To quote Felix Wemheuer - Famine Politics in Maoist China nad the Soviet Union:
One question that remains unanswered is why the Chinese Communists learned so little from the Soviet experience of famine. The three
famines after the October Revolution ought to have given rise to a
clear awareness that a radical transformation of society could lead to
famine. The famine of 1921–1922 was no secret; it was reported in the
international media. What is more, during the famine of 1931–1933,
many Chinese cadres lived in the Soviet Union, and yet I have so far
not found a single direct reference to the Soviet famine in the speeches
of Chinese leaders. It remains unclear how much the Chinese government really knew about the extent of the loss of life caused by the
Soviet famines of 1931–1933 and 1947. Mao criticized the Soviets for
their exploitation of the peasants and believed it was a mistake to “dry
the pond to catch the fish.” However, the Chinese Communists made
the same mistakes as their Soviet counterparts and changed policies in
1962 only after millions of Chinese peasants had paid the “tuition fee”
(xuefei) with their lives. Did the interaction between the Communist
parties and the peasants result in famines even if leaders like Mao realized Stalin had gone too far in exploiting the countryside?
I would add: The great famine in the SU and the great leap famine have similarities: The overall goal of industrialization, hence feeding the cities by starving the countryside, grain exports during ongoing famines. But how the respective governments arrived at causing, and later ending, the famines are very different.
To directly adress the questions:
Did Chairman Mao and his cult know about the Soviet famine before starting the collectivization in China?
Probably, but we don't know how much they knew. There was a land reform in 1950-1952, collectivization started in 1955 (and I have not found sources how much land was collectivized by 1959), then followed the great leap famine in 1959-1961. The most immediate causes for the great leap famine and the huge losses of life - 20 to 40 million people - where IMO:
- fall in agricultural production in the preceding years,
- grain exports
- brutal requisitioning of food in the countryside, which would include seed stocks and cattle fodder
- ... to feed an urban population that had grown by 20 million in the preceding years and whom had access to ration cards, unlike the peasants
Conversely, the measures taken in '61 to end the famine where sending back urban dwellers into the countryside (out of the rationing system), importing grain and easing the requisitioning.
During the 50ties, China had set up a system where excess grain produce was bought by the state for a fixed price and then redistributed, mostly to cities, the army and export, but also as disaster relief for rural population. It appears there was never a hard lower limit on how much grain a family should keep, the guidelines appear to hover around at least one jin (600g) of grains a day, more typical 400-500 jin per year. In the years preceding the famine, official public sources openly discussed grievances of peasants who claimed (wrongly or rightly) that too much grain was requisitiond from them. Later the party line became that these peasants where hoarders who did not want to share food with the cities. This was likely true in some cases, but the way the whole issue was politiziced madie (at least that's what I gather) impossible for the party to actually assess the situation in the countryside.
If he did why he followed in Stalin's footsteps?
The situation in China before the great leap was different from the SU on the onset of the great famine, while there are broad similarities between both famines there are also important differences - It is IMO not correct to say Mao followed Stalins footsteps.
If he didn't know that, why?
We don't know.
p.s.: This is maybe tangential to the question - here's two explanations from party sources:
Textbooks that came out during the early 1970s, after universities had been reopened and students had to attend CCP history classes, discuss the Great Leap at some length. They argue that, in the initial years after the communist takeover, China suffered under the pressure of having to imitate the Soviet Union and, therefore, ended up in the same kind of crisis as was encountered in Eastern Europe in the early 1950s. Mao Zedong analyzed the situation and came to the conclusion that socialism in China had to be different from socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe. He strongly criticized Stalin’s approach to the political economy of socialism and came up with the idea that, in developing its own economy, China mainly had to rely on its enormously large workforce. In discussing the experience of organizing cooperatives in the Chinese countryside, he convinced himself that Chinese peasants supported the idea of collectivization and, thus, that the reorganization of the countryside would work out much better in China than it had in the Soviet Union. This is why Cultural Revolution textbooks on Party history argue that the Great Leap was the first success that the Party, under Mao’s leadership, could claim with regard to distancing itself from the Russian experience and in finding its own path towards socialism – a path that would be fundamentally different from what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union summarized as its own experience in the “Short Course of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” which was instituted under Stalin’s leadership.
Note that the famine is not mentioned. After Mao's era, the hisoriography changes:
The Great Leap is seen as an early example of Mao
Zedong’s development of “ultra-leftist” ideas about socialism in China, which would turn out to be highly erroneous. The 1981 “Resolution on
Some Questions Concerning the History of the Party since the Founding
of the People’s Republic of China” states:
The 2nd Plenary Session of the 8th Party Congress passed the resolution
on the general line and other points of fundamental importance. The
correct side about this resolution is its reflecting the wish and strong
demand of the masses to change the state of underdevelopment of our
economy. Its mistake consisted in underestimating the role of economic
laws. However, because of the lack of experience in building socialism and
a lack of knowledge regarding the laws of economic development as well
as the overall economic situation in our country, but even more so because
Comrade Mao Zedong as well as many comrades from the central to the
local levels became self-satisfied and arrogant as a result of our victory,
we started to become impatient in expecting success and to overestimate
the role of subjective willingness and subjective endeavour.
The Great Famine is still not depicted as such: “During the years 1959 to
1961 the economy of our country came across severe problems, and the
state as well as the people had to suffer great damages because of mistakes
that had been committed during the Great Leap Forward and the Campaign
against Rightists, as well as because of natural calamities having taken
place. On top of that, the economy was badly affected by the Soviet Union
perfidiously tearing contracts into pieces.”
Source for both quotes: Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, Re-Imagining the Chinese Peasant:
The Historiography on the Great Leap
Forward, in: Kimberley Ens Manning and Felix Wemheuer (editors), Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on Chinas great Leap forward and Famine