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China's Great Leap Forward: One man's quiet crusade to remember the disaster

Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward campaign aimed to launch China into a Communist utopia. It ended in famine that killed tens of millions – a disaster that Beijing is still reluctant to acknowledge.

By Staff writer / June 7, 2012

Yang Jisheng worked for 20 years as a reporter for a state-run news agency before publishing a book about China’s Great Famine.

Peter Ford

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Beijing

Yang Jisheng did not see his father die.

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He was away at boarding school in April 1959 when his father, a peasant farmer, succumbed to starvation – one of the early victims of the three-year Great Famine that killed tens of millions of Chinese country folk.

But Mr. Yang has never forgotten how his neighbors resorted to eating grass, roots, and bark before many of them, too, died. And for 20 years, since he retired from his job as a reporter for the state-run news agency Xinhua, he has dedicated himself to exploring the full dimensions and real causes of the catastrophe that claimed his father’s life.

His quiet crusade has found a few echoes in mainland China, where the government still seeks to stamp out any evocation of the largely manmade famine. Yang’s meticulously researched history of the event, “Tombstone,” was published in Chinese in Hong Kong three years ago, and an English translation of the book is due out in America next October.

But Yang fears that “it will be 10 years before we can publish it here officially, and more likely 20 years,” though a number of pirate editions have circulated under the censors’ noses.

The famine resulted from a disastrous political campaign by Mao Zedong called the Great Leap Forward, which had been designed to launch China into a Communist utopia. It forced farmers into communes, which reduced food production, and at the same time local officials over-reported grain harvests and more food than the country could afford was channeled to city dwellers.

The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged that something terrible happened in China between 1959 and 1961. The official History of the Party mentions that the population dropped by 10 million people in 1960.

Estimates of the death toll by independent Chinese and foreign scholars are at least three times that, but differences regarding how many people died are not the reason for the government’s reluctance to allow open discussion of the famine, says Yang.

The key problem, he explains, is that while the authorities have stuck with the party’s version that the famine was 30 percent due to a natural climatic disaster and 70 percent to human error (in other words, Mao Zedong’s error), they will not accept that it was an institutional failure of totalitarian economics and politics.

“The government is reluctant to take responsibility for this tragedy as the ruling party,” Yang says. “They want to avoid any challenge to the system.”

Memories

Despite the government clampdown on the subject – it merits less than a page in most Chinese history books – memories bubble to the surface every now and then, as they have done in recent weeks.

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