Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1998, 380pp. by Jasper Becker
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
2. One typical user of the propaganda is
something called the freenorthkorea.net
4. Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), p. 158.
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.