November 11, 2012
As China engages in its week long change of leadership it pays to look back at its recent past to the Great Chinese Famine to see how great the economic transformation has been. That famine led to the Cultural Revolution from 1966 through to 1976 and, ultimately, today’s reform period of state controlled capitalism that began with Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms that lead China towards led China towards a market economy.
In Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng gives an account of the worst famine in Chinese history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s economic plans under the Great Leap Forward that caused the catastrophe.
In this review of Jisheng's text in the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson says that Jisheng's main point is to prove that the Party, from the village chief up to Chairman Mao, knew exactly what was going on but was too warped by ideology to change course until tens of millions had died.
The famine grew out of Mao’s desire to speed up China’s development and force it into a utopian Communist vision that few in the Communist Party’s leadership had thought possible or desirable. When the Communists took power they had forced through a brutal land reform that killed millions of landlords and imagined enemies, but they had also redistributed property to peasants—an immensely popular measure that won Mao goodwill among many people....In 1957, however, Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a wave of terror that wiped out or cowed much of the intelligentsia, terrifying even members of his inner circle. That allowed him to pursue collectivization, which reversed land reform by taking land from the peasants. Instead of peasants owning the land, the state did, giving it complete control over agricultural production.
Local officials began sending all their village’s harvests to granaries to meet impossible grain targets, leaving villagers with nothing to eat. The Great Leap Forward and the commune system were an economic failure.
Deng Xiaoping opened China to foreign investment, the global market and limited private competition to ensure that China became a modern, industrial nation.