Great Leap distortions uncoveredorigins-cultural-revolution-volume-3-roderick-macfarquhar-paperback-cover-art1-189x300

by MC5

January 8, 2000 [slightly edited 2002] [slightly edited again by MSH editors, 2010]

In the process of fact-checking anti-Mao propaganda, MIM uncovered a stunning error in bourgeois media and intelligence community analysis of the Great Leap. A Harvard professor overestimated the net loss of population in the worst year of the alleged famine of the Great Leap (1958-1960) by a factor of 10.

The third volume of a book titled The Origins of the Cultural Revolution came out at the end of 1999 in paperback and won a prize from the Asian Studies Association. In preparation for a book review of volume three, MIM reviewed volume two. At the conclusion of volume two, in critique of the Great Leap Forward under Mao (1958-1960), Roderick MacFarquhar says “Nationwide, the mortality rate doubled from 1.08 per cent in 1957 to 2.54 per cent in 1960. In that year the population declined by 4.5 per cent.”(1)

Numerically, this last sentence with the italicized verb was the most significant charge against Mao in the whole book. However, it was simply a misprint, overestimated exactly by a factor of ten. We found no errata in the book or in the sequel, volume three.

The relevant figure is 4.5 per 1000 as is commonly available in publications by the enemies of the Great Leap in power in China today. Indeed, MacFarquhar himself lists the correct figure in a table on page five of the third volume of his book series.

The correct figure for 1960 and other years is listed in common Chinese statistical sources. Using that figure and the others for 1960-2, one would have to extrapolate to arrive at the often-used 30 million figure of bourgeois sources. Just as easily, one could point out without extrapolating the following: 1) The death rate in 1959 was better than in 1952 and about equal to 1953. 2) The death rate in 1961 was even better. 3) The death rate in 1962 was the best seen in the People’s Republic of China up to that date. It was only the year 1960 which was worse than any year since Liberation in 1949. If radical politics and collectivization mostly caused the famine, then why did it not hit hardest in 1958 and 1959 in the commune upsurge and instead chose the worst weather year when communes were already dismantled or being dismantled?

A 1984 Associated Press (AP) article against the Great Leap ran again in October, 1999 in the South China Morning Post for the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of China in 1949. Significantly, the article admitted what MIM has been saying — that the figure of 30 million starved in the Great Leap is only possible by assuming normal birth rates during a tumultuous period where people worked day and night and studied in public meetings in between.

“Basing their calculations on the 1953 population of 583 million and the 1964 total of 695 million, and on normal fertility rates, they concluded that infant mortality and other deaths were much higher than officially reported.”(2)

Liberal interpretation of information flow problems

The Associated Press of 1984 also admitted that Mao took the blame for the Great Leap — and like most bourgeois critics — failed to mention any bourgeois political figure that compared in making such a self-criticism as Mao’s.(3)

The subject of important mistakes is central to the whole second volume of MacFarquhar’s book and the early pages of volume three. The standard Liberal interpretation of the Great Leap is that it proves that communism restricts information flow and causes disaster.

AP took an extreme stance backing such a position by saying that even Deng Xiaoping was blocking information about the Great Leap, because he supposedly favored it according to AP. No where does the article systematically address the question of natural disaster in a poor country ravaged by a century of colonialism. Bourgeois Liberals just assume that it is a matter of free speech.

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen said in 1989, “The lack of adversarial journalism and politics hit even the government, reinforcing the ignorance of local conditions because of politically motivated exaggeration of the crop size during the Great Leap Forward and the fear of local leaders about communicating their own problems. The pretence that everything was going all right in Chinese agriculture and rural economy to a great extent fooled the national leaders themselves.”(4)

Yet, MIM could ask the same question of Western Great Leap coverage. It’s been many years and a scholar who wrote more than a book on the subject misprinted the facts about the Leap, so it would seem bourgeois Liberalism is no guarantee of truth. Adversarial journalism by MIM will fail to correct the repeated but wrong statements spread by the likes of MacFarquhar. MIM’s journalism is important but not enough in its own right to promote the advancement of truth. The criticism of weapons is still necessary for those with the power to resist the truth.

Rather than admit mistakes, in the years since his earlier publications where he accepted figures just under 30 million for the upper end of estimates of Great Leap deaths, MacFarquhar has increased his upper range estimate of deaths. In a Time Magazine piece in 1996, he said the figure was 20 to 43 million dead. (On the bright side, in the same article he says that it is likely Cultural Revolution deaths were under one million, while web sites like the Dalai Lama’s encourage the idea of 40 million dead in the Cultural Revolution, as if that many people could disappear into thin air other than in a spiritual dream.)(5)

In fact, while MacFarquhar derides Mao for his “one finger versus the nine fingers”(6) sayings, we must defend MacFarquhar’s factual grasp of the material in the same way or we would end up dismissing his whole book for one misplaced decimal point in its conclusion chapter. Mao would criticize us for “empiricism” if we laughed at MacFarquhar just because he made one mistake, even with regard to the biggest criticism of Mao that he made.

We Marxists believe that error arises not from a lack of adversarial journalism but because of institutionalized incentives to lie in the capitalist system. For example, tobacco executives have a profit incentive to lie to hook people on their product. 470,000 die each year from smoking according to the Massachusetts state government.(7) Mao admitted his Great Leap mistakes right away; yet most tobacco companies haven’t admitted to killing millions yet. Philip Morris has only just recently started the process of admission. Such companies profiting from death need to have their “right” to “free speech” to say that smoking does not cause cancer taken away from them. The organized force used against the tobacco executives and others profiting from anti- science is called “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

As for Mao’s role, MacFarquhar revisits the question throughout his work. On the last page of his volume two published in 1983, MacFarquhar admits that “In the end, Mao conceded gracefully.”(8)

Professor and department chair Roderick MacFarquhar at Harvard University has long been a key figure in the extension of the U.$. intelligence community known as “area studies” at Harvard housed at the “Center for International Affairs,” and laughably abbreviated “CFIA” instead of “CIA.” (The infamy has resulted in a change of name to “Weatherhead Center.”) Here the most widely parroted “experts” speak on China and, in the bad old days, the “Soviet Union.” The Harvard area studies committees typically make no effort to hide their usefulness to U$ intelligence. In this case, MacFarquhar further justifies this image of Harvard’s “Government Department” by being a former member of the British parliament, an MP.

After the June 4th, 1989 massacre in Beijing occurred, MacFarquhar took to predicting the imminent collapse of the Beijing regime because of the repression of the Beijing Spring. Of course, he turned out wrong. It seems that once again “adversarial journalism” was wrong and did not disclose truth.

An Internet search on MacFarquhar’s name and the phrase “Great Leap” turns up 21 entries on the Google search engine, 26 on Altavista. Among the typical places we will find his name — on the Dalai Lama’s official web page for his government in-exile, the neo-liberal New Republic magazine responsible for so many anti-communist diatribes and in a Time Magazine article he wrote for the May 13, 1996 issue.

Backing Judith Bannister(as seen on Tibetan web sites) (spelled “Banister” in other references) are people such as MacFarquhar and the same government mouthpieces as usual. The Dalai Lama’s web page describes Banister as a “scholar,” (9) when in fact she was a U.S. Government official. She came up with the round figure of 30 million dead in the Great Leap most commonly used to this day, often with the verb “murdered” thrown in by ignorant or lying right-wingers, who never bother to calculate famine deaths in capitalist countries each year.

MIM continues to accept this figure of 30 million for the Great Leap while demanding that the methods of its calculation be applied to the capitalist world and be reported as often in each country as it is reported in every mention of Mao in China. The capitalist death toll is much higher.

The 1998 Nobel prize winner in economics has already explained that the most radical periods of China’s history (Liberation in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976) brought the fastest gains in eliminating famine.(10) A. Sen claims that the Great Leap was indeed a great disaster causing approximately the number of deaths that people like MacFarquhar and Banister have claimed; yet he also recognizes that a bourgeois democratic country such as India arrives at a Great Leap death toll of its own every few years.

MacFarquhar on the natural disasters

Perhaps playing his cards as far to the “Left” as possible for a former parliament member in order to curry favor with imagined “leftist” Communist Party of China officials, MacFarquhar admitted in his book that natural disasters during the Great Leap were extensive: “the worst natural calamities in a century.”(11) He goes through the argument of whether it was 70% natural disaster and 30% human error or vice-versa, a common argument in the People’s Republic of China. As the Maoists charged, MacFarquhar documents that head-of-state Liu Shaoqi did believe the Great Leap was 3 parts natural disaster and 7 parts error, though he would also say otherwise in public.(12)

“By the end of the year [1960], 900 million mou or well over half the cultivated acreage had been devastated, sometimes repeatedly.

“The catastrophe had been emerging for some months. The most serious problem in 1960 was drought which in the spring and summer affected 600 million mou in every province of China apart from Tibet and Sinkiang; 13 provinces were affected in both seasons. The worst devastation was centered round the north China provinces of Hopei, Honan, Shantung and Shansi, where 60 per cent of the cultivated acreage was affected over a period of six to seven months. At the worst period in Shantung, eight of the province’s 12 rivers had no water in them; for 40 days in March and June, it was possible to wade across the lower reaches of the Yellow River.

“Shantung had been battered by typhoons and floods that affected 12 provinces in all. Apart from Shantung, the most seriously hit were the three in the north-east, and other coastal provinces like Kwangtung, Fukien and Kiangsu. The floods in east Liaoning were the worst since records had been kept.

“Not surprisingly in view of the drought, most of the flooding had been due to the typhoons, more of which had hit the Chinese mainland than in any of the previous 50 years, 11 between June and October; and each typhoon had lasted longer than usual, averaging ten hours, the longest stretching to 20.

“Moreover, nature had played an additional trick. The typhoons did not strike north-westwards as usual, but northwards. This added to their impact because it meant there were no high mountains to ward them off, and that less rain reached the west of the country. In the aftermath of the drought and the flood came insect pests and plant diseases.”(13)

Timing and mortality in the Great Leap

Oddly enough, MacFarquhar’s recent publications spark further questions for MIM, not a decisive rebuttal of Maoism. His volume two, published in 1983 even said, “the basic elements of the leap forward strategy were sound.”(14)

Perhaps the most important observation concerning the Great Leap that MacFarquhar made was one that would most irk the bourgeois Cambodia/Kampuchea scholars and media propagandists examining Pol Pot and a country very similar to agrarian China under Mao. Specifically, MacFarquhar backs the idea that it can indeed be rational to empty the cities out and drive people into the countryside in times of crisis.(15)

MacFarquhar attributes the famine to the fact that Mao tried to industrialize too fast and not enough people stayed in the countryside to do the farming for the country. He details how Mao changed course and allowed Chen Yun into power to restore the balance between city and countryside. Between 1961 and 1963, 26 million people were sent back to the countryside from the cities.(16) 1958 was the high point for industrial workers, with 44.16 million, up from 14.01 million the previous year.

Already in 1959, industrial labor was back to 28.81 million and farm labour increased by almost 8 million hands. Tripling industrial labor in one year was too extreme in 1958 and even a year of retrenchment in 1959 was not enough to undo its effect.(17)

The Great Leap was a huge innovation in social organization, bringing great gains for wimmen through communal health care, child care, laundry and even dining for a period of time. It exposed many peasants to industry and gave them a chance to work in large-scale communes beyond anything seen in history yet. MacFarquhar does not touch on any of these subjects and to do so, readers will have to go through MIM’s literature list. Not even the social causes of lower birth rates other than famine interested MacFarquhar.
In the first year, in fact, there was a bumper harvest. By 1959, the Maoist leaders were already putting on the brakes, but most of the casualties occurred in the 1960-2 period. Significantly, MacFarquhar admits that we cannot be sure to what extent private farming was already taken up by 1960. Private farming and the closely related anti-collective idea of a “responsibility system” seemed to have taken over large portions of the countryside just as the famine hit its height. So-called independent operation hit 60% in some areas. MacFarquhar adds similar comments about the spread of private farming and other systems closer to private farming than collective agriculture. Mao’s own first secretary Tian Jiaying favored the changes and estimated they reached 30 to 40% of peasants by 1962.(18)

Overall a picture emerges of imbalance between industry and agriculture in the Great Leap, especially in the distribution of labor-power between the two. In 1958, the imbalance did not hurt anyone and the politics of that heady period were not the cause of subsequent famine. Collectivization itself had little to do with the famine. The attitude of ignoring statistics contributed to the famine of the Great Leap, but we Marxists do not see such attitudes as proof of the need for bourgeois “free speech.”


1. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 (NY: Columbia University Press, 
1983), p. 330.

2. Associated Press, “Great leap was a tragic blunder,” 
14Sept1984, ID-19990929102014578.asp

3. For Mao’s self-criticism with regard to the Leap see for 
example, Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural 
Revolution: The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-1966 (Oxford, 
England: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 169.



6. See e.g., MacFarquhar, vol. 2, p. 146.

7. (You may have to hit “reload” on your 
browser a few times for the fact to come up.)

8. MacFarquhar, vol. 2, op. cit., p. 336.



11. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-1966 (Oxford, England: Oxford 
University Press, 1997), p. 5.

12. Ibid., pp. 56, 63.

13. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 (NY: Columbia University Press, 
1983), p. 322.

14. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 (NY: Columbia University Press, 
1983), p. 4.

15. MacFarquhar is not the only bourgeois source willing to admit this. See,

16. MacFarquhar, vol. 3, op. cit., p. 32.

17. MacFarquhar, vol. 3, op. cit., p. 34. Also, pp. 204-5.

18. MacFarquhar, vol. 3, op. cit., p. 34. Also, pp. 221, 265-6.

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