I disagree with your assessment [in The Great Chinese Famine]. it is no coincidence that the GLF failure happened after local markets (which could have alleviated the suffering) were made illegal, and after the shift to non-market rewards based on politically-defined economic incentives were put into place. Those two factors were straight out of the Marxist/Leninist playbook. If the measures of success for GLF were market metrics, there would be no ability to essentially lie one's way to success. They would have had to demonstrate sales in the marketplace, which while it could still be gamed is much harder to game than the face value bureaucratic reporting that seems to take place in traditional communist organizational structures. China had had famines before, but this famine was different, and the major key differentiators were top-down, non-market driven policies.
It is also a bit misleading to say that "once the magnitude of the catastrophe had become impossible to ignore, the Chinese Communist Party reversed course, changed its policies, and dealt as harshly as it could with Mao, removing him from power." In 1959, the failures of the GLF were discussed at the Lushan Conference, and yet it took a full two years of famine before Mao was effectively neutered. The chief critic of Mao's policy, interestingly enough, was also removed from power for this criticism.
I would highly recommend looking at some of the key aspects of the GLF policy, particularly Frank Dikötter's excellent "Mao's Great Famine" [link added - Larry] (which, as far as I know, is the only Western history based on access to the Chinese archives from 1958-1962). The full intent of the GLF was to create a sterling path to communism that was uniquely Chinese (and not purely Leninist, significantly caused by the break from the USSR a few years earlier). The policy outcomes were based on Mao's and the CCP's interpretation of Marxism, and the results were disastrous.
I think we're making some progress. MLA writes, "The full intent of the GLF [The Great Leap Forward, a proximate cause of the Great Chinese Famine (GCF)] was to create a sterling path to communism that was uniquely Chinese," so we seem to agree that the intent was not Naziesque murderousness. Although there might be some controversy about the timing, MLA and I also seem to agree that Mao was eventually disciplined, which is further evidence of a lack of murderous intent. I also agree that the GCF was an inexcusable catastrophe, and regardless of ideology, we must make whatever modifications are necessary to avoid a recurrence. Millions, perhaps tens of millions of people may have tragically died, but they were not killed in the sense that anti-communists seem to allege or imply, i.e. murdered like the Nazis murdered Jewish, homosexual, and slavic civilians.* I think we have achieved substantial progress.
*The Nazi killings of communists and socialists is less clear-cut: the communists were in fact the Nazi's mortal enemies, and, like it or not, killing in war is universal. We could, with our present knowledge, hardly have objected to the opposite.
The question now is what were the causes of the GCF, and how can they be prevented. MLA claims that the shift away from markets was a substantial cause; adopting markets could have prevented the GCF. This is a tough claim to make; all we have is a temporal correlation and theoretical speculation. The problem is that the only concrete material template is capitalism in the west, and the historical and material circumstances were different enough in 1950s China to make direct comparisons unreliable. Unlike the capitalist west, China did not have a bourgeoisie that had developed under monarchism and finally taken power. The existing capitalist west seemed of little help; the only "help" the Chinese had reason to expect from the west was British colonial subjugation or Chiang Kai-shek's impotence against the Japanese (and the communists).
No one has ever successfully started a capitalist economy from a standing start without massive assistance from the West. Japan is a special case — most countries subject to American imperialism, such as the Philippines, remain economically crippled even today — and the Japanese had already industrialized substantially and had developed a lot of the technical infrastructure and expertise necessary for capitalism before the Americans occupied and rebuilt the country, and, somewhat surprisingly, did not colonize it. It is easy to ignore the hypothetical pitfalls of the choice not taken.
I am certainly convinced that we should not "do communism" the way Mao did it in 1958. I am not at all convinced, at least not by the Great Chinese Famine, that to eliminate private ownership of the means of production necessitates famine, poverty, mass death.