When I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1968 to 1970, I frequently encountered radical leftists who regarded Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-tung as he was known in those days) as a hero, a great leader with a great intellect. They did not know and would not have believed that a decade earlier Mao's Great Leap Forward had caused the starvation of millions of Chinese peasants. The exact number will never be known, but estimates range from 17 million to more than 50 million.
Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
by Yang Jisheng is a comprehensive examination of this disaster. The author was in high school when he received word that his father was dying of starvation back in his village. He rushed home but found that his father was too far gone to be helped. It would be years before the author came to understand that his father was one of millions of people who died in an unnecessary man-made disaster. His doubts about the infallibility of the Communist leadership began to form during the Cultural Revolution when many high-ranking officials were accused of corruption. Those doubts matured into skepticism when Yang became a reporter and learned how news was manipulated to indoctrinate the masses. Eventually he decided he needed to uncover the truth. His quest for truth led to this book.
The English version of Tombstone is about half as long as the original Chinese version, published in Hong Kong in 2008 and not available in Mainland China, and it also rearranges the material. Most of the detailed, province-by-province accounts of the famine have been eliminated. Remaining are accounts from a few provinces that were especially hard hit and the chapters that analyze the reasons for this disaster. The book would not have been possible if there were not high-level party officials who also believed that the truth needed to be recorded and preserved.
Unlike Chinese famines in the past, this famine was not caused by flooding, drought, or any other natural calamity. It was caused by policies that Mao Zedong set and kept in place. Mao did not intend to starve millions of people. His goal was to stay in power as the new emperor of China and to use his power to establish the utopia that is the goal of faithful Marxists. His utopian beliefs would not have had disastrous consequences if the triumph of the Chinese Communists in 1949 had not ushered in a totalitarian government.
China has a long tradition of authoritarian government and the communists adopted that authoritarianism despite their promises that they would be democratic. Society was organized as a pyramid, with each level a dictator to those below and a slave to those above. The addition of the secular religion of Marxism allowed the Chinese Communists to take the authoritarian system of the emperors to an extreme. Marxism, despite its rhetoric of egalitarianism, is an elitist belief system that confers absolute power on a privileged few. The faithful believe themselves justified in depriving everyone else of freedom and forcing them to blindly follow orders from above because these measures enable the arrival of heaven on earth.
Yang notes that the communist party relied on "'two barrels:' the gun barrel and the pen barrel; seizing and ruling its domaine relied on both." (p 492) The party controlled thought because it controlled all sources of information and also because it punished any deviation from approved thought with severe consequences. When the Communist Party gained control of China, it executed over 700,000 people (p 476) and executions continued after its power was consolidated as a means of control. Although this system of control, reaching down to shape the thoughts of peasants, was impressive, it had two related shortcomings.
Each level of the hierarchy needed to appease the level above it. Failure to meet goals could bring charges of sabotage or right-wing deviation, so there was an incentive to exaggerate what was possible and what had been accomplished. Because telling the truth about production was dangerous, the entire system ended up being based on lies and deceit. Those at the top did not have a clear idea of what was happening at the bottom.
The lack of honesty contributed to a second problem, the lack of corrective mechanisms. One of the advantages of free markets is that they provide powerful correction to those who make products that people do not want. A democracy also has corrective forces, though they are weaker. The citizens can and often do vote incompetent and corrupt officials from office. However, "[i]n trying to control the ears and eyes of ordinary people, the supreme ruler ends up blocking his own ears and eyes" (p 496) and "[i]n a monarchal political system, the supreme ruler hears only voices that conform to his own will." (p 497)
In the Great Leap Forward Mao intended to squeeze peasants to support industrialization. The government based extraction on reported harvests, but because the reports were exaggerated to curry favor with those above, the level of extraction was so high that deaths from starvation began in 1958. The author argues that there was a chance to correct the mistake at the Lushan Conference in July and August of 1959. It was missed when Mao used the conference to attack those who voiced concern over the way that the Great Leap Forward was proceeding, effectively prohibiting true reporting of the conditions in the countryside. As a result, millions more starved from 1959 to 1962.
Mao was blinded not only by bad information but also by ideology. In socialist and Marxist thought private property establishes and perpetuates inequality. Unacknowledged is the role property rights have in overcoming the problem of common ownership of scarce resources. Private property is a mechanism that makes people recognize costs of their actions. Mao enthusiastically supported the suppression of household food preparation in favor of communal kitchens because he thought there would be economies of scale and that large-scale food production would release people to do other things. He never anticipated that people given free food would overconsume, causing many kitchens to run out of food and to shut down in the winter, leaving people hungry. When households prepare their own food they consider that a consequence of eating now may mean less later. With a communal food supply, what one person consumes now has minimal effect on what that person will have later.
Similarly, when cultivating their own land, peasants have a strong incentive to make smart decisions because mistakes often have dire consequences. When decisions about what and how to produce were made high in the hierarchy, the consequences of mistakes were not borne by decision makers but by the peasants. The problem of common ownership is that people are not accountable for the consequences of their actions and as a result there is no barrier to actions that are socially destructive. Mao's Marxist ideology never let him understand why trying to abolish private property in favor of communal ownership led to repeated failures. Fortunately, reality overcame ideology for some in the leadership so that reform was possible after Mao's death.
Yang estimates that at least 36 million people starved to death from 1958 to 1962. In addition, he estimates that the shortfall in births was about 40 million; lack of food reduced births because a large number of women stopped ovulating. However, when the policies of the Great Leap Forward were relaxed after 1962 and food availability rose, births soared and made up for that shortfall.
Eventually knowledge of the scale of this disaster did reach the top. Several high officials were "charged in 1961 with directing each province to compile data on food supply and demographics. The data indicated a population loss of tens of millions. This information was reported to only two people: Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. After reading the report, the premier contacted Zhou Boping and told him to destroy it immediately and make sure that no one else saw it." (p 406)
The author named the book Tombstone for four reasons. He wanted it to be a memorial for his father who died in the famine, for the 36 million others who died, and for himself. He also wanted it to mark the grave of the system that brought about this great tragedy.
Tombstone is an important documentation of one of the great calamities of 20th century socialism. It gives details and names names. However, there are so many names in the book that the reader can not make sense of them all. The book describes an event so horrific and large that it is beyond human comprehension. Books that put the event into story form, focusing on how it affected a small group of people, will have a larger audience and a greater impact. There is truth to the quote, often attributed to Stalin, that "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."
Here is the review of the book in the Wall Street Journal and here is one from the New York Review of Books.
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