Around 300 CE, northern China experienced a major famine. The price of rice soared and many starved to death beside parched irrigation ditches. The middle-aged emperor Sima Zhong, like most Chinese emperors, was a master in seeking pleasure, had a vicious temperament, and was intellectually immature. Upon reading memorials presented to the court, he asked officials why the people who had starved to death had not partaken of broth. He then issued an edict lifting the prohibition on selling children.
More than 1,700 years have pass, and a new version of this story appears. On April 26, 2012, Lin Zhibo, head of the Gansu provincial branch office of the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, posted on his blog:
"In their efforts to trash Chairman Mao, some people are spreading the slander that several tens of millions starved to death between 1960 and 1962. People have visited villages in the provinces of Henan and Anhui where the famine was severest. The true situation was nowhere near as serious as the slanderers claim. The villagers say they had heard about people starving to death but none had ever witnessed such a death. Direct evidence of starvation is extremely rare."
These comments this past spring incited an intense debate among Chinese netizens about the 1959-1962 famine, a catastrophe caused by excessive grain levies on peasants, disruption to farm work stemming from the frenzied attempt to "leap forward" in industrial production, and the establishment of "People's Communes" which prevented farmers from growing cash crops. Tens of thousands joined in the online quarrelling and cursing, even threatening violence. In the midst of this cacophony, someone actually asked, "If the people had no rice, why didn't they eat meat?"
There are bound to be differences of opinion about a calamity that starved tens of millions to death, but there shouldn't be any question whether the famine actually occurred. An unpublished Chinese government study admits to 17 million unnatural deaths, while historian Frank Dikötter's book Mao's Great Famine estimated "at least" 45 million premature deaths. Yet in China today, the famine of 1959-1962 remains unresolved.
Remarkably, the focus of contention is not the cause of the famine, but whether it actually occurred. Many believe a small number of ill-intentioned conspirators fabricated the famine. Some see it as short-lived, restricted to a small area, and think that it was absolutely impossible for tens of millions to have starved to death. One netizen, who went by the name Fact Checker, asked, "If so many people starved to death, where are the mass graves?" Wu Danhong, an associate professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing and a prominent leftist, wrote on Sina Weibo: "I have verified that between 1959 and 1961 in my profoundly impoverished hometown there were instances of people consuming tree bark and some were so hungry they contemplated suicide. But they endured and no one died of starvation. The entire village suffered from diseases of hunger but none died. Perhaps some political rightist whose circumstances were bad to begin with starved to death."
Professor Wu's comments inspired many others, including the baffled ("My hometown is poor, so why haven't I heard about people starving to death?") and the caustic ("If so many people starved to death, why didn't your mother?"). Someone who went by the name Li Weiling wrote: "I've seen a lot of articles written by people who were sent down to labor in rural villages in the 1960s which claim they had to survive on water and locusts and the result was edema. I really don't understand why they didn't plant vegetables and grains. They were sent down to the countryside to labor, weren't they?" Li inspired another comment from someone who went by the name smallcat823: "If there was no grain, why didn't they eat wild herbs? I hear wild herbs are delicious."
For the past six decades, the Chinese people have been living in an obscurantist system that is designed to make people stupid, foster mutual hatred, and degrade their ability to think critically and understand the world.
This ignorance is not the product of inferior intelligence -- the system is itself an impediment to knowledge. This viciousness does not arise because the Chinese are inherently evil -- the system encourages ruthlessness and vindictiveness. The so-called model soldier Lei Feng, supposed to be a paradigm of Communist virtue, articulated the party line in 1961: "We must be ruthless to our enemies, more heartless than the most severe winter."
Most people in China suffer from an inability-to-accept-facts syndrome. They only believe what they want to believe and can't see facts that are painful or contradict their own views. A school curriculum that ignores all policy failures since 1949 exacerbates this syndrome.
This syndrome is the source of many conflicts in contemporary China. Anyone who embarks on a discussion of Mao Zedong will be confronted by people who either believe Mao was the savior of mankind or a monster; mention of the Great Famine will arouse people who say it was an unprecedented catastrophe or others who insist that it is a cheap fabrication concocted by third-rate novelists.