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 An unpublished Chinese government study admits to 17 million unnatural deaths, while historian Frank Dikötter's book Mao's Great Famine estimated "at least" 45 million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



The Year the Arab Spring Went Bad

Hopes for a democratic Middle East have faltered amid sectarian animosities and ideological divisions. Did it have to be this way?

In the heady days of (relatively) peaceful mass mobilizations that brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the mantra from American observers in 2011 was: "Now comes the hard part." In 2012, it came -- with a vengeance.

But my guess is that many of those watching the Arab Spring unfold did not really believe this year would be as bloody or fraught with risk as it has turned out to be. Transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe after 1989 were pretty quick and pretty successful. Latin American and East Asian transitions in the 1980s and 1990s had long and troubled backgrounds, but once democratic systems were established, most of them turned out to be stable and peaceful. Why should the Arab world be different?

Well, there are two big reasons. Unlike in those other parts of the world, many of the countries in the Middle East lack long histories of political unity: Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen are all relatively recent creations; their borders are artificial and their populations are divided along sectarian, ethnic, and regional lines.

Furthermore, there is no consensus on core political issues in the Arab world. In Eastern Europe following the Cold War, as Francis Fukuyama famously pointed out, there was no serious alternative political ideology to democratic capitalism. Not so in the Middle East. A majority, or at least a plurality, of people in these countries now say "Islam is the solution" to their problems -- and they are opposed by an equally vehement minority. This year has shown just how potent a recipe for conflict this mix of ideological conflict and divided societies can be.

Without further ado, here is a look at the pitfalls that dashed the rosiest prognostications about the Arab Spring in 2012 -- and still loom large in 2013.

Weak States and Divided Societies

Some Arab countries have always suffered from weak governments. They've gotten there in different ways: Yemen has been hindered by a lack of resources, the Lebanese state has been kept weak by elites' agreement and then civil war, and Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya was the victim of a bizarre political experiment in direct governance. But however it occurs, the consequences of state weakness -- the strengthening of tribalism, sectarianism, and other sub-state identities and the erosion of the rule of law -- are largely similar.

The Syrian state is now suffering the same fate, eaten away by civil war, defections, and economic weakness. None of this is altogether unfamiliar; the country used to be the poster child for Arab political instability. Between 1949 and 1970, it experienced nine military coups and a brief period of amalgamation with Egypt. But upon taking power, Hafez al-Assad enforced a grim, but in many quarters welcome, stability. He maintained his rule through unvarnished realpolitik, notably building bridges with the Sunni business class and brutally crushing a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the early 1980s. The state was inefficient and corrupt, but it provided a measure of order, and Syria ceased being a playing field in which outside powers meddled and became an international player in its own right.

The nearly two years of fighting seem to have reversed whatever gains in state building that Hafez al-Assad had achieved. Public services have either collapsed or are stretched to the breaking point. Law and order has broken down. Syrians look to their own sectarian communities for safety, not the state -- if they are not fleeing the country.

The problem, of course, is not particular to Syria. Tribal, regional, and sectarian factionalism make political progress in Yemen agonizingly slow, as do tribal and regional divides in Libya. Bahrain's rulers exploit the fears of their co-religionists, the Sunni minority, toward the Shia majority to divide the opposition and solidify their control.

These sub-state identities in weak states create a vicious circle. New governments, even those freely elected, find their ability to govern severely limited. They do not have functioning bureaucracies to implement policies. Libya has struggled to rebuild police and military forces in the face of militias that are, in many cases, better armed, better funded, and better organized than the state's forces. In Yemen, the army itself has split along factional lines.

With centralized state authority weakened, these countries have become the playing fields of regional rivalry. Local actors invite the foreigners in, looking to them for money, guns and political support. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar are all playing in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran both support factions in Lebanon. The Saudis are still the monopoly players in Yemen and Bahrain, though they warn darkly of Iranian meddling in both countries. Needless to say, such proxy wars are Kryptonite for the authority of the central state.

The Islamist Spring

Egypt and Tunisia do not suffer from weak states and divided societies, and thus still have the best chance of all the Arab Spring countries to forge stable democracies. This year's developments, nonetheless, threw a wrench in both countries' plans, as the heady unity of opposition to the old regime gave way to bruising battles over the country's future. Those battles have mostly been political, electoral, and rhetorical -- though there have been troubling episodes of violence in both countries. The ideological battle lines in these states are exceptionally stark: The core question for both is what role Islam will play in the new order -- and so far the Islamists are winning.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the process of writing a new constitution has polarized society.  Strong electoral showings have given Islamist parties the upper hand in the constitution-writing process. More secular forces -- some liberal, some perfectly comfortable with the old autocratic orders -- are actively opposing them, but do not seem able to rally enough support in society to block the Islamist constitutional projects.

The turmoil is only getting worse. Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities witnessed violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsy in the run-up to the referendum. In Tunisia, meanwhile, Salafists have engaged in a number of acts of violence against their domestic opponents.

This isn't a debate about the constitutions themselves, precisely. In neither case are the actual documents all that radical -- neither state is about to become Iran or Saudi Arabia. Both constitutions provide for democratic systems, religious freedom, and personal liberty, albeit with a greater if somewhat undefined role for Islam and its institutions. Perhaps the most important difference between them is that the proposed Egyptian constitution preserves a strong presidency, while the Tunisian proposal calls for a parliamentary system. Rather, this is a test of strength for Islamists -- ascendant after winning elections in 2011 and 2012 -- and their more secular opponents.

While the Islamist-secular divide in Egypt captures more attention in the United States, the more important drama for the future of democracy in the region may be playing out in Tunisia. The most significant criticism of the Tunisian draft constitutional has come from the Salafi movement, which wants a more explicitly Islamist order. The al-Nahda party, which has Muslim Brotherhood roots and won a plurality in the 2011 elections to the constituent assembly, has soft-pedaled Islamist themes in an effort to gain secularist buy-in. But unlike the Salafis in Egypt, Tunisia's hard-line Islamists continue to reject democratic politics -- they have pressed their case through street protests and violence, including the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy and an American school in Tunis. If the Tunisian Salafists can scuttle the constitutional experiment in Tunisia, the prospects for a stable democracy look bleak.

The role of Salafis, following an ultra-orthodox version of Islam, will enormously influence the future of political transitions across the Arab world. Historically, they have rejected democratic politics as a Western innovation that contradicts their belief that God, not man, is the lawgiver. They do well in elections when they run, as in Egypt and Kuwait. Their influence is magnified in civil wars, where they are disproportionately likely to join the fight, as in Syria and Iraq. But the Arab Spring has witnessed a split in the movement, with some Salafis ready to participate in electoral politics and others continuing to reject it. While we in the West worry about whether secularists can influence the course of political transitions in the Arab world, the more important question might be whether the Salafis can ever be brought on board for a democratic future.

American Policy

Let's be honest with ourselves: If the keys to stability and democratic development in the Arab world are related to state building and an ideological argument within Islamist movements, then there is not much that the United States can do to help these processes along. Washington demonstrated in Iraq that it is more skillful at destroying states than at building them. Even if we wanted to, our overstretched military and depleted resources means that U.S. priorities must lie elsewhere for now. The United States has even less to contribute to the intra-Islamist debate among Brotherhood and Salafi trends on the appropriateness of democracy.

Nowhere is America's inability to decisively affect the direction of internal political developments in the Arab world more evident than Syria. We have no history of close engagement with either the Syrian military or Syrian society. The most aggressive interventionists want a no-fly zone and greater American support for opposition forces, including the direct supply of weapons. But would a no-fly zone -- which would quickly turn into direct engagements with Syrian forces -- provide the United States with any more influence over post-Assad Syria than it has in post-Qaddafi Libya? It is doubtful. And if we were to take on the task of arming the rebels, could we confidently tell "good secularists" from "bad jihadis"? I see no reason for confidence there, as those receiving arms have an enormous incentive to mask their real preferences from possible patrons.

The best the United States can do is to allow the Arab Spring play out on its own terms. While the convulsions in the Middle East certainly affect U.S. interests, they have yet to directly damage our key strategic concern -- the free flow of oil -- or our relationship with Israel. Weak and failing states, to be sure, are a serious counterterrorism concern, and al Qaeda and its affiliates are sure to try to take an advantage of civil strife to revive their dying brand (see: Benghazi). But these radicals are not about to seize control of any states, and the new governments in the Arab world will certainly see jihadists as a threat once they get back on their feet.

The Arab Spring may not have yet fulfilled the expectations embodied in those early, buoyant demonstrations in Tahrir Square -- but nor has it evolved into a real threat to the United States. We have good relations with the most powerful military player in the area, Israel; with the richest Arab state, Saudi Arabia; and with Turkey, a country that has managed to be both Islamist and democratic and is playing an ever-larger role in the region. With America's strategic position still strong and our ability to affect the direction of domestic politics in the Arab world extremely limited, the Obama administration is best advised to continue to keep its hands off this troubled part of the world.

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