“Small and stocky, neat in dress and mild of feature, Yang Jisheng is an unassuming figure as he bustles through the pleasantly shabby offices, an old-fashioned satchel thrown over one shoulder. Since his retirement from China’s state news agency he has worked at the innocuously titled Annals of the Yellow Emperor journal, where stacks of documents cover chipped desks and a cockroach circles our paper cups of green tea.
Yet the horror stories penned by the 72-year-old from this comforting, professorial warren in Beijing are so savage and excessive they could almost be taken as the blackest of comedies; the bleakest of farces; the most extreme of satires on fanaticism and tyranny.
A decade after the Communist party took power in 1949, promising to serve the people, the greatest manmade disaster in history stalks an already impoverished land.
In an unremarkable city in central Henan province, more than a million people – one in eight – are wiped out by starvation and brutality over three short years. In one area, officials commandeer more grain than the farmers have actually grown. In barely nine months, more than 12,000 people – a third of the inhabitants – die in a single commune; a tenth of its households are wiped out. Thirteen children beg officials for food and are dragged deep into the mountains, where they die from exposure and starvation. A teenage orphan kills and eats her four-year-old brother. Forty-four of a village’s 45 inhabitants die; the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, goes insane. Others are tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests, refusing to hand over what little food they have, stealing scraps or simply angering officials.”
“Many believe personal ambition played a crucial role. Not satisfied with being “the most powerful emperor who had ever ruled China”, Mao strove to snatch leadership of the international communist movement. If the Soviet Union believed it could catch up with the US in 15 years, he vowed, China could overtake Britain in production. His vicious attacks on other leaders who dared to voice concern cowed opposition. But, as Yang notes: “It’s a very complicated historical process, why China believed in Maoism and took this path. It wasn’t one person’s mistake but many people’s. It was a process.”
The plan proved a disaster from the first. Local officials, either from fanaticism or fear, sent grossly exaggerated reports of their success to the centre, proclaiming harvests three or four times their true size. Higher authorities claimed huge amounts of grain for the cities and even dispatched it overseas. Cadres harassed or killed those who sought to tell the truth and covered up deaths when reports of problems trickled to the centre.
Even so, work by Yang and others has proved that senior leaders in Beijing knew of the famine as early as 1958. “To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward,” Mao warned colleagues a year later. “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half the people die so that others can eat their fill.”
h/t Natura Naturans