Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine
(Allen Lane, £30)
The publication of this book in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2008 was a major event with a political and historical significance that should increase with the appearance of the English-language version.
The Chinese edition, which ran to 1,200 pages, was a ground-breaking account of what may have been the worst man-made disaster in history, the great famine which gripped China from 1958 to 1961 as farming was collectivized into communes, officials imposed wildly inflated output targets and grain was grabbed to feed the cities.
Extreme violence was used, and many of the rural population were abandoned to subsist on tree bark, roots – and the flesh of the dead.
By Yang Jisheng’s estimate, 36 million people died from hunger or physical abuse, powerless in the face of the totalitarian regime that regarded people as mere numbers as it left them to perish.
This book was preceded by Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts, which lifted the veil on this terrible period in Mao Zedong’s China and was followed two years ago by Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which posited a higher death toll of 45 million. Excellent as those two works were, Tombstone is unmatched in its breadth, derived from two decades of research during which Yang used his position as a senior journalist at the state news agency to unearth his intricately detailed account of the tragedy.
The detail Yang assembles is astounding, full of horrific cases and statistics drawn from the suffering of peasants as the Communist Party machine crushed them by imposing unreachable demands; for the 1958/9 grain year, output increased by 0.26 per cent but procurement by the state rose by 21 per cent. When supply quotas were not met, the top farm official said farmers must be hoarding their produce – ‘It is all a matter of attitude,’ he added.
Anybody who questioned the quotas was suspected of deviating from the mad orthodoxy and was eliminated, as Mao refused to discard his vision of the Great Leap Forward despite the disasters it spawned.
The disaster was blamed on natural causes and Liu Shaoqi, the number two figure, got nowhere with his more realistic analysis of human responsibility.
In one prefecture in Henan province, officials who failed to meet the wildly unrealistic targets as drought hit output were hounded to death as ‘right-wing deviationists’. In one commune, a third of the population died over nine months. In one village of 45 inhabitants, only one old woman survived, and she went insane.
It is this aspect of the book that gives it a resonance stretching beyond its collection of horrific facts. Excellently translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, it makes an explicit link between the disaster and the political system.
‘The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism,’ Yang writes. ‘In this kind of system, the government monopolizes all production and life-sustaining resources, so that once a calamity occurs, ordinary people have no means of saving themselves.’
The effect of the poor harvests and droughts China suffered around 1960 were thus magnified into a titanic tragedy. Each official lived in terror of being chastized by a superior. Finally, even the ‘Great Helmsman’ was forced on to the back foot, but he launched a new form of totalitarian adventure with the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s that ended only with his death in 1976.
Under Deng Xiaoping, China moved towards the market-led economic growth that has powered it over the past three decades. The People’s Republic has made much of its opening up; there is far more individual freedom; social media pose a substantial threat to the control mechanism.
Yet the totalitarianism that Yang speaks of is still there. The army was brought in to crush dissent in Beijing in 1989. This century’s Sars epidemic was met with denial and censorship. The enormous economic stimulus programme launched to correct the downturn of 2008 boosted the state sector to the detriment of private enterprise. Farmland is still owned by the state and can be requisitioned from leaseholders at the whim of officials. Judges have to swear a loyalty oath to the Party. The censorship office is hyper-active in clamping down on websites, however unsuccessfully.
Although his book is not published in China, Yang has not been sanctioned, perhaps a sign that some of those in power realize either that the truth about the famine cannot be buried, or that persecuting the author would only draw more attention to his work.
In something of a breakthrough, the English-language edition of Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid, ran a story about a man who has set up two memorials to the famine dead in Henan and interviewed Yang, mentioning his book and his estimate of the death toll.
While China has moved far from the Mao era in many ways, the structure of power remains in place together with the refusal to come to terms with the past. In this there is a continuity of top-down authoritarian rule that stretches back to the First Emperor, intent on maintaining monolithic power by force and contemptuous of the need for popular support as shown most tragically in the years Yang chronicles.
The question today is whether that will continue to be tenable for a fast-evolving society in which people’s passive acceptance of oppression is far less than that of the dead to whom Yang has erected this great memorial.