This book does not do itself a favor by over-claiming anything. The subtitle says China’s famine from 1958 to 1961, which killed 30 million people, was a secret. Promotional copy says the book brings to an end a “cover-up that kept [the famine] from the world’s attention for more than two decades.”
It is true that the Chinese government has not come to terms with the famine, as it has refused to come to terms with most of what happened in the years of Mao Tse-tung’s rule. It is also true that fellow travelers aided the Chinese in hiding the fact of the famine until after Mao’s death, a cover-up that Jasper Becker tells well in “Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine.”
But after China opened to the West, journalists and scholars discovered the truth and wrote about it. Roderick MacFarquhar and Thomas P. Bernstein discussed the famine’s political causes and Judith Banister and Penny Kane its demographic impact. Becker cites most of these works in his bibliography. In “Calamity and Reform in China” (Stanford University Press), which came out too recently--1996--for Becker to consult it, Dali Yang has analyzed the famine’s differential impact in different provinces and its consequences for Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
The famine became widely known in China too after Mao died. It exerted a major influence on reformers and democrats. Both groups vowed never to let it happen again.
Becker, Beijing bureau chief of the South China Morning Post, does a service in drawing these and other materials together for a broader Western audience. He traces the causes of the famine to Mao’s phantasmic Great Leap Forward, the failure of other top leaders to stop him and the haste of local leaders to comply first with Mao’s irrational vision of free food for all and then with his demands for delivery of more grain to the state when there was none left.
The core of the book is the story of human suffering. There are chapters on two of the worst-hit provinces, Henan and Anhui, a chapter on Tibet and details on other provinces. The book also contains fascinating material on death in the prison camps, life in the cities, post-famine recovery and the death count.
Becker tells the stories well, and they are as shocking as he clearly wants them to be. Yet famine deaths are much the same everywhere. People eat bark and seeds, rodents and pets, weeds and dirt. They become distended and lethargic, suffer from diarrhea or constipation. Some sell their children, some engage in prostitution to obtain food. Peasants migrate to beg. There are rumors of cannibalism, seldom confirmed but probably true.
To this, in the case of China, are added stories of official abuse, for the famine was man-made. Cadres attempting to meet grain quotas harassed, beat and tortured peasants in the attempt to get them to give up their final grains of wheat and rice. They mutilated them, buried them alive, flayed them. In due course, the regime would investigate these events and, in its characteristic manner, affix responsibility on local cadres so as to avoid faulting the top leaders and the system itself. And in typical bureaucratic style, statistics were produced: “2,398 orphans” in one place, “128 forms of torture” in another.
Becker’s carelessness with sources undercuts the effect of these stories. His citations are sparse; bafflingly, those to published works do not include page references. Many citations are to unspecified interviews or secret party documents. It is normal for an author to keep such sources secret, but it would have been appropriate to apprise readers of their nature and offer a defense of their reliability.
Anyone who studies China knows how the historical victors demonize the losers. Horror stories are an unfortunate reality of life in the 20th century, but they are also a technique of totalitarian propaganda. True respect for the victims means caring which stories are true. When an official document says a particular local official raped and tortured peasants and ate rich meals while others starved, is it telling the sober truth or creating a myth designed to foist blame on the losers and clean up the images of the winners so they can continue to rule?
The logic of good guys/bad guys closes the door to deeper questions that a historic tragedy should lead us to ask. Becker does raise four important questions in a final chapter: What motivated Mao to lead his country into such a disaster? Why were local officials willing to torture their people to participate in Mao’s fantasy? Why didn’t the peasants revolt? What would have happened if Mao’s senior colleagues had united to oppose him?
Other questions could also be asked about the Communist Party’s organizational and communications structure, the politics of Mao’s court, the mental world of the sufferers, the social and demographic distribution of famine deaths, the literary and ideological treatment of the event, its historical relationship to the Cultural Revolution and the post-Mao reforms and its place in the comparative history of class persecutions.
But by the end of the book it is too late to answer in depth either Becker’s questions or others. Economist Amartya Sen, whom Becker cites, has supplied the main conclusion: Famine is caused by authoritarianism. Becker summarizes this insight in the wise words of dissident Wei Jingsheng: “Mao used class struggle to divide people into imaginary interest groups, rendering them incapable of discerning their true interests. Thus he was able to incite people to engage in mutual killing.”