Mao, like Stalin, indisputably murdered more people than Hitler. He tyrannized the world's most populous nation for more than a quarter century; and while by most counts his victims were somewhat less numerous than Stalin's, the range of error makes it quite possible that Mao Zedong was the greatest mass murderer of the century. Mao was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Chinese Communism: not only did he found the system, but he raised it to lethal maturity. While Mao waited a few years to antagonize the peasants with forced collectivization, the killing began immediately. As Laszlo Ladany observes in his The Communist Party of China and Marxism: 1921-1985:
There are few parallels in history for what the [Chinese] Communists did [when they first came to power]. The French Revolution had many victims, but it did not institute a lasting political system. The October Revolution in the Soviet Union was not a peaceful affair, but the mass killings did not come till years later, during Stalin's collectivisation... In China, the terror - what else can one call it? - was widespread and saw the beginning of a lasting system.
After Stalin's death, Khrushchev and his successors eliminated some of the most horrific aspects of his regime. Mao denounced these reforms as "revisionism," studiously repeating each of Stalin's horrors. Unlike Stalin, Mao never fully succeeded in utterly crushing internal opposition within the Chinese Communist Party, which is probably why Mao's policies were not even more deadly than they were.
Deaths due to extreme hardship conditions in slave labor camps
With the aid of Soviet advisors, Mao set up a Chinese Gulag - an empire of slave labor camps filled with poorly fed "counter-revolutionaries." As under Stalin, the prisoners could be anyone: former landlords, better-off peasants, civil servants under Chiang's regime, and eventually out-of-favor members of the Communist Party itself. By most estimates, the typical slave labor camp population during Mao's reign was between 10 and 15 million. The conditions were deadly, but markedly safer than those experienced by Stalin's Siberian slaves. Annual death rates in the Soviet camps under Stalin ranged from 10-30%, while under Mao the rates were more along the lines of 5-10%. This is partly due to the more favorable climate, but also because Mao was more interested than Stalin in getting work out of his slaves. In any case, these death rates are surely high enough to warrant murder charges for the inmates' deaths - which must have summed to well over 10 million.
Deaths due to man-made famine
The bulk of the deaths for which Mao was responsible stemmed from the famines caused by his mad agricultural collectivization program, which surpassed even Stalin's in its totalitarian aspirations. Like Lenin, Mao initially let peasants keep their land; he focused on killing or imprisoning landlords, better- off peasants, and other village leaders who might later resist him. This lasted for a few years; then Mao began to seize the land that he had promised the peasants, and force them into collective farms along Stalinist lines. The job was basically complete by 1956. These collective farms seemed too individualistic to Mao, so he went one step further in 1958 and forced the peasants into "communes." The difference was mainly that all property, not merely the land, became state property:
The peasant was now the property of the commune, to labor like factory workers in teams and brigades at whatever was commanded, to eat in common mess halls, and often to sleep together in barracks. Family life and traditions, personal property and privacy, personal initiative and individual freedom, were destroyed or lost in an instant for around one-seventh of all mankind. (R.J. Rummel, China's Bloody Century)
The communes were just one piece of Mao's overarching plan, the Great Leap Forward. Mao's stated goal was to make enormous advances in agriculture and industry simultaneously. Thus, in addition to setting large food quotas for the communes, villages were also ordered to set up small-scale steel furnaces - using local scrap metal as raw material. The pressure to surpass Mao's quotas led to little production but a great deal of falsified economic statistics. The false numbers were then used in future government plans, exacerbating the disaster which was to come.
Starvation had already set in during the forced collectivization period, just as it had under Stalin. Around five million perished from starvation even before the Great Leap Forward began. The Great Leap Forward turned this river of deaths into a flood, producing what was probably the single greatest famine in human history. From 1959-1963, around 30 million Chinese perished from this man- made famine. While exclusion of foreigners and draconian censorship kept word of this famine from the West for many years, in recent periods historians, demographers, and the Chinese government itself have given the world ample evidence of Mao's most horrible crime. Yet at the time experts were incredulous. "A BBC commentator - giving the opinion general among China experts - declared that widespread famine in such a well-organized country was unthinkable." (Laszlo Ladany, The Communist Party of China and Marxism: 1921-1985) The stories of recent emigres were shocking:
Peasants lacked the strength to work, and some collapsed in the fields and died. City government organisations and schools sent people to the villages by night to buy food, bartering clothes and furniture for it. In Shenyang the newspaper reported cannibalism. Desperate mothers strangled children who cried for food. Many reported that villagers were flocking into the cities in search of food; many villages were left empty, only the old people who were not strong enough to go into the cities being left behind. It was also said that peasants were digging underground pits to hide their food. (Laszlo Ladany, The Communist Party of China and Marxism: 1921-1985)
Insofar as official sources admitted existence of the famine following the Great Leap Forward, it was usually blamed on bad weather - just as the man-made famines of Lenin and Stalin had been. Natural forces did play a small role: perhaps 1 million of the 30 million deaths could be attributed to natural disasters. The deluded zealotry of Mao killed the rest. While even some unsympathetic scholars argue that Mao's famine, unlike Stalin's, does not qualify as murder, the case for Mao's personal guilt is strong. Mao's famine does not seem to have been created for its own sake as Stalin's was. Yet Mao had the experience of both Lenin and Stalin behind him, and knew full-well that collectivization often leads to mass death. He implemented his policies at gunpoint with full knowledge of these risks. Rummel points out that Mao's government tried to alleviate the famine once it was aware of it, but millions had died even before the Great Leap Forward began. In response Mao simply accelerated his pace - revealing the requisite mens rea for murder.
Mao's most famous executions were not his most numerous. In the so-called Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered massive purges of the Chinese Communist Party and of educated professionals. After Mao's fall, purge survivors such as Deng Xioaping seized power and ultimately exposed this crime to the world. About one million Party members and intellectuals were killed during Mao's Cultural Revolution - many by execution, others in the camps. Overall, however, Mao's killing actually declined during the Cultural Revolution. During earlier periods, millions of landlords, better-off peasants, dissidents, former Nationalist civil servants, and other "counter-revolutionaries" were executed. Numerical estimates are difficult to make, but probably add up to about 10-15 million.
How do Mao’s crimes compare with those of Hitler and Stalin?
What kept Mao’s policies from becoming even more deadly?
In what ways was Mao’s gulag different from and similar to Stalin’s gulag? What caused the differences?
How did most of the deaths Mao was responsible for occur?
How many people perished as a result of famine? How were these deaths different from famine deaths under Stalin?
Based on this information and your prior knowledge, who would you say was a poorer leader – Stalin or Mao? Why?