Horror of Mao’s 36m famine hangs over China

Between 1958 and 1961, some 36 million Chinese people starved to death because of Mao’s obsessive and dishonest Great Leap Forward, finds Neil Robinson


The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine

Yang Jisheng

Allen Lane, £30 

MOST countries have skeletons in their national cupboards, horrors left over from their bloodier pasts with which they have yet to come to terms. China has more skeletons in its closet than most and more distance to go to come to come to terms with all of the horrors of its recent past.

None of these horrors is greater than the famine that ravaged China between 1958 and 1961, killing some 36m people. Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone is a demand to recognise the famine for what it was: a politically inspired disaster. The book is intended to commemorate the unmarked graves of the famine dead and, Yang hopes, help bring the system that caused the famine to an end.

There can be no doubt that the famine was political in origin. It resulted from policies introduced by Mao Zedong and was exacerbated by the nature of the Chinese communist system. Once the famine began it was not halted, as it could have been, by timely action from government. Instead the Chinese leadership and communist party covered up the extent of the disaster that was unfolding. The victims were frequently stigmatised, rather than helped. Officials who did act to try to ease the suffering of their subjects were often persecuted instead of praised and helped.

The chief cause of the famine was Mao’s misplaced utopianism. Many 20th century communist leaders believed that a property-less utopia in which people enjoyed great material and spiritual wealth could be built quickly. Mao took this faith to extremes. Building communism in China just needed the right policies and the correct kind of leadership. Securing the right policies and the right leadership of the people would, Mao argued, mean that there were few limits on what China could achieve. There would be a massive increase in industrial and agricultural output so that China would experience a ‘Great Leap Forward’ in its development toward communism.

This Great Leap Forward was to take place through a revolution in the countryside that would see the total reorganisation of economic and social life. Peasants were forced into communes and their traditional family work units broken up. Communal dining halls were opened to break down family ties and encourage identification with the commune. At the same time industry was to develop across China, not just in the cities, but also in rural districts to eradicate differences between town and country. This lead to the creation of thousands of small furnaces to produce steel scattered across the country.

Faith in what the Great Leap Forward would achieve was boundless, optimistic to the point of insanity. The leaders of Fan county in Shandong proposed to build up to six universities and an academy of science, industrialise the district, secure the electrification of the county, and raise grain yields to 10,000kg of grain per mu (a mu is about a sixth of an acre) within five years. Even today, with modern technology, fertilisers and production techniques, experimental Chinese farms only achieve a grain yield of 600kg per mu.

Fan county was not alone in producing such unrealistic plans. Under Mao’s leadership much of the political system collapsed into pandemonium as regional leaders outdid each other in their pledges in an effort to capture Mao’s attention and be held up as a model for the rest of the country to emulate.

Tragically Mao’s policies produced chaos, not growth. The communes were inefficient and produced less than the family farms they had replaced. Livestock numbers fell as peasants ate their animals rather than hand them over to the communes. Hoped for production gains through better organisation and the industrialisation of agriculture never happened.

Farm workers were diverted from agricultural work to labour in useless district iron foundries. Farm tools were melted down in these foundries, and were not replaced, as authorities struggled to meet output targets. Other peasants left the land and went to the towns to work in new factories. The amount of agricultural labourers fell accordingly, and the number of town-dwellers to be fed increased.

Inevitably agricultural production fell and fell dramatically. At the same time, food reserves shrank. The new communal kitchens were wasteful. Food stocks were used up as communes gorged themselves in the belief that they were about to enter the time of plenty that Mao promised. Requisitions of food by the central government were unrelenting and extortionate as officials had to deliver on the high quotas they had promised. When the inevitable food shortages began there were no reserves left to fall back on. Future production was jeopardised as seed was requisitioned or eaten and one year’s famine rolled into the next.

Why did Mao and the communist party not rein in these wild estimates, impose more sensible targets for growth or reverse policies when they proved to be disastrous? Why did local authorities make such grandiose claims about what they would do? The answer is politics.

Mao encouraged extravagance because he wanted to bolster his power and position. Allowing a ‘communist wind’ to blow though China isolated his moderate critics in the party and secured his power.

Lower down the political system party leaders set high targets to avoid being accused of lack of faith in the communist future and purged. Once set, overambitious targets had to be filled even if only on paper. Party leaders lied about their great successes — while the people starved — so that officials were not charged with failing to lead the people properly in their “rash advance” toward communism. As a result the famine was covered up and many party workers resisted efforts to ease popular suffering for fear of exposing their failures.

Eventually the scale of the famine and the economic disaster caused by the Great Leap Forward meant Mao’s colleagues had to rein him in. Blame for the famine was not laid at his feet, however, nor were the faults of the Chinese political system that had led to mass death corrected. Instead, blame was put on the weather and the USSR, with which China had quarrelled in 1959. Sheltered from blame, Mao was able to plot his return a few years later and launch the Cultural Revolution.

The famine is no secret outside China. Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts described it and recorded eyewitness accounts to it 15 years ago. Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine came out last year and won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Tombstone differs little from these books in the story that it tells or the details that it reveals. What it does do is uncover something of the secrecy that still surrounds the famine in China and the pain that will have to be endured to reveal the truth.

Yang was a reporter for the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua. He used his position and the privileged access that it gave him to gather information on the famine. Originally published in two volumes in Hong Kong, Tombstone hammers away at the famine, case by case, area by area, policy by policy.

Reading it you can almost feel Yang physically pulling apart his own misunderstanding of the times that he lived through, which included the death of his stepfather from starvation in 1959. The power of the book lies in this bearing witness, in the disbelief that runs through it as time and again the same mistakes are made, the same horrors perpetrated, and the same silence covers the truth and protects the guilty. Tombstone will not bring the Chinese Communist Party to account, but Yang’s efforts to record the famine from with China shows how hard China’s reckoning with its past will be when it does finally happen.

* Neil Robinson is Professor of Politics at the University of Limerick

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