For the Record: one of the commenters on this post has, on another blog, accused me of "banning" him. That is not true. I suspect he ran into a bit of trouble with the Captcha system in Typepad Comments, and jumped to the conclusion that I was a hypocritical imperialist hell bent on suppressing speech. As of this posting - 2/26/13 2:35PM - the error has gone uncorrected, even though I tried to send an email to the person involved. Just to be clear: I have not banned anyone from this post, and have never banned any individual in a systematic manner (In the past, I have taken down some specific comments I felt were inappropriate personal attacks)
I knew this was going to happen. Was it George Bernard Shaw who said: "Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pigs like it"? That is where I find myself now. In my previous post, I criticized Great Leap Famine denialists, knowing full well that this would likely spark an attack against me personally. And, lo and behold, like clockwork, it has. I will not belabor this exchange, for there is really no prospect of any sort of meaningful outcome when dealing with staunch ideologists incapable of anything but stark binary oppositions, and I will not link to the site (don't feed the trolls...), but I will make a couple of clarifying comments.
First, the question of precisely how many people died during the Great Leap Famine is not settled. It will likely never be, as I suggested in the original post. There is certainly room for serious intellectual investigation into the issue of how many people died. I do not believe that all such critical questioning of the death toll is motivated by denialism. But it is rather obvious that a particular subset of that criticism is denialist. This is difficult for ideologically- and politically-motivated people to grasp, because they think only in black and white terms. So let me be painfully clear: not all critics are denialists, but all denialists are rooted in a political agenda that keeps them from maintaining an open and, ultimately, critical attitude. They are apologists.
Thus, I do not view Amartya Sen as a GLF denialist, as is implied by my critics. Sen is obviously a serious intellect. I am a bit amused, however, that he would be invoked in this manner, since he is famous for arguing that famines do not occur in democratic regimes. Although that argument has opened into a wide-ranging debate about the politics of famine, and there are ways in which Sen's analysis has run into problems (Zimbabwe, for example, turned out not to be as democratic as he first thought), his basic point is crucial to keep in mind when thinking of the Great Leap Famine: the causes of that terrible tragedy are rooted in the nature of the political regime, whether we call it "authoritarian" as Sen does or "totalitarian" as Yang Jisheng does. The PRC political system, dominated by the CCP, is chiefly responsible. I am happy to include Sen's perspective into the conversation.
Selective use of sources is characteristic of the denialists' approach. In their most recent invective they continue to focus on demographic estimates, focusing specifically on possible problems with the 1953 census, in an attempt to discredit some of the larger calculations of GLF deaths. On this narrow question, I accept the possibility that the 1953 census could be flawed, just as so many other statistical products of the Maoist era PRC are flawed. But debates among demographers do not settle the larger question of how many actually died. Especially when we have a growing body of archival documentation - not simply demographic estimates, but internal bureaucratic reports from the time of the starvation itself - to bolster our understanding. The denialists assiduously avoid these sources, obviously because they point inexorably to the worst sorts outcomes.
When will they deal directly with the work of Yang Jisheng and Zhou Xun? Until they do, they cannot be taken seriously.
The denialists also ask why I would make the comparison between the death toll of the GLF and the horrible effects of Japanese imperialism in China. It is precisely because I see the latter as terrible, and yet, the Mao-led CCP killed more Chinese people than even that scathing inhumanity. Serious scholars of the GLF cannot avoid that sad comparison. Yang Jisheng writes (Tombstone, p. 13): "The Great Famine even outstripped the ravages of World War II; the war caused 40 to 50 million deaths throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa over the course of seven or eight years, but the Great Famine's 36 million victims died within three or four years, with most deaths concentrated in a six-month period."
It is precisely because the value of every Chinese life - whether victims of Japanese imperialism or Maoist radicalism - is significant, that such comparisons must be made.
But denialists cannot stand this. They must defend Mao; they must resist the terrible truth in order to preserve the memory of the Chairman. And those of us who would question Mao's culpability, must be totally negated. Thus, they call me "morally degenerate". This is Cultural Revolution language. The language of ideological motivation, intended to inspire repression and violence and elimination. That is the preferred idiom of the denialist: threaten in order to silence.
It must be rather frustrating for them, because they are losing this battle. Yang Jisheng's book was first published in Hong Kong, in Chinese. It is banned still on the mainland, but it went through eight printings in two years. It circulates widely in the PRC, in spite of the ban, and has become "...a legendary book in China." Thus, Chinese people are gaining access to the truth that the denialists work to repress. And Yang shows us that Mao bore significant responsibility for the mass death:
Those who deny that the famine happened, as an executive at the state-run newspaper People’s Daily recently did, enjoy freedom of speech, despite their fatuous claims about “three years of natural disasters.” But no plague, flood or earthquake ever wrought such horror during those years. One might wonder why the Chinese government won’t allow the true tale to be told, since Mao’s economic policies were abandoned in the late 1970s in favor of liberalization, and food has been plentiful ever since.
The reason is political: a full exposure of the Great Famine could undermine the legitimacy of a ruling party that clings to the political legacy of Mao, even though that legacy, a totalitarian Communist system, was the root cause of the famine. As the economist Amartya Sen has observed, no major famine has ever occurred in a democracy.
In Mao’s China, the coercive power of the state penetrated every corner of national life. The rural population was brought under control by a thorough collectivization of agriculture. The state could then manage grain production, requisitioning and distributing it by decree. Those who tilled the earth were locked in place by a nationwide system of household registration, and food coupons issued to city dwellers supplanted the market. The peasants survived at the pleasure of the state.
The Great Leap Forward that Mao began in 1958 set ambitious goals without the means to meet them. A vicious cycle ensued; exaggerated production reports from below emboldened the higher-ups to set even loftier targets. Newspaper headlines boasted of rice farms yielding 800,000 pounds per acre. When the reported abundance could not actually be delivered, the government accused peasants of hoarding grain. House-to-house searches followed, and any resistance was put down with violence.
That is undeniable.
UPDATE: a bit of further evidence that denialists are being thwarted by the historial understanding of people in China: this story about a People's Daily editor having to backtrack on a denialist claim when confronted by angry netizens on weibo.