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Steve Tsang

Great Leap Backward

Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine
By Yang Jisheng (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 630pp 30)

From the perspective of the Communist Party that governs China, this book is highly critical of the country's recent history. Yet it is anything but anti-China. The author, Yang Jisheng, is a long-standing and devoted member of the Party, who clearly loves his country and its people. It was this devotion that led him to research meticulously the history of what is almost certainly the worst famine in human history. The result is powerful and moving, the first truthful and properly documented account by a citizen of the People's Republic of China of the famine, unspeakable suffering and dehumanising consequences that were the results of Mao Zedong's policy known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-61). It is the most authoritative available and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand China under the Communist Party or the effects of a modern totalitarian system.

The author saw his father starved to death but believed the official version of history and even joined the Party. He only found out the reality three decades later as he started his research for this book. As a senior Xinhua journalist he had privileged access to provincial archives. He cross-checked his findings against survivors' stories to devastating effect, as he tells how at least 36 million Chinese citizens were persecuted or starved to death as the famine was sustained for over three years.

Yang's research confirms that the official account, which blames Mother Nature and the Soviet Union, is make-believe. No unusual natural disaster or abnormal weather conditions occurred that could have caused the famine. He also proves that the withdrawal of Soviet aid during the period could not have had anything more than the most tangential impact on the food supply in China.

Once the few senior leaders who tried to advise Mao to reverse course had been brutally purged, the Party machinery toed the Maoist line. It knowingly and strenuously used its methods of totalitarian control to sustain the greatest mass murder in human history. The death toll was more than six times that of the Holocaust. The starvation of peasants to death while communist cadres feasted was horrific and indefensible. Even worse, in my view, were the dehumanising consequences that this man-made famine engendered.

Cannibalism became a widespread practice. From provincial archives Yang has documented numerous cases in which neighbours, strangers, corpses by the roadside or in shallow graves, and even family members became food - and in some cases meat for sale. Those who survived through cannibalism had to live with what they did; some went insane.

All this happened as the communist government kept millions of tons of grain in storage, and increased food exports. This was because Mao expected to see results which proved that the Great Leap Forward had dramatically increased the production of food and iron, solely on the basis of revolutionary zeal and the leadership of the Party. To meet the unrealistic targets, local cadres made up production figures. When required to deliver the grain, they starved the farmers by collecting all supplies.

If a farmer hoarded a single grain, he effectively signed his own death warrant. For millions it was little more than a choice of how and when to die: withholding food made one subject to persecution that often resulted in death; not doing so would condemn one to almost certain death by starvation. Having to choose between feeding oneself, one's offspring or one's parents a minuscule amount of food destroyed the very essence of humanity and morality. It was communist rule that transformed China from one of the most moralistic societies into one with a moral vacuum at its centre, which exists to this day.

How could a man-made famine of such a scale be possible? For all the sins that could be attributed to Mao for refusing to admit that he made a mistake and to reverse this murderous policy, he could not have committed them without the Leninist Party giving him totalitarian control. The likes of Premier Zhou Enlai and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, who are still widely venerated in China and beyond, knew what was going on but did nothing to stop this tragedy.

The overwhelming majority of the victims died without realising that they were not an unlucky, exceptional few, since the Party controlled the movement of people, food and news. They had no knowledge of famine beyond their own localities. There was no scope for rebellion. Few managed to escape. Leaving a famine zone was forbidden even if one had sufficient energy to walk. Those caught trying were punished savagely. Communisation, which was part of the Great Leap Forward, meant that ownership and use of land were put under the Party's control. Even cooking for oneself became impossible for the most part, as communal kitchens had replaced family kitchens and family-owned cooking utensils were fed to backyard furnaces to meet iron-production targets.

The title of the book is meant to stand as a memorial for those who perished, including Yang's father. Yang hopes that it might also be a tombstone for the regime that caused their deaths. The last is little more than wishful thinking. Despite all the dramatic changes that have unfolded in China in the last three decades, the Communist Party remains in power.

Since the Maoist days the Party has changed. It no longer exercises totalitarian control as a matter of routine. It has become 'consultative Leninist' rather than Maoist or Stalinist, but it retains a monopoly on 'the truth', history and power, and exercises strong discipline wherever its vital interests are at stake. It also spends more on internal security than on national defence. The Communist Party may have taken on some corporatist features in managing the economy but it remains totally dedicated to one mission: sustaining itself in power.

The replacement of a charismatic supreme leader by a collective leadership after Mao's death in 1976 has put an end to some of the madness that was the hallmark of the Maoist period. But one should not lose sight of the fact that the institutional base that enabled Mao to starve tens of millions to death in peacetime remains in place. The publication of Tombstone is not the start of a truth and reconciliation process, something the Party sees as a foreign idea meant to subvert China. It banned the original, substantially longer Chinese version of the book. Until the Communist Party is willing to confront history and is prepared to face up to the harm it has done during its nearly seven decades of rule, it will be too early to erect a tombstone to mark the end of the system that brought about the worst famine in history.


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Steve Tsang is Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. His latest book is The Vitality of Taiwan: Politics, Economics, Society and Culture, just released by Palgrave Macmillan.


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