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FW: Book review: Mao's hungry ghosts

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    ... From: J Martin [SMTP:hjm2@EARTHLINK.NET] Sent: Thursday, May 27, 1999 9:37 PM To: ANTHRO-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 1999
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: J Martin [SMTP:hjm2@...]
      <mailto:[SMTP:hjm2@...]>
      Sent: Thursday, May 27, 1999 9:37 PM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      <mailto:ANTHRO-L@...>
      Subject: Book review: Mao's hungry ghosts

      What follows is a review of Jasper Becker's _Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret
      Famine_. Originally pitched for a newspaper-reading audience but not
      interesting to the publisher, perhaps it will interest some on the list.
      If a nicer format (RTF or AppleWorks) would suit, please drop a line & I'll
      send a file suitable for printing.

      ______________


      Review:
      HUNGRY GHOSTS: MAO�S SECRET FAMINE, by Jasper Becker; Owl Books.
      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. $14.95 (pbk).
      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.
      � HJ Martin / 901 Pump Rd., 193 / Richmond, VA / USA
      23233 / hjm2@... <mailto:hjm2@...>

      ______________

      Regards,

      Jim Martin
      hjm2@...
      <mailto:hjm2@...>
      hatch@...
      <mailto:hatch@...>

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