Who holds the title of 'Greatest Mass Murderer in History?'

And the winner is...

Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, qualifies as the greatest mass murderer in world history, an expert who had unprecedented access to official Communist Party archives said yesterday.

Speaking at The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, Frank Dikötter, a Hong Kong-based historian, said he found that during the time that Mao was enforcing the Great Leap Forward in 1958, in an effort to catch up with the economy of the Western world, he was responsible for overseeing "one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known".

Mr Dikötter, who has been studying Chinese rural history from 1958 to 1962, when the nation was facing a famine, compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.

Will the truth set us free?

Between 1958 and 1962, a war raged between the peasants and the state; it was a period when a third of all homes in China were destroyed to produce fertiliser and when the nation descended into famine and starvation, Mr Dikötter said.

His book, Mao's Great Famine; The Story of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, reveals that while this is a part of history that has been "quite forgotten" in the official memory of the People's Republic of China, there was a "staggering degree of violence" that was, remarkably, carefully catalogued in Public Security Bureau reports, which featured among the provincial archives he studied. In them, he found that the members of the rural farming communities were seen by the Party merely as "digits", or a faceless workforce. For those who committed any acts of disobedience, however minor, the punishments were huge.

What is truly remarkable about this revelation is that most anti-Communists who had studied Chinese history believed that the real bloodletting occurred during the so-called "Cultural Revolution" which was just another name for a gigantic purge of people with suspect ideology and dedication to Mao's idea of a socialist state. Some estimates ranged as high as 20 million dead during that period, although more recent estimates placed the number of those executed, tortured, or starved to death around 1 million.

Note also that it was during a similar period of collectivization that saw the horrendous body count in Stalin's Russia. Millions of Kulaks died resisting the seizure of their property either through state sponsored murder or deliberate starvation.

What is it about Communism that leaves so many dead in its wake? Anything can be justified - including mass murder - to achieve the goals of the state. Mao's record, as bad as it is, can be placed in the context of all communist states who murder their own citizens for the good of all.

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