For the title “Death Merchant of the Last Millennium” I nominate Mao Zedong, the longtime leader of Communist China. And the bulk of my evidence comes from one event – the Great Leap Forward – that Mao set in motion this week (Sept. 12) in 1958. It was easily the greatest single man-made calamity of the 20th century, and its legacy was the death by disease and starvation of some 30-35 million people. That far exceeds the number of people Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin managed to kill combined.

This was not premeditated murder, mind you, but a fatally misguided socio-economic policy that was allowed to continue long after evidence of its horrible effects were known (so in that sense it was murder). Mao’s aim, in the wake of the abject failure of China’s experiment with Soviet-style central planning, was to junk “planning” altogether. Instead Mao wanted to release the “creative energy” of the Chinese people. “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend,” Mao said, and then ordered farmers throughout China to focus less on their crops and more on building backyard furnaces to produce steel. Mao thought this would double China’s steel production in one year and still maintain China’s rice production.

Sadly, he was mistaken. Both willingly – due to their thorough indoctrination in the cult of Mao – and unwillingly – having no choice under Communist control – the peasants plunged into Mao’s experiment, but a lack of quality control made the “steel” produced worthless. Worse, to keep the fires burning for their furnaces, the peasants were burning their nearby forests and even their furniture, while often attempting to melt down their agricultural equipment to produce steel.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials, motivated by a healthy fear of giving Mao bad news, were wildly inflating both the steel and food production figures. And when Mao took a cross-country train ride to inspect the results of his brainstorm, an elaborately orchestrated charade was staged to put things in the best possible light. Party officials ordered extra furnaces built and lit beside the tracks carrying Mao’s private train. Whole sections of rice fields were uprooted from in-country and transplanted near the train route to give the impression of abundant crops. It was, said one historian, the Chinese version of Russia’s Potemkin Village, but Mao was so pleased that even when he later discovered it was all a sham, he refused to change things. He didn’t want to dampen the “people’s enthusiasm.”

Nature did it for him. By 1961, famine in China had reached a scale unprecedented in human history, forcing Mao to abandon his “great leap” into what he thought would be the future but turned out to be the abyss.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is

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