Argument

Let Them Eat Grass

What do Weibots think about China's Great Famine?

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 An unpublished Chinese government study admits to 17 million unnatural deaths, while historian Frank Dikötter's book Mao's Great Famine estimated "at least" 45 million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.

Caught in the midst, levelheaded people become confused and the muddle-headed flabbergasted. However, most people don't realize that the system is the monster hiding behind the curtain, guiding these tempestuous controversies.

For some 40 years, official publications in China have called the Great Famine of 1959-1962 "the three years of natural disasters." But no one seems to know exactly what these disasters were: Floods? Drought? Earthquakes? Landslides? Hail storms or locust plagues? No one has the answer, and no one is brave enough to stand up and demand an answer from the government -- because the official pronouncement of "natural disaster" is sufficiently intimidating to close all mouths.

Motivated by the desire to be "responsible to history and the truth," a phrase churned out ad nauseam in China's mass media, official accounts over the last 10 years have become more circumspect, employing the more neutral term "the three years of difficulties," which seems to cover both the natural and manmade. This approach obviates the need to examine contributing factors and that Mao and other leaders caused the famine.

While the authorities are now choosing their words more carefully, they are still working to prevent any public discussion of the great famine. Research about the famine cannot be published, schools do not teach it, newspapers may not carry any reports about it and archives covering it remain closed to the public. If authorities cannot avoid discussing the famine, they gloss over it in a way that does not attract attention, trumpeting achievements during that period and barely mentioning failures.

The memories of those who experienced the famine are fading away. The current generation, like their parents, were force-fed state CCTV newscasts and party mouthpiece People's Daily reports, but also fattened to the point of obesity with Coca-Cola and hamburgers. Of course they now find it difficult to imagine that people once starved to death. And so they ask: If they didn't have rice, why didn't they eat meat?

The young generation only believes official pronouncements; some even think contradicting the official line is heretical. They do not bother to check the details. When the government says artist Ai Weiwei is a bad person, they hate Ai Weiwei. When the government says the United States is the enemy, they hate the United States. And this September, when the government said the Japanese encroached on Chinese territory, they massed on the streets of Chinese cities and smashed Japanese cars.

As they grow older and more experienced, they will hopefully awaken to the absurdity of the official line: that despite Mao being absolutely correct, he made mistakes; that although the communal dining halls where peasants were forced to eat in the late 1950s and 1960s were a great creation on the road to communism, they were also a huge mistake that exacerbated the difficulties. Perhaps then they will acknowledge that it's a bit odd how from 1958 to 1962 reports in official newspapers claimed that 66.5 tons of grain grew on one-sixth of an acre, (the current world average yield being 440 pounds per one-sixth acre) while at the same time the government prohibited the private storage of grain, urged people to eat less grain, and promoted eating wild grasses as a substitute.

Today, few people realize this absurdity. When there is a blockade on news and suppression of public opinion, not only will the masses become unenlightened, the rulers will also become deaf and dumb.

In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward that precipitated the famine, officials worked hard to out-do their comrades. Absurd claims of harvesting several thousand pounds of grain on tiny plots of land escalated to several hundred thousand pounds.

Mao himself had doubts about the numerous claims of record-breaking feats. On August 13, 1958, in Xinli Village near the city of Tianjin, an official told Mao that a particular one-sixth of an acre plot of paddy produced 66.5 tons of wheat. Mao replied: "That's impossible. I once planted grains myself. You're just boasting." Mao then asked his secretary, "Why won't they speak the truth? Why?"

Fifty-four years later, the answer is clear: Because the people who spoke the truth are all dead.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

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