Intentionally or not, President Trump on Monday conjured images of mass death and tragedy in China while hailing diplomatic progress with it.
In a tweet after he and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached a truce in the ongoing trade war, Trump suggested relations with China were taking a “BIG leap forward.”
But “leap forward” is a hugely fraught phrase when it comes to China. The Communist Party’s “Great Leap Forward” was an economic and social program of the late 1950s and early 1960s that aimed to modernize the country’s economy but has been linked to crippling famine and tens of millions of deaths.
The “Great Leap Forward” involved forcing villagers to live in communes. This disrupted China’s agriculture and, when combined with serious weather problems, led to the “Great Famine” — sometimes referred to as the largest man-made disaster in history.
Experts generally agree that at least 20 million people died during these few years, mostly of starvation. But in 2010, Frank Dikötter, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, estimated the death toll was actually more than 45 million:
In the summer of 1962, for instance, the head of the Public Security Bureau in Sichuan sent a long handwritten list of casualties to the local boss, Li Jingquan, informing him that 10.6 million people had died in his province from 1958 to 1961. In many other cases, local party committees investigated the scale of death in the immediate aftermath of the famine, leaving detailed computations of the scale of the horror.
In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.
Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.
The linking of the “Great Leap Forward” to these deaths is taboo in China, where leaders prefer to argue that the deaths were mostly or solely a result of the weather. Experts generally agree, though, that the economic changes were too hastily made, that expertise was too readily cast aside, and that the resulting inefficiencies compounded whatever tragedy might have come from the weather alone. The “Great Leap Forward” began being repealed just a couple of years after it began.
The question from there is whether Trump knew what he was doing when he used the phrase. The president is, after all, something of a troll. He has also employed historically fraught slogans before, including “America First" (which was used by Nazi sympathizers in the United States in the 1930s) and “enemy of the people" (which traces back to Joseph Stalin’s show trials of the same era).
This is the first time he has used the phrase “leap forward” as president or as a candidate for office, according to Factba.se. He only talked generally about making “big leaps” once in a June 2016 campaign rally.
What are the odds that the president just happened to use this phrase for the first time while talking about the one subject related to a country where it’s the most troubling?