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Mao’s unnatural disaster

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine
Jasper Becker
Henry Holt, 1998

“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.

9 comments to Mao’s unnatural disaster

  • S. Weasel

    I read this book a couple of months ago and highly recommend it. China is trying mightily to re-lionize Mao at the moment, and this book is the antidote.

    Communism permeated every corner of Mao’s thought. He believed, for example, that plants of the same species would never compete against each other, but would naturally cooperate and nurture their neighbors. Hence rice and wheat should be planted as close together as possible (and in trenches up to eight feet deep, for reasons I forget). It all died, of course. Most farmers planted normally, then moved all their plants into one field when Mao was in town to convince him his practices worked. They showed him faked photos of smiling children in a field of wheat so thick, they were standing on top of it. Some provinces actually planted Mao’s way and lost the whole crop.

    To please Mao, provincial governments reported higher and higher yields of grain. Impossibly, preposterously high. Not lying hard enough could get you fired or imprisoned. But then the soldiers showed up to collect this grain – sometimes twenty times the real total provincial production – and when it wasn’t there, it was assumed to be stolen. The peasants were accused of holding out on the government, and beaten or imprisoned. Much of the grain the government did manage to collect rotted in storage.

    For some reason, Mao fixated on steel production as a measure of Chinese Communism’s success. In a complete misunderstanding of the making of steel, he mandated “backyard furnaces,” where peasants were to manufacture steel in the village common. In a complete misunderstanding of the meaning of “production,” none of this “steel” was made from ore. Farmers were melting down their hinges and shovels and knives with fires made from their doors and tables, melting useful tools into useless “ingots” of bastard metal. This pointless make-work absorbed the village, especially the strongest workers, while crops rotted in the fields.

    Science was not a thing of facts and measurements, but of faith and enthusiasm. Real scientists were shuffled into prison, while peasants were declared scientists by force of belief. Students shouted that decimal points were a bourgeois imposition and should deliberately be put in the wrong place to show math who was boss. Children of six were claiming world-class breakthroughs in plant genetics in their back gardens.

    By the end of the Cultural Revolution, they were eating dirt or each other. Errr..sorry to go on about this, but…jesus. Mindblowing. Thirty million dead. Read the book.

  • BigFire

    Meanwhile Robert Mugabee is trying his best to replay the Great Leapforward with his Mugabenomics in Zimbabwe.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    In many respects, it was the revelation of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that turned my father away from the communist/socialism meme forever(he had been one of those marching in the streets to support communism back when he was young, but wasn’t arrested by the government. Heh.)

    The Wobbly Guy

  • Monica

    “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.”

    Reminds me of what I’ve seen happen in too many organisations. Insecure top management doesn’t want to hear about the decay below & the messenger learns to couch the situation in rosy terms or be shot.

  • Larry

    For interesting contrast with this go to Asia Times, where Dr. Henry C. K. Liu compares Abe Lincoln and Mao. A good leftist, Liu prefers Mao — not bothered by a few dead along the road of progress.


    Part 2:

  • Rick

    Thank you for a superb review of a compelling book. This is why I read Samizdata.

  • Shannon Love

    It chilling to think that 30 million people died virtually in secret. Its even worse to think that by comparison WWII killed an estimated 42 million world wide over twice the time.

    We spend so much time hand wringing over international wars fought by disciplined armies yet in the 20th century the order of death by violence went: (1) Democide – the killing of a nations people in a time of peace by their own government (2) Anarchy and Warlordism (3) Civil War (4) International War.

    Perhaps we should spend more time worrying about 1 thru 3 and less on 4.

  • Ginny

    I keep coming back to this post as it moves toward archives. That is because a friend of the left gave me one of the last Harper’s, saying, here, why do you Nebraskans (I’ve been gone for thirty years but still identify) vote Republican. You are poor and socialism is the answer. I’ll agree that things aren’t great. I’m not sure what the answer is for the small farms and the small towns that are dying out. But I think we have seen that the political solutions he suggests (and that run throughout that article – which so far I’ve just skimmed because it was, frankly, upsetting) are not the answer.

    There was China. There was the Ukraine. There is Mugabe and Chavez, destroying their countries and selling that same old bill of goods.

    And that bill of goods is sold by the contemptuous to the gullible. That the midwest is not gullible is to their credit – and their sense of history. A sense of history greater than the writer, who clearly has some extraordinary misunderstandings. For instance, the article begins with someone remarking that no one who works for others should be a Republican – exactly who do they think farmers work for? And a class warfare that is not likely to ring very true to these people (in my own small area a Democratic multi-millionaire, Perelman, did some devastation. Overall we are likely to see the big money in the hands of the Buffets, Gates, and, of course, the Soroses on the other side. So, class warefare doesn’t have much resonance.

    How dare the writer of such an article pontificate about the “no nothingness” of farmers who turn from those who offer them these Mao/Stalin/Mugabe/
    Chavez/Castro/Pol Pot solutions. Collectivization! The fools are not those guys on their combines and drinking beer at the small town taverns; the fools are the people pushing pens in New York, trying to redefine a meme that has a history of not just failure but tragedy on the grandest scale of the twentieth century. Such people aren’t just fools, they are evil.

  • Thorn

    In the summer of 1959 Mao was turning away from the idea of collectivisation. He saw that the experiment was failing because it was being adopted too rapidly and agreed to the breakup of the communes and a return to a certain level of personal ownership of land by the peasants (6% of land would be privately owned). Earlier that year Mao had stepped down from his position of chairman of the party and passed a degree of power to his successor Liu Shaoqi. He had also invited Chen Yun to fix the problems caused in the economy by the early stages of the great leap forward.

    This all just goes to show what might have happened. Mao would have gone back on the great leap. He would have slowly faded out of public light and the mass starvation would never have happened – leaving Mao to be remembered as one of the worlds greatest leaders. Instead, an unfortunate event changed everything.

    Mao had gone out to inspect the ‘advances’ of the great leap. He had visited the village of his birth in Hunan province. Of course, the governor of the province had tried to cover up the malnutrition prevalent in the region by pouring all available resources into Mao’s own village so that when Mao visited everything looked fine.

    Later that month General Peng Dehuai, freshly returned from a visit to Russia, toured the same province. Since his visit hadn’t been anticipated he saw firsthand the effects of the famine. Also, as general in charge of the PLA, Peng had received reports that the new draftees for that year were suffering from malnutrition. If only he had known to keep his mouth shut ..

    At the Lu-Shan conference that year, Peng blasted Mao in front of the delegates and showered him with insults. He accused him of abandoning agriculture, irresponsibility, madness and setting impossible goals. Mao, on the other hand, saw all this as a conspiracy hatched against him by the Soviets.

    Mao’s being publicly attacked caused him to lose face. His only possible way out was to push forward with the very plan he had already decided to abandon – the great leap. And now he had to go at it much more vigourously than before, to show everyone he hadn’t been wrong.

    If only Peng had known when to shut up, there would have been no mass starvation in the early years of the 1960’s. There might not even have been a cultural revolution.

    It reminds me very much of the story told of Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard. The man who should have been guarding his theater box was instead next door getting a cup of coffee for himself. If he had only been where he was supposed to be the president would never have been assassinated by Wilkes Boothe, and all history since would have been changed. America would have been unable to pass racist legislation against blacks and other minorities; and since all the anti-drug legislation stems from this racist policy against minorities; hemp would have been legal and smokable today.

    Sometimes all history can be changed by the tiniest possible action. Sad but true.