot belongs to Hitler or Stalin, but while their numbers reach into the millions, they don't hold a candle to the 45 million deaths that occurred under the regime of Mao Zedong.

While Mao is remembered as a prolific writer and master politician, only in last few years have his deadly decisions been openly discussed. From 1958 to 1962, the famine created by Mao's "Great Leap Foward" policy wiped out millions of farmers and peasants. Those who weren't killed by the famine were placed in labor camps, tortured to death, or beaten in the streets. His campaign was brutal and gruesome, and we're still dealing with the outcome today. 

Inspired by Russia, Mao wanted to go to space

Source: BBC

It's not like Chairman Mao just decided to starve millions of Chinese people over coffee one morning. It was actually after a trip to Russia, where he learned that his communist counterparts were planning to launch a low-orbit satellite named Sputnik. Upon returning to Beijing, Mao decided to pass a series of cost-saving laws so China could afford its own satellite.

Mao nationalized property by creating mass communes, forcing people to eat in canteens and farmers to share their equipment. Local magistrates were forced to increase their crop yields, which led to farmers planting in closer proximity, all crops being sent in as tax without leaving anything for the villagers. This created bulging silos of grain while people died in the streets.

On top of the artificial grain shortage, farmers were asked to melt down their tools to bolster China's steel production. This created a country where farmers had no way to sow their grain and no grain to sow. No one could eat even the food that was available. Over the course of the next four years, millions of people starved to death.

Mao knew that his people were starving and did nothing

Source: Getty Images

Mao's push to keep up with the western world, an act ironically known as the "Great Leap Forward," quickly plunged the country into chaos. Beginning in 1958, one-third of all the homes in China were destroyed to create fertilizer, pushing people out of their homes en masse. They ended up crowded into the homes of family members, or even worse, on the streets. Millions of people were starving, and Mao did nothing. After his death, the Chinese government attempted to retcon this time of Mao's life, but Hong Kongbased historian Frank Dikötter doesn't believe that Mao was guiltless in the famine. Quite the opposite: He believes that Mao knew exactly what he was doing and didn't care. He writes:

The idea that the state mistakenly took too much grain from the countryside because it assumed that the harvest was much larger than it was is largely a myth—at most partially true for the autumn of 1958 only. In most cases, the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death. At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated March 25, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting, he announced that "To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward. 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."

Mao's punishments were unjustly severe

Source: New York Times

As the famine continued, Mao's government inflicted brutal acts of punishment against anyone who tried to feed themselves. Mao had zero tolerance for disobedience, so regardless of the infraction, offenders were beaten, tied up and thrown in a pond, or even set on fire as an example to others who might consider defying the Chairman. In one province, 80% of the people who were deemed too old to work were banned from entering their region's canteen, which was essentially a slow-motion death sentence. One man, Wang Ziyou, was reported to central leadership for stealing a potato. His punishment? One of his ears was cut off, his legs were tied with wire, and he was branded with an iron.

The "Great Leap Forward" created mass turmoil

Source: Guardian

Many of the millions of people who died between 1958 and 1962 were farmers and peasants, but Mao reserved his most intense ire for the educated class. After the end of the famine, angry students and members of the Red Guard were encouraged to attack anyone who looked like they were too bourgeois. Anyone who was deemed too intellectual or "imperialist" lived under the threat of death. At least one million Chinese citizens died during a brutal street war in which intellectuals were forced to wear dunce caps and walk on all fours through the streets, their faces smeared with ink. Many of them were beaten to deathAs Mao supposedly once said, "What's so unusual about Emperor Shih Huang of the China Dynasty? He had buried alive 460 scholars only, but we have buried alive 46,000 scholars." 

Millions of people were imprisoned in forced labor camps

Source: Reddit

Beginning in the late '50s, Mao expanded his prison system throughout China. Something like 50 million citizens passed through it, and at least 20 million people died from the 14-hour workdays and disgusting living conditions. Like many power-hungry despots, Mao threw anyone he didn't like into these forced labor camps, where prisoners worked until they dropped. Referred to as a laogai, a lifelong prison camp meant to "reeducate" its inhabitants, the people inside produced just about every kind of product made in China.

Influential human rights activist Harry Wu spent 19 years in a forced labor camp before escaping to America and writing the first full account of the Chinese labor camp system. He noted that it wasn't just the physical labor that took its toll on the people but the mental stress placed on them as well. He explained:

One of the workers became sick for three days and did not meet his quota. At the end of the day, when they lined us up and called our names, that guy was called to the front. 'You didn't meet your quota! You disobeyed Chairman Mao! You neglected your duty!' The troop leader at the camp yelled at him. They tied the guy's hands behind his back and onto a bamboo stick. They ripped his shirt off, exposing his chest bare. The leader continued to yell at him. After a while, they released the guy, and he fell tumbling into a ditch, tearing at his arms, chest, and face. His skin was covered by countless mosquito bites. 'What, I didn't hit you,' said the leader. To this day, I can still hear him screaming in pain.

Mao's crimes have been largely ignored

Source: New York Times

After Mao Zedong's death in 1976, the Chinese government suddenly developed a firm belief in not speaking ill of the dead, focusing on the "positive" aspects of his career as the founding father of the People's Republic of China. Even so, the people of China who lived through the Great Leap Forward or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966, when children were indoctrinated into the Red Army and allowed to beat people in the streets after looting their homes, refuse to forget Mao's true legacy. Yu Xiangzhen, a survivor of Mao's leadership who writes about her experiences, told The Guardian

Some people have said the government will arrest me. 'If you stand up, the government will silence you.' But I've never told a single lie. Everything I've said is based on the truth ... Telling the truth is the right thing to do. Only when people find the truth can they find the solution ... This has happened in other countries. Why can't we do it here?

Tags: china | death | dictator | famine | Mao Zedong

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.