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A powerful but flawed indictment of Maoist ultra-radicalism.
on 28 May 1999
Becker, Jasper. 1998. _Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine_. New York: Henry Holt. xiii+380 pp. Appendix, index, notes, photos, postscript, references. ISBN 0-8050-5668-8.
Hong Kong-based journalist Becker documents calamitous starvation visited on China during the Great Leap Forward, 1958 - 1960. Becker's thesis is that Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's ultra-left communization and industrialization policies, which he pursued with blind zeal, were the root causes of the
calamity; Becker estimates more than thirty million Chinese starved to death. This well-researched book is based on interviews inside and outside China and on documentary sources. Becker focuses on the anatomy of mass starvation, nonsensical agricultural theories and their effects on production, foolish "backyard" industrialization policies, unrelenting Communist Party factional politics, transparently venal political self-interest and Mao's emerging personality cult.
Part one details the history of Chinese famines, Communist collectivization policies, pseudo-scientific agricultural theories and Mao's response to the calamity. The second part is a tour of the famine among peasants in the provinces, prisoners in labor camps, and citizens in cities. A Tibetan Buddhist leader's attempt to save his people, starvation's physiological effects and the facts of cannibalism each receive separate chapters. The third part examines political battles and policy changes that ended the Great Leap Forward and lifted the famine. Becker argues for Mao's personal responsibility, devotes a chapter to the death toll and discusses Western knowledge of and responses to the Chinese situation. A valuable postscript about ongoing starvation in communist North Korea ends the book.
Becker lays the disaster at Mao's feet for his "...fundamental ignorance of modern science." (p. 99) and his willful refusal to believe the Great Leap Forward was leading not to utopian communism but to catastrophic national misery. Mao did not implement his policies without competition from other Party leaders. In 1959 at a Central Committee summer summit at Lushan, central China, Mao defeated powerful critics opposed to Great Leap Forward policies. Opponents were purged at the center and in the provinces; personal political loyalty trumped available evidence. As national starvation became more desperate, government exploitation turned more savage: "To force the peasants to hand over their last remaining reserves, the officials did not simply beat the peasants but created a nightmare of organized torture and murder." (p. 115). By spring 1961, news and investigations proved the extent of the suffering; Party leaders Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai succeeded in forcing a retreat from radical Great Leap policies. In keeping with practices intermingling policy and personal disputes, much of the anti-Great Leap movement took the form of factional attacks on Mao as supreme leader and policy maker.
Many Chinese venerate the souls of their ancestors through ritual sacrifices; these acts keep the ancestors safe as members of their descendants' families. But souls no one nurtures are hungry ghosts. They are ill-fed, disoriented, kinless wanderers; they are troubled and may be troublesome. The metaphorical point of the book's title is that the souls of the millions who died exist outside the pale of human society. According to Becker, they do so because Mao Zedong caused their deaths. Although Becker does a credible job unearthing, displaying and discussing the evidence, his thesis that Mao is personally responsible for thirty million dead ignores the very complex etiology of the disaster. It is more reasonable to think the center designed and directed the disastrous policies but they were willingly carried out, until it was too late, by multitudes of cadre and citizens who must share the blame with Chairman Mao.