Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
Mao was genuinely popular among ordinary Chinese. Why? Because he led a peasant revolution. He's thrown off centuries of oppression. And he said, we now stood up as a people and we can create our own world. Huge claim to live for Chinese people in living memory. They've always been under pressure.
It was Mao's drive to turn China into a military superpower so he could dominate the world.
Even the livelihoods and schedules of ordinary people now become subject to state control. People who are unable to work are starved to death. This includes children, pregnant women, the elderly. All of them are cut off from the food supply, the band from the canteen. It results in an absolute disaster that claims the lives of tens of millions of people.
My name is Paul McGann and welcome to Real Dictators, the series that explores the hidden lives of tyrants such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong Il. In this episode, we return to China and the story of the peasant son turned supreme leader Mao Zedong from Noisette Podcast's. This is real dictator's. This podcast features occasional scenes of a violent and or graphic nature listener discretion is advised.
It's early 1937 and Mao Zedong's communists under attack from two formidable foes. On one hand, the Chinese nationalists led by the pro-Western general Chiang Kai shek. On the other hand, the Japanese invaders looking to crush an unstable nation and subsume it into their own. But from this vulnerable position, the communists will, in fact rise all the way to national office in Beijing. Over the course of the next 12 years, their enemies will be defeated, the door will be open for Mao Zedong to become Chairman Mao, the supreme leader of all China.
This is how it happened. As the newly anointed leader of the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong, bases himself again on. It's a bombed-out mountain town in eastern China wrecked by the Civil War. It's not much to look at, but it's fame soon spreads far and wide. On arrival in Yoanna, mindsets about implementing his communist policies in microcosm. This is to be a pilottown a test case for ideas and programs that, if successful, will one day be expanded out across the entire Chinese nation.
Now seizes the land around you from those who own it, he then redistributes it under the control of farmers. This policy is called land reform. It's a textbook move, communism 101. He then founds an educational institute to indoctrinate and radicalize the local youth. He calls this the Northwest anti Japanese Red Army University. It does what it says on the tin. Pretty soon, Yanan has acquired a global reputation as a communist utopia. The interest of the international media is piqued, foreign journalists are dispatched to Yunnan to file reports from the ground.
What they find is a city full of idealistic youth where radicals and intellectuals come to think freely, to plot a path to China's great liberation. And many of the young people flocking to this town from far and wide have dreams of beating back the Japanese invaders. Jim Chang is an author and historian. She has a personal connection to Yunnan. Her own father traveled to a lot of young Chinese you've had, including my own father, who wanted to fight Japan.
They were disappointed with Chiang Kai-Shek government and they didn't think Chiang Kai-Shek was doing a good enough job fighting Japan. And the communists were very good at making propaganda. So these young people, including my own father, then went to the north where Mao was thinking that they would join the fight against the Japanese.
The reality, they find is rather different. I mean, the most important thing to start with is these young people were not allowed to leave Vietnam, even though most of them were disillusioned with Vietnam as soon as they arrived. Because, you know, people like my father, there were teenagers and they thought the communists were fighting Japan. And they of course, they thought communism was for equality.
Now has other plans for these young people. His intention is to turn the unan faithful into a force that is utterly obedient to him and him alone, a force that will ultimately propel him to national office in Beijing. The young people, like my father, wanted to fight Japanese, but Mao didn't. He actually saw Japanese invasion and the war as an opportunity to destroy Chiang Kai-Shek stage to enable him to seize power after the war was over.
And, you know, Mao does away with a traditional communist idea. He eradicates the principle of absolute equality. Instead, my wants to construct a social hierarchy with himself at the top, Indianan. There was absolutely no equality. You know, housing was graded, you know, food was graded, close was graded. I interviewed one of Mao's maids and she was offered low grade. So she had no underwear. She absolutely she said she was having cold all the time.
And meanwhile, Mao was able to wear these sort of fine cotton imported from nationalist areas. After grading the members of his utopian community, Mao sets a trap to lure his opponents out into the open. Jonathan Clements is an expert on East Asia and author of the book Mao Zedong Life and Times. Mao is all about argument. He was very happy for there to be contradictions when the contradictions worked in his favor. Mao starts to suggest that people could criticize him openly.
Let's have a debate about this. Let's contradict each other. Let us struggle together to work out what is best for us.
One group takes their complaints to a man they nominate as their representative. He's a writer called Wang Wei.
Wang Shway was writing against the inequality union there. He spoke for all these young people, including my father. My father was his follower while she was their hero. He spoke their voice. He spoke of their disillusionment with communism when she Wei publicizes his followers grievances for all to see.
He writes a newspaper essay criticizing Mao personally. Now, he says, is too preoccupied with chasing beautiful women. He and the other Communist Party head honchos have too much power and influence. They're accountable to no one. Wang represents a significant threat.
Mao also went to see Wang Shaways posters and saw how crowds of people went there and, you know, regarded Lashley as the hero. So Mao said, well, she was the Lord and the king and that we must treat him seriously.
Wang is emboldened. But Mao's plan has worked. Wang is now out in the open with his nemesis exposed, the chairman swoops Mao has Wang arrested. He then subjects him to a uniquely excruciating form of torture called the Tiger Benge.
The subject is sat on a bench with their back against the wall, legs extended in front of them at a right angle. Their legs are fastened to the bench with leather belts, slabs, brick are added underneath the suspect's feet until their kneecaps break or the belts snap. Of all the instruments of torture available, this is my personal favorite. Desperate to end the pain, Wang makes a false confession that he is a nationalist spy. Then he's forced to implicate innocent comrades.
Wang has given Mao exactly what he wanted, so-called evidence of divergence within the party, an excuse to move against renegade communist members. Even though he's played his part to a tee, there's no mercy for Wang. Nothing can prevent his execution. His demise will leave his Yanan followers shell shocked.
A while we had to be in prison and he was taken along and he was killed by the kind of a mouse, the KGB, and he was thrown down a dry well.
To make sure they've learned their lesson, Wangs remaining followers are put under surveillance, so they're aware the U.S. intelligence, the psychological warfare of subjecting these young people to this mass and his spy rallies. So that had a really devastating effect on these young people.
Before long now is extending this campaign of repression to spread terror through the ranks. Anyone who steps out of line is liable for the tiger bench or worse. Performative violence is essential to how my works. Dr. Michael Lynch is an historian and biographer of Mao. China, by tradition, always punished publicly, so you didn't punish in private that gave the Chinese this reputation for being unnaturally cruel? They weren't compare with other societies, but all their punishments were public, meant to put others off its deterrent principle.
Mao grew up in that atmosphere. And therefore, if you punish, you must do it in a way that dramatizes the crime. And he develops this powerful, dramatic instinct that if you're going to do something, let it be seen to be done, will be done on a bigger scale as you can so others learn and profit from it or learn and are frightened by it. When communists who er who stray, who break the rules when they stray from the path, they're punished, publicly, humiliated publicly, which makes him appear to be cruel for the sake of it.
It was meant to show that detestation for the wrongs that have been done. You don't tolerate error if you tolerated revolution is destroyed. Mao sets the tone at the top. But he's careful not to get his own hands dirty. I don't think you'll find any evidence of Mao pulling any triggers or actively hanging anybody. He made sure that other people did that for him. He was the man coming up with the ideology, coming up with the words to say to the peasants, you must rise up.
You must take what is rightfully yours. So violence was something that he got other people to do for him and this would escalate throughout his life. It started off with four or five peasants burning down a rich farmer's house, but it would eventually escalate into millions of people in the Cultural Revolution, for example. So Mao's always a shadowy figure at the back. He's not pulling the triggers himself. I was taking this move straight from the dictator's playbook, just like Starlin over the border in the Soviet Union, Mao justifies this campaign of terror by claiming to see spies everywhere.
Jingjing Mao had he's a specialist organization, kind of like the Chinese KGB, any real spy suspects were quietly dealt with by them.
But with these young people when they were subjected to terror, when they when some were subjected to torture, Mao had no doubt they weren't spies. They weren't real spies, suspects. It was a purely to scare them. You know, and I've interviewed people who were subjected to sleep deprivation for seven days. For example, there was a young teenage girl. She was told that if she didn't admit of being a spy, they would put snakes into her cave.
Torture is now firmly established at the core of most political philosophy. Dr Michael Lynch. Violence is not an accidental aspect of Maoism. It is a necessary part of it because violence is the means to destroy opposition that, if left unchallenged, will actually destroy the method of surgery was used. You've got to cut out the cancer in order for the body body politic to recover. So violence is not simply a means to an end. It's an absolute requirement. In any revolutionary situation, violence is a definition of revolution.
By 1945, China has been under siege by the Japanese for eight long years, with millions homeless and destitute and famine and starvation spreading, the Chinese economy is on its knees. This is a country primed for wholesale revolution. The time is ripe for Mao to make his move onto the national stage, to bring the endless civil war to a head with his loyal troops in tow, Mao Zedong comes down from the hilltop town of Yunnan. His army soon swells to three million gathering recruits as they go by.
Now, they're a formidable force. The military hardware they brandished has been provided by Stalin in battles across the vast Chinese landmass. Mao's forces grind down their fields.
Soon as opponents of the ruling nationalists are a beleaguered force, their two decades in charge of China have brought them scant reward. The rest of the world has moved forward into the 20th century, embracing industrialization and modern agriculture. But China remains rooted firmly in the past. By 1949, the nationalists lack both the public support and the will to fight on their leader, General Chiang Kai shek resigns. His departure leaves the door to power wide open for one man, one man alone.
Just days later, on October the 1st, 1949, crowds flock to Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen is a defining symbol of the Chinese nation. It's an ancient ceremonial gate. It marks the entrance to the imperial city, the center of power for China's dynasties of the past. It's those dynasties that Mao is overthrowing once and for all. Today marks a brand new chapter in China's history. On a stage in front of the Tiananmen, the great and good of the Chinese Communist Party assembled a large stand up microphone is positioned dead center on the dias.
Many in the crowd hold up placards all adorned with a single image, Mao Zedong's firm jawed face. Then the man himself walks on stage to rapturous applause, he's decked out in his trademark dark green Zhongshan tunic suit. He's put on weight these last few years, his hairline has started to recede, but if anything, this gives him more gravitas. He's a serious, heavy man, a man who looks like he can hold the weight of China on his shoulders.
The speech he gives is beamed around the world on newsreels and in newspaper columns. But despite the coverage, few can appreciate the significance of what is about to happen to China at the microphone. Mao Zedong announces he is the supreme leader of China's 600 million people. With China in a mess after years of nationalist rule, Mao is greeted as a hero by the people. He allows himself a smile as he takes in the crowds. Applause. The degree of acclimation from the grave applause may be exaggerated, but even if it were even if they did do a public relations exercise, Mao was generally popular among ordinary Chinese by foreigners.
Why? Because he led a peasant revolution. He'd thrown off centuries of oppression. He could claim he'd overcome the landlord, the warlords, the Japanese, the nationalists. And he'd said, we now stood up as a people and we can create our own world. Huge claim left for Chinese people who have been suppressed in living memory. They'd always been under oppression, either internal through the emperors or external or through the foreigners. Now they are free of that.
We again in the West tend to know what's coming. We tend to owe the ending of the tyranny of communism, but at the time it was a great liberation. And so from 49 on, very hard to challenge Mao openly. Who else could have brought to this point? Only he could then put the enemies he'd overcome in doing it. So there's a very genuine national response, a say it may be exaggerated here and there by deliberate propaganda, but it's genuine.
It's there. It's real because the West saw it as another sort of communist revolution and were frightened by this. The days of the Cold War. And I think we often in the West or we did at the time, miss out on the essential element of it, which was a great liberation of people from past oppression. I think we have to grasp that that's how it was interpreted at the time.
This is a euphoric moment for the Chinese even today. This is set as the end of the century of humiliation. The Chinese have been through a hundred years of imperialist oppression. They've been invaded by the Japanese. They've got to give land to the Americans and to the British and to the French, to the Italians. They they fought the Opium Wars. Now, they fought all these people out. They have their own communist republic. And Mao is standing there telling them that they are a nation.
He's telling them from the place where the emperor's decrees would be issued, which is a very clever political move. On his part, he said there are no more emperors. He said that we're a democracy now, that the people are in charge. But when he tells them this, he's standing where the emperor's envoy would stand. And throughout the 1940s and 50s, you can see Mao sometimes taking on the aspect of an emperor propaganda prince depict him with the effulgence of the son.
He would also plow the first furrow of the season, which is something the emperor would do is a symbolic kind of fertility worship. So Mao is taking on the aspect of an emperor. He's not saying I'm the new emperor. No, that would be wrong. But he is allowing the accoutrements of power in a very traditional sense to devolve to him. One of the bitter irony is, is that just after the proclamation of the People's Republic of China, China had some fantastic harvests.
It was really good weather for a couple of years and things looked like they were really improving. And I think that gave a certain sense of confidence and a certain sense of achievement among the Chinese. They thought they were really winning.
What the Chinese people don't yet realize is that life under the new chairman is about to get a whole lot worse. It's 1950. And Chairman Mao Zedong has been supreme leader of China for a year. But under this new communist regime, China remains desperately poor. It's a country shaken by decades of bloody conflict and revolution. It's been 39 years since the ancient Qing Dynasty was toppled. The civil war has ravaged the country despite its huge population. China still lags far behind the United States, Russia and Europe in economic terms.
Much of the world is increasingly centered on cities and heavy industry, but China is still a country where people live in the countryside in disparate rural settlements, practicing ancient manual farming techniques. Mao is convinced that China's backwardness, as he sees it, is what's holding the nation back. He is willing to do whatever it takes to overcome this. Chairman Mao stands with his aides surveying a rice plantation in the middle of the countryside before him, peasants are scattered across the vast rice paddy.
Each individual farms for themselves and their own family. Any extra produced is to be sold for profit at local markets. The sun glints off the blades of the peasant sides as they sweep through the rice plants by hand. The chairman watches on his frustration palpable. This can't be the most productive way to harness the power of the land. There must be a better way to farm, a more modern way to organize the Chinese peasants, a way to drive China forward into the 20th century.
My solution will be industrialization on a monumental scale. This, he proclaims, is the key to transforming China into a global economic superpower. He'll set out to achieve this complete revolution virtually overnight, no matter the human cost. This program will be the biggest of its kind ever attempted on Earth. It will result in the deaths of millions and the displacement of millions more. It will upend the economy of the world's most populous nation. There will be no turning back.
It will be known as the Great Leap Forward, the idea of the Great Leap Forward was supposedly to take China into the future, to create this communist utopia and to do it in just 15 years.
Mao wanted free five year plans in a row that would bring China up to an economic level with Great Britain. What's interesting about this is he seemed to be rushing his own dreams. Earlier on, Mao had suggested that turning China into a great world power would be a 100 year marathon. He suggested that it would take 100 years to do and take three generations to do. But as he entered his 60s, it seems that he suddenly developed a desire to see this for himself, and he decided to push the Chinese to actually do it within 15 years, which was impossible by anyone's reckoning.
The great leap forward is the notion we Chinese can do it by our own efforts. We don't need machinery even we can literally do it off our hands. If we act the great collective force, there's nothing we can't achieve. We'll leap for. The leap, of course, was meant to show will leap over the capitalist west because of this burning desire. We have to make China great for the will of its people. Again, an extraordinary claim and easy to make fun of.
And we can see that economically it was flawed because you can't build a modern industrial economy through the labor of the hand. You need machines and they learn that to their cost. But as an expression of belief in the nation and the people collectively working together, a huge step forward, leap forward. Mao's plan is to modernise China's economy by buying ready made factories and military technology from his Russian allies. He will pay for them with grain grown by the peasants of China.
It's a plan vast in scope and ambition and chilling in its callous treatment of individual lives. The great debate forward started in nineteen fifty eight, it was Mao's drive to turn China into a military superpower so he could dominate the world. And to fulfill this dream, Mao needed to buy vast quantities of arms industries, nuclear technology and equipment, missile technology and equipment. The whole range of military industrial complex is. In order to afford his factories and military hardware, the chairman needs to sell vast amounts of China's grain on international markets.
To do that, he needs complete central control over grain production now starts off by outlawing private enterprise in the countryside. Every scrap of grain will now be owned by the state, those who persist in private farming are labeled counterrevolutionaries. They are vilified, to put it mildly. They're called struggle sessions, the outbursts of public shaming to which farmers holding back produce are subjected in these episodes of ritual humiliation, the guilty are put on trial by the mob, harangued by officials and members of the public alike.
They're beaten and abused until they confess to crimes they may or may not have committed. Instead of farming your own produce, now you farm in exchange for food rations, the wheat is taken from the fields and loaded into trucks. Then it's carted away. Professor Frank DeCota reports on modern China based in Hong Kong. He spent years studying Chinese archives to build up a picture of life under Mao's rule. One of the key points about collectivisation is, of course, to reduce villages to mere foot soldiers, but also to make sure that the grain goes straight from the fields into state granaries, no private market, no private trading, no farmers who decide what they wish to plant whenever it suits them, they will grow grain.
The grain goes into the state granaries. And then, of course, the grain can be used by the state to buy massive equipment from the Soviet Union or imports from other parts of the socialist bloc.
China is being transformed at a rapid pace. But already the cost is becoming clear. It does work very briefly for a couple of months and nineteen fifty eight, as massive amounts of machinery are ordered from abroad, but once the bills come in by nineteen fifty nine, it's too late. This country is already starving, quite literally. Undeterred, the next step now takes is to strip the peasants of all their possessions, ordering them to live and work on vast collective plantations, swathes of rural China are reorganized into communes where millions toil for the greater good people who become part of a giant army that can be deployed in one campaign after the other.
For instance, using farmers to produce steel and backyard furnaces over the summer months and then deploying them to tackle massive irrigation projects during the winter months. And that's how Mao thinks that he can actually achieve that economic growth, which will help them overtake the Soviet Union. Of course, that results in a disaster. Collectivization really is nothing but stripping people from the every little bit of private property. The land goes back to the state. The houses are confiscated. Tools, pots, pans, utensils become collective, livestock is collectivised.
Even the livelihoods and schedules of ordinary people now become subject to state control. Chairman Mao imposes impossibly high production targets on these new collective farms, the peasants are told they won't receive their food rations if they don't hit their quotas. Food is administered according to merit. It's a tool of control. Government inspectors, the local Cardross, are candid about denying food to the sick and weak, starving them hastens their death. More deaths mean fewer mouths to feed in communes throughout the land lines of hungry peasants queue for meager portions of rice.
These are the lucky ones. Villages no longer get money for their work, they get work points which they can exchange for food into collective canteens. But in these collective canteens where the food is distributed according to merit, of course, food becomes a weapon to punish those who don't contribute to production. He who does not work shall not eat it. Quite literally, people who are unable to work are starved to death. This includes children, pregnant women, the elderly people who for some reason can't work hard enough.
All of them are cut off from the food supply, the band from the canteen. There's an absolutely fundamental difference between people starving to death and people being starved to death. In other words, does not so much the absence of food that causes the famine. It's the fact that the food used as a tool of punishment against those somehow do not obey every command from the man in charge of the village. Dr. Michael Lynch. It wasn't mere circumstance, I mean, one of the explanations for the famine that the party put forward was bad harvest.
Bad weather is true. There are some bad harvests in the late 50s, early 60s, but they don't explain the famine. The famine was allowed to happen or imposed in Tibet, for example, by party policy, which came ultimately from Mao had to he was the final boss. So the number of deaths, I think, is secondary to the fact that deaths were deliberately imposed by party policy or even allowed by party policy. I mean, regions that didn't conform to Maoist notions were simply left to starve in the days of the famine.
No supplies would get through.
The situation spirals out of control. The starving people grow weaker and less able to work. Food production stalls, tens of millions are now hungry, once collectivisation, has stripped every meaningful incentive to work for the cultivator.
Of course, the local cadres have to use violence to get them to work into the fields. And as the famine sets in, it becomes increasingly difficult to force famished people to work for the state. So instead of leading to a great leap forward, it results in an absolute disaster that claims the lives of tens of millions of people from Dakotas.
Years spent studying Chinese archives that brought him face to face with the reality of this mass starvation. There is one report which really struck me, it's, say, an officer from the People's Liberation Army who goes back to his village, it's a rainy day. He sees smoke come out from the house, which belongs to the local Calver. He approaches the house, knocks on the door, opens the door, sees a very large Coldren inside with something being prepared.
He asked the local court, What are you doing this? While I'm reducing the bodies of people who have died of starvation into liquid or bits of skin, bits of hair bombs that can be seen, the color is literally transforming that bodies into fertilizer to be used on the fields. That's what he's doing. This one example of millions across China encapsulates the horror of the time.
I think we tend to forget when we talk about famine, that the very essence of it is to reduce human beings to mere numbers where people start doing awful things to each other. At the very heart of Mao's Great Famine, the Great Leap Forward, people start looking at each other not as human beings, but as just numbers, things to be used. But people do things to each other, which are very difficult to describe.
The unspeakable human cost is not even translating into meaningful industrial gains because Mao's new economic model is fatally flawed. He pinned his hopes on iron and steel production. He thought they were the sinews of the modern economy, which, of course, they had been in West's industrial past. And he said, when we've achieved steel iron production, we'll then move into the new modern era. Already, of course, by the 50s, the West is moving to the high tech world.
So they were already behind. So building a modern industrial society was a misunderstanding to begin with. They didn't fully grasp the nature of how modernity industrially was going to pan out. Mao's version of events is rhetoric is increasingly absurdly different from the situation on the ground, he said.
Willpower alone can carry us through, not a claim. That is, we are remaking history in our own image. We're doing it as we want it to be. No longer. We'll be told how to do it.
We will do it. But that was the great appeal behind it. The tragedy, of course, was that it was based on false economics and you couldn't build a modern economy on that collective principle.
You had to have managers, you had to have specialized technical knowledge.
Oumou can guarantee is labor. He can guarantee millions of people putting themselves behind dam building schemes, irrigation schemes, growing crops. He then tries to move out of that into slightly more suspect areas. He decides that we can have a steel industry if everyone just gets together and hopes, which causes all kinds of trouble during the Great Leap forward, because no one knows how to make steel and people are melting down pots and pans just to create the right amount of steel to hit their quotas.
And none of it's any use. Across China, millions starved to death as food production collapses. Society is falling apart at the seams. There are countless reports of robbery, peasants', poisoning each other, even cannibalizing each other. The great leap forward will have catastrophic and long lasting effects on Chinese society. It's so detrimental that if you global deaths on a graph in the years around 1960, there was a huge spike thanks to the events unfolding in the world's most populous country in 1958, good weather seems to promise a productive harvest.
But with the labor force redirected to industrial work, much of the wheat yield is left to rot in the fields.
Mao claims the problem lies not with his policies, but with the nation's birds eating the people's grain.
So he issues an absurd dick to the Chinese people or to eradicate every last sparrow throughout the land. One of his maddest ideas was the war on the sparrows. He decided that if the Chinese could kill the sparrows in the country, then the 10 grains, each of those sparrows eight could be food for humans. All seems very logical. So he has the Chinese running around, beating pots, throwing rocks at sparrows, keeping them awake until they fall dead from the sky.
Throughout China, people clear dead sparrows from the ground spearing their remains on long sticks. So let's get rid of the birds at the moment. And so they would hunt for days, weeks that made a noise so the birds couldn't settle and rest and sleep. The birds would drop from the sky. They gathered them in this house, put them on the parade them around, show this great contribution the village had made to food production, kills all the sparrows in China.
Well done, Chairman Mao. Except now there's nothing to eat the insects. And so the following year there's a blight on all the crops because the caterpillars and the locusts are eating all of the grain anyway. And there's a huge famine. He didn't plan for that part. It didn't occur to him. Someone may well have suggested to him that it was a bad idea. But by this point, if you criticize Mao, you're criticizing the party and people are afraid to do so.
In the frenzied atmosphere of hallucinatory hunger and sheer desperation, farmers and laborers are tortured or executed on the spot by local cadres looking to punish the slightest infractions in the harshest possible terms. Punishments include mutilating the perpetrators and forcing them to eat excrement. In November 1961, one man has his ears cut off, his legs tied with an iron wire and a 10 kilogram stone dropped on his back before being branded with a red hot tool. His crime. Digging up a potato.
Elsewhere, after one young boy steals a meager quantity of grain, his father is forced to bury him alive. Three weeks later, the father himself dies of grief. It will go down in history as one of them was cruel and catastrophically misjudged government policies of all time. But in Beijing, the story being told is much different. The Communist Party propaganda machine portrays the chairman's great leap forward as a dazzling success.
Frank DeCota, one of the very first things that the communists do the moment the red flag goes up over Tiananmen Square in 1949 is, of course, silence the press. So within the very first year of the communist regime, the information that circulates is very strictly controlled by the party. Now, you can imagine that years later, with Mao's Great Famine, any information available is strictly controlled by the party. On top of that, the freedom of movement has been curtailed since 1955 onwards.
So people no longer travel from one region to another. In other words, many of these villages are quite isolated. The cities are quite literally protected from the countryside. But for ordinary people, in particular, for those in the cities, it's very difficult to gauge the extent of what is going on in the countryside. There are rumors that circulate, but it's very difficult to to fully appreciate the extent of what is happening.
Even some senior party members have little idea of the horrendous reality of the famine. One man does know the truth. Even within Zhongnanhai, the compound where the party resides in Beijing, you can see people who suffer from famine, edema, water retention, those are there for all to see. But the sheer extent of it is very hard for anybody to really envisage except for the people at the very top of the party. That means the chairman himself, a number two, three, four, five, all the way down to roughly 50.
Every leader of every province, very much like the chairman himself in Beijing, sits on top of a very sophisticated information system and knows precisely what is going on. Mao himself sends his own secretaries to the countryside to find out what is going on. There is a massive ministry for public security and its mission is to extract information from the country. There is report after report with extremely detailed information about the famine that lands on the desks of the top leadership.
Mao is staggeringly candid in his view that millions of deaths are quite simply a price worth paying when there is not enough to eat. He says people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.
Clearly, he was prepared to take risks with other people's lives to the extent of 50 percent of his country. He was prepared to do that if it meant creating the China that he wanted. Mao's great historical hero was the first emperor of China who was a despot who united China. Despite itself, Mao was returning again and again to the idea of the first emperor being a necessary evil, being something that China had to go through to create this dividend of manpower and its dividend of construction and massive loss of life, but creating China itself.
By the spring of 1959, the truth is starting to leak out a body count of at least 14 million can't be hidden forever. Yet rather than stem the tide of famine, Mao plans to extend his great leap forward even further. In March, he convenes a secret meeting in the city of Shanghai. In full knowledge of the housekeep scenes throughout the country, Mãe orders his party workers to extract a full third of all the available grain in China. This is a huge step up from what has ever been demanded before.
Within the senior ranks of the Communist Party, there are mutterings about the chairman's leadership, but there is neither the willpower nor the means to do much about it unless someone goes way out on a limb. The problem that China had is there is no loyal opposition. Everyone is agreed that we are already living in a utopia. So no one can say that there's something wrong with this utopia or reform has to come from within the party and it has to be within the party doctrine that Mao defines.
So unless someone can convince Mao that something is going to work, then it's never going to happen. And the fact that they argue with him is going to cause them to be purged.
The chairman still has no doubt that his plan will herald China's meteoric rise to wealth and global domination with him at the helm. It simply requires everyone to do exactly what they're told, but even in Mao's China, that's far from a given. Behind the scenes, most trusted second in command is having serious doubts, you, shorty, is the number two is he's very much the head of states and is one of the driving forces behind a great leap forward.
So he stands very much behind a chairman. But when the chairman asks him and other leaders to go to the countryside to investigate what is happening, Nusret is truly taken aback by the scale of starvation.
USG decides the time has come to make a decision of extraordinary personal bravery. He is going to do the unthinkable and challenge the supreme leader. Next time a real dictators. Mao's second in command, USC, delivers an incendiary speech to the Communist Party faithful that brings opposition to the chairman out in the open. You stuck his head above the parapet and sealed his own fate. Mao launches his Cultural Revolution, setting out to cleanse the minds of his subjects once and for all.
Mao continues to live a life of debauchery and excess as the man who used to be his personal physician remembers. But as the chairman ages and his health deteriorates, the security of his legacy is anything but assured. That's next time a real dictator's. Real dictators is presented by me again. The show was created by Pascal, who's produced by Joel de Down, edited by James Tendo and Katrina Hughes. The music was composed or assembled by Oliver Baines from Flight Brigade.
The strings were recorded by Darren Macaulay. The sound mixer is Tom Pink. The sound recordist is rubber stamp Real Dictators is a noisy and world media writes co-production. If you haven't already, we'd love you to follow us wherever you listen to your favorite shows or check us out at real dictators dotcom.