Hungry Ghosts By Jasper Becker

Book Review by John Derbyshire

(The Weekly Standard, March 10th 1997)

The greatest human calamity of our century - greater than the Holocaust, greater than World War Two itself - was the famine that swept China in the "three bad years" 1959-61. At least thirty million died.

For a long time the Chinese authorities and their shills in the West denied that there had been a famine at all. As evidence of the catastrophe began to accumulate they fell back to grudging admissions of "severe shortages" caused by "natural disasters" and "adverse climatic conditions".

Beginning in the early 1980s, researchers in the West (and a few brave Chinese) began probing into Chinese population statistics. The results of those inquiries are now in, the conclusions incontrovertible. There were no natural disasters. The climate in those years was mild. The famine was caused by the policies of the Chinese Communist government, under the inspiration of Mao Tse-tung. The facts have now been set out for a general readership by the British sinologist Jasper Becker (Hungry Ghosts, Free Press, 1997.)

The physical details of the famine -- even just the bare statistics -- make harrowing reading. Children seem to have suffered especially, not only in the famine itself but in later years, dying from the after-effects of severe malnutrition. In 1957 half of all Chinese who died were under 18; in 1963 half were under 10. These were not the most unfortunate. In the extremity of mass starvation, when rats and insects had long gone and the very bark from the trees had been consumed, peasants resorted to the ghastly custom of yi zi er shi -- swap children, then eat. Since no-one could bear to eat his own children, you exchanged yours with a neighbor. Then you ate his, he ate yours.

The immediate cause of the famine was the policy of stripping peasants of their property and herding them into communes. Mao, by this time sunk deep in megalomania, "knew" that this was the way to agricultural success. His subordinates flattered him with reports -- entirely fictitious -- of bumper harvests. Local officials, fearful of being denounced as "rightists", vied with each other to supply Beijing with dazzling -- but equally fictitious -- statistics for grain production. Reasonably enough, Beijing asked for its portion, to feed the cities and export to "fraternal socialist" countries (grain exports continued throughout the famine). Since that portion was often larger than the entire crop, everything was taken and the peasants starved. When even the state portion could not be found, peasants were accused of concealing grain, and thousands were killed, often after grisly tortures, in an effort to make them reveal their hiding places.

One casualty of Mr Becker's book is the notion, so fondly embraced by Western leftists, that Mao's was a "peasant revolution", different in kind from Lenin's. In fact the pattern of the disaster -- communization, forced requisition, mass starvation -- synchronizes eerily with that of Stalin's famine in the Ukraine thirty years earlier. Mao's affection for the peasants was entirely theoretical. Like practically all the Chinese Communist leaders, Mao was a middle-class radical. There is no evidence he ever did so much as an hour of field work. (Similarly, Lenin never set foot inside a factory.) When the behaviour of the peasants -- in particular, their devotion to private property -- failed to agree with Mao's theories, he turned against them with terrible ferocity.

The only senior Communist to protest Mao's policies was Marshal Peng Dehuai, who was also the only senior leader with a genuinely poor-peasant background. Peng was swiftly purged. Later he was jailed and tortured to death. With opposition thus silenced, the disastrous policies might have continued indefinitely. The army, however, was getting restless. Most soldiers came from the countryside. When they began to get news that their families had starved to death there were discipline problems. The leadership forced Mao to retreat. He never forgave this humiliation, and five years later launched the Cultural Revolution as an act of revenge. Leaders like Liu Shaoqi, who had ended the famine, were murdered. Those who had been cruellest in persecuting the peasants were promoted, or honorably retired.

The thirty million are gone now, their bones lost in the dry yellow soil of China, but there are lessons we can learn from this appalling tragedy. Item: never allow middle-class leftists to control anything bigger than a lemonade stand. (See "Soviet Union", "Health Care Task Force", etc., etc.) Item: when evaluating news leaking out of a closed society, refugee accounts are the most reliable, reports by official visitors generally worthless, government pronouncements sheer fantasy.

Perhaps the most depressing lesson, for those of us who set ourselves up as knowledgable about China, is that nobody ever understands the true current state of affairs in that vast, autistic world-in-a-world. Thirty million dead - and nobody knew! Now we have a new generation of China gulls, reporting back breathlessly to us about China's "opening" and "commercialization". Sharp young men in Armani suits stride the boulevards of Shanghai talking into cellular phones. Meanwhile, a correspondent of mine in North China, in a letter smuggled out by an emigré (no Chinese person would be such a fool as to trust the public mails) writes of coal miners unpaid for six months, enterprises being looted by the sons and daughters of Party officials as soon as they become profitable, mild scholars jailed for "embezzlement" and "counter-revolutionary activity".

Becker tells of a reporter in China in the 1920s responding to a request from his editor for "the bottom facts". His reply: "There is no bottom in China, and no facts." This is the most enduring truth about the world's largest nation: Make no forecasts for China. Take no bets on China.

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