From: J Martin [SMTP:hjm2@...
Sent: Thursday, May 27, 1999 9:37 PM
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.
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
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@...
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