“The famine of 1958-61 was unique in Chinese history. For the first time, every corner of this huge country experienced hunger (p. 99),” writes Jasper Becker, after setting the scene in the first six chapters of this truly horrifying book. Of all the world’s man-made famines – and for more than the last hundred years there has been no other kind – this one was truly the most pointless. The peasants were docile, partly because there had been peace since the Communists had conquered the land in 1949, and partly because they had been systematically intimidated. If the Soviets had needed a famine to crush the Ukrainian peasants, nothing of the sort was needed in China. All the better-off peasants had been eliminated and the rest forced into communes. Despite the fact, a fact theoretically inadmissable, that these were less efficient than the family farms, they were just sufficiently productive to feed those that worked them and the cities which contained around ten percent of the total population.
The Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, having forced through collectivisation, may have decided to persist in the policy to prove Khrushchev wrong when he, in his “secret speech” in 1956, had come close to admitting it hadn’t worked in the USSR. Mao in fact, decided to go even further and, preceded by a campaign to raise the peasants’ hopes of a Utopian future, initiated his fantasy of The Great Leap Forward. This was something as close to irrational as the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific, where stone-age inhabitants cleared runways in the jungle and awaited the arrival of the transport aircraft they remembered from the War landing and disgorging every luxury of human existence. Though perhaps best known for the “backyard blastfurnaces” that produced useless chunks of iron from the peasants’ precious pots and pans, the most destructive feature of the Great Leap Forward was the agricultural disaster produced by the nonsensical theories borrowed from Soviet pseudo-scientists such as Lysenko. The grains that were planted and the density of planting were changed according to his theories, land was abandoned for fallow, bizarre notions about the mixture of manure with rubbish and “deep ploughing” were put into operation and peasants were conscripted to build dams which fell apart and canals which leaked dry or silted up. Since all these innovations were claimed to raise productivity enormously, exaggerated statistics were fabricated and, since everyone believed them, the first harvest was wastefully consumed, though it was, in fact, lower than that of previous years, already reduced by collectivisation.
It is difficult to know how far down from the top of the communist hierarchy the ignorance extended of the true situation as this got worse and worse. As for the Party cadres in contact with the peasants, they were unable to do anything but attempt to obey orders that came down to them, to extract the government share as a proportion of the false figures they had transmitted upward. Senior Communist Party officials travelled to the countryside and discovered what was happening, but merely encountered the dogmatic denial of Mao of what they had seen when they returned. Since he could punish their disagreement with dire penalties, the more honest voiced it in only the most tentative terms, while others simply lied and the whole situation remained deadlocked while the peasants starved. How long it was before Mao’s self-deception and bloody-mindedness yielded to a realisation of the facts is not clear, but at the beginning of 1961 he was blaming “counter-revolutionaries and landlords”, a formula he could not even have expected to be believed for the famine he now admitted to be happening. There is not the slightest doubt that Mao was responsible for the policies that caused it and for the stubborness that delayed its cessation or amelioration. Not only did he never admit blame, but carried out vendettas against those who brought the famine to an end, one purpose of his initiation of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. There is a sense of variations on a theme as the author recounts again and again how in different provinces the peasants attempted to cling to life by eating material with little or no value as food – straw, cloth, leather, bark. Cases of cannibalism, for which there were precedents in China’s history, are well attested. Yet there was grain in the state granaries and some was even exported. A special opportunity for starving to death was to be imprisoned in one of the work camps, the Laogai, China’s equivalent of the Soviet Gulag, in which some ten million were incarcerated. A number of prisoners, some of them doctors, have left clinical reports of the progressive effect of starvation on the human body; these are not for the squeamish (pp. 200-210). In fact there was little difference for the peasant whether he was imprisoned or not for there was no escape for him from the countryside. The militia turned him back on the roads and he was ejected from the trains. The population in the towns was better off, for they were given rations, though these were meagre, but migration into them from the countryside was forbidden and sometimes their excess inhabitants were ejected into the countryside. The persistent horror and misery of the accounts of these famine years make this a difficult book merely to read.
The last few chapters (17-20) have some of the relief of awakening from a nightmare, though what they have to tell is grim enough. By 1961 there was sufficient party pressure to make Mao, in a series of double-talk statements, abandon his policies and allow the peasants to a certain extent to grow what they wanted. However, he remained alive for another fourteen years, never repudiated the Great Leap Forward and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) wreaked his revenge on those who had opposed him. China’s industrial and infrastructural growth stagnated; the population grew, but food supplies barely kept pace. The average peasant never recovered the standard of living of 1957 until after Mao’s death in 1976. All this time other neighbouring nations were making great progress. People may think that China is overpopulated, but its density is only 10 per arable hectare, compared with South Korea’s 17.3 and Japan’s 23.9 (p. 262).
For years, the famine of 1958-61 was China’s best-kept secret. The outside world, even Hong Kong, knew nothing of it. At the time very few foreigners were allowed in and free travel within it was impossible, as much for its inhabitants as for anyone else. 15,000 Russian technicians, on loan from Khruschev, were withdrawn in 1960. Even today, while relatively open about the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese are reticent about the famine. China has never officially acknowledged that the famine took place nor published an estimate of the death toll (p. 266)”. How then did Becker come by the material for this book, apparently the first ever published (in 1996) on the subject? In his Foreword he explains his method: Advertisments placed in the overseas Chinese press in 1994 brought hundreds of responses … I visited some of those who replied … in Britain … in the United States, Hong Kong and … India, where I met Tibetans … Then … I travelled round rural areas of Henan, Anhui and Sichuan and talked to older peasants who had survived the famine (p. xii).” After more than three decades, memories are still sharp, and the “relative freedom allowed to obscure publishing houses in the provinces in recent years has meant that a surprising amount of material … has become available.”
And how many died, the “hungry ghosts” (a Buddhist term for the most painful route to reincarnation) that fail to haunt the public consciousness? This is the question that Becker attempts to answer in Chapter 18. As has been stated, the Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine have been the great non-event of Chinese history and any analysis of the loss of life has been done by outsiders and exiles, after an examination of the grudgingly released census statistics, of the first under Communism taken in 1953, the third in 1982 and the dubious second in 1964. The result of all investigations would seem to give a lower figure of 30 million and a higher one, comprising all the “unnatural deaths” for which Mao Zedong was responsible, of 80 million, this last vouched for by an former high-up Party member, now an academic at Princeton University, as coming from an official government document (p. 274).
There are few Chinese names here that will mean much to the reader. Deng Xiaoping, the great survivor, inaugurated the economic liberalisation after Mao’s death, but must take responsibility for the Tien An Men Square massacre. Liu Shaoqi deserves mention as probably the one who did most to bring the famine to an end, for which he did not escape Mao’s vengeance, dying in prison during the Cultural Revolution. Zhou Enlai, for some reason probably the favourite of Western intellectuals, recanted his opposition to collectivization and served Mao faithfully, with minimum dissent, through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, dying in the same year as his master.
The information about the famine that penetrated into the outside world was meagre and contradictory. The fact that the Communist states of the USSR and China prevented anything like free reporting was so taken for granted that it did not automatically raise the suspicion that a catastrophe was being concealed. The evidence presented to China-watchers in Hong Kong by refugees tended to be discounted by the fact that China was exporting food into the colony. Taiwan might also be assumed to exaggerate any trouble on the mainland. The American press ran occasional stories of hunger and failed harvests, but it does not seem that these were connected with the lunatic policies that had brought them about. Even Joseph Alsop, seemingly the most convinced that something terrible was happening, ascribed the disasters merely to collectivization, just as had been the case in the USSR, though China, he argued, had less of a safety margin. These reports and views were ridiculed by a number of fellow-travelling journalists that the Chinese government used to dupe the outside world: the BBC’s Felix Greene (brother of Graham and Carleton), Edgar Snow, long-time supporter of the regime, Wilfred Burchett and Han Suyin. A long list of eminent visitors, including Lord Boyd Orr (retired head of the FAO), Joseph Needham, Sir Cyril Hishelwood (President of the Royal Society), Herbert Read, Field Marshal Montgomery and Francois Mitterand were all blandly lied to and went away satisfied that all was well. Indeed, the Chinese government never admitted there had been a famine at all, far less any responsibility for it, and merely spoke of “natural disasters” that had caused difficulties, a pretext for accepting relief in the course of ending it. There had, in fact, been no natural disasters during the famine years and meteorological records, when ultimately disclosed, showed that the weather had been favourable throughout the entire period.
The whole catastrophe was successfully covered up, a result that deceived western students as much as it benefited communist apologists, and affected books published by both of them well into the nineties. Since all information came from government sources, even anti-communists fell for the “natural disaster” hypothesis, supposedly beaten by maintaining a strict rationing system. In the end, in a quite respectable publication, it was possible to find the statement “that Mao was the first leader to recognize the existence of the famine and to issue orders to rectify the crisis (p. 309)”, exactly the opposite of what happened. After all, with little to go on, what could writers assume but that those in power would act rationally? The Great Leap Forward has often been treated positively as “therapy” or “highly educational”, not at all as the imposition of nonsensical policies dogmatically claimed to increase productivity enormously, which everyone in charge was then too frightened to deny. Becker also draws the chilling deduction that the worldwide ignorance of Mao’s manufactured famine has allowed his methods to be enthusiastically copied in the Third World, with disastrous results. He presents evidence that Pol Pot’s genocidal expulsion of Cambodian city-dwellers into the countryside to build collapsible dams and unusable canals was inspired by Mao’s social experiment, whose failure was never allowed to come to light.
It would be interesting to know more about the reception of this book than is given in quotations from obviously laudatory reviews on the dustjacket and whether there has been any attempt to refute its thesis since it came out in 1996, or further studies to confirm it.
Lastly, the book is a reminder that, however faulty the political systems under which most of us live may be, and however imperfect those who operate them, Mao’s China was incomparably worse.