by Ramin Mazaheri for the Saker Blog
Between 108 BC and 1911 AD there were no fewer than 1,828 recorded famines in China, or nearly one each year.
Since 1962 there should have been in China – if their historical average remained unchanged – 50 serious famines.
Instead there have been zero.
When one discusses “China” and “famine” – how often do you hear this totally valid point of view?
I wonder… given 50+ years of success, how much longer can the West wave this bloody shirt? Will there still be a thriving Great Leap famine intellectual cottage industry in 50 years? 100 years? 200 years…?
Kudos to you if you are a reasonable person who prefers fairness and honesty to anti-socialist animosity of the knee-jerk variety, but even that one fact doesn’t allow us to fully appreciate how difficult it was for the Chinese Communist Party to defeat famine.
Blame Mother Nature: Topographically, China is very far from India: Wide-open India can allow cows to graze in peace, but mountainous China can only afford to allot just 2% of its land for pasture, compared with 50% for the US. Nearly 90% of China’s farmland has to go for crops because they have to feed 20% of the world’s population, and from just 6% of the world’s arable land. Around 85% of the population already lives on the one-third of land which is arable, and there is little chance that they can increase this amount of arable land. The South farms year round, but in Northern China, where “China” began, the topography and climate is akin to the Midwestern United States or Ukraine; however, average annual rainfall is a US Dust Bowl-like 25 inches, with annual variances of 30%, making the region especially prone to famine.
No wonder Chinese farmers backed the central planning, cooperation and easy credit of socialism….capitalistic individualism could obviously never thrive in such harsh conditions, and thus it never has, and this cultural fact well-predates 1949 whether one likes it or not.
China’s constant famines were (are we not grateful that we can switch to the past tense now?) despite a 2 millennia-old system of centralised imperialism so cooperative and well-planned that ancient farmers knew they were growing crops expressly to be shipped to a famine-prone region on the other side of China. Such central planning is what allows unity, China will attest. This view is the polar opposite of today’s Germans, who turn their immoral noses up at the idea of showing solidarity with debt-blighted Greeks (who were blighted by German bankers, of course). But China’s governments – imperialist and communist – did their best to not permit the anti-harmony societal disorder caused by unrestrained individualism. Indeed Mao’s food procurement policies – taking food from those who grew it and giving it to the less successful farmers – was truly a continuation of age-old cultural policy; it is only the West that derides that policy as a horrible violation of their supreme sanctity, which is: “my private property is all mine”.
And despite all of these constraints and historical proofs of guaranteed failures, in 2018 China’s malnutrition is lower than in developed countries. China exports food! Accordingly, in 2016 the UN’s World Food Program signed a memorandum of understanding intended to help developing countries learn from China’s success in fighting hunger.
Hunger should be treated in the same way as a natural disaster; Iran’s biggest curse is earthquakes and, were it not for vast anti-Iran sentiment, many more would learn about our similarly amazing, socialist-inspired techniques for dealing with the aftermaths of earthquakes.
The Chinese Communist Party has seemingly done the impossible – ended the scourge of famine in China.
Yet, despite all this success, the famine of the Great Leap Forward is perhaps the single-most important pillar in the West’s anti-China propaganda. It is all the proof one Westerner must cite in order to discredit the Communist Party, Mao and any of China’s successes in any field.
This is the 2nd part in a 8-part series which examines the rise of new, internet-available Western scholarship on China. Finally, the average person can easily find analysis of Red China which focuses on the view from the 99%, as a long-awaited counterbalance to the decades of Western scholarship on China which primarily sought to maintain the 1%’s insistence of the West’s total ideological superiority.
The only remedy to such absurdities are articles such as this one, but especially books such as China is Communist, Dammit by Jeff J. Brown. This type of new scholarship on China is a remedy to the old Western scholarship on China, which is typified by a book called China: A New History. This Harvard professor-written book is likely the most popular university-level textbook on China in the United States, and Fairbanks is known as “the West’s doyen on China”.
In this series I toggle back and forth between these two sources which are clearly on both sides of the spectrum, and the comparison is illuminating. Fairbanks’ establishment view is well-known, but is it accurate? Of course, the pro-socialist side provides us with a new perspective, but is it based on facts? Judge for yourself in the following comparison, which also adds in my personal views on the matter.
The West’s false ‘moral causes’ of the Great Leap’s Famine
The 1959-61 famine is not close to China’s worst famine, historically: you had three famines which claimed 15, 30 and 45 million people in the 19th century alone. Six million died in 1927, and there were major famines in 1929, 1939 and 1942.
All of these were caused by environmental factors, and of course political factors as well: it’s not as if China didn’t have a government back then – it’s just that they didn’t have a government which could cope…in undeniable contrast to China over the last 50+ years.
I am not saying that the deaths of 15-20 million people were not important – I’m accurately adding that they were, sadly, not unusual in China whatsoever. Nobody honest would consider this context of near-annual famines irrelevant, but the West focuses like a laser on the Great Leap Forward’s famine in an usually-ahistorical vacuum.
For the West, the Great Leap’s famine was caused by ineffective, overpaid bureaucrats who worked for a totalitarian regime…along with the routine implication that the Communist Party inflicted this famine on purpose in order to settle scores / intimidate the populace / hoard wealth for themselves / are inherently immoral and callous in a way which capitalists could never be, and other such similar nonsense.
Another common Wester stereotype in scholarship on the Great Famine – and a routine “explanation” for Fairbanks – is the “docility” of the Chinese farmer.
This “docility“, it is implied, is the only way they would have allowed the Communist Party to take control (LOL), and they just plain lack the testosterone which the West has in spades and which is their aggressive answer to everything. I guess we need to get Chinese peasants some crystal meth to pep them up? That method sure worked before – getting 1/4th the Chinese population hooked on opium smoothed the path to their “Century of Humiliation” by the West & Japan. I assume the “docile” farmers didn’t even notice what was going on around them during this era….
The histories of those 19th century famines are appalling – entire villages dead by hunger, bodies everywhere, no rain for three years, deaths coming quickly…but death by hunger must seem quite long.
The difference between academia and journalism is that journalists have a direct point to make, while academia is claiming to describe a totality (in which they use indirect points). But even establishment Fairbanks can’t go as low as most journalists and say that the Great Leap’s Famine was a calculated, genocidal policy:
“In 1959-60 China was better organized, and famine areas full of starved corpses were not seen. But malnutrition due to thin rations made millions more susceptible to disease. The higher-than-usual mortality did not become known until the statistics were worked out. Not until 1960 was it finally realized that many peasants were starving….
I will prove later how quickly the Chinese Communist Party reacted humanely after 1960 to change policy. But before any exoneration there must first be reasonable explanation.
The simple, understandable, all-too-human reasons of the famine
Socialism has to be built: After all, what the heck is an agricultural cooperative where farmers are running things? For the millennia the system was: “This is the tax – you pay now!”
But once China’s gentry was kicked out and the farmers gathered round as equals…this was the question to which they could only scratch their heads, think, and start drawing up diagrams in the dirt.
Therefore, of course the Great Leap Forward was inefficient in some ways: Socialism is something which has to be constructed daily, still, because socialism has to make it up as it goes along. It is a social experiment, and society has to experiment on itself. That obviously implies an increased risk for failure, but only in the short term. It certainly contains the moral exoneration of: the capitalist status quo was certain to be worse in the short, medium and long terms.
China realised in the late 1950s that they had to create a new method – the Soviet model could not apply to farmer-dominated China. Indeed, the Great Leap Forward represents when the Chinese broke with the USSR because they needed Chinese solutions to Chinese problems, not Russian solutions to Chinese problems.
It’s terrible how Western propaganda can turn up into down, but: The Great Leap Forward was not caused by increased totalitarian oppression of the Communists on farmers – it was fuelled by not enough central control. I quote here Fairbanks here, because not only do you likely think I am not objective, but you mistakenly don’t realize that socialism is truly based on giving power to the average worker, not taking it away:
“For this purpose there was a general decentralisation of economic management in 1957. Many enterprises and even monetary controls were decentralised down to the local level. The central statistical bureau was broken up and localised together with functions of economic planning. This was the context in which the overambitious targets of the Great Leap were formulated in each locality, not by economists, but by cadres inspired by emulation who were contemptuous of experts but intensely loyal to the cause.”
(The “experts” are capitalists to Fairbanks, of course.)
And that is a Western academic assessment – it is quite the opposite of the journalistic scaremongering of power-grabbing Mao, no?
In fact, we see how Mao (as he did time and again) rejected the centralisation of power in himself – this very idea as impossible for many individualistic Westerners to grasp – and how socialism is a constant devotion of power from the king to the local person.
I continue with that same passage to show how the Great Leap Forward succeeded in many ways. Of course, the average Chinese person was thrilled and electrified to finally be empowered in their own lives…yet all we hear about is the famine:
“The result in 1958 was a mighty paroxysm of round-the-clock labor. The face of the country was changed with new roads, factories, cities, dikes, dams, locks, afforestation, and cultivation, for which the 650 million Chinese had been mobilised in nationwide efforts of unparalleled intensity and magnitude.”
As any modern analysis of China admits, this is the true bedrock of Chinese economic success post-1980: the Mao-era programs which literally built the infrastructure needed to allow the emergence of a middle class. For the West, as is well known, Chinese economic success starts only after the death of Mao. Yet none of those dams or roads have disappeared, and are indispensable to the Chinese economy.
These points are well-known to those who care, but are obsessively blocked by the West. I will not perseverate on these myriad positive economic points of the Mao era – though that would be a fair analytical tactic – thanks to new China scholarship, you can easily find them!
Back to the true causes of the famine.
OVER-ZEALOUSNESS!!! I love the smell of socialism in the morning!
Overzealousness was also seen during the first Soviet collectivisations, and it produced the exact same problems and phenomena I will describe here. Overzealousness is thus a repeated risk which any newly-socialist nation should expect and guard against. It is very, easily explainable if we simply imagine Mao and the Chinese as humans, instead of monsters / docile idiots.
At the start of China’s revolution – with the foreigners kicked out – revolutionary spirit is higher than high, and the cadres report to their superiors with unassailable intentions:
“Yes, we will meet our target plans, and more! Long live the Revolution!”
The cadres mark on their report:
“These guys are proven winners, after all. I’m marking them down for a 100% success rate in indelible ink!”
The party leaders say:
“These are great reports! Plus, we are going to give jobs to all the unemployed, so for certain we are going to exceed expectations. And all that new equipment is going to revolutionise things as well! So I’m going to promise that my region is going to over-perform the quota by 10%, and that way I’ll bring great honor to my people, and my career! Utopia, here we come! ”
And then reality hits.
And, in the case of China in 1959, bad weather hits. And locust plagues.
And the books – which are based on the great year of 1958, when total food production doubled nationwide – are thus totally screwed up.
(Sidebar: Locust populations likely ballooned as a sad and unintended consequence of 1958’s “Four pests” anti-disease and hygiene campaign against rats, mosquitos, flies and especially sparrows, which upset the ecological balance and eliminated a predator of locusts.)
And bureaucratic, statistical chaos is just as big a problem as the decreased production, because the promised 100% of X to distribute collectively turns out to be only 30% of X.
Furthermore, in the pre-computer age, by the time the hard data arrives that the promised X from Region A can’t head to Region B, C, G and Q, then a re-ordering prompted by this failure is obviously needed. But the higher-ups can’t meet because they are addressing the same crisis in their home regions.
But, finally, the higher-ups are able to assemble and they discuss who needs what immediately. The capitalists are laughing gleefully that the ideal of total, equal, communist distribution has to be postponed, but the Party cares far more that the grain has already started to rot on the rails.
What I have just written is a less academic, more humanised form of what Harvard’s Fairbanks described:
“By concentrating solely on Chairman Mao as the leader we would fail to convey the national mood of fervent self-sacrifice and frenetic activity that characterised the Great Leap Forward. Peasants worked around the clock to break their own work records, cadres in charge locally kept on reporting totally unrealistic production figures, and Mao’s colleagues such as the economist Chen Yun and Premier Zhou Enlai found no way to stop the fever.”
(Sidebar: What capitalist ever works that hard, eh? What is the profit motive compared to the encouraging power of the moral-political creed? Indeed, there is no comparison: As Jesus said to the devil when tempted with food during his fast: “Man does not live on bread alone.”)
The above passage – again, by someone who is definitely not sympathetic whatsoever to socialism – shows that the famine was the product of ALL the Chinese people, of good intentions, of the sad human reality that we live in an imperfect world where bad things happen to good people, that we do not dominate Mother Nature as much as we think. The idea that it was all Mao is…pathetic propaganda.
These early problems, history proves over and over, is indeed socialism in its earliest form. China, the Soviets, early Communist Cuba’s difficulties to radically change from capitalist-imperialist one-crop dominance (sugar) to diversified agriculture. In some ways, the West’s ordering of Hussein to attack Iran immediately after their revolution was a boon in that it sharply focused organisational energies on one thing – the war effort. Questions of privatising an economy almost totally state-owned and guided by central planning could only begin after the war, giving the Iranian state a huge head start.
For more fortunate socialist-inspired countries like China, however, initial chaos at the first bump in the road is the logical and expected (or should be, by now) outcome caused by drastically reordering society from capitalist to socialism. The hardest step is the first one – the mistake is to kneecap yourself by giving up on the revolution when it has only just begun.
It should also not be forgotten that China’s hand-farming method was already extremely difficult to improve on.
LOL, do you think there’s a machine that can do as careful a job as a bent-over person scrutinising every square centimetre for weeds? Nobody can beat that. In the US the problem was simply putting vast tracts of land to use – thus improving yields from nothing to something – but not in China, where labor was not the scarce resource but arable land, as I discussed earlier.
There was thus likely a significant over-estimation of the ability of modern machines to increase production.
But what definitely increased farmer efficiency were the centrally-planned and centrally-operated major infrastructure projects: vast irrigation networks, huge road building programs to improve transportation, tunnel-building for mass drainage, lake and dam building, new railroads, steel production for all these projects, etc. And this is where the Great Leap Forward’s central planning undoubtedly succeeded, and why productivity did grow.
But the ancient, backbreaking Chinese model – a family meticulously farming a small plot land with the maximum amount of care – as inefficient? That’s obviously false, and their huge population despite a small amount of arable land stands as millennia-old proof. To say Chinese culture is farmer-centric – in the economic, social, cultural and ethical sense – is to say that water is wet….
The Great Leap Forward will always prove Mao’s socialist genius, thus the propaganda effort…
Indeed, the primary theoretical contribution of Mao was to recognise this reality and to create a “farmer-centered” socialism, breaking away from the industrial worker-dominated socialism of the USSR, Stalinism and Trotskyism, which despite the latter’s claims of universality simply did not translate into the Chinese society in which Mao lived.
The historic Sino-Soviet split occurred precisely because of the Great Leap Forward’s ideological differences with the current Soviet model, pushed by Khrushchev. Khrushchev was an outspoken critic of the Great Leap Forward, the success of which threatened Soviet ideological dominance.
But even more than ideological dominance, Khrushchev was, as Mao correctly saw, a revisionist (revising socialism until it turns back into capitalism), and a right-wing socialist whose mantle would be carried by Gorbachev…into socialism’s grave and the arms of capitalist depredation, as we all know. There is no doubt: Mao was clearly a hugely important thinker and revolutionary, while Khrushchev is remembered as a bureaucrat who denounced Stalin for political gain (severely undermining the Soviets’ ability to emulate what worked: revolutionary socialism) and who was ultimately fired for incompetence.
The Great Leap Forward, and its inherent insistence on the need for specific, nationalist/locally-based solutions, was and remains a major dagger in the Trotskyist version of a universal socialist method; furthermore, Maoism simultaneously defied and yet upheld Stalinism, stripping it of the egotistical pride it bestows upon “more advanced” factory workers, but retaining its right to pursue “socialism in one country”.
This is also why the Soviets made a major contribution to the absurd idea that “China is NOT communist, dammit”: the intelligent refusal of Chinese Communists to follow their Soviet advisors led to the perpetual Russian accusation that Chinese communists were mere “radishes” – red only on the outside.
The Great Leap Forward clearly marked the beginning of the ideological superiority of China over the USSR; Khrushchev’s ideology marked the beginning of the Soviet’s lack of revolutionary commitment, their failure to adapt their ideology to cultural ideas from other areas of the world from which they could have learned and supported, and their eventual descent into Yeltsin-era chaos.
Focusing on famine deaths is tabloid journalism
“If it bleeds it leads”, especially if your ideological enemy is bleeding….
Western propaganda implies that the Great Leap Forward’s famine was somehow a boon to Mao’s bloody grab for power. It takes modern English-Language scholarship to debunk those lies (from Brown):
“With the challenging Great Leap Forward, 1959-1961, Mao lost a huge amount of credibility and his ability to push his platform was weakened. He even had to transfer presidency of China to Liu Shaoqi. This is not evidence of a despotic dictator.”
A major political pause was instituted in order to regroup and chart a new path. The third-five year plan would not start until 1966, four years after the ending of the 2nd 5-year plan.
The Chinese people became aware of the failures, and public disapproval forced political punishments accordingly. It’s the “people’s dictatorship”, not the Mao dictatorship….
Another viewpoint never taken is: amid bad weather, locusts, overzealousness and the usual domestic and foreign reactionary sabotage which accompanies any socialist revolution, the death toll could have been 50 million, 100 million or more.
The West never even considers this line of thought, but the Chinese are well aware that the government continued to distribute rations, to coordinate between differently-hit and differently-producing regions, to provide obviously revolutionary amounts of services to peasants, that education programs went on the entire time, and that these cumulative efforts by the government likely prevented worse results amid the succession of setbacks.
And the failure to pursue this line makes it impossible for Westerners to understand why, despite the famine and hardship, the Chinese did not abandon the Communist Party, and a nation awash in guns overthrow it violently. If there was a protracted hoarding by Party leaders, or a wilful refusal to aid the people, it is absurd to think that a war-hardened, widely-armed populace wouldn’t have decapitated the Party. Of course, maybe you operate from the assumption that the Chinese are “docile” (hey, that kind of thinking can take you all the way to Harvard).
Indeed, the CCP was put in power by a popular revolution with the mandate to institute great leaps forward, and to hell with the old gods of rain, harvests, locusts, whatever.
It is also never admitted that, despite the famine and harship, the Great Leap Forward and its agricultural revolution empowered the peasants more than ever.
This People-centred view – this from-below view of the culture of socialism – was denied by people like Fairbanks for decades, but as a historian he is obliged to at least give the broad strokes, even if he always gets defensive at the end:
“Once they had been called into being and had found their way upwards in society through the collectivization of agriculture, this new stratum of activists in the countryside needed things to do and were ready to go further. The Great Leap Forward was hard to rein in because once the activists got started reorganising the villages, they tended to keep on going. ‘Liberation’ in effect had produced a new class who wanted to keep on liberating.”
The Chinese don’t put their “Liberation” in quotes, as their previous status included so many shackles….which may be a minor consideration to non-Chinese, but it shouldn’t be.
To sum up, replacing what they have told you about Great Leap Forward is a real step towards your own liberation. Why? Because Western views are based on historical nihilism, sensationalism, misinformation and deliberately misleading information.
I hope that this article has not given the impression of any sort of whitewashing of the Great Leap Forward’s famine. Obviously, that would be dangerous. I do hope it is clarified the context, actions, philosophical motivations and results. My main hope is that this leads to de-demonization – showing that the famine was not the result of demons but well-intentioned humans is a very modest goal, but sadly quite needed.
‘Mao’s famines’ were feasts compared with the West’s famines
A perfectly acceptable analytical tactic – yet totally abandoned among modern Western leftists – is to force the West to admit their own crimes before they can accuse others of wrongdoing.
Brown – of course not Fairbanks – makes very apt trans-national comparisons of famines. He begins by accepting the opposition’s high estimate of deaths during the Great Leap’s famine:
“So, 30 million is 4.6% of China’s total population of 654 million….Ireland lost 25% of its people during the British-legislated Great Potato Famine Genocide 1845-1853…French colonialists in Vietnam, in a terrible drought, caused two million to starve to death in 1945, which was 7% of the local population. The United States massacred 7% of the Filipinos, starting in 1898, when it colonised that island country….I could keep going all day long about massacres and genocide in Palestine, India, Asia, Africa the Americas, Oceania and Europe, during the last 500 years of Eurmerican colonialism, with whopping percentages of the local population decimated every time. The point is, in historical perspective, yes 4.6% of the Chinese population lost during the Great Leap Forward period is a tragedy, which Baba Beijing officially accepts. But it is by no means unusual, as an event nor in its magnitude.”
Extremely well-said. Extremely rarely heard.
I’d like to add the Great Persian Famine of 1917-19 orchestrated by the British, which killed a minimum of 20% of our population and possibly as high as 50%. Ten million people died, making Iran actually the greatest victim of World War One. I bet you’ve never heard that view, either…. I defy you to find any English-language literature on the Persian Famine, yet you’ll have no problem finding English-language scholarship on the Great Leap’s famine – new works are always being written, published, reviewed in their Mainstream Media, advertised, etc.
Returning to the global famines perpetuated by colonialists – who attempted no Great Leaps for the natives: Why is that we have no Western names or faces associated with these crimes, and yet Western schoolchildren are universally taught that Mao is a butcher?
Were I to list the names of the persons in charge of Brown’s modest list of genocides, I would be listing the names of beloved Western heroes. The answer to this question is: apathy, ignorance, racism, hypocrisy, elitism but, absolutely above all, the total lack of the politically-modern view which can only be supplied via socialism.
All this proves, and as all non-Westerners already eye-rollingly know: Despite the fear-mongering over Mao (and Islam) it is Western capitalists who are by far the deadliest; despite the constant trumpeting of socialist misdeeds, it is the capitalists who have the guiltiest war machine. The only difference is that the Western Christian capitalists stay on message and practice propaganda / auto-critique much better.
Brown also bluntly encapsulates (and I understand his possible exasperation) the Chinese people’s reaction to the Great Leap Forward’s famine:
“In sum, did people die during the Great Leap Forward, due to droughts and flooding? Yes. As a result was there hunger and starvation? Yes. Did the masses blame the CPC, rise up and overthrow it. No.”
And they absolutely could have because, as I mentioned, this was a postwar, battle-hardened society. Arms were all over, per Brown:
“Due to the Korean War, Taiwan, the CIA in Tibet and Western-fomented suicide missions, a village often had had 1-200 arms on hand until confiscations began in the early 1980s.”
Yet they did not have a popular (counter) revolution. So either the Westerners are right and the Chinese are just plain “docile“, or they collectively decided to keep the Communist Party in power because they did enough things right.
I’m sad to say that this is a crucial question for Westerners to pose themselves: Chinese “docility” – and other racist nonsense – has clearly formed a major part of their intellectual culture on this matter, and many others. Therefore, it must finally be admitted that the Chinese Communist Party remains in power via democratic choice.
The problem with Westerns on this point is two-fold: consciously, it is probably not the choice they would democratically make right now, given their capitalist-imperialist leanings; subconsciously, they feel as though Westerners should be making the choices for the Chinese, still.
The only way to resolve such cognitive and emotional issues is via new scholarship, and thankfully we have books such as Brown to clear away the old debris.
Officially, the Chinese Communist Party says Mao was right 70% of the time and wrong 30% of the time. How rarely is this fact – universally-known in China reported in the West?!
They are clearly more honest than what you have likely read in the West on the Great Leap Forward, which is: the Great Leap Forward was 100% wrong, the famine was proof of it’s ideological / moral incorrectness, and that it did not even contribute to China’s later economic success.
That is the view of an extremist.
I concede that mismanagement is a crime, and that mistakes were made during the Great Leap Forward, but I am no extremist: I say that the West is 90% wrong in their journalism, and 80% wrong in their academia.
It is a tough task to bring the West down from their perch of extremism on this subject – I hope this article has made a small contribution to that humane effort.
This is the 2nd article in an 8-part series which compares old versus new Western scholarship on China.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
Old vs. new scholarship on the continent of China: a 7-part series
Daring to go beyond Western propaganda on the Great Leap Forward’s famine
When Chinese Trash saved the world: Western lies about the Cultural Revolution
Mao’s legacy defended, and famous swim decoded, for clueless academics
The Cultural Revolution’s solving of the urban-rural divide
Once China got off drugs: The ideological path from opium to ‘liberal strongman’ Macron
Prefer the 1% or the Party? Or: Why China wins
China’s only danger: A ‘Generation X’ who thinks they aren’t communist
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.