Chairman Mao’s Great Famine

Gui left a pointer to this New Yorker article on Chairman Mao’s Great Famine. It is a very interesting read.

The main theme of the article seems to be how wrong the west has been about China. From their judgement on Chinese famines in the past to the vitality of today’s communist party. Although on the surface it is supposed to be a book review on two recently released books on Chinese’s Famine during the Mao years. One is an English (abridged) translation of a research published by a Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng–“Tombstone” and another by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, “Mao: The Real Story,” draws on Russian archives.

The opening paragraph of the article described the “Incredible Famine” happened during Qing Dynasty, between 1876-1879. 13 million perished.

…according to the British-owned North China Herald, an influential mouthpiece of the Western business communities clustered in Shanghai, the famine was proof of the folly of big government — the Qing imperial administration. A fatal Chinese indifference to science, to railroads, and most important, to laissez-faire economics was to blame. The famine and the many deaths in China would not have occurred “in vain,” the Herald editorialized, if they could persuade the Chinese government to cease its paternalistic interfering in the laws of “private enterprise.”

Never mind that more than twelve million people had died during the Madras Famine of 1877, even though India had been equipped by its British rulers with railroads and a free market in grains, or that Ireland, during the Great Potato Famine, thirty years earlier, had suffered from Britain’s heartlessly enforced ideology of laissez-faire. The herald deplored the “antiquated learning” of the Chinese, and described the heroic figure who could rescue China from misery: “The man wanted in China now, as in its early days, is a patriotic engineer,” someone “single-minded and energetic” and possessing “commanding energy and resolution.”

In due course, China got just such a big-thinking, single-minded “patriotic engineer.” His name was Mao Zedong.

That’s one fantastic piece of writing! Even though I won’t ever characterize Mao as an engineer.

The article went on to conclude that the West continuous to underestimate Chinese communist party’s ability to learn from lessons of their own and the rest of the world, and their ability to adapt and adjust itself to today’s world.

It reminded me of what Peter Hessler has noted in his first Book from his China trilogy, ‘River Town – Two Years on the Yangtze‘。

He was the only student who has anything like a dissident, and I remembered how I had imagined those figures before coming to Fuling. I had always assumed that they were noble characters — charismatic, intelligent, farsighted, brave. Perhaps that was the way it had been in 1989, and perhaps it was still like that in the bigger cities; but here in Fuling things were very different. My best students — Soddy, Linda, Armstrong, Aumur; the ones who were charismatic, intelligent, farsighted, and brave — those were the ones who had been recruited long ago as Party Members. If you had any talent you played by the rules; being a Party Member was good for your career, and in any case all of the students seemed to think that it was good to be patriotic in the narrow way that they were told to be. The image i had once had of the Chinese dissident had no reality in Fuling.

All I had was Rebecca — he was the only one, and he was a loser. He was a bad student, and he was socially awkward. He had no friends. He had a girl’s name. Some of these characteristics had conspired to set him apart, and in his bitterness his ideas had undoubtedly swung even further from the Party line. If there were big changes in China’s future, it was hard to imagine them coming from people like Rebecca, or, for that matter, from any of my other students.

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