Hidden hunger, shameful secrets

Hungry Ghosts - Scarlet Memorial
November 29, 1996

These two books bracket the tragedies that marked the 1960s in China. Hungry Ghosts deals with the great famine of 1959-61, while Scarlet Memorial recounts stories of brutal killing and cannibalism in the cultural revolution years of 1967-68. The exposure of evil and tragedy is a contribution in and of itself. Whatever the faults of these two books - and there are faults - they both have the virtue of bringing to public attention awful events of which the world has been scarcely aware.

China's great famine of 1959-61 is among the least studied of recent human calamities, with public scholarship about it prohibited by the Chinese government. Jasper Becker, Beijing correspondent of The Guardian in the late 1980s and now Beijing bureau chief of the South China Morning Post, has dug up a great deal of information about the famine and in Hungry Ghosts presents it in a format designed to attract attention.

It was the Chinese government itself that in 1979 began releasing mortality statistics for the famine years. Any child could do the arithmetic, which worked out to a huge loss of life. Yet, having dropped that bomb, the government failed to follow through with a thorough and public accounting. Official mortality rates imply a toll of 15 million excess deaths during the three famine years. Demographers' estimates of unreported mortality have doubled this figure to 30 million. Others have reported larger numbers, but their methods of estimation are unknown.

The famine was caused by the policies of the Great Leap Forward, which destroyed soil fertility and work incentives, robbed agriculture of labour and tools, imposed disastrous farming techniques, encouraged wasteful consumption, and blinded the government (and everyone else) by destroying the statistical system. The government also confiscated excessive amounts of grain from the countryside to feed the cities and repay the country's debt to the Soviet Union. All this has been well known for some years. What has been missing outside of China is a sense of the human tragedy implied by the numbers. This is what Jasper Becker tries to supply.

He succeeds to a degree that is hard to pin down. The problem is that one cannot easily separate truth from fiction in this book, in whose breathless lists of atrocities fact, overstatement and exaggeration mingle indiscriminately. Thus, "even the bodily wastes of the peasants became public property" describes the long-time practice of collecting "nightsoil" as fertiliser. The technique is well illustrated by this story. "The party secretary of Qisi commune I is said to have invented a method of boiling human flesh to turn it into fertiliser and was rumoured to have boiled more than 100 children. Subsequent investigations revealed that he had boiled at least 20 corpses. Equally harsh punishments were meted out to those working in labour gangs I".

Note the conflation of "children" and "corpses", and the way the phrase "equally harsh punishments" manages to imply that what had been boiled was indeed live children after all. Facts and quotes often lack sources. Where sources are given, they are frequently useless references, such as "party records" (for the story quoted above), "party document", "People's Daily, 1958" or "figures from confidential sources". Assertions are made - for example, "the death rate in the (labour and prison) camps was ... on average 20 per cent" - with an assurance belied by the impossibility of knowing such a thing. Others - "Sichuan recovered more quickly than the northern provinces"- are wrong. (Sichuan's mortality rate remained elevated in 1962, when mortality elsewhere had generally returned to pre-famine levels.) Hungry Ghosts for the briefest moment acknowledges a more complex story: "On the positive side, there were renewed efforts to increase literacy, raise the status of women, improve public health and sanitation, and end foot-binding, child marriage and opium addiction." Indeed, by the end of Mao's life, China had attained a high average life expectancy for a low-income country, built a substantial basic health-care system focused on prevention and on the needs of women and children, and provided most of the population with basic literacy. But none of this is part of Becker's story, which is rather one of unrelieved and wilful war on the "peasantry" by Mao Zedong, whose thoughts, beliefs and reactions are repeatedly and confidently revealed, although his works, even the unpublished ones revealed during the cultural revolution, are not mentioned. This neglect allows the author to miss entirely the critical attitude toward Soviet economic and political practices that Mao expressed in his writings, and that provides an important part of the explanation for Mao's own policy departures that went so disastrously wrong.

While Mao's role in generating the Great Leap famine was clearly paramount, the reasons for it remain a historical problem. The course of the Chinese revolution and civil war, the nature of the war with Japan, the complicated and ultimately hostile relationship with the Soviet Union, the implacable enmity of the United States, the many contradictions between China's economic underdevelopment and Mao's utopian vision of a Communist future, all these and more must be part of the explanation for Mao's own decisions evolving as they did, as well as for the political environment in which he became, for all intents and purposes, emperor of China. But Becker is not concerned with achieving such an understanding.

The lack of historical perspective also affects the discussion of "The western failure", which makes up the final chapter of Hungry Ghosts. Becker asserts that the mainstream American press "reported the famine accurately", but gives as an example the sort of florid headline (from the New York World Telegram and Sun) that daily distorted the news during the cold war: "famished Red China slaves steal pig's slop". The most influential proponent of the thesis that actual famine stalked China was the Washington columnist, Joseph Alsop. Becker quotes Alsop in summer 1962 making such a case, but says that the refugee evidence on which it was based was disbelieved because of a "prejudice" that refugees were biased.

But refugees originated mainly from one region of Guangdong Province bordering Hong Kong, and few observers were willing to extrapolate their conditions to the rest of China. Moreover, the refugee evidence was mixed: thousands of emigres who crossed the Hong Kong border in May 1962 were examined by Hong Kong doctors, but none showed clinical symptoms of malnutrition. Becker is evidently unaware that The China Quarterly, which had invited Alsop's essay, also published a symposium of fairly sceptical reactions to it from academics and other experts. One reason for the scepticism, perhaps, was the lunacy of Alsop's explanation: that Mao was deliberately starving off a third of his people to make development easier.

As Becker points out, a number of distinguished visitors to China during 1959 61 returned to discount the presence of famine based on their observations. These include, inter alia, the writer Edgar Snow, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, president of the Royal Society, Field Marshal Montgomery, Swiss economist Gilbert Etienne, Lord Boyd-Orr, former head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and Francois Mitterrand. Snow, who knew China well from past experience, reported isolated instances of starvation and widespread malnutrition, but no mass starvation. It is inconceivable that all of these people would have participated in a conspiracy to suppress the truth. Were they simply manipulated by their hosts? Before drawing that easy conclusion, it is worth recalling that many Chinese held a view similar to Snow's based on their own experience. Although such a massive famine is not easy to hide, this one nevertheless remained quite well hidden from the outside world.

One reason may be the unprecedented degree of control over the rural population exercised by the Chinese Communist Party. Hungry Ghosts describes a virtual reign of terror by local officials in places such as Anhui, where the death toll was particularly high. Still, such control even during this most devastating and demoralising crisis is a feat that deserves more attention than it has received. Another reason may be the location of the worst affected regions, which were mainly in west-central China, away from the usual routes travelled by foreigners. The principal exception was Anhui, whose peak mortality was seven and a half times the pre-famine level, and whose southern border is just up the Yangzi River from Shanghai. This no doubt explains why many urban easterners speak of the famine as centered in Anhui.

The conflict between the limited qualitative evidence of famine seen by the outside world, and even by urban China, and the huge quantitative scale implied by the death rates, remains an anomaly deserving of more attention. This is but one of many outstanding unanswered questions about the famine, whose story is one that will not disappear.

Scarlet Memorial is a lively and readable book about unimaginable horrors. Its main story takes place in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region - the Zhuang being China's most numerous national minority who comprise about one-third of Guangxi's population. Zheng Yi, a prominent novelist and journalist, made investigative trips to Guangxi in the 1980s, and wrote the book while a fugitive in China following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In Guangxi the violent struggles that marked the height of the cultural revolution in 1966-68 were accompanied by many episodes of cannibalism. Zheng regales the reader with stories of livers and hearts being cut out of living victims. Many of these stories are documented by reference to local party investigative reports, others by personal interviews with observers and even participants, some quite unrepentant. Still other stories are undocumented ("There were also a few elderly men who made a specialty of eating the human brain ... they would kneel on the ground and suck the brain through (a) pipe".) In the end, a ritualised style of storytelling leaves the reader unsure how much of what is told actually occurred. Inaccuracies add to the problem. For example, one man is identified as "the killer barber who had cut open Zhou Shian while he was still alive", although the relevant story a few pages earlier named someone else as the killer. An outlandish "estimate" of the number of people who engaged in cannibalism (10,000-20,000), based on the estimated amount of edible flesh per victim and the assumed amount eaten per consumer, further compromises the book's aura of reliability.

However, enough evidence appears to be solidly based to suggest that genuine horrors did indeed occur in Guangxi. Zheng declines to put blame on Zhuang culture. He is far more critical of what he regards as the lack of a humanist tradition in the dominant Han culture, its capacity to rationalise evil means on behalf of a "good" cause. In this he contrasts China with the West, but had he considered some of the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity, or of democracy, he might have had to rethink the point.

He also blames communism, the Chinese Party, and Mao in particular, for setting in motion the forces that released all that violence. The story of inhuman behaviour and the scale on which it evidently occurred, however, also point to the prior existence of deep hatreds and conflicts in the affected areas. In one or two specific cases the author hints at such a history but does not pursue it.?

The fact that most of those who committed the atrocities served the interests of the Guangxi power structure that emerged victorious from the cultural revolution helps to explain the extraordinarily light punishments received by the perpetrators. But it still does not explain the savagery itself. Research on that question would hardly be encouraged by the current political regime. Whatever one thinks of Zheng's explanations, one must agree with his insistence that China must eventually have no less than a full accounting of this dark chapter in its history.

What links the two separate episodes dealt with by these books? There is a direct link in one of the gruesome incidents recounted by Zheng. It concerns the same Zhou Shian mentioned above. Eight years earlier, at the eight of the famine, Zhou had stolen a bag of rice from a state granary to feed his family. He served seven years in prison for this crime, and returned home in the middle of the cultural revolution. Perhaps it was therefore no coincidence that his brother, Zhou Weian, had become leader of the rebel faction in Wuxuan County. On May 13, 1968, in the course of the defeat of the rebels, both brothers were killed and mutilated. Zheng suggests that the same road that had at different times led them both to resist the injustices of the existing order brought them to their grisly fates as victims of the cultural revolution.

Cannibalism in Chinese history was often associated with the desperation of famines, and the great famine of 1959-61 had been over for only six years when the Guangxi incidents occurred. What happened in Guangxi during the famine is not discussed by Zheng but it would appear highly relevant. Guangxi had been among the more seriously affected provinces, and the famine there began earlier and lasted longer than in most of the country. The dehumanising effects of that calamity must still have been very much alive only six years later.

Moreover, the cultural revolution itself was imposed by Mao in part because of what happened in the famine's aftermath. The disintegration of party and government morale in the countryside, the growth of corruption, the breakdown in collective agriculture and de facto spread of family farming and traditional cultural and religious practices were targets of Mao's attempt to renew the politics of class struggle by means of a "socialist education movement" from 1962 on. It was the resistance of the party-state apparatus to what they regarded as a potentially disastrous return to the chaos of social conflict that led Mao to initiate the cultural revolution, a war to topple his enemies that turned into a popular rebellion, as Zheng puts it, against the repressive politics of party rule.

The highly charged events dealt with in Hungry Ghosts and Scarlet Memorial do not need embellishment or exaggeration to shock. It would have been better if they had merely been presented with accuracy. This was not done, partly because of the predilections of the two authors, and partly because it is still impossible: the Chinese government does not permit historical research on these events. Much work therefore remains to be done before it will be possible to gain a full understanding of the famine and its aftermath.

Carl Riskin is professor of economics, Queens College, City University of New York, and senior research scholar, East Asian Institute, Columbia University.

Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine

Author - Jasper Becker
ISBN - 0 7195 5433 0
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £19.99
Pages - 352

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