THIRTY-SIX million people in China, including my uncle, who raised me like a father, starved to death between 1958 and 1962, during the man-made calamity known as the Great Famine. In thousands of cases, desperately hungry people resorted to cannibalism.
The toll was more than twice the number of fallen in World War I, and about six times the number of Ukrainians starved by Stalin in 1932-33 or the number of Jews murdered by Hitler during World War II.
After 50 years, the famine still cannot be freely discussed in the place where it happened. My book “Tombstone” could be published only in Hong Kong, Japan and the West. It remains banned in mainland China, where historical amnesia looms large and government control of information and expression has tightened during the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, which began last week and will conclude with a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
Those who deny that the famine happened, as an executive at the state-run newspaper People’s Daily recently did, enjoy freedom of speech, despite their fatuous claims about “three years of natural disasters.” But no plague, flood or earthquake ever wrought such horror during those years. One might wonder why the Chinese government won’t allow the true tale to be told, since Mao’s economic policies were abandoned in the late 1970s in favor of liberalization, and food has been plentiful ever since.
The reason is political: a full exposure of the Great Famine could undermine the legitimacy of a ruling party that clings to the political legacy of Mao, even though that legacy, a totalitarian Communist system, was the root cause of the famine. As the economist Amartya Sen has observed, no major famine has ever occurred in a democracy. . . . The Great Leap Forward that Mao began in 1958 set ambitious goals without the means to meet them. A vicious cycle ensued; exaggerated production reports from below emboldened the higher-ups to set even loftier targets. Newspaper headlines boasted of rice farms yielding 800,000 pounds per acre. When the reported abundance could not actually be delivered, the government accused peasants of hoarding grain. House-to-house searches followed, and any resistance was put down with violence.
All in the name of equality and material abundance, of course.
UPDATE: Reader Alan Nott writes: “I just can’t resist: Thomas F*cking Friedman, call your God d*mn office…”