“Mao Denigration” and Mao Delirium

As China gets ready to celebrate Mao’s 120th birthday there have recently appeared a slew of articles on China’s current relationship with the Great Helmsman. One of the most interesting was in the Global Times, warning about “Mao denigration,” a campaign to malign Mao, initiated mainly by Westerners who hate China.

That Mao is a great man has a strong foundation in Chinese society. Some think Mao has had an infamous reputation in society. This is only a naïve delusion of these people….

There is no historical or current evidence that is convincing enough to denigrate Mao. Voices that completely deny or support him are both highly polarized. Currently, the demonizing voices are mainly from the West, which also criticizes China’s socialist system.

The article disingenuously dances around the dreadful things Mao did by noting “his personal leadership style has its own limits,” and not unsurprisingly bestows on him the usual cliches — he brought China independence, he set the stage for China’s current prosperity, people’s lives improved under Mao, and there is, needless to say, no references to Mao’s experiments like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It even claims Mao’s revolution “put it [China] on the right track of human rights development.”

Human rights development? Mao did have some solid achievements, but I don’t see “human rights development” among them. He did help give China a backbone as it freed itself from foreign domination. He did help give women greater equality. But as in any discussion of Mao’s achievements, the question needs to be raised, “Yes, but at what cost?” China is still reeling from the effects of his pet projects that caused the death of millions, and that forced generations of Chinese to eat a lot of bitterness.

But that’s okay; you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and as the GT article concedes, “A revolution always has its cruel side, as did the Chinese revolution led by Mao.” That cruelty doesn’t really matter much, it says; what matter is the result of the revolution. It’s funny, but my own reading on the story of the revolution is that the result of the revolution up until the time Mao died was total chaos and misery, until Deng stepped in and cleaned up the colossal mess Mao had made of the country.

But the Global Times article accurately reflects, to a large extent, what a lot of ordinary people in China believe about Mao, that he made life better, that the Mao years were relatively corruption-free — many of the laobaixing will even go so far as to say they wish Mao were in power today. This article in the SCMP examines this phenomenon.

Today, reverence for the late leader is on the rise. President Xi Jinping often pays tributes to Mao and looks to him for inspiration to manage the country. Ordinary people, especially from the bottom social strata who have not benefited from the country’s economic boom, miss his reign and some even set up shrines at home to worship him. Statues of the great leader continue to be erected across the country with fanfare.

“If there is one man, one vote now, the leftists would get most of the votes,” says Du Daozheng , the 90-year-old publisher of liberal political magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu and once a loyal Mao follower….

Xi launched “rectification” and “mass line” campaigns to fight corruption and restore grass-roots support. He also revived the tradition of “self-criticism” sessions in which cadres pillory each other’s failings.

Liang Zhu, an expert on Mao Zedong Thought and former deputy head of Peking University, has argued party officials were showing a “a correct proletarian view of power” by returning to Mao. “Mao insisted that ‘to serve the people’ is the basic mission,” he wrote in a recent essay.

I have to wonder how Mao’s blood-stained hands and cutting China off from the outside world served the people, but I also have to acknowledge that most Chinese people believe that Mao was good for their country. And I understand, the last thing they want to hear is Westerners criticizing Mao. But China’s refusal to acknowledge the very dark side of Mao’s tragic policies is a cause of constant fascination among China watchers and will continue to spawn op-eds and articles examining how this could be so.

The Washington Post also writes today about the current Mao fever that’s taken hold of China.

Mao is everywhere, even after death.

In addition to that unavoidable portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square, he appears on most of China’s bank notes, is invoked countless times a day in party speeches and remains a staple of state-sponsored TV dramas and movies. This month, however, the Mao industry shifted into overdrive, with restaurants flogging his favorite dishes, cities plastering his sayings on walls and a plethora of statues making their debut — the most notable (ahem, gaudy) of which has been a $16.5 million gold version inlaid with gems….

Mao’s home town of Shaoshan has spent $320 million in preparation — renovating historical sites and museums, organizing galas, and building new roads and other infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to pass through. Many hotels have been fully booked for days leading up to the anniversary. Merchants in town say they have stocked up on Mao tchotchkes of every kind — busts and statues, key rings, commemorative liquor, little red books of his sayings and photos from every phase of his life.

A $16.5 million golden statue of Mao studded with gems. $320 million to get his home town ready. No, I’ll never stop marveling at the Mao phenomenon.

I’m reading a book of essays (book review to hopefully follow soon) about a man whose grandparents and their siblings were exterminated for having been “landlords,” and whose parents were turned on in the Cultural Revolution, and again I wonder, how much suffering can the Chinese people endure, and how can they forgive the man who directly caused so much of the torment? Intellectually I understand it, China’s thirsting for a great leader, and all the propagandizing that’s elevated Mao to the status of a god. But it never ceases to amaze me how short our memory spans can be, and how willing the Chinese people have been to forget the nightmare years and to keep Mao’s personality cult thriving.

The Washington Post article cited above, which is an excellent read, quotes from a vitriolic opinion piece published outside of China that criticizes Mao and his myth; the author, a former aide to Zhao Ziyang, lives under house arrest and had his article smuggled out of China. Referring to the deaths of millions under Mao, the writer, Bao Tong, tells the reporter, “China cannot turn a blind eye to these facts.” But it has been doing a marvelous job doing exactly that for well over 30 years.

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70 percent good

There is a narrative about the halcyon period in China from when Mao assumed power in 1949 through late 1956 when he launched what turned out to be the insidious “Let 100 flowers bloom” campaign. These were the good years when women were liberated and the nation’s new leaders seemed reform-minded and effective. The bad stuff all came later.

In a scathing new book, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-57, Frank Dikotter, a harsh critic of Mao in his earlier book on the Great Leap Forward’s unnecessary famine, demolishes the myth of Mao’s golden years. He maintains instead that was a time of unimaginable cruelty and wanton murder. I haven’t read the book yet, but recommend you read the review of the book in the Economist. These were years drowned in bloodshed.

The genius of communist violence was to implicate ever more people in it. After landlords were tried in front of village tribunals, then beaten and shot, land and possessions were divided up among the crowd. It was an incentive to find new victims, many of whom were burned or buried alive. But the more victims, the greater the fear of reprisals from distraught families. So the tribunals kept on killing. Children were not spared. By the end of 1952 up to 2m Chinese had been murdered.

A parallel terror was waged against those deemed to be counter-revolutionaries, Nationalists or foreign spies, some as young as eight, with new victims trucked daily to execution sites. Throughout these orgies of violence, Mao and other leaders coolly laid down quotas—up to four deaths for every thousand Chinese was considered appropriate. In the three provinces under the jurisdiction of Deng Xiaoping, known today for having been open-minded, 150,000 had been executed by November 1951. The total number of deaths will never be known. But in late 1952 Bo Yibo (father of Bo Xilai, whose recent trial has caused a sensation) said, approvingly, that 2m had been executed.

Not everyone could be killed, Mao acknowledged. So a vast gulag was born, swallowing up counter-revolutionaries, vagabonds, prostitutes, capitalists, marketeers, foreigners and, later, intellectuals. The population in the “reform through labour” camps quickly reached about 2m. The relentless indoctrination, one inmate later said, was nothing less than the “physical and mental liquidation of oneself”.

The country was, as Mr Dikotter puts it, well down “the road to serfdom”—literally so for farmers. All the landlord blood spilled was supposed to empower peasants. But the upheaval had devastated the countryside. Draught animals, fertiliser and skills were in short supply. The markets and other networks on which farmers had long depended were destroyed. Farming risked being branded the work of the evil landlord, yet the state demanded ever more grain from farmers in tax. Hardships multiplied. Villagers sold their children.

I realize that Chinese people don’t like to hear foreigners say negative things about Mao. It’s a topic of great sensitivity, as I myself learned the hard way when I tried to discuss it with a co-worker some years ago. But the story needs to be told anyway. They aren’t going to read about it in Chinese textbooks so I am grateful to scholars like Dikotter for making sure that anyone interested can learn the truth. Again, since I haven’t read the book I can’t say it’s all gospel truth. But based on the review, it sounds like a good and important read. I admit, I’ve been sucked into the “halcyon years” myth myself. It’s good to see it debunked.

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China’s selective amnesia

I once wrote a post about my talking with one friend after another at the Global Times about what happened at Tiananmen Square 24 years ago, and whether they were familiar with the Tank Man photo. As I reported then, only one friend was familiar with the photo, and said she couldn’t understand why the West saw him as a hero. What he was doing was against the interest of society.

That episode came to mind as I read a piece in the NY Times that you should read, too, on “China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia.” We’ve discussed it here before — the air brushing of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward out of the public record, the erasure of June 4th, the downplaying of Mao’s misdeeds and blunders.

The author, a Chinese writer, sees the manipulation of history as a disaster for China.

The amnesia I’m talking about is the act of deleting memories rather than merely a natural process of forgetting. Forgetting can result from the passage of time. The act of deleting memories, however, is about actively winnowing out people’s memories of the present and the past.

In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace.

I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place. It now appears the opposite is true. In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to.

This isn’t exactly new; I’ve been thinking about it for more than ten years now. But I hadn’t really realized the sheer scope of this massive, ongoing state effort to cleanse its people’s neurons and create its own history, almost in real time. After noting the whitewashing of the Cultural Revolution and the 1970 war with Vietnam, the author reminds us that state-sponsored amnesia is with us today, and the goal is always the same: to keep the ruling class in power.

What else is lost to memory? Everything that has happened in recent times: the AIDS epidemic caused by unhygienic blood selling; the innumerable explosions in illegal coal mines; the modern day slavery that takes place in illegal brick kilns; the rampant production of toxic milk powder, toxic eggs, toxic seafood, gutter oil, carcinogenic vegetables and fruit; forced abortions; violent demolitions; mistreatment of petitioners — the list goes on and on.

Anything negative about the country or the regime will be rapidly erased from the collective memory. This memory deletion is being carried out by censoring newspapers, magazines, television news, the Internet and anything that preserves memories.

… The oppression of words and ideas is not unique. It has been exercised by all authoritarian regimes around the world at various times. Under oppression, intellectuals — the people who are supposed to have good memories — are the first to become silent after being administered amnesia by the state. Next comes the general public.

The state prefers the intelligence of its people to remain at the level of children in a kindergarten. It hopes people will follow instructions, just as children follow their teacher’s instructions — they eat when they are told to eat, they sleep when they are told to sleep. When they are asked to perform, these innocent children enthusiastically recite the script prepared by adults.

As you can probably see, this is one scary article. Obviously in recent years the Internet has made it harder to stamp out memories of the more recent outrages and scandals, but the fact remains, most Chinese growing up in the Chinese education system have been denied the knowledge of much of China’s history. And I’m ready for the response that it’s the same in the US. Um, no. We are taught about the disaster of Vietnam, we see television shows about the folly of the Iraq War, we learn how we exterminated the American Indians. Some textbooks may try to put America in the best light possible, but there is no government-mandated effort to uproot history and deny Americans knowledge of their past. It’s all out there for whoever wants to know about it.

This is a long and engrossing article. Let me just quote its last lines:

The late Chinese writer Ba Jin had a dream for preserving memory — to build a museum in China devoted to the Cultural Revolution, the “revolution” that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and turned the nation into a madhouse.

Carrying on Ba Jin’s dream, I also have a naïve hope: I hope one day a memorial to amnesia engraved with all our nation’s painful memories of the last century can be erected on Tiananmen Square.

I believe a truly great people are people who have the courage to remember their own past, and a truly great nation is a nation that has the courage to record its own history.

China so longs for true greatness, it dreams so much of soft power and global influence. But as long as it insists on excising anything negative about its history from the minds of its citizens, it cannot be taken entirely seriously. How can they be taken seriously when they are so afraid of the past, so insecure about the present that they must reshape the truth to avoid any dissent or disharmony? Do they not know that it makes others wary to see how China manipulates its citizens’ minds? Is there any hope that this very basic notion is getting through to anyone at the top? Based on everything I’m hearing and reading, the answer is, for now, no.

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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.

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Mao: The Real Story

Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, two China experts with superb credentials, have written a biography of Mao that is sweeping, fine in detail, well written, engrossing and ultimately problematic.

Mao: The Real Story is a book I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand Mao’s life and times. It draws heavily on Russian and Chinese archives that have only recently been made available, and this is what makes the book special. The relationship between Mao and Stalin threads through nearly the entire book, at least from the point when Mao became a leader in the Communist party, and their relationship helps shed insight into many of Mao’s most important decisions, like entering the Korean War, cozying up to the Guomindang in the late 1930s and joining with them to fight the Japanese. Stalin was Mao’s Great Teacher and mentor, and most importantly his banker — even when Mao violently disagreed with his Soviet masters, he had little choice but to go along, as they controlled the purse strings. The Chinese Communist Party would scarcely have existed without Stalin’s generosity. As usual with Stalin, he used China as a means of fulfilling his own agenda, namely the spreading of Stalinist-style communism, and for more practical purposes such as keeping the Japanese busy with China so they’d be less inclined to attack the Soviet Union.

When the publisher sent me a review copy of the book I was intimidated, and wondered if I could read it; it is nearly 600 pages long. But once I started I quickly got swept up and finished it within a week. That is not to say it’s easy; it isn’t. There are so many names and so much minutiae I had trouble keeping up with who was who; I was constantly flipping back to double-check. Some of these details could almost certainly have been spared.

It was fascinating to learn of Mao’s transformation from an idealistic youth, inspired by anarchism and the promise of democracy, to an ideologue who cared nothing for the lives of his people and who was convinced of his infallibility, with tragic consequences. We watch him grow and develop, and pretty soon we can’t help but to be repulsed. As he became a hardened communist, he had basically one modus operandi, namely to slash and burn, to destroy, to encourage chaos, to weed out enemies, to promote endless class struggle and violence. He did relatively little building, and that which he did build often ended in catastrophe.

Throughout his life in the revolution Mao manipulated the basest of human emotions. It was not brotherly love that he conveyed, but rather enmity and universal suspicion. “Down with the landlords!” “Down with rich peasants!” “Down with the bourgeoisie, merchants and intellectuals!” “Down with those who are not like us!” “Down with the educated, with businesspersons, with the talented!” Down with all of them, down with them, down.

The story the authors tell of the early years of the Cultural Revolution is particularly upsetting, as Mao proclaims, “In the final analysis, bad people are bad people, so if they are beaten to death it is not a tragedy.” Mao’s use of “class struggle” to eliminate his perceived enemies was coldly and ruthlessly calculated, as was everything Mao ever did as a communist leader. He discarded people like worn-out shoes, and he looked on absolutely everyone with suspicion. He was, especially in his later years, a miserable, lonely man held captive by the very class struggle he so cunningly initiated. Enemies were everywhere.

And yet Mao did unify the country and make it independent. There is more to him than just pure badness. But here I believe the authors actually cut him too much slack. In trying to be balanced and to take the middle road, they take pains to say Mao was “complex, variegated and multifaceted” and a different kind of murderous dictator than Stalin. This argument was for me one of the weakest parts of the book: they claim Mao is different from the Bolshevik ideologues because he was “not as merciless” as Stalin. Many if not most of Mao’s enemies in government were allowed to live. “He tried to find a common language with all of them after forcing them to engage in self-criticism. In other words, he forced them to ‘lose face’ but also kept them in power.” Okay, it’s good he didn’t kill them, but he did make many of their lives miserable (think Liu Shaoqi banished and living in misery in a single room with a dirty stretcher on the floor). And think of the millions he did kill by inciting students to attack their teachers, and by doing nothing for years to stop the misery in the countryside thanks to the Great Leap Forward. It was almost contradictory for this book to reveal just how awful a person and a ruler Mao was, to examine all the misery he created for millions, and then to argue he was “multifaceted.” After reading the book you would not arrive at this conclusion, which the authors express in the epilogue. They really can’t have it both ways.

Other small things: the Great Leap Forward is given very little space and I would have liked to learn more about how Mao reacted to the plight of the starving, and more about his decision to end it. Its coverage of the early years of the Cultural Revolution is superb, rich in detail and deeply disturbing, as it should be. But then the book seems to shift gears; we learn the Red Guards were called off, but we don’t learn nearly enough about the last five years of the CR. At this point the book focuses instead on Mao’s efforts to build ties with the United States, and the CR seems to be forgotten.

That doesn’t makes this any less of an important and impressive book. I highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of long books and who has a thirst for understanding how Mao lived and thought, how he could have done what he did. For this, Mao: The Real Story is invaluable. It is especially impressive that the authors were able to take such a wealth of new materials, along with other sources like the diaries of those who knew Mao, and weave it all into a compelling and page-turning narrative. The book is imperfect, but it is also indispensable.

Let me just add as a side note that I am well aware of how defensive Chinese people, my good friends included, are of Mao, and I understand that. I understand also that they don’t like foreigners to tell them what they should think of Mao. I talked with my Chinese teacher about Mao just last week, and she told me that the GLF and the CR were unfortunate mistakes but dismissed them with the words that “we all make mistakes.” (She also corrected me when I referred to him as “Mao” without the “Chairman,” and told me Chinese people would never leave that out.) But as with any great figure of history, Mao is fair game and it would do a disservice to history not to explore his life and try to understand “the real story.” I only wish the book would be available in China, in Chinese.

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Mao’s cheerleader

Han Suyin, who died last week, was a successful novelist I never heard of until I read this intriguing article on her role as an evangelist for Mao and the Cultural revolution. She denied the horrors of the Great Leap Forward’s famines and later admitted she “lied through her teeth” about it. Although she later turned against the Cultural Revolution as Jiang Qing fanned the flames that led to mass murder and hysteria, in the early years she never met a Red Guard she didn’t love.

In Han’s telling, the Red Guards—the paramilitary social movement of young fanatics—were “clean, well behaved and polite” youngsters who “learn democracy by applying democratic methods of reason and debate.” The army’s assumption of control over the government was “the continuation of the revolutionary tradition” and “the reassertion of ideological primacy over purely military ambitions.” The societal ferment also lent “an enormous spurt to production, to the development of productive forces along socialist lines.”

Still, even as she lavished praise on the Cultural Revolution she fully understood its dark side. She epitomized the concept of “useful idiot” but was in a class by herself; useful idiots often don’t know the truth and don’t look for it, lapping up the lies of the government. But she knew, and still she evangelized.

The closing lines of the article ring true:

Don’t imagine that there could never be another Han Suyin. Ambitious apologists for authoritarianism will certainly vie to take up her mantle. And who could blame them? Her works might appear odious to us now, but she had a very successful run.

Imagine that, ambitious shills for the party who enjoy personal gains for their sucking up to a government they know is doing terrible things. Do they really still exist?

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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962

Is there any point in putting up yet another post about the Great Leap Forward. Obviously I think there is or I wouldn’t be writing this. But I will keep it brief. There is a beautiful review of the recently released English translation of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, Yang Jisheng’s epic retelling of the history of the Great Leap Forward and the horrors that it wrought. Not that we don’t already know a lot about these horrors, but this book is in a class by itself thanks to the resources that were made available to Yang, a Xinhua journalist and once a loyal member of the CCP.

Reviewer and China scholar Ian Johnson starts by telling us of his trip to the city of Xinyang in Henan province, where he talks with a pastor about what happened there fifty years ago.

“Traditional life [the pastor said] was wiped out around the time I was born, fifty years ago. Since then it has been a difficult area, with no foundation to society. Most people in China haven’t heard of this but here in Xinyang, people all know.

“It was called the Xinyang Incident. It destroyed this area like the wrath of God on Judgment Day.”

The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.

Officials launched campaigns to dig up grain that peasants were allegedly hiding. Of course, the grain didn’t exist, but anyone who said otherwise was tortured and often killed. That October, the famine began in earnest in Xinyang, accompanied by the murder of skeptics of Mao’s policies. Yang describes in graphic detail how Xinyang officials beat one colleague who had opposed the communes. They ripped out his hair and beat him day after day, dragging him out of his bed and standing around him, kicking until he died. One official cited by Yang estimates that 12,000 such “struggle sessions” occurred in the region. Some people were hung up by ropes and set on fire. Others had their heads smashed open. Many were put in the middle of a circle and pushed, punched, and jostled for hours until they collapsed and died.

….Yang interviewed a colleague at the Xinhua news agency who had been stationed in Xinyang. During a long-distance bus ride, he said, “I could see one corpse after another in the ditches along the roadway, but no one on the bus dared to talk about the starvation.” The reporter found out that a third of the population in some areas had died while “the leading cadres continued to stuff themselves.” But “after I personally witnessed how people who spoke the truth were brought to ruin, how could I dare to write an internal reference report?”

Just as appalling is Mao’s irrational reaction to the “Xinyang incident,” which only made things there worse. If the GLF was failing to reap the results Mao expected, it had to be the fault of local officials or rightists, and even stricter order would have to be imposed. And so we have a vicious circle of death and devastation.

Please read the entire review, which makes clear why Tombstone is such an important contribution to the body of works on the GLF, and contrasts it with Dikoetter’s Mao’s Great Famine. The latter puts more blame on Mao than does Tombstone, which, Johnson says, “lays the blame firmly on the top leaders — not just Mao but also supposed moderates like Liu and Zhou.”

So to answer my opening question about why I’d put up another post on the Great Leap Forward: Tombstone is the most important, most exhaustive work ever written about the tragedy. It opens a new window on what happened with research we’ve never had access to, bolstered by first-hand accounts by Chinese memoirists. Its availability in English is big news (I wish the Kindle version were a little less expensive but I’m buying it anyway).

The GLF is a topic I have endless curiosity about. Maybe it’s the pointlessness of the man-made calamity that makes me want to understand it better, and the fact that so many people you’d think would know better followed Mao blindly into the mouth of hell. Based on Johnson’s review, and other articles I’ve read over the past, there’s no doubt this is the most definitive, most groundbreaking exploration of Mao’s doomed utopian experiment. The English version is big news.

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The Great Leap Forward on film

Not sure how long this video has been around, but I’ve never seen anything like it before and want to recommend it to everyone. I’ve read about every aspect of the GLF but never saw so much of the story captured on film. Don’t watch it if you have high blood pressure.

“It is better to let half the people die so the other half can eat their fill.”

Mao Zedong, 1959. Seventy percent good, indeed.

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Dikköter’s Mao’s Great Famine vs. Yang’s Tombstone

I recently started reading Frank Dikköter’s book Mao’s Great Famine, The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 and am about halfway through. Reading it is not a pleasant experience. Nothing about the Great Leap Forward makes for pleasant storytelling. You can feel the author’s rage on every page, even while his style remains calm and restrained. It is clear he sees the GLF not only as a man-made calamity, which it was, but one for which Mao deserves nearly all the blame. It is a crime that Dikkoter believes ranks with the Holocaust, one that Mao supported with full awareness of its consequences, and even with malice.

The other famous book on the GLF, Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone (discussed in an earlier post here) takes a more measured look at the nightmare years, and is not so quick to accuse Mao of intentionally and maliciously wreaking suffering on his people. Or so at least we are told in this superb book review by Xujun Eberlein, one of my favorite bloggers and someone I had the pleasure to meet in Chongqing a few years ago. Everyone who reads this blog will want to see this side-by-side comparison. She clearly sides with Yang Jisheng.

“Understanding the complexity of human behavior in times of catastrophe is one of the aims of the book,” Dikötter states, and he does a good job fulfilling that goal in terms of ordinary people. But when it comes to the behavior of Mao and his colleagues, he has a tendency for simplification and caricature. The Mao under his pen is simply one of history’s most sadistic tyrants; consideration is not given to the complexity of his behavior. The reader gets the impression that Mao knew about the famine all along, but either deliberately let people starve, or was indifferent to their fate. Dikötter’s indignation toward Mao is understandable, but this representation is neither factual nor insightful.

In contrast to Dikötter, Yang Jisheng, despite his sorrow and resentment over the catastrophe, does not let personal sentiment get in the way of factual reporting and serious exploration. Aptly casting Mao as “China’s last emperor,” Yang nonetheless provides a more complete portrait.

Mao’s policies were the main cause of the famine, and nothing can excuse him from that responsibility. But the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information. Culminating in the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the utopian policies, enthusiastically shaped and promoted by the entire leadership, were intended to bring about China’s high-speed development. They instead resulted in the collapse of the nation’s economic pillar: agriculture. The central government’s inflated production targets and export quota led to unreasonably high procurements of grain from the peasants, while local governments under political pressure responded with inflated grain production statistics. The two types of inflation fed each other to form a vicious cycle that exhausted agricultural capacity, while the backyard steelmaking that took workers away from the land further worsened the grain shortages. After the famine started, it was prolonged because bad news was blocked from feeding back to top policy makers. Mao, thus, went through a long period of delusion and denial before, in late 1960, making a partial concession: “I myself made mistakes, too; I must correct.”

So perhaps Mao’s saving grace is that when he actually did recognize the tragedy of his policies in 1961 he took steps to reverse them. Either way, epiphany or not, Mao must assume the lion’s share of the blame, especially considering how he purged anyone who dared question his revolutionary plan to modernize China. And he didn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. Only a few years later he would seek to rehabilitate himself by launching a new campaign, one that equaled the GLF in terms of insanity, cult worship and suffering.

Like the Holocaust, the GLF is a subject of endless fascination for me, making me wonder how men can surrender their critical faculties and their humanity. And no, I am not saying the GLF equals the Holocaust.I’m not say Mao has blood on his hands the way Hitler does. But both featured certain key ingredients: blind obedience and blind faith, an ideologically twisted leader who assumed cult status, and an unfathomable lack of compassion for the suffering.

After reading this remarkable review I’m keen to read Tombstone, though the fact that it’s 900 pages in two volumes might be beyond my stamina. It is set to be published later this year. Luckily, Xujun has broken the books down to at least give us a taste of both. Read the review, and tell me how two brilliant researchers/writers could come to such different conclusions.

Update: Please note that Xujun’s excellent blog has moved to this address. You can read the sad story of how she lost her domain name here. Maddening.

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Mao’s divided legacy

I know, we’ve talked this subject to death, and everyone knows where I stand: I see Mao as having being nothing but bad for China, notwithstanding the few golden years of the pre-GLF 1950s when it looked like he was going to be a true reformer. I respect the rights of Chinese people to view Mao however they choose, and I understand why many of them see him as a hero, even if I disagree.

The NYT takes a look today at this question and notes why Chinese citizens on the “right” see Mao as a Machiavellian killer while those on the “left” see him as a liberator and the man who brought stability to China. It’s good to see that these topics are at least debatable, and to see there are a lot of Chinese “netizens” who aren’t toeing the party line. And this story includes an interesting twist.

…45 years ago, on May 16, 1966, this same man began the Cultural Revolution, an orgy of political violence that killed perhaps two million Chinese.

Mao’s preeminence in China is linked to his role in founding the People’s Republic in 1949. Yet his controversial political legacy, of which the Cultural Revolution is just one example, is growing more, not less, disputed, with time.

At stake is nothing less than long-stalled political reform, say some Chinese analysts and retired Communist Party officials.

“An honest, earnest, serious assessment of Mao based on facts” is “necessary,” Yawei Liu, director of the Carter Center’s China Program in Atlanta, said in an e-mail.

Mao’s legacy overshadows China to this day, so “without such a thorough verdict, it would be hard for China to launch meaningful political reform,” Mr. Liu said.

In China, the debate over Mao’s legacy is growing increasingly heated, conducted via Web sites, articles and books.

Here’s the “news”part of the article. Is the CCP really considering writing Mao out of the government’s policies and documents?

A recent essay by the liberal economist Mao Yushi, “Returning Mao Zedong to his Original Person,” has highlighted the controversy.

Mr. Mao, who is no relation to Mao Zedong, accused the former leader of hypocrisy and unusual cruelty.

The Cultural Revolution was merely a ploy to destroy his many critics after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward famine, which killed around 30 million people, Mr. Mao wrote.

Evidence of cruelty is found, for example, in Mao’s indifference to the fate of friends he drove to suicide, wrote the economist, and that of President Liu Shaoqi, whom Mao first attacked, then pretended to save, only to have Mr. Liu expelled from the party on his 70th birthday, before dying, untended, in jail in 1969.

A document circulating online purporting to detail a proposal by top Communist Party officials to remove Mao Zedong Thought from party work, documents and policies, has also sharpened debate.

The supposed Politburo document, No. 179, dated Dec. 28, 2010, is said to have been proposed by Xi Jinping, the man expected to become China’s next president, and Wu Bangguo, the head of the National People’s Congress.

No one knows if it’s real or fake (I presume it’s fake), but it has ignited the issue again. And I see that as a good thing. I think the more people look hard at all that Mao actually did they’ll have no choice but to see he was far from 70 percent good. And I have no illusions; people won’t let go of their opinions easily, and Mao’s legacy is one of those burning issues that inspire extreme opinions (and a lot of irrationality). At least now more people will be discussing it.

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