Unnatural disaster

Last Updated: Mon, Dec 10, 2012 03:52 hrs

pIn the summer of 1962 China&rsquos president Liu Shaoqi warned Mao Zedong that &ldquohistory will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people and the cannibalism will also be memorialised&rdquo Liu had visited Hunan his home province as well as Mao&rsquos where almost a million people died of hunger Some of the survivors had eaten dead bodies or had killed and eaten their comrades In emTombstoneem an eye­opening study of the worst famine in history Yang Jisheng concludes that 36 million Chinese starved to death between 1958 and 1962 while 40 million others failed to be born which means that &ldquoChina&rsquos total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million&rdquoppThere are earlier studies of the famine and one excellent recent one emMao&rsquos Great Famineem by Frank Dikötter but Mr Yang&rsquos is significant because he lives in China and is unsparing Mao&rsquos rule he writes &ldquobecame a secular theocracy Divergence from Mao&rsquos views was heresy Dread and falsehood were thus both the result and the lifeblood of totalitarianism&rdquo This political system he argues &ldquocaused the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people&rdquoppMr Yang who was born in 1940 is a well-known veteran journalist and a Communist Party member Remember that a huge portrait of Chairman Mao still hangs over the main gate into Beijing&rsquos Forbidden City and can be seen from every corner of Tiananmen Square where his embalmed body lies in an elaborate mausoleum Despite this continued public veneration Mr Yang looks squarely at the real chairman &ldquoIn power Mao became immersed in China&rsquos traditional monarchal culture and Lenin and Stalin&rsquos &lsquodictatorship of the proletariat&rsquo When Mao was provided with a list of slogans for his approval he personally added one &lsquoLong Live Chairman Mao&rsquo &rdquo Two years ago in an interview with the journalist Ian Johnson Mr Yang remarked that he views the famine &ldquoas part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time The chief culprit was Mao&rdquoppFrom the early 1990s Mr Yang writes he began combing normally closed official archives containing confidential reports of the ravages of the famine and reading accounts of the official killing of protesters He found references to cannibalism and interviewed men and women who survived by eating human fleshppChinese statistics are always overwhelming so Mr Yang helps us conceptualise what 36 million deaths actually mean It is he writes &ldquo450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki&rdquo and &ldquogreater than the number of people killed in World War I&rdquo It also he insists &ldquooutstripped the ravages of World War II&rdquo While 40 to 50 million died in that war it stretched over seven or eight years while most deaths in the great Chinese famine he notes were &ldquoconcentrated in a six-month period&rdquoppA journalist reporting on Xinyang at the time saw the desperation of ordinary people Years later he told Mr Yang that he had witnessed a Party secretary &ndash during the famine cadres were well fed &ndash treating his guests to a local delicacy But he knew what happened to people who recorded the truth so he said nothing &ldquoHow could I dare to write an internal reference report&rdquo Indeed Liu Shaoqi confronted Mao who remembered all slights and during the Cultural Revolution he was accused of being a traitor and an enemy agent Expelled from the Party he died alone uncared for anonymousppOf course emTombstoneem has been banned in China but in 2008 it was published in Hong Kong in two mighty volumes Pirated texts and Internet summaries soon slipped over the border This English version is roughly half the size of the original Its eloquent translators Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian say their aim like the author&rsquos is to &ldquopresent the tragedy in all its horror&rdquo and to render Mr Yang&rsquos searching analysis in a manner that is both accessible to general readers and informative for specialistsppMr Yang writes that one reason for the book&rsquos title is to establish a memorial for the uncle who raised him like a son and starved to death in 1959 At the time a devout believer in the Party and ignorant of the extent of what was going on in the country at large Mr Yang felt that everything no matter how difficult was part of China&rsquos battle for a new socialist order Discovering official secrets during his work as a young journalist he began to lose his faith His real &ldquoawakening&rdquo however came after the 1989 Tiananmen massacreppNowadays he asserts &ldquorulers and ordinary citizens alike know in their hearts that the totalitarian system has reached its end&rdquo He hopes emTombstoneem will help banish the &ldquohistorical amnesia imposed by those in power&rdquo and spur his countrymen to &ldquorenounce man-made calamity darkness and evil&rdquo While guardedly hopeful about the rise of democracy Mr Yang is ultimately a realist Despite China&rsquos economic and social transformation this courageous man concludes &ldquothe political system remains unchanged&rdquo emTombstoneem doesn&rsquot directly challenge China&rsquos current regime nor is its author part of an organised movement And so unlike the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo Yang Jisheng is not serving a long prison sentence But he has driven a stake through the hearts of Mao Zedong and the party he helped foundhr pp alignrightem©2012 The New York Times News Service emppstrongTOMBSTONEstrongbr The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962br Yang Jishengbr Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jianbr Farrar Straus & Giroux 629 pages 35p

More from Sify: