While Millions Starved

In the first pages of Tombstone, Yang Jisheng describes his father dying of starvation and suddenly you know that you’re in the presence of something extraordinary. Yes, there are several other excellent accounts of the Great Chinese Famine of 1958 to 1962. Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts has depth and readability in its description of the famine, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Famine brings academic discipline to the subject. But for sheer scope, detail, colour and emotion, Yang makes the others, brilliant as they are, look like amateur desk jobs. Additionally he uses his sources with the panache of a true insider and shines new light on the machinations of Chinese politics during this fraught period. You’ll find stuff in here that you won’t find anywhere else. Sure, the bits are there, but it takes a Yang Jisheng to put them together in a coherent whole.

Yang, who was raised in the countryside of Henan, had a spectacular but not particularly heterodox rise. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1964 at the age of twenty-four and started work at the official Xinhua Newsagency in 1966 on his graduation from Tsinghua University. He was a very orthodox party member. In 1959 he had composed a New Year’s message for his school newspaper, the Young Communist, praising the Great Leap Forward which was ultimately to kill his father.

The availability of formerly banned material after the beginning of the Reform and Opening in the late seventies started to shake his faith. The 1989 events in Beijing when many formerly heavily censored news organs suddenly started to enjoy a brief moment of freedom and clarity further inspired him to dig deeper into the nature of the famine. By this time he was a senior journalist with access to places that others could only dream of. He dug up previously secret official reports. He hunted out and interviewed journalists who had gathered information at the time. He spoke to officials, some very senior, about their experiences. The result was Tombstone, in Chinese Mubei, which was published in Hong Kong in 2008. The English translation by Stacey Mosher, polished by Guo Jian, has just come out.

The original Chinese edition is a whopping 1200 pages. It comes in two volumes, the first being detailed reports from various parts of China of the true horror that happened, the second being analytical: Why did this happen in China, and what were the political and economic causes and implications? The English translation is roughly half that size—the translators felt that the sheer detail of so much horror would put readers off. They reduced the amount of straight reportage (probably a good idea) and interspersed it amongst the chapters of analysis, which to my mind wasn’t quite so successful. The analysis has a beautiful internal consistency which is destroyed by breaking it up.

If you’re a student of Chinese politics in the mid-twentieth century and you read Chinese, I highly recommend that you get your hands on the Chinese edition, which is clearly one of the most comprehensive reference works on what actually happened during this period. But the English edition still has ample material to give you a good feel for the events of the time.

I don’t propose to go into long lists of deaths, bashings, destruction of property and cannibalism. This has been done much better elsewhere and the realities are so horrifying that to repeat them tends to make one’s eyes glaze over. But there are several interesting themes in this book.

The first is Yang’s use of available material in the form of memoirs of former officials. I have said in these pages before that there’s plenty available in China’s bookshops. The real question is how you interpret it. Many former officials remain cautious and very conscious of current politics.

Yang’s position as an honest and critical insider makes his use of this type of material particularly effective and I hungrily devoured his footnotes. One source which particularly excited me was the memoirs of Li Rui, which Yang refers to widely.

Li Rui was uniquely well placed. A veteran of the Long March, he rose to become one of Mao’s secretaries. He had been known as the “exploding cannon” of the Left but the realities of the Great Leap Forward and Mao’s and the Left’s inability to see that they were the cause of it changed his stance. He lost his position close to Mao because of his reservations about the Great Leap. At the age of eighty-five he started writing pro-political-reform material and in 2004 was placed on the Propaganda Department’s list of six public intellectuals who were banned from the press.

Where I found Li Rui most enlightening was in his descriptions of the Lushan Conference of 1959. This was one of the most significant meetings in modern Chinese history. Peng Dehuai, marshal of the People’s Liberation Army, hero of the Jiangxi Soviet and the Long March, had taken the trouble to go back to his home village in Hunan to see for himself what was happening during the Great Leap. He was horrified and stood up and roundly criticised Mao’s policies. Mao was furious. He accused Peng of conspiring against him with Khrushchev, labelled him as a Right deviationist and the leader of an anti-party clique, and purged him. Peng disappeared from public view and it was only at his rehabilitation in 1978 that we learnt that he had died in prison.

Now if you walk around Lushan, you will see hundreds of books which claim to tell the “true story” of the 1959 conference, but none of them has the ring of truth. Li Rui’s account for the first time tells the story accurately. We get a real picture of Mao in action, a combination of charm, cajoling, evil temper, incredible attention to detail but none to the big picture, complete belief on his own infallibility. It’s fascinating to see the behaviour of the people around him. I had assumed that people on the right like Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi had long harboured doubts about Mao’s extreme leftism but this account reveals them to have been every bit as gung-ho as the Great Helmsman himself. The real split comes later when Liu Shaoqi is president. We are treated to a picture of Liu angrily saying to Mao, “History will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be recorded.”

We also see the control Mao had over his senior officials. Plenty of colleagues were prepared to advise Peng to retract and self-criticise but the only one of the senior leadership actually to give any support to Peng, and that a very qualified support, was Marshal Zhu De. Zhu quickly retracted his support as soon as he saw Mao’s anger. You may reasonably wonder how Mao managed to achieve this in the face of such a terrible reality and with so many powerful people who in theory commanded large armies. For the answer look to Mao’s patronage of Marshal Lin Biao and heads of security Kang Sheng and Wang Dongxing, who maintained total loyalty to him.

Look also to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s works on Stalin and how he controlled those around him. Mao learnt everything he knew from Stalin. It was interesting to see that one of the criticisms of Mao at the time was that he was reliving “Stalin’s final years” where he became dictator and the collective leadership became a cipher. It was also interesting to see that Mao described one of his opposing groups as the “Military Clique”. Clearly Peng’s position as a senior military officer was a serious threat to Mao and he had to go. The added interest came from his connections in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It is fascinating to imagine what the fate of the world would have been if Peng had succeeded in eclipsing Mao and reinstating close relations with the Soviet Union.

Which leads us to the real underlying problem—factional politics within the party, something which remains fundamental and underappreciated to this day. Why couldn’t Mao and the Left see that they had created one of the worst messes in history, and why were they so slow to do anything about it? The answer lies in politics. Mao’s whole prestige in China and the rest of the communist world lay in his ambition to smash through Marx’s stages of history and achieve the true communist paradise of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. In this way he could eclipse his bête noire Khrushchev, who had repudiated Stalin and his ambitions to rule the world. Mao would be the one true communist and all others would be mere revisionists. Mao would also become leader of world communism and would lead it to the defeat of capitalism, as Stalin had tried to do.

If you were a communist you believed that in the end true communism was your objective. The only possible argument could be how long it would take. In these circumstances, once you had taken the leap that true communism was achievable via Mao’s policies, any setbacks had to be caused by something other than your policies, and the deaths and starvation and cannibalism must be temporary and minor setbacks or caused by class enemies, revisionists and Right deviationists. Reality was irrelevant. The only parallel I could draw would be of a medieval discussion on the number of angels you could fit on a pinhead but using real angels and real pins.

It’s instructive that the provinces with the most loyally left-wing governments were those that had the highest death rates over the longest periods. One feels that there may be a special circle in Hell for Sichuan Party Secretary Li Jingquan, a staunch Maoist under whose rule countless millions perished. Even when he understood the seriousness of the problem he wasn’t prepared to countenance “rightist” solutions like private farming plots. The politics was more important than the people.

If you read this brilliant book in conjunction with the assessments of Mao by, on the one hand Pantsov and Levine and on the other by Halliday and Chang, a truer picture of China during this period starts to emerge. It’s not pretty. The revisionist view of Chinese history which became popular partly to justify Nixon’s rapprochement with China is difficult to sustain. The fact that its main supporters were left-wing historians and people like the so-called China hands of the US State Department makes us wonder about the possibility of more sinister manipulation.

The only voices of sanity that we hear during the Great Leap are those of Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai—both died in prison during the further madness of the Cultural Revolution. And if you look at the direction of Peng’s thinking as revealed in this book, it was towards reconciliation with the Soviet Union. The most charitable interpretation we could put on this possible outcome would be a further few decades of Brezhnevite stagnation for China. Even Deng Xiaoping seems tarred with the Maoist brush here, a fact which made his subsequent actions all the more courageous and brilliant. The outlook from the perspective of 1959 looks uniformly bleak. And yet there are intelligent people in China today who still think China needed Mao’s brutality to emerge from its period of humiliation.

There are also many who disagree. In The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, Frank Dikötter paints a picture of China in the 1930s under the Guomindang which is vibrant, intellectually diverse and potentially economically successful. Certainly, with all the faults of his rule, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan delivered prosperity and a political regime which, while repressing dissent, left most ordinary people to go about their business without undue interference. Despite his early education in Moscow, Chiang’s son, Jiang Jingguo, brought democracy to Taiwan. Yes, we see all its faults with brawling on the floor of the Taipei parliament and occasional wild policy swings, but a lot of people in China look at it with interest. The thousands of Chinese tourists who daily visit mainland sites like Lushan and Chunking which are associated with Chiang don’t seem to share the view commonly held of him in the West. A strong intellectual current in China today says that if Chiang Kai-shek had not had to deal with the Japanese invasion and Russian interference during the 1930s and 1940s, the historical outcome would have been much happier.

The packed bookshops, supermarkets and glass towers of China’s busy modern cities tell us that China eventually put the evil and madness behind it and gave birth to something which more resembles a normal society. But it is still a society with many unresolved issues. In a 2010 interview with the Financial Times, speaking of the current Chinese political system, Yang said, “The system is decaying and the system is evolving … It is not clear what side might come out on top in the end.” The manoeuvrings which the world saw during the factional struggle for ascendancy during the 2012 handover of political power in Beijing demonstrate the truth of this statement. But the distance which has been travelled from the China pictured in Yang’s book is enormous, and along with the great intellectual ferment in modern China leaves us with profound hope.

Ted Rule is a writer and investment banker based in Shenzhen, China.

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