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on 21 July 1999
I have taught finance at universities in both Hong Kong and the US, and I regularly recommend this book to my MBA and undergraduate students as a graphic illustration of the risks and weaknesses of a planned economy, particularly when combined with control of the media. Perhaps, as another reveiwer suggested, Becker puts too much emphasis on the responsibility of Mao and not enough on his many followers. But the fact remains that this massive famine could not have occurred in a market economy and would not occurred if so much power had not been concentrated in the hands of one person. Mao was brilliant when it came to maintaining political power but painfully inadequate in his understanding of science. In power politics, reality is whatever you can convince people to believe. Mao refused to accept the fact that science and economics do not ulitimately follow this same rule (or perhaps he didn't care). No matter how many people claim to believe in a bountiful harvest, they will still starve to death if they have nothing to eat. To further understand the Chinese Communist Party under Mao, I recommend the book written by Mao's personal physician. As for Becker's account of the worst famine in history (and the postscript to the later edition, pointing out that it's happening again today in North Korea), the book is informative and fascinating. It offers a lesson for those, particularly in Asia, that don't believe that economic decisions should be left to the market. A government directing industrial policy is unlikely to produce the extreme consequences seen here. Nevertheless, the dangers of lack of diversification due to one set of possibly misguided or simply mistaken leaders forcing everyone in the same direction are the same. Too much attention is given to the relatively rare cases, such as Japan or Singapore, where it worked, at least temporarily. This is the most extreme of the many, many examples that show how painful failure can be when the same policy is forced on everyone.
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on 6 March 1997
Unlike any other famine, this one did not have a political objective - it was essentially unintentional, making it even more horrifying. It was of such proportion the country even suppressed the 1964 census data. Doctors were not permitted to claim starvation as a cause of death. Cannibalism was rampant. And the entire time, China continued to export grain. The state's granaries remained full.
The details elicit emotions like I have never experienced in reading the worst atrocities of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, probably because this had no goal - it just happened and kept happening to a worse and worse effect. It is all thoroughly and painstakingly documented, making it absolutely believable, and horrifyingly real, from the bizarre policies that led to it (melting all metal in backyard furnaces to create "steel") to the insane agricultural "solutions" (cutting three to six foot deep furrows so the wheat harvest would multiply) inspired by Mao, it is all there, in seeming science fiction of the worst kind. Truly a must read.
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on 1 June 2005
This book blows apart the myths of greatness that surround Mao Zedong, and exposes him as the devastatingly cruel and incompetant dictator that he was. "Hungry Ghosts" is an incredibly important work, and a must-read for anyone interested in twentieth-century China.
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on 6 April 1997
I found this book fascinating albeit dry and redundant at times. The information about cannibalism and its long history in this country is worthy of serious thought vis a vie Western values. The author's analysis of how the famine came to be, its roots in Russian agrarian "reform", the politically incredible way in which it was perpetrated and perpetuated, and the internal repercussions for this vast country, then and to the present, make this a must read for all who are interested in what makes China tick. (I would recommend skipping the chapters on how the famine affected various provinces...and read the bios at the back of the book first). It really makes one thankful for a country with free press and free speech.
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on 11 July 1998
Hungry Ghosts, as simply as can be put, makes one realize how much we take for granted. Although the book slumps into dullness here and there, overall it holds the reader's interest, and does a beautiful job of taking the reader into a starving Chinese village, and creating a famine-stricken world that scars the conscience and turns the pages. Though Becker's comment can seem invariably one-sided, it is still a remarkable expose' of the famine and its causes, both direct and indirect. If the reader is able to ignore Becker's bias and find the deeper (non-political) messages, then this book is certainly a valuable one.
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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.
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on 11 August 1998
This book tells the fascinating and horrifying story of a Chinese famine due to the Communists. If anyone ever thought that George Orwell didn't know about Communists and that way of thinking, he/she should read this book. Everything about it rings like an unpublished Orwell novel but it was all too true for the millions who died. This work should definately be required reading for high school students.
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on 30 August 1998
Readers who seek a more balanced and more penetrating analysis of the Great Chinese Famine and the famine's lasting impact on political change in China may want to read Dali Yang's Calamity and Reform in China (Stanford University Press). This book has just become available in a paperback reprint.
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on 23 October 1996
Finally revealed....
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on 29 December 1998
for a more scholarly, responsible, and intelligent book about the tragedy of the Great Leap, please read:
Dali Yang's Calamity and Reform in China
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