What is revisionism?

What is revisionism?maomask

(llco.org)

Some people falsely think that revisionism is to deviate from an orthodoxy, to “revise” a tradition. This is an incorrect view of what revisionism is in a Marxist context. We should not treat Marxist writers the same way that Medieval Church scholars treated Aristotle. Mao was right when he said we must oppose book worship. We should not quote the classics of Marxism in the same way that Jesuits quote the Bible.  Real Marxism, Leading Light Communism, is not a dogma, it is simply revolutionary science. Marxism is simply applying science to the task of total liberation, to the task of reaching Leading Light Communism. Like any science, revolutionary science evolves over time. If any deviation from Marx’s original works were revisionism, then everything published after Marx’s lifetime would be revisionist. This is not the case. So what  is revisionism?

Revisionism does not mean simply to “revise” Marxist works. Sometimes we need to “revise” in order to advance science. Some “revising” is good. Marxism requires us to deviate from the revolutionary classics sometimes. Revisionism is something very different. Revisionism is to revise the revolutionary heart out of Marxism. Revisionists are those who turn revolutionary science into its opposite. It is putting a “Marxist” face on counter-revolution and oppression. Revisionists “wave the red flag to oppose the red flag.” There are different kinds of revisionism. They often overlap and imply each other. Here are some of the main forms of revisionism:

1. Reformism. Reformists often say that we do not need revolution. They say that the system can be gradually reformed. They think that we can reach socialism (and communism) through legal and parliamentary means. They do not see the current state as an instrument of reactionary class rule. They see it as a semi-neutral or independent agent that stands above class struggle. According to this view, the reactionary state can be contested; the reactionary state can be a place where class antagonisms can be negotiated. The people’s forces can gradually extend their influence over the state through legal means, according to this view. They believe that the people’s forces can get elected, lobby, etc. This is related to the view that communist consciousness evolves spontaneously from economist struggles for things like better wages. This gradualism and evolutionism was held by the revisionists of the Second International. Sometimes these forces are referred to as “social democrats.”

Lenin sharply criticized these revisionists. Lenin advanced another view of the state. Lenin advanced the view that the state is not neutral. It is always a dictatorship of one class against another. The state is always an agent of repression. It cannot be captured in its current form by the revolutionary forces. It cannot be wrangled away from the forces of reaction. There is the parable of the man who drops his bag of gold into the oceans and dives in after the gold. He drowns. Did he own the gold or  did the gold own him? Such is the nature of the reactionary state. Those revolutionaries who try to enter the state only end up  getting captured in the process. They do not capture the state, the state captures them. Rather, the old state must be smashed. A dual power must be built within society to contest with the old power.  A New Power must be built from the ground up. A New Power must be built up to replace the Old Power. This New Power is the order of the proletariat. To embrace reformism is to deny the New Power.

2. Social imperialism/social fascism. There are those who claim to be Marxist, yet they advocate imperialism. They wrap their imperialism in a red flag. The original social imperialists were the social democrats of the Second International. The German and French social democrats supported the war efforts of their imperialist homelands in World War 1. They reasoned that a victory in the war would benefit their homeland’s workers. These nationalists sought to advance their population’s interests with the spoils of imperial conquest. The revisionists placed their own peoples, their own workers, ahead of the global proletariat. These social democrats were narrowly nationalist. By contrast, Lenin was internationalist. Lenin advocated the policy of “revolutionary defeatism” for imperialist countries. Lenin sought the defeat of his own country, the Czarist empire, in the hope that a defeat for his imperialist homeland could lead to a revolutionary situation. Contrary to Lenin, the revisionists of the Second International were the social imperialists and social fascists of their day. They were socialist in name, but in reality, they were imperialists and fascists.

Other kinds of socialism imperialism have existed. For example, the Soviet Union stopped moving forward toward communism in the mid-twentieth century. The Soviet bureaucracy became a new capitalist class. They began implementing capitalist policies. Even though they claimed to be socialist, they acted like a big imperialist power. They exploited other peoples. They imposed their own colonial order across parts of the Third World. Like the imperialists before, the USSR and the Western imperialists divided up the world into “spheres of influence.” Both imperialist blocs, the West and East bloc, worked together to control the Third World. The imperialists as a whole reconfigured the world economy to the benefit of the imperialists at the expense of the Third World. The USSR carried out its imperialist ambitions under a red flag.

3. First Worldism. First Worldism is a widespread variant of social imperialism. First Worldism is a form of revisionism that claims that there exists a significant social base for revolution in the First World or that there exists widespread, significant exploitation in the First World. First Worldism recognizes various enemy classes of the First World as progressive. Some First Worldism claims that the wage-earning and working bourgeoisie (the “labor aristocracy” or so-called workers) in the First World is exploited and potentially revolutionary. Other First Worldism claims that the lumpen bourgeoisie in the First World is so oppressed that it constitutes a stand-in proletariat. Other First Worldism claims that the majority of non-Whites in North America are a stand-in proletariat. Other First Worldism claims that women, youth, or homosexuals in the First World are a stand-in proletariat. Other First Worldists say they will create a “social base” in the First World, as though one can, without state power, simply will a revolutionary agent into being. All of these social groups are, on the whole, enemies of the Third World majority. To advocate on their behalf along economic and gender lines is, on the whole, reactionary. First Worldists, whether they know it or not, end up supporting imperialism against the Third World to one degree or another.

4. The Theory of the Productive Forces. This revisionism downplays the need for class struggle in the revolutionary process. Instead, this revisionism sees development of technology as the main key to creating a better world. This view overemphasizes technology’s role in the revolutionary process. It sometimes acts as though technological development will serve up communism. These revisionists set the goal wrong. Instead of setting the goal as the end of oppression, they see creating a bountiful society filled with consumer goods as the goal. Third World socialism will not measure up to First World capitalism in terms of creating a consumer society because socialism is based on sustainability and not based on imperialism. When Third World socialism fails to measure up to First World capitalism in terms of creating a consumer society, these revisionists argue that socialism itself should be rejected. They dangle the carrot of consumer society in front of the masses to encourage reactionary thinking. This is related to economism.

5. Failure to go all the way to Leading Light Communism. Some revisionists say that we do not need to go all the way to communism. This revisionism is one that downplays the need to continue class struggle under socialism. These revisionists say that class struggle simply dies out under socialism. They do not see socialism as a transition to communism. Rather, they see socialism simply as nationalization of industry and a welfare state. By contrast, communists of Mao’s era held that if one isn’t advancing to communism, then the revolution will slide back into capitalism. If one doesn’t continue to push forward, counter-revolution will defeat the revolution. Inequalities left over from the old society and new inequalities will solidify and a new capitalist class will arise within the organs of power. Reactionary ideas spread, reversing revolution. This is why Mao said, “Never forget class struggle!” Revolutionary struggle must continually be waged against inequality and reactionary culture, otherwise a new bourgeoisie will arise and reverse the revolution. This is “continuing the revolution under the New Power of the proletariat.”

This list is not exhaustive. It only covers some of the bigger forms of revisionism. There are many other forms. These revisionisms are almost always intertwined. They usually imply each other. To embrace one is to embrace the others. When it comes down to it, all revisionism is simply denial of the most advanced revolutionary science, all-powerful, awesome Leading Light Communism. The only anti-revisionism today is real revolutionary science, Leading Light Communism. Remember, past revolutions were defeated from within. Leading Light Communism is our sword and out shield against all enemies.

Great Leap distortions uncovered

Great Leap distortions uncoveredorigins-cultural-revolution-volume-3-roderick-macfarquhar-paperback-cover-art1-189x300

by MC5

January 8, 2000 [slightly edited 2002] [slightly edited again by MSH editors, 2010]

In the process of fact-checking anti-Mao propaganda, MIM uncovered a stunning error in bourgeois media and intelligence community analysis of the Great Leap. A Harvard professor overestimated the net loss of population in the worst year of the alleged famine of the Great Leap (1958-1960) by a factor of 10.

The third volume of a book titled The Origins of the Cultural Revolution came out at the end of 1999 in paperback and won a prize from the Asian Studies Association. In preparation for a book review of volume three, MIM reviewed volume two. At the conclusion of volume two, in critique of the Great Leap Forward under Mao (1958-1960), Roderick MacFarquhar says “Nationwide, the mortality rate doubled from 1.08 per cent in 1957 to 2.54 per cent in 1960. In that year the population declined by 4.5 per cent.”(1)

Numerically, this last sentence with the italicized verb was the most significant charge against Mao in the whole book. However, it was simply a misprint, overestimated exactly by a factor of ten. We found no errata in the book or in the sequel, volume three.

The relevant figure is 4.5 per 1000 as is commonly available in publications by the enemies of the Great Leap in power in China today. Indeed, MacFarquhar himself lists the correct figure in a table on page five of the third volume of his book series.

The correct figure for 1960 and other years is listed in common Chinese statistical sources. Using that figure and the others for 1960-2, one would have to extrapolate to arrive at the often-used 30 million figure of bourgeois sources. Just as easily, one could point out without extrapolating the following: 1) The death rate in 1959 was better than in 1952 and about equal to 1953. 2) The death rate in 1961 was even better. 3) The death rate in 1962 was the best seen in the People’s Republic of China up to that date. It was only the year 1960 which was worse than any year since Liberation in 1949. If radical politics and collectivization mostly caused the famine, then why did it not hit hardest in 1958 and 1959 in the commune upsurge and instead chose the worst weather year when communes were already dismantled or being dismantled?

A 1984 Associated Press (AP) article against the Great Leap ran again in October, 1999 in the South China Morning Post for the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of China in 1949. Significantly, the article admitted what MIM has been saying — that the figure of 30 million starved in the Great Leap is only possible by assuming normal birth rates during a tumultuous period where people worked day and night and studied in public meetings in between.

“Basing their calculations on the 1953 population of 583 million and the 1964 total of 695 million, and on normal fertility rates, they concluded that infant mortality and other deaths were much higher than officially reported.”(2)

Liberal interpretation of information flow problems

The Associated Press of 1984 also admitted that Mao took the blame for the Great Leap — and like most bourgeois critics — failed to mention any bourgeois political figure that compared in making such a self-criticism as Mao’s.(3)

The subject of important mistakes is central to the whole second volume of MacFarquhar’s book and the early pages of volume three. The standard Liberal interpretation of the Great Leap is that it proves that communism restricts information flow and causes disaster.

AP took an extreme stance backing such a position by saying that even Deng Xiaoping was blocking information about the Great Leap, because he supposedly favored it according to AP. No where does the article systematically address the question of natural disaster in a poor country ravaged by a century of colonialism. Bourgeois Liberals just assume that it is a matter of free speech.

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen said in 1989, “The lack of adversarial journalism and politics hit even the government, reinforcing the ignorance of local conditions because of politically motivated exaggeration of the crop size during the Great Leap Forward and the fear of local leaders about communicating their own problems. The pretence that everything was going all right in Chinese agriculture and rural economy to a great extent fooled the national leaders themselves.”(4)

Yet, MIM could ask the same question of Western Great Leap coverage. It’s been many years and a scholar who wrote more than a book on the subject misprinted the facts about the Leap, so it would seem bourgeois Liberalism is no guarantee of truth. Adversarial journalism by MIM will fail to correct the repeated but wrong statements spread by the likes of MacFarquhar. MIM’s journalism is important but not enough in its own right to promote the advancement of truth. The criticism of weapons is still necessary for those with the power to resist the truth.

Rather than admit mistakes, in the years since his earlier publications where he accepted figures just under 30 million for the upper end of estimates of Great Leap deaths, MacFarquhar has increased his upper range estimate of deaths. In a Time Magazine piece in 1996, he said the figure was 20 to 43 million dead. (On the bright side, in the same article he says that it is likely Cultural Revolution deaths were under one million, while web sites like the Dalai Lama’s encourage the idea of 40 million dead in the Cultural Revolution, as if that many people could disappear into thin air other than in a spiritual dream.)(5)

In fact, while MacFarquhar derides Mao for his “one finger versus the nine fingers”(6) sayings, we must defend MacFarquhar’s factual grasp of the material in the same way or we would end up dismissing his whole book for one misplaced decimal point in its conclusion chapter. Mao would criticize us for “empiricism” if we laughed at MacFarquhar just because he made one mistake, even with regard to the biggest criticism of Mao that he made.

We Marxists believe that error arises not from a lack of adversarial journalism but because of institutionalized incentives to lie in the capitalist system. For example, tobacco executives have a profit incentive to lie to hook people on their product. 470,000 die each year from smoking according to the Massachusetts state government.(7) Mao admitted his Great Leap mistakes right away; yet most tobacco companies haven’t admitted to killing millions yet. Philip Morris has only just recently started the process of admission. Such companies profiting from death need to have their “right” to “free speech” to say that smoking does not cause cancer taken away from them. The organized force used against the tobacco executives and others profiting from anti- science is called “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

As for Mao’s role, MacFarquhar revisits the question throughout his work. On the last page of his volume two published in 1983, MacFarquhar admits that “In the end, Mao conceded gracefully.”(8)

Professor and department chair Roderick MacFarquhar at Harvard University has long been a key figure in the extension of the U.$. intelligence community known as “area studies” at Harvard housed at the “Center for International Affairs,” and laughably abbreviated “CFIA” instead of “CIA.” (The infamy has resulted in a change of name to “Weatherhead Center.”) Here the most widely parroted “experts” speak on China and, in the bad old days, the “Soviet Union.” The Harvard area studies committees typically make no effort to hide their usefulness to U$ intelligence. In this case, MacFarquhar further justifies this image of Harvard’s “Government Department” by being a former member of the British parliament, an MP.

After the June 4th, 1989 massacre in Beijing occurred, MacFarquhar took to predicting the imminent collapse of the Beijing regime because of the repression of the Beijing Spring. Of course, he turned out wrong. It seems that once again “adversarial journalism” was wrong and did not disclose truth.

An Internet search on MacFarquhar’s name and the phrase “Great Leap” turns up 21 entries on the Google search engine, 26 on Altavista. Among the typical places we will find his name — on the Dalai Lama’s official web page for his government in-exile, the neo-liberal New Republic magazine responsible for so many anti-communist diatribes and in a Time Magazine article he wrote for the May 13, 1996 issue.

Backing Judith Bannister(as seen on Tibetan web sites) (spelled “Banister” in other references) are people such as MacFarquhar and the same government mouthpieces as usual. The Dalai Lama’s web page describes Banister as a “scholar,” (9) when in fact she was a U.S. Government official. She came up with the round figure of 30 million dead in the Great Leap most commonly used to this day, often with the verb “murdered” thrown in by ignorant or lying right-wingers, who never bother to calculate famine deaths in capitalist countries each year.

MIM continues to accept this figure of 30 million for the Great Leap while demanding that the methods of its calculation be applied to the capitalist world and be reported as often in each country as it is reported in every mention of Mao in China. The capitalist death toll is much higher.

The 1998 Nobel prize winner in economics has already explained that the most radical periods of China’s history (Liberation in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976) brought the fastest gains in eliminating famine.(10) A. Sen claims that the Great Leap was indeed a great disaster causing approximately the number of deaths that people like MacFarquhar and Banister have claimed; yet he also recognizes that a bourgeois democratic country such as India arrives at a Great Leap death toll of its own every few years.

MacFarquhar on the natural disasters

Perhaps playing his cards as far to the “Left” as possible for a former parliament member in order to curry favor with imagined “leftist” Communist Party of China officials, MacFarquhar admitted in his book that natural disasters during the Great Leap were extensive: “the worst natural calamities in a century.”(11) He goes through the argument of whether it was 70% natural disaster and 30% human error or vice-versa, a common argument in the People’s Republic of China. As the Maoists charged, MacFarquhar documents that head-of-state Liu Shaoqi did believe the Great Leap was 3 parts natural disaster and 7 parts error, though he would also say otherwise in public.(12)

“By the end of the year [1960], 900 million mou or well over half the cultivated acreage had been devastated, sometimes repeatedly.

“The catastrophe had been emerging for some months. The most serious problem in 1960 was drought which in the spring and summer affected 600 million mou in every province of China apart from Tibet and Sinkiang; 13 provinces were affected in both seasons. The worst devastation was centered round the north China provinces of Hopei, Honan, Shantung and Shansi, where 60 per cent of the cultivated acreage was affected over a period of six to seven months. At the worst period in Shantung, eight of the province’s 12 rivers had no water in them; for 40 days in March and June, it was possible to wade across the lower reaches of the Yellow River.

“Shantung had been battered by typhoons and floods that affected 12 provinces in all. Apart from Shantung, the most seriously hit were the three in the north-east, and other coastal provinces like Kwangtung, Fukien and Kiangsu. The floods in east Liaoning were the worst since records had been kept.

“Not surprisingly in view of the drought, most of the flooding had been due to the typhoons, more of which had hit the Chinese mainland than in any of the previous 50 years, 11 between June and October; and each typhoon had lasted longer than usual, averaging ten hours, the longest stretching to 20.

“Moreover, nature had played an additional trick. The typhoons did not strike north-westwards as usual, but northwards. This added to their impact because it meant there were no high mountains to ward them off, and that less rain reached the west of the country. In the aftermath of the drought and the flood came insect pests and plant diseases.”(13)

Timing and mortality in the Great Leap

Oddly enough, MacFarquhar’s recent publications spark further questions for MIM, not a decisive rebuttal of Maoism. His volume two, published in 1983 even said, “the basic elements of the leap forward strategy were sound.”(14)

Perhaps the most important observation concerning the Great Leap that MacFarquhar made was one that would most irk the bourgeois Cambodia/Kampuchea scholars and media propagandists examining Pol Pot and a country very similar to agrarian China under Mao. Specifically, MacFarquhar backs the idea that it can indeed be rational to empty the cities out and drive people into the countryside in times of crisis.(15)

MacFarquhar attributes the famine to the fact that Mao tried to industrialize too fast and not enough people stayed in the countryside to do the farming for the country. He details how Mao changed course and allowed Chen Yun into power to restore the balance between city and countryside. Between 1961 and 1963, 26 million people were sent back to the countryside from the cities.(16) 1958 was the high point for industrial workers, with 44.16 million, up from 14.01 million the previous year.

Already in 1959, industrial labor was back to 28.81 million and farm labour increased by almost 8 million hands. Tripling industrial labor in one year was too extreme in 1958 and even a year of retrenchment in 1959 was not enough to undo its effect.(17)

The Great Leap was a huge innovation in social organization, bringing great gains for wimmen through communal health care, child care, laundry and even dining for a period of time. It exposed many peasants to industry and gave them a chance to work in large-scale communes beyond anything seen in history yet. MacFarquhar does not touch on any of these subjects and to do so, readers will have to go through MIM’s literature list. Not even the social causes of lower birth rates other than famine interested MacFarquhar.
In the first year, in fact, there was a bumper harvest. By 1959, the Maoist leaders were already putting on the brakes, but most of the casualties occurred in the 1960-2 period. Significantly, MacFarquhar admits that we cannot be sure to what extent private farming was already taken up by 1960. Private farming and the closely related anti-collective idea of a “responsibility system” seemed to have taken over large portions of the countryside just as the famine hit its height. So-called independent operation hit 60% in some areas. MacFarquhar adds similar comments about the spread of private farming and other systems closer to private farming than collective agriculture. Mao’s own first secretary Tian Jiaying favored the changes and estimated they reached 30 to 40% of peasants by 1962.(18)

Overall a picture emerges of imbalance between industry and agriculture in the Great Leap, especially in the distribution of labor-power between the two. In 1958, the imbalance did not hurt anyone and the politics of that heady period were not the cause of subsequent famine. Collectivization itself had little to do with the famine. The attitude of ignoring statistics contributed to the famine of the Great Leap, but we Marxists do not see such attitudes as proof of the need for bourgeois “free speech.”

Notes:

1. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 (NY: Columbia University Press, 
1983), p. 330.

2. Associated Press, “Great leap was a tragic blunder,” 
14Sept1984, 
http://www.scmp.com/Special/ChinaAt50/Article/FullText_asp_Article ID-19990929102014578.asp

3. For Mao’s self-criticism with regard to the Leap see for 
example, Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural 
Revolution: The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-1966 (Oxford, 
England: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 169.

4. http://www.reliefnet.org/doc/hpa/hpa11.html

5. http://www.pathfinder.com/time/international/1996/960513/aftermath.html

6. See e.g., MacFarquhar, vol. 2, p. 146.

7. www.getoutraged.com (You may have to hit “reload” on your 
browser a few times for the fact to come up.)

8. MacFarquhar, vol. 2, op. cit., p. 336.

9. http://ares.redsword.com/tjacobs/tibet/news.htm

10. http://www.igc.apc.org/thp/reports/sen/sen890.htm

11. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-1966 (Oxford, England: Oxford 
University Press, 1997), p. 5.

12. Ibid., pp. 56, 63.

13. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 (NY: Columbia University Press, 
1983), p. 322.

14. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: 
The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 (NY: Columbia University Press, 
1983), p. 4.

15. MacFarquhar is not the only bourgeois source willing to admit this. See, http://www.iiasa.ac.at/Research/LUC/ChinaFood/faq/faq_4.htm

16. MacFarquhar, vol. 3, op. cit., p. 32.

17. MacFarquhar, vol. 3, op. cit., p. 34. Also, pp. 204-5.

18. MacFarquhar, vol. 3, op. cit., p. 34. Also, pp. 221, 265-6.

Mao's Great Famine comments

Mao’s Great Famine. The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 maos_great_famine_the_history_of_chinas_most_devastating_catastrophe_1958_62by Frank Dikotter. Some Initial Comments By Joseph Ball

(llco.org, republished from maoists.org)

Mao’s Great Famine is a sensational account of China during the Great Leap Forward. It argues the death toll in the Great Leap Forward was at least 45 million. It also claims that 2.5 million of these died due to violence. Most bizarrely, it makes the claim that 30-40% of all homes in China were demolished during the Great Leap Forward. This book depends largely on quotations from documents found in local Chinese Communist Party archives. Dikotter treats these documents as authentic and their content as correct, without a great deal of analysis of the question. Without some acquaintance with the documents Dikotter’s book is based on, a proper review is not possible. It is not possible for this evidence and by extension, Dikotter’s book, to be reviewed properly without examining and authenticating these documents. I am only able to give my initial comments here, therefore, rather than a more final assessment of the book.

I would ask readers of this book to heed a general warning about all evidence given by the Chinese Communist Party in the post-Mao era concerning the Great Leap Forward. As I said in my article ‘Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?’, there was a sustained campaign by the Chinese government after Mao’s death to create a negative historical verdict about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Therefore statistics and documents, relating to these periods, compiled in the post-1976 era should not simply be taken at face value. They need to be authenticated and corroborated. However, another point needs to be remembered too-it should not be just assumed that because a government document has been found in an archive, even from before 1976, that its content must be true. From the late 1950s a big struggle in the Communist Party took place between the right-wing and the left-wing, this went on right until 1976. For long periods of time the right were in the ascendancy in different areas and in the central government itself, even before Mao’s death. Reports drawn up by different factions in this struggle may well contain large doses of ‘political truth’. China has gone through massive turmoil since 1949, this has included complete reversals in political line by the Communist Party and related radical changes in the Party’s verdict on historical events. It would be wrong to assume any historically contentious document in a Chinese Communist Party archive is genuine without properly determining its authenticity and that it is what it purports to be. In addition reports of historical events in archival documents need to be corroborated from other sources such as mutually supporting witness accounts and physical evidence.

The first step would be to assess how well Dikotter has interpreted the archival sources he cites in his work. This is likely to be a problem. According to Dikotter, he had to sign a contract promising not to lend the documents he found to anyone else or let them be copied, as a condition of access to the archives. I have reproduced Dikotter’s email statement regarding this in an appendix to these comments. Only those judged by the authorities to be professional historians can get access to the archives. As there are only a limited number of professional historians in the world with an interest in the Great Leap Forward, it may be quite some time before we get a second opinion on these records. So, in the main, all we have for now is Dikotter’s interpretation of what he saw.

However, Dikotter did let two correspondents of mine have an informal look at one crucial document in his office. This is Mao’s speech on 25 March 1959. On p.134 of Mao’s Great Famine, Dikotter quotes Mao as saying during the Great Leap Forward ‘When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’

My correspondents saw the document and confirmed the document contains meeting notes of Mao’s speech in a meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959. It does not list who attended the meeting. The file runs to 8 pages long in its entirety and the quotation (which they translate as “If there is not enough to eat, all will be starved. Rather, let half of population die so the other half can have their fill.”) is toward the end of the meeting notes. The entire meeting covered quite a lot of issues, mainly agrarian issues and food supply. My correspondents remember the following points from the document.

(1) Mao urged other officials to set the grain collection quotas as early as possible. He is recorded as saying “If grain collection does not exceed 1/3 of the harvest, peasants will not rebel.” However, this must be seen in the context of a lot of other comments. He also said ”Set the quota earlier so peasants can be relieved. Even if peasants want to give us their surplus, we will not accept it [because the quota has been set]. It is better to leave more grain to peasants.” Mao asked local officials not to set the goal too high like before. It must be stressed Mao seemed to be setting limits here, not minimum standards. Presumably in areas of food shortage, the quotas could have been set lower.

(2) Although the new quotas are still very possibly too high, the main tone of the speech, according to my correspondents, is to protect the peasants’ interests, stabilise people’s life at the time of food shortage, further expand mass participation in decision making, etc.

(3) The quotation “If there is not enough to eat…” , in the view of my correspondents, is said in a rhetoric tone, not as a serious command. My correspondents felt the quote is a kind of isolated comment within the speech, with no obvious connection to what is being said above and below. However next to this quote is one sentence about not pursuing the Great Leap Forward in all areas, which I imagine may be related.

Given my correspondents could not take the document away to study it, we cannot say anything conclusive about its authenticity or indeed its overall content. The quotes above should not be regarded as fully verbatim for the same reason. If the whole document is authentic, we must wonder why Mao made such a comment about half of the people dying, especially when he had been so adamant at the Wuchang Conference, a few months earlier, that there should be no deaths at all due to the Great Leap Forward. Mao is quoted as saying at the Wuchang Conference:

‘In this kind of situation, I think if we do [all these things simultaneously] half of China’s population unquestionably will die; and if it’s not a half, it’ll be a third or ten percent, a death toll of 50 million?… If with a death toll of 50 million, you didn’t lose your jobs, I at least should lose mine; [whether I would lose my] head would be open to question. Anhui wants to do so many things, it’s quite all right to do a lot, but make it a principle to have no deaths.’ (1).

The quote suggests another possibility about Mao’s alleged comment about half the people dying so the other half could eat their fill in Shanghai. It might be regarded as a sarcastic statement, as when Mao said at Wuchang ‘Half of China might have to die…’, when he was warning others about over-ambitious economic plans. We must also remember that these were minutes of a meeting, and presumably not something written by Mao himself. It could well have been that Mao was simply repeating the kind of warning that he made at Wuchang and the statement was not fully minuted, leading to a misleading impression. Dikotter’s approach in simply quoting this alleged statement, without taking an overview of all Mao’s statements on the issue and other statements made in the document is one-sided to say the least.

Some might argue, that setting any grain quota at all, at a time of food shortage was in some sense a ‘crime’. However, this would be very simplistic. For one thing, food had to be redistributed to areas most in need. Han Dongping, a Professor at Warren Wilson College in the USA did some research into the effects of the famine in the Great Leap Forward in Jimo county in Shandong. On the subject of famine relief he noted that:

‘In 1960, six southeast provinces donated 215,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos of dried vegetables and large quantities of winter clothes to Jimo County…In the same year, Qingdao municipal government provided Jimo County with …. 125,000 kilos grain, and over half of the households in Jimo County benefited…In November of 1960, a Shanghai municipal delegate brought to Jimo 60,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos dried sweet potatoes and other relief materials.. In 1961, Shandong provincial government donated 15,000 tons of grain to Jimo and provided 200 grams of grain per villagers each day before the next harvest.’(2).

Han Dongping’s evidence comes from interviews with local farmers and local official records that he studied.

It is true that not all of the grain collected from rural areas was redistributed to famine areas. However, urban dwellers had to be fed. Some food exports were necessary to buy the raw materials and machinery needed to prevent industry and transportation collapsing. A collapse of the transportation system and the urban economy would have just made famine relief and recovery harder while creating more hunger in the urban areas. If the record of Mao’s speech is authentic, it may be that Mao believed that some reduction in quotas would be enough to allow a fairly high quota for famine relief and for the needs of the cities and industry, without the quotas themselves leading to more hunger. (Whether this was objectively speaking correct is a question beyond the scope of these comments.)

Any statements made here about the other documents Dikotter quotes from have to be even more tentative, as these were not viewed by my correspondents. However, I believe that something can still be said about how Dikotter evaluates them. Dikotter (p.328) writes that investigation teams fanned out over the country from October 1960, to investigate the behaviour of provincial leaders during the Great Leap Forward. These investigations led to the removals of many provincial leaders. The rightists, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi made investigations at this time. We must remember that Liu Shaoqi was in charge of the day to day running of the government by 1960 and would have overseen the process of ‘investigation’.

The majority of the allegations Dikotter makes regarding atrocities committed during the Great Leap Forward, such as beatings and torture, appear to be taken from these documents. This leads to two problems. Firstly, although Dikotter lifts a great many anecdotes and statistics from these documents, his direct quotes from them tend to be rather brief. In addition, Dikotter does not tell us very much about the particular document he is quoting from at any one time. This makes any kind of evaluation of them, very difficult. Rather worryingly, some of the documents Dikotter quotes from were bought in ‘chaotic flea markets’ (page 345). He says that he only quoted ‘very few’ of these but we really need to know which of his quotations do come from the documents he acquired in this way. In addition there would be nothing to stop Dikotter putting these documents on the internet or circulating copies.

Also, assuming that the evidence Dikotter cites of atrocities are taken from the results of investigations, what we have are indictments used in a series of political struggles, with Liu Shaoqi ultimately presiding over the whole process of the investigation. The purpose of these indictments, according to Dikotter, seems to have been to get rid of local leaders blamed for implementing Mao’s line in an over-zealous manner. One possible thesis is that the intended effect of these removals would have been to oust more left-wing leaders in favour of more right-wing leaders, which would increase Liu Shaoqi’s power base. Overall, a stream of reports from the investigation teams to the centre documenting atrocities would clearly strengthen Liu and the political line he represented, while weakening Mao. Of course, bourgeois authors tend to argue that Liu Shaoqi only became a rightest, once he saw that the Great Leap Forward was a failure. But this begs the question somewhat. Could it not be that when he saw problems with the Great Leap Forward occurring he sensed that he could use this in a competition for power with Mao? Could not encouraging investigation teams to exaggerate the failures of the Great Leap Forward have been part of his strategy? Dikotter should at least consider such possibilities but he does not.

Dikotter presents documentary accounts that he believes show evidence for very serious crimes. He claims that mass violence was used against the population in the Great Leap Forward by local officials and their militias. This charge simply cannot be upheld without corroboration. Such allegations could only be proved if they were backed up by a sufficient quantity of mutually corroborative witness statements and by forensic evidence such as mass grave evidence. Without such evidence it is not possible to ‘convict’ any individual or a political regime of mass murder or genocide. Indeed the lack of such evidence, at least of a sufficient quantity of documented witness evidence, would give good reason for doubting the archival evidence. It must also be said that some of the stories that have emerged from purported Party documents in the past have been outlandish in the extreme. For example, Jasper Becker unearthed a ‘party record’ that claimed a Party Secretary in Qisi, Henan had boiled 100 children to make fertilizer. He quoted this in his book Hungry Ghosts This prompted Berlusconi’s infamous jibe at a political rally in 2006 about the Chinese ‘boiling babies for fertiliser’ that led to censure from the Chinese government.

Having said all this, the existence of the local party documents Dikotter has found is a matter of some interest and it must be hoped that the current onerous conditions on access and reproduction will be eased in the future. If nothing else, they may help illustrate the line of thinking and the different world-views of the two lines of the Chinese Communist Party during the Great Leap Forward.

Another positive feature of the book is the way Dikotter puts his own ideological cards on the table when he states in his preface that:

‘In a far more general way, as the modern world struggles to find a balance between freedom and regulation, the catastrophe unleashed at the time [of the Great Leap Forward] stands as a reminder of how profoundly misplaced is the idea of state planning as an antidote to chaos.’ (p.xii).

All historians can and should strive for objectivity. However, history can never be an exact science, so it is always very useful to know the political leanings of any historian when evaluating their work. Dikotter’s honesty about his right-wing ideological framework is genuinely refreshing.

However, little positive can be said about the aspect of his work the reviewers have got most excited about-his Great Leap Forward ‘statistics’. The national figures Dikotter tries to come up with for deaths by hunger and violence and figures for the destruction of housing are frankly of little value.

Dikotter wants to establish a new ‘headline’ figure for Great Leap Forward deaths of 45 million. To understand how Dikotter tries to do this it must be understood that he is discussing two separate sets of documentary evidence concerning the death toll. One is an estimate of 32 million excess deaths by Cao Shuji, who bases his figure on a survey of reports drawn up by local Communist Party branches into Great Leap Forward deaths. These reports were produced in 1979, when the Party line had swung decisively and finally against the principles of the Great Leap Forward. The second set of documentary evidence consists of the documents in the local Party archives that Dikotter himself has discovered, that were discussed above-the reports of the investigation teams sent by the central government to investigate the provinces from 1960-62. Dikotter calculates that the excess death tolls he has found in the local Party archives, compiled from 1960-62 tend to be 50% higher than those in the reports Cao Shuji cites, which were compiled in 1979. Therefore Dikotter decides the death toll must have been 45 million. Dikotter favours the reports he has found from 1960-62 from the investigation teams over the reports given by the local branches of the Communist Party in 1979 because he believes the latter would have given more conservative figures for deaths, as they were trying to hide things.

This reasoning is not very convincing. Why would there have been any remaining reason for local Party officials to try to hide the figures in 1979, if the Great Leap Forward deaths had supposedly been investigated nearly twenty years before by the central government? Moreover, the Party as a whole was in no way trying to hide Great Leap Forward deaths in 1979. As I said in ‘Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?, senior Party leaders openly attacked the Great Leap Forward. Marshal Ye Jian ying made a speech about disasters in the Great Leap Forward in 1979. A Party resolution talked of ‘serious losses to our country and our people between 1959 and 1961’. Local party organisations would certainly have been aware of the new line when compiling their 1979 reports and would have known that they were expected to go along with the new political line on the Great Leap Forward. If the choice really was between endorsing a figure of 32 million and a figure of 45 million, then Dikotter’s book really gives us no real reason for choosing one figure above another.

However, the main problem is the reliability of any death rate estimate at all for China from 1958-1961. This point is illustrated by Dikotter’s rather selective faith in the available demographic data for the Great Leap Forward. Dikotter decides to round up Liu Shaoqi’s baseline figure of 0.8% deaths a year before the Great Leap Forward to 1% (p. 329). Dikotter decides that any number of deaths above this figure in the Great Leap Forward, were excess deaths. By extrapolating the excess deaths he finds on a local level to the country as a whole he calculates the 45 million deaths figure. Dikotter’s figures seem to be based on figures gathered by the local investigation teams. ‘Liu Shaoqi’s 1%’ is more or less the ‘baseline’ death rate figure in the demographic figures released in the early 1980s by the Deng Xiaoping regime. The Deng Xiaoping figures show up to 16.5 million excess deaths, due to increases from the baseline figure in 1959-1961 (with a high of 2.5% in 1960). The death rate figures were presented at a public academic gathering in China in 1981. ‘Liu’s 1%’ might be seen as corroboration of the Deng Xiaoping figures that emerged more than twenty years later. But Dikotter cannot accept the Deng Xiaoping figures in full, as the Deng Xiaoping figures for 1959-1961 imply a death toll a lot smaller than the one he is proposing. So Dikotter has a problem. If Dikotter believes Liu knew a true death rate figure for years prior to 1960, he must also believe a comprehensive system of death registration was in place during the Great Leap Forward, despite the fact that the records of these death registrations seem to have been hidden from all eyes ever since. Therefore Dikotter must accept the baseline figure of 1% given by Liu Shaoqi but then assume that the death registration information that shows 45 million deaths for 1958-1961 has been deliberately hidden by the Chinese authorities. But if the Chinese authorities are in the business of hiding and manipulating population figures about this period, why does Dikotter insist that the 1% baseline figure must be true? What are his grounds for saying that the one figure should be accepted, while the other Deng Xiaoping figures must have been falsified? It might be said that the other documents Dikotter has found corroborate the 45 million figure but this is not really so. As Dikotter book illustrates, Liu stated openly in a speech that 0.8% should be used as the baseline when making calculations of excess deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward. Therefore the figures that appear in the documents Dikotter has seen in the archives, cannot be used as any kind of corroboration as they were probably drawn up following Liu’s instructions. The investigation teams most likely came up with a total number of deaths in a province-by whatever means-and then subtracted ‘Liu’s 1%’ to get a figure for excess deaths.

As I showed in ‘Did Mao Really Kill Millions…’ it is not clear at all where death rate figures for the Great Leap Forward came from. This makes any of the figures given for the Great Leap Forward death toll, from the 16.5 million figure, to the estimates of local investigation teams, to Dikotter’s 45 million, mere speculation. Judith Banister, a leading western demographer of the Great Leap Forward period, expresses severe doubts about death rate figures for China in the 1950s and 1960s (3). It does not seem that there was anything like a comprehensive national death registration scheme at this time. People who have examined local population records for the Great Leap Forward seem to have found records of population changes but I have not seen examples of locally kept death toll figures (4). Could it be that when asked for death toll figures, local officials simply offered some variant on population change figures, having nothing else at their disposal? But a population change figure for a given locality provides absolutely no guide to the number of deaths in the Great Leap Forward. This was a time of massive movements of population as workers migrated from their villages to the towns or to construction sites or left their locality to find food when famine struck. If you just take figures for every area where population decreased and assume that this was part of a national death trend, then you might come up with a figure of 45 million. Overall, then, it must be asked where the local investigation teams got all their death rate figures from, given the lack of comprehensive death registration.

I think there is a much more sensible account of what happened in the Great Leap Forward, than the apocalyptic version given by the Jasper Becker, Jung Chang and Frank Dikotter side of the debate.

Firstly, we should, like Banister, accept that the 1% baseline figure is too low. Banister discusses the official figure of 10.8 deaths per thousand in 1957, given in 1981. She writes:

‘This is an unrealistic claim. Of course, the PRC made great strides in mortality reduction in the 1950’s. As of 1957, the patriotic public health campaigns had reduced the level of filth and the number of disease-carrying pests. A large proportion of China’s midwives had received instruction in modern midwifery. There were many epidemic-control stations monitoring infectious diseases and specialized centers attacking particular diseases….Yet underlying health conditions in China remained poor…This population might have achieved a crude death rate below 20 per thousand by 1957, but not nearly so low as the official death rate of 10.8.’ (5).

We can perhaps speculate a little about why Deng Xiaoping figures give such a low death rate figure for 1957 and such a high rate for 1960. Liu Shaoqi announced his ‘1%’ (or 0.8%) in a speech in his home town, just as he was starting his political campaign against the line of the Great Leap Forward. Once Deng Xiaoping consolidated his power after the death of Mao he asked for statistics to be put together concerning Great Leap Forward deaths. The workers compiling the statistics would have known of Liu’s 1% baseline figure and this became their own baseline for the figures released in 1981. This is not necessarily a matter of complete conspiracy. Maybe Liu said the figure was 1% because this had been the figure the Party had wanted to give in the late 1950s to celebrate its achievements. Maybe given the euphoria of the time the Party thought they actually had achieved such a low figure. However, maybe Liu just invented it in 1960 because it made the death rate figures look worse than they were, thus undermining his political rival Mao. When it came to compiling population statistics in the late 1970s, perhaps researchers, finding nothing else to work on, came back to Liu’s low figure and decided to adopt a figure that was roughly equivalent. It was after all a figure that had been endorsed by the Head of State at the time. Demographers can make assumptions on thinner grounds than this when faced with a paucity of hard evidence. Once the 1% is accepted as a baseline, demographers have the problem of trying to come up with a series of birth rate and death rate figures that in some way correlates with the census figures of 1953 and 1964. The obvious solution is to push all the deaths which you cannot account for, given the 1% baseline rule, into the famine periods. Thus the researchers came up with the death rate figures in 1981 which gave rise to the 16.5 million death toll statistic.

Writers on the Great Leap Forward are routinely taking these figures and extrapolating from them to reach even higher figures, which they then give the status of fact. Without some idea of how the 1981 death rate figures were actually calculated, they are of little use for such purposes. Once you adopt a sceptical attitude to the Deng Xiaoping figures, other death rate figures such as Dikotter’s and Banister’s begin to look unconvincing too (6).

Dikotter’s figures for deaths by violence and home demolitions are certainly the weakest part of the book. Dikotter states that 2.5 million people died of violence during the Great Leap Forward. His evidence again comes from the ‘investigation teams’. The figure appears to come from an extrapolation from figures given for one region (Xinyang) and two counties (see page 297-8). Dikotter tells us that as ‘rough approximation’ 30-40% of all houses were turned to rubble in China in the Great Leap Forward. Dikotter’s source for this astounding figure is, Liu Shaoqi again, who apparently claimed that 40% of all houses in Hunan had been destroyed (p.169). The other main source is a figure that 45-70% of homes in ‘the most affected counties’ of Sichuan were demolished (p. 170). Even if both these reports were completely true, one could hardly extrapolate from these two figures and say that 30-40% of homes in the whole of China were destroyed. These were just two provinces and we do not even have an estimate for the total number of home demolitions in Sichuan, just those for the allegedly most affected counties.

The question we have to ask about the figure for home demolitions is, again, where is the witness evidence? Of course the media in China is fairly stringently censored. But especially in the last three decades millions of people have travelled into and out of China. If 40% of all homes had been demolished in the whole of China in the Great Leap Forward, would not this fact have come out before now?

Other somewhat strange claims in Dikotter’s book would also bear further analysis, no doubt. He writes of the Ming Tombs (Shisanling) Reservoir, that was built in 1958. Dikotter states (page 30) : ‘As the reservoir was built in the wrong location, it dried up and was abandoned after a few years.’

Anyone who was been there recently will testify that it is actually rather full of water. The fact is that Dikotter just assumes the whole project must have been a total failure because it was carried out during the Great Leap Forward. Such errors illustrate the need for rather more even-handed historians to go over the evidence that Dikotter has presented in more detail than I am able to do here.

Overall, Dikotter’s book is, on the face of it, unconvincing. His claims are just too exaggerated and his analysis of the veracity of his sources is just too underdeveloped. It is part of a trend towards ‘death toll inflation’ which sees the numbers of those allegedly killed by Mao increase year after year as ‘new historical evidence’ is published. Deng Xiaoping released figures that gave rise to the 16.5 million death toll. Judith Banister raised this to 30 million. Now, Dikotter has taken Banister’s 30 million and raised it to 45 million. But this of course is only ‘a minimum’, some historians put the figure at 50 to 60 million, Dikotter tells us (page 333). But as the death rate totals inflate, it will get harder and harder to fit in all these excess deaths between the figures provided by the two censuses of 1953 and 1964, unless the death toll in the non-Great Leap Forward years is pushed down to a ridiculous level. This will not bother Dikotter as he seems to be a sceptic about all the Chinese demographic data. This position is a perfectly acceptable one to take but where will it leave ‘Liu’s 1%’ baseline on which all Dikotter’s figures are based? You cannot state that a death rate figure is credible when you believe that all the available population figures are completely false. The death rate is a percentage of the population after all. Presumably at some point the death rate figures will have been thrown out too. When we get to 60 million, there will be no real reason left not to allow the death figure to rise ceaselessly up towards the 100 million mark and beyond.

Of course, there is a real story about the Great Leap Forward buried under all the nonsensical ‘death toll figures’. Certainly, that story includes the tragedy of the famine that occurred in China in the Great Leap Forward. The story must include the fact that the deaths that occurred were due to policy errors, as well as the very adverse natural conditions of the time. However, it is also a story of a nation surrounded by adversaries, desperately trying to pull itself out of the economic backwardness that had repeatedly condemned it to famine in the past.

(1) R. MacFarquhar, T. Cheek and E. Wu (eds) The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward, p.494-5. Harvard University Press.

(2) Han Dongping, ‘The Great Leap Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Post- Mao Rural Reform: the Lessons of Rural Development in Contemporary China.’’ http://www.chinastudygroup.org/article/26. 2003.

(3) Banister, J. (1979), China’s Changing Population Stanford University Press, p.87-8.

(4) See for example, Endicott (1988) Red Earth Revolution. In a Sichuan Village, p.55-6 and Han Dongping (2003).

(5) Banister, J. (1987), p.80-81.

(6) See Banister, J. (1987), p.114-119. Banister’s own figure of 30 million deaths is just a variation on the Deng Xiaoping figure. Banister gets her figure by using a significantly higher figure for the number of births between the censuses of 1953 and 1964, than the official figure, given by the Deng Xiaoping regime. The higher rate of births, combined with the census figures imply a higher rate of deaths, than the official figures show, otherwise the 1964 population figure would have been greater. Banister then apportions the extra death according to proportions derived from the death rate figures for this period released by the Deng Xiaoping regime.

Appendix

Correspondence between Frank Dikotter and Joseph Ball

Dear Mr Dikotter

I am currently studying your book Mao’s Great Famine. I would very interested to know how I could access some of the documents cited in your work. The one I am most interested in is the document which includes Mao’s speech on 25 March 1959. You give the reference as Gansu 19-18-494,p.48. You give this reference on p.379, its note 13. I am very interested in the quote you give on p.134 from this speech where Mao says ‘It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’ It’s interesting because in November 1959 Mao made a speech (in ‘Mao’s Secret Speeches’ p.494-5) where he gives orders that no-one should die as a result of the Great Leap Forward.

The other documents I’m interested in are: Xinyang diwei zuzhii chuli bangongonshi…etc. p.1-2 cited on page 378, note 6. This is the reference for the figure of 66,000 clubbed to death in Xinyang. Also the documents Sichuan May-June 1962, JC 67-4 and JC 67-1003, p.3. cited in note 16 on page 403. This is the reference for deaths in Sichuan. I hope you don’ regard my requests as too much of an imposition.

Obviously, I would find it very useful if I could access scanned versions of these documents. Do you put your sources on the internet? I haven’t been able to find them. Please note: as I always say I regard information on the accessibility of sources in works I discuss as information I need to share with my readers. Therefore I will quote from your reply to my enquiries in any review or article I publish about your book. Please be aware of this and do not say anything in an email that you do not want to be shared with the public.

Yours sincerely
Joseph Ball

Dear Joseph,
The answer to this is quite simple: when I use party archives, I have to sign a contract, as I am sure you know, to the effect that I will not duplicate or circulate any of the files I see. If I send them to you I have no idea where they will end up and I will be in breach of contract, resulting, possibly, in a ban from the archives in future And of course you have not been able to find these sources on the internet, how would that be possible? You need to go to the archives I cite, i.e. Lanzhou, Chengdu ad Xinyang. However, my colleague Zhou Xun is in the process of publishing documents, including the ones you cite,for a documentary history of the famine. This may take another year or two. I would be happy to show you these documents in my office if you have time.

With best wishes,
Frank

Mao’s Great Famine comments

Mao’s Great Famine. The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 maos_great_famine_the_history_of_chinas_most_devastating_catastrophe_1958_62by Frank Dikotter. Some Initial Comments By Joseph Ball

(llco.org, republished from maoists.org)

Mao’s Great Famine is a sensational account of China during the Great Leap Forward. It argues the death toll in the Great Leap Forward was at least 45 million. It also claims that 2.5 million of these died due to violence. Most bizarrely, it makes the claim that 30-40% of all homes in China were demolished during the Great Leap Forward. This book depends largely on quotations from documents found in local Chinese Communist Party archives. Dikotter treats these documents as authentic and their content as correct, without a great deal of analysis of the question. Without some acquaintance with the documents Dikotter’s book is based on, a proper review is not possible. It is not possible for this evidence and by extension, Dikotter’s book, to be reviewed properly without examining and authenticating these documents. I am only able to give my initial comments here, therefore, rather than a more final assessment of the book.

I would ask readers of this book to heed a general warning about all evidence given by the Chinese Communist Party in the post-Mao era concerning the Great Leap Forward. As I said in my article ‘Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?’, there was a sustained campaign by the Chinese government after Mao’s death to create a negative historical verdict about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Therefore statistics and documents, relating to these periods, compiled in the post-1976 era should not simply be taken at face value. They need to be authenticated and corroborated. However, another point needs to be remembered too-it should not be just assumed that because a government document has been found in an archive, even from before 1976, that its content must be true. From the late 1950s a big struggle in the Communist Party took place between the right-wing and the left-wing, this went on right until 1976. For long periods of time the right were in the ascendancy in different areas and in the central government itself, even before Mao’s death. Reports drawn up by different factions in this struggle may well contain large doses of ‘political truth’. China has gone through massive turmoil since 1949, this has included complete reversals in political line by the Communist Party and related radical changes in the Party’s verdict on historical events. It would be wrong to assume any historically contentious document in a Chinese Communist Party archive is genuine without properly determining its authenticity and that it is what it purports to be. In addition reports of historical events in archival documents need to be corroborated from other sources such as mutually supporting witness accounts and physical evidence.

The first step would be to assess how well Dikotter has interpreted the archival sources he cites in his work. This is likely to be a problem. According to Dikotter, he had to sign a contract promising not to lend the documents he found to anyone else or let them be copied, as a condition of access to the archives. I have reproduced Dikotter’s email statement regarding this in an appendix to these comments. Only those judged by the authorities to be professional historians can get access to the archives. As there are only a limited number of professional historians in the world with an interest in the Great Leap Forward, it may be quite some time before we get a second opinion on these records. So, in the main, all we have for now is Dikotter’s interpretation of what he saw.

However, Dikotter did let two correspondents of mine have an informal look at one crucial document in his office. This is Mao’s speech on 25 March 1959. On p.134 of Mao’s Great Famine, Dikotter quotes Mao as saying during the Great Leap Forward ‘When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’

My correspondents saw the document and confirmed the document contains meeting notes of Mao’s speech in a meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959. It does not list who attended the meeting. The file runs to 8 pages long in its entirety and the quotation (which they translate as “If there is not enough to eat, all will be starved. Rather, let half of population die so the other half can have their fill.”) is toward the end of the meeting notes. The entire meeting covered quite a lot of issues, mainly agrarian issues and food supply. My correspondents remember the following points from the document.

(1) Mao urged other officials to set the grain collection quotas as early as possible. He is recorded as saying “If grain collection does not exceed 1/3 of the harvest, peasants will not rebel.” However, this must be seen in the context of a lot of other comments. He also said ”Set the quota earlier so peasants can be relieved. Even if peasants want to give us their surplus, we will not accept it [because the quota has been set]. It is better to leave more grain to peasants.” Mao asked local officials not to set the goal too high like before. It must be stressed Mao seemed to be setting limits here, not minimum standards. Presumably in areas of food shortage, the quotas could have been set lower.

(2) Although the new quotas are still very possibly too high, the main tone of the speech, according to my correspondents, is to protect the peasants’ interests, stabilise people’s life at the time of food shortage, further expand mass participation in decision making, etc.

(3) The quotation “If there is not enough to eat…” , in the view of my correspondents, is said in a rhetoric tone, not as a serious command. My correspondents felt the quote is a kind of isolated comment within the speech, with no obvious connection to what is being said above and below. However next to this quote is one sentence about not pursuing the Great Leap Forward in all areas, which I imagine may be related.

Given my correspondents could not take the document away to study it, we cannot say anything conclusive about its authenticity or indeed its overall content. The quotes above should not be regarded as fully verbatim for the same reason. If the whole document is authentic, we must wonder why Mao made such a comment about half of the people dying, especially when he had been so adamant at the Wuchang Conference, a few months earlier, that there should be no deaths at all due to the Great Leap Forward. Mao is quoted as saying at the Wuchang Conference:

‘In this kind of situation, I think if we do [all these things simultaneously] half of China’s population unquestionably will die; and if it’s not a half, it’ll be a third or ten percent, a death toll of 50 million?… If with a death toll of 50 million, you didn’t lose your jobs, I at least should lose mine; [whether I would lose my] head would be open to question. Anhui wants to do so many things, it’s quite all right to do a lot, but make it a principle to have no deaths.’ (1).

The quote suggests another possibility about Mao’s alleged comment about half the people dying so the other half could eat their fill in Shanghai. It might be regarded as a sarcastic statement, as when Mao said at Wuchang ‘Half of China might have to die…’, when he was warning others about over-ambitious economic plans. We must also remember that these were minutes of a meeting, and presumably not something written by Mao himself. It could well have been that Mao was simply repeating the kind of warning that he made at Wuchang and the statement was not fully minuted, leading to a misleading impression. Dikotter’s approach in simply quoting this alleged statement, without taking an overview of all Mao’s statements on the issue and other statements made in the document is one-sided to say the least.

Some might argue, that setting any grain quota at all, at a time of food shortage was in some sense a ‘crime’. However, this would be very simplistic. For one thing, food had to be redistributed to areas most in need. Han Dongping, a Professor at Warren Wilson College in the USA did some research into the effects of the famine in the Great Leap Forward in Jimo county in Shandong. On the subject of famine relief he noted that:

‘In 1960, six southeast provinces donated 215,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos of dried vegetables and large quantities of winter clothes to Jimo County…In the same year, Qingdao municipal government provided Jimo County with …. 125,000 kilos grain, and over half of the households in Jimo County benefited…In November of 1960, a Shanghai municipal delegate brought to Jimo 60,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos dried sweet potatoes and other relief materials.. In 1961, Shandong provincial government donated 15,000 tons of grain to Jimo and provided 200 grams of grain per villagers each day before the next harvest.’(2).

Han Dongping’s evidence comes from interviews with local farmers and local official records that he studied.

It is true that not all of the grain collected from rural areas was redistributed to famine areas. However, urban dwellers had to be fed. Some food exports were necessary to buy the raw materials and machinery needed to prevent industry and transportation collapsing. A collapse of the transportation system and the urban economy would have just made famine relief and recovery harder while creating more hunger in the urban areas. If the record of Mao’s speech is authentic, it may be that Mao believed that some reduction in quotas would be enough to allow a fairly high quota for famine relief and for the needs of the cities and industry, without the quotas themselves leading to more hunger. (Whether this was objectively speaking correct is a question beyond the scope of these comments.)

Any statements made here about the other documents Dikotter quotes from have to be even more tentative, as these were not viewed by my correspondents. However, I believe that something can still be said about how Dikotter evaluates them. Dikotter (p.328) writes that investigation teams fanned out over the country from October 1960, to investigate the behaviour of provincial leaders during the Great Leap Forward. These investigations led to the removals of many provincial leaders. The rightists, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi made investigations at this time. We must remember that Liu Shaoqi was in charge of the day to day running of the government by 1960 and would have overseen the process of ‘investigation’.

The majority of the allegations Dikotter makes regarding atrocities committed during the Great Leap Forward, such as beatings and torture, appear to be taken from these documents. This leads to two problems. Firstly, although Dikotter lifts a great many anecdotes and statistics from these documents, his direct quotes from them tend to be rather brief. In addition, Dikotter does not tell us very much about the particular document he is quoting from at any one time. This makes any kind of evaluation of them, very difficult. Rather worryingly, some of the documents Dikotter quotes from were bought in ‘chaotic flea markets’ (page 345). He says that he only quoted ‘very few’ of these but we really need to know which of his quotations do come from the documents he acquired in this way. In addition there would be nothing to stop Dikotter putting these documents on the internet or circulating copies.

Also, assuming that the evidence Dikotter cites of atrocities are taken from the results of investigations, what we have are indictments used in a series of political struggles, with Liu Shaoqi ultimately presiding over the whole process of the investigation. The purpose of these indictments, according to Dikotter, seems to have been to get rid of local leaders blamed for implementing Mao’s line in an over-zealous manner. One possible thesis is that the intended effect of these removals would have been to oust more left-wing leaders in favour of more right-wing leaders, which would increase Liu Shaoqi’s power base. Overall, a stream of reports from the investigation teams to the centre documenting atrocities would clearly strengthen Liu and the political line he represented, while weakening Mao. Of course, bourgeois authors tend to argue that Liu Shaoqi only became a rightest, once he saw that the Great Leap Forward was a failure. But this begs the question somewhat. Could it not be that when he saw problems with the Great Leap Forward occurring he sensed that he could use this in a competition for power with Mao? Could not encouraging investigation teams to exaggerate the failures of the Great Leap Forward have been part of his strategy? Dikotter should at least consider such possibilities but he does not.

Dikotter presents documentary accounts that he believes show evidence for very serious crimes. He claims that mass violence was used against the population in the Great Leap Forward by local officials and their militias. This charge simply cannot be upheld without corroboration. Such allegations could only be proved if they were backed up by a sufficient quantity of mutually corroborative witness statements and by forensic evidence such as mass grave evidence. Without such evidence it is not possible to ‘convict’ any individual or a political regime of mass murder or genocide. Indeed the lack of such evidence, at least of a sufficient quantity of documented witness evidence, would give good reason for doubting the archival evidence. It must also be said that some of the stories that have emerged from purported Party documents in the past have been outlandish in the extreme. For example, Jasper Becker unearthed a ‘party record’ that claimed a Party Secretary in Qisi, Henan had boiled 100 children to make fertilizer. He quoted this in his book Hungry Ghosts This prompted Berlusconi’s infamous jibe at a political rally in 2006 about the Chinese ‘boiling babies for fertiliser’ that led to censure from the Chinese government.

Having said all this, the existence of the local party documents Dikotter has found is a matter of some interest and it must be hoped that the current onerous conditions on access and reproduction will be eased in the future. If nothing else, they may help illustrate the line of thinking and the different world-views of the two lines of the Chinese Communist Party during the Great Leap Forward.

Another positive feature of the book is the way Dikotter puts his own ideological cards on the table when he states in his preface that:

‘In a far more general way, as the modern world struggles to find a balance between freedom and regulation, the catastrophe unleashed at the time [of the Great Leap Forward] stands as a reminder of how profoundly misplaced is the idea of state planning as an antidote to chaos.’ (p.xii).

All historians can and should strive for objectivity. However, history can never be an exact science, so it is always very useful to know the political leanings of any historian when evaluating their work. Dikotter’s honesty about his right-wing ideological framework is genuinely refreshing.

However, little positive can be said about the aspect of his work the reviewers have got most excited about-his Great Leap Forward ‘statistics’. The national figures Dikotter tries to come up with for deaths by hunger and violence and figures for the destruction of housing are frankly of little value.

Dikotter wants to establish a new ‘headline’ figure for Great Leap Forward deaths of 45 million. To understand how Dikotter tries to do this it must be understood that he is discussing two separate sets of documentary evidence concerning the death toll. One is an estimate of 32 million excess deaths by Cao Shuji, who bases his figure on a survey of reports drawn up by local Communist Party branches into Great Leap Forward deaths. These reports were produced in 1979, when the Party line had swung decisively and finally against the principles of the Great Leap Forward. The second set of documentary evidence consists of the documents in the local Party archives that Dikotter himself has discovered, that were discussed above-the reports of the investigation teams sent by the central government to investigate the provinces from 1960-62. Dikotter calculates that the excess death tolls he has found in the local Party archives, compiled from 1960-62 tend to be 50% higher than those in the reports Cao Shuji cites, which were compiled in 1979. Therefore Dikotter decides the death toll must have been 45 million. Dikotter favours the reports he has found from 1960-62 from the investigation teams over the reports given by the local branches of the Communist Party in 1979 because he believes the latter would have given more conservative figures for deaths, as they were trying to hide things.

This reasoning is not very convincing. Why would there have been any remaining reason for local Party officials to try to hide the figures in 1979, if the Great Leap Forward deaths had supposedly been investigated nearly twenty years before by the central government? Moreover, the Party as a whole was in no way trying to hide Great Leap Forward deaths in 1979. As I said in ‘Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?, senior Party leaders openly attacked the Great Leap Forward. Marshal Ye Jian ying made a speech about disasters in the Great Leap Forward in 1979. A Party resolution talked of ‘serious losses to our country and our people between 1959 and 1961’. Local party organisations would certainly have been aware of the new line when compiling their 1979 reports and would have known that they were expected to go along with the new political line on the Great Leap Forward. If the choice really was between endorsing a figure of 32 million and a figure of 45 million, then Dikotter’s book really gives us no real reason for choosing one figure above another.

However, the main problem is the reliability of any death rate estimate at all for China from 1958-1961. This point is illustrated by Dikotter’s rather selective faith in the available demographic data for the Great Leap Forward. Dikotter decides to round up Liu Shaoqi’s baseline figure of 0.8% deaths a year before the Great Leap Forward to 1% (p. 329). Dikotter decides that any number of deaths above this figure in the Great Leap Forward, were excess deaths. By extrapolating the excess deaths he finds on a local level to the country as a whole he calculates the 45 million deaths figure. Dikotter’s figures seem to be based on figures gathered by the local investigation teams. ‘Liu Shaoqi’s 1%’ is more or less the ‘baseline’ death rate figure in the demographic figures released in the early 1980s by the Deng Xiaoping regime. The Deng Xiaoping figures show up to 16.5 million excess deaths, due to increases from the baseline figure in 1959-1961 (with a high of 2.5% in 1960). The death rate figures were presented at a public academic gathering in China in 1981. ‘Liu’s 1%’ might be seen as corroboration of the Deng Xiaoping figures that emerged more than twenty years later. But Dikotter cannot accept the Deng Xiaoping figures in full, as the Deng Xiaoping figures for 1959-1961 imply a death toll a lot smaller than the one he is proposing. So Dikotter has a problem. If Dikotter believes Liu knew a true death rate figure for years prior to 1960, he must also believe a comprehensive system of death registration was in place during the Great Leap Forward, despite the fact that the records of these death registrations seem to have been hidden from all eyes ever since. Therefore Dikotter must accept the baseline figure of 1% given by Liu Shaoqi but then assume that the death registration information that shows 45 million deaths for 1958-1961 has been deliberately hidden by the Chinese authorities. But if the Chinese authorities are in the business of hiding and manipulating population figures about this period, why does Dikotter insist that the 1% baseline figure must be true? What are his grounds for saying that the one figure should be accepted, while the other Deng Xiaoping figures must have been falsified? It might be said that the other documents Dikotter has found corroborate the 45 million figure but this is not really so. As Dikotter book illustrates, Liu stated openly in a speech that 0.8% should be used as the baseline when making calculations of excess deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward. Therefore the figures that appear in the documents Dikotter has seen in the archives, cannot be used as any kind of corroboration as they were probably drawn up following Liu’s instructions. The investigation teams most likely came up with a total number of deaths in a province-by whatever means-and then subtracted ‘Liu’s 1%’ to get a figure for excess deaths.

As I showed in ‘Did Mao Really Kill Millions…’ it is not clear at all where death rate figures for the Great Leap Forward came from. This makes any of the figures given for the Great Leap Forward death toll, from the 16.5 million figure, to the estimates of local investigation teams, to Dikotter’s 45 million, mere speculation. Judith Banister, a leading western demographer of the Great Leap Forward period, expresses severe doubts about death rate figures for China in the 1950s and 1960s (3). It does not seem that there was anything like a comprehensive national death registration scheme at this time. People who have examined local population records for the Great Leap Forward seem to have found records of population changes but I have not seen examples of locally kept death toll figures (4). Could it be that when asked for death toll figures, local officials simply offered some variant on population change figures, having nothing else at their disposal? But a population change figure for a given locality provides absolutely no guide to the number of deaths in the Great Leap Forward. This was a time of massive movements of population as workers migrated from their villages to the towns or to construction sites or left their locality to find food when famine struck. If you just take figures for every area where population decreased and assume that this was part of a national death trend, then you might come up with a figure of 45 million. Overall, then, it must be asked where the local investigation teams got all their death rate figures from, given the lack of comprehensive death registration.

I think there is a much more sensible account of what happened in the Great Leap Forward, than the apocalyptic version given by the Jasper Becker, Jung Chang and Frank Dikotter side of the debate.

Firstly, we should, like Banister, accept that the 1% baseline figure is too low. Banister discusses the official figure of 10.8 deaths per thousand in 1957, given in 1981. She writes:

‘This is an unrealistic claim. Of course, the PRC made great strides in mortality reduction in the 1950’s. As of 1957, the patriotic public health campaigns had reduced the level of filth and the number of disease-carrying pests. A large proportion of China’s midwives had received instruction in modern midwifery. There were many epidemic-control stations monitoring infectious diseases and specialized centers attacking particular diseases….Yet underlying health conditions in China remained poor…This population might have achieved a crude death rate below 20 per thousand by 1957, but not nearly so low as the official death rate of 10.8.’ (5).

We can perhaps speculate a little about why Deng Xiaoping figures give such a low death rate figure for 1957 and such a high rate for 1960. Liu Shaoqi announced his ‘1%’ (or 0.8%) in a speech in his home town, just as he was starting his political campaign against the line of the Great Leap Forward. Once Deng Xiaoping consolidated his power after the death of Mao he asked for statistics to be put together concerning Great Leap Forward deaths. The workers compiling the statistics would have known of Liu’s 1% baseline figure and this became their own baseline for the figures released in 1981. This is not necessarily a matter of complete conspiracy. Maybe Liu said the figure was 1% because this had been the figure the Party had wanted to give in the late 1950s to celebrate its achievements. Maybe given the euphoria of the time the Party thought they actually had achieved such a low figure. However, maybe Liu just invented it in 1960 because it made the death rate figures look worse than they were, thus undermining his political rival Mao. When it came to compiling population statistics in the late 1970s, perhaps researchers, finding nothing else to work on, came back to Liu’s low figure and decided to adopt a figure that was roughly equivalent. It was after all a figure that had been endorsed by the Head of State at the time. Demographers can make assumptions on thinner grounds than this when faced with a paucity of hard evidence. Once the 1% is accepted as a baseline, demographers have the problem of trying to come up with a series of birth rate and death rate figures that in some way correlates with the census figures of 1953 and 1964. The obvious solution is to push all the deaths which you cannot account for, given the 1% baseline rule, into the famine periods. Thus the researchers came up with the death rate figures in 1981 which gave rise to the 16.5 million death toll statistic.

Writers on the Great Leap Forward are routinely taking these figures and extrapolating from them to reach even higher figures, which they then give the status of fact. Without some idea of how the 1981 death rate figures were actually calculated, they are of little use for such purposes. Once you adopt a sceptical attitude to the Deng Xiaoping figures, other death rate figures such as Dikotter’s and Banister’s begin to look unconvincing too (6).

Dikotter’s figures for deaths by violence and home demolitions are certainly the weakest part of the book. Dikotter states that 2.5 million people died of violence during the Great Leap Forward. His evidence again comes from the ‘investigation teams’. The figure appears to come from an extrapolation from figures given for one region (Xinyang) and two counties (see page 297-8). Dikotter tells us that as ‘rough approximation’ 30-40% of all houses were turned to rubble in China in the Great Leap Forward. Dikotter’s source for this astounding figure is, Liu Shaoqi again, who apparently claimed that 40% of all houses in Hunan had been destroyed (p.169). The other main source is a figure that 45-70% of homes in ‘the most affected counties’ of Sichuan were demolished (p. 170). Even if both these reports were completely true, one could hardly extrapolate from these two figures and say that 30-40% of homes in the whole of China were destroyed. These were just two provinces and we do not even have an estimate for the total number of home demolitions in Sichuan, just those for the allegedly most affected counties.

The question we have to ask about the figure for home demolitions is, again, where is the witness evidence? Of course the media in China is fairly stringently censored. But especially in the last three decades millions of people have travelled into and out of China. If 40% of all homes had been demolished in the whole of China in the Great Leap Forward, would not this fact have come out before now?

Other somewhat strange claims in Dikotter’s book would also bear further analysis, no doubt. He writes of the Ming Tombs (Shisanling) Reservoir, that was built in 1958. Dikotter states (page 30) : ‘As the reservoir was built in the wrong location, it dried up and was abandoned after a few years.’

Anyone who was been there recently will testify that it is actually rather full of water. The fact is that Dikotter just assumes the whole project must have been a total failure because it was carried out during the Great Leap Forward. Such errors illustrate the need for rather more even-handed historians to go over the evidence that Dikotter has presented in more detail than I am able to do here.

Overall, Dikotter’s book is, on the face of it, unconvincing. His claims are just too exaggerated and his analysis of the veracity of his sources is just too underdeveloped. It is part of a trend towards ‘death toll inflation’ which sees the numbers of those allegedly killed by Mao increase year after year as ‘new historical evidence’ is published. Deng Xiaoping released figures that gave rise to the 16.5 million death toll. Judith Banister raised this to 30 million. Now, Dikotter has taken Banister’s 30 million and raised it to 45 million. But this of course is only ‘a minimum’, some historians put the figure at 50 to 60 million, Dikotter tells us (page 333). But as the death rate totals inflate, it will get harder and harder to fit in all these excess deaths between the figures provided by the two censuses of 1953 and 1964, unless the death toll in the non-Great Leap Forward years is pushed down to a ridiculous level. This will not bother Dikotter as he seems to be a sceptic about all the Chinese demographic data. This position is a perfectly acceptable one to take but where will it leave ‘Liu’s 1%’ baseline on which all Dikotter’s figures are based? You cannot state that a death rate figure is credible when you believe that all the available population figures are completely false. The death rate is a percentage of the population after all. Presumably at some point the death rate figures will have been thrown out too. When we get to 60 million, there will be no real reason left not to allow the death figure to rise ceaselessly up towards the 100 million mark and beyond.

Of course, there is a real story about the Great Leap Forward buried under all the nonsensical ‘death toll figures’. Certainly, that story includes the tragedy of the famine that occurred in China in the Great Leap Forward. The story must include the fact that the deaths that occurred were due to policy errors, as well as the very adverse natural conditions of the time. However, it is also a story of a nation surrounded by adversaries, desperately trying to pull itself out of the economic backwardness that had repeatedly condemned it to famine in the past.

(1) R. MacFarquhar, T. Cheek and E. Wu (eds) The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward, p.494-5. Harvard University Press.

(2) Han Dongping, ‘The Great Leap Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Post- Mao Rural Reform: the Lessons of Rural Development in Contemporary China.’’ http://www.chinastudygroup.org/article/26. 2003.

(3) Banister, J. (1979), China’s Changing Population Stanford University Press, p.87-8.

(4) See for example, Endicott (1988) Red Earth Revolution. In a Sichuan Village, p.55-6 and Han Dongping (2003).

(5) Banister, J. (1987), p.80-81.

(6) See Banister, J. (1987), p.114-119. Banister’s own figure of 30 million deaths is just a variation on the Deng Xiaoping figure. Banister gets her figure by using a significantly higher figure for the number of births between the censuses of 1953 and 1964, than the official figure, given by the Deng Xiaoping regime. The higher rate of births, combined with the census figures imply a higher rate of deaths, than the official figures show, otherwise the 1964 population figure would have been greater. Banister then apportions the extra death according to proportions derived from the death rate figures for this period released by the Deng Xiaoping regime.

Appendix

Correspondence between Frank Dikotter and Joseph Ball

Dear Mr Dikotter

I am currently studying your book Mao’s Great Famine. I would very interested to know how I could access some of the documents cited in your work. The one I am most interested in is the document which includes Mao’s speech on 25 March 1959. You give the reference as Gansu 19-18-494,p.48. You give this reference on p.379, its note 13. I am very interested in the quote you give on p.134 from this speech where Mao says ‘It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’ It’s interesting because in November 1959 Mao made a speech (in ‘Mao’s Secret Speeches’ p.494-5) where he gives orders that no-one should die as a result of the Great Leap Forward.

The other documents I’m interested in are: Xinyang diwei zuzhii chuli bangongonshi…etc. p.1-2 cited on page 378, note 6. This is the reference for the figure of 66,000 clubbed to death in Xinyang. Also the documents Sichuan May-June 1962, JC 67-4 and JC 67-1003, p.3. cited in note 16 on page 403. This is the reference for deaths in Sichuan. I hope you don’ regard my requests as too much of an imposition.

Obviously, I would find it very useful if I could access scanned versions of these documents. Do you put your sources on the internet? I haven’t been able to find them. Please note: as I always say I regard information on the accessibility of sources in works I discuss as information I need to share with my readers. Therefore I will quote from your reply to my enquiries in any review or article I publish about your book. Please be aware of this and do not say anything in an email that you do not want to be shared with the public.

Yours sincerely
Joseph Ball

Dear Joseph,
The answer to this is quite simple: when I use party archives, I have to sign a contract, as I am sure you know, to the effect that I will not duplicate or circulate any of the files I see. If I send them to you I have no idea where they will end up and I will be in breach of contract, resulting, possibly, in a ban from the archives in future And of course you have not been able to find these sources on the internet, how would that be possible? You need to go to the archives I cite, i.e. Lanzhou, Chengdu ad Xinyang. However, my colleague Zhou Xun is in the process of publishing documents, including the ones you cite,for a documentary history of the famine. This may take another year or two. I would be happy to show you these documents in my office if you have time.

With best wishes,
Frank

Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?

Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?mzd06-1

by Joseph Ball

(llco.org, slightly edited. Original source: Maoists.org)

Over the last 25 years the reputation of Mao Zedong has been seriously undermined by ever more extreme estimates of the numbers of deaths he was supposedly responsible for. In his lifetime, Mao Zedong was hugely respected for the way that his socialist policies improved the welfare of the Chinese people, slashing the level of poverty and hunger in China and providing free health care and education. Mao’s theories also gave great inspiration to those fighting imperialism around the world. It is probably this factor that explains a great deal of the hostility towards him from the Right. This is a tendency that is likely to grow more acute with the apparent growth in strength of Maoist movements in India and Nepal in recent years, as well as the continuing influence of Maoist movements in other parts of the world.

Most of the attempts to undermine Mao’s reputation centre around the Great Leap Forward that began in 1958. It is this period that this article is primarily concerned with. The peasants had already started farming the land co- operatively in the 1950s. During the Great Leap Forward they joined large communes consisting of thousands or tens of thousands of people. Large-scale irrigation schemes were undertaken to improve agricultural productivity. Mao’s plan was to massively increase both agricultural and industrial production. It is argued that these policies led to a famine in the years 1959-61 (although some believe the famine began in 1958). A variety of reasons are cited for the famine. For example, excessive grain procurement by the state or food being wasted due to free distribution in communal kitchens. It has also been claimed that peasants neglected agriculture to work on the irrigation schemes or in the famous ‘backyard steel furnaces’ (small-scale steel furnaces built in rural areas).

Mao admitted that problems had occurred in this period. However, he blamed the majority of these difficulties on bad weather and natural disasters. He admitted that there had been policy errors too, which he took responsibility for.

Official Chinese sources, released after Mao’s death, suggest that 16.5 million people died in the Great Leap Forward. These figures were released during a ideological campaign by the governement of Deng Xiaoping against the legacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, there seems to be no way of independently, authenticating these figures due to the great mystery about how they were gathered and preserved for twenty years before being released to the general public. American researchers managed to increase this figure to around 30 million by combining the Chinese evidence with extrapolations of their own from China’s censuses in 1953 and 1964. Recently, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book Mao: the Unknown Story reported 70 million killed by Mao, including 38 million in the Great Leap Forward.

Western writers on the subject have taken a completely disproportionate view of the period, mesmerised, as they are, by massive death toll figures from dubious sources . They concentrate only on policy excesses and it is likely that their views on the damage that these did are greatly exaggerated. There has been a failure to understand how some of the policies developed in the Great Leap Forward actually benefited the Chinese people, once the initial disruption was over.

US state agencies have provided assistance to those with a negative attitude to Maoism (and communism in general) throughout the post-war period. For example, the veteran historian of Maoism Roderick MacFarquhar edited The China Quarterly) in the 1960s. This magazine published allegations about massive famine deaths that have been quoted ever since. It later emerged that this journal received money from a CIA front organisation, as MacFarquhar admitted in a recent letter to The London Review of Books. (Roderick MacFarquhar states that he did not know the money was coming from the CIA while he was editing The China Quarterly.

Those who have provided qualitative evidence, such as eyewitness accounts cited by Jasper Becker in his famous account of the period Hungry Ghosts , have not provided enough accompanying evidence to authenticate these accounts. Important documentary evidence quoted by Chang and Halliday concerning the Great Leap Forward is presented in a demonstrably misleading way.

Evidence from the Deng Xiaoping regime Mao that millions died during the Great Leap Forward is not reliable. Evidence from peasants contradicts the claim that Mao was mainly to blame for the deaths that did occur during the Great Leap Forward period.

US demographers have tried to use death rate evidence and other demographic evidence from official Chinese sources to prove the hypothesis that there was a ‘massive death toll’ in the Great Leap Forward (i.e. a hypothesis that the ‘largest famine of all time’ or ‘one of the largest famines of all time’ took place during the Great Leap Forward). However, inconsistencies in the evidence and overall doubts about the source of their evidence undermines this ‘massive death toll’ hypothesis.

The More Likely Truth About The Great Leap Forward

The idea that ‘Mao was responsible for genocide’ has been used as a springboard to rubbish everything that the Chinese people achieved during Mao’s rule. However, even someone like the demographer Judith Banister, one of the most prominent advocates of the ‘massive death toll’ hypothesis has to admit the successes of the Mao era. She writes how in 1973-5 life expectancy in China was higher than in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and many countries in Latin America (1). In 1981 she co-wrote an article where she described the People’s Republic of China as a ‘super-achiever’ in terms of mortality reduction, with life expectancy increasing by approximately 1.5 years per calendar year since the start of communist rule in 1949 (2). Life expectancy increased from 35 in 1949 to 65 in the 1970s when Mao’s rule came to an end (3).

To read many modern commentators on Mao’s China (4), you would get the impression that Mao’s agricultural and industrial policies led to absolute economic disaster. Even more restrained commentators, such as the economist Peter Nolan (5) claim that living standards did not rise in China, during the post-revolutionary period, until Deng Xiaoping took power. Of course, increases in living standards are not the sole reason for increases in life expectancy. However, it is absurd to claim that life expectancy could have increased so much during the Mao era with no increase in living standards.

For example, it is claimed by many who have studied figures released by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death that per capita grain production did not increase at all during the Mao period (6). But how is it possible to reconcile such statistics with the figures on life expectancy that the same authors quote? Besides which these figures are contradicted by other figures. Guo Shutian, a Former Director of Policy and Law in the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, in the post-Mao era, gives a very different view of China’s overall agricultural performance during the period before Deng’s ‘reforms’. It is true that he writes that agricultural production decreased in five years between 1949-1978 due to ‘natural calamities and mistakes in the work’. However he states that during 1949-1978 the per hectare yield of land sown with food crops increased by 145.9% and total food production rose 169.6%. During this period China’s population grew by 77.7%. On these figures, China’s per capita food production grew from 204 kilograms to 328 kilograms in the period in question (7).

Even according to figures released by the Deng Xiaoping regime, industrial production increased by 11.2% per year from 1952-1976 (by 10% a year during the alleged catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution). In 1952 industry was 36% of gross value of national output in China. By 1975 industry was 72% and agriculture was 28%. It is quite obvious that Mao’s supposedly disastrous socialist economic policies paved the way for the rapid (but inegalitarian and unbalanced) economic development of the post-Mao era (8).

There is a good argument to suggest that the policies of the Great Leap Forward actually did much to sustain China’s overall economic growth, after an initial period of disruption. At the end of the 1950s, it was clear that China was going to have to develop using its own resources and without being able to use a large amount of machinery and technological know-how imported from the Soviet Union.

In the late ’50′s China and the USSR were heading for a schism. Partly, this was the ideological fall-out that occurred following the death of Stalin. There had been differences between Stalin and Mao. Among other things, Mao believed that Stalin mistrusted the peasants and over-emphasized the development of heavy industry. It is important not to exaggerate the nature of these differences, however. Mao vehemently opposed the way Khruschev denounced Stalin in 1956. Mao believed that Khruschev was using his denunciation of ‘Stalinism’ as a cover for the progressive ditching of socialist ideology and practice in the USSR.

The split was due to the tendency of Khruschev to try and impose the Soviet Union’s own ways of doing things on its allies. Khruschev acted not in the spirit of socialist internationalism but rather in the spirit of treating economically less developed nations like client states. For a country like China, that had fought so bitterly for its freedom from foreign domination, such a relationship could never have been acceptable. Mao could not have sold it to his people, even if he had wanted to.

In 1960 the conflict between the two nations came to a head. The Soviets had been providing a great deal of assistance for China’s industrialization program. In 1960, all Soviet technical advisers left the country. They took with them the blueprints of the various industrial plants they had been planning to build.

Mao made clear that , from the start, the policies of the Great Leap Forward were about China developing a more independent economic policy. China’s alternative to reliance on the USSR was a program for developing agriculture alongside the development of industry. In so doing, Mao wanted to use the resources that China could muster in abundance-labour and popular enthusiasm. The use of these resources would make up for the lack of capital and advanced technology.

Although problems and reversals occurred in the Great Leap Forward, it is fair to say that it had a very important role in the ongoing development of agriculture. Measures such as water conservancy and irrigation allowed for sustained increases in agricultural production, once the period of bad harvests was over. They also helped the countryside to deal with the problem of drought. Flood defenses were also developed. Terracing helped gradually increase the amount of cultivated area (9).

Industrial development was carried out under the slogan of ‘walking on two legs’. This meant the development of small and medium scale rural industry alongside the development of heavy industry. As well as the steel furnaces, many other workshops and factories were opened in the countryside. The idea was that rural industry would meet the needs of the local population. Rural workshops supported efforts by the communes to modernize agricultural work methods. Rural workshops were very effective in providing the communes with fertilizer, tools, other agricultural equipment and cement (needed for water conservation schemes) (10).

Compared to the rigid, centralized economic system that tended to prevail in the Soviet Union, the Great Leap Forward was a supreme act of lateral thinking. Normally, cement and fertilizer, for example, would be produced in large factories in urban areas away from the rural areas that needed them. In a poor country there would be the problem of obtaining the capital and machinery necessary to produce industrial products such as these, using the most modern technique. An infrastructure linking the cities to the towns would then be needed to transport such products once they were made. This in itself would involve vast expense. As a result of problems like these, development in many poorer countries is either very slow or does not occur at all.

Rural industry established during the Great Leap Forward used labour- intensive rather than capital-intensive methods. As they were serving local needs, they were not dependent on the development of an expensive nation-wide infrastructure of road and rail to transport the finished goods.

In fact the supposedly wild, chaotic policies of the Great Leap Forward meshed together quite well, after the problems of the first few years. Local cement production allowed water conservancy schemes to be undertaken. Greater irrigation made it possible to spread more fertilizer. This fertilizer was, in turn, provided by the local factories. Greater agricultural productivity would free up more agricultural labour for the industrial manufacturing sector, facilitating the overall development of the country (11). This approach is often cited as an example of Mao’s economic illiteracy (what about the division of labour and the gains from regional specialization etc). However, it was right for China as the positive effects of Mao’s policies in terms of human welfare and economic development show.

Agriculture and small scale rural industry were not the only sector to grow during China’s socialist period. Heavy industry grew a great deal in this period too. Developments such as the establishment of the Taching oil field during the Great Leap Forward provided a great boost to the development of heavy industry. A massive oil field was developed in China (12) This was developed after 1960 using indigenous techniques, rather than Soviet or western techniques. (Specifically the workers used pressure from below to help extract the oil. They did not rely on constructing a multitude of derricks, as is the usual practice in oil fields).

The arguments about production figures belie the fact that the Great Leap Forward was at least as much about changing the way of thinking of the Chinese people as it was about industrial production. The so-called ‘backyard steel furnaces’, where peasants tried to produce steel in small rural foundries, became infamous for the low quality of the steel they produced. But they were as much about training the peasants in the ways of industrial production as they were about generating steel for China’s industry. It’s worth remembering that the ‘leaps’ Mao used to talk about the most were not leaps in the quantities of goods being produced but leaps in people’s consciousness and understanding. Mistakes were made and many must have been demoralized when they realized that some of the results of the Leap had been disappointing. But the success of the Chinese economy in years to come shows that not all its lessons were wasted.

Great Leap Forward and Qualitative Evidence

Of course, to make such points is to go against the mainstream western view that the Great Leap Forward was an disaster of world historical proportions. But what is the basis for this view? One way those who believe in the ‘massive death toll’ thesis could prove their case would be to find credible qualitative evidence such as eye-witness or documentary evidence. The qualitative evidence that does exist is not convincing however.

Chinese history scholar Carl Riskin,believes that a very serious famine took place but states ‘In general, it appears that the indications of hunger and hardship did not approach the kinds of qualitative evidence of mass famine that have accompanied other famines of comparable (if not equal) scale, including earlier famines in China.’ He points out that much of the contemporary evidence presented in the West tended to be discounted at the time as it emanated from right-wing sources and was hardly conclusive. He considers whether repressive policies by the Chinese governement prevented information about the famine getting out but states ‘whether it is a sufficient explanation is doubtful. There remains something of a mystery here.’ (13).

There are authors such as Roderick MacFarquhar, Jasper Becker and Jung Chang who certainly do assert that the evidence they have seen proves the massive famine thesis. It is true that their main works on these issues (14) ,do cite sources for this evidence. However, they do not make it sufficiently clear, in these books, why they believe these sources are authentic.

It therefore remains an open question why the accounts presented by these authors should be treated as certain fact in the west. In his famous 1965 book on China, A Curtain of Ignorance, Felix Greene says that he traveled through areas of China in 1960 where food rationing was very tight but he did not see mass starvation. He also cites other eyewitnesses who say the same kind of thing. It is likely, that in fact, famine did occur in some areas. However Greene’s observations indicate that it was not a nation-wide phenomenon on the apocalyptic scale suggested by Jasper Becker and others. Mass hunger was not occurring in the areas he traveled through, although famine may have been occurring elsewhere. Why are the accounts of people like Becker believed so readily when the account of Felix Greene and the others he cites is discounted? Of course, the sympathy of Greene for Mao’s regime may be raised in connection with this and it might be suggested he distorted the truth for political reasons. But Becker, MacFarquhar and Jung Chang have their own perspectives on the issue too. Could anyone seriously doubt that these authors are not fairly staunch anti-communists?

Before addressing the question of the authentication of sources, the context for the discussion of these issues needs to be set. Communism is a movement that generates a massive amount of opposition. Western countries waged an intensive propaganda war against communism. In power, communist governments dispossessed large numbers of people of their capital and land. The whole landlord and business class was robbed of its social power and status across much of Asia and Europe. Unsurprisingly, this generated much bitterness. A large number of well-educated people who were born in these countries had and still have the motivation to discredit communism. It is not ‘paranoia’ to ask that those who write about the communist era take pains to ensure that their sources are reporting fact and are not providing testimony that has been distorted or slanted by anti-communist bias.

In addition, the US government did have an interest in putting out negative propaganda about Chinese communism and communism in general. Too often discussion of this is dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’ and the evidence about what really happened does not get discussed very widely.

However, covert attempts by the US to discredit communism are a matter of record. US intelligence agencies often sought a connection with those who published work about communist regimes. It must not be thought that those people they sought this connection with were simply hacks paid to churn out cheap sensationalism. Far from it. For example, The China Quarterly published many articles in the 1960s which are still frequently cited as evidence of living conditions in China and the success or otherwise of government policies in that country. In 1962 it published an article by Joseph Alsop that alleged that Mao was attempting to wipe out a third of his population through starvation to facilitate his economic plans! (15) This article is cited, in all seriousness, to provide contemporary evidence of the ‘massive death toll’ hypothesis in many later works on the subject (for example in the article ‘Famine in China’ that is discussed below).

The editor of The China Quarterly was Roderick MacFarquhar who went on to write many important works on China’s communist government. MacFarquhar edited Volume 14 of the Cambridge History of China which covered the period 1949-1965. He wrote The Origins of the Cultural Revolution which includes a volume on the events of 1956 and 1957 as well as a volume on the Great Leap Forward, which puts forward the ‘massive death toll’ thesis. He also edited Mao’s Secret Speeches . Printed in the pages of The China Quarterly is a statement that it was published by Information Bulletin Ltd on behalf of The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). On 13 May 1967 The CCF issued a press release admitting that it was funded by the CIA, following an expose in Ramparts magazine (16)

MacFarquhar stated when questioned by me that:

‘When I was asked to be the founder editor of the CQ [China Quarterly], it was explained to me that the mission of the CCF was to encourage Western intellectuals to form a community committed to the free exchange of ideas. The aim was to provide some kind of an organisational counter to Soviet efforts to attract Western intellectuals into various front organisations…All I was told about funding was that the CCF was backed by a wide range of foundations, including notably Ford, and the fact that, of these, the Farfield Foundation was a CIA front was not disclosed.’

In the 26 January 2006 edition of The London Review of Books MacFarquhar writes of ‘the 1960 inaugural issues of the China Quarterly, of which I was then the editor’

He also writes that ‘secret moneys from the CIA (from the Farfield Foundation via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the parent of the CQ, Encounter and many other magazines) provided part of the funding for the CQ – something I did not know until the public revelations of the late 1960s.’

The issue goes beyond those, like MacFarquhar, who worked for periodicals connected with the CCF. It is also alleged that other magazines received funding that emanated from the CIA more generally. For example, Victor Marchetti, a former staff officer in the Office of the Director of the CIA, wrote that the CIA set up the Asia Foundation and subsidized it to the tune of $8 million a year to support the work of ‘anti-communist academicians in various Asian countries, to disseminate throughout Asia a negative vision of mainland China, North Vietnam and North Korea’ (17).

Of course, the issue is not black and white. For example, MacFarquhar also states that he allowed a wide range of views from different sides of the political spectrum to be aired in his journal. He argues that Alsop’s article would have been published elsewhere, even if he had rejected it and that he did publish replies to it which were negative about Alsop’s thesis.

This may be true. However, those like MacFarquhar were publishing the kind of things the CIA might be thought to, in general, look favourably upon. (Otherwise why would the CIA have put up money for it?) The key point is that these people had a source of western state funding that others with a different viewpoint lacked.

In the last few years a new generation of writers has published alleged eyewitness and documentary evidence for the ‘massive death toll’ hypothesis. The key issue with this evidence is the authentication of sources. These authors do not present sufficient evidence in the works cited in this article to show that the sources are authentic.

Jasper Becker in his book on the Great Leap Forward, Hungry Ghosts, cites a great deal of evidence of mass starvation and cannibalism in China during the Great Leap Forward. It should be noted that this is evidence that only emerged in the 1990s. Certainly the more lurid stories of cannibalism are not corroborated by any source that appeared at the actual time of the Great Leap Forward, or indeed for many years later. Many of the accounts of mass starvation and cannibalism that Becker uses come from a 600 page document ‘Thirty Years in the Countryside’. Becker says it was a secret official document that was smuggled out of China in 1989. Becker writes that his sources for Hungry Ghosts include documents smuggled out of China in 1989 by intellectuals going into exile. The reader needs to be told how people who were apparently dissidents fleeing the country during a crack-down were able to smuggle out official documents regarding events thirty years before.

Also, Becker should have discussed more generally why he believes ‘Thirty Years in the Countryside’ and the other texts are authentic. In 2001 Becker reviewed the Tiananmen Papers in the London Review of Books (18). The Tiananmen Papers are purportedly inner party documents which were smuggled out of the country by a dissident. They supposedly shed light on the Party leaderships thinking at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In his review Becker seriously discusses the possibility that these papers might be forgeries. In Hungry Ghosts, Becker needed to say why he thought the documents he was citing in his own book were genuine, despite believing that other smuggled official documents might be inauthentic.

Similarly, Becker cites a purported internal Chinese army journal from 1961 as evidence of a massive humanitarian disaster during the Great Leap Forward. The reports in this journal do indeed allude to a fairly significant disaster which is effecting the morale of Chinese troops. However, is this journal a genuine document? The journals were released by US Department of State in 1963 and was published in a collection by the Hoover Institution entitled The Politics of the Chinese Red Army in 1966. According to the British Daily Telegraph newspaper (19) ‘They [the journals] have been in American hands for some time, although nobody will disclose how they were acquired.’ Becker and the many other writers on the Great Leap Forward who have cited these journals need to state why they regard them as authentic.

Becker’s book also uses eyewitness accounts of hunger in the Great Leap Forward. During the mid-nineties, he interviewed people in mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Chinese immigrants in the west. He states in his book that in mainland China he was ‘rarely if ever, allowed to speak freely to the peasants’. Local officials ‘coached’ the peasants before the interview, sat with them during it and answered some of the questions for them. Given that there is a good chance that these officials were trying to slant evidence in favour of the negative Deng Xiaoping line on the Great Leap Forward it is surely important that the reader is told which of the interviews cited in the book were conducted under these conditions and which were not. Becker does not do this in Hungry Ghosts. Nowhere in this book does he go into sufficient detail to demonstrate to the reader that the accounts he cites in his book are authentic.

For a few years, Hungry Ghosts, was the pre-eminent text, as far as critics of Mao were concerned. However, in 2005 Mao: the Unknown Story was published and very heavily promoted in the West. It’s allegations are, if anything, even more extreme than Becker’s book. Of the 70 million deaths the book ascribes to Mao, 38 million are meant to have taken place during the Great Leap Forward. The book relies very heavily on an unofficial collection of Mao’s speeches and statements which were supposedly recorded by his followers and which found their way to the west by means that are unclear. The authors often use materials from this collection to try and demonstrate Mao’s fanaticism and lack of concern for human life. They are a group of texts that became newly available in the 1980s courtesy of the Center of Chinese Research Materials (CCRM) in the US. Some of these texts were translated into English and published in Mao’s Secret Speeches (20).

In this volume, Timothy Cheek writes an essay assessing the authenticity of the texts. He writes ‘The precise provenance of these volumes, which have arrived through various channels, cannot be documented…’ Timothy Cheek argues that the texts are likely to be authentic for two reasons. Firstly, because some of the texts that the CCRM received were previously published in mainland China in other editions. Secondly, because texts that appear in one volume received by the CCRM also appear in at least one other volume received by the CCRM. It is not obvious to me why these two facts provide strong evidence of The general authenticity of the texts.

Perhaps more importantly Chang and Halliday quote passages from these texts in a misleading way in their chapter on the Great Leap Forward. Chang claims that in 1958 Mao clamped down on ‘what he called ‘people roaming the countryside uncontrolled.’ In the next sentence the authors claim that ‘The traditional possibility of escaping a famine by fleeing to a place where there was food was now blocked off.’ But the part of the ‘secret’ speech in which Mao supposedly complains about people ‘roaming around uncontrolled’ has nothing to do with preventing population movement in China. When the full passage which the authors selectively quote from is read, it can be seen that the authors are being misleading. What Mao is actually meant to have said is as follows.

‘[Someone] from an APC [an Agricultural Producers’ Co-operative-Joseph Ball] in Handan [Hebei] drove a cart to the Anshan steel [mill] and wouldn’t leave until given some iron. In every place [there are ] so many people roaming around uncontrolled; this must be banned completely. [We] must work out an equilibrium between levels, with each level reporting to the next higher level- APCs to the counties, counties to the prefectures, prefectures to the provinces- this is called socialist order.’ (21)

What Mao is talking about here is the campaign to increase steel production, partly through the use of small-scale rural production. Someone without authority was demanding iron from Anshan to help their co-operative meet their steel production quota. Mao seems to be saying that this spontaneous approach is wrong. He seems to be advocating a more hierarchical socialist planning system where people have to apply to higher authorities to get the raw materials they need to fulfil production targets. (This sounds very unlike Mao-but that is by the by.) He is clearly not advocating a general ban on all Chinese people traveling around the country here!

A second, seriously misleading, quotation comes at the end of the chapter on the Great Leap Forward. First Chang and Halliday write ‘We can now say with assurance how many people Mao was ready to dispense with.’ The paragraph then gives some examples of alleged quotes by Mao on how many Chinese deaths would be acceptable in time of war. The next paragraph begins ‘Nor was Mao just thinking about a war situation.’ They then quote Mao at the Wuchang Conference as saying ‘Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die.’ This quotation appears in the heading of Chang and Hallidays chapter on the Great Leap Forward. The way the authors present this quotation it looks as if Mao was saying that it might indeed be necessary for half of China to die to realize his plans to increase industrial production. But it is obvious from the actual text of the speech that what Mao is doing is warning of the dangers of overwork and over-enthusiasm in the Great Leap Forward, while using a fair bit of hyperbole. Mao is making it clear that he does not want anyone to die as a result of his industrialization drive. In this part of the discussion, Mao talks about the idea of developing all the major industries and agriculture in one fell swoop. The full text of the passage that the authors selectively quote from is as follows.

‘In this kind of situation, I think if we do [all these things simultaneously] half of China’s population unquestionably will die; and if it’s not a half, it’ll be a third or ten percent, a death toll of 50 million. When people died in Guangxi [in 1955-Joseph Ball], wasn’t Chen Manyuan dismissed? If with a death toll of 50 million, you didn’t lose your jobs, I at least should lose mine; [whether I would lose my] head would be open to question. Anhui wants to do so many things, it’s quite all right to do a lot, but make it a principle to have no deaths.’ (22)

Then in a few sentences later Mao says: ‘As to 30 million tons of steel, do we really need that much? Are we able to produce [that much]? How many people do we mobilize? Could it lead to deaths?’

It is very important that a full examination of the sources Chang and Halliday have used for their book is made. This is a call that has been made elsewhere. Nicholas D. Kristof’s review of the book in The New York Times brought up some interesting questions. Kristof talks about Mao’s English teacher Zhang Hanzhi (Mao attempted to learn English in adult life) who Chang and Halliday cite as one of the people they interviewed for the book. However, Zhang told Kristof (who is one of her friends) that though she met the two authors she declined to be interviewed and provided them with no substantial information (23). Kristof calls for the authors to publish their sources on the web so they can be assessed for fairness.

Deng’s Campaign Against Mao’s Legacy

There were some proponents of the ‘massive death toll’ story in the 1960s. However, as Felix Greene pointed out in A Curtain of Ignorance anti- communists in the 1950s and early 1960s made allegations about massive famines in China virtually every year. The story about the Great Leap Forward was only really taken seriously in the 1980s when the new Chinese leadership began to back the idea. It was this that has really given credibility in the west to those such as Becker and Jung Chang.

The Chinese leadership began its attack on the Great Leap Forward in 1979. Deng moved against Mao supporters directing the official press to attack them (24). This took the form of an ideological campaign against ‘ultraleftism’. As Meissner, says in his study of the Deng Xiaoping era, ‘multitudes of scholars and theoreticians were brought forth to expound on the ‘petty bourgeois” social and ideological roots of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution” (25).

The reason for this vilification of the Great Leap Forward had much to do with post-Mao power struggles and the struggle to roll back the socialist policies of 1949-76. Ater Mao’s death in 1976 Hua Guofeng had come to power on a platform of ‘upholding every word and policy made by Mao’. Deng Xiaoping badly needed a political justification for his usurpation of Hua in 1978 and his assumption of leadership. Deng’s stated stance of Mao being ’70% right and 30% wrong’ was a way of distinguishing his own ‘pragmatic’ approach to history and ideology from his predecessors. (The pro-market policies Deng implemented suggested that he actually believed that Mao was about 80% wrong.)

The Chinese party did everything it could to promote the notion that the Great Leap Forward was an catastrophe caused by ultra-leftist policies. Marshal Ye Jian ying, in an important speech in 1979 talked of disasters caused by leftist errors in the Great Leap Forward (26). In 1981 the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘Resolution on Party History’ spoke of ‘serious losses to our country and people between 1959 and 1961′. Academics joined in the attack. In 1981 Professor Liu Zeng, Director of the Institute of Population Research at the People’s University gave selected death rate figures for 1954-78. These figures were given at a public academic gathering which drew much attention in the West. The figures he gave for 1958-1961 indicated that 16.5 million excess deaths had occurred in this period (27). At the same time Sun Yefang, a prominent Chinese economist publicly drew attention to these figures stating that ‘a high price was paid in blood’ for the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward (28).

As well as the internal party struggle Deng wanted to reverse virtually all of Mao’s positive achievements in the name of introducing capitalism or ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as he described it. Attacking the Great Leap Forward, helped provide the ideological justification for reversing Mao’s ‘leftist’ policies. Deng dissolved the agricultural communes in the early 1980s. In the years following the Great Leap Forward the communes had begun to provide welfare services like free health care and education. The break up of the Commune meant this ended. In an article about the Great Leap Forward, Han Dongping, an Assistant Professor at Warren Wilson College, described a ‘humorous’ report in the New York based Chinese newspaper The World Journal about a farmer from Henan province who was unable to pay medical bills to get his infected testicles treated. Tortured by pain he cut them off with a knife and almost killed himself (29). This kind of incident is the real legacy of Deng’s ‘reforms’ in the countryside.

It is often said that Deng’s agricultural reforms improved the welfare of the peasantry. It is true that breaking up the communes led to a 5 year period of accelerated agricultural production. But this was followed by years of decline in per capita food production (30). Despite this decline, western commentators tend to describe the break-up of the communes as an unqualified economic success.

In fact, breaking up the peasant communes created sources of real hardship for the peasants. By encouraging the Chinese ruling class to describe the Great Leap Forward as a disaster that killed millions, Deng was able to develop a political line that made his regressive policies in the countryside seem legitimate.

Deng Xiaoping Blames Mao for Famine Deaths

For Deng’s line to prevail he needed to prove not only that mass deaths happened from 1959-61 but also that these were mainly the result of policy errors. After the Great Leap Forward the official Chinese government line on the famine was that it was 70% due to natural disasters and 30% due to human error. This verdict was reversed by the Deng Xiaoping regime. In the 1980s they claimed the problems were caused 30% by natural disasters and 70% by human error . But surely if Mao’s actions had led to the deaths of millions of peasants, the peasants would have realized what was going on. However, the evidence is that they did not blame Mao for most of the problems that occurred during the Great Leap Forward.

Long after Mao’s death, Professor Han Dongping traveled to Shandong and Henan, where the worst famine conditions appeared in 1959-1961.

Han Dongping found that most of the farmers he questioned favoured the first interpretation of events, rather than the second, that is to say they did not think Mao was mainly to blame for the problems they suffered during the Great Leap Forward (31). This is not to say that tragic errors did not occur. Dongping wrote of the introduction of communal eating in the rural communes. To begin with, this was a very popular policy among the peasants. Indeed, in 1958 many farmers report that they had never eaten so well in their lives before. The problem was that this new, seeming abundance led to carelessness in the harvesting and consumption of food. People seemed to have started assuming that the government could guarantee food supplies and that they did not have responsibility themselves for food security.

Given the poverty of China in the late ’50′s this was an error that was bound to lead to serious problems and the Communist leadership should have taken quicker steps to rectify it. Three years of awful natural disasters made things much worse. Solidarity between commune members in the worst effected regions broke down as individuals tried to seize crops before they were harvested. Again, this practice made a bad situation worse. However, it must be stressed that the farmers themselves did not tell Han Dongping that errors in the organisation of communal eating were the main cause of the famine they suffered. Han Dongping, himself, severely criticizes Mao for the consequences of his ‘hasty’ policies during the Great Leap Forward. However he also writes ‘I have interviewed numerous workers and farmers in Shandong, Henan, and I never met one farmer or worker who said that Mao was bad. I also talked to one scholar in Anhui [where the famine is alleged to have been most serious-Joseph Ball] who happened to grow up in rural areas and had been doing research in the Anhui, he never met one farmer that said Mao was bad nor a farmer who said Deng [Xiaoping] was good.’ (32).

It may be argued that Han Dongping’s, at least partial, sympathy for Mao might have coloured his interpretation of what he heard from the peasants. However, it must also be noted that two of his grandparents died of hunger related diseases during the Great Leap Forward and Han Dongping often sounds more critical of Mao’s policies in this period than the peasants he is interviewing.

Massive Deaths? The Demographic Evidence.

The relative sympathy of the peasants for Mao when recalling the Great Leap Forward must call into question the demographic evidence that indicates that tens of millions of them starved to death at this time. Western academics seem united on the validity of this evidence. Even those who query it, like Carl Riskin, always end up insisting that all the ‘available evidence’ indicates that a famine of huge proportions occurred in this period.

In fact, there is certainly evidence from a number of sources that a famine occurred in this period but the key question is was it a famine that killed 30 million people? This really would have been unprecedented. Although we are used to reading newspaper headlines like ‘tens of millions face starvation in African famine’ it is unheard of for tens of millions to actually die in a famine. For example, the Bangladesh famine of 1974-75 is remembered as a deeply tragic event in that nation’s history. However, the official death toll for the Bangladesh famine was 30,000 (out of a single-year population of 76 million), although unofficial sources put the death toll at 100,000 (33). Compare this to an alleged death toll of 30 million out of a single-year population calculated at around 660-670 million for the Great Leap Forward period. Proportionally speaking, the death toll in the Great Leap Forward is meant to be approximately 35 times higher than the higher estimated death toll for the Bangladesh famine!

It is rather misleading to say that all ‘available evidence’ demonstrates the validity of the massive deaths thesis. The real truth is that all estimates of tens of millions of Great Leap Forward deaths rely on figures for death rates for the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is only very uncertain corroboration for these figures from other statistics for the period.

The problem is that death rate figures for the period 1940-82, like most Chinese demographic information, were regarded as a state secret by China’s government until the early 1980s. As we shall see, uncertainty about how these were gathered seriously undermines their status as concrete evidence. It was only in 1982 that death rate figures for the 1950s and 1960s were released (see Table 1).

They purportedly showed that the death rate rose from 10.8 per thousand in 1957 to 25.4 per thousand in 1960, dropping to 14.2 per thousand in 1961 and 10 per thousand in 1962. These figures appear to show approximately 15 million excess deaths due to famine from 1958-1961 (34).


(Source Statistical Yearbook of China 1983)

US Demographers and the Chinese Statistics

Chinese data on famine deaths was used by a group of US demographers in their own work on the subject. These demographers were Ansley Coale, John Aird and Judith Banister. They can be said to be the three people that first popularized the ‘massive death toll’ hypothesis in the West. Ansley Coale was a very influential figure in American demography. He was employed by the Office of Population Research which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1980s when he was publishing his work on China. John Aird was a research specialist on China at the US Bureau Of The Census. In 1990, he wrote a book published by the American Enterprise Institute, which is a body that promotes neo-liberal policies. This book was called Slaughter of the Innocents and was a critique of China’s one-child birth control policy. Judith Banister was another worker at the US Bureau of the Census. She was given time off from her employment there to write a book that included a discussion of the Great Leap Forward deaths (35). John Aird read her book pre-publication and gave her advice.

Judith Banister produced figures that appear to show 30 million excess deaths in the Great Leap Forward. This is nearly twice the figure indicated by official Chinese statistics. She believes the official statistics under-estimate the total mortality because of under-reporting of deaths by the Chinese population during the period in question.

Banister calculates the total number of under-reported deaths in this period by first calculating the total number of births between the two censuses of 1953 and 1964. She does this using data derived from the census and data from a retrospective fertility survey carried out in 1982. (Participants in the survey were asked to describe the number of babies they had given birth to between 1940 and 1981). Once the population of 1953 and 1964 is known, and the total number of births between these two years is known, it is possible to calculate the number of deaths that would have occurred during this period. She uses this information to calculate a total number of deaths for the eleven year period that is much higher than official death rates show.

To estimate how many of these deaths occurred in the Great Leap Forward, Banister returns to the official Chinese death rate statistics. She assumes that these figures indicate the actual trend of deaths in China in this period, even though they were too low in absolute terms. For example, she assumes that the official death rate of 25 per thousand in 1960 does indeed indicate that a huge increase in the death rate occurred in 1960. However, she combines this with her estimates of under-reporting of deaths in the period 1953-1964 to come up with a figure of 45 deaths per thousand in 1960. In years in which no famine is alleged the death toll also increases using this method. In 1957, for example, she increases the death rate from the official figure of 10.8 per thousand to 18 per thousand. Banister then compares the revised death rates in good years with the revised death rates in alleged famine years. Banister is then able to come up with her estimate of 30 million deaths excess deaths during the Great Leap Forward (36).

Questions Over the Chinese Statistics

A variety of Chinese figures are quoted to back up this thesis that a massive famine occurred. Statistics that purport to show that Mao was to blame for it are also quoted. They include figures supposedly giving a provincial break-down of the increased death rates in the Great Leap Forward (37), figures showing a massive decrease in grain production during the Great Leap Forward (38) and also figures that apparently showed that bad weather was not to blame for the famine (39). These figures were all released in the early 1980s at the time of Deng’s ‘reforms’.

But how trustworthy are any of these figures? As we have seen they were released during the early 1980s at a time of acute criticism of the Great Leap Forward and the People’s Communes. China under Deng was a dictatorship that tried to rigorously control the flow of information to its people. It would be reasonable to assume that a government that continually interfered in the reporting of public affairs by the media would also interfere in the production of statistics when it suited them. John Aird writing in 1982 stated that

‘The main reason so few national population data appear in Chinese sources, however, is central censorship. No national population figures can be made public without prior authorization by the State Council. Even officials of the SSB [State Statistical Bureau] cannot use such figures until they have been cleared. ‘ (40)

Of particular interest is the question of the circumstances under which the death rate figures were arrived at by the State Statistical Bureau. The figures given for total deaths during the Great Leap Forward by US and Chinese academics all depend on the key death rate statistic for the years in question.

Of course, if we knew in detail how information about death rates was gathered during the Great Leap Forward we might be able to be more certain that it is accurate. The problem is that this information is not available. We have to just take the Chinese governments word for it that their figures are true. Moreover, statements provided by Aird and Banister indicates that they believe that death rate figures were estimates and not based on an actual count of reported deaths.

Aird states that ‘The official vital rates [birth and death rates] of the crisis years [of the Great Leap Forward] must be estimates, but their basis is not known.’ (41).

Banister writes that China did try to start vital registration in 1954 but it was very incomplete. She writes ‘If the system of death registration was used as a basis for any of the estimated death rates for 1955 through 1957, the rates were derived from only those localities that had set up the system, which would tend to be more advanced or more urbanized locations.’ (42).

Banister suggests that the situation did not improve very much during or after the Great Leap Forward. She writes:

‘In the late 1960′s and most prior years, the permanent population registration and reporting system may have been so incomplete and uneven that national or provincial statistical personnel had to estimate all or part of their totals. In particular, in the 1950′s the permanent population registration and reporting system was only beginning to be set up, and at first it did not cover the entire population. All the national population totals for the 1950′s except the census total, were probably based on incomplete local reports supplemented by estimates. ‘ (43)

She also writes that ‘In all years prior to 1973-75 the PRC’s data on crude death rates, infant mortality rates, expectation of life at birth, and causes of death were nonexistent, useless, or, at best, underestimates of actual mortality.’ (44)

The reader searches the work of Aird, Coale and Banister in vain for some indication as to why they can so confidently assert figures for tens of millions of deaths in the Great Leap Forward based on official death rate figures. These authors do not know how these figures were gathered and especially in Banister’s case, they appear to have little faith in them.

Alleged Deaths Among the Young in the Great Leap Forward

Some demographers have tried to calculate infant death rates to provide evidence for the ‘massive death toll’ hypothesis. However, the evidence they come up with tends to muddy the picture rather than providing corroboration for the evidence from death rates.

One calculation of deaths made by this method appears in the 1984 article ‘Famine in China’ (45). This article reviewed the previous work of Aird, Coale and Banister. It accepted the contention of these latter authors that a massive level of deaths had occurred, overall, during the Great Leap Forward. However, the authors also try to calculate separate figures for child and adult deaths in this period. The evidence this latter article tries to put together is very frequently quoted by those writing about the era.

The authors of ‘Famine in China’ calculate infant deaths using the 1982 Retrospective Fertility Survey. They use this survey to calculate the number of births in each year of the Great Leap Forward. Once the number of births is estimated for each year it is possible to calculate how many of those born in the years 1958-1962 survived to be counted in the census of 1964. This can be compared with survivorship rates of babies born in years when no famine was alleged.

They use model life tables to calculate how many of the babies dying before the census died in each famine year. They then convert this figure into a figure for the number of deaths of those aged under ten in each of the famine years. This final figure is arrived at by using life tables and period mortality levels.

The authors of this article argue that the famine began in 1958-9. They calculate that 4,268,000 excess deaths for those aged under 10 occurred in this period which represents a doubling of the death rate for this age group (see Table 2). Yet at the same time there was an excess death figure of only 216000 for those over 10 (in a country of over 600 million this figure is surely well within any reasonable margin of error). The explanation is that in the absence of effective rationing, children were left to starve in this period. But in famines, it is traditionally both the very young and the very old who both suffer. But in this year only the young suffer. Then in 1960-1961 the number of excess deaths for under 10s is reduced to 553,000 whereas the number for over 10s shoots up to 9 million. Even more bizarrely, 4,424,000 excess child deaths are calculated for 1961-62 but no excess deaths for those over 10 are calculated to have occurred in this period.


(source Aston et al 1984)
There is clearly a paradox here. According to the death rate provided by the Chinese, 1960 was the worst calendar year of the famine. The death rate increased from 10.8 per thousand before the famine to 25.4 per thousand in 1960 which was by far and away the peak year for famine deaths. If this was true, then we would expect 1959-60 and 1960-61 to be the worst fiscal years in terms of numbers of child deaths. Yet according to the authors only 24.6% of excess child deaths occurred in these fiscal years as opposed to 98.75% of the excess deaths of those aged ten or over!

It is hard to understand why there would have been such a large infant mortality rate in 1958-59. Everyone agrees that 1958 was a bumper harvest year even if grain production figures were exaggerated. The bulk of the Chinese crop is harvested in Autumn (46) so it’s difficult to see why massive deaths would have begun at the end of 1958 or even why so many deaths would have all occurred in the first three months of 1959. As we have seen, Han Dongping, Assistant Professor in Political Science at Warren Wilson College, questioned peasants in Shandong and Henan where the worst effects of the problems in the 1959-1961 period were felt. They stated that they had never eaten so well as they had after the bumper harvest of 1958 (47). Official death rate figures show a slight increase from 10.8 per thousand in 1957 to 12 per thousand in 1958. Why were infant deaths so much worse in the fiscal year 1958-59 according to the figures that are presented by demographers? Why did the situation improve in the year of alleged black famine?

This, it is claimed by the authors of ‘Famine in China’, is because a rationing system was introduced that assisted all those of working age and below but left the old to die. Certainly, there is some evidence that the young of working age received higher rations than the old because the young were performing manual labour (48).

However, in 1961-2, when the authors allege the famine was still occurring, the death rate for under 10s shoots up to 4,424, 000 and the death rate for over 10s reduces to zero. It is alleged that rationing was relaxed during this period allowing the young to die. It is not explained why no old people died during this period as well. Are the authors claiming that in famines, Chinese families would let their children die but not old people? The authors provide no evidence for this counter-intuitive implication of their analysis.

They try to back up their thesis with figures that claim to show a reduction in the numbers of those in older age groups between the two censuses of 1953 and 1964. The argument is that in a country that was developing in a healthy way the numbers of old people in the population should grow rather than fall. They argue that the figures for China in this period show a decline in the numbers of old people due to the way in which they were denied rations during the Great Leap Forward.

But the figures they quote are not consistent with mass deaths caused by a shortfall in rations for all people over a certain age. The authors state that age specific growth rates fall for males aged over 45 and for females aged over 65 between the two censuses. What kind of a rationing system would have led to such a disparity? One that provided sustenance to women aged 45-65 but not men of the same age? Besides even after the age of 65 the figures for women are not consistent. The number of those aged 75-79 grew by 0.51% on the figures presented. This figure compares well with the growth rates of age groups under 65. For example, the numbers of 20-24 years old grew by 0.57% and the numbers of 45-49 year olds by 0.55%. The figures for women do not show a pattern consistent with a rationing system that discriminated against the old. Faulty source statistics are a far more plausible explanation for the confusing figures the authors present, than their own difficult to swallow hypotheses about rationing.


(source ibid)
This article does not dispel doubts about massive famine deaths. It is true the authors of the article can point to some corroboration in the evidence they present. For example there is a reasonable correlation between the number of births given by the Fertility Census of 1982 and birth rate figures allegedly gathered in the years 1953-1964. Also there is reasonable correlation between the survivorships of birth cohorts born in the famine to the 1964 census and their survivorship to the 1982 census.

If different pieces of evidence, supposedly gathered independently of each other, correlate, then this provides some evidence that the authors hypothesis is true. In which case there might seem to be a stalemate. On the one hand there is the correlation between this evidence, on the other there is the huge mismatch between child mortality and adult mortality in alleged famine years.

However, we must remember the concerns that exist about the general validity of population statistics released by the Chinese government after the death of Mao. In the light of these uncertainties, the correlations between the birth rate figures and the Fertility Survey figures are not really decisive. Correlations between Chinese population figures occur elsewhere and have been considered by demographers. Banister speaks in another connection of the possibility of ‘mutual interdependence’ of Chinese demographic surveys that were supposedly conducted independently of each other. She notes that the census figure for 1982 and population figures derived from vital registration in 1982 were supposedly gathered independently. However, there is an extremely great correlation between the two figures (49). The possibility of such ‘mutual interdependence’ between the Fertility Survey figures and the birth rate figures should not be ruled out.

In addition it must be said that the authors of ‘Famine in China’ only present one estimate of the survivorship of babies born during the Great Leap Forward. Ansley Coale’s article, published in the same year (50) shows a reasonably significant but much smaller dip in survivorship in the years 1958-59 to the 1982 census than that shown in ‘Famine in China’. This would indicate far less ‘excess’ infant deaths in the years in question. In addition Coale’s figures show no dip in survivorship of babies born in 1961-2 to the 1982 census, in contrast to the figures presented in ‘Famine in China’.

Doubts about the survivorship evidence combined with doubts about the death rate evidence greatly undermine established beliefs about what happened in the Great Leap Forward. Overall, a review of the literature leaves the impression that a not very well substantiated hypothesis of a massive death toll has been transformed into an absolute certainty without any real justification.

Questions About Chinese Census Information

A final piece of evidence for the ‘massive death toll’ thesis comes from raw census data. That is to say we can just look at how large the number of those born in 1959-1961 and surviving to subsequent censuses is compared to surrounding years in which no famine has been alleged. We can get this evidence from the various censuses taken since the Great Leap Forward. These indeed show large shortfalls in the size of cohorts of those born in famine years, compared to other years.

Even, if it was granted that such shortfalls did occur they do not necessarily indicate massive numbers of deaths. Birthrate figures released by the Deng Xiaoping regime show massive decreases in fertility during the Great Leap Forward. It is possible to hypothesise that there was a very large shortfall in births without this necessarily indicating that millions died as well. Of course, there had to be some reason why fertility dropped off so rapidly, if this is indeed what did happen. Clearly hunger would have played a large part in this. People would have postponed having children because of worries about having another mouth to feed until food availability improved. Clearly, if people were having such concerns this would have indicated an increase in malnutrition which would have lead to some increase in child mortality. However, this is in no way proves that the ‘worst famine in world history’ occurred under Mao. The Dutch famine of 1944-1945 led to a fertility decline of 50%. The Bangladesh famine of 1974-1975 also led to a near 50% decrease in the birth rate (51). This is similar to figures released in the Deng Xiaoping era for the decline in fertility in the Great Leap Forward. Although, both the Bangladesh and the Dutch famines were deeply tragic they did not give rise to the kind of wild mortality figures bandied about in reference to the Great Leap Forward, as was noted above. In Bangladesh tens of thousands died, not tens of millions.

However, we should not automatically assume that evidence from the single year age distributions are correct. There is a general problem with all efforts to derive information from single-year age distributions from the 1953 and 1964 censuses. These figure only appeared in the early 80s (52) when all the other figures that blamed Mao for killing millions emerged. Censuses afterwards (e.g. in 1982, 1990 etc.) continue to show shortfalls but again caution should be exercised. Banister speaks of consistency in the age-sex structures between the three censuses of 1953, 1964 and 1982 with very plausible survival patterns for each age group from census to census.. She writes ‘It is surprising that China’s three censuses appear to be almost equally complete. One would have expected that the first two counts missed many people since they were conducted in less than ideal circumstances. The 1953 enumeration was China’s first modern census taken with only six months of preparation soon after the State Statistical Bureau was established….The 1964 census was taken in great secrecy…and included a question on people’s class origins…that might have prompted some to avoid being counted.’ (53).

Ping-ti Ho of the University of British Colombia wrote that the 1953 census was based, at least in part, on estimates not the counting of population and ‘was not a census in the technical definition of the term’ (54). Yet the age- structure of this census correlates extremely well with all the subsequent censuses.

Adding to the muddle, John Aird received evidence about the age-sex distribution in the 1953 census from Chinese, non-official academic sources in the 1960s. He found the figures unreliable, stating that the numbers for 5-24 year olds are lower than would be expected and the figures for those aged over 75 are much too high. He proposed substituting a hypothetical age-sex structure for these figures for the purposes of academic debate (55).

Given such doubts, it is surely possible that the consistent age-sex structures in successive structures may be effected by a certain amount of ‘mutual interdependence’ between records.

A trawl through the evidence reveals decisively that absolute certainty in any, politically controversial, historical question should never be derived from ‘academic research’ or ‘official statistics’. Politics always effects the presentation of statistics and the history of any period tends to be written by the winners. In relation to China, admirers of Mao’s socialist policies clearly were not the winners.

Conclusion

The approach of modern writers to the Great Leap Forward is absurdly one- sided. They are unable to grasp the relationship between its failures and successes. They can only grasp that serious problems occurred during the years 1959-1961. They cannot grasp that the work that was done in these years also laid the groundwork for the continuing overall success of Chinese socialism in improving the lives of its people. They fail to seriously consider evidence that indicates that most of the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward were due to natural disasters not policy errors. Besides, the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward have to be set against the Chinese people’s success in preventing many other deaths throughout the Maoist period. Improvements in life expectancy saved the lives of many millions.

We must also consider what would have happened if there had been no Leap and no adoption of the policies of self-reliance once the breach with the Soviet Union occurred. China was too poor to allow its agricultural and industrial development to stagnate simply because the Soviets were refusing to help. This is not an argument that things might not have been done better. Perhaps with better planning, less over-optimism and more care some deaths might have been avoided. This is a difficult question. It is hard to pass judgement what others did in difficult circumstances many years ago.

Of course it is also important that we do learn from the mistakes of the past to avoid them in the future. We should note that Mao to criticized himself for errors made during this period. But this self-criticism should in no way be allowed to give ammunition to those who insist on the truth of ridiculous figures for the numbers that died in this time. Hopefully, there will come a time when a sensible debate about the issues will take place.

If India’s rate of improvement in life expectancy had been as great as China’s after 1949, then millions of deaths could have been prevented. Even Mao’s critics acknowledge this. Perhaps this means that we should accuse Nehru and those who came after him of being ‘worse than Hitler’ for adopting non- Maoist policies that ‘led to the deaths of millions’. Or perhaps this would be a childish and fatuous way of assessing India’s post-independence history. As foolish as the charges that have been leveled against Mao for the last 25 years, maybe.

Bibliography

(1) J. Banister, China’s Changing Population, Stanford University Press 1987, p.92-95.
(2) J. Banister and S. Preston ‘Mortality in China’ in Population and Development Review Volume 7, No. 1, 1981, p. 108.
(3) M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Way 1996, p.194.
(4) For example see-J. Becker, Hungry Ghosts. China’s Secret Famine, Murray 1996.
(5) see J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, P. Newman (eds) Problems of the Planned Economy, Macmillan Reference Books 1990.
(6) ibid
(7) see Guo Shutian ‘China’s Food Supply and Demand Situation and International Trade’ in Can China Feed Itself? Chinese Scholars on China’s Food Issue. Beijing Foreign Languages Press 2004, p.159.
(8) M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Enquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Wray 1996, p189-191.
(9) see for example the report of the American Rural Small-Scale Industry Delegation, Chair Dwight Perkins, Rural Small-Scale Industry in the People’s Republic of China, University of California Press 1977 and E.. Wheelwright and B. McFarlane The Chinese Road to Socialism, Penguin 1973.
(10) ibid
(11) ibid
(12) see W. Burchett with R. Alley China: the Quality of Life. Penguin, 1976.
(13) C. Riskin. ‘Seven Questions About the Chinese Famine of 1959-61′ China Economic Review, vol 9, no.2. 1998, p121.
(14) see R. MacFarquhar The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Oxford University Press, 3 vols, 1974, 1983, 1997, J. Becker 1996 and J. Chang and J. Halliday Mao :The Unknown Story, Johnathan Cape, 2005.
(15) J. Alsop ‘On China’s Descending Spiral’ in The China Quarterly, No. 11, (July-September 1962), p21-22, p.33.
(16) F. Saunders Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. Granta, 1999, p.393-4.
(17) V. Marchetti, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, Johnathan Cape, 1974, p.172.
(18) London Review of Books, Volume 23, no. 10, 24 May 2001.
(19) Daily Telegraph 06/08/63.
(20) R. MacFarquhar, T. Cheek and E. Wu (eds) The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao. From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward. The Council on East Asian Studies/Harvard University Press, 1989, p.75-76.
(21) ibid, p.407.
(22) ibid, p.494-5.
(23) New York Times 23.10.05.
(24) M. Meissner, 1996, p.138.
(25) ibid
(26) ibid.
(27) A. Coale, ‘Population Trends, Population Policy and Population Studies in China.’ in Population and Development Review, Volume 7, No. 1, 1981, p89.
(28) J. Aird ‘Population Studies and Population Policies in China.’ In Population and Development Review, Volume 8, No.2, 1982, p.273.
(29) H. Dongping, ‘The Great Leap Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Post- Mao Rural Reform: the Lessons of Rural Development in Contemporary China.” http://www.chinastudygroup.org/article/26. 2003
(30) M. Meissner, 1996, p.238-242.
(31) H. Dongping, 2003.
(32) ibid.
(33) R. Sobhan ‘Politics of Food and Famine in Bangladesh’ in E. Ahmad (ed) Bangladesh Politics, Centre of Social Studies, Dacca University, 1980, p.175.
(34) B. Ashton, K. Hill, A. Piazza, R. Zeitz ‘Famine in China 1958-1961′ in Population and Development Review volume 10, no. 4, 1984, p.615.
(35) J. Banister China’s Changing Population Stanford University Press, 1987, p.vii-viii.
(36) ibid, p.114-119.
(37) P. Xizhe ‘Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s Province’ in Population and Development Review Vol 13, no. 4, 1987, p.647.
(38) ibid, p.650.
(39) ibid, p.651.
(40) J. Aird 1982, p.271.
(41) ibid, p.278.
(42) J. Banister 1987, p.81.
(43) ibid, p.41.
(44) ibi, p.87-88.
(45) B. Ashton et al 1984.
(46) see C. Riskin 1998.
(47) H. Dongping 2003.
(48) ibid.
(49) J. Banister, 1987, p.47.
(50) A. Coale, Rapid Population Change in China 1952-1982. Committee on Population and Demography Report no. 27, 1984, p.35.
(51) J. Bongaarts, ‘Does Malnutrition Affect Fecundity?’ in Science 9 May, 1980, p.568.
(52) B. Ashton et al 1984, p.613.
(53) J. Banister, An Analysis of Recent Data on the Population of China, Indian Institute of Asian Studies, 1983, p.6-7.
(54) Ping-ti Ho. Studies on the Population of China 1368-1953. Harvard East Asian Studies 4, University of British Colombia, 1959. P.93.
(55) J. Aird, ‘Population Growth and Distribution in Mainland China.’ in Joint Committee of the U.S. Congress. An Economic Profile of Mainland China. Praeger, 1968, p.357. 1

Early GPCR, the rise of New Power and new ideology Part 5

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The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Begins,  Maoist China from 1958 to May 16, 1966

Read Part 1 here: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-1/

Part 2: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-2/

Part 3: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-3/

Part 4: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-4/

Part 5: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-5/

Part 6: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-6/

Part 7: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-7/

Part 8: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-8/

 

(llco.org)

Maoists Versus the Cultural Establishment, the Early Struggles

At the end of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s power had diminished. Mao’s star had waned while the star of President Liu Shaoqi had risen. After the Great Leap, Mao played little role in the Communist Party in 1960 and 1961. In this adjustment period, Liu Shaoqi and Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping continued to develop an alternative economic program to challenge the Maoist one. As the Maoists build up their base in the military under the leadership of Defense Minister Lin Biao, the revisionists within the Party and state bureaucracies sought to transform their economic readjustment into a comprehensive reform, which ultimately aimed at restoring capitalism. (1) The Party bureaucracy also launched an ideological and cultural offensive, encouraging public criticism of Maoist doctrines. A wave of criticism of the Maoist economic model, especially “The Three Red Banners” of the Great Leap, erupted. Economists and the cultural intelligentsia who criticized Maoist policies were now protected by elites associated with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Highly placed Party elites acted as patrons to anti-Maoist critics. Many of those Party elites themselves joined the anti-Maoist fray. Mayor of Beijing Peng Zhen, Director of the Party’s Propaganda Department Lu Dingyi, and Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department Zhou Yang played important roles in this effort. The vanguard of these critics was head of the Propaganda Department of the Beijing Urban Committee Deng Tuo, Vice-Mayor of Beijing Wu Han, who was also a historian and dramatist, and the head of the United Front Department and Beijing Urban Committee Liao Mosha. This group, especially Deng Tuo, published a satirical column in the Beijing Evening News and the Beijing fortnightly Frontline. These essays lampooned and sharply criticized Maoist radicalism. They were later compiled as “Notes from the Three-Family Village” and “Evening Talks at Yanshan.” A recurring theme is the ridicule of Maoist terminology, what Deng Tuo called “trumpet blowing.” Deng Tuo writes:

“A neighbor of mine has a child who in recent times, mostly in imitation of the great poets, composed a lit of empty talk. Recently he wrote ‘Ode on Wild Grass’ which is nothing but empty talk. His poem runs as follows:

Heaven is our Father,
Earth is our Mother,
Sun is our Wetnurse,
The East Wind is our benefactor,
The West Wind is our Enemy.
We are a tuft of grass,
Some like us,
Some hate us,
No matter — we don’t care,
We keep on growing.

What kind of poem is that? I would really worry about the future of the child if he composed nothing but things like that day after day.” (2) (3)

These critics were joined by Luo Gengmo and Sun Yefang, economists who claimed that the Maoist model was a step backward. Sun Yefang stated that “Politics in command” was “idealism and a disavowal or at least underestimat[ion] of economic laws.” The economists also criticized the People’s Communes,  Maoist “empty talk” and “hot air.” Sun Yefang’s Economic Research Institute advocated “opening free markets extensively.” He was quoted as saying, “Suppose there are speculative activities, what is the harm? At worst the speculators are allowed to make some money.” Years later, as the Cultural Revolution begins, in mid-1966, Sun Yefang will be accused of denying class struggle and of having accepted “the black wares of Khrushchev’s revisionism lock, stock and barrel.” (4) It was during this backlash against Maoist thought when Wu Han composed his infamous play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, which was said to contain a criticism of Mao and  an allegorical defense of ex-Defense Minister Peng Dehuai. A few years later, debate over Wu Han’s play will mark the Maoist pushback that will become the official start of the Cultural Revolution. Also, in July of 1960, the leading philosophical historian Feng Youlan defended Confucius and his philosophies. At the time, Feng Youlan was criticized only by a few of his students, a year later, this debate and similar ones would spread into academia as the Maoists fought back. (5) Although the debates did not explode into mass campaigns, they foreshadow the Cultural Revolution. These and other debates were early skirmishes in a war that would explode into life-and-death struggles a few years later. Many of those who participated in these debates would be key figures in the struggles of the Cultural Revolution. On one side of the debate there was the Maoist concept of power struggle and class dictatorship. On the other side, stood revisionists, some advanced Chinese nationalism and the Confucian concept of social harmony, others liberalism. All revisionists advanced the idea of class compromise.

Confucianism and Liberalism in Culture and Philosophy

As a result of the Sino-Soviet split, an anti-Soviet feeling was pervasive amongst the Chinese elite. Chinese writers and policy makers sought ways to justify their ideas and policies that did not rely on the language of the Soviets. Some sought to fill the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet revisionists with their own conceptions. They sought to channel the pervasive anti-Sovietism into rehabilitation of traditionalism and nationalism, sometimes Confucianism, sometimes liberalism, while at the same time ultimately moving away from communism toward capitalism. Mao sought to combat this trend by renewing class struggle with his Tenth Plenum decree in September 24, 1962, which had stated:

“Now then, do classes exist in socialist countries? Does class struggle exist? We can now affirm that classes do exist in socialist countries and that class struggle undoubtedly exists. Lenin said: After the victory of the revolution, because of the existence of the bourgeoisie internationally, because of the existence of bourgeois remnants internally, because the petty bourgeoisie exists and continually generates a bourgeoisie, therefore the classes which have been overthrown within the country will continue to exist for a long time to come and may even attempt restoration.” (6)

By sponsoring academic debates on the merits of traditionalism, the revisionist establishment sought to undermine the implementation of Mao’s decree. The revisionists used scholarly debates about history as a way to attack Maoism. They pointed to Chinese nationalism and traditionalism as an alternative to Maoist radicalism. Defying Mao’s call for social revolution, they emphasized social unity. This effort to rehabilitate Confucianism sought to lay the groundwork to incorporate traditional Chinese conceptions of social unity into the Party ideology. Rehabilitating Confucius was an important step in jettisoning Mao’s concept of the primacy of class struggle. There had always been those in the Party who downplayed social revolution and emphasized social unity. By the early 1960s, with Mao weakened, those who emphasized social unity, at the top represented by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, gained the upper hand. A month after Mao’s call for more class struggle, Zhou Yang and the Historical Research Institute held a conference that became a platform for revisionist, traditionalist views. After the forum, the participants marked the occasion by going to Qufu, Confucius’ hometown, to visit the Confucian ancestral temple. (7)

Historian Liu Jie advanced the idea that China’s history could not be explained by the scientific categories of Marxism. He claimed class struggle did not govern Chinese historical development. Instead, he said that the Confucian concept of “jen,” humanism or love of mankind, allowed differing classes to live in peace in the feudal era and could do so in the present era too. In other words, class contradictions in China are not antagonistic as they are elsewhere. Class contradictions can and should be mediated by Confucian social unity. According to his view, classes did not oppose each other, but worked together for the greater good in the unique case of the Chinese nation. Some at the conference suggested that Marxism and Confucianism were similar or could be combined. There was an effort to conflate the two ideologies in order to make Confucianism acceptable. This was an effort to smuggle revisionism into Marxism. In his New History of Chinese Philosophy, earlier published in 1961, philosopher Feng Youlan stated that jen was a universal ethic for all times and all classes. Wu Han was one of the boldest and most outspoken advocate of traditionalism. Under the pen name “Wu Nanxing,” Wu Han published two articles in 1962: “On Morality” and “More On Morality.” The articles were on the inheritability of values and other topics. Wu Han advocated incorporating not only jen to the current politics, but other traditional values too. Wu Han advocated feudal notions of loyalty, filial, piety, honesty, diligence, and courage. In addition, he advocated certain values of bourgeois society, including democracy and the profit-motive. So that he would not be misunderstood, in another article, he underscored that obedience to authority should not be to a single leader, but to the Party as a whole. Thus he sought Confucian obedience to the top Party establishment, a kind of aristocracy dominated by revisionists. A Confucian cult of the Party aristocracy as a whole was advanced as a way to oppose the rival cult of Mao. (8) This was in direct opposition to the Maoist efforts to use the army to set up a pole of authority, in the form of the Mao cult, outside the normal Party establishment.

Connected to the Confucian debates were debates over historical figures from Chinese history. Many sought to refute the reviews of Wu Han, Liu Jie, Feng Youlan and their allies. Many who would become Maoist leaders during the Cultural Revolution took part in the Maoist counter-attack. Younger authors led by Guan Feng, Qi Benyu, Yao Wenyuan, Lin Youzhi, and Lin Jie criticized the revisionists. In August of 1963, for example, Qi Benyu published “Comment on Li Xiucheng’s Autobiography.” In this article, Qi Benyu argued against the grain that the last general of the Taiping rebellion against the Manchu Qing dynasty should not be viewed as a hero because he had surrendered. Qi Benyu used history as a way to discuss the present, a common Maoist tactic. Qi Benyu argued against any suspension of revolution. He argued against those who would capitulate as the last general of the Taipings had. Those who abandon class struggle should never be regarded as heroes. Later, this idea that class struggle, revolution, must be continuous would play a key role in the Cultural Revolution. Qi Benyu’s insistence on the importance of class struggle was directly opposed to the notions of traditional social unity being peddled  by the revisionists. In September, 1963, Zhou Yang organized a meeting at the Institute of Modern History. Prominent figures, including Wu Han, Deng Tao, Jian Bozan, and Hou Wailu criticized Qi Benyu’s view. Attacks and counter-attacks were made back and fourth. This was not just a conflict between the Party’s cultural establishment against younger upstart Maoists, the conference was an effort to ideologically undermine Mao’s policies, an effort  to undermine the intellectual justification for increased class struggle. It was an effort to undermine Maoist radicalism in general.

Similar debates raged in the field of aesthetics and philosophy. Zhou Gucheng, a professor at Fudan University in Shangahi, advanced theories of aesthetics and culture that de-emphasized the role of conflict, instead emphasized culture’s role as a space where different class interests merged and unified to form a “spirit of the age.” Yao Wenyuan sought to refute his position in “A Brief Discussion of the Problems of the Spirit of the Age” in 1963. Yao Wenyuan agreed that society was complex and ridden with contradictory class outlooks. However, he disagreed that there was a deeper unity that constituted a “spirit of the times.” Yao Wenyuan argued that antagonistic interests cannot form an integrated spirit. In the present epoch, Yao Wenyuan argued, it was the proletarian that represented the common spirit and hope for humanity, not a combination of the spirits of all classes. (9) Yang Xianzhen, a theorist trained in the Soviet Union, claimed that the dialectic was part of Chinese tradition. He pointed to traditional conceptions of yin and yang, which were opposites that formed a deeper unity. His implication was that social conflicts dissolve in the unity. In practice, this lent itself to compromise and class collaboration, which the Maoists found objectionable. (10) Yang Xianzhen had also been a critic of the Maoist policies during the collectivization drives in the 1950s and the Great Leap. He had emphasized the importance of economy and technology over ideology in his earlier work. Later, this kind of idea would be named the Theory of the Productive Forces. These theories — with their emphasis on technology and de-emphasis of class conflict and ideology, rejection of the special  role of the proletariat, and elevation of social unity and traditionalism — were part of the revisionist package. At the time, in academia and cultural circles, pre-Marxist Hegelianism was being combined with liberalism and traditional Chinese feudal ideas in order to lay a theoretic basis for counter-revolution. Instead of emphasizing social unity, the Maoists themselves raised the obscurantist slogan that “Everything tends to divide itself into two.” The implication was that antagonistic contradictions in society were irreconcilable. They could only be resolved through struggle, through revolution. (11) On September, 11 1964, still referring to the professor as “comrade,” Red Flag, the Party’s theory journal edited by Maoist Chen Boda, published a polemic against Yang Xianzhen stating that the debate was “a struggle between two world outlooks — the proletarian world outlook and the bourgeois world outlook.” The article criticize the concepts and the “distorted picture” of “comrades Yang Xianzhen, Ai Hengwu and Lin Jingshan.” The Maoists correctly saw the danger, but could not carry the struggle further at the time. (12)

Socialist Education, Arts and the Peasantry

In 1963 through 1964, as the Socialist Education Movement was peaking, using similar arguments as those used in the aftermath of the Great Leap, Zhou Liangxiao in People’s Daily downplayed the significance of the peasantry in the past and, by implication, present class struggle. He stated “it is wrong to regard peasant wars as giving rise to a new social system.” He went on to state that “in feudal times peasants did not oppose all forms of exploitation. The equality they desired was to throw off the landlords in order to make profit or to become small property owners.” (13) Zhou Liangxiao’s last point is one made by Mao himself. This kind of consideration is the whole reason for Mao’s theory of New Democracy. Even so, the reason that authors chose to raise this issue at this juncture was to criticize those Maoists who sought to mobilize the current peasantry, under Maoist leadership, for further socialist transformation. The limited peasant ambitions of the past were being used to criticize those who sought to make further social revolution in the present. Not only did these authors fail to recognize that the peasantry of the 1960s was not the peasantry of the past, but they also failed to understand the transformative power of communist ideology and leadership. State power also significantly changes the equation. The Maoists, by contrast, saw a vast “poor and blank” peasantry as a force that could be unleashed to push the revolution forward. To point to the conservative nature of past peasant movements was not only a criticism of those who sought another leftist advance, but also a criticism of past Maoist efforts during the Great Leap a few years before. By contrast, Maoists saw the masses as a source of strength. They emphasized the importance of mass line. “From the masses to the masses,” Mao famously stated. The flow of information goes both ways. Not only were the masses the engine of revolution, but could also be a source of leadership to the Party bureaucracy. This was a tacit challenge to the authority of the Party bureaucracy by the Maoists.

In December of 1963, Mao specifically referred to the arts. Mao stated that what was true in art applied to cultural generally. He pointed to class struggle as the key link in culture. Even before the rectification, the media reported:

“Those who contend that art and literature have nothing to do with politics are in reality allowing art and literature to serve the politics of the bourgeoisie.”

And:

“Our works of art must be heart-stirring ideologically and of commanding artistry. What are needed are works of art and literature that are a great unity of ideas (content) and artistry (form), that is, a unity of healthy, revolutionary ideological content with the finest possible artistic form.” (14)

By the end of 1963, the attacks and counter-attacks were mostly over without much fallout. The debates remained in academic and literary circles. As the debates faded, Mao issued a stronger statement on June 27, 1964. A rectification was launched in response. However, those charged with implementing it were those opposed to Maoist policies, including President Liu Shaoqi, the Mayor of Beijing Peng Zhen and the Propaganda Department, the very revisionists who had been sponsoring the anti-Maoist writers and scholars. As a result, the campaign was dead in the water. It neither resulted in serious purges nor remolding campaigns. The rectification never translated into slogans or formulas that could be grasped by the masses. Instead, the issues seemed obtuse and scholarly. Little effort was made to popularize the debates. Personalized targets were mostly treated leniently, being referred to as “comrade” throughout. Zhou Yang was able to shelter his cultural apparatus and allies from most Maoist attacks. Zhou Yang was also able to shelter his spheres of influence from infiltration by Lin Biao’s military, which was the main voice of the Maoist line and had been developing parallel institutions of influence. The blunted nature of the offensive is reflected in the October, 1963 publishing of the first five volumes of a new history of ancient China under Wu Han’s direction. In 1964, Feng Youlan’s New History of Chinese Philosophy came out, a work which had been criticized by the Maoists. And Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai held receptions for the revisionist philosophers and historians, including Wu Han and Feng Youlan, in January, 1964. In the mild rectification that followed, Zhou Gucheng was given some attention, but was not a main target. Less important, Soviet-trained ideologues here hit as a diversion: Yang Xianzhen and Feng Ding. Mao once remarked that there was “one soldier” and “one civilian,” whose criticisms were in close harmony. The soldier in question was Peng Dehuai, who had already fallen during the Great Leap. The civilian was Yang Xianzhen, who headed the Central Party School. (15) Yang Xianzhen had circulated criticisms of Maoist efforts during the Great Leap at the same time as Peng Dehuai and the Soviet Union were launching their attacks. (16) He was a harsh critic of false reporting of bumper harvests during the Great Leap. “[W]e can do without sputniks like that,” Yang Xianzhen stated. (17) He also criticized Maoist experiments in youth liberation and the popularization of advanced culture:

“[T]hey organized a huge philosophy lecturers regiment of some ten thousand people. First I heard that the youngest philosophy lecturer was only six years old, and I thought to myself this child must be a real genius. Then I heard that there was even a five year-old lecturing in philosophy. They had things like philosophical clapper talk, philosophical rice sprout-songs, and philosophical crosstalk. They had a whole mess of weird things like that. Perhaps it is one step forward, one step back and that becomes the unity of opposites…” (18)

He criticized Maoist efforts to popularize the creation of art, to break down the traditional distinction between art and work:

“There were ‘geniuses’ everywhere. In one place they claimed everyone’s a poet… In Beijing, a worker caused an accident by walking away from his machine to write poetry, setting the factory on fire and causing damages worth 700,000 Yuan. That was really highly prized poetry… One soldier spent 48 hours writing poetry; when he had finished he was unable to get up, and had to be carried away on a stretcher.” (19)

Yang Xianzhen had longstanding connections to the Soviet Union, including heading up the China Department of the Soviet Union’s Foreign Language Press in the thirties. Both Peng Dehuai and Peng Zhen had connections to Yang Xianzhen, Peng Zhen even looked to him as an ideological authority. Yang Xianzhen  was a big critic of Maoist ideologue Chen Boda. Chen Boda criticized those who “stressed the past while slighting the present.” Yang Xianzhen was very critical of Chen Boda’s efforts to elevate Maoism. It was on Maoists like Chen Boda and Kang Sheng, not Mao himself, that Yang Xianzhen blamed for failures during the Great Leap. (20) Thus even a revisionist like Yang Xianzhen knew it was not wise to criticize Mao directly.

Feng Ding was another who was hit by the mild rectification. He was accused of advocating social darwinism in contrast to the Maoist and military promotion of Lei Feng, a humble soldier of poor origin. Shao Zhaunlin also was criticized for his underestimation of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, a position that ran counter to the Maoist efforts to turn the Socialist Education Movement into a revolutionary campaign in the countryside. At the same time, unlike previous rectifications, many of the critics, in this case Maoists, came under criticism also. As Qi Benyu was censured in 1963, Yao Wenyuan was censured in 1964 for his earlier comments on Zhou Gucheng’s work. In addition, some of the ideas of the anti-Maoists that were upheld in some of the criticisms themselves. All of this created a mixed, muddled message. In 1965, the rectification was over with one exception. Where Jiang Qing had personally intervened, in Beijing Film Studios, Peking Opera, and the Institute of Fine Arts, the rectification continued. Zhou Yang would call her continued rectification efforts dogmatic and exaggerated at the end of February, 1965. He would continue to obstruct her efforts to revolutionize film and opera. Mao was dissatisfied with the campaigns and rectification because they failed to achieve a victory for the Maoist line. They never turned into a wide-scale mass movement. They never developed into real power struggles. The rectification remained superficial. This is one reason Mao would go outside normal Party channels to launch his next offensive, the Cultural Revolution. Mao would turn to Lin Biao’s military, which had developed its own parallel structures, and to the masses themselves through the cult of personality.  (21)

Revolution in Opera, Cinema

The Chinese communist movement can trace its origins to the New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement of the early part of the twentieth century. Mao described his own ideas during this time in an interview with Edgar Snow:

“At this time [1918-1919] my mind was a curious mixture of ideas of liberalism, democratic reformism and utopian socialism. I had somewhat vague passions about ‘nineteenth century democracy.’ Utopianism and old-fashion liberalism, and I was definitely anti-militarist and anti-imperialist.” (22)

This was a period when Chinese intellectuals began looking beyond Chinese traditions for the answers to social and economic problems. The May Fourth Movement was a nationwide protest in 1919 by intellectuals and students against the treatment of China by Western powers under the Versailles Treaty. The weak response of those representatives of Chinese tradition, including the Chinese state, to imperialism pushed more intellectuals to search for new answers to the ills facing China. This stimulated intellectual creativity. Many of these intellectuals looked beyond China. Many turned to Marxism. Mao and other communist leaders were marked by the struggles of this period. The rejection of traditionalism, the emphasis on culture, the iconoclastism of this period would come to shape the Maoist movement in the decades to come. The Maoist movement has its origins in the history of Chinese struggles, but also in the universal aspects of revolutionary science discovered by the Marxists and expanded by Maoists. (23)

Karl Marx’s view of our social world was that it was in constant change. All things are in motion; nothing is static. Echoing a long tradition going back at least to Heraclitus, there is no stepping outside the river of life and experience. Inequality and class society has divided our experience of the world. Work is separate from play is separate from art is separate from philosophy. By contrast, under Leading Light Communism, life becomes whole again. Because of the elimination of class, the empowering of the masses, work, play, art, and philosophy all merge as the masses all take part in the building of a new, egalitarian, Leading Light Communist world. Alienation no longer exists. The contradiction between mental and manual labor no longer exists. The distinction between work and artistic creation no longer exist as they do in the bourgeois epoch. All of humanity is empowered to create themselves and create the new, Leading Light Communist society. However, Leading Light Communism, the end of all oppression, is very far off. Before Leading Light Communism, there is a long journey of class struggle passing through capitalism and socialism. In class society, society should be seen a causal nexus divided into the base and the superstructure, between economics and culture. The base is the productive forces and relations of a society, technology and resources and how power is organized. The superstructure is all non-economic parts of our world: culture, the legal system, ideology, our conceptions and experiences of ourselves, etc. These two realms form a whole. Mao offered the platitude that art is the product of the relation of the human brain to a given society. (24) Culture, including art, is marked by its origin in a given time and place. All art,  even that which claims to be apolitical, is both marked by its historical and social origins. Lu Xun, the most famous of China’s progressive writers, said “All literature is propaganda.” (25) All art plays a role in class struggle. According to the Maoists, what Mao says of art is true of all forms of the superstructure, of culture generally. China, as one of the most ancient civilizations, has cultural traditions going back millennia. In the sea of culture and art, most was not geared to the masses. China’s culture and art were marked by its origins, by feudalism, capitalism, and imperialism. Mao sought to overcome this:

“Not only do we want to change a China that is politically oppressed and economically exploited into a China that is politically free and economically prosperous, we also want to change the sway of the old culture into an enlightened and progressive China under the sway of a new China. Our aim in the cultural sphere is to build a new Chinese national culture.” (26)

There had been an unprecedented flourishing of the arts since the People’s Republic was declared in 1949. By the 1960s, Beijing had more theatres than New York. In Shanghai alone there were seventy professional companies working in a dozen theatrical forms. (27) In 1964, Jiang Qing states that “according to a rough estimate, there are 3,000 theatrical companies in the country (not including amature troupes and unlicensed companies).” (28) From before, but especially since liberation, efforts to update and innovate culture gained momentum. After the founding of the People’s Republic, the modernization of art accelerated and intensified, more overtly political and contemporary themes were adopted in all art, but especially in Peking Opera.

Peking Opera, an introduction

One of the most famous and distinctly Chinese forms of culture can be found in the numerous works of classical Chinese theatre. At the center of modernizing efforts was this rich tradition:

“Opera had presented perhaps the biggest challenge to Chinese cultural modernizers throughout the twentieth century. The Communists after 1949 continued this work. A relatively young artistic form (having only several centuries of history) and one distinct from the high culture of scholar-officials, Chinese musical theatre was an actor-centered art. Its transmission of stories, music, and singing styles from the past was by old-style master-student training. All these features made opera seem the most resistant to modernizing of all forms in the Chinese cultural heritage. Waves of modernizers, from the reformists or iconoclastic intellectuals of the May Fourth era in the second through fourth decades of the twentieth century through the Communist revolutionaries with equally totalistic rejections of the past, all denounced ‘feudal’ thinking that opera purveyed.” (29)

Peking Opera would come to play a special role in the efforts to modernize and revolutionize culture. Though it is called “Peking Opera,” it is not confined to Beijing. It is performed all over China. It is the most popular and considered the finest form of the more than 250 variations of Chinese theater. Peking Opera, as the most popular and sophisticated of Chinese theater, became one of the main centers of the Maoist revolution in the art and culture. Of the art that would emerge from the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary Peking Operas are the most famous. They would come to symbolize the Cultural Revolution itself.

Peking Opera’s origin can be traced back centuries to older forms. Peking Opera was forged over centuries. The themes of classic operas and other works were feudal ones that did not relate to ordinary workers, peasants, and soldiers. Art forms matured in feudal times often reflected that reactionary society:

“Emperors, empresses, concubines, despots, court beauties, seducers, monsters, spirits, and imperial heroes people its stories; deceit, trickery, violence, exploitation, submission and servility mark its plots; questionable themes and superstition abound.” (30)

In addition, there were numerous works influenced by foreign high art, works influenced by the imperialism, capitalism, liberalism, and individualism of the West. Even into the 1960s, the state of the Chinese art world, including Peking Opera, often did not promote communist consciousness, according to the Maoists. Maoists did not see opera as it currently existed as playing a positive role in the class struggle. Instead, it often reproduced those values of the societies from which it originated. According to the Maoists, such art encouraged docility, servitude, and individualism. It tended to encourage either feudal, traditionalist authoritarianism or liberal, individualist capitalism.

In the period after the Great Leap, the power and influence of the Maoists was weakened. The revisionists were growing. Thus the revisionists sought to rehabilitate and promote the old art as part of their own cultural offensive. Mao had sounded the alarm on December 12,  1963:

“The social and economic base has changed, but the arts as part of the superstructure, which serve this base, still remain a serious problem.” (31)

The revolution in Peking Opera was initiated in the early 1960s, the period after the Great Leap, but prior to the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing’s charge to revolutionize Peking Opera was part of the Maoist response. In 1964, she stated:

“[T]here are well over 600 million workers, peasants and soldiers in our country, whereas there is only a handful of landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, Rightists and bourgeois elements. Shall we serve this handful, or the 600 million? This question calls for consideration not only by Communists but also by all those literary and art workers who love their country. The grain we eat is grown by the peasants, the clothes we wear and houses we live in are all made by the workers, and the People’s Liberation Army stands guard at the fronts of national defence for us yet we do not portray them on the stage. May I ask which class stand you artists do take? And where is the artists’ ‘conscience’ you always talk about?” (32)

Behind all the artistic growth and innovation was a struggle between two lines in art. Looking back, one observer writes:

“Theatre (and cinema) from the time of Liberation up to the Cultural Revolution was mainly under the direction of those within the Communist Party who were ‘weeded out’ during 1966-70 as ‘revisionists.’ A great many people had been honestly mistaken or simply fooled or confused by such leadership, which preached one line (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) and practiced another (liberalistic, middle-class, revisionist). The Cultural Revolution sought to dig out the bourgeois elements and cement the cracks that had appeared during the building of Chinese socialism. A vast process of education and reeducation had no eliminated deeply ingrained feelings of self-promotion, monetary incentive, and a tendency even on the part of persons who truly believed in the new society to rebuild a class with privileges above and beyond the ordinary people, the proletariat… ‘Weeding out’ in most cases meant temporary retirement for criticism and reeducation. The Chairman himself said the majority of people were good.” (33)

Mao’s question, raised at the Yenan Forum in 1942, of “For Whom?” gained ever greater importance as Peking Opera was being revolutionized, as the Cultural Revolution approached. There were those, often young Maoist radicals, who pushed for revolution and modernization. They were met by those in the establishment and Party hierarchy who resisted with traditionalism and liberalism. Line struggles were becoming center stage. On the stages, reaction fought the Maoist line. In the specialist journals, two lines wrangled. Institutionally, the Maoist military battled with Party establishment. Jiang Qing’s 1964 convention and the revolution in Peking Opera were a sign of things to come. All of these struggles foreshadowed the Cultural Revolution.

Peking Opera as a Model for Society

The Maoists stated “cultural revolution both destroys and creates. The leaders must personally take charge and bring forth good models.” Just as the revolution in the military promoted model heroes and model companies, the revolution in Peking Opera focused on the creation of models. Praise was heaped on the best of the works that came out of the 1964 opera convention, in which Jiang Qing played a key role. These works that combined “revolutionary realism and romanticism” were held up as models to be emulated. (34) New methods, involving mass line, were endorsed. Jiang Qing purposed a collectivist method for producing art that blended art and life. She recommended applying a kind of mass line to the production of arts:

“When the play was written, many leading members of the Guangzhou military command took part in the discussions on it, and after it had been rehearsed, opinions were widely canvassed and revisions made. In this way, as a result of constantly asking for opinions and constantly making revisions they succeeded in turning out in a fairly short time a good topical play reflecting real life struggle… It will be difficult for some time yet to write plays specifically for Peking opera. Nevertheless, people have to be appointed right now to to the job. They must first be given some special training and then go out to attain experiences of life… In creative writing, new forces must be cultivated. Send them to work at the grassroots level and in three to five years they will blossom and bear fruit.” (35)

The revolution in Peking Opera was the most visible of all the transformations that occurred in the post-revolutionary Chinese art world. The revolution that occurred in Peking Opera affected other forms of art. The striking, exaggerated poses from Peking Opera were used in other forms of art. They were used on official art and on leaflets and posters made by students and workers during the Cultural Revolution in the coming years. These operas and similar models are some of the most memorable from the era. They were not only to be models for other artists to emulate, but also models to help people live good lives. The masses were suppose to live as the heroes the art portrayed, as they were to emulate the model soldier Lei Feng. Just as Lin Biao’s military was a kind of model for the whole of society, so too were the protagonists of opera and art. Art and life merged.

This process of merging art and life was aided by the adoption of realistic and historical subjects. It was also aided by the focus on the experience of the masses and the elevation of the masses as protagonists. For International Women’s Day in 1963,  the play, Women Fliers, was released based on the real-life story of China’s first woman pilot. One of the original pilots commented:

“It took us back a dozen years.. It was hard for young women like ourselves who came from different cities and villages just like those girls on stage — but we had pledged, like them, that ‘We will fly!’ and we did.” (36)

Art confirmed the Maoist slogan that “the masses are the real heroes.” Art was to relate to and elevate the masses. Foreshadowing Leading Light Communism, people were to work on themselves and their society as artistic creations. This was part of the creation of a whole new humanity. This ideal was expressed as “the combination revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.”(37) The art was not the simple realism of some strands of bourgeois tradition. It was not simple realism with proletarian subjects. The art did not simply mirror reality as some bourgeois traditions advocate. Paintings should not aspire to simply be photographs just as plays should not mimic life as seen by the ordinary, uninformed observer. Instead of mirroring reality as seen by the unpoliticized, the art sought to capture the truth of reality in motion, reality as struggle, as seen through the lenses of class struggle. In other words, revolutionary art sought to capture the world as it really is, as it exists before it is obscured by ignorance and false consciousness. Maoist art sought to provoke people to see the world as shaped by contending social forces, bursting at the seams. Mao states that “life as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.” (38) These models were morality tales, not unlike medieval allegories. The heroes were all good. The villains were all bad. The hero was center stage, with the light directly on him. The villain was off-center, shady. Thus the inner natures of the protagonist and antagonist becomes visible and obvious. This staging was part of bringing what was often obscured in everyday life to the surface. Thus, according to the Maoists, the operas, with their stark conflicts and characters, rendered the world more accurately than the obscured, everyday experience. One observer described a revolutionary Peking Opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy:

“As lights dimmed the curtains parted on a semi-ballet, semi-acrobatic, dance depicting a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) pursuit detachment forcing its way forward in a blizzard. The illuminated signs at the sides of the proscenium identified the scene:  ‘Winter, 1946, somewhere in Northeast China, a forest deep in a snow-covered mountain.’ Snow whirled, a huge crimson flag reeled in the music-howling gale; actor-dancers leaped and sprang through the storm; biting cold seemed to pour out across the footlights. I sat up straight at the breath-taking pace and energy.

Stage right, an orchestra of some twenty musicians, both men and women, using a combination of Chinese and Western instruments, remained scrim-screened but visible during the play, pinpointing a gesture, emphasizing a mood, underscoring a text — and in full accompaniment when arias or dances took over. (In old Peking opera the musicians — at that time, usually seven or eight players — used to sit on the stage in full view.) Unobtrusively the orchestra becomes part and parcel of the action. The conductor assumes particular importance as he punctuates striking moments with a sharp ‘tac’ produced by clapping together two pieces of wood, a time-beater called a pan.

The scenery was a blend of ‘revolutionary realistic-revolutionary romantic,’ the term Chinese use to describe the new style… Costumes today are realistic, though not to extremes — if a character is supposed to be poor and dirty, the idea is conveyed by neat patches and splashes; landlords are convincingly but not lavishly well-clothed. Gone is the sumptuousness of the past, when even beggars wore rags of silk and satin on stage. ‘Revolutionary romanticism’ modifies straight realism and is apparent in carefully controlled color and design; it is an idealized or symbolized heightening of reality.

Actors use an extraordinary amount of unrealistic make-up, particularly the young men, who point up revolutionary goodness and health by startling rosy faces and upswung black-painted brows. The Chinese, however, are accustomed to exaggeratedly painted stage faces and don’t seem the least surprised by pink-cheeked heroes or yellow-green villains. Make-up was an ancient and complicated art in classic Peking opera, by means of which characters could be immediately categorized as they stepped on stage. Color played an important role: red, for example, was traditional for honest. The more heroic the heroes looked the better; the worse the wicker, the better. So it has been for centuries.  Revolutionary Peking opera has considerably toned down what used to be a technique of enormous importance.

Similar emphasis — stressing good and bad — affects staging and lighting. Good people always take a prominent place on stage, singled out by light; villains and ne’er-do-wells — even when the scene is theirs, and even when occupying the stage alone — are kept off center and in dim light. This is skillfully done…”

She continues:

“Heroes in socialist China have little in common with capitalist-grown varieties. Model revolutionaries are people revered by the masses for having led — and often lost — lives dedicated to service beyond the call of socialist duty, and who are meant to be emulated in daily life. They are not apart from ordinary citizens. They may have flashed to recognition in one heroic, if prosaic, moment, perhaps dying in an attempt to save state property — as in the case of a young national hero whose young life was swept away in a raging flood as he endeavored to rescue some vitally important telephone poles. Communist youth are taught to go beyond — to be the first to do the dirtiest jobs, to brave the utmost danger, to volunteer ahead of others, to be living examples of courage, hard work and truth. Adoration of movie stars, prize fighters, pop signers, baseball players, cosmonauts, is inconceivable in today’s China. Heroism is hitched to political and ideological performance…” (39)

In 1964, Jiang Qing’s avant-garde drama troupe took Beijing’s traditional scene by storm with the Festival of the Peking Opera on contemporary themes. She was later credited with the conference, although at the time, she was not featured as prominently as others, including her opponents at the conference, in the media. This reflects the hold that her revisionist opponents had on the media. More than 50 discussions were held over a five week period of the convention. Various resolutions promoting innovation were passed. Versions of four of the five modern Peking Operas in the eight model performances of the Cultural Revolution were presented at the 1964 conference. Sparks Amid the Reeds became Shajiabang. Taking the Bandit’s Stronghold became Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The Red Lantern, The White Haired Girl, and Red Detachment of Women, the first full-length revolutionary ballet, made their debut. (40) One witness comments:

“Take the case of the Peking Opera. Thanks largely to the efforts of artists such as Yu Huiyong (who committed suicide after he was arrested by the post-Mao regime) the model Peking operas had some amazing achievements in those years. The artistic technique and skills in music, acting, and language developed at that time were the highest of their kind and have not been surpassed since. According to Zhang Guangtian, a playwright and director who has made a huge impact on the stage in recent years, model Peking Operas created during the Cultural Revolution were not only revolutionary in content but also in artistic form, a revolution equivalent to the Anhui Troupe’s performance in Beijing about two hundred years ago. Zhang argues that the characteristics of the performing art of Peking Opera, i.e., the formalism and style of simplification and concision, were raised to their highest level during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang further argues that by making use of Western wind and string instruments and by combining them with traditional Chinese musical instruments, and by wedding the art of Western ballet with that of the Peking Opera, the model Peking Operas not only developed a theoretical framework for managing change and continuity in the Chinese theater, but they also tried to counter the seemingly unstoppable tide of Western cultural imperialism.” (41)

Even as late as 1999, in the revisionist era, Chinese critics praised some of the modernizing work of the 1964 conference. They noted the watchability of many of the operas that were presented. Contemporary critics note their lively, innovative plots that reflected the richness of modern life. (42)  However, many Party elites at the time, especially those allied to Liu Shaoqi and Peng Zhen, disparaged the works. They actively worked to prevent the new works from catching on. For example, after The Lakeside Village had been shown in Beijing, Peng Zhen ordered the troupe dispersed in order to prevent it being performed elsewhere. (43)

Cinema

In another move, in order to promote their line against the revisionists, the Maoists went straight to the masses. The Maoists used their sway at the grassroots level. Mobile cinema teams, like traveling opera troupes, would travel across the country to bring the message straight to the people. A report, published in the media in 1963, echoes Jiang Qing’s conclusions:

“Mobile cinema teams, usually of three members, are no less welcome in the villages than the theatrical troupes. In Xuchang Country, each team has two pushcarts and a bicycle — one man to every two wheels. They pull the carts with the movie projectors themselves, traveling in the daytime and giving shows at night. It is hard work. Teams serving the mountain areas have an even tougher job — they have to carry all their equipment up and down the steep mountain paths. But when a good film is shown and the peasants enjoy it, the members feel so well and rewarded that they forget all their weariness. This was told us by many teams… They especially like battle films with plenty of drama giving a clear idea of who is the enemy and who finally wins out. These include such films as Guerrillas on the Plains, A Red Detachment of Women, The Long March, and The Red Guards of Lake Honghu.” (44)

Later, one witness recalled:

“I witnessed an unprecedented surge of cultural and sports activities in my own home village, Gao Village. The rural villagers, for the first time, organized theater troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking Operas with local language and music. The villagers not only entertained themselves but also learned how to read and write by getting into the texts and plays. And they organized sports meets and held matches with other villages. All these activities gave the villagers an opportunity to meet, communicate, fall in love. These activities gave them a sense of discipline and organization and created a public sphere where meetings and communications went beyond the traditional household and village clans. This had never happened before and it has never happened since.” (45)

In the lead up to the Cultural Revolution, in 1964, a rectification campaign was launched in art and literature. Although the campaign nominally favored the Maoists, it mostly floundered. Even so, the Maoists were able to get some exposure. That year, as part of the campaign, several films came under criticism in the press: Jiangnan in the North, Early Spring in February, The Lin Family Shop, and Stage Sisters. They came under Maoist attack for their pluralism and liberalism. (46) Those who were charged with carrying out the rectification were the same Party officials who had opposed the Maoists. Even so, the Maoists continued to push forward in those areas they held more sway, especially in opera and film. They very much link themselves to Lin Biao’s efforts to transform the army as a model for society. (47) A few years later, at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Lin Biao would hold a forum on culture in the military in February 1966 in Shanghai, which he would specifically “entrust” to Jiang Qing. Lin Biao would also instruct his army “in culture, listen to comrade Jiang Qing.” As the Cultural Revolution approached, the lines were being drawn in all areas of society, including the art world.

Old, reactionary forms of culture were left behind as the revolution advanced. New, proletarian forms like Jiang Qing’s operas, filled some of that void. They would be center stage throughout the Cultural Revolution period. Two visions of the future were beginning to collide. On the one side, a radicalized vision of society was being promoted by the military through Lin Biao’s efforts and by Maoist critics, artists, and intellectuals, especially Jiang Qing’s efforts in opera and film. On the other side, was an effort to downplay power struggle, to overemphasize social unity, traditionalism, nationalism, the role of technology, and even the reintroduction of capitalism. This conflict, in various forms, had a long history in the Party, but it would explode in what came to be known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Notes

  1. Domes, Jurgan The Internal Politics of China 1949-1972  (Praeger Publishers, USA: 1973) p. 123
  2. ibid. pp. 124-125
  3. Byung-joon Ahn “Adjustments In The Great Leap Forward And Their Ideological Legacy, 1959-62”  in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) p. 249
  4. “Comment On Sun Yeh-Fang’s Reactionary Political Stand And Economic Program (Hung Ch’i [Red Flag], No. 10, 1966)”  in Chinese Politics edited by Myers, James T., Domes, Jurgen, and von Groeling, Erik (University of South Carolina Press, USA: 1986) pp. 69-81
  5. Domes, Jurgan The Internal Politics of China 1949-1972  (Praeger Publishers, USA: 1973) pp. 124-125
  6. Mao Zedong “Speech At The Tenth Plenum Of The Eight Central Committee” Selected Works of Mao Tes-Tung Vol 8. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-8/mswv8_63.htm
  7. “Round the Week” Beijing Review no. 50 (December 14, 1962) p. 4
  8. Goldman, Merle “The ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1962 -64” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) pp. 220-225
  9. ibid. pp. 230-232
  10. ibid. p. 241
  11. ibid. p. 233
  12. “New Polemic On The Philosophical Front… (by a Hongqi [Hung Ch’i] Correspondent) (Peking Review, No. 37, September 11, 1964)” in Chinese Politics edited by Myers, James T., Domes, Jurgen, and von Groeling, Erik (University of South Carolina Press, USA: 1986) pp. 106-112
  13. Goldman, Merle “The ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1962 -64” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) p. 239
  14. Chen Li “Revolutionary Art And Literature: Their Educative Role” Beijing Review no. 27 (July 5, 1963) pp. 23-25
  15. Schoenhals, Michael “Yang Xianzhen’s Critique of the Great Leap Forward” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 26, No. 3 (Cambridge University Pres: July, 1992) p. 591
  16. ibid. p. 592
  17. ibid. p. 602
  18. ibid. p. 602
  19. ibid. p. 602
  20. ibid. pp. 593-607
  21. Goldman, Merle “The ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1962 -64” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) pp. 225-254
  22. Dirlik, Arik “The New Culture Movement Revisted: Anarchism and the Idea of Social Revolution in New Cultural Thinking” Modern China, Vol. 11, No. 3 (July, 1985) p. 253)
  23. Sullivan, Lawrence and Solomon, Richard H.  “The Formation of Chinese Communist Ideology In The May Fourth Era: A Content Analysis of Hsin ch’ing nien” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) pp. 117-118
  24. Mao Zedong “Talks At The Yenan Forum on Literature and art,” Peking Review no. 22 (May 26, 1967)
  25. Karol, K.S. The Second Chinese Revolution (Hill and Wang, USA: 1974) p. 135
  26. Mao Zedong “On New Democracy” in Selected Works Of Mao Tse-Tung
  27. Snow, Lois Wheeler China On Stage  (Random House, New York, USA: 1972) p. 13
  28. Chiang Ching “On The Revolution Of Peking Opera” (Foreign Language Press, People’s Republic of China: 1968) p. 2
  29. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 11
  30. ???? FIND ????
  31. Mao Zedong “Comments on Comrade K’o Ching Shih’s Report” (December 12, 1963) http://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/classics/mao/sw9/mswv9_08.html
  32. Chiang Ching “On The Revolution Of Peking Opera” (Foreign Language Press, People’s Republic of China:1968) p. 2
  33. Snow, Lois Wheeler China On Stage  (Random House, New York, USA: 1972) p. 7
  34. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 24
  35. Chiang Ching “On The Revolution Of Peking Opera” (Foreign Language Press, People’s Republic of China: 1968) p. 4
  36. “Women Fliers” Beijing Review no. 11 (March 12, 1965) p. 27
  37. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 13
  38. Mao Tse-tung “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May, 1942) https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm
  39. Snow, Lois Wheeler China On Stage  (Random House, New York, USA: 1972) pp. 28-34
  40. ibid.
  41. Mobo Gao The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London, Pluto Press: 2008) p. 427
  42. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) pp. 16-18
  43. Robinson, Joan The Cultural Revolution In China (Penguin Books, Great Britain:1970) p.  49
  44. “Cultural Life In Rural Hunan” Beijing Review no. (April 16, 1963) p. 26
  45. Mobo Gao The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London, Pluto Press: 2008) pp. 427-428
  46. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 19
  47. Van Ginneken, Jaap The Rise And Fall Of Lin Piao (Avon Books, New York, New York, USA: 1977) p. 44

Review of Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past

A Leading Light Communist Review of Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past : Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London, Pluto Press, 2008)

reviewed by  End Imperialism

(llco.org)9780745327808

Mobo Gao’s new book challenges mainstream establishment accounts of socialism in China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The aim of the book is to present evidence- documentary, observational and anecdotal- to show how the analysis of Maoism as being genocidal and totally destructive of China’s economy is a self-serving myth perpetuated by the capitalist elite of China and the West. Gao shows how the pro-capitalist intelligentsia of China tend to discuss the Maoist period as though they were speaking for all Chinese people, rather than a section of Chinese people disadvantaged, actually and potentially, by socialist policies. He relates the repudiation of Chinese socialism to the acceptance of Western values, western paths to modernisation and western habits of living and thinking. The luxury consumption habits and lifestyles of the mainly comprador Chinese elite encourage identification with Western bourgeois values and ideologies. Gao’s major aim in the book is to carefully examine questions surrounding China’s socialist economy  with a view to rehabilitating the Maoist line of march as one which had tremendously positive effects in terms of health, education, welfare, equality, democratic participation, and cultural improvement for the Chinese rural poor and urban working class.  Gao asks: Who did it benefit? Why was it necessary?

Critics of socialist China under Mao Zedong’s leadership frequently suggest that the Cultural Revolution slogan po si jiu (break the four olds- old customs, old ideas, old culture, old habits) ensured that Chinese culture (and its historical and religious artefacts) was thoroughly denigrated. However, Gao notes that at the same time that revolutionary struggle was being waged against conservative and bourgeois ideology in China, necessitating an at times resolute and acute struggle against deeply entrenched habits of authoritarian deference and its theological and philosophical underpinnings, a great deal of care was taken to preserve the Chinese cultural heritage. Gao notes,

“For instance, on 14 May 1967, the CCP Central Committee issued a document entitled Guanyu zai wuchanjieji wenhua da geming zhong baohu wenwu tushu de jidian yijian (Several suggestions for the protection of cultural relics and books during the Cultural Revolution) to protect traditional cultural institutions and relics. It is noteworthy, as well, that archaeological discoveries of historical significance such as the Terracotta Army and Mawangdui tombs in Hunan province made during this period have been well-preserved. In fact the number of archaeological discoveries (including the Terracotta Army discovered in 1974) was very high and their preservation was swift and effective during the period.”  (1)

Gao demonstrates that the destruction of Tibetan religious and cultural monuments, related as it was to the similar destruction of certain Chinese religious and cultural artefacts, was not principally carried out by Chinese Red Guards, since only a few of these actually reached remote Tibet. In fact, it was mainly Tibetans themselves who destroyed temples and other religious monuments during the Cultural Revolution. (2)

“The authorities in Tibet often tried to restrain radical actions, with the PLA for example consistently supporting the more conservative factions against the rebels. Temples and monasteries survived best in the central areas and cities where the authorities could still exercise some control. In contrast, the Gandan Monastery, some 60 kilometres outside Lhasa and one of the three major centres of the Yellow Hat sect, was reduced to ruins.” (3)

Gao reveals that a great many interviewees spoken to by Wei Se, a PRC citizen of Tibetan ethnic origin, whose works have been banned by the Chinese authorities, spoke positively of the Maoist policies in Tibet and were very enthusiastic about the Cultural Revolution. (4)

It was during the Cultural Revolution that many examples of “collective creativity” were realised. Gao is especially impressed by the Han-Ying cidian, the Chinese-English dictionary compiled over ten years by a group of academics at the Beijing Foreign language Institute. Gao writes, ‘First published in 1978, the dictionary, in my opinion, remains the best of its kind inside or outside China, past or present.’(5) Gao shows that medicine achieved very important and novel breakthroughs during the Cultural Revolution. For example, drawing on traditional techniques, artemisin was drawn from the qinghao plant, and has proved itself to be the drug now widely recognised as the world’s best hope for a malaria cure. (6) Gao lists a further series of impressive technological and economic achievements of China during the Cultural Revolution period. For example, the import of equipment for 8 giant chemical fertiliser and fabric factories, the invention of crystalline bovine insulin, the first Red Flag car, the atom bomb and hydrogen bomb, the first Chinese transistor computer and integrated circuit computer, the first Chinese automatic three-dimensional camera, the first 100,000 ton tanker, the invention of Qingda antibiotics, the development of Dagang and Shengli oilfields and the Beijing Yanshan Oil refinery, and others. (7)

Gao notes that the capitalist rulers of China are very subservient to the western propaganda system, dominated as it is by western Multinational Corporations. Gao quotes Li Xiguang:

“24 hours, day and night, for 20 days a billion Chinese viewers sat glued to their television sets as soldiers fought in Iraq. They watched live coverage of government leaders’ speeches one after another, official slogans and national flags one after another. They were watching government and military-approved journalists travelling, eating, sleeping, chatting and laughing with soldiers. These journalists were broadcasting live with ‘their’ troops. You might have thought it was just the classic propaganda of the communists and the communist-controlled media. In actuality, the Chinese were watching CNN and Rupert Murdoch’s channels. From the first day of the war, the Chinese government handed over the country’s five most popular TV channels to CNN and Murdoch. All the images and messages the Chinese audience got from their TV sets were filtered by CNN and Murdoch’s people.” (8)

The “classic propaganda” of the Chinese communists would, of course, never have subjected the Chinese people, with such long and hard experience of imperialist cruelty, to the insulting propaganda fodder eaten up by the pro-imperialist Western “masses”.

Gao spends some time in his book on the typical biographical “great men” version of Chinese history to be found in the widely available (in both the West and China) memoirs by Nien Cheng and Jung Chang. Chang, reveals Gao, was the privileged daughter of China’s Communist elite. She was given a generous government scholarship to study in Britain. She grew up with a wet-nurse, nanny, maid, gardener, and chauffeur provided by the party. She was protected by a walled compound and educated in a special school for officials children. Gao writes:

“As a grade 10 official her father was among the 20,000 most senior people in a country of 1.25 billion, and it was in this period that children of high officials became almost a class of their own. Still, the enthusiastic western audience of wild swans found something to identify in Jung Chang’s perennial fear of being reduced to the level of the rest of the population, shuddering with her at the prospect that, ‘Mao intended me to live the rest of my life as a peasant’.” (9)

Clearly, a person used to this style of life and deeply committed to it ideologically, will not likely appreciate policies, laws and struggles designed to rein in her privileges. Gao quotes a review of Chang’s Wild Swans by Kong Shuyu, who writes that Chang’s memoirs are ‘self invention’, ‘idealized self justification’, and ‘full of imaginative reconstruction of events, using hindsight to alter her recollections.’ Chang ‘has altered her story to suit the wishes of hindsight and her market audience, and… her memory has changed past events to make her behaviour seem more decisive and less shameful.’ (10) Gao describes Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s book Mao: The Unknown Story, as an intellectual scandal. He shows that despite its soap opera style and utterly unconventional and unconvincing referencing system the book was hyper-promoted in western media and corporate literary outlets. The interviewee lists in the book includes a Hungarian Prime Minister, a brother of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, a foreign minister of New Zealand, a former President of Poland and the Dalai Lama. The book also claims to have interviewed Mao’s daughter Li Na, Mao’s Grandson Mao Xinyu and Liu Shaoqi’s widow Wang Guangmei. But none of these people are quoted directly, nor are they precisely determined to have said anything relevant to the arguments made by Chang and Halliday. It is merely stated that they were interviewed. As Gao rightly suggests: ‘If you do not want to tell the reader what an interviewee has said, you cannot include that interview as your source of evidence.’ (11) Gao writes:

“Professor Frederick Teiwes is a well-known scholar on CCP elite politics and he is listed in the book’s acknowledgements. According to Teiwes, he had met Jung Chang a couple of times but could not say anything substantial about the subject on Mao because Chang would not listen unless what he had to say suited her predetermined ideas. An indication of what Teiwes thinks of the book is that he declined to participate in the special issue to review the book organized by The China Journal.” (12)

Further, it is standard practice in scholarly works to list a source only if a reference is directly cited. Gao shows how the referencing system of Chang and Halliday’s soap opera hatchet job is completely unconventional despite the apparently impressive and intellectually intimidating length of the book’s ‘footnotes’. Gao writes:

“A common move employed by the authors is to cite a reference or even references to a trivial statement or piece of insignificant information, which is then followed immediately by a substantial or serious claim without reference.” (13)

The references at the back of the book are vague and do not point to any precise information contained in the particular supposed sources. Chang and Halliday proffer outlandish explanations in place of much more obvious and easily proven ones. Rather than admit his great abilities, Chang and Halliday argue, for example, that Mao was a terrible military strategist. They argue that despite his utter venality and incompetence in the military field, Stalin handed him control of the Red Army (!). But it is hard to see why Stalin would be so stupid to do so, given Mao’s alleged uselessness (never mind how Stalin, the bourgeoisie’s “evil puppet-master of international Bolshevism”, could have prevented him from doing so). They argue that Chiang Kai-Shek allowed Mao and the CCP to escape (!) on the Long March, because two of Chiang Kai-shek’s sons were in Moscow studying at the time when he could have finally routed them. Clearly, to Generalissimo Chiang, the fate of his two sons was more important, according to Chang and Halliday, than the fate of one billion Chinese people subjected to the authority of Maoist communism. Isn’t it more probable that the CCP had an able and intelligent commander and strategist?

The memoirs by veteran party leaders and various associates of such are styled, says Gao, like Peking Opera stories. All of these memoirs have the line of the Chinese government that Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated disaster since the Chinese government censors or bans any literature which departs from the official anti-Communist line. Gao writes:

“Another example of how the Chinese authorities work to make sure publications follow what is allowed officially is the inclusion or exclusion in selected volumes of important CCP leaders’ speeches. During the 1980s, speeches of Liu Shaoqi were collected into volumes for publication. None of Liu’s speeches made between June 1958 and the summer of 1960, a gap of two years, were included in this official publication compiled by the CCP Central Office of Documentary Research… The reason why those speeches are not collected seems to be that some of Liu’s speeches during this period were clearly advocating reckless policies and practices of the Great Leap Forward. The post-Mao official line is that the Great Leap Forward famine was all Mao’s fault.” (14)

Gao, indeed, tends to blame the failings of the Great Leap Forward on the unscientific enthusiasm of persons like Liu Shaoqi who was, between 1958 and 1962 and unlike Mao, neither cautious nor careful about the policies associated therewith.

Gao notes how the Great Leap Forward famine death toll is based on very dubious and incomplete demographic statistics and measurements. He quotes Patnaik:

“Some scholars have used a very dubious method of arriving at grossly unrealistic and inflated ‘famine deaths’ during this period (1959-1961) by taking account not only of the higher crude death rate (which is a legitimate measure) but also counting the ‘missing millions’ as a result of the lower birth rate, as part of the toll. There is a great deal of difference between people who are already there, dying prematurely due to a sharp decline in nutritional status, and people not being born at all. The former can enter the statistics of famine deaths according to any sensible definition of famine, but people who are not born at all are obviously in no position to die whether prematurely or otherwise.” (15)

Gao also notes how many of these ‘missing millions’ had likely moved from areas hard hit by food shortages and turned up elsewhere. He describes how, during the Great Leap Forward, masses of rural persons would leave the countryside, with or without permission, to find alternative sources of income and thus ‘disappear’ from official records. Upon returning years later, these persons would be registered again, thus giving the statistical appearance that the Great Leap Forward years were worse than they actually were. Douglas Tottle (16) demonstrated how determining death tolls according to anticipated population growth (and bear in mind there was no proper and scientific system of demographic data collection available in China either before or after Communist victory until recently), can lead to absurd results. Tottle shows how class struggle, food shortage and attendant dislocation in the Saskatchewan region of Canada during the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a lower birth rate than in previous years. But nobody in their right minds would expostulate that because there was a far lower than anticipated population at the end of the period he examines there must have been hundreds of thousands dying through famine! Yet this is precisely what we are supposed to believe when it comes to ‘death toll’ figures for socialist China and the USSR. Yet even if we do take these very unscientific demographic methods as legitimate, Mao’s China still does not fare badly in comparison to Third World capitalist countries. Quoting Nobel Prize winner Amartaya Sen, Black writes:

“[India] had, in terms of morbidity, mortality and longevity, suffered an excess in mortality over China of close to 4 [million] a year during the same [Great Leap Forward] period… Thus, in this one geographical area alone, more deaths resulted from this ‘failed capitalist experiment’ (more than 100 million by 1980) than can be attributed to the ‘failed communist experiment’ all over the world since 1917.” (17)

Gao shows that there was very serious flooding and droughts during the worst years of the Great Leap Forward (he does not mention the deadly embargo placed on China by American imperialism and the massive disruption of industry caused by the sudden departure of thousands of “Soviet” technical personnel in 1960) and further notes how village case studies, of which there are many in the literature on China, show no death toll due to famine during the Great Leap Forward being reported. Gao argues that it was not Mao alone who was responsible for the policies and consequences of such in the Great Leap Forward, although he does write that Mao was mainly responsible for the quick and dramatic collectivisation of agriculture during 1957 and 1958. “The sudden change of organization from co-ops to big collective communes meant that no adequate supervision and monitoring system could be implemented to manage grain production. This organizational failure undoubtedly had detrimental consequences in grain production.” (18) But Gao fails to note that geopolitical conditions (the beginnings of the Sino-Soviet split, the abrupt and devastating withdrawal of Soviet industrial aid and the tightening of the American embargo) were forcing the CCP to take radical measures to boost industrial and agricultural production. The Great Leap Forward was a combined political and economic plan to avoid many of the problems associated with building industry and urban centres at the expense of agriculture and rural development. (19)

Nonetheless, Gao quotes statistics which show that death toll figures bandied about by anti-Mao partisans do not paint the picture which the latter claim they do. Firstly, famines causing tens of millions of Chinese deaths were frequent in the first half of the twentieth century (there were certainly none after the Great Leap Forward), so that claims of the unprecedented and paramount barbarity of the Mao-era economy must be questioned. Secondly,

“Jiang (19) also pointed out that, according to statistics compiled by the Information Service of the Reseearch Centre of China’s Population and Development, the population of 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1961 was respectively 653,460,000, 660,120,000, 662,070,000 and 664,570,000, with an increase of 11,100,000 people in three years. Though the population increases of these three years were lower than those during the years of 1956 to 1958, the increase was still on average 5.46 per cent, higher than the world average at that time, and much higher than pre-1949 years. Jiang further points out that the death rate of 1959, 1960 and 1961 was 14.59 per cent, 17.91 per cent and 14.24 per cent, an average of 15.58 per cent, which was about the same as the world average death rate at that time, and much lower than the death rates in pre-1949 years.  During the three years of famine 30,952,300 people died [of all causes], and compared with the lower death rate of 11.40 per cent during 1956 to 1958, there were an extra 8.3 million deaths, not as many as the 30 to 40 million claimed by anti-communist literature such as Chang and Halliday.” (20)

Gao shows that, except for the Great Leap Forward years of 1959 and 1960 and the Cultural Revolution years of 1967 and 1968, Chinese economic growth outpaced most Third World and several imperialist countries. These facts are proven and accepted by both Chinese and western scholars in their macro-studies. Here is what China achieved without genocidal military campaigns and without a colonial and neo-colonial empire to exploit:

“[From] 1965 to 1985 the average annual GDP growth rate of the United States was 1.34 per cent, UK 1.6 per cent, West Germany 2.7 per cent, Japan, 4.7 per cent, Singapore 7.6 per cent, South Korea 6.6 per cent, Hong Kong 6.1 per cent, and India 1.7 per cent. (21) During the same period (the collective system was not totally dismantled until the mid-1980s) China’s growth rate was 7.49 per cent.” (22)

Contrary to anti-communist propaganda defaming the ten-year Cultural Revolution as an economic disaster, Forster writes:

“In 1966 the proportion of industrial output value from collective and commune/brigade run industrial enterprises to state enterprises was 17:83; in 1976 it was 37:63, with the output value of collective industry growing at the annual average rate of 15.8 per cent over the ten years.” (23)

It is commonly accepted by scholars, but not otherwise widely acclaimed, that the average life expectancy of most Chinese people rose from 35 in 1949 to 63 by 1975. (24) Gao writes that the Communist revolution in China was one which

“brought unity and stability to a country that had been plagued by civil wars and foreign invasions… It was a revolution that carried out land reform, promoted women’s status, improved popular literacy, and eventually transformed Chinese society beyond recognition.” (25)

The struggle to achieve these aims was thoroughly and necessarily revolutionary and democratic. The Chinese masses, the rural peasantry and the industrial working class guided by the theory and practice of Maoism, began to shape their own destiny. For the first time in China, after 1949 the Chinese people themselves democratically controlled all of society’s wealth (its land, its factories, its tools, its roads, its schools, its abundant human resources) and used it to improve all the people’s livelihood, and not just the rich, the clever, the male, and the powerful. Yet the bourgeoisie of China and the west seek, using venomous opprobrium, the complete discrediting of the Chinese people’s heroic and world-historical struggle to achieve liberty, equality and fraternity. Now, only the rich and powerful capitalist class is supposed, by all mainstream accounts, to decide the fate of the hungry, the unemployed, and the ordinary worker and family. What have been some of the consequences, however, of the reconstruction of capitalism in post-Maoist China?

Gao describes child slavery being practiced and going unpunished by the authorities (26); of 1.7 million ‘missing’ (in the same sense used to account for famine deaths during the Great leap Forward) Chinese girls being the result of a resolutely post-Mao population control effort by the CCP (27); of massive inequalities in elite and ordinary Chinese educational opportunities (28); of a healthcare system designed to cater for the rich and urban Chinese population (29); of mounting bureaucratic costs borne by the peasantry and working class (30); of massively increasing inequality (31); of superexploitation wages (32); and of a laissez faire approach to working conditions and basic safety regulations for workers (33). All of these things, certainly of the utmost significance for the majority of the Chinese people, were demonstrably and markedly better during the Mao era. Gao spends the last third of his book chronicling the miserable conditions, economic, political, legal and cultural facing the Chinese rural and urban working class, showing how the wholesale revisionist intellectual vandalism of the gains of socialist China for the masses are effectively denying a voice for the majority of the Chinese people.

Overall, Gao’s case for Mao is made very convincingly. Clear evidence and serious theoretical acumen have been mustered in the service of putting the record straight about the difference between socialism and capitalism for the working people of China. Reading Gao’s new book is not a substitute for reading the literature, scholarly and agitational, upholding the Mao era from the historical perspective of class struggle, and when reading it one sometimes gets the impression that socialism was something bestowed upon the Chinese people under Mao as opposed to something hard fought for and won by them under great Communist leadership. But that is an unfair impression: it was not Gao’s aim to write another history of the Maoist period as such. His aim was to criticise and open up to more critical scrutiny, the self-serving myths and outright lies of those who seek to uphold the current capitalist system of robbery, slaughter, war, racism, patriarchy and parasitism, to show that there is an alternative, and it is to the eternal credit of the Chinese people and their communist leaders to have forged its broad parameters through class struggle. Finally, Prof. Gao has done a remarkable service to the working class and the oppressed nations by opening up the serious debate going on within China to non-Chinese speakers. We should be grateful to him for doing so. I would recommend this book to comrades everywhere.

Notes

1. Mobo Gao, The Battle For China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London, Pluto Press, 2008), p. 21.

2. See ‘The Leading Light Communist Approach to the Free Tibet Movement’ by End Imperialism,

3. Wang Lixiong, ‘Reflections on Tibet’, New Left Review, no. 14, 2002, pp. 79-111.

4. Wei Se (Woeser), Xizang jiyi: ershisan wei qilao koushu Xizang wenge (Tibetan Memories: 23 venerated old people talk about the Cultural Revolution in Tibet), Taipei: dakui wenhua.

5. Gao, p. 29.

6. Gao, p. 22.

7. Gao, p. 144.

8. Li Xiguang, ‘Live coverage of lies or truth?’, HYPERLINKhttp://www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/Spring04/paper.htm

9. Gao, p. 43, quoting James Heartfield, ‘Mao: The end of the affair’, HYPERLINKhttp://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000 CAC41.htm

10. Kong Shuyu, Swan and spider eater in problematic memoirs of cultural revolution’, Position, vol. 7, no. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 241-52.

11. Gao, p. 67.

12. Gao, p. 67. The following references are, though mostly anti-communist, extremely critical of Chang and Halliday’s “scholarly” work. Hamish McDonald, ‘Throwing the book at Mao’, HYPERLINKhttp://www.theage.com.au/news/books/throwing-the-book-at-mao/2005/10/06/1128562936768.html; Professor Joesph W. Esherick, Tony Wan, Tom Worger, Stacy Jer, ‘A critical assessment of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography Mao: The Unknown Story’, HYPERLINKhttp://sdcc17.ucsd.edu/~twan/HIEA199.htm; Andrew Nathan, ‘Jade and Plastic’ a review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, London Review of Books, 17 November 2005, HYPERLINKhttp://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n22/print/nath01_.html; John Dolan , ‘Mao meets the Addams Family’, HYPERLINKhttp://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=7816&IBLOCK_ID=35&phrase_id=1685

13. Gao, p. 70.

14. Gao, p. 54.

15. Utsa Patnaik, ‘Republic hunger’, HYPERLINKhttp://networkideas.org/featart/apr2004/RepublicHunger.pdf

16. Douglas Tottle, Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard (Canada, 1987), HYPERLINKhttp://www.rationalrevolution.net/special/library/famine.htm

17. Black, Anthony C., ‘Black propaganda’ in Guardian Weekly, 24 February, 2000.

18. Gao, p. 86.

19. Jiang Chuangang, ‘Mao Zedong shidai shi ruhe jiejue renmin de chifan wenti de’ (How the problem of feeding the Chinese was solved during the era of Mao), San nong Zhongguo, HYPERLINKhttp://www.snzg.net/shonews.asp?newsid=14978

20. Gao, p. 141.

21. Han Deqiang, ‘Wushi nian, sanshi nian he ershi nian’, (50 years, 30 years and 20 years), Wuyou zhixiang, HYPERLINKhttp://www.wyzxsx.com/book/012.doc

22. Gao, p. 138.

23. Keith Forster, ‘The Cultural Revolution in Zhejiang revisited: The paradox of rebellion and factionalism, and violence and social conflict amidst economic growth’ in Law Kam-Yee, ed., The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered: Beyond Purge and Holocaust (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 148.

24. Maristella Bergaglio, ‘Population growth in China: The basic characteristics of China’s demographic transition’, 2006, HYPERLINKhttp://air.unimi.it/handle/2434/35811

25. Gao, p. 81. Gao references Mark Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1971); Mark Selden, The Political Economy of Chinese Socialism (New York, M.E. Sharpe, 1988); Mark Selden and Patti Eggleston, eds., The People’s Republic of China: A Documentary History of Revolutionary Change (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1979); and Mark Selden, Edqaed Friedman, and Paul Pickowcz, Chinese Village, Socialist State (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1991).

26. Gao, p. 119.

27. Gao, p. 121.

28. Gao, p. 123.

29. Gao, pp. 124, 152.

30. Gao, p. 126.

31. Gao, p. 175.

32. Gao, p. 179.

33. Gao, p. 126.

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine 
New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1998, 380pp. 
by Jasper Becker9780805056686

reviewed by MC5 March 18, 2004, expanded, revised March 22, 2004, slightly edited November 2010 by MSH

Who Jasper Becker is

Jasper Becker is the new darling of anti-Mao writers from the West. Google turns up 4000 entries for his name. He said that in 1960 under Mao China suffered the worst famine in its history, because of the movement to create communes called the “Great Leap.”(p. 1)

In the 1950s and early 1960s, he would have been one of a dime-a-dozen journalists who never went to China but had to make up stories about it anyway. Today, he has had access to China and his competition is much reduced, so he stands out when he says that the

“Great Leap” under Mao was the worst famine in world history; although of course he does not provide any comparative analysis of famines in his book claiming this, just a terribly incomplete page of mentions of some other famines.(p. 273) Jasper Becker is just a journalist after all.

Jasper Becker’s circles include the usual suspects. Becker spoke highly of Harvard Professor Roderick MacFarquhar, when he called MacFarquhar’s work on the Great Leap the “cornerstone” in 1999. To get a notion of the small world of Western journalism in China and how free markets get good coverage while the rest gets bad coverage, there was a paper at Harvard.(1)

One propaganda use of Jasper Becker’s work to “Free North Korea” summed up Mao this way: “‘Mao was unsystematically, fanatically dangerous,’ said a former well-placed Chinese official in Beijing who was persecuted and jailed as a ‘rightist’ during the Cultural Revolution. ‘He was not a mass murderer, but his lunacy probably caused the deaths of more people than Stalin.’”(2) The authors at that particular website to “Free North Korea” have realized that pinning “mass murder” on Mao is not exactly right. They simply don’t agree with his policies and think they would have done better thereby saving millions of people; even though there is plenty of data from plenty of countries that suggests it was impossible to do better than Mao did for a poor country. Becker himself said “Mao had allowed tens of millions to starve to death.”(p. 256) That’s not quite the “killed” theme we pick up later in derivative works.

In reality, what we are still seeing in 2004 is mediocrity trying to comprehend the genius of the Chinese Revolution, when the Chinese Revolution unleashed profound social forces and uncovered profound social problems. When people try to drag Mao down to the level of commonplace cliches in the West believed and applied in countless countries that did not do as well as China, the result is accusations of Mao’s “lunacy.” The question comes down to what social forces existed in China and how people interpret them. Looking at the same thing, some people would attribute something to Mao’s politics, some to superstition and some to Liu Shaoqi.

When Mao was done, we all know that China was almost a billion people. Although China’s total fertility (babies per womyn) rate started dropping off in the 1970s ahead of India’s, and although state-capitalist leader Deng Xiaoping imposed the “one child policy” creating penalties for people above two children except in the national minority regions, India did not surpass Mao’s 1976 population level in China until 1995.(3) From MIM’s point of view, in a generation of life, (1949 to 1976), Mao left India behind by a generation in health care; even though China started behind India in health care when Mao took over. That is just the largest and most relevant comparison in the world that whatever flaws Mao had were worse in other countries’ leaders.

From Jasper Becker’s point of view, it was fair to compare China with Japan; even though Japan had started industrialization in the mid-1800s and was vastly richer than China when Mao took over. Japan in 1945 lost the war but it had challenged Amerikan military power in the Pacific. China had no comparable air force and navy, no comparable industrial base. Yet, through a completely off-base comparison, Jasper Becker blamed Mao by way of comparison with contemporary Japan. It’s this kind of triumphalism for capitalism which demonstrates the chaotic and unscientific nature of pro-capitalist critics of Mao. It’s like starting a race where Japan is two steps from the finish line and Mao is not even on the track yet. That is how Becker concludes his overall evaluation of Mao. (p. 262-) On page 258 there is also a complete botch of a paragraph citing evidence from the World Bank that contradicts his thesis. It’s clear Becker is no comparative political economist.

Admissions

We are thankful to Jasper Becker in a sense, because although the press has extensively condensed his work for propaganda purposes, most of the problems in his own thought and the whole “Great Leap” famine picture are right in his book. He left enough gaping holes in his story to drive a truck through.

a. what others have said before him

“One of the most remarkable things about the famine which occurred in China between 1958 and 1962 was that for over twenty years, no one was sure whether it had even taken place.” (p. xi)

“Many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are still missing. Knowledge of events at the highest levels of the Communist Party at key moments is often sketchy, making it difficult to understand clearly why things happened as they did. Much data about death totals is also absent and it is hard to be sure of the reliability of what has come to light.”(p. xii)

“300-400 foreigners then living in Beijing . . . none of the foreigners in Beijing between 1958 and 1962 seem to have had any idea that millions were starving to death.”(p. 295)

To his credit anyone reading his chapter on the “The Western Failure” could conclude that Jasper Becker is a revisionist historian. He seems to know that no one who was actually there from the West in China in 1960 backs up his story. What is worse, people a lot more educated in the details contradict him flatly.

Most of what Becker said has already been refuted by Felix Greene in A Curtain of Ignorance: China: How America Is Deceived. Greene regales us with as many accusations as Becker does, but Greene handles more anti-communist writers. The difference is that Becker can say he spoke to more Chinese than the other anti-communist critics of the time–just 30 years later. Here is what Greene had to say: “While in China in 1960, I was able to talk to the ambassadors and staffs of most of the Western and neutral embassies about the communes; I had long discussions with well-informed Europeans, including technical experts, who had been in China several years; I traveled thousands of miles, spent days in communes of my own choosing; I walked to work with peasants and ate with them in their communal dining halls. I found nothing to justify the reports that I had been reading in our press. I also found that these reports were not credited–indeed were ridiculed– by the diplomatic representatives of Western countries in China.”(4)

Becker is also so good to admit that at the time of the “Great Leap” Chiang Kai-shek was preparing his last great hope of invasion of China from Taiwan, and thus had motivation to spread destabilizing rumors. Since the time of Greene’s reports to the West on China, we have also learned definitively from the Dalai Lama himself that the CIA was paradropping arms to Tibetans and we have learned from sources no less than the John Birch Society itself (but also more serious ones) that Amerikans parachuted into China from time to time. Now we know that they met terrible fates–the point being however that there are many people from that time period and place that had incentives to spread rumors and had either Taiwanese or Hong Kong connections to do so. There was a deadly serious military game afoot.

Worst of all for Becker is that he has had to admit that he had to write the book because the Chinese people themselves don’t know the Great Leap was the worst famine in Chinese history. He’s quite concerned that certain things Mao said did prove to be true and that his legacy may end up standing tall.(p. 265) Somehow only select witnesses noticed that one in sixteen or one in eight people dropped dead in a year or two.

b. other factors in the difficulties or lack thereof

“The final rupture between the two fraternal Parties came in July 1960 when 15,000 or so Soviet experts at work in China suddenly left.” (p. 95)

“Millions of tonnes of grain were ordered from Australia, Canada and other countries.”(p. 239)

c. undermining his own birth rate assumptions

“Peasants pushed into working for twenty-four hours at a stretch.”(p. 121)

“In the fields, too, peasants worked at night by electric light; when that was not available, they used oil lamps and candles.” (p. 123)

“For a few months in 1958, commune leaders actually separated men and women into different living quarters. (Indeed Mao even wondered whether it would suffice for men and women to meet twice a month for the purposes of procreation.)”(p. 105)

“The Communist Party’s explicit aim was to destroy the family as an institution: ‘The framework of the individual family, which has existed for thousands of years, has been shattered for all time. . . We must regard the People’s Commune as our family and not pay too much attention to the formation of a separate family of our own. For years motherly love has been glorified. . .but it is wrong to degrade a person from a social to a biological creature. . . the dearest people in the world are our parents, yet they cannot be compared with Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. . . for it is not the family which has given us everything but the Communist Party and the great revolution. . . Personal love is not so important: therefore women should not claim too much of their husbands’ energy.’”(pp. 105-106)

“‘The women had stopped menstruating.’”(p. 231)

“Many women did not begin to menstruate again until 1965.”(p. 247)

“Pre-famine trends are not a strong guide because it is clear that fewer babies are born in a famine. Many produce less milk and infant mortality rises sharply.” (p. 269)

This sort of report continues a long distinguished line of anti-communist reporting going back to Marx and which had special force and widespread application back in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet these propagandists never seem to notice that when they point out how Mao undermined sex and the possibilities of procreation, that means there were fewer newly born people around possible to die–something key to all the demographic estimates purporting 30, 43 or even 80 million(p. 274) “excess deaths” in the Great Leap. In actual fact, a new pattern of gender relations had emerged; public life was very much dominating over private life and people worked and studied day, noon and night. There was no need to project a famine to come to the conclusion that population might have dropped simply because of a lack of replacement with newly born babies. Once we add in a threat of famine/borderline nutritional conditions it seems that the vast majority of China’s problem may have been absorbed by a declining birth rate.

d. simultaneously pointing to local superstition and cannibalism

“Husbands felt bound to stay and tend the graves of their ancestors.” (p. 152)

Becker admits that cannibalism has a long, long history of thousands of years in China, but somehow finds it fit to blame on Mao. For example, in one example, he seems to know he has hit invention when one official: “is said to have invented a method of boiling human flesh to turn it into fertilizer and was rumored to have boiled more than a hundred children. Subsequent investigations revealed that he had boiled at least twenty corpses.”(p. 116)

“Stories also circulated about how, in some places, villagers would kill and eat such infants.”(p. 154)

Since Becker says that the other notable cannibalism of the 20th century was in fascist and communist countries only,(p. 213) we are going to have to take up the subject of cannibalism at another time. From our point of view, local officials probably did innovate to find ways to intimidate people out of superstitions–sometimes backed by Mao’s line, sometimes not. In other situations, intimidation regarding production may have resulted in grain shortages among peasants thought to have more food than they did, according to Mao’s critics.

e. admitting that no demographic sources used are from Mao

“Mao refused to publish the results. Details of the 1964 census were only published in 1980.”(p. 267)

“Professional statisticians were relegated to other work and were only reappointed in July 1961.”(p. 267)

These statistics come from Deng Xiaoping, targeted by Mao as the second ranking enemy of the people during the Cultural Revolution. Mao purged Deng from the government and all party committees just before Mao died. We will have to handle at another time the data that Mao did publish.

There is indeed a tension in Maoism between “red” and “expert.” The only full census done in China was in 1953 and then again in 1964. Without understanding the politics of Maoism it will make no sense how professionals are protecting their class interests by complaining about the Chinese demographic data.

f. Undermining his own story that the Great Leap was the worst famine

“By the twentieth century, Henan was a backward and impoverished region known as the ‘land of the beggars.’” (p. 124)

“‘But since Emperor Zhu was born there [Fengyang–MC5]/There’s been famine nine years out of every ten.” (p. 130)

If there has been famine in nine out of 10 years, since the time of Emperor Zhu, that would suggest the Great Leap was not the worst, certainly in duration at least.

Missing context

Again with Jasper Becker we have the deja vu as in reading the Black Book of Communism where an entire context of war is just missing. Some of the violence that Becker talks about in his history covering the 1920s to the 1940s is in the context of an anti-Japanese fight that Becker does not weave in. Instead we get treated to stories of violence even in the 1940s as if there were no Japanese occupation going on or being overcome. Likewise, he treats us to a summary of the Ukrainian famine without any discussion of Robert Conquest’s fascist and literally fiction book sources. Although these points are annoying, this is not what Jasper Becker contributes today. He merely repeats what others have said, so we won’t mention it again.

Ideology

In obtaining the overall picture of China, despite his thoroughness in reading the anti-communist pulp and his aggressiveness in tracking down assorted anti-Mao stories, Jasper Becker’s two weakest points are his understanding of communist ideology and thus the inner-party struggles and his contradictory treatment of the rationing system and internal migration.

As with other standard anti-communist Liberals who do not correct anti-communist dogma but believe somehow that an adversarial press could have forestalled the errors of the Great Leap, Jasper Becker tries to paint a picture of a pig-headed Mao. His knowledge of this sort of point is very weak compared with MacFarquhar’s, so again, this is not something that Becker will be known for. He will be more known for the grisly details concerning individual instances of cannibalism described in the book and for interviewing various people who claimed a famine did happen, at least in their villages. As we have pointed out in our review of the Black Book of Communism and MacFarquhar’s book, our adversarial journalism has not produced any published errata by the authors of those books and we have plenty of evidence that adversarial journalism did not stop cigarette companies from killing half a million people in the united $tates each year.

Becker even says that Deng Xiaoping found himself fooled by peasants because of the flow of information problem in a dictatorship. Throughout the book Becker gives stories of how the peasants gave central authorities the wrong impression by setting up Potemkin village type situations everywhere.(e.g., p. 72) In one case, they simply moved an irrigation machine from one farm to the next to give an inspector Mao the impression that all the local farms had installed one. (p. 122)

Our difference with Jasper Becker is that he does not mention Mao’s solution for this problem which was to push the requirement for commune level bureaucratic comrades to work in the fields as much as 90 days a year and a minimum of 30 days a year. Higher ranking officials were still supposed to work at least 30 days a year in the fields. The Liberal critics like Jasper Becker just do not understand what that means for government access to data. Only indirectly does Becker mention that Mao had assigned statisticians to “other” tasks than their usual census and statistics-taking. Becker does not seek to evaluate whether experience with peasants and other people in society might improve the work of a census-taker or statistician.

If the Chinese had carried out Mao’s line, the various levels of officials would know that the peasants and their local leaders were faking some success. If they had carried out Mao’s radical attack on the division of labor, the party officials would have known when local levels were lying. That’s why Mao recommended all high-ranking officials to partake in manual labor–partly so they would know what was going on with the peasants directly. Becker does not mention this, but other bourgeois critics lambasted Mao for this idea as too egalitarian, counter-productive, visionary and even punishing for high-ranking officials, when in fact it made great sense given the difficulties enthusiastic peasants and local officials were creating to get on the good side of the central authorities or just because in some minority of instances they loved seeing huge projects successfully completed.

Although Becker points to various critical letters Mao received and dissident members of the party who Mao repressed, Becker still says simultaneously that “no one dared utter a word of caution.”(p. 83) This is a hint for us that Becker rests on Liberal dogma and that his own mind is rather emotional and chaotic. He goes on to admit that already in 1959, Mao was making self-criticism; although, Becker does not give us all the details.

Jasper Becker calls Mao the “architect” of the famine, but gives us page after page of the details of the brutish things that local-level officials did. He tells us example after example of quirky superstitions and ideas individual peasants had while somehow concluding the centralizing influence of a Maoist government was evil.

In typical “have-your-cake-and-it-too” fashion, Becker also says that Mao had people starve in the Great Leap to prove his power.(e.g., p. 307) If the economy did badly, then Mao was proving his power. If the economy does well, then the critics are there to say he claims too much credit and they are afraid he may have a positive historical legacy. That’s why we at MIM say the “he did it for his own power” is usually a sterile argument unless we are comparing people like Mao with a pre-industrial tribe where there is no state power. Any comments Mao made about this in context would have to be sardonic, but the silly critics focus on something as regular as the sun rising–struggle for power in a society that still has classes and a state. In other countries, peasants starve each other for the benefit of speculating on grain prices. At least in Mao’s case, if he wanted a positive and communist historical legacy, he would not persynally benefit from hoarding grain to make the price go up.

Unlike some other authors like Roderick MacFarquhar who also see an ultra-left angle to Liu Shaoqi trying to outflank Mao, Jasper Becker decided that Liu Shaoqi did what he could to save the Chinese from Mao and then died in the Cultural Revolution to pay the price for that. As a result, Jasper Becker was unable to recognize which local officials were supporting Liu’s line. The pro-Liu officials show up rarely and in limited fashion in Becker’s account. People such as Lu Xianwan (p. 113) have quotes attributed to them coming from the Liu Shaoqi line that Becker attributes to Mao instead.

One key difference between Mao and Liu regarded how to treat the local officials. Becker establishes that there was some corruption at the local level. Mao said so and so did Liu. The difference is that Liu wanted to send central authority teams to crack down on local level corruption thoroughly. Mao took a different line and wanted the emphasis on corruption at the top. He knew some party secretaries could be bought for a pack of cigarettes as he said, but he did not like the implications of going to the lower level to clean it out the way Liu wanted. This was one of the main reasons the Cultural Revolution broke out.

The issues of corruption at the local level, the education level of local officials and the understanding of Mao’s instructions at the local level all have implications for a great hole in Becker’s story. If as Becker says party and military people ate well, took prostitutes in some rare instances and engaged in other forms of corruption–are we to believe that 30 million people could not “disappear” in China for a while while not actually dying from starvation?

For Becker stuck in a Liberal rut, he can only see Liu, Zhou, Deng and everybody else as junior to Mao and afraid of “speaking out.” He does not see that in a huge bureaucracy differing styles and theories necessarily raise their heads and provide differing impulses. He sees almost everything as Mao, Mao, Mao without distinction, in which case Mao would not be needed to undertake struggle of any kind. Only when it comes to installing private property does Becker see finally a line from Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

Reviewing the national Chinese statistics

Here we are going to reproduce the table of statistics that is causing all the wild accusations against Mao:

The above table published by the Deng Xiaoping regime has sparked a furor of speculations and condemnations from the West and some anti-Mao activists in China.
Source: Statistical Yearbook of China 1986 State Statistical Bureau of China, Economic Information & Agency (Beijing: 1986), pp. 71-2.

Upon first glance, if we just go down the population column, we may think we see 15 million “dead” in 1960 and 1961. MIM warns that if comrades had no other data or knowledge of the Great Leap, then that might be a good conclusion–and show some integrity not to second-guess it. However, in this case, the Deng Xiaoping regime gave us the birth rate and death rate data too, so now we have to ask whether those 15 million missing in 1960 and 1961 might be missing simply because there were not enough births to keep up with the deaths. Based on everything both the bourgeois media and communists said, the Great Leap was a period of great tumult and political dedication in which we have every reason to believe births declined. It turns out that 1960 is the only year that Deng’s data shows a loss of population caused by deaths exceeding births. That loss is 3 million people, not 15 or 30 million as Banister later came up with. In 1960 the natural loss of population was 4.57 per 1000. Multiply that out by about 650 million and we get about 3 million more deaths than births.

With a mistake of a mere 10 million people “missing,” there would be no natural growth rate data to report indicating a loss of life in the “Great Leap” even in the Deng Xiaoping data–because most of the original famine story depended on a story of projected births, and now, ignoring internal migration, something we will talk about in the next section. If we look at the data for 1950 above, we see that it is almost “too perfect,” in the sense that it implies zero net emigration or immigration into China. So then the question arises whether the statisticians correctly counted immigration and emigration or whether they in some cases inferred deaths when there were none. Do the local officials really go check to see that someone is buried or do they fill in with inferences when there is a break down administratively?

However, readers may be surprised to know that we agree with Banister, that if these Deng Xiaoping figures were correct, there is great merit to using the 1957 death rate and figuring out how many deaths then occurred from combined natural disasters and policy disasters. If there were no emigration out of China, then we would need to explain the deaths of 15 million people over these years after 1957–just as Banister says in her lower end estimate of the dead, the one we find most reasonable given what she knows. If 10 million are from the breakdown in the statistical agency, then given that Liu Shaoqi admitted that 30% were from the natural disasters, Mao would be left with almost 0 blame. On the other hand, we could also ask how likely it was that 15 million deaths spread out over four years would be something that any other alternative leader could have avoided and if they avoided some deaths, would some of their policies have created even more deaths in other categories? MIM would say so, particularly of the Liu Shaoqi line in health care and agriculture.

As a Liberal willing to quote the fascist Mussolini government in his chapter on the Ukrainian famine to the effect “that there was ‘a growing commerce in human meat’ and that people in the countryside were killing and eating their own children,’”(p. 43) Becker paints a simple picture that Mao unlike Becker did not use all his sources. Says Becker, Mao simply intimidated too many people: “Most of the Party leadership clearly knew what was going on but no one dared acknowledge the famine until Mao did so.”(p. 94) Becker does not explain that the same situation happened many times before in Chinese history, starting with the fact that Mao said a minority of Chinese with inferior weaponry and funding in a drug-addled country could kick out the Japanese occupiers, gain the support of the Chinese majority and defeat the comprador lackeys Chiang Kai-shek et. al. when almost everyone said it was “impossible.” It goes to show that two people looking at the same problem may see different causes for it and then different solutions.

The above table by the Deng Xiaoping regime implies approximately 15 million excess deaths after 1957 in the “Great Leap,” because of an increase in the death rate, which we will normally correctly assume occurred not because of a decrease of the proportion of young people around from a birth rate decline or emigration of young people. Banister goes on to double the death toll number for good measure, but that does not concern us here. We find the idea of using the 1957 mortality rate a fair one if the reported figures are correct to begin with. It’s a materialist standard. To us at MIM, it is saying that China proved it could enjoy the health standard that it did in 1957, so it should have kept it up; although, even Banister admits that flooding and other natural disasters could make it impossible to enjoy the 1957 standard of health. So then there comes the question of what percentage of those deaths Mao should take the blame for, if the Deng figures are correct and there was no net emigration.

[HC123 interjects: One (in)famous bit of emigration occurred in 1959, when a bunch of aristocrats and their adherents pulled up stakes and went to India. . . .[referring to the Dalai Lama–ed.] Any evidence of thousands and thousands of migrants spilling over into the USSR, Vietnam, India, Korea, or the several other countries with which China shares a border? Not that I know of. It would have been great propaganda for the Soviet Union at the time of the Sino-Soviet split. ]

Perhaps the biggest problem with taking the Deng Xiaoping data at face-value and then arriving at the 15 million “excess deaths” figure to pin on Mao is that there is no explanation for what happened in 1958. No one among the bourgeoisie or the Maoists contends that 1958 itself was a bad harvest year, just a big year for the Great Leap. So since the death rate is higher for 1958 than 1957, then perhaps “natural disasters” really is a good explanation.

We realize the public does not like the “excess death” concept yet. When the public hears that Mao “killed” 30, 40 or 65 million people, it pictures that he had them lined up and shot, not that his enemies lined them up and shot them, not that there was a civil war, not that some local officials had grudges against each other and certain families, not that there was a famine caused by natural disasters, not that he was referring to babies that could have been born but were not because women did not get pregnant when they supposedly should have and certainly not a mistake referring to migrations.

On this second to last point, the Pope is against contraception and we know he feels that it is “killing” someone. In other cultures, if a woman misses her chance with a man at a given time it’s even more serious than the kind of killing the Pope is talking about in his “pro-life” stance. We nonetheless believe that the public rightly expects the bourgeois media to use a consistent standard. If it be the Pope’s standard, fine but apply it to everyone. We at MIM suspect that most people want the “line them up and shoot them” standard when the press refers to Mao “killing” someone. When the media uses the word “mass murder” or “kill,” it gives the public the impression that it is talking about a Jeffrey Dahmer running China, when in fact, it is simply using those words so that it does not have to calculate “excess deaths” for other countries and times too, just the hated communist countries.

According to Mao’s enemies in the Deng Xiaoping regime, Mao only executed some 34,000 people during the Cultural Revolution while the Dalai Lama folks are saying 40 million. Last we checked MacFarquhar is saying all of these unjust deaths were under a million in the Cultural Revolution. In the first case, Deng is talking about people that Mao supposedly had lined up and shot.

Unfortunately for the public that does not understand these things, the other numbers that we hear about Mao in the bourgeois press refer mostly to demographic estimates or even wilder ideas basing projections on deaths in a single village and extrapolating to the whole country. Some people in MIM’s own camp defending Mao get frustrated with us and ask why we don’t just stick with Deng’s number for executions and tell the world the anti-communist propaganda is a piece of shit.

This has to do with whether we want to sink down to the level of our critics. At the level of our critics such as Jasper Becker, of course the number of deaths that he can tally by people he actually talked to –even assuming every death story of a family member he heard was true and not some political stand against Mao or advance up the Deng/Jiang/Hu career ladder –can never approach a million. For this reason, Jasper Becker and other journalists realize that they need to talk about people like Judith Banister to condemn Mao’s China.

Truth be told, though Banister makes graver accusations against us than what Becker can, and though we have seen Roderick MacFarquhar and the Black Book of Communism editor Mark Kramer blow decimal points to create a 10 times worse impression of Mao’s Great Leap than deserved–despite all that we would rather deal with these people than the journalists. Truth is more likely to come from demographers than journalists trying to sell books or newspapers. The bourgeoisie wants us to stay down at the individual level, at the level where China had cannibals eating dead people to keep from starving to death (as if other countries did not too). The demographers by their nature bring us up to a more general level, where it is possible to compare every country’s overall cannibal problem and like problems.

The problem is that someone like Judith Banister has to be pushed to answer the right questions. If we do push these demographers and watch them like hawks, we are more likely to get the overall picture than by talking to journalists.

By way of review, it is fair to say that 15 million people died from non-normal reasons in China in the Great Leap period and its aftermath if we use Deng Xiaoping’s death rate figures. Were those deaths caused by 1) natural disasters? 2) A selective out-migration of the young and decline in birth rate that raised the average age? 3) Class struggle by peasants who in 1960 and 1961 turned to private property and kept their grain or who opposed Mao by withholding farming effort on collective land? 4) “Ultra-left” politics of the Great Leap in which Mao inspired officials seized grain because they overestimated the conditions and imagined more successful harvests than there were. Mao said 30% of the problem was 4, the politics of the Great Leap. If we give 100% blame to Mao and we accept his enemy’s death rate figures, then it would be fair to say that Mao’s Great Leap caused 15 million deaths over four years-still a far cry from what we hear lately. It’s also a statistic that Blacks in the united $tates match every 8.4 years, if there were as many Blacks as Chinese–the difference being that the discrimination against Blacks does not end like the Great Leap catastrophe.

According to the U.S. Government itself, the same government employing Banister, there were 80,000 “excess deaths” in 1990 for Blacks in the united $tates.(5) A more recent book says 90,000, but let’s use the 80,000 figure. However, that is 80,000 for a population of only 29,980,996 Blacks in 1990. Had we gone back to the Great Leap and had that same problem proportionately in China, then with 672.07 million people at the end of 1959, that would have been 1.793 million “excess deaths” annually, not 80,000. That would have been more “excess deaths” than happened in 1958 and 1961 according to the statistics that Banister is using to condemn the Great Leap. In other words, ordinary times for Blacks in the united $tates are worse than two of the years in the Great Leap that Banister and Becker are attacking.

MIM also has an opinion about which “excess deaths” are really more indicative of a system. In China, there were excess deaths because a poor country lived too close to the edge and any mistake could push people over the edge–and like we say, we believe Liu, Deng or any other available leader would have made even more “mistakes” than Mao in the 1949 to 1962 period. In the united $tates, a rich country, “excess deaths” signify a completely different problem indicative of the greater evil of u.$. imperialism compared with Mao’s China. With its more modern communications and transportation, the united $tates should have an easy time evening out disparities compared with China.

The propagandists were not satisfied with this story and the “death toll” they obtained from national statistics in the table above and so now we turn toward the latest innovations in attacking Mao. These latest techniques depend on blaming Mao for not evening out the starvation situation in the provinces.

Internal migration

“While in other parts of China the authorities issued starving peasants with ‘begging certificates’ which allowed them to try their luck elsewhere, this was strictly forbidden in Xinyang.”(p. 120)

We have to remember that long before Jasper Becker wrote his book, MIM had already shot down the previous Banister-based analysis by doing a comparative analysis which people can still read on our website called “Myths of Mao.” Many people came to realize that the original anti-Great Leap story based on China’s overall population statistics depended on birth rates. Since Banister’s initial successes, Becker and MacFarquhar and some in China are trying to “innovate” in a new direction by breaking down the numbers into provincial components.

That is one thing that Jasper Becker does in his methods of calculation of death that MIM would not do to any country. After Becker did not get enough excitement from the table above for the overall national China story, he went to data at the provincial level and made the assumption that if one province population increased and another decreased, it’s not because some people moved from one to the other.

In other countries, the disparity in numbers resulting from internal migration will be called just that–internal migration. In China, because of anti-communist prejudice, people like Jasper Becker report the individual facts of migration while assuming in their “death toll” numbers that there was none. Hence, when province figures show big declines, people like Jasper Becker say there are “inconsistencies” in the Deng Xiaoping reported data as if Deng Xiaoping were defending Mao by cooking the data. Jasper Becker does this despite admitting that Deng Xiaoping’s regime released “facts” on cannibalism and famine in order to discredit officials appointed by Mao and have them removed.

Since North Dakota lost 8,000 people between the 1990 Census and 2000 Census, perhaps MIM should write a book about that “death toll” complete with the thousands additional lost beyond 8,000 because of the births that occurred between 1990 and 2000. We could interview anybody who knew about any murders in North Dakota. Then someone in China could publish in the newspaper that Bush & Clinton “killed” 8,000 North Dakota people and countless babies and immigrants. Next would be the student posters saying the North Dakota governor was a mass murderer. Or maybe we should conclude that some people moved and the birth rate was not that high.

Again we do not want to diss all demography. 99.44% of demographers would do nothing as stupid as what we see in the newspapers. On the whole we encourage people to accept in most circumstances that demography helps contribute to the big picture. It’s only when it comes to anti-communism we will have some people give up their critical thinking abilities.

Here because of what Jasper Becker and others have done we are going to have to take another dig at MacFarquhar. When we at MIM read volume 3 of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, we realized that his first 8 pages of the book were really errata for the typos in volume 2 of the book concerning death tolls in China. Those first 8 pages were just not called an erratum, but they had to be stuck in there to take care of “old business.” We said to ourselves as we read them, “phew” and moved on. Jasper Becker and others took these sorts of numbers in a different light, which upon second reading, we see MacFarquhar also did encourage, so now we have to give MacFarquhar another beating.

On page 5 of volume 3, MacFarquhar prints a curious table which lists population changes only for the provinces that lost population in the Great Leap and its aftermath of class struggle. As we read this we thought we knew he was trying to say that perhaps future scholars would be able to dig into more provincial records and reconcile numbers more accurately than previous estimates. After all, on the previous page, did he not realize he published a table that implied only a handful of millions (not even 15) lost in the Great Leap?

The province attracting the most attention in this because of its agricultural potential and size is Sichuan. MacFarquhar reported it this way on page 2: “China’s most populous province reached a post-revolution peak of 70,810,100 inhabitants at the end of the 1st FYP in 1957. Four years later, in 1961, the figure had dropped by over 6 million to 64,591,800. The 1957 high was not exceeded until 1965.” This left the door open for newspapers to say that Mao “killed” 6 million people in Sichuan during the Great Leap and MacFarquhar does not mention the internal migration situation at all.

It turns out that other people took this data the wrong way. MacFarquhar says the provincial figures are proof of the “worst man-made famine in history” thus following up Jasper Becker’s line from the 1996 book. Although Jasper Becker himself reports on migration inside China, there are anti-communist stereotypes feeding into this statistical approach. One is to picture a militarized society where no one is allowed to go anywhere. It’s an Amerikkkan stereotype about us communists, one that lends itself to larger Great Leap death tabulations– if we allow ourselves to go province by province instead of taking the national population.

Ironically, like U.S. Census Department writer Judith Banister who Becker credits above all and who is at the center of the first wave of Great Leap speculations saying there were 30 million famine deaths, MIM likes the “excess death” method and we recommend it highly. MIM is a fan of the “excess death” procedure of calculating victims of oppression. We actually do not like leaving questions like these to tabloid journalists like Jasper Becker.

On the question of emigration away from the People’s Republic of China, there has been an admission that Mainland Chinese on occasion have “flooded” Hong Kong. In fact, visitors to and from Hong Kong carried food and other taxable items to help relieve the stark economic conditions in the Great Leap’s aftermath. However, while the People’s Republic of China has reported tourist figures for 1978 and after, the same tables on the population had no mention of immigration and emigration, internal or external. Becker admits that there was a flood of refugees into Hong Kong. He even printed as evidence a bourgeois magazine’s claim that at the time southern Korea was making a rather bad show of its treatment of starvation compared with Mao’s.(pp. 296-7) Again, Becker prints everything that condemns Mao including the fact that refugees flooded Hong Kong, but he does not organize that thought and connect it with his story on the fall of population in some of China’s provinces. It’s another reason I see him as having a chaotic mind except for his hatred of Mao. For him, his book is a collection of thoughts, each condemning Mao, but none of which have to be consistent with each other.

In addition, there is a problem here in how academic language gets translated into journalism too. Becker’s use of Banister is a case in point. Someone like Banister starts by talking about a “loss of population” of 8 million in a province of China. Then someone like Becker writes a book saying that 8 million in a province in China “died.” Finally, another journalist comes along, reads Becker’s book and USA Today or someone like that will say Mao “killed” 8 million people in one province of China alone. After that the poster based on the USA Today article calls Mao a “mass murderer.”

What actually happened was the following. Food got very tightly rationed. Industrial jobs opened. Army families transferred. New medical units started and moved into the countryside from various places. So Banister reports that a province lost 8 million people. She did her job. Now it’s Becker’s turn. Becker tells us all the terrible stories about people migrating to save their lives going so far as to stealing and forging official forms to do it and not having babies because they were too malnourished. Nonetheless, he takes the position that in demographic figures, no allowance should be made for migration or a complete shutdown of sex/fertility. So he says that 8 million “died” in a province without telling us how during this terrible Great Leap other provinces were growing in population.

Simultaneously, Becker forgets that his demography story falls apart if the old bourgeois “attack on the family” propaganda (which there is a documentary pile of in the anti-communist Western press ever since the 1950s) about Mao is true. After all, if there are no births, the population will go down from natural causes and there is no need for any book by Banister at all. Some of the kind of literature that Becker points to, the horror tales that sensationalist Western printing houses love to print about China, some of it also says that some of the young men were thinking about sex all the time and deprived even in less tumultuous periods of Mao’s rule than the Great Leap. Again though, if your accomplices testify that Mao told men to put politics above romance and sex, your story is not going to be very convincing when you come to the people’s court and say you printed a book saying population went down in some Chinese provinces because of Mao’s mass murder.

“Sichuan’s death toll was enormous. Estimates range from 7 to 9 million out of a population of at least 70 million. The lowest figure revealed by official population statistics is 7.35 million but other sources, including Chen Yizi and the Chinese demographer Peng Xizhe, suggest a figure of around 9 million,” (p. 164) says Becker. When we go to the footnote for the first sentence of this quote, we find Banister again. However, this is what the footnote actually said in Becker: “Sichuan’s population fell by 0.91 per cent from a population of 72.16 million at the end of 1957 to 69.01 million in mid-1964.”(p. 353) Notice the key word is “fell” not “death toll.” The gap he mentions here for some reason is also 3.15 million, not 7 million. So again we are dealing with some mistake or projection of births.

It is only a whole 105 pages later, after the damage is done from the above that Becker admits: “Two factors in particular hinder a demographer from making a definitive study of the death toll during the famine–internal migration and the number of children who were born and died between 1958 and 1962.”

“In a famine people flee their homes and often do not return, but a census count does not show whether they have starved to death or whether they have moved away and failed to register elsewhere.”(pp. 268-9)

When we turn to Banister, the story gets worse. In the very pages that Becker cites, Banister says, “Other provinces that appear to have had sizable net out-migration since 1953 are Shandong, Sichuan, and Xizang.”(6) Banister is not saying “death toll” but “out-migration.” Next we need to read more carefully what Banister said: “Any province that recorded a population loss from 1957 to 1964, after adjustments for boundary changes, either severely undercounted its population in the count of 1964 or was very hard hit by the famine, which may then have triggered out-migration.”(7)

Banister then even admits that other provinces did record a growth of population, but guesstimates, again based on her old projections of birth rates or underreporting that “there must been enormous loss of life plus a net out-migration.”(6) But at least Banister is making it clear there is question of how much was death and how much was migration in population changes.

Banister goes on to list the circumstances accounting for migration: “Much interprovincial migration has been initiated and paid for by the government. Many migrants are military personnel.”(8)

“The government has also sponsored the migration of political prisoners, intellectuals, leaders out of favor, and various persons considered politically or morally or economically suspect.”(9)

“In the last three decades spontaneous population movement probably peaked during the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath as peasants fled from famine.”(10)

“Millions were sucked into China’s vast network of prisons and labour colonies during the Great Leap Forward.” (p. 183)

“China’s Great Leap Forward was accompanied by a massive internal migration of labourers to man the hastily erected factories or help finish crash building projects.” (p. 223)

“If these figures are reliable, a staggering 87 million peasants took part in the greatest organized migration in Chinese history.”(p. 222)

[HC123 interjects: the Dalai Lama clique constantly claims that China has flooded Tibet with Han in the past forty-odd years. Well, which is it: immigration or emigration?]

Becker says these things about the Great Leap above, but does not relate how internal migration impacts his “death toll” figures for the provinces. In another sign of Becker’s chaotic mind, after converting the Sichuan story into a “death toll,” in other parts of the book written in unconnected journalist style, Becker half-way admits the internal migration issue as related to the “death toll.” In fact, his best thought on the subject is this: “The mass movement in and out of the cities makes it difficult to interpret official statistics on urban birth and death rates.”(p. 223) He just never connected a similar argument for the provinces.

The ulterior motive for this is that these propagandists know there is only so far they can go in accusing Mao. Everybody knows that China ended up with over a billion people and that the population size itself increased hugely under Mao, say from 560 million in 1949 to 930 million in 1976. No one is really saying that China is trying to fake its way into having a billion people and by now communications are modern enough that such a story would sound pretty silly if the propagandists made it up. Then the next problem is how to explain this horror of Mao shooting every other persyn or famines taking “80 million” in just two years. There it is: no one denies the population went up overall, so what are the propagandists to do the question becomes.

As we said about Stalin there is a sense in which the critics are prison cellmates who have had 50 years to practice their alibis and they still don’t have a consistent story. In the Great Leap case, the inmates have had 40 years to practice their alibis together and their stories contradict each other and in Becker’s instance, his story really contradicts itself.

In a way, when we say Becker’s story contradicts itself, we are giving him the highest praise possible within bourgeois journalism. He is supposed to give us a slice of the data of all the angles he has seen on the Great Leap. The bourgeois journalist and the empiricist historian imagine this is the highest integrity and we have to agree if we were stuck at the level of individual detail like some journalists and Anglo-Saxon historians.

The problem is that instead of critically reading books like Judith Banister’s, the end result is going to be one sentence in an Associated Press story saying that the Black Book of Communism based on a bungled understanding of Jasper Becker says Mao “killed” 65 million people. That’s why it’s important for MIM to point out the contradictions in Becker’s story as it merges with the demographic story.

Becker tells us again and again in the stories with the bloody details of bodies found in individuals’ houses that Chinese did not report deaths in the family, because by doing so, they could keep receiving the dead persyn’s rations of food. Unfortunately for Becker’s story, that would also be true of people who secretly left the family for another province. This is the fatal hole in his story breaking down the Chinese statistics at the province level in order to come up with higher fatality levels than previous estimates.

In her full-length book on China’s demography, Judith Banister no longer emphasizes any thought about the birth rate staying the same throughout the Great Leap. She seems reconciled to the fact that it declined during the Great Leap. Nonetheless, she says that during tough conditions, officials probably did a bad job keeping track of deaths. Again the problem for her story–that would also be true of people who quietly took off for other provinces or new industrial, military, penal or medical jobs: it could very well be that officials did not do a good job of tracking them.

Banister concludes that the famine chaos justified her in thinking deaths were underreported and she jazzes up her model that shows 15 million deaths to total 30 million with underreporting counted.(11) However, we could just as likely say that people in general were underreported and that the whole Great Leap “death toll” is an artifact of the chaos that Banister herself blames Mao for when he sent the statistical cadres to work in the countryside.

In our rebutting of the “Great Leap” critics we have maintained a generous spirit of self-criticism, because Mao made repeated self-criticism of the “Great Leap.” We also do not want to have our own supporters veer into dumping all demography just because politics is part of demography. That is why we are serious when we say use any method the bourgeois demographers want but just insist that it be equally applied to other countries. In general, even-handed demography will show socialism the winner of the comparison with capitalism. However, what Jasper Becker has done and how he popularizes demography has forced us to counter with some criticisms of how he popularized demography.

Up to now we kept quiet about the fact that MIM’s use of “excess deaths” statistics in reference to Blacks does not assume the birth of any Blacks and thus relies on something harder and more substantial than the estimates about the Great Leap “death toll.” “Excess death” statistics on differential health conditions start and end with the Black population as it is and with relatively no dispute on who is or is not in it. Nonetheless, we raised the “excess death” figures on Blacks (and other nationalities in the united $tates because for some First Nations the story would be worse), because we wanted people to understand what the capitalist entertainment media papers meant when they said Mao “killed” X million people.

Jasper Becker is a little sloppy on this point, but he essentially admits that the big hole in his own mind is the birth rate during the Great Leap. Unfortunately for Jasper Becker in his overreaching, he has innovated another way of defending Mao–again just by applying the same standards Becker uses but equally. If we admit that as Becker says people were hiding people and food in the Great Leap because of the rationing system and if Banister is worried about disarray in the government reporting because of the emergency, it also follows that the entire crude death number reported in the census figures could be from undercounting live people caused by secret migrations or administrative breakdown. If an official went to a family grave site and said that that was where the bodies of the missing family members are, would the family volunteer that in fact uncle went down to Hong Kong?

While attempting to account for dead people, did the census also account for people who were still alive and kicking–but illegally or semi-legally in another province? And given that Banister’s own figures show legitimate migration of millions at the time, could the entire deficit of people reported in the census figures be simply missing people, mostly not dead people but simply uncounted people? Considering that to this day, the united $tates itself has a problem with this, what are we to say about 1960 China where we cannot expect that many of the responsible officials had a college education.

As to how to evaluate whether there could have been an administrative breakdown and its potential impact, to get an idea about that in materialist comparative context–even if there were no internal migration issue at all–in the super-rich, super-educated, super-modern, computerized united $tates of 1990, a case had to go to the Supreme Court, because the government believed it was undercounting the population by 1.58%.(12) The United $tates of 1990 spent something like $7 billion to come to that result. Now we go back 30 years in time to China, in a country with no computers but with more than twice as many people as the United $tates of 1990 and where it is much more difficult for census officials to get around to see the whole country. Fortunately, because Mao was such a vastly superior leader compared with u.$. political leaders, that even with a breakdown caused by his revolutionary approach of sending statisticians to other jobs, Mao’s government could get done as much without computers and a rich country as U.$. political leaders who had computers and a rich country. Thus, we at MIM will generously concede to our critics that the Chinese census only missed 1.58% of the people, not 2.58% or 3.58%. If the Chinese statisticians missed only 1.58% of the people in 1960, that is over 10 million people. As far as we are concerned at MIM, that could be pretty much the end of the Great Leap famine story right there.

With another 20 million off in cities and remote areas where they are not supposed to be because of internal migration, we could even infer birth rates in the Great Leap close to normal, something that MIM does not find likely by any stretch of the imagination. In fact we find it highly likely that total fertility rates were overestimated consistently. So what we are saying at MIM is that if we find 20 million people misplaced or non-placed by the creative chaos of the Great Leap, we at MIM do not think there is much of a story of famine to report. It will just be isolated stories like all the people there at the time reported.

We also ask our readers this question: some of these demographers say the Great Leap excess death figure should be as many as 80 million or more. 43 million is the popular figure to toss around right now. Can one in eight people die or one in 16 die in a year or two without much evidence in the mood of people that journalists would have seen? Perhaps more importantly, how many of our readers believe that 43 or 80 million would die before trying to move somewhere they could find food? In his propaganda against Chinese prisons, Becker admitted that prisoners “grew fearless with desperation”(p. 193) because of the food shortage. He should have concluded others would have too and at least attempted internal migration.

The impact of Mao’s line or anyone’s line in the countryside cannot have been all good. Whenever there is a consistent line implemented, there is a gain and a loss. MIM finds it likely that some cannibalism stories from China are true as in the whole world we find it likely to happen. Yet there is a big difference between Jeffrey Dahmer’s cannibalism in the united $tates and the cannibalism of peasants in a country as poor as China used to be. There is no excuse for Jeffrey Dahmer’s cannibalism. It is a much worse disease.

We find it likely that at least some locales overreported their grain and handed over too much in the enthusiasm of the Great Leap. We find this all likely simply because China is so big and because we know there was tension between the lower level officials and the upper levels that surfaced openly in the conflict between Liu and Mao just years later. The central authorities can only issue general guidelines. They have to provide a direction and how that gets translated at the local level is not just a problem of Mao’s hubris. The entire people had gained confidence in the war against Japan, in restoring industry, in nationalizing industry, in collectivizing in 1956 and then taking half the year off from agriculture in 1957 to build reservoirs as witnessed by Felix Greene and in use to this day–with the exception of two dams that Becker found to have ended in catastrophe in 1975. For that matter no one denies that there was an excellent harvest in 1975.

After such confidence-building experiences we can even say it was inevitable that the class struggles in China that broke out from 1960 to 1965 would be tumultuous and often chaotic. As even the critics admitted, Mao did not order mass killings, but at the local level, people who had seen change now hatedbackwardness and believed they could fix it. MIM sees nothing wrong with that and all the flaws of China’s revolution under Mao are nothing in comparison with regular life in the rest of the Third World that followed Amerikan recipes for progress. The only exceptions of places that could have claimed to develop better than China did besides two city-states and the oil-producing countries were relatively small regions called southern Korea and Taiwan which succeeded only because of the economic deal those people could get thanks to Mao’s military forces breathing down the neck of u.$. imperialism.

Notes:

1. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~as…..01a001.htm

2. One typical user of the propaganda is

something called the freenorthkorea.net

http://www.freenorthkorea.net/…..00669.html

3. http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod…..b-9701.pdf

4. Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), p. 158.

5. http://www.nih.gov/news/NIH-Re…..tory01.htm

6. Judith Banister, China’s Changing Population (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 304.

7. Ibid., p. 305.

8. Ibid., p. 306.

9. Ibid., p. 307.

10. Ibid., p. 309.

11. Ibid., p. 85.

12. http://www.brookings.edu/comm/…..6/pb56.htm

Remember the life of Manik Shaha, martyred for speaking the truth

Remember the life of Manik Shaha, martyred for speaking the truth

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Manik Shaha was a journalist and activist who fought for the people. He spoke out against the great injustices in our land. He wrote about the great inequalities and sufferings endured by our brothers and sisters. At age 45, his voice and life were ended by a bullet on January 15, 2011 at Khulna City . He was murdered by Islamist reactionaries who misuse the banner of religion to hide their crimes against the people. He was murdered by those extremists who misuse Islam to terrorize our brothers and sisters. Extremist Islamists who use religion to murder and kill others not only terrorize the people, they are the ones who commit the greatest insult to religion. Those who use bullets against their critics are cowards. To use terror proves they have no intelligent response. Islamist extremists have no honor. The same cowardly butchers who killed Manik Shaha are the same ones who betrayed our people in the struggle for liberation. Hokatul jihad is just another face of the criminal traitors who supported the genocidal plot against our people by Pakistan, the United States and the Western imperialists, and their allies. Just as in the past, these reactionaries are funded by reactionary, imperialist powers and their agents. They are funded by the United States, Pakistan, and the Gulf Arab states. They all have the blood of millions on their hands: our sons, our daughters, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our fathers, our mothers. No amount of water in the world can wash the blood from their hands.

True communists, Leading Lights, do not fear criticism because we have truth on our side. Those who use bullets instead of words are cowards who fear the truth. Today we honor the life of Manik Shaha and all those who have been martyred for serving the people. Today we honor all those who dare speak truth to power. We serve the people. We follow the Leading Light of truth. There are not enough bullets to stop us all. No bullet will ever stop the people, the revolution,  the truth, the Leading Light.

On the protests in Bangladesh: What is to be done?

On the protests in Bangladesh: What is to be done?

(llco.org)  130228044456-bangladeshi-war-crimes-protests-story-top

On February 5, 2013, Bangladesh erupted. Protests began in the Shahbag neighborhood in the capital Dhaka, but quickly spread across the country. The protesters demanded justice for the genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity committed during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. The International Crimes Tribunal, which, despite its name is not a United Nations organization, is an organ of the state of Bangladesh, is charged with bringing those responsible to justice under the Bangladesh International Crimes Act of 1973. This is the catalyst that is bringing the masses of Bangladesh onto the streets. Recognizing the danger to the social order, the regime, some Islamists, and paramilitaries have beat and shot the protesters. Complex history and complex interests have led us to this point. Again, we must ask Lenin’s question: What is to be done?

Background

Prior to 1971, Bangladesh was internationally recognized as part of Pakistan; it was often referred to as “East Pakistan.” Even so, Bangladesh was a separate nation, part of the greater Bangla Zone, locked inside and oppressed by Pakistan. Bangladesh existed as a kind of colony within the semi-colonial, regional hegemon of greater Pakistan. Many of the land owners and capitalists of East Pakistan resided in West Pakistan or had close ties to the West. The majority of wealthy strata supported unity with Pakistan.  The majority of the middle and poorer strata experienced discrimination, second class citizenship, and loss of opportunity in the greater Pakistan dominated by Western Pakistan. Even though both regions had a majority that practiced Islam, there were ethnic and linguistic differences between West and East Pakistan. For example, Urdu was declared by Pakistan to be its only official language even though the majority in East Pakistan spoke Bangla, and many others spoke Punjabi. Many died protesting the linguistic discrimination. Several civilians lost their lives on February 21, 1952 when the Pakistani police cracked down on protesters. To this day, the day is remembered as Language Martyrs Day. Those in the East were excluded from many aspects of Pakistani society due to national chauvinism. While the West taxed and ruled the East, little was spent on infrastructure and development of the East. Even though Easterners constituted a majority of the country, those in the East were underrepresented in the Pakistani military, government, and other technical posts. The way elections were held in Pakistan sought to ensure that Easterners were underrepresented and kept out of power. Where there is oppression, there is social tension, there is resistance.

A political crisis occurred when the Eastern Awami League, despite the unfair electoral system, had a landslide victory in the elections of 1970. Under the constitution, the Awami League had the right to form a new government and select the Prime Minister. However, the Western economic and political establishment refused to go along with the vote. There had been a long history of the establishment refusing to cede political power to Easterners. The pro-Western Pakistani military establishment tightened its hold on the East. Between March 10th and 13th, Pakistan began increasing its troops and weaponry in the East. This would be followed by a brutal pacification effort against the East. In November of that year, the deadliest cyclone in history hit the East, killing an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people. The West intentionally let the East bleed by responding slowly with very weak relief efforts. A general strike and other acts of resistance would follow. It was in December that the Bangladesh Liberation War began.

On March 26th, 1971, the Mukti Bahini, the Liberation Army, was formed to resist the Western-imperialist backed genocide. Although the Soviets sought to use this to their advantage, the main danger to the world at the time was Western imperialism led by the United States or imperialism as a whole, not Soviet social-imperialism specifically. In the case of Bangladesh, class interest and national interest coincided as the national liberation movement gained traction among the masses. Three million died. Eight to ten million became refugees from the violence. Most of the violence was committed by the Pakistani military and their paramilitary supporters. Mass graves exist across Bangladesh where students, intellectuals, workers, peasants, anyone suspected of opposing the Pakistani establishment was murdered. There was a systematic effort to eliminate the intellectual and cultural elite of Bangladesh. Hindus and other minorities were especially targeted by the Pakistani military. An estimated 400,000 women were raped as part of the pacification efforts. Women students from Bangladesh were forced into brothels to serve the Pakistani military. Journalists were rounded up or deported to hide the extent of the atrocities. Yahya Khan, president of Pakistan, declared, “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hand.”

The conflict took on an international dimension. The United States and Mao’s China aligned with the genocidal Pakistani regime. India and the Soviet Union aligned with the national liberation movement. Internal documents of the Nixon administration characterized events in Bangladesh as a “selective genocide,” yet the United States supported the Pakistani regime regardless. A high-ranking US official was quoted as saying, “It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.” China, as it slid into revisionism, also played a reactionary role. The revolutionary period in China was ending with the purging the radical left and rehabilitation of the revisionist right. Lin Biao was falling from power. China was beginning to align with the United States against the Soviet Union. In addition, China had historically been in conflicts with India. India also feared that the Bangla freedom movement would spill over into its own borders, where a significant Bangla-speaking population exists. India was already facing numerous peasant uprisings, including the continuation of the Spring Thunder Naxalite movement led by the Indian students of the writings of Mao and Lin Biao. After India intervened, the liberation war ended on December 3rd, 1971. An independent Bangladesh emerged. Bangladesh, already poor, was devastated. This was only made worse when in 1974, natural disasters and rising rice prices led to mass starvation across Bangladesh. The corruption of the new regime made things worse. An estimated 1.5 million people died as a result of the food crisis and epidemics: cholera, malaria, etc. Hit hardest were the poor: workers, peasants, lumpen. The United States saw this as an opportunity for revenge and cut off any aid to Bangladesh. The nominal reason was that Bangladesh traded with Cuba. The reality is that the United States helped to inflict genocide on Bangladesh because the regime would not fall into line with US-backed imperialism, because the regime tilted toward Soviet social-imperialism. By the time Bangladesh stopped jute trade with Cuba, the aid was too little, too late. The imperialists bled the masses.

The conflicts left deep wounds on Bengla society that have never healed. Many of the social and political conflicts were unresolved in the following decades. On December 24, 1971 Home minister of Bangladesh A. H. M. Qamaruzzaman said, “war criminals will not survive from the hands of law. Pakistani military personnel who were involved with killing and raping have to face tribunal.” In 1972, plans were announced to try to put one hundred top Pakistani military officers on charges of genocide. The Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order 1972 was enacted to put on trial only those Bangladeshis who had collaborated. However, over the years, the laws were modified to suit political agendas of the parties in power. For example, a general amnesty was issued in November of 1973 that granted amnesty to all except those found guilty of rape, murder, attempt of murder or arson. Yet in 1975, this amnesty was revoked. This pattern would continue until the present.

The International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 sought to expand prosecutions, irrespective of nationality, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, ‘‘violations of any humanitarian rules applicable in armed conflicts laid out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949’’ and ‘‘any other crimes under international law.” However, nothing came of this since Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975 by military officers who opposed his consolidation of power and his corruption, but also opposed his support of moderately socially progressive policies: moderate land reform, advancing the status of women, secularization of society against Islamization etc. It is reported that the CIA knew of the planned assassination against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and did nothing to prevent it, perhaps even having a direct role in the plot. His regime fell in a military coup along with many of the policies associated with the Awami League regime. This assassination would throw Bangladesh into more chaos as a series of coups were unleashed. Some of the plotters of the assassination, after they had been overthrown by another coup, are reported to have taken refuge in Mao’s China, which had been quickly sliding into revisionism and aligning with the West since the decline, and ultimately death, of Lin Biao. The military ruled Bangladesh until 1990 when mass movements forced a return to civilian rule.

The Awami League came to power again in 2009 with the election of Sheikh Hasina against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition, a coalition which includes Jamaat-e-Islami. Wounds were reopened when in 2009, the Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs of Bangladesh stated that Pakistanis would not be persecuted under the 1973 law. Thus those in Pakistan with much blood on their hands were given immunity. It was in December 2009 that Ghulam Azam, who had been collaborated with Pakistan, ascended to become chairman of Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh. Many other collaborators found refuge within reactionary Islamist political parties known for stirring up sectarian violence against minorities. These parties often have deep ties to the security establishment in Bangladesh and to their counterparts in Pakistan.

Protests and counter-protests

Protests began in the Shahbag neighborhood of Dhaka on February 5th, 2013. The protesters had several immediate demands. They demanded the death sentence for those found guilty of war crimes by the International Crimes Tribunal. They demanded reversal of earlier verdicts in favor of capital punishment. Since then the protests have spread across the country with widening demands. Like other recent protests globally, social media, the internet, has played an important role. Events globally and in Bangladesh confirm Leading Light’s analysis that revolutions and social movements today have to break from past dogma to recognize new possibilities that technologies have opened up for both revolution and counter-revolution. In “New World, New Challenges, New Science,” Leading Light states:

“New technology and greater mobility open up new paths for revolution. Greater communication and mobility mean that revolutions may be increasingly dynamic in important ways. Subjective and objective conditions can change in explosive ways, very rapidly. Tempos can accelerate seemingly out of nowhere. Events in one location can quickly influence events and conditions around the world. Revolution will become more globalized in important ways. New technologies will have a profound  impact on how revolutions are made. New technologies will open up new possibilities during socialist construction.”

Even so, it is not just the mass movement that has quickly placed feet on the streets. So too have Jamaat-e-Islami and the security forces. Everyday more are shot and wounded. The streets are battlegrounds between protesters, counter-protesters, and security forces. At the beginning of March, 2013 the death toll stands at over 60. There will surely be more deaths on the horizon.

These protests occur on the heels of nationwide discontent and strikes over the factory fires that claimed hundreds of lives last year. They also occur on the heels of numerous natural disasters that have ravaged Bangladesh’s poor, with the ruling regime slow to react, if it reacts at all. All parties of the reactionary classes, whether they cast themselves as social-democrats, capitalist-modernizers, Islamists, socialists, communists, etc. are discredited in the eyes of the advanced segment of the masses, the Leading Lights of the Bangla Zone. Sheikh Hasin’s discredited regime faces a national election this year. Even though the protests have legitimate demands, the regime seeks to use the protests to deflect criticism of itself. The regime seeks to use the legitimate discontent of the masses as a pretext for the suppression of the opposition. Various revisionists have reportedly uncritically aligned with the state. The contradiction between the regime and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which includes Jamaat-e-Islami, is a contradiction amongst the enemies. Two manifestations of the Old Power are slugging it out while the masses bleed. Imperialists and the First World manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

Even so, there is an opportunity here to try to push the masses further toward real revolution, toward Leading Light Communism, the end of all oppression. Leading Lights must not tail the regime as many of the revisionists have. Leading Lights ought to use this opportunity to raise awareness amongst the masses of the larger problems facing society. Look at the big picture. Channel the anger of the masses against the collaborationists into anger directed against the whole system of Old Power, the whole of capitalism, imperialism, semi-feudalism, and all the horrors of the old system. The masses lose no matter which faction of the ruling class holds power. The problems of the Bangla Zone will not be solved through social-democratic reform. The nature of the Old Power is to preserve its rule in one way or another. Whether the Old Power wears a social democratic, Western face or an Islamist one, the masses lose. Although the protests will not lead to genuine revolution, Leading Lights can use this opportunity to educate, to train, to lead, to gain valuable experience. Mass movements of these kinds, where there is mass outrage, but genuine revolutionary infrastructure is lacking is all too common. Objective conditions — poverty, oppression, etc — are not enough to make revolution. Subjective conditions — the development of New Power, revolutionary political-military-cultural infrastructure, revolutionary consciousness, the genuine leadership of the Leading Light Communist Organization and the most advanced revolutionary science of Leading Light Communism — is also required. Seek to elevate the sites of the masses, while still keeping a realistic, scientific perspective. Scientific leadership is key.

Old Power versus New Power

Revolution is not achieved through compromise with the Old Power. The Old Power is there to serve the reactionary classes. The Old Power — the state, the civil and cultural institutions, the security-military apparatus, etc. — is a weapon only wielded by the reactionary classes. The state does not sit above class struggle, it is an instrument of class oppression. It is a means by which one class oppresses another. Revolution is not made by achieving piecemeal reforms within the Old Power. Revolution is made by sweeping away the Old Power, the old society. Revolution is a process of creating what Lenin called dual power, New Power that exists alongside the Old Power but, at the same time, contends against it. The New Power of the Leading Light is a shadow state, a shadow society, a shadow power, a shadow leadership that is largely clandestine until the time is right and it can emerge to openly contend with the Old Power through politico-military confrontation, through the global people’s war of the Leading Light. When the New Power of the Leading Light is strong enough to emerge in the open, red zones, base areas, will be established to go head-to-head in military confrontation with the forces of reaction. Mass movements like the protests in Bangladesh give us the opportunity to educate, train, recruit, gain experience. We should not dismiss them simply because the reactionary classes also strive to manipulate them. Rather, as much as possible, we should seek to lead. However, we should not lie to the masses. Even if this particular regime falls only to be replaced by another capitalist one due to the social unrest, we should always point out the limited nature of the protests and reforms generally.  We must be patient with the masses, but also firm in our resolve. We must not be afraid to lead, to be Leading Lights. While it is important to involve ourselves in mass movements, we must not liquidate into them. We must try to channel the masses in our direction. We must use these opportunities to expand our ranks. However, we cannot place our entire focus on the mass movement. We must continue the construction of the New Power of the Leading Light. We must hold firmly to the glorious strategic plan of the Leading Light. There will always be bumps in the road. There will always be twists, turns, surprises. We must continue on our course as laid out by the most advanced revolutionary science to date, Leading Light Communism. Patience. Loyalty. Discipline. Sacrifice. Leadership. Long live memory of the heroes of the Bangla Zone! Be the Leading Light! Follow the Leading Light! Long live the Leading Light! Our sun is rising. Our day is coming.

Sources

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangladesh_famine_of_1974
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1971_Bangladesh_atrocities#Operation_Searchlight
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangladesh_Liberation_War
4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/28/bangladesh-death-sentence-deadly-protests
5. http://tribune.com.pk/story/515492/large-scale-protests-bangladesh-deploys-troops-as-protest-toll-hits-76/
6. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/04/world/asia/bangladesh-sees-deadly-day-as-protests-persist.html?_r=0
7. http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/03/04/bang-m04.html
8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheikh_Hasina
9. http://llco.org/184/
10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangladesh_Nationalist_Party