So begins Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (The Free Press, 1996), the first account of how 30 to 45 million–or more–perished in China during a time of peace and the absence of natural disasters.
How could 35-40 million die in three or four years?
Was it the call to melt down household metal like pots, pans, spoons, and knives in backyard furnaces so China could turn this scrap metal into steel and beat out the Soviet Union in its steel production? Or was it the policy to kill the four pests–sparrows, rats, flies, and mosquitoes–in which crops died as a result?
According to Becker these policies helped contribute to the problem, but the real culprits were the men in power. Mao was at the center, of course, but also leaders we’ve come to think of as reformers: Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, Deng Xiaoping, and Zhou Enlai.
What’s ironic is that those who did speak out about the Great Leap Forward–Peng Dehuai and Liu Shaoqi–were ultimately killed for their stance against Mao. Both died during the Cultural Revolution.
Hungry Ghosts isn’t an easy read for a number of reasons. The subject of course is completely depressing (probably not the best reading choice on New Year’s Eve), but it’s also structured in a way that lends to repetition.
What stuck out was the opening line of the book. I’d always assumed the Cultural Revolution was the greater of the crimes, but according to Becker, it was the Great Leap Forward hands down. This book was published in 1996, and up to that time people in China still weren’t talking about the Great Leap Forward. Literature didn’t mention it and movies didn’t cover it, unlike the Cultural Revolution.
Becker explains this silence. Peasants were the ones affected during the Great Leap Forward, while intellectuals and city folks were attacked in the Cultural Revolution. The peasants didn’t have a voice back then–and they still don’t.
And when the party in power back then is the party in power now, no one in Beijing is anxious to come forth with the real story.