The tens of millions of Chinese who died of hunger in Mao Zedong's disastrous Great Leap Forward will never have a museum, Jasper Becker states bleakly in the closing lines of this book.
Instead, Becker writes, as Mao's successors continue to suppress much of the truth about the 1959~2 famine-the worst in China's long history-the spirits of those victims "seem destined to remain hungry ghosts, unplacated by any memorial or apology." With "Hungry Ghosts" Becker has helped make sure that those dead will not be completely forgotten, nor the madness that killed them.
"Hungry Ghosts" isn't the first account of the famine. But Becker, a journalist who covers China for the respected Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post and has also written for British publications, has interviewed survivors and looked through communist Party records to add a wealth of devastating detail- both about the disaster itself and about the colossal lies and official callousness that caused the famine, prolonged it and protected those responsible from being held accountable for their acts.
Becker's careful research also strengthens the case against Mao as one of history's most lethal tyrants, a mad dreamer who sacrificed millions of lives in pursuing his fantasies of revolutionary transformation.
In advance of the Leap, the Communist Party poured out extravagant promises of wealth and plenty. Terrified of being punished if they appeared to question Mao's policy, officials across China announced ridiculously high targets for the 1959 harvest. When the actual crop came nowhere near the goal, they simply made up false figures, often exaggerating the real harvest by three or four times.
The problem, as Becker documents in crushing detail, was that in setting their absurd targets, these officials had-also made unattainable promises to increase grain deliveries to the state authorities. Coming up short would acknowledge the failure of Mao's new commune system and farming methods and would expose their own false reports. So, "trapped by their own lies," as Becker observes, local authorities seized every ounce of grain they could find to meet their quotas - even if it left the peasants with nothing to eat.
As starvation began-to set in, anyone who tried to tell the truth was denounced as an enemy of the party. In a "climate of megalomania, make-believe, lies and brutality," officials from Mao on down responded to the spreading famine by pretending it didn't exist. In one county, Becker discovered, officials seeking to conceal the death toll in the countryside issued regulations forbidding "crying and wailing" and traditional mourning clothes, and ordered peasants to plant crops over fresh graves.
Among the top Communist leaders, only the tough old Red Army general Peng Dehuai had the courage to confront Mao about the famine. For his honesty, Peng was denounced and demoted from the leadership (he would later be imprisoned, tortured and killed). After Peng's downfall, all his senior colleagues -including Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, the two Communist leaders most praised in the West -were cowed into silence. Their cowardice condemned China's peasantry to two more years of misery and death before Mao grudgingly allowed some modification of the Great Leap program.
The exact death toll is hard to determine, though Becker generally supports an estimate by the American demographer Judith Banister of 30 million. The list of victims doesn't end there, however. Barely five years after the Great Leap ended, a vengeful Mao unleashed the next cycle of madness, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution-intended, at least in part, to strike down those who Mao believed had undermined his grandiose plan.
For a variety of reasons (one being that Deng himself and many other prominent party leaders were among the victims) Mao's successors were quick to condemn him for the Cultural Revolution. But they have said very little about the Great Leap Forward or the millions of anonymous peasants who bore the brunt of that disaster. China's continuing effort to hide the past makes Becker's careful, thorough reporting on the famine all the more impressive. It also makes "Hungry Ghosts" an even more important and valuable work, ~ pulling aside a curtain of official | lies to show us one of the most brutal and needless follies in all human history.
Arnold R. Isaacs covered Asia as a I journalist and has taught at Chinese universities. His new book, 'Vietnam In Shadows,' will be published this fall.
With a conscious heart, you are open to the possibility of love ad connection every moment -- with the paper boy, the bank teller, or your beloved. As you move through life, your philosophy is one of a constant search for the possibilities of connection and unity which inform your ideas. Your ideas begin to serve as connection between people. Your ideas flow toward communion and community.
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