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.


Whale watching on the Pacific

Well, I said the blog was closed but I can’t resist putting up these images, which you need to click to enlarge.

These are humpback whales, as seen from a boat several miles off the coast of Mazatlan. At one point, as they burst skyward as if out of nowhere, they seemed so close we could touch them. They are fiendishly difficult to photograph as they appear so suddenly and then disappear even faster into the deep.

After they’ve leapt up, the two whales plunge back downwards in perfect synchronicity, their huge tails hitting the water like spatulas. (Again, click to enlarge.)

A wonderful trip so far.


Blog closed for a week

Tomorrow I’ll be at a beach resort in Mazatlan, Mexico, and the last thing I want to do is bring Tibet and Xi Jinping and Chinese politics with me. No new posts for at least eight or nine days. You can use this as an open thread if you so choose. (I’ll ask my hall monitors to watch out for thread hijackers.) Thanks, and enjoy the week ahead.


China’s Word of the Year: Reform

There have been a dizzying array of articles over the past two weeks about reform in China — all kinds of reform, such as opening up about air pollution, to what extent Xi Jinping will serve as a “reformer,” calls by reformers for China to live up to its constitution, Southern Weekend calling for reform of censorship and forced propaganda. It’s been hard to absorb it all, and even harder to evaluate what all this noise means. And really, there’s only one answer to all these questions and claims: It’s too soon to tell. And, No one knows.

I’ll never forget the mood in China after Hu Jintao took office in 2003. There was something akin to euphoria among some English-language China blogs (now all gone). Hu had just lifted the curtain on the government’s mismanagement of SARS and all but admitted its malfeasance in deceiving its people about it. Heads rolled. Surely this was proof that China now had a reformer in charge. Wen, too, immediately established himself as the good leader, the friend to the little man who would initiate reforms to ease the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Wen’s image as a reformer never really died, whether he was one or not. Hu’s image as a reformer, on the other hand, was painfully short lived, and soon we were back to the usual government propaganda, censorship and repression. Censorship only got worse. At the time, I argued that reform under Hu would be impossible simply because it would threaten the one-party state, and reform didn’t seem to be the people’s No. 1 priority.

Things seem very different at the moment, with calls for reform coming from so many different directions. So with Xi Jinping I’m not placing any bets. Maybe the whole point of this post is simply to say I don’t know. The only thing I can say is that it will be fascinating to watch. It would be a cliche to say China is now at an inflection point, but I believe it to be true. My guess, however, is that we will see change occur only at glacier speed as the party deals with how to enact reform while holding onto power with an iron fist.

Possibly the most pessimistic piece I wrote on the subject can be found here. It’s written by a China watcher I have huge respect for.

Future historians wondering exactly when the PRC entered its pre-revolutionary phase may focus on a series of speeches that General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered behind closed doors to the Communist Party elite after being promoted to the top slot in the leadership. It was rumored early on that his tone was not encouraging to anyone hoping for an incremental transition to the rule of law with wider scope for civil society and greater accountability in government. Now Gao Yu has provided a few quotes from one of these speeches in an essay which Yaxue Cao has translated. In these fragments we glimpse a ruling class that not only is prepared to defend its privileges with force but anticipates the need to do so, and views proposals for reform as threats to its grip on power.

I urge you to visit the site and see the quotes from these speeches. They won’t encourage you to believe this is a government that will lean toward compromise.

At the moment, things look so positive for reform that reformers are speaking out openly about the need for China to recognize and enforce its constitution, a document that has proved infinitely irrelevant ever since it was enacted.

Now, in a drive to persuade the Communist Party’s new leaders to liberalize the authoritarian political system, prominent Chinese intellectuals and publications are urging the party simply to enforce the principles of their own Constitution.

The strategy reflects an emerging consensus among advocates for political reform that taking a moderate stand in support of the Constitution is the best way to persuade Xi Jinping, the party’s new general secretary, and other leaders, to open up China’s party-controlled system. Some of Mr. Xi’s recent speeches, including one in which he emphasized the need to enforce the Constitution, have ignited hope among those pushing for change.

A wide range of notable voices, among them ones in the party, have joined the effort. Several influential journals and newspapers have published editorials in the last two months calling for Chinese leaders to govern in accordance with the Constitution. Most notable among those is Study Times, a publication of the Central Party School, where Mr. Xi served as president until this year. That weekly newspaper ran a signed editorial on Jan. 21 that recommends that the party establish a committee under the national legislature that would ensure that no laws are passed that violate the Constitution.

One very astute article says we’re all asking the wrong question. It shouldn’t be whether Xi will be a reformer, or what kind of reforms he’ll initiate and when.

Better questions are needed in order to produce more useful analyses and forecasts of China’s political development. Such analyses should start by recognizing two facts: First, the new leadership’s various initiatives and pronouncements after taking office indicate that it fully accepts the need for change. Second to quote the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, the leadership is clearly aiming at “some change but not total change, gradual change but not convulsive change.” In short, the leadership wants controlled reform, not revolution or regime change.

Huntington has argued that implementing reform is far more difficult than staging revolution. The methods, timing, sequencing and pace of changes all need to be carefully managed. If not handled well, reform will lead not to stability but to greater instability and may serve as a catalyst of revolution. China’s experience with reform and revolution through history, especially its modern history, certainly lends support to this argument.

Finally, for an exhaustive and incredibly well-researched look at China’s leaders’ challenges maintaining stability in the face of social pressures, this article is a truly must read. Just a sample, from an essay by the Director of the Social Issues Research Center at the China Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute. Reform seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment.

The key to stability preservation lies in resolving the standoff between government attempts at stability preservation and popular efforts at rights protection. Essentially, rights protection is not in conflict with stability preservation. Quite the contrary, rights protection is the basis of stability preservation, as the process of rights protection is also one of stability preservation. The recognition and protection of people’s basic rights form the sole foundation upon which sound and lasting stability preservation can be achieved. Indiscriminate violation of these rights in the name of stability preservation will yield a stability that is fragile and ephemeral. The construction of a fair and just system for social distribution is the crux of stability preservation in contemporary China, but this requires first addressing the issues of interest imbalance and interest articulation. The frequent instances of rights protection and emerging rights discourse in today’s China have generated a gradual awakening of a rights consciousness among the Chinese public. This presents a golden opportunity to institutionalise a mechanism for rights protection, to open channels for the articulation of citizens’ interests, and to level the playing field for laborers and disadvantaged groups in the areas of interest aggregation and policy-making. If seized, this opportunity would enable the rapid realisation of true harmony and stability. The rationale is simple; effective stability preservation is dependent upon rights protection, which in turn requires a mature and institutionalised claims-making mechanism.

I know, that’s a lot of links and a lot of quotes. My point being that there is rather suddenly a tidal wave of discussion about reform and how it might work. I feel more optimistic than I did when Hu took office because this time the demand for reform appears to be far more extensive, coming from all segments of society. Even if a Pew Research Poll proves that most Chinese are charmed by what they see as the infallible leadership of their leaders, a lot of them seem to believe it’s time their leaders initiate broad-based and meaningful reform.


Tibetans, second-class citizens?

Yes, I know all about the schools, the hospitals, the highways and the end of serfdom. I know about improvements in the quality of life and all the economic benefits. I know how Chinese people see Tibet and I know that there is some justification for it. But I also know that many, many Tibetans do not see the CCP’s involvement in Tibet to be liberating. Many rage against the interference of the Han Chinese even while they profit from it. (This phenomenon is described in one of the best chapters of the new book Chinese Characters.) Some even go so far as to self-immolate.

But the debate as to how much the Tibetans have benefited thanks to the largesse and munificence of the CCP is largely irrelevant to the discussion of how so many Tibetans are treated as second-class citizens. And the fact that they are is simply undebatable. It is a matter of fact.

I urge you all to read this excellent interview of a leading Tibetan scholar by my former blog buddy Matt Schiavenza. Tibetans are being denied passports because the Party fears they’ll travel to India to hear the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Han Chinese, of course, face no such restrictions. Tibetans are the Untouchables. Matt asks the scholar, Robert Barnett, about other restrictions:

There have been many. These include the Chinese government putting Communist Party cadres in every monastery, requiring every monastery to display pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong, putting troops on every corner of the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, limiting foreign visitors to guided groups, having to give their names before photocopying, not being allowed to enter Lhasa without a police guarantee if they’re from another Tibetan area, and many more.

The strategy of pouring money into Tibet has failed to bring the Tibetan people to that stage of enlightenment wherein they view the Communist Party as liberators. It will never happen so long as the CCP tries to force its own culture down the Tibetans’ throats. Things have only deteriorated since the riots of the Spring of 2008, and no matter how thrilled the CCP propagandists say the Tibetans are with their liberation (and you gotta check that link), the truth is far darker. The Party can trumpet its generosity and label all protest as the work of the jackal the DL, but the fact remains that many Tibetans do not believe they have been liberated, and instead see the Han as colonizers. Is it that hard to wonder why?

Read the whole piece