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China: From Famine to Oslo

Ruyan@sars.come (So it was@sars.come)

by Hu Fayun
Beijing: Zhongguo guoji guangbo chubanshe, 272 pp., 25 yuan

Mubei (Tombstone)

by Yang Jisheng
Hong Kong: Tiandi chubanshe, first edition (2008), 1,095 pp., 210 Hong Kong dollars; eighth edition (2010), 1,208 pp., 240 Hong Kong dollars
Heiko Junge/AFP/Getty Images
Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland looking at the empty chair reserved for the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, December 10, 2010. According to news reports, since the award ceremony, the Chinese words for ‘empty chair’ have been banned on the Chinese Internet and some bloggers who have used the phrase or posted images 
of empty chairs have had their sites blocked.


Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do anything else. Her son, Jiang Jielian, was killed in the massacre by a bullet in the back, and very soon thereafter Ding decided—unlike other parents who had lost children—to defy the government’s demand that the families of victims keep quiet and absorb their losses in private. She organized a group called “Tiananmen Mothers” and, in her speaking and writing ever since, has essentially said to the regime: say what you like, and do what you will, but my mind belongs to me and you cannot have it. (In October, the Tiananmen Mothers called on the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned writer who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and who has been a longtime supporter of the group’s efforts.) Václav Havel, whom Professor Ding admires, called this “living in truth.” To the regime, it makes Ding a dangerous person.

Many people have wondered where Ding Zilin got the mental fortitude to confront a vast and potentially brutal government. Even more worth probing, in my view, is what the standoff says about the mentality of her opposition. The Chinese government is the largest in the world. It commands more soldiers than any other government, and owns about $2.5 trillion—by far the most in the world—in foreign exchange reserves. It is widely viewed as an emerging superpower. Nevertheless it sends plainclothes police to accompany a seventy-four-year-old woman as she sets out to buy vegetables. Why? The two books under review here do not have all of the answers to this question, but they illuminate it in profound ways.

Today’s “rising China,” which from the outside can seem to exude strength and confidence, inwardly lives with an unsure view of itself. People sense, even if they do not want to talk about it, that their country’s current system is grounded partly in fraud, cannot be relied upon to treat people fairly, and might not hold up. Insecurity, the new national mood, extends from laid-off migrant laborers to the men at the top of the Communist Party. The socialist slogans that the government touts are widely seen as mere panoply that covers a lawless crony capitalism in which officials themselves are primary players. This incongruity has been in place for many years and no longer fools anyone. People take it as normal, but that very normality makes cynicism the public ideology. Many people turn to materialism—whether in property or investment—in search of value, but often cannot feel secure there, either; even if they gain a bit of wealth, they do not know when it might disappear or be wrested away.

One stopgap that top leaders have used has been to stoke national pride. They have staged an Olympics and a World’s Fair. They arrange to broadcast throughout China that the Dalai Lama is a “wolf” who would “split the motherland.” Such tactics have had some success. Chauvinist sentiment, especially among the upwardly mobile urban young, is easy to provoke, and is sometimes loudly expressed.

Yet in quieter settings, Chinese people continue to make decisions that reflect their lack of confidence in China’s future. Farmers from Fujian province still pay “snakeheads” tens of thousands of dollars to smuggle one person to Sydney, London, or New York. Of the approximately 145,000 Chinese students who go abroad each year for study, only about 25–30 percent return to live in China (and of these, some keep foreign passports tucked away). Even leaders of the Communist Party send their children—and large amounts of their money—to places like Vancouver and Los Angeles. An elderly man in Hu Fayun’s novel Ruyan@sars.come observes that

here [in China], who knows when all hell might break loose, leaving no place to hide?… Everyone feels this at a certain level but doesn’t say so. Why else would the people who hold all the power in our society be sending their sons and daughters abroad?

Can the problems be solved? What does China need today? Yang Jisheng, author of the nonfictional Mubei, or Tombstone, has written a different sort of book from Hu Fayun’s, but the two authors share a conviction that what China most needs is an honest look at its past, and especially at the record of where it has been during sixty years of Communist rule. China’s rulers, who fear the consequences of such retrospection, have been assiduous in seeking to prevent it. Shortly after Hu’s novel appeared on the Internet in 2004, the authorities closed down the website that carried it. But the text, which was loose in cyberspace, continued to spread anyway. In 2006 authorities allowed the novel to be published in book form after cutting out many politically “sensitive” passages. Yang Jisheng, in trying to publish Mubei, got nowhere with publishers inside China and so turned to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong book was barred from the mainland, but spread electronically and eventually appeared on the mainland in an underground pirated edition.1

Mubei is about the Great Famine of 1959–1962, the story of which, in outline, has been well known for some time. Mao Zedong, wanting China to “surpass England and catch up with America” within fifteen years, and pursuing utopian transformation of the Chinese countryside at the same time, calculated that a sudden boom in grain production could support new industry as well as provide exports that would pay for Soviet technology. A radical reorganization of the Chinese countryside ensued. Family farms were abolished in favor of large “people’s communes.” The state appropriated tools, draft animals, and all land. It controlled marketing and set impossibly high “production quotas.”

One reason quotas were too high was that Mao relied on the teachings of the Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who claimed that rice seedlings could be planted without separating them and that, to cite just one of many other examples, pumpkins could be crossed with tomatoes in order to produce giant tomatoes. Chinese farmers knew such ideas to be nonsense but were in no position to disobey. As a result grain production plummeted at the same time that reported harvests soared. (They could not but soar; the Great Leader had said that they would.) Frightened officials, under pressure to meet and even “overfulfill” their quotas, gathered whatever grain they could find and shipped it to the cities. Peasants who balked at handing over their last stores could be charged with “hoarding,” which was a serious crime. Within three years, between 20 and 40 million people died. Only World War II has taken a larger toll in modern times.

What Yang Jisheng adds to this picture is comprehensive scope and authoritative detail in overwhelming amount. When he began research for the book in the early 1990s, he was already a prizewinning senior reporter with the official New China News Agency, a status that allowed him access to archives that were closed to others. He approached his work quietly, in order to avoid suspicion.2 He was able, in the end, to specify such things as exactly how much grain was held in public granaries at the height of the famine (about 22 million tons); how reports of the famine went up the bureaucracy only to be ignored at the top; and how authorities ordered the destruction of statistics in regions where population decline became evident.

Yang records how starving people ate tree bark, weeds, bird droppings, and flesh that had been cut from dead bodies, sometimes of their own family members; how they wandered into neighboring counties in search of food, only to find adjacent areas equally destitute, and then, when caught, found themselves charged as “criminal fugitives,” deniers of the truth that “there is no famine.” Punishments for this kind of offense included public humiliation, plus flogging. Parents who left their children at roadsides, hoping that perhaps a stranger might save them, were accused of “assaulting the Party.” As the famine worsened corpses became more visible at roadsides. There was no problem of dogs eating the corpses, Yang notes, because humans had long since eaten all the dogs—and toads, and lizards, and rats. People learned not to kill rats immediately; it was better to tie a string to a rat’s leg, follow it to its hole, and kill it then. That way one could eat the rat as well as dig down into its hole to recover whatever grain it might have stored below.

Police guarded county bus stations to prevent people from fleeing. Sometimes entire villages were put under lockdown. In the archives of local post offices, Yang found personal letters that had been confiscated during the famine because they had “cast aspersions on the excellent situation.” And where was all the resistance coming from? It came, said Mao, because “the democratic revolution has not been thorough enough.” “Right deviationists” needed to be punished, and the punishments needed to be public in order to warn others. Yang lists cases of people buried alive or suspended from beams in commune mess halls, and cites countless examples of the severing of ears. Some punishments acquired ghastly sobriquets. To strip a person bare, tie his hands, string him from a beam, wrap him in cloth, douse the cloth in oil, and set it afire was “lighting the celestial lantern.” To bury a living person with the shaved head exposed, then smash the skull to splatter the brain, was “opening the flower.” At times it is hard to read Yang. You have to set the book down, take a break, and come back later. This review omits the most difficult examples.

The main reason why the Great Famine continues to haunt China fifty years after it happened is that people are obliged—forcibly, if necessary—to continue to accord the famine’s primary perpetrator, Mao Zedong, a position of honor. Mao’s portrait still hangs at the center of Tiananmen, where it overlooks his embalmed body, which lies supine in his mausoleum within the giant square. And Mao remains the spiritual godfather of today’s regime.

Today’s Chinese textbooks and museums omit mention of the famine (noting, at most, “three years of difficulty” caused by “bad weather”), and young Chinese sometimes express the view that vague stories of a famine must be the fabrications of foreigners. Still, many people remember. Inside families that experienced the famine, word passes from generation to generation. What remains largely unknown is how widespread the famine was. People who know that their own family or village suffered terribly may not know that as many as 36 million (Yang Jisheng’s figure) died in other places. If that fact were well known in China, the consequences for Communist Party rule would be severe. The Party’s ban on Yang’s book is not irrational.

  1. 1

    English translations of both books are currently in preparation—by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian for Mubei and by A.E. Clark for Ruyan, which will appear in March 2011 from Ragged Banner Press under the title Such Is This World@Sars.come. The translators of both books are in touch with the authors and are using authentic texts. 

  2. 2

    See Ian Johnson’s interview with Yang Jisheng for the author’s own account of how he gained access to thousands of Communist Party archives and other documents, NYR Blog, December 20, 2010. 

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