James Seymour: Ghost Song

In the Hong Kong Economic Journal, China scholar James Seymour reviews Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 and compares it to “Tombstone,” by Chinese scholar Yang Jisheng. Seymour writes:

Though less detailed than Yang’s opus, Dikötter certainly gives a credible explanation of how the famine came about. This was a command economy, and central planning simply did not work. It was insisted that grain (rice, wheat or corn), which under the circumstances was barely if at all profitable, be grown almost everywhere. Many farmers would have preferred to raise more lucrative vegetables, or edible oils, sugarcane, melons, and tobacco. By foolish political decree, not only did everyone have to grow grain, but it had to be close-cropped on deeply ploughed land. The resulting crop failures drove people to eat seed, meaning that there would be no way to plant the following year’s crop. This included cotton seeds, which are poisonous; some people died from them. Cotton came to be in such short supply that many had little or nothing to wear. Dikötter writes, “Throughout the country those who died of starvation often did so naked, even in the middle of winter” (p. 141).

Ever increasing percentages of the harvests were confiscated and sent to Beijing, often leaving the farmers and town residents to starve. Under the management of Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來), it was ensured that there was generally sufficient grain to feed the largest cities, with enough left over to earn foreign exchange. The people who actually produced the food just didn’t matter.

The general view of the famine (largely shared by this reviewer) is that the vast majority of starvation deaths were the unintended result of erroneous policies. Dikötter is harsher. For him, the evidence demonstrates that “coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and that the famine resulted at least in part from victims being “deliberately deprived of food and starved to death” (p. x-xi).

Certainly there were many cases of such, but it seems probable that the vast majority of deaths resulted from what we might describe as malignant neglect. The quotation at the top shows that Mao Zedong was fully aware of the famine. Regarding its cause, however, he was in a state of denial — as is the Party still.

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