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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 5 page 17


Mao's victims of starvation

The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962

by Yang Jisheng
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux;
ISBN: 978-0-374-27793-2

reviewed by
Clement Peddington

Chairman Mao in 1958 launched the Great Leap Forward in the hope of turning China, at that point an economically backward country, into an industrial giant in just a few years. But the Great Leap was a Great Flop, and nowhere more so than in agriculture where the catastrophic result was the Great Famine of 1958-1962.

Yang Jisheng’s father starved to death in that famine. Yang, 19 at the time, was shaken, but he never thought to blame the government. He had been raised on its propaganda, after all. Compared with the Utopia-to-come, one family’s bad luck was of little account. It was only later in life, working for Xinhua News Agency that Yang began to ask questions. He set about exploring archives and interviewing famine survivors to piece together the true story. He published it in Hong Kong in 2008 as Tombstone, so named because this book should stand as a reminder of the calamity the Chinese Communists so long concealed.

The English-language hardcover version that appeared last year, altho much abridged from the original, stretches over 600 pages. Much of Yang Jisheng’s labor is aimed at establishing the magnitude of the famine and the degree of the Communist Party’s awareness. He concludes that the famine's victims numbered 36 million. It was the worst in world history, says Yang, yet no crop diseases or climate conditions explain its extent. Instead, this famine was a Communist policy disaster.

The government was intent on boosting grain exports to pay for machinery imported for the industrialization program. The Communists (of all people) heaped the burden of their plan upon the peasants at the bottom of the social pyramid. The peasants lost their private land and were marshalled into "production teams" on what were now the state’s fields. Peasants were not even to keep food for their own meals, but instead were to attend at communal kitchens. The state decreed what to plant, and became the sole purchaser of the crops. The combination of totalitarian system and fanatical ideology made this plan lethal.

Hardest hit was Henan, Yang Jisheng’s home province, northwest of Shanghai and southwest of Beijing. Yang was born in Xinyang Prefecture, a normally lush region with a population of 8.5 million before the famine. From winter 1959 to spring 1960, at least one million people starved to death here. This period was so awful it became known as the Xinyang Incident, and remained top secret for decades.

Despite a local drought that had reduced crop yields, cadres (local Party officials) in Xinyang in 1959 reported to their superiors even higher yields than the year before. This relates to the psychology of totalitarian systems. The state wanted high yields for export. Each level of officials put pressure on the next level down. Lower-down officials responded by projecting or reporting the glowing numbers their bosses wanted to hear. Lying was essential to survival. If you reported lower yields than your neighbor, you would be suspected of concealing grain for your own purposes. The government was obsessively campaigning against “under-reporting” and “private hoarding.” But the inevitably puffed-up reports that travelled back up the chain of command in turn prompted the state to raise the procurement quotas so it could ship even more grain abroad. Soon the state’s exactions left peasants and communal kitchens in many localities with nothing for themselves. Cadres might readily zip their lips about food shortages, since denying the Communist miracle could label you a “counter-revolutionary.” Perhaps more often, cadres were trained by ideology to look for capitalist roaders trying to cheat the collectivity. When farmers failed to deliver the quotas, the Party subjected them to browbeating, threats and violence. Thousands of people were beaten to death, driven to suicide, or permanently crippled. Yang Jisheng says an old cadre told him that the harder you beat someone up, the more you proved your loyalty to the Party. If you didn’t beat them, you were a right deviationist and would be beaten by someone else. Many cadres seem to have been adept at tortures too, of which I will only mention driving pine needles into the gums. I will also mention cutting off people’s fingers, because it is so insanely counter-productive. Also, they buried people alive.