‘Plant less, produce more, harvest less’

Perry Link

  • Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine by Jasper Becker
    Murray, 352 pp, £19.99, June 1996, ISBN 0 7195 5433 0

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?

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