The Great Leap Forward: Liars and Deniers

[Note: I am ten days late to this story due to my being away on vacation. Pardon me while I catch up.]

No one knows better than I do that over the past couple years this site has become top-heavy with posts about the Great Leap Forward. The truth is it’s a topic of unending fascination for me and one that will mystify and sadden me nearly as much as twentieth century acts of genocide like the Holocaust and the forced starvation in the Ukraine under Stalin or the crimes against humanity of Pol Pot. Each of these is unique, of course. Mao was no Hitler or Stalin. A key differentiator is that there was no grand design for exterminating farmers in China, and Mao derived no pleasure from news of the mass starvation, even if he could have shown a bit more empathy. That’s not to say, however, that the tragedy wasn’t caused by Mao and his reckless policies. There is simply no doubt it was, as Liu Shaoqi dared to say nearly in so many words, to his political undoing.

The reason I’m resurrecting the topic again is two excellent posts over at Sam Crane’s incredibly insightful and beautifully written blog. You’ll find one here and another here.

In the first post, the blogger walks us through the patterns of GLF-denial and revisionism and the spurious claims that the high estimates of those who died could only be concoctions of the West used to vilify China. He writes,

I will not link to these sites, because I do not want to advance their project; moreover, they are an insult to the countless victims of the CCP’s horrific assault on rural society… [T]here will always be uncertainty about the true toll. But GLF denialists are pursuing a political agenda: to protect Mao Zedong from bearing responsibility for the massive loss of Chinese lives. They are not simply engaged in an honest search for the truth. They are trying to obfuscate and divert. We cannot let them.

And he doesn’t let them. (I won’t link to deniers either — you can find plenty of these fenqing arguments right here on my blog if you look up old posts on the GLF.) Some of the most fastidious and reliable of the researchers into the GLF are respected Chinese scholars. He cites Tombstone author Yang Jisheng, who shatters the preposterous myth that the horrific death toll was the result of famines (when hasn’t China had a famine?) or the Sino-Soviet split. Those often-trotted-out explanations are pure BS.

The key reason is political misjudgment. It is not the third reason. It is the only reason. How did such misguided policies go on for four years? In a truly democratic country, they would have been corrected in half a year or a year. Why did no one oppose them or criticize them? I view this as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.

I realize that many Chinese people, to some extent understandably, take offense when a Westerner criticizes Mao. It’s too bad; there is too much to criticize to just leave it alone and not remember. I remember all those who brought about great suffering, including my former president. So we shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells when it comes to Mao.

Sam’s follow-up post is just as interesting, a response to the commenters in his first post:

I knew this was going to happen. Was it George Bernard Shaw who said: “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pigs like it”? That is where I find myself now. In my previous post, I criticized Great Leap Famine denialists, knowing full well that this would likely spark an attack against me personally. And, lo and behold, like clockwork, it has.

Not everyone who questions the numbers is a denialist, and Sam is careful to make this clear.

But it is rather obvious that a particular subset of that criticism is denialist. This is difficult for ideologically- and politically-motivated people to grasp, because they think only in black and white terms. So let me be painfully clear: not all critics are denialists, but all denialists are rooted in a political agenda that keeps them from maintaining an open and, ultimately, critical attitude. They are apologists.

He goes through the various denialist strategies, like pointing to issues with the 1953 census as proof the death rate couldn’t be as high as claimed. And then there’s the fenqings’ complete and total denial of the latest research to come to light by researchers like Yang. As we’ve seen in previous threads, the denialists talk right over this evidence. And Sam is right: it’s all to perpetuate the myth of a magnanimous and blameless Mao. (And let’s not forget that standing by Mao’s side and implementing the GLF with gusto were Deng and Zhou Enlai.)

Please go and read the two posts, and do not miss the comments, some of which inadvertently prove Sam’s points, shifting the conversation away from the evidence toward a personal attack against the messenger. What a surprise.


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: 56 Comments

Not many leaders can be said to have achieved that for their nations…

What? Enacting and enforcing laws, and having a foreign policy are hardly rare amongst national leaders.

March 4, 2013 @ 10:30 am | Comment

“Not sovereignty in that sense–sovereignty in the sense of completely stamping out opium importation and consumption, eliminating prostitution (for a while, at least), pursuing a violently anti-American and anti-Western tack in his foreign policy from 1949 to 1972, etc. That’s sovereignty in act, as opposed to sovereignty in name. Not many leaders can be said to have achieved that for their nations…”

Opium importation ended way before 1949, the opium consumed after the 1920’s (and now) was domestically produced across China, even in the communist base areas controlled by Mao, production which he was complicit in whilst it benefited his organisation. Prostitution (and much other economic activity, both unjustifiable and justifiable) may have been ended by Mao, but he was a libertine in his own personal life and whatever changes he may have made were quickly undone. Anti-westernism (and anti-everything else) is no real assertion of sovereignty and brought no benefit to the Chinese people.

Set against this Mao’s total isolation of China, his loss of Taiwan, etc etc etc.

March 4, 2013 @ 3:00 pm | Comment

“Not many leaders can be said to have achieved that for their nations…”

Odd how this meme is only seemingly applied to authoritarian leaders. Hitler got Germany back on it’s feet, you know, and that Mussolini chap did wonders for rail travel in Italy….

On does wonder how much of these adulatory snippets are the result of maybe a hint of propagandistic marketing…

Not, of course, that anyone would fall for such blunt tools of public opinion formation, eh? Oh, hang on…

March 5, 2013 @ 7:36 am | Comment

Tanks – China: 0. USA: 149.
Vehicles: China 0: USA 3800 (1 per 4 soldiers)
Armored vehicles – China: 0 . USA 35.
Artillery: China 66. USA: 300.
Mobile rocket launchers: China: 27. USA: 550.

When a weak nation is invaded by a stronger one, that the weak can resist with all its might until the last breath is already an heroic feat. For a weak nation to challenge a strong one by going outside of her own borders, that had never been tried before.
When Man Anying, his son, was killed on the battlefield in Korea. Mao himself, upon being delivered the news, said famously: “Hundreds of thousands gave their lives on that battlefield, we can’t dwell on just one person. What happened happened, let’s move on. I’m the leader of the nation, I’m the one who decided to send our troops to Korea. If my son doesn’t go, how can I convince the nation to support this war? He’s Mao Zedong’s son, there can be no other way.’

When Mao shook hand with the mother of Huang Jiguang, another PLA soldier who gave his life in Korea, we saw no sadness on the mother’s face, only smiles.

Why? Because she knew. She knew that of the arsenal of heroes who were forever resting on that battlefield, her son was among them, but so was Mao Zedong’s. The person now shaking her hands and sending his condolenscnes, was also a family of the war hero. From this mother we saw a spirit larger than life, a spirit of fearlessness, a spirit of sacrifice, a spirit of idealism, a spirit of a hero, a spirit of a mother.

Those are also the spirits of Mao.

Mao belongs to China, but he also belongs to the world. He is of the Chinese people, but also of the world’s people.

[ Huang ji guang’s mother shaking hands with Mao, 1954 ]

March 6, 2013 @ 9:04 am | Comment

Another cut/paste comment Clock? Try harder.

March 6, 2013 @ 7:41 pm | Comment

Well, my class action may grow legs after all.

March 13, 2013 @ 4:45 am | Comment

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