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Mao’s famine » The Peking Duck

Mao’s famine

I can’t add much more to this devastating article on the horrors of the Great Leap forward. I’ve never read anything about it that was quite this brutal, and suggest you read the whole thing.

For those who argue it was a natural famine the government couldn’t control, it will be particularly enlightening.

In the summer of 1962, for instance, the head of the Public Security Bureau in Sichuan sent a long handwritten list of casualties to the local boss, Li Jingquan, informing him that 10.6 million people had died in his province from 1958 to 1961. In many other cases, local party committees investigated the scale of death in the immediate aftermath of the famine, leaving detailed computations of the scale of the horror.

In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.

One report dated Nov. 30, 1960, and circulated to the top leadership — most likely including Mao — tells how a man named Wang Ziyou had one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilo stone dropped on his back before he was branded with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.

When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, the local boss, Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury his son alive on the spot.

And it gets worse. Really. And please don’t say Mao didn’t know.

Mao was sent many reports about what was happening in the countryside, some of them scribbled in longhand. He knew about the horror, but pushed for even greater extractions of food.

At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

I applaud China’s post-Mao leaders for ending most aspects of Maoism and seeing that starvation in China came to an end. Thank God Deng won the day. But isn’t it time to let the Chinese people know the truth? As the column says, the government has unclassified huge vaults of documents on the period and many Chinese scholars and researchers know the truth. But alas, their books and reports can only be published in Hong Kong.

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 78 Comments

@A single spark
Amartya Sen and Noam Chomsky convincingly argue for 100 million excess deaths for the India model of development over the Chinese model – even during the Maoist years.

Stop misrepresenting Sen and twisting his words just for the sake of a mere fifty cent reward. This is what Sen had said about the Maoist era and he compared it to India in a rather unflattering fashion.

Page 181, Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

The connection between political rights and economic needs can be illustrated in the specific context of famine prevention by considering the massive Chinese famines of 1958-1961. Even before the recent economic reforms, China had been much more successful than India in economic development in many significant aspects. For example, the average life expectancy went up in China much more than in India, and well before the reforms of 1979 had already come close to the high figures that are quoted now (nearly seventy years at birth).Nevertheless, there was a major failure in China in its inability to prevent famines. The Chinese famines of 1958-1961 killed, it is now estimated, close to thirty million people– ten times more than even the gigantic 1943 famine in British India.

The so-called Great Leap Forward initiated in the late 1950s had been a massive failure, but the Chinese government refused to admit that and continued to dogmatically pursued much the same disastrous policies for three more years. It is hard to imagine that anything like this could have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and that has an independent press. During that terrible calamity the government faced no pressure from newspapers, which were controlled, and none from opposition parties, which were absent.

The lack of a free system of news distribution also misled the government itself, fed by its own propaganda and by rosy reports of local party officials competing for credit in Beijing. Indeed, there is evidence that just as the famine is moving to toward its peak, the Chinese authorities mistakenly believed that they had 100million more metric ton of grain than they actually did. ”

Put down Mao’s Little Red Book and borrow Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom” for the holidays from the library to catch up on some serious reading. Stop embarrassing yourself pls.

December 28, 2010 @ 12:56 pm | Comment

“The lack of a free system of news distribution also misled the government itself, fed by its own propaganda and by rosy reports of local party officials competing for credit in Beijing. Indeed, there is evidence that just as the famine is moving to toward its peak, the Chinese authorities mistakenly believed that they had 100million more metric ton of grain than they actually did”.

That says it all, albiet in an extremely lite, whitebread version. Face, praise and hyperbole mono-party culture which persists to this day.

December 28, 2010 @ 1:19 pm | Comment

“This is what Sen had said about the Maoist era and he compared it to India in a rather unflattering fashion.”

Again sp123, you are being disingenuous. You selectively quote Sen. I don’t have much problem with what Sen has said above. However we need to look at the other half of the equation.

Sen also says:

“But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India…India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame [GLF years],” (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action, 1989)

As Chomsky says, this 4 million excess deaths per year in India means the following:

“We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist “experiment” since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the “colossal, wholly failed…experiment” of Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone.”
http://www.spectrezine.org/global/chomsky.htm

December 28, 2010 @ 1:33 pm | Comment

In fact the GLF excess deaths are calculated relative to the low levels of mortality that the communists had achieved in the first decade of the PRC.

The actual mortality rates during the GLF were not much different from the mortality rates prevailing over the first half of the 20th Century. And not too much different from the mortality rates of India at the same time.

In fact anti-communists unwittingly give huge credit to the communists for reducing mortality up to the GLF, in order to max out the excess deaths calculations. So they use this to label Mao a mass murderer. It’s ridiculous.

Look at the mortality rate trend here:
http://www.bikealpine.com/glf.htm

The maximum death rate is abotu 25/1000 in 1960. This compares to 21/1000 in 1949, not that much of a difference.

But here is the kicker. Look at the death rates in India over the same time (1951 to 1960). They averaged at 22.8/1000 over the entire decade.

So India was more or less at GLF conditions for the entire 1950s. Whereas China for one year only had death rates slightly exceeding the Indian average for the decade.

It can be said that the century leading up to 1949, the Chinese people suffered more or less GLF conditions continually. I repeat the GLF tragic as it was, was more or less the norm for China before the revolution. And the Indians underwent continual GLF conditions over the entire 1950s.

Look at these horrific pictures of a typical Chinese scenes in Nationalist China 1946 (and this period was never even described as a famine period).
http://tinyurl.com/2cyrr4o

Note the children dying of hunger in the streets while people walk around them, the dying child in front of a fat well fed smiling rice merchant. This was the norm in pre-revolutionary China!

(by the way you will also note there is a picture of a starving boy with a begging bowl at the same link. Dated 1946. Yet Dikotter incredibly dishonestly misrepresents this image as from ‘Mao’s’ Great famine on his book cover).

The huge tragedy of the GLF is it bucked the trend in post 1949 China, and the millions of ‘excess’ deaths arise from calculating against the low mortality that the communists had achieved in the decade leading up to the GLF, and brought New China back, for a while, to pre-revolutionary conditions.

December 28, 2010 @ 1:59 pm | Comment

Again sp123, you are being disingenuous. You selectively quote Sen. I don’t have much problem with what Sen has said above. However we need to look at the other half of the equation.

Sen also says:

“But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India…India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame [GLF years],” (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action, 1989)

As Chomsky says, this 4 million excess deaths per year in India means the following:

“We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist “experiment” since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the “colossal, wholly failed…experiment” of Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone.”

That’s where you and perhaps Chomsky slipped up. Any educated person would not have called the economic system India had from 1947-1991 close to anything “capitalist”. The socialist planning economy of India was so famous (or infamous) that it was called a “License Raj”.

Speaking of being disingenuous, your link is dated 1989 but Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom” is published in 1999 and he got his Nobel Economics prize in 1998. Talk about being updated. hahaha. Some is still in his own era and Maoist nostalgia.

December 28, 2010 @ 2:00 pm | Comment

It can be said that the century leading up to 1949, the Chinese people suffered more or less GLF conditions continually.

It can also be said that thousands of years leading up to the Holocaust, the Jewish people everywhere especially suffered more or less Holocaust conditions continually given the regular persecution throughout numerous Crusades and violent pogroms and forced Ghettoization.

Plain absurdity just cracks people up.

December 28, 2010 @ 2:13 pm | Comment

The death “rate” during the GLF may not have been much different than the death “rate” in the years preceding it. Just imagine how much better the death “rate” would have been during the GLF years had there not been a GLF. And while a population-based “rate” may not look much different, given the size of China’s population even at that time, we’re still talking a good sized numerator. That numerator counts on Mao’s ledger no matter how you cut it.

December 28, 2010 @ 4:09 pm | Comment

@sp123:

I shouldn’t do Richard’s work for him, but please, back off. Spark hasn’t attacked you. Quit making personal attacks on him. You’re the one acting like a FQ.

December 28, 2010 @ 4:14 pm | Comment

@Nicholas M
I shouldn’t do Richard’s work for him, but please, back off. Spark hasn’t attacked you. Quit making personal attacks on him. You’re the one acting like a FQ.

Nicholas, let me be very blatant about this. It is none of your business to speak on behalf of the owner of this space and you should be very clear about that. Personal attacks? If you can’t stand a tinge of sarcasm, then get out of the kitchen. It is hard not to be sarcastic when people tried to misrepresent and make a fool of others.

FQ? It refers to people who are irrationally caught up with nationalistic fervor. If you follow my comments all these years, you will find that i spared no nation/national leaders from criticism (from the US, Taiwan, Japan, CCP, Bush, Palin, Blair, Saddam, Mao, Chiang, Thatcher all of them had been my targets before). Don’t throw terms around without knowing what they mean just because they seem fashionable to use, Nick.

December 28, 2010 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

@Nicholas M
Zhou could do nothing but obey him in hopes that he could mitigate some of his excesses.

This mythical image of Zhou being the “moderator” of Mao’s excesses is stretched too far. I am sure the “do nothing” on the part of Zhou includes signing the arrest warrants of his own brother and and goddaughter. It will be good for you if you can pick up Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary by Gao Wenqian. Hahahaha. Don’t be shock that the Zhou whom you described as “could do nothing but obey him in hopes that he could mitigate some of his excesses” to be actually a backroom schemer and a puppet of Mao.

December 28, 2010 @ 5:02 pm | Comment

sp123:
I have read the book in question and was referring to it before. Don’t make assumptions. There’s no doubt he was a backroom schemer- but to what end? And how would he have acted had Mao NOT been in the picture? That’s the what-if that intrigues me. Likewise, never assume that critics are more accurate just because they are critics. I try to take a middle path on all things.

Please, SP, you’re not helping yourself here. My position is this: the China blogosphere is an angry place because no one posts on record. Those of us who post here under what I assume to be our actual identities- me, Richard, and S.K. Cheung, for instance, tend to reel in the invective. Please, if you want me to take you seriously, come out into the light where I can see you. This goes for everyone. When I say you’re acting like a fenqing, it’s not the nationalism- it’s that you’re making angry personal attacks on people under a false identity. I’m asking everyone to please cut it out. I wish China blogs in general were better moderated, like the more civil forums I read elsewhere- which, in general, maintain their civility by insisting that people put some skin in the game.

December 28, 2010 @ 5:32 pm | Comment

Those of us who post here under what I assume to be our actual identities- me, Richard, and S.K. Cheung, for instance, tend to reel in the invective. Please, if you want me to take you seriously, come out into the light where I can see you. This goes for everyone. When I say you’re acting like a fenqing, it’s not the nationalism- it’s that you’re making angry personal attacks on people under a false identity.

False identity? Now try telling us i can find out your true full name, which country you stay. Your URL isn’t even a personal blog. I can also link myself to BBC or the economist to be more “real”. Hahaha. Stop being a self-righteous Net nanny pls; it is just downright pretentious.

December 28, 2010 @ 5:42 pm | Comment

I live in Shanghai, I’m on the editorial board of the publication I linked to. Any more questions?

December 28, 2010 @ 5:54 pm | Comment

When I say you’re acting like a fenqing, it’s not the nationalism- it’s that you’re making angry personal attacks on people under a false identity. I’m asking everyone to please cut it out. I wish China blogs in general were better moderated, like the more civil forums I read elsewhere- which, in general, maintain their civility by insisting that people put some skin in the game.

Hoho. I do agree. But think about Nicholas, if you have loved ones murdered under a dictator and you have people like spark dancing and clapping around that very same dictator claiming that he has “heart in the right place”, i am sure you will still whisper niceties into their ears.

I am still waiting for what you mean by personal attacks on my part.

December 28, 2010 @ 5:55 pm | Comment

I have read the book in question and was referring to it before. Don’t make assumptions. There’s no doubt he was a backroom schemer- but to what end? And how would he have acted had Mao NOT been in the picture? That’s the what-if that intrigues me.

There is no “what ifs” in history.There is only “what happened” in history. Judging by how Zhou let people died in his place on Kashmir Princess, it wouldn’t be too much to think of Zhou as a true blue schemer in his own right.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashmir_Princess#Zhou_Enlai

December 28, 2010 @ 6:00 pm | Comment

Nicholas M:

Why should people post under their actual identities. I see no reason for such an imperative. If an assumed or real identity keeps up with obnoxious line of posts and they get negative fan mail, Richard or whoever owns the site has every right to cut them out of the conversation on a temporary or permanent basis. (I rather care for my net privacy as I’m sure others do.)

Sure, China blogs are angry sites and that what makes them so much fun.

They are not serious academic seminars: “With all due respect, I think you are talking hogswash here, good sir” sort of thing.

If you really want to upgrade the quality of discussion, you should be insisting on traditional book (not net) references, whenever a poster makes a substantive claim.

However, thats a bit of a big ask as not everybody has their reference library within reach.

Finally, posting is a haphazard business, and implicit points are often missed by other readers.

December 28, 2010 @ 6:05 pm | Comment

@sp

When did I say he wasn’t a schemer? On the contrary, he was an amazing schemer. But Mao was better. And he knew it.

December 28, 2010 @ 6:06 pm | Comment

@Nicholas M – There have also been cases of unprincipled individuals using threats (Chris Devonshire-Ellis being a prime example) to silence legitimate criticism on the Sino-Blogs, I will therefore continue to post anonymously.

December 28, 2010 @ 10:11 pm | Comment

Nicholas, please chill. Lots of people here post under a moniker, as they do in most comment threads on the Internet. What difference does it make, as long as they use the same moniker and don’t sockpuppet (and that’s something I do check for)? For years I kept my last name to myself, which is my right.

I actually monitor the comments pretty tightly – there’s a lot of shit no one ever sees, some of it pretty shocking. But I can’t catch every over-zealous or rude comment, especially when I’m away on vacation, like this week.

December 29, 2010 @ 1:05 am | Comment

“People forget. Look at the popularity of Mao.”

As Nicholas said, most of the people you come across who like Mao are older than 40. Many of them clearly remember the CR and the GLF. However they do not blame Mao.

In the same way that people who suffered in pre-revolutionary China do not blame Chiang.

My father and his siblings were born in th 1930s and 40s in a village near Dongguan, China. This was a relatively prosperous place. My grandfather was a landlord and apparently was the one of the few literate people in his village. My father’s family could even afford to have family photos taken. Yet despite my granddads relative prosperity, of the eight children my grandmother gave birth to, three died in early childhood. Three out of eight. That is horrendous by any modern standard.

So one can only imagine the actual mortality rates throughout the first half of the 20th Century in pre-revoultionary China. They would not have been better, and at times even worse than the maximum mortality rates of the GLF.

Yet in spite of what most modern people, Westerners or Chinese, would consider to be a great tragedy, my grandparents just got on with life – death of children was part of the rhythm of life to them. And my grandfather was always a great supporter of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, and bitter anti-communist, and after leaving China he subscribed to, and was an avid reader of ‘Free China Review, and ‘Sinorama’ to the day he died 30 years later in exile.

In a similar way to many Chinese who suffered terribly in the GLF under Mao, it would have been business as usual, with a return to pre-revolutionary conditions. They would have thought no more of blaming Mao for their tragedies than Chinese born before 1949 blame Chiang for their the terrible things that happened under him.

The indisputable fact is though, that after 1949, the conditions of pre-revolutionary China came back to haunt New China only once, for two or three years. Other than those years there was by any measure dramatic progress in reducing mortality and raising life expectancy, and increasing literacy.

You can slag off Mao all you want for all his various misdeeds. But you have to deal with the facts. The numbers. And if you look only at the numbers, and compare them with the record of other developing nations of the time, Mao is arguably one of the greatest humanitarians in human history.

December 29, 2010 @ 10:15 am | Comment

Perhaps we can put up for consideration Mao as a humanitarian in the eyes of those who survived the killings that he explicitly and/or implicitly condoned. That would address the shortcomings of dealing with just part of the facts, or just part of the numbers. I guess it also boils down to one’s criteria for “humanitarian”.

December 29, 2010 @ 10:40 am | Comment

Sparky: Mao is arguably one of the greatest humanitarians in human history.

I’m thinking Sparky might be Mongol Warrior, who kept posting from different IP addresses. Mao has nearly as much blood on his hands as the very worst tyrants of history like Chiang Kai Shek and Stalin and, yes, Hitler. He may be a second-tier mass murderer, but he’s right up there.

I understand, Chinese people shake things off and get on with life, and they don’t hold Mao accountable for a lot of the harm he caused. Their willingness to let it go, however, hardly makes him one of the greatest humanitarians of all time. To put Mao in the same category as Jesus or Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Nelson Mandela – well, it boggles the mind, and is exactly what I would expect from Mongol Warrior.

December 29, 2010 @ 10:59 am | Comment

Mongol Warrior????? Friend of yours Richard? He certainly ain’t me.

I’m still waiting for someone to challenge my facts.

December 29, 2010 @ 11:01 pm | Comment

Big difference between Hitler and Mao.

I hardly think Mao launched the GLF with the intention that it would fail. The GLF was a personal setback for Mao. Its outcome is hardly something he would have wanted.

Whereas Hitler wrote of his hatred of the Jews in Mein Kampf, even talking of holding them under poison gas, and shipped them to specific locations for slaughter, men, women, and children, just for being Jews.

The moral difference is this. The GLF was considered a massive cock up by Mao and the CCP. Whereas if all of Europe’s Jews had ended up exterminated, it would have been ‘mission accomplished’ for Hitler, and he would have considered this a great success.

I wonder about the moral perspective of people who cannot see the difference between the above two examples.

December 29, 2010 @ 11:12 pm | Comment

Just asking.

I won’t draw an exact equivalent between Mao and Hitler. Hitler was worse. But that doesn’t say very much. To say Mao is “one of the greatest humanitarians” who ever lived is so bizarre I won’t even argue it. He may not have as much blood on his hands or as many ruined lives as the worst of the worst. But Mao’s devastation of China is a matter of historical fact. There is no great humanitarian act with which to credit him, no achievement that led to a better world and greater human happiness. If you want to say he did some good things, like give women their rights, we might find some agreement. But one of the greatest humanitarians in history? That is fenqing rhetoric on steroids.

December 30, 2010 @ 1:41 am | Comment

To 73:
I think the problem with your “facts”, as I intimated in #71, is that they are as selective as those about which you accuse the Mao critics. To say that Mao was a humanitarian excepting his GLF and CR years doesn’t make him much of a humanitarian in my book. As I always say, to each his own.

Besides, the mortality and life expectancy numbers, as I said earlier, only show correlation and not causality. In fact, the “good” you might attribute to Mao are at best correlations, while the “bad” stuff like the GLF and CR have a much better causal link to the big daddy. But if you want to call him a “humanitarian” on the basis of stuff you “associate” with him while ignoring the bad stuff he caused, well, that’s your gig.

I certainly don’t equate Mao to Hitler. The intent may have been different. But you know what they say about the road to hell. Just as it is illogical to ignore the means and focus only on the ends, so too to focus only on the means and ignore the ends. However, it does amuse me greatly when a CCP apologist speaks of morals.

December 30, 2010 @ 5:14 am | Comment

The purpose of the Great Leap Forward was to maximize grain exports so that China could raise money to buy nuclear weapons technology from Russia. I suspect a lot Chinese would think it was all worth it.

January 15, 2011 @ 4:43 pm | Comment

Yes Peter, most Chinese believe the GLF was well worth it. They’d do it again in a heartbeat.

January 16, 2011 @ 2:15 am | Comment

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