The Great Leap From Myth to History

In an article for Asia Times Online posted earlier this month, Peter Lee examines the cooling prohibition on discussion of the disastrous effects of the Great Leap Forward. The collection of hastily enacted policies resulted in mass starvation. What dutch historian Frank Dikötter has called “Mao’s Great Famine” has long been labeled “The Three Years of Natural Disasters” [三年自然灾害] by official party nomenclature. As this period moves further away on the historical horizon, public commentary, scholarship, and documentation by Chinese nationals is beginning to happen. After providing historical context, Lee points to netizen outrage provoked by a divisive Weibo post by Lin Zhibo, head of People’s Daily Gansu, claiming that accounts of the famine were “lies” used to “bash Chairman Mao”. Since the online scuffle in April and May of this year, Chinese media outlets have been exploring the once forbidden topic with an accuracy never allowed in the past. Lee cites Southern People Weekly‘s series of articles in May, one of which [zh] candidly told the story of Liao Bokang, a Chongqing official who proved that policy failures, and not natural disasters, were the cause of so many deaths. From Asia Times Online:

The team documented the tragedy in Sichuan in detail, but by the time they submitted the report the political winds had shifted back in Mao’s favor. The report was spiked and as of today the only evidence of its existence is the manuscript copy of his section of the report retained by Xiao Feng, who is now 93 years old. It confirms the death toll of 12 million – 17% of the province’s total population.

For his pains, Liao was the target of a vendetta by the Sichuan provincial government. He was accused of participating in an anti-party clique and spent the next two decades in various labor and detention facilities until he was completely rehabilitated in 1982. Punning on the slogan, “A year (of great leap) is equivalent to 20 years (of ordinary development)”, Liao quipped that “3 hours (of reporting to Yang on the Great Leap Forward) worked out to 20 years (of incarceration).”

Lee’s piece also mentions this Global Times article from May, in which the English-language “voice of combative nationalism” also helps to debunk some of the national myths about “natural disasters” between 1959 and 1961, and mentions the desire to accurately document this period while its graying survivors are still around:

According to the History of the Communist Party of China, during the Great Leap Forward, iron and steel production was identified as a key requirement for economic advancement, and many farmers were ordered away from agricultural work to join the iron production workforce. The production of agriculture and light industry production dropped sharply.

In 1959, China also experienced the most severe drought in its recent history, the book said. It claims that combined with foreign affairs, especially the deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union, food shortages became serious.

Yang Jisheng, a journalist and author, wrote in his book Tombstone that the famine could fully be blamed on political errors. According to experts from the China Meteorological Administration, no severe weather calamities occurred between 1958 and 1962, he wrote.

Also see prior CDT coverage of the Great Leap Forward and projects to historically document it.