Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine 
by Jasper Becker.
Murray, 352 pp., £19.99, June 1996, 0 7195 5433 0
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In the two thousand years of Chinese history before the 20th century, there were more than eighteen hundred famines. The locations of these famines and their causes – drought, flood, war, pestilence – are noted in historical records only tersely, but even these simple comments are enough to show that the great famine of 1959-61 was unprecedented in several ways. Not only did it claim more lives (about thirty million, give or take ten million) than any other; it was also the first Chinese famine to have no particular location. It happened everywhere, from lowlands beneath Yellow River dykes to the high plateau of Tibet. Natural boundaries did not contain it because natural phenomena were not its cause. The famine occurred because a Mao Zedong brainstorm turned into a government policy; its limits were the administrative boundaries of the Chinese state. As Jasper Becker writes: ‘Mao’s famine ... was entirely man-made. China was at peace. No blight destroyed the harvest. There were no unusual floods or droughts. The [urban] granaries were full and other countries were ready to ship in grain. And the evidence shows that Mao and the Chinese bureaucracy were in full control of the machinery of government.’ In earlier centuries, poor transportation had prevented the timely shipment of grain into famine areas. But in 1959 China’s railway system was good enough to move grain. Shipping was not the problem.

Nor was ‘Malthusian’ pressure. It is true that China has the world’s largest population, and true, too, that if China continues to modernise at current rates – and shifts, as other modernising populations have, from a diet of grain to one richer in meat – then by the middle of the 21st century it will have to import enormous amounts of grain and will almost certainly drive up food prices worldwide. This will be bad news for the world’s poor, in China and elsewhere. But China in the late Fifties was not yet pressing this kind of limit. For most of the decade its grain production was growing faster than its population, and in 1958 agriculture was just embarking on a major advance in productivity through the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

Mao Zedong’s goals in the early Fifties were to make China the leading nation in the world and, personally, to become the greatest leader in the world. He had never felt comfortable in the role of apprentice to the Soviet leaders. He chafed under Stalin’s commands and from the moment Khrushchev took power there was a spirit of rivalry between the two men. Mao was jealous of sputnik. When he ordered Chinese peasants to form large People’s Communes in 1958, leaping ‘straight to Communism’ by dismantling families, abolishing money and melting household utensils in order to produce ‘backyard steel’, he called the whole thing ‘launching a satellite’. He wanted China to outdo the Soviet Union and to ‘pass England and catch up with America’ within 15 years.

The leaders of peasant rebellions in China’s past were often, like Mao, viewed as semi-divine figures who could create visions of heavenly rule on earth and, moreover, supply magical methods for bringing them about. Mao, who claimed to be using esoteric ‘scientific Marxism’, had to pay lip service to science, but did not understand it. He assumed that, as in political matters, there could be different sciences, a ‘bourgeois science’ and a ‘proletarian science’, and that the way to defeat bourgeois science was to knock it down. The victorious proletarian science could then be, semi-magically, whatever a great leader willed it to be. ‘Science is simply acting daringly,’ declared Kang Sheng, one of Mao’s lieutenants, in 1958. Even basic mathematics could be revised. The People’s Daily praised students of arithmetic who dared to move around decimal points as they liked. Why not?

The famine was caused when this spirit was applied to agriculture. Mao had heard about the ‘revolutionary’ science developed in the USSR by Trofim Lysenko and Vasily Williams (the latter originally an American), and in 1958 used their theories to draw up eight rules for Chinese farming. One said that seedlings should be planted much closer together than before. The theory that they would die if crowded was based on the competitive assumptions of bourgeois science; plants of the same ‘background’ would fraternally share light and food. Another rule called for ‘deep ploughing’, which was understood to mean two, four, or even ten feet down, even if dynamite had to be used to blast into frozen earth. A rule about ‘increased fertilisation’ led to the mixing of ordinary trash with manure or mud for application to fields. Vasily Williams’s theory of crop rotation led to the most confusing of Mao’s maxims: ‘Plant less, produce more, harvest less.’ The oddest results, however, came from the guideline to ‘produce new breeds and seeds’. Reports arrived from across China about the ‘successful’ crossing of such things as pumpkins and papaya, sunflower and artichoke, cotton and tomato (result: red cotton), and even cows and pigs (shorter snouts and sturdier legs than ordinary pigs).

It is lucky, as Becker observes, that Chinese peasants knew better than to follow Mao’s guidelines entirely, or China might have had no food at all for a while. But the need to confirm the ‘correctness’ of the Great Leader’s words required peasants and local officials to deceive higher authorities about their results. While crop yields were declining, reports of ten-fold and 20-fold increases went from level to level up the bureaucracy. (Becker inadvertently magnifies the exaggeration by making the Chinese mu 0.04 acres instead of 0.16, but this hardly matters.) When government tithes were taken on the basis of the inflated figures, little or no grain was left in the villages; but Mao, at the top, was convinced there was a surplus. He was also unaware that when he admired electric pumps at one commune after another they were in fact the same pumps, feverishly forwarded along his route while he slept. He became worried about overproduction. The People’s Daily introduced a debate about how to cope with the big surplus.

China’s major cities were protected from the famine because the grain that did exist was shipped to them. Animals in the Shanghai zoo were fed as usual, and for many months urban residents did not even know a famine existed. When intellectuals were banished to the countryside for political crimes, they were often shocked, as the dissident Liu Binyan was, to discover ‘two kinds of truth’ – one that descended from the bureaucracy (Liu’s village was instructed to build a zoo and a fountain) and another that grew from the hard realities of peasant life (the same village could barely feed itself, and for drinking water caught rain).

By 1960, after word of the famine had spread, few people were fooled by the persisting reports of huge crops. From the memoirs of Mao’s doctor Li Zhisui, published last year, we know that Mao himself realised in 1960 that there was a famine. But the pretence of bumper crops, together with other fanciful claims about a resoundingly successful Great Leap, continued, like any set of emperor’s new clothes, to be honoured in public. Public talk became little more than a language game. People played the game from an understandable fear of punishment.

Mao was not the first Chinese tyrant to oblige others to lie to him. He was using an established method: make people who disagree state publicly that they agree, and one’s power is increased. The effect is not diminished when both sides know the lie to be a lie. On the contrary it is increased for that very reason; it makes clear to both sides that it is purely the power of the despot – not any complications having to do with the truth or falsity of anything – that determines what the underling says. In an anecdote from 207 BC, a tyrannical minister leads a deer before a young emperor and announces that the animal is a horse. The emperor protests that this must be an error; a deer is obviously a deer. Then the minister plays his trump card. He asks all of the other courtiers present if any of them is ready to contradict his stated opinion that this animal is a horse. None does. Now everyone, including the young emperor, knows who is boss. Similarly, in 1959 a general named Peng Dehuai dared to confront Mao with the plain truth that his Great Leap was causing a famine; Becker reports that shortly thereafter Mao convened a meeting of military leaders and asked them ‘one by one to stand up and say whom they supported, Mao or Peng’. The leaders backed Mao, Peng was purged, and Mao was stronger than before.

The figure of thirty million deaths from the famine is the best estimate of Western demographers, who judged that the number had to be that large when the contours of Chinese population statistics emerged two decades later. Dissident former officials, basing their conclusions on provincial Party documents, have claimed that between 43 and 46 million people lost their lives during the famine, although these figures represent total deaths, not the ‘excess deaths’ (those who died minus those who would have died anyway) of the Western estimates. The Deng Xiaoping regime today acknowledges twenty million deaths. By any of these counts, the Great Leap famine was the biggest ever, although others, such as the Irish potato famine of 1845, brought about the death of a larger percentage of national population. If one tried to calculate direct and indirect deaths from all aspects of the folly of the Leap an even larger toll would result. As late as 1975, for example, a dam in Henan that had been hastily built during the Leap collapsed and caused a flood that killed 240,000 people.

Becker does a good job of putting a human face on the famine. Of a Mrs Liu, a survivor whom he interviewed, he writes:

She remembered, too, the unnatural silence. The village oxen had died, the dogs had been eaten and the chickens and ducks had long ago been confiscated by the Communist Party in lieu of grain taxes. There were no birds left in the trees, and the trees themselves had been stripped of their leaves and bark. At night there was no longer even the scratching of rats and mice, for they too had been eaten or had starved to death. Lucky villagers would sometimes find their corpses curled up in a hole but it was better still to find an old burrow from another season which might contain a winter store of grain or berries. Most of all she missed the cries of young babies, for no one had been able to give birth for some time. The youngest children had all perished, the girls first. Mrs Liu had lost a daughter. The milk in her breasts had dried up and she had been forced to watch her baby die. Her aunt, her mother and two brothers had also died.

Young girls died first because their own fathers made conscious decisions about which family members were most expendable. The foraging for food turned in every conceivable direction. People mixed weeds and earth to make ‘Guanyin [Buddha] soil’, and sometimes died of the resulting constipation; they combed their own stools for worms or undigested grains; they cut flesh at night from human corpses. Becker’s anecdotes about cannibalism, especially as it affected families, go beyond what I can bear to repeat here. Moral outrage sometimes causes Chinese people to embroider their stories, and we can only hope that this explains some of Becker’s material. I feel sure Becker himself has not exaggerated; he has only written down things that anyone who goes to the Chinese countryside, and listens patiently, can hear.

Social life during the famine was distorted in ways that could hardly be imagined if the facts were not there. Some people died with wads of money in their belts; even cash was useless. Beggars gathered at the gates of the dreaded labour camps; even the merciless grind inside was sometimes better than life outside. When someone died, people were not allowed to say ‘another person has died’; they could say only that ‘so-and-so has died,’ because the use of the word ‘another’ in this context was taboo. Officially there was no famine, no epidemic. Each death was independent, and anyway not caused by starvation; moreover, whatever food shortages might exist were caused by bad weather and the Russians, who were demanding early repayment of state loans. People who dissented from this version of events, or who failed to produce their quota of grain for the Government, or who were caught ‘stealing’ grain in a desperate effort to survive, were labelled ‘right opportunists’. This added a second major threat – persecution – to the basic one of hunger. Becker records the variety of ways in which local officials attacked right opportunists: they were beaten, kicked, dragged behind trucks, hanged, nailed to walls. Iron wires were threaded through ears; sometimes ears were just hacked off. Extreme cruelty is reflected in the fanciful names for certain punishments: burying a person with only the head exposed, then smashing the skull to expose the brains, was called ‘opening the flower’.

People were too weak and oppressed to revolt – except in Tibet, where, as Becker shows, the 1959 rising was partly a response to Great Leap policies Flight from one place to another inside China had little point, and escape from China was extremely difficult. When border controls were relaxed briefly in 1962, a quarter of a million people, mostly Cantonese, rushed to Hong Kong, and tens of thousands of Kazakhs joined relatives in Kazakhstan.

In the early Sixties, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and others tried to soften the effects of the famine by installing provincial leaders who would dismantle the communes and reverse Leap policies. This was disobedience to Mao, and Mao retaliated. Becker concludes that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 was ‘nothing more than a purge of those who had been responsible for ending the famine’. It is going a bit too far to call the Cultural Revolution ‘nothing more’ than a purge; among other things, it was also an outpouring of pent-up popular resentment against a system and a stratum of officials that had brought great misery to China. But Becker’s claim of a strong causal connection between the Leap and the Cultural Revolution is correct and important because it puts the famine where it should be – at the very centre of the Maoist cataclysm in China. The Leap was not only Mao’s largest disaster but also the cause of much trouble that followed. Deng-era propaganda denies this view. It refers to the Cultural Revolution as ‘ten years of catastrophe’ (1966-76) and suggests that ‘the 17 years’ (1949-66) were halcyon days by comparison. These 17 years were indeed good ones for Deng Xiaoping, but not, as Becker so powerfully shows, for China’s peasants, whose voices have not been adequately heard.

In an Afterword, Becker deplores Mao’s – and China’s – ‘total madness’, in which ‘all rational behaviour’ was ‘abandoned’. It is easy to empathise with this hyperbole, but more important to see how rationality was still at work inside that grotesque world. Mao was messianic; he thought he possessed the truth and that it would bring Utopia on earth, and he had theories about how this would happen. He was also tyrannical and narrow-minded, and these theories were quite wrong. But we make a dangerous mistake if we think of him simply as irrational; we will not recognise the rise of the next Mao if we look for ‘total madness’ as the tell-tale sign.

Even the most extreme features of Maoism could be said to be grounded in rationality. Normally, for example, Mao’s public news media reported only good news, even if this required falsification; unpleasant truths were restricted to ‘internal reports’ for Party personnel. But in the weather reports for 1959-61, this pattern was (quite rationally) reversed: the lie that bad weather had caused the famine required the lie that the weather had, in fact, been bad. Hence public weather reports were falsified to show floods and droughts, while the truth about the good weather was kept in secret meteorological records.

Some of the anecdotes in Becker’s book are testament to the almost unimaginable resilience of the human mind. Parents who had to make the terrible decision to abandon their small children, on the one last hope that maybe someone else could feed them, had to decide where to deposit them. In North-West China, they dug roadside holes that were custom-tailored in depth: deep enough that the child could not climb out, but shallow enough that a small head would still be visible to passers-by. In Hunan, beggars learned that if they spat on the food of people eating in canteens, they might suffer abuse but, more importantly, they might get the food. Such events suggest many epithets, but not ‘irrational’.

The subtitle of Becker’s unforgettable book is ‘China’s secret famine’. Although the ‘secret’ was exposed on the rumour mill inside China within a year or two, in official language it is enforced even now. Outside China it held for about twenty years, until the late Seventies. Becker shows how a broad spectrum of Western observers, from professional economists to giddy Maoists, were deceived by Chinese government statements that there was no starvation and that any shortage was the fault of weather. Some Western accounts even had Mao as the preventer of famine rather than its instigator.

Becker makes an important argument that secrecy about famines is more than morally dubious in its own right, and more than practically disastrous because it erases the possibility of foreign aid; in the particular case of famines that are caused by misguided utopianism, secrecy means that one Great Leader cannot learn from another’s mistakes. Becker shows how Stalin’s great 1933 famine in the Ukraine came about in much the same way as Mao’s famine 25 years later: quick collectivisation, destruction of household utensils, attacks on rich peasants, establishment of work points and internal passports, state seizure of grain, political purges of gainsayers, and more. But because of Stalin’s cover-up, Mao and other Chinese leaders in the Fifties did not know the true results of that disastrous experiment. In turn, Pol Pot, who imitated Mao in Cambodia during the late Seventies, appears not to have known what really happened during Mao’s Great Leap. Today the world wonders how bad a famine in North Korea actually is. After Becker’s book, it is hard to take much comfort when an official of the United Nations’ World Food Programme returns from a state-guided tour of North Korea to report ‘no famine’, and yet quotes a man who says his parents have recently died, but he is not afraid because ‘Kim II Sung and Kim Jong II’, the former and current dictators, ‘will live for ever and will always take care of me’.

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