‘In brutal fact, between 1959 and 1962, at least forty-three million Chinese died during the famine ... The cause of this disaster, the worst ever to befall China and one of the worst anywhere at any time, was Mao.’ I wrote those words in these pages when reviewing Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62; I now see that both those words and Dikötter’s title were mistaken. The Chinese famine was indeed one of the worst in world history, but the real disaster for China, until his death in 1976, was Mao himself, the man whose gigantic portrait still gazes down from Beijing’s Forbidden City onto Tiananmen Square.
This is clearer than ever in Dikötter’s path-breaking new book on the years 1945 to 1957, the period that the Chinese call ‘Liberation’. Beyond everything else, he shows us that Mao ‘liked killing’, as Li Rui, one of his secretaries, put it some years ago to a Harvard symposium on