China’s farmers, exhorted by Mao Zedong’s delusions of propelling China to rival the Soviet Union, were told to abandon their farming tools

In November 2011, exactly a year before taking charge as the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) new leader, Xi Jinping delivered a lecture to the students of the Central Party School, an elite institution tucked away in the forested western suburbs of Beijing that trains China’s future leaders.

In an unusually forthright speech that discarded the rigid and staid format followed religiously by Chinese leaders, Mr. Xi lambasted the CPC’s cadre for being “out of touch with reality.”

Most surprising of all, Mr. Xi drew a parallel with a sensitive chapter of history rarely discussed in China today. “In the early 1960s,” he said, the Party was able “to reverse a difficult situation” by undertaking grassroots surveys, demonstrating the importance of conducting rigorous — and more importantly, honest —inspection studies.

Mr. Xi was referring to the turbulent years that marked the end of the “Great Leap Forward”, a disastrous campaign launched by Mao Zedong in 1958 that destroyed the countryside. The four years of devastation were the darkest period of the CPC’s rule, with the scale of the disaster arguably even surpassing that of the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76) on account of the sheer magnitude of the tragedy.

China’s farmers, exhorted by Mao Zedong’s delusions of propelling China to rival the Soviet Union by becoming an industrial superpower overnight, were all told to abandon their farming tools to manufacture iron in backyard furnaces. While fields lay idle, officials fabricated figures to please their Chairman by showing bountiful harvests.

Famine spread across the land, as millions began to die of starvation even as the People’s Daily in Beijing reported of China’s remarkable economic achievements — fabrications lapped up at the time by Maoists in China and elsewhere. The reality was unimaginably different.

Starving farmers who tried to leave villages to forage for food to feed their families were shot and killed. Officials who questioned the logic of the campaign were purged. More than 30 million died.

Given the scale of the disaster, it is remarkable that in China today, few are even aware about the story of a famine that killed more than 30 million people barely five decades ago. Textbooks speak vaguely of “three years of natural disasters”, while Mao’s responsibility for the loss of tens of millions of lives remains hidden by the Party, which continues to deify him.

Fighting this amnesia has, over the past 25 years, become a mission for Yang Jisheng (73). The veteran Chinese journalist and writer has, over the past three decades, attempted what appeared to be the impossible task of chronicling an account of the famine that is true to history.

As a journalist with the Party’s official Xinhua news agency, Mr. Yang secured access to classified archives — on the pretext of researching China’s grain policy — that exposed alarming facts about the famine.

The product of his painstaking research, which was, at unexpected instances, aided by Party cadres who shared a similar sense of indignation about the falsified official account of the period, is a 1000-page treatise titled Tombstone, named in tribute to Mr. Yang’s father, who died of starvation, in front of his own eyes, when he was only 19.

“The authorities have always been trying to avoid this part of history,” he said. “My estimation is that 36 million people died. And this is a little conservative, because some things cannot be determined.”

Even the second volume of the Party’s official history, he said, notes that the population decreased “by 10 million” from 1958 to 1960 at a time when it should have increased by 10 million. But the Party officially maintains in its accounts that over the three-year period around 16 million people died because of “natural disasters”.

What has been consistent in the CPC’s different accounts of the famine over the years has been a denial of what was a systemic problem. Officials have variously blamed natural conditions or Soviet demands for the payback of loans. After three decades of reforms, China has turned its back on Maoism. Yet, Mr. Yang said, it would be dangerous for the party to turn its back on this chapter of history.

“We are not building people’s communes today. We are not pursuing the Great Leap Forward today. The common people then were not even allowed to look for food, even when they were starving, because the Party said that was being Capitalist! At that time it was a totalitarian system, that is why Mao’s wrong policy could be carried on for four years. If this was America, Britain or India, the wrong policy would be opposed by people.”

Mr. Yang is still haunted by the images and stories of mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters, who perished in those years.

In his study is a photograph of a desperate woman in her 40s who was seen cutting, with a knife, the bodies of her infant children, who died from starvation, to feed those who were barely surviving.

A year ago, Mr. Yang met a man, a 60-year-old migrant worker, on the street outside his Beijing home.

As they spoke, Mr. Yang learned that the man had lost two relatives during the famine. Yet his 19-year-old grandson, who learned nothing of those years in school, refuses to believe why they died.

“His grandson told him, if they were hungry they would grow crops! We should face this part of history directly, so we can learn from it and avoid such mistakes in the future. Learning about this changed everything I thought I knew about political systems and solving problems, about the overcentralisation of power. If we do not tell this part of history, younger generations may never know. Then history will become myth.”

(To be concluded)

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