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Totalitarianism, Famine and Us | The Nation

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Totalitarianism, Famine and Us

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In late 1959, Chinese officials in the provinces began to investigate wild rumors that people were eating one another. Most of the officials must have already known that Mao Zedong’s call for a “Great Leap Forward,” a planned modernization meant to catapult the country into global economic leadership, had gone horribly wrong.

The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962
A Documentary History.
Edited by Zhou Xun.
Buy this book

Tombstone
The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962.
By Yang Jisheng.
Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian.
Buy this book

Mao’s Great Famine
The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962.
By Frank Dikötter.
Walker. 448 pp. Paper $20.

Winner Take All
China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World.
By Dambisa Moyo.
Buy this book

About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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In the vast countryside regions of China, and with an eye to pleasing their bureaucratic masters, Communist Party functionaries had been inflating estimates of the amounts of food that peasants were producing for transfer to the industrial zones or for export sales. They also concealed that these transfers left hungry—and often for dead—the very peasants who had done all the farming, from cultivation to harvest. The horrifying reports of cannibalism sometimes involved peasants digging up the corpses of the recently deceased, among the millions who had already died of starvation. Other times, officials investigating unrelated matters came across disturbing evidence of murder and the butchering of people for meat. In Gansu province, according to one document in a new translation of source material, The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962,  a person named Meng was found in his home with meat in a jar, which also contained a clump of hair “alongside a floral-patterned hair band.”

The worst human tragedies of the twentieth century were certainly most deadly when sponsored or at least unleashed by totalitarian regimes, and food was a crucial element of their politics. Several years ago, the German journalist and scholar Götz Aly showed in books such as Architects of Annihilation (2003) the role of food in the horrors of National Socialist imperialism. More recently, Timothy Snyder has made the conquest of more productive agricultural territory—especially the Ukrainian “breadbasket”—an essential factor in the episodes of mass death occurring in what he calls the “bloodlands.” Soviet and Nazi planners both sought to occupy the region for the sake of food, and their macabre policies dictated that those on the home front would eat before the occupants of the newly conquered territory, who were deemed too numerous to feed with limited resources. In The Taste of War (2011), Lizzie Collingham has offered an accessible survey of how deeply the origins and course of World War II followed from the difficulty—real or perceived—of provisioning humanity. Even Americans soon became aware that the fight against totalitarianism in postwar Asia depended on filling empty stomachs at least as much as on winning hearts and minds, a policy that Nick Cullather, author of The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (2010), has elsewhere called “the foreign policy of the calorie.”

But the famines caused by totalitarian regimes can easily become a sensationalized distraction from considering the other causes of mass starvation. After all, mass hunger is older than totalitarianism, and in the most ancient records of human hunger, cannibalism is a depressingly common response to famine. In his already classic book Famine: A Short History (2009), Cormac Ó Gráda, the greatest contemporary historian of the topic, cites a Chinese woodblock from an 1870s famine that tells of a man who sells his daughter to avoid eating her; and many cases of cannibalism were reported in prior and later famines in China, under the rule of emperors and republicans alike.

That it has taken so long for the basic facts about the great Chinese famine to be recovered is not solely because of an information blackout at the time and since, but also because of the memory of such cyclical disasters. For a long time, observers assumed that the difficulties faced by Chinese communists were mainly ones they had inherited from a millennium of emperors. The persistent challenge of providing food led to vivid novels like Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931) and influential theories of “Oriental despotism,” according to which China’s geography and demography permitted no alterative to coordinated rule from above to provide rice for the millions—a job that crop failure sometimes made impossible. For years after the Great Famine, it wasn’t even clear that mass death had occurred. And until the appearance in the mid-1990s of Jasper Becker’s popularizing account Hungry Ghosts, it was common to grant more credence to the official and persistent Chinese explanation for the Great Famine: bad weather. 

If famine antedated totalitarianism, famine has also outlasted it—even as China’s leaders, still officially communist, have embarked on a major new global venture in food politics, with the state’s vaulting economy and hungry consumers leading them abroad in search of new sources. It is in intuitive anticipation of a new food politics that mid-century totalitarian famine is being revisited. But while the Great Famine is a terrible warning from the past, as well as an occasion for heartfelt commemoration and a tool for Chinese democrats to criticize their regime, it can distract us from the very different food politics to come—especially when it’s used by Western critics merely to sound false alarms about the role of agriculture in contemporary China’s national ambitions. The new food politics, in short, is already under way.

* * *

In 1959, Yang Jisheng was summoned from school to his village in Hubei province, where his father—technically, an uncle who had raised him—was dying. A Maoist true believer, Yang had written a poem in praise of the Great Leap Forward, and when he saw his father die of starvation, he assumed it was an isolated incident. An excellent student, he later became a journalist for the official Xinhua News Agency, though a few years later the Cultural Revolution would shake his faith in the party’s rule. In the 1990s, Yang, wanting to place his father’s death in the larger context of the Great Famine, embarked on research trips to far-flung provinces; after his retirement, he finished work on his extraordinary book.

Yang called it Tombstone to offer his father an everlasting memorial—but also to issue a moral verdict on the Chinese regime, one he hopes will lead to its own obituary one day. Published in Hong Kong a few years ago, Yang’s opus topped 1,000 pages and filled two volumes. Though it was banned in China, it has circulated underground there. Now it is available in English in an abridged version that combines Yang’s chapters on policy with a portion of his arduous and careful survey of the Chinese provinces. Beautifully written and fluidly translated, Tombstone deserves to reach as many readers as possible.

Some have hailed the book as China’s answer to The Gulag Archipelago. Like that epoch-making document, and its later popularization at the hands of Anne Applebaum and others, Tombstone shares some of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s zeal for compilation and memorialization. Its great contribution is to offer a litany of horrors that is at the same time sensitive to nuance, because Yang’s tour of hell includes various geographic regions whose fates differed substantially. In his important book from last year, Mao’s Great Famine, the Dutch historian Frank Dikötter—whose Hong Kong colleague, Zhou Yun, has edited a new documentary history of these events—treats Yang’s compendious revelations as an immensely valuable though insufficiently analytical source. Both authors, in fact, are better at describing than explaining what occurred in China starting in 1958, though they both rely on documents from provincial archives as the foundation for their passionate denunciation of communism in general and Mao in particular. Their wily use of local archives—including Yang’s success in hard-hit Anhui and Henan provinces, where Dikötter could not or did not go—are decisive in grounding their readable accounts.

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The shipwreck that the “Great Helmsman” brought about occurred almost immediately after he gave his orders for the Great Leap Forward. Yang vividly portrays how the “three banners” of Mao’s official politics were rooted in communist dreams of industrial modernization originating in the Soviet Union and rapidly taken up by Mao. More to the point, however, Mao was interested in assuming leadership of the global communist movement, which he felt depended on a surge that would allow the Chinese to shoot past everyone. When “people come to know their own strength, miracles are possible,” he audaciously predicted in Nikita Khrushchev’s presence in November 1957.

The consequences of the Great Leap Forward, and especially the move from peasant smallholding to “communal kitchens” in which everyone—in theory—could eat, were enormous. Alongside the punishing quotas and the supposed breakthroughs in agricultural techniques, the communal kitchens draw the bulk of Yang’s attention: the move away from family production and consumption to cadre-run system took a harsh toll once there was no food to give away. Indeed, catastrophe set in very quickly. Predictably, the provinces where practically everyone was moved into the communal kitchen system suffered the most grievous hunger. Even Sichuan province, known as “heaven’s pantry” for its unusually rich agriculture, was converted into a grim parody of its former reputation, as local leaders struggled to reverse the horrific impact of their own policies.

* * *

The role of the weather, which has been repeatedly to blame for crop failures in China throughout its history, is murky in this case. But there is no doubt that the classic dynamics of the totalitarian state—the need for Mao’s plan to seem successful and for its failures to be concealed—prevented any immediate correction in policy from being made. Some, like future Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, had worried publicly about the “rash advance” of planned modernization before the famine began, only to be put in their place. Having learned the obvious lesson, cadre leaders everywhere boasted of how well their fiefdoms were doing and papered over the disastrous results. Others, such as Mao’s second in command Liu Shaoqi (later purged as a rightist during the Cultural Revolution), slowly worked to turn the regime away from its deadly policies—especially after Liu returned to his provincial hometown in Hunan province in 1961 to discover, like Yang when he rushed to his father, a depopulated landscape in which few animals remained and the trees had been stripped of their bark. But by the time Liu publicly blamed the party and its centralized decision-making for most of the devastation, it was too late for untold millions.

The number of Chinese who died is a more disputed question, and not just because of the paradoxical need to rely on state records to make any calculations. There is also the well-known difficulty of the baseline: calculating excess deaths over an “expected” number, moreover one affected by how much the communists are credited with lowering the mortality rate before the Great Famine. Finally, one must decide whether and how to acknowledge the children who would have been born had their mothers not been starving or dead themselves. Official population records suggest that about 17 million people died. Using more recent data, and assuming that inflation sharpens indictment, Yang and Dikötter count high: 36 million and 45 million, respectively.

Were any or all of these deaths, occurring as they did in less than a year, intentional? Mao, who emphasized exports of grain and requisitioned up to 70 percent of the yield to allow it, surely was ruthless in subordinating humanity to progress. At one point, he chillingly remarked, “It is better to leave half the people to starve to death so that the other half can eat their fill.” But even the transcript containing this line, which Dikötter dug up from a party conference in Shanghai, suggests that Mao was mainly blind to the implications of his own policies—and continued to be placated by unseemly yes men—until millions were already dead. Even as he raised procurement levels, Mao made clear the need to leave sufficient supplies to avoid peasant revolt. The problem was primarily that far less food was left for local consumption than his plans envisioned, in part because production totals were so wildly inflated. (Even so, no challenge to communist rule occurred.) And a year later, according to Dikötter, a report of the death toll took Mao’s breath away. If he had really intended and ordered the mass death, why was he surprised now?

Ultimately, the Great Famine doesn’t conform to the classic example of famine as a cruel political weapon: the so-called Holodomor of 1933, during which Josef Stalin deliberately starved to death more than 3 million Ukrainians. In contrast to that disaster, which was the work of murderous intent, the Chinese famine followed mainly from bungling, however foreseeable and horrifying its consequences. None of this is to excuse the Great Helmsman: his critics are not wrong in their aggressive attacks either on him or his regime. They are on especially strong ground in claiming that the information blackout—aided and abetted by functionaries schooled in the arts of meeting expectations and concealing bad news, as well as by a lack of political accountability at every level—left the policies of the Great Leap Forward undisturbed for far too long.

The details in both Dikötter’s well-written synthesis and Yang’s summa will continue to have a large impact on our understanding of the Great Famine. But a Western audience doesn’t need them to learn the lesson that both authors hope the Chinese will one day learn. As Yang puts it, “The basic reason why tens of millions people in China starved to death was totalitarianism.”

That, of course, is true. And yet, as Ó Gráda has emphasized, neither Dikötter nor Yang, devoted as they are to their valuable fact-finding and narrowly fixated on blaming communism, puts to rest the major analytical questions about the famine. They have succeeded in consciousness-raising and deserve immense credit for doing so, but denouncing totalitarian famine takes you only so far. As Ó Gráda cuttingly observed, in remarks not intended as a compliment: “Yang Jisheng is destined to be China’s Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, [and] Frank Dikötter replaces Jasper [Becker] as its Anne Applebaum.”

It would be wrong to deny the importance of the horrifying anecdotes and the powerful emotional identification they inspire—the use of history to attempt to feel others’ pain and honor their experiences—that these new books primarily offer. The Great Famine “consists of a conflicting set of complex and fragmented stories,” as Zhou Xun remarks when introducing her compilation of related documents, and it deserves more than detached analysis. Her collection allows English-language readers to confront the many features of everyday life during the famine, adding even more to Dikötter’s and Yang’s already vivid achievements.

Yet one might argue that even Ó Gráda’s devastating remark—at least for those who want more than calls for mourning and indictments, for all their obvious importance—is too generous. Solzhenitsyn’s work, aside from documenting a massive crime, appeared when the Communist Party was still a major force in European politics, whereas today practically no one believes in what François Furet called “the communist idea”—perhaps not even the Chinese, who have departed so fundamentally from it, retaining mainly the concept of one-party rule and its apparatus of surveillance and censorship. And, in fact, precisely when it comes to food, one-party rule turns out to be a double-edged sword.

* * *

On the New York Times op-ed page recently, Gerard Lemos noted that, for wide swaths of the Chinese population, “a spiritual hunger has taken hold even as a physical hunger has receded.” Whether or not the indictment of spiritual hunger is correct, China’s leaders deserve some credit for eliminating physical hunger: not simply when measured against the earlier years of communist rule, but Chinese history as a whole. To put it boldly, the Great Leap Forward of which Mao dreamed—especially for what was then one of the poorest countries on earth—ended up taking place over the long term.

In his 1957 Moscow speech, Mao had promised, with extreme swagger, to exceed British steel production by 1972. That didn’t happen. But eventually, in 1990, not long after Deng Xiaoping’s epoch-making market reforms, China surpassed the United Kingdom in gross national income, and today it has left its rival in the dust, besting the United Kingdom’s GNI five to one. Analysts will continue to spar over how long China’s rapid growth is sustainable, but famine has become something from China’s now-distant past. No Chinese have sold their children lest they become food—let alone been driven to eat one another—since the days of the Great Famine. Indeed, China’s leaders are carefully surveying the global scene as they plan for feeding their population under all contingencies.

Winner Take All, Dambisa Moyo’s new book on China’s role in the current global resource race, is a sensationalistic call to arms against a country that she sees as cannibalizing the world’s resources while others foolishly sleep. China’s acquisition of land in Africa and elsewhere, and its plans to build infrastructure to gain access to the food grown there, are increasingly well-known. Some have warned that these moves are neither as extensive nor as threatening as some Westerners worry—even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her trip to Africa last summer, urged the African nations to choose Western democracy and investment over a “new colonialism.” Moyo goes further still, insisting that the Chinese acquisition of arable land and other resources fits into a larger and more ominous pattern and demands an immediate and forceful response.

A paean to Thomas Malthus updated for a new geopolitical world, Moyo’s tract grants that technology and modernization can work to stave off the threat of famine as much as they can result in a hot and crowded planet with too many people to feed. But she insists that with the frightening Chinese involved in the hunt for the world’s remaining expanses of underused agricultural land, a resource Armageddon is the most likely result. And those who don’t prepare—gobbling up what they can now to avoid starvation later—will not fare well.

While Moyo invokes the specter of recurrent famine with which humanity has lived for so long, Ó Gráda—rejecting such Malthusian pessimism—insists instead that exorcising the specter is finally feasible. Indeed, as David Rieff has noted, “No one looking for sensible rather than sentimental or ideological reasons to believe in the possibility of human progress need look any further than the fact that, for the first time in human history, it is possible to imagine the end of famine.” But to say so is not to say that the disastrous course of the new food politics will be easily averted.

One thing is certain: given its past successes and current planning, the Chinese regime is not likely to be the cause of totalitarian famine at home anytime soon. And, in any case, it is not the only country that, through growth and modernization, is helping to create a new politics of food in which the people most at risk of starvation exist outside its borders.

* * *

After a dry summer, American consumers have already begun to suffer from serious increases in commodity prices. As the effects of global warming strain our pocketbooks—and even though we continue to waste a horrendous amount of food annually—we will fret about sticker shock at the supermarket, fat and surly in our appliance-packed kitchens, and our politicians will duly sympathize. But Americans will not starve to death, or even need to strategize ways of gaining control over scarce resources against our neighbors: the United States has too many natural advantages and economic tools, and too much geopolitical might. (Currently, in fact, China is the main destination for America’s food and agricultural exports.)

But the fourth horseman’s hooves still beat elsewhere in the world, especially in Africa. They resound with nothing like the deafening noise of the Chinese disaster fifty years ago. And yet there seems to be no doubt that events in Africa—in other parts, to be sure, than those resource-rich areas snatched up by foreign investors—are a better guide than the great Chinese famine to thinking about the future of food politics.

For it is not anyone’s local despotism in a direct and simple sense, but rather global warming driven by capitalist growth (including China’s) that underlies the new food politics. As many analysts have noted, increasing desertification is crucial to understanding the last decade of African instability, notably in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, with violence and misrule by states and nonstate actors alike. Ó Gráda insists that cause for optimism flows from the fact that African desertification is reversible. But in September, three UN agencies warned that high food prices are a sign of things to come in an age of growth-driven urbanization and climate change. Famine, many seem to agree, could recur unless steps are taken to avert it soon.

The problem of global warming is not the first to require that the world-spanning footprint of advanced commercial and industrial societies be scrutinized as much as the outrages of local regimes. Capitalism, far more thoroughly than state-based communism, achieved a global scope long before the weather changes around the world became so verifiably anthropogenic, and it was implicated in not a few man-made disasters before it began to cause famine. But not even Marxist analysts of famine like Mike Davis had thought to blame the “late-Victorian Holocausts” of modern history on capitalism’s deleterious influence on the climate itself. 

Future holocausts owing to climate change may permit no such restraint. For the new era of famine is already on the horizon, in part from a global condition that modernity and everyone participating in it has caused—regardless of the blame that should fall on evil men who mismanage the consequences or even engage in the killing. In what passes for political debate in the United States today, one party denies climate change altogether and the other does little about it. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, assessing the future state of the world, knows that conflict will occur rapidly once crops fail far away. Unfortunately, its mission is merely to keep Americans safe to live their high-carbon lives on a disorderly globe.

After studying the Bengali famine during World War II, Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen famously concluded that democracy is an antidote to famine, because it breaks the information control and accountability vacuum that often impede getting available food to those who desperately need it. Of course, the great Chinese famine provides a vivid illustration of how ruinous and deadly policies occur as much because closed regimes correct their policies too slowly as because they target their populations for terror.

Sen’s “law,” however, was framed around states and empires: bounded political units in which those positioned to alleviate famine had both political control and political responsibility. It is less suited to explaining our own moral implication in the terrible events of the new and future food politics or outlining a political response (assuming no global democracy is in the offing). 

It is just here that the contemporary focus on famine in totalitarian systems is misplaced. Studying the totalitarian famines of the past may help those who wish to avoid the doom of repeating them. But doing so will not save them from making new mistakes. And while those erecting tombstones for the dead in future famines and food crises will rightly commemorate the victims, they will need a more expansive and self-critical vision to indict the real culprits: us.

In last week’s issue, Peter Kwong examined the imminent leadership transition in today’s China.

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