IN 1959 an 18-year-old student named Yang Jisheng was summoned home from his boarding school in central China by a friend who told him that his father was starving to death. Mr Yang returned immediately to his village, just in time to see his emaciated father before he died. The young idealist, already a member of the Communist Youth League, grieved deeply, but never thought to blame the government. “Compared with the advent of the great communist society,” he writes, “what was my family’s petty misfortune?”
For more than two decades, Mr Yang believed the official version of Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic experiment known as the Great Leap Forward, that it was caused by natural disasters. Even after he became a senior reporter for Xinhua, the official news agency, and learnt how the party manipulated and manufactured news, he remained a true believer. Only as China opened up in the 1980s did Mr Yang start to question what he had been told. The killing of demonstrators in Beijing in 1989 was a rude awakening. “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades.” And so he set out to shake off the deception and shake up the system that he had spent his life supporting.
The result is “Tombstone”, a shocking account of what are known euphemistically in China as the Three Years of Economic Difficulty. Frank Dikotter’s excellent book on the same subject came out two years ago, but this is the first detailed analysis of the famine written by a Chinese author who lived through it. Published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2008, the book is now coming out in English for the first time. The original 1,200 pages have been condensed, and are all the punchier for it.
The Great Leap Forward was the high point of ignorant Maoist folly. Chairman Mao said in 1957 that China could well overtake the industrial output of Britain within 15 years. People left the fields to build backyard furnaces in which pots and pans were melted down to produce steel. The end product was unusable. As farmers abandoned the land, their commune leaders reported hugely exaggerated grain output to show their ideological fervour. The state took its share on the basis of these inflated figures and villagers were left with little or nothing to eat. When they complained, they were labelled counter-revolutionary and punished severely. As the cadres feasted, the people starved. Mr Yang calculates that about 36m died as a result.
After he retired, he used his contacts to gain access to restricted documents in archives all over China, claiming he was researching the history of grain policy. Some archivists were aware of what he was doing, but chose to turn a blind eye.
He picked “Tombstone” as a title chiefly to honour his father, and also the millions who died. He jokes darkly that the book could end up being his own tombstone too. Yet, despite it being banned in mainland China, Mr Yang continues to live freely in Beijing, editing a reformist magazine.
The system has not died either, though it still jealously guards its own interpretation of history. Mr Yang’s book is a blood-soaked case study of what happens when a regime with no checks and balances collides with an ignorant ideological fervour. Chinese schoolbooks, however, prefer to gloss over the period completely.
“Tombstone” is meticulous in its research and exhaustive in the detail it accumulates for the reader: of villages strewn with corpses, of widespread cannibalism, and of the violence that exploded as one man’s millennial vision was unleashed. It also stands as a warning to modern supporters of the one-party state, who praise the ability of an autocracy to get things done. Even if today’s policies are less harsh, Mr Yang shows, the possibility of unchecked brutality is ever present. Nowadays the Communist Party is not causing widespread famine. But the same kiss-up, kick-down hierarchy persists, where every official is slave to his immediate superior and a dictator to his subordinates. Targets of the one-child policy, for instance, must be met, regardless of the human toll and future danger. Conversely, the truth about big problems around the country, such as the environment or corruption or food safety, must be covered up.
How much longer can this last? The government’s monopoly on information once afforded it a monopoly on truth. But information now floods in, especially via the internet. Mr Yang’s book is part of a broader attempt at last in China to discuss the history of the 1950s and 1960s. Chinese newspapers have begun publishing articles about the Great Leap Forward. Chinese microblogs have discussed openly what happened, though none as frankly as Mr Yang. History is slowly becoming a topic of discussion and an issue on which ordinary Chinese do not have to follow official propaganda slavishly. During recent anti-Japanese riots, a surprising number of people went against decades of government propaganda to complain about the crudity and stupidity of the protests. If the party can no longer control the past, who knows if it can still control the future?
Source; Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. By Yang Jisheng. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 629 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk