Mao's Great Famine and Depraved Indifference
By Bryan Caplan
In Mao’s Great Famine, Frank Dikötter joins the elite club of historians who live up to their duty to impose “the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.” On purely literary terms I still prefer Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts, but Dikötter’s archival work on the Great Leap Forward is unsurpassed. His bottom line: The standard horrific body count of 20-30 million deaths from starvation is grossly understated. The true death toll is much higher – and open violence was an important secondary cause of death:
[A]t least 45 million people perished above a normal death rate during the famine from 1958 to 1962… [I]t is likely that at least 2.5 million of these victims were beaten or tortured to death.
Obsfucation was the communist way of life. People lied to survive, and as a consequence information was distorted all the way up to the Chairman. The planned economy required huge inputs of accurate data, yet at every level targets were distorted, figures were inflated and policies which clashed with local interests were ignored. As with the profit motive, individual initiative and critical thought had to be constantly suppressed, and a permanent state of siege developed.
But how can we convict Mao of mass murder if he was caught in a web of his subordinates’ lies? The answer is simple: Mao’s explicit policy of “kill the messenger (after calling him a ‘rightist’)” makes the whole tragedy an open-and-shut case of what lawyers call depraved indifference murder:
To constitute depraved indifference, the defendant’s conduct must be so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in
regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to
warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon
a person who intentionally causes a crime.
If I were prosecuting Mao, I’d further cover my bases by pointing out that he gave explicit orders to literally enslave hundreds of millions, then invoke the felony murder rule. However you slice it, Mao was a monster – and it’s high time for China to tear down his remaining posters and replace them with monuments to his victims.