The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine
by Yang Jisheng
(London: Allen Lane)
Hardcover: 630 pages
[Not available from Freedom Books]
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Mao Zedong was a murdering sadist who killed tens of millions of his own people in the cause of promoting his own version of revolutionary politics. Of the 20th century’s three great dictators — Hitler, Stalin and Mao — only Mao’s reputation alone has continued to gain lustre.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot afford to admit what it knows to be true: that Mao was a disaster in everything he touched. Such an admission would call into question its legitimacy. Mao, after all, is universally hailed as the founder of the “New China”.
The book, Tombstone, covers the history of Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962. The Great Leap Forward was intended to be a crash program for China to catch up with the West.
Like a lot of things associated with Mao’s rule, if it hadn’t produced such tragic results, it would be ludicrous. In order to meet targets for steel production, backyard furnaces were constructed. These furnaces were so poorly constructed they could not make useable steel. Moreover, the necessary raw materials were unavailable.
So the Party cadres instructed the peasants to feed their furnaces with steel implements, such as ploughshares, shovels, tools and kitchenware. As a result, whole villages were stripped of steel, meaning they could not plant their crops or cook properly — if indeed they were lucky enough to have anything to eat. As one might expect, the steel made in these backyard furnaces was of such low quality that it was useless.
The author of Tombstone, Yang Jisheng, is a Chinese journalist and former Communist Party member. He gained access to archives detailing the course and results of the Great Leap Forward and has interviewed scores of survivors.
Yang was brought up by his uncle, who was like a father to him. In 1959, he was told to come quickly, that his uncle was not well. When he arrived home, his uncle was near to death from starvation. Yang said he did not fully know what the term “all skin and bones” meant until he saw his uncle, because that was all that was left of him. Although Yang did what he could for his uncle, he was dead within three days.
Henan Province, which is south of the Yellow River, is the breadbasket of China. It is the country’s most populous province, home to 100 million people. Henan was the first “Middle Kingdom”. The term Middle Kingdom arose because the ancient dynasties of China mostly had their capitals there, in the middle of China, in cities such as Luoyang. The White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, is in the suburbs of Luoyang.
This province has fed China for millennia. The mansion, storehouse and treasury of the famous Kang Bai-wan (“Kang the Millionaire”) dynasty are in Gongyi are not far from Luoyang. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Kangs were renowned as the largest grain-traders in China, and also the country’s richest family.
In summer, fields of golden wheat stretch from horizon to horizon. Mechanical harvesters, a bit bigger than four-wheel-drive vehicles, can be seen busily stripping the crop. How could people starve amidst this plenty?
Henan, however, has always been prone to famine. Droughts strike, and the Yellow River, known as “China’s Sorrow”, can flood the province. Even today, a great many of China’s so-called “migrant workers”, who labour on construction sites, and whose exertions fuel China’s export boom, come from Henan Province. Even in good times, in Henan there is often not enough food to go around.
Yet it was not drought or flood that made Henan Province the epicentre of the Great Leap Forward famine, but politics. The people of Henan have never taken a great deal of notice of politicians. Unlike Hunan Province or Szchuan Province, Henan has produced few great revolutionary heroes. Most of Mao’s generals were Hunanese, like him, as was Liu Shaoqi. Deng Xiaoping was from Szchuan. Even today, most families in Henan have more than one child, despite China’s official one-child policy. They pay the fines, bribe the cadres or just flout the law.
When the disastrous Great Leap Forward policies of agricultural collectivisation and the “one big pot”, where villagers had to eat together, took hold, starvation soon followed. Tombstone has graphic accounts of widespread cannibalism. Parents ate their children; children ate their parents; and mothers ate their babies. Trees were stripped, first for their leaves, then for their bark. People died of starvation in the vicinity of full granaries, which were intended to act a reserve against famine.
This was all due to politics. In the race to catch up with the West, Mao demanded increased production. The cadres in the villages made outlandish claims about the grain quotas they could fulfil, until it was like an auction, one cadre outbidding another until the quotas they imposed on the peasants reached absurd levels.
Frequently, the harvest was confiscated, leaving the peasants with nothing to eat at all, not even seed-grain. Those who resisted or who hid grain were frequently beaten to death by the cadres and their henchmen.
Mao knew within months what was going on. He did nothing to prevent mass starvation. In fact, he urged the cadres to increase the pressure. Although Mao called for the encouragement of “truthfulness” in the Communist Party, he warned that it was not the time to “dash cold water on the proceedings”. He said: “Right now a wind is blowing, a storm-force gale, but don’t block it openly; reduce it through internal clarification. In eradicating false reports and exaggeration, we should not strive for fame but for practical results” (p. 99).
Mao called for the publicising of a hundred, or at least dozens of, bumper harvests. Miraculously, triumphant reports poured in from all over China and grew into a devastatingly treacherous “exaggeration wind” of typhoon strength. The fiercer the wind of false reports blew, the more people the typhoon left starving in its wake.
Mao urged a Marxist “rash advance” to countervail against non-Marxist (right-wing) opposition to his program. He particularly urged young people to mobilise, saying, “Ever since ancient times, innovative thinking has always originated with under-educated young people”, and, “History shows that those with little education overturn those who are well educated” (p. 99).
Once transmitted to the grass roots, these words gave many ignorant youths a licence to do as they pleased, causing enormous damage and acting as a prelude to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.
Not all Party members agreed with Mao. Liu Shaoqi, at one time nominated as Mao’s successor, famously returned to his home village in Hunan Province, not far from Mao’s birthplace, and was shocked when he found people were starving. Liu ended up dying in prison through wilful neglect during the Cultural Revolution when he fell out with Mao. Some cadres and higher-level officials literally went insane over the suffering they had inflicted in the name of the Communist Party — or, more particularly, of Mao.
Mao’s outlandish claims had not gone unnoticed by China’s main ally, the Soviet Union. Outdoing the USSR, Mao in 1958 claimed, “In fifteen years we can catch up with or surpass the United Kingdom.” In 10 or 20 years, he boasted, the Soviet Union would become two United States and China would become four United States (p. 520).
Scholars believe that an international struggle for the leadership of the world communist movement, as well as domestic factors, led Mao to embark on the Great Leap Forward, which Moscow ridiculed.
The end result was the most deadly famine in the history of the world — and it was all man-made. Estimates vary, but non-Chinese scholars say that between 24 and 29 million Chinese people died of unnatural causes between 1958 and 1961. The shortfall in births for the same period was 31 million. Thus, the overall population loss in China from 1958 to 1961 was between 58 and 61 million.
Mao was a mass-murderer who killed his own people. No-one dared oppose him for fear of the fatal consequences of doing so. Even Liu Shaoqi, his old comrade, ended up dying in agony for opposing him.
Mao was the Great Helmsman of The Great Leap Forward. He cannot escape ultimate responsibility for the resulting deaths. He was, after all, the most powerful man in China, and the Great Leap Forward was his godchild. Only when Deng Xiaoping set China on a course governed by sound economic principles did the country begin to recover from Mao’s political and economic lunacy.
China will never be free until the Chinese people objectively assess Mao’s legacy. Today, the dictatorship exercised by the Chinese Communist Party owes its legitimacy to Mao, as the founder of New China.
However, once Mao’s life and works are objectively assessed, many so-called “miracles” from the Long March onward will be revealed as no more than fairy tales. China’s new Communist Party leader and President, Xi Jinping, is quite aware of this. He says the Party must use battlefield tactics and should not discuss “historical mistakes of the Communist Party”, which is an “evil subject” (The Australian, May 20, 2013).
Tombstone is written by a Chinese author for the Chinese people. As it has been published in Hong Kong, it can be assumed it is available in mainland China.
At over 600 pages, it is a substantial volume that adds a great deal to our knowledge of the horrific period of history, which is ironically known as the Great Leap Forward, despite having set China back a generation.
We are never likely to know exactly how many people perished during the Great Leap Forward. However, the number of Chinese people who died from the resulting famine cannot have been less than 30 million.
The topic Tombstone covers is distressing, and only readers with a serious scholarly interest in Chinese history should buy it. Others may find Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010), reviewed in News Weekly (April 16, 2011), which covers the same topic, more accessible.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who lectured in commerce at several universities in Henan Province, the epicentre of the Great Leap Forward famine.