Two weeks into the new year, we may already be able to hand out the award for 2016’s biggest historical irony. Internet users in China have shown the world a gigantic golden statue of Mao Zedong built in one of the provinces devastated most severely by the Chairman’s attempts to build a communist utopia. The 121-foot tall statue, completed in mid-December, features Chairman Mao sitting with his hands crossed on his lap, staring out into the fields—the very same ones he sabotaged 58 years ago, causing one of the worst famines the world has ever seen.
Little is known about the origins or purpose of the statue, but the BBC reported that it was funded by local businessmen and cost around $460,000. Only four days after the news broke, however, the giant Mao was already being dismantled. The official explanation from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was that the construction of the statue had not been approved. Yet the statue was completed in December, and it was not until the statue came in for international criticism that the CCP addressed the issue.
It strains belief that an unauthorized 121-foot golden statue simply went unnoticed. With the international media spotlight locked on China’s sputtering markets and poor human rights situation—particularly the recent disappearance of lawyers and publishers and the PRC’s repressive population control policies—the CCP most likely tore down the statue to manage its image on the world stage.
One of most controversial aspects of the giant Mao presented was its location. Henan province was one of the areas worst affected by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In a period of only three years, one in every eight people in Henan died of starvation, caused by collectivization of farming and other policies.
After coming to power in 1949, Mao attempted to build a communist paradise in China. In 1958 he launched the Great Leap Forward, superseding his Second Five-Year Plan, intending to transform China from an agrarian society into an industrial nation. The goal: to surpass the UK’s steel production within 15 years through crash industrialization, supported by establishing agricultural communes, where people worked the fields and in return were fed by the state.
Mao’s first step was to create a collectivized model town in Henan. He completely abolished private ownership of land and free trade. He expropriated all private cooking utensils and made everyone eat in communal kitchens. As last year’s Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Angus Deaton, explains, “Mao and his followers were determined to show the superiority of communism.” After seeing Henan’s apparent success, Mao implemented the same measures in the rest of China’s rural areas. By the end of 1958, there were over 25,000 communes.
Mao’s dream of surpassing the west did not end well. The industrialization process slowed down China’s economic growth and brought along a disastrous famine. The CCP’s grandiose modernization plans and implausibly high food production quotas left the Chinese people with little to eat. The Great Leap forward led directly to the Great Famine. As historian Frank Dikötter recounts in his book Mao’s Great Famine, the disaster would claim up to 45 million lives over the course of three years. Henan in particular was devastated, with some towns losing up to 50 percent of their population, and villagers resorting to cannibalism.
Not all of the Great Leap’s 45 million victims died directly from hunger. Dikötter calculates that at least 2.5 million were beaten, tortured, and executed by the CCP for not meeting their grain quotas or criticizing the party.
Chinese authorities quickly came up with self-exculpating explanations for the famine, many of which are ludicrous. The CCP said the problem was not the lack of food, but the peasants’ lack of ideological belief. The Party even hired doctors to explain that the physiology of the Chinese people meant that they did not require fat or proteins. To this day, the Great Famine remains one of China’s many taboo subjects, and the CCP has yet to acknowledge its true cause.
Critics were right to cause an uproar about the scale and location of the Chairman’s latest statue. The victims of the famine are not commemorated—there is no memorial, no museum. But there are thousands of statues of their killer.