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.