In my other class this semester, contemporary Chinese politics, we are getting ready to consider the Great Leap Famine. In noodling around the internet in search of the any new bits of information, I have found several examples of what I will call GLF denialism, arguments that attempt to deflect attention away from the horrible fact that millions and millions of people starved to death as a direct result of state policy.
I will not link to these sites, because I do not want to advance their project; moreover, they are an insult to the countless victims of the CCP's horrific assault on rural society. But I do want to engage with a point or two that the denialists raise.
The basic denialist approach is to raise doubts about the estimated death toll of the Great Leap Famine, which ranges from about 16 - 45 million. Notice that range of estimates. It is fairly broad, reflecting the difficulty in discovering the truth in the face of an extraordinarily determined authoritarian state that resists the release of information. Obviously, we do not know, for sure, precisely how many people died. But what is incontrovertible is that the Great Leap Famine killed millions and millions of people. Even if the lower estimates are true, we must remember that we are talking about a rather short period of time: three years or so. We are talking about, as Zhou Xun (see below) suggests, the worst famine in modern history.
Thus, there will always be uncertainty about the true toll. But GLF denialists are pursuing a political agenda: to protect Mao Zedong from bearing responsibility for the massive loss of Chinese lives. They are not simply engaged in an honest search for the truth. They are trying to obfuscate and divert. We cannot let them.
One deniliast tactic is to suggest that "Western" media and scholars exaggerate the death toll of the GLF, part of a nefarious plot to weaken China. An extended denialist critique of Judith Banister's path-breaking attempt to arrive at an informed estimate of famine deaths (she comes to the figure of 30 million) leaves us with a conclusion that we should not assign blame to Party leaders for the catastrophe. The implication is that such high a number can only be a Western plot to embarrass Mao.
Now, Banister's work may well have certain empirical and methodological problems. No single study is ever really definitive. It is notable, though, that Peng Xizhe has done similar work. But what the denialists avoid is the fact that those sorts of demographic analyses are far from the only relevant evidence. What has emerged in the past decade is extensive archival research, pain-staking sifting through documents held in provincial Party offices, that has confirmed and detailed the worst of what we know of the GLF. Yang Jisheng's work is central here. As is Zhou Xun's. Their estimates of the death toll are actually higher than Banister's.
And notice, too, that these are not "Westerners:" Peng and Yang and Zhou. I imagine that deniliasts will simply say that they are traitors, selling their souls to the "West" to gain fame and fortune, or something like that. Anything to keep from recognizing the grim truth that millions and millions of Chinese people died because Party cadres took their food away.
And that needs to be remembered, too: the deaths were not simply the result of "natural disasters" or the removal of Soviet aid, or some sort of Western plot. People died because the Party, led by Mao, and abetted by the entire top leadership including Deng Xiaoping, took their food away. Yang bats away extraneous rationalizations:
The government admits the fact that some people starved to death. Is mentioning starvation really a sensitive topic half a century later?
The government says the famine was caused by “three difficult years” (natural disasters), the Sino-Soviet split (of 1960), and by political errors. In my account I acknowledge that there were natural disasters but there always have been. China is so big that there is some kind of natural disaster every year. I went to the meteorological bureau five times, looked at material and talked to experts. I didn’t find that climate conditions in those three years were significantly different from that of other periods. It all seemed normal. This wasn’t a factor.
What about the Sino-Soviet split?
It had no impact. The Soviets’ break with China was in 1960. People had been starving to death for more than a year already. They built a tractor factory and that was finished in 1959. Wouldn’t that have been a help to Chinese agriculture rather than a hindrance?
So what can account for starvation on such a vast scale?
The key reason is political misjudgment. It is not the third reason. It is the only reason. How did such misguided policies go on for four years? In a truly democratic country, they would have been corrected in half a year or a year. Why did no one oppose them or criticize them? I view this as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.
That simple truth, that simple, searing truth is what the denialists cannot abide. Mao does bear significant responsibility, not sole responsibility, but very significant responsibility. And denialists can also not stand the fact that the more we know of the GLF - the forced starvation, the beatings, the cannibalism - by way of Yang and Zhou and other archival researchers, the more evident it is that the Maoist system was responsible for many, many more deaths of Chinese people than was Japanese imperialism. That is is a horrible thing to contemplate, but it is likely true.
For those with about a half hour to spare, here is a clip of a presentation by Zhou Xun, talking about her new book: