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« Great Leap Famine Denial | Main | The Comfort of Cyclical Complementarity »

February 19, 2013


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For a person who claims other people calling alot of names, you seem to do alot of it here, several references of "Fenqing," "apologists" and of course "denialist." Yeah, that picture with people with their heads in the sand is very 'constructive.' If you want to stop 'trolls' from coming here, you should stop offending people who don't agree with you.

Great post, not much use in discussing with narrow minded and ignorant chinese nationalists. They are ideological, blind to reality and their extreme actions are actually against Chinas real national interests.

China's first emperor probably ordered more death as a proportion of the total population than anyone else. He conquered the warring states and unified China, killing hundreds of thousands and sending other hundreds of thousands to build the Great Wall and dying in the process. yet despite the maligning of Confucian scholars in the 2 millennium since he's still widely admired by poets, leaders, and people in general. And despite your condemnation Mao will also be admired by Chinese people. As a historian versed in Chinese history I am surprised by your blindness in not seeing why. From the Spring and Autumn period through the Warring States millions died because of the constant warfare and resulting upheaval. The First Emperor did kill many, but compare the casualties from the previous 400 years it's a travail amount. He wanted his dynasty to last 10,000 years, yet it was overthrown in less than 20 years after his death. Yet he also succeeded beyond his imagining. For the next 2,000 years China essentially followed his model, legalism with a Confucian patina. You have to understand that since Opium Wars, more millions died from various causes until the formation of People's Republic of China. To you GLF is everything; for China it's just a bump on the road to modernity, a price being paid for the present and future success.

But a crucial distinction, at least for those who might care about reasons for killing, is that Qin did most of his killing in warfare before unifying China. Mao, on the other hand, did most of his killing after the CCP had won the civil war v. the GMD, another "unification of China" of sorts. Now, that apparently does not matter to you. But I believe that the GLF was not necessary. It was not a matter of national survival (quite the contrary it was a national disaster). It obviously was not necessary for Chinese "modernization" - we will notice that modernization happens in Taiwan and South Korea and Japan without the mass starvation of millions of innocent people. Had Chen Yun's policies been followed from 1955 onward, a very different, less violent and deadly, Chinese modernization would likely have transpired.

And I suspect that many, many Chinese people would not agree with you when you trivialize the suffering of so many as a "bump on the road to modernity." Again, it was in no way necessary to modernization. And the many, many victims of that horrible time would most certainly want to mourn and remember their dead with dignity, something that has been subverted by the state's repression of that history.

Can you really look into the eyes of people who lost their parents or grandparents or other relatives at the hand of Maoist insanity and say to them that their personal losses are mere "bumps on the road to modernity"?

What a pathetic and inhumane rationalization....

What a pathetic and inhuman rationalization....
When I mentioned slavery and genocide of native Americans you dismissed it as a blob on the founding fathers. Do the industrialization of West has to proceed as it was described in Communist Manifesto or A Tale of Two Cities? On the backs and conquest of the colonies? We can always be revisionists and imagine Shangri-La. Where do you think your self congratulatory democracy come from? It was built on the backs of those suffering dying people in the third world. You may think you are guilt free advocate of democracy and transparency, as if society is isolated and free from past and history. You may have protested against Vietnam and Iraq, but still 3 million Vietnamese and 1 million Iraqis died and to their relatives the blood is still flowing. Most Americans couldn't care less about them. Sure, we have free internet and democracy, but we couldn't care less about a wedding party hit by the drone in Afghanistan, not to mention evolution or climate warming.

Mao ordered peasants to melt down their farm tools and along came three years of poor weather - the kind of bad luck that could strike any despot and his victims.

The thing about the GLF famine is, it isn't even unique. Before the GLF we have the example of the Ukrainian famine under Stalin, and after the GLF we have the famines in Cambodia and North Korea, all the result of crazed utopianism under totalitarian dictatorship.

Mao at the very least should have been aware what the consequences of his policies might be given the events in the USSR. Anyone seeking to deny the GLF famine has to explain why exactly this case is different. Denialists therefore find themselves having to either deny all the famines that resulted from attempts to impose Marxist ideology on agricultural production, or deflect blame onto other countries.

It is no surprise, therefore, to see HH pushing the line that China was under strict 'blockade' during the Mao period. In reality, just as with North Korea during its famine, one has to ask why the country was so isolated and whether the government had an culpability for this isolation. In the case of Mao's government, it was isolated not just from the 'imperialist powers' (with the exception, of course, of the UK) but even from its co-ideologists in the USSR and North Korea, and this was a direct result of Mao's crazed policies. Just as importantly, the refusal to acknowledge that anything might be wrong with these policies prevented any request for help even from the few countries with which Mao continued to maintain relations.

On the subject of 'feeding the trolls', however, I think you've taken the wrong tack. HH may be trolls, but simultaneously refusing to acknowledge their existance whilst writing an entire essay dedicated to them is somewhat bizarre. Either ignore them entirely, or address them directly, but don't try to do both simultaneously.

Ngok, You are distorting my words. Here is what I wrote:

"...slavery in the United States was a horrible abomination that killed and maimed many, many, many people. As was the extermination of native Americans. And, yes, the "founding fathers" of the US are responsible for those things, and their historical legacies must always include those facts."

I am not dismissing these historical facts. As you well know, these horrors of American history are well-documented. They are known and remembered and mourned and commemorated. There are deniers of this history, just as there are GLF deniers and Holocaust deniers. I am not one of them. The good news is that these deniers are marginalized by open debate.

But the topic of conversation here is the Great Leap Famine.

Here is another historical fact: Mao was significantly responsible for the unnecessary death by starvation of millions and millions of Chinese people. Why is is so hard to accept that fact?

I guess I shouldn't really pose this as a question, because I do not expect an answer. All that I get - and have gotten from GLF denialists in the past two days - is obfuscation, distortion and personal attacks. That, in itself tells us something about denialist ideology.


You may be right. I may have taken the wrong tack. But given the response, which I expected, I am not now going to reverse course. I am, after all, "morally degenerate."

It is, in any event, time to go back to ignoring them.

There are many people on both "sides" of this debate who are genuinely intelligent and certainly earnest in their positions, but I think with the past two public posts on each site, this has devolved into identity politics.

There's less and less discussion about the actual issues and points being made, and more and more characterizations of the "other side". Or at least there's more and more attention and indignation given to such characterizations.

It's understandable of course, but I just think it's a bad direction that both sides could actually agree on if they put their fists down for a moment. This started off somewhat interesting, if only to see how each side articulates their points, but now both sides are just using labels to simultaneously dismiss and provoke each other.

Sam, I want to thank you for your work! As a Chinese born Amercan who enjoys reading your blog, and reading history, it is so clear who cares about China more. It is the intellectuals who seek the truth, like you, and like the investigators of GLF in China.

I think when you tried to answer Mr. Ngok, you really meant that American government and its intellectuals would never, with conscience and right mind, justify slavery and Native American policies as a necessary evil on the road of American nation building. To use Western history as an excuse for the Chinese GLF and other failed national policies is a slap on the face of everyone on the planet of ours, who values open society and the pursuit of truth, in order that we may as global human societies, avoid the tradgies in the future, especially in China.

The fact is a lot of Chinese are not yet mature enough to think independently of racial and national identity.

Mr. Crane,
Let's get some facts straight. You have accused us as deniers for questioning the numbers you yourself agree aren't certain, for as you said, we try to excuse Mao for whatever crime you accuse him of. As a historian and American if someone accuse of Washington and Jefferson as slavers and responsible for the holocaust for African-Americans, although the charge maybe literally true, for they did own slaves and the constitution did define the slaves as 3/5 of a person, I am sure you would consider it as slander and fighting words. Yet you think we are brainwashed and not capable of rational discussion, but only for pig fights.
For someone teaching about Chinese philosophy that is really arrogant and lacking insight of China and Chinese. To me you remind me of "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene, full of self righteousness of democracy, condemning others of barbarity yet unaware of your own limitations. Do you think we really that uncivilized that we or Mao does not suffer when other Chinese died of starvation? Why do you think Castro defies America, the number one super power for over 50 years. For you it's beyond comprehension, for me it's so obvious, for human dignity! At this age when colonialism died 30 years ago, American still clings to Guantanamo, which legally according U.S. belongs to it, yet to the rest of the world is fiction. Despite your embrace of Arab Spring, I very much doubt your so called democratic value will prevail. For Athens democracy belong to Athenians only, not to their slaves.
You value Confucius, yet during his lifetime he was dismissed by various rulers. He was resurrected later because his philosophy dovetailed with status quo and useful in that sense. He imagined a perfect past and yearns to return to then, maintain the proper rites, everyone in their proper place, and everything will be in harmony, and slaves will remain slaves, and all the rulers will be usurpers in his eyes as only the Chous are the legitimate king. A few years ago archaeologists unearthed a Qin tomb a few hundred years previous to the First Emperor, in it were the bones of the wives and concubines, slaves and tomb builders buried alive, at least the concubines were lucky that they probably took poison before the burial. I am sure the burial follow the proper rites according to the custom of that time. So much for the theory and reality of past and present. At least Qin First Emperor advanced to the Terra Cotta Army rather than live people. I suggest that you read Andre Malraux ands Graham Greene, for they understand why the anger which is beyond you.

@Ngok - You really are incapable of getting this very simple concept: the subject under discussion is whether it is appropriate to deny that Mao's policies led to the avoidable deaths of millions of Chinese people to no gain.

Sam's made it very clear that he is not a denier of the wrongs of US slavery or US treatment of Native Americans. You continue to talk about why people are angry at the United States - but what is the relevance of this to the subject of whether it is appropriate to attempt to deny that millions of Chinese people died both unnecessarily and predicatably from Mao's policies?

Analysis of:

1) Contemporary Chinese statistics
2) Eye-witness accounts
3) Research in the intervening time

All shows that significant numbers of Chinese people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward. The exact figure may be as high as 50 million, or as low as 16 million, but it is not zero, it is not comparable to the figure that might come from local famine induced by crop-failure alone. It is, however, what one would predict from similar instances in history (the Ukrainian famine, the North Korean famine, the Cambodian famine) where totalitarian governments have attempted to adapt food production along ideological lines without reference to what actually works.

In the face of this evidence, it is not appropriate to suggest, as HH did, that no-one starved, or that the number was low enough to make this historical event not worth mentioning. Even those who believe Mao to have been a good leader must explain why he remains so in the face of this evidence. It is not appropriate to censor this information, nor is it appropriate to defend such censorship.

@Kai Pan - It is certainly true that the HH crowd are simply going with the brand they love. One can legitimately ask whether Yang Jisheng is guilty of this.


Here is the difference between us:

I recognize this as a true statement:

"Washington and Jefferson bear significant responsibility for the holocaust against African-Americans because not only did they own slaves and participate in a constitution that defined the slaves as 3/5 of a person, but also because they continuously exercised political power in a manner that perpetuated slavery."

Furthermore, I absolutely support my colleagues here at my college who teach classes to students that bring the best and most recent research to light that reveals and explains the horrors of slavery and its insidious after effects. We have a vibrant Africana Studies program. We also have a Latino/a Studies program; a Women's and Genders Studies program, a Jewish Studies program, and an American Studies program (one part of which delves into the historical discrimination against Asian Americans). The brutal extermination of native Americans is covered in early American history classes. We are a small college, but we do all of these things and I support all of them unequivocally.

You cannot recognize this statement as true:

"Mao Zedong bears significant responsibility for the deaths by starvation of millions and millions of Chinese people (not to mention politically inspired killings of Chinese people before and after the GLF) because he actively promoted the policies that produced the famine (against the advice of people like Chen Yun) and stubbornly and knowingly demanded that the failed policies continue even when it was known (most notably, but not exclusively, through the intervention of Peng Dehuai) that they were causing starvation."

Needless to say, serious study of the GLF in China is actively repressed by the CCP.

Both statements are true. Why can you not accept the latter?

As a Chinese American who grew up in China, who never met his grandfather because of PRC's economic policies in the late 1950's, here is my thought after reading the rest of the discussions here:

Mr. Sam is not trying to point finger at China. Mr. Sam is discussing about the conditions and economic policies that led to the Famine of the Great Leap Forward, and GLF being only one of series of economic policies that undermined the PRC since its founding.

To argue along the line of Mr.Ngok, in the context of American economic policies of past century, including the last decade up to present, American intellectuals might as well give up the investigation and research into American’s past economic policies that led to the great depression of the 1930’s, and the economic policies of the past 30 years that have led to serious problems Americans are dealing with today.

Because, if we use the same logics as Mr. Ngok have presented, we would:

A). brush truth finding aside, saying to ourselves that there is nothing to be learned from history of American government’s policy making process;

B). claim that it is just a few mistakes made by a few administrations in the past century. No need to find out systematic conditions in the United States that caused economic problems of our country today, no need to reflect and find out the true cause, as some Americans would rather we bury our own heads in the sand.

If everyone in the US thinks and acts in this manner, how much more similar wrong-headed economic policies will current and future generations of Americans likely endure?

The point is:
A). Truth finding from the past can serve as useful advice to policy makers, political leaders and the public of this and future generations of Americans, Chinese and people of other countries, so that they may void similar mistakes in the future.

B). An open society that allows serious research and discussion to come to light in public is not a contradiction to the values of the more enlightened Chinese societies of past or even the present, regardless of the form of government in China, monarchy or republic.

C). One of the functions of a liberal art institution is to facilitate such open minded discussions and learning, so that students who are to become future leaders can do their own critical thinking and become informed citizens and, hopefully enlightened leaders of any country they serve.

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