An Unnatural Disaster

Liu Binyan, translated by Perry Link

Lishi de yibufen (A Part of History)

by Zheng Yi
Tianyuan Publishers Wan-hsiang Book Co.

Hongse Jinianbei (Red Memorial)

by Zheng Yi
Unpublished Manuscript

It took twenty-four years for the news of the shocking facts about cannibalism in China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region in southern China to reach the ears of the world. Most of the Chinese people know nothing of the truth even today. Similarly the grim truth about China’s great famine of the early 1960s, which snuffed out more than 30 million lives, has continued to be sealed off from the Chinese people. The remarkable success of the Communist government’s propaganda can be seen in the fact that nearly all Chinese people continue to refer to that huge famine as “the three years of natural disaster” or “the three-year period of difficulty.” These are euphemisms for man-made catastrophe on a scale seldom seen in world history. But what does the ordinary Chinese citizen know of it? At most, only the tiny part that he or she experienced personally.

When the Chinese writer Zheng Yi’s first accounts of the cannibalism in the Guangxi region appeared, many of the Chinese who saw them were reluctant to face the evidence squarely. Frustrated at this reluctance, Zheng Yi eventually decided, after living and writing underground in China for three years, to leave the country. If Chinese people have trouble dealing with these facts, Zheng reasoned, then I’ll have to begin by presenting my evidence abroad. At the end of March 1992, he escaped to Hong Kong in a small wooden boat. He now lives in the US.

He carried with him a documented story of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution at its worst. In Guangxi, as elsewhere in China, the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 when Mao declared that “rebellion is justified” and sought to mobilize student rebels in “Red Guard” organizations to attack Liu Shaoqi, then president of the People’s Republic, and others of Mao’s own political rivals. Young people responded enthusiastically, taking the “right to rebel” as permission to express pentup popular resentment against corrupt and repressive Party bureaucrats at local levels.

The first rebel groups were composed mostly of students and intellectuals. When they began threatening local power, more conservative groups, consisting largely of workers and government officials, emerged to oppose them. In a great many places two or three factions, each claiming to be the most steadfast in its loyalty to Mao, struggled for dominance in an increasingly lawless environment. Mao fanned the flames of the strife by promoting ambiguous slogans that convinced each side more than ever of its own righteousness: Dictatorship means the masses’ dictatorship; If we don’t finish them, they will finish us; and so on. As the factional strife worsened during 1967, garrison troops sometimes became involved. Rifles and other arms—in some places even machine guns and tanks—were employed. By 1968 there were pitched battles, sieges, makeshift prisons, and executions.

In most places, “revolutionary committees” controlled by the dominant faction (usually the one that had repressed the original student rebels) became a de facto local government. These regimes sought to create an atmosphere of terror in order to enforce…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.