Trapped By Their Own Lies

How Mao Zedong plunged China into famine

By Todd Crowell (Asiaweek Magazine 2001)

If there is one lesson to be learned from the many horror stories of the 20th century, it is this: famines are mainly made by man, not by nature. Stalin's crash program to collectivize agricultural production caused the great famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s. Wars brought starvation to Bengal in the 1940s and to Ethiopia in the 1980s. North Korea's leaders blame their country's food shortages on floods that occurred last summer in order to hide the inadequacies of the country's communal farming system.

In 1960, millions of people died in the worst famine in China's history, possibly the worst in human history. Yet hardly anyone outside the country knew what was happening. Even within the vast country few people grasped the extent of the tragedy. Officially, there could be no famine because, two years before, Mao Zedong had launched the Great Leap Forward, which was to carry China into the new Marxist millennium where hunger was banished and everyone received according to his needs.

How ironically cruel that the consequence was starvation on a massive scale. Jasper Becker, the South China Morning Post bureau chief in Beijing, argues in his admirable history, Hungry Ghosts (John Murray, London, 544 pages, $24), that the famine was caused by Mao's desire to beat Stalin at his own collective game. Mao wanted to turn China's hundreds of thousands of small plots into giant "agro-cities," where families ate in large mess halls rather than in their own homes.

The rush to build communes meant that the peasants had little incentive to care for fields or tend animals, which had become merely state-owned "means of production." They were also distracted from farming by forced labor on grandiose irrigation projects, or by the push to turn pots and even farm implements into steel in makeshift furnaces. Also contributing to the shortages were disastrous experiments in producing miracle crops.

Nobody was strong enough to challenge Mao. Even Peng Dehuai, hero of the Korean War, was dismissed and later imprisoned after he tried publicly to bring the suffering in the countryside to Mao's attention. No other leader -- neither Zhou Enlai nor Deng Xiaoping -- stepped forward to oppose the chairman. Low-level cadres falsified grain estimates, and higher-level officials lied to curry favor in Beijing. The author recounts how when former president Liu Shaoqi visited one county, the local authorities plastered mud on trees to cover the places where peasants had eaten the bark.

Not every Chinese historian is willing to go as far as Becker in ascribing the famine entirely to Mao's misguided policies. Even ex-president Liu once said that the famine was probably 70% man-made and 30% the result of natural causes. Yet it seems incontestable that there would not have been disaster on such a scale had it not been for Mao's arrogance, wishful thinking and disregard for science.

The author has drawn on a wide range of sources to unravel the truth of what he calls "China's Secret Famine." They include interviews with survivors, translations of state documents and histories of the famine thinly disguised as memoirs or novels, such as Zhang Xiangliang's Grass Soup. Collectively they add up to a damning indictment of Maoist policies.

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