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Book Review: Hungry Ghosts

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Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine
by Jasper Becker (New York: Free Press, 1996); 352 pages; $25.

In 1994, Mao Zedong’s personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, published The Private Life of Chairman Mao. Leading experts on Chinese communist history say that the book is authentic and accurate. He served Mao from 1955 until the dictator’s death in 1976. The portrait he drew of the Chinese communist leader was chilling and revolting.

While one brutal disaster after another was imposed on the Chinese people in the name of socialism, Mao remained secluded most of the time in his private residence in Beijing. He would lie in bed all day. His teeth were green from never being brushed. He refused to bathe, so instead orderlies-in-waiting would sponge-wash his corpulent structure. Young virgin peasant girls would be brought to him from the countryside for his carnal pleasures, often for group encounters. He gave no thought to his having long been diagnosed with a venereal disease.

Mao would go into depressions when he feared conspiracies among rival leaders in the Chinese Communist Party. He would plot their dismissal or imprisonment, and he had moments of joy and happiness only when he was once again confident that he was the unquestioned ruler of all of China.

For the sake of building his own brand of Chinese socialism, and as campaigns to undermine any real or imagined opposition in the party hierarchy, Mao would institute new waves of radical social transformation. The most famous of them was the Great Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. But the Great Cultural Revolution had its beginning in an earlier campaign — the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62. China’s peasants were to be fully incorporated into the collective farm system and China was to launch a massive steel production campaign in every village and collective farm throughout the country to bring China into the industrial world within a handful of years.

It is this earlier Great Leap Forward campaign that is the theme of Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. That the Great Leap Forward resulted in a massive loss of human life has been known to experts in Chinese communism. R.J. Rummel, in his detailed account, China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900 (1991), devoted two chilling chapters to this period of Chinese history.

But Mr. Becker’s book is the first account that is based on personal interviews with the survivors in many parts of China, as well as drawing upon new or recently released documents on the magnitude of this human disaster. In short, at least 30 million people died from a planned famine.

Mao, who knew absolutely nothing about either technology or economics, got it into his head that China could be remade into a modern industrial power, surpassing both the United States and the Soviet Union, through sheer determination and physical effort. He thought that what had taken America or Great Britain or France a hundred years to achieve, in terms of industrial productive capability, could be matched in China in a mere five or ten years.

Tens of millions of people were taken out of farm production to construct canals, roads, bridges, dams, and railways all around China with little more than their bare hands. The vast number of these projects ended up being structurally unsound and unusable. China’s industrial “leap” into the modern age was to be performed through the construction of steel-making furnaces in people’s backyards. Every conceivable piece of metal, including essential farm equipment and household utensils for cooking and eating, was confiscated and literally thrown into the fire. All that came out were unusable lumps of steel.

Knowing nothing about agriculture, Mao insisted that all the food China needed could be produced in less time on a fraction of the land then under cultivation. To curry favor with the “Great Helmsman” in Beijing, provincial and local party leaders throughout China drew up production plans promising to deliver fantastically unrealistic quantities of wheat and rice. No only did the harvests fall far short of the projections, but they fell far below previous levels of output. With millions of people diverted for Mao’s gigantic infrastructure projects and with the basic tools needed for farm production stripped out of the peasants’ hands for steel construction, it was inevitable that agricultural yields would drastically decline.

But the local and regional party leaders were determined to meet their targets for delivering what had been promised to the chairman. To meet their targets, they reduced the amount of food left for the peasants to live on. Teams of cadres were sent out to the villages to search for any hidden caches of grain not turned in to the authorities. Tens of millions were left with nothing to eat.

When Mao or any of the other party leaders traveled around the countryside to see for themselves what the actual conditions were like, the local party officials would line the roads with temporarily replanted crops, to give the appearance of abundance. They would paint trees to hide the missing bark that had been torn off and eaten by the farmers. Selected peasant homes were filled with food and household objects for the visiting officials to see.

All the time, the peasants were in fact starving — in the millions. In their dreadful state, the peasants sank to the lowest form of human survival — they resorted to cannibalism. They dug up the bodies of the recently dead. They hid the fact that family members had died: first, to continue to obtain an extra food ration from the party distributors; and second, to hide the fact that the deceased had been eaten. Then, finally, at the lowest level of an instinct for survival, adults began to kill and eat their own children, usually trading their living child for that of a neighbor’s, so they would not have to literally murder and eat their own son or daughter. Children would beg their parents not to let them be eaten.

And where was all the harvested grain seized by the provincial and local party officials? The vast majority of it was stuffed into government granaries. When some of the higher party officials received reports from relatives and friends around the country about the real state of the peasantry, Mao refused to be moved. He could not admit he had been wrong, both because it would undermine his own utopian fantasies and because it might shift power and influence away from himself to others in the party.

Finally, granaries were either opened or broken into. Peasant revolts occurred in various areas. Mao was forced to reverse course, but not publicly. All the shifts in policy were made to seem normal change and adjustment on the continuing road towards communism.

Thirty million people may have died because of his folly, but Mao would not forget that others in the party had challenged him — that they had made him admit that physical laws of nature had stood in his way of making China over in his own image. And in 1966, Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution, supposedly to purify the party and to rejuvenate the Chinese revolution. Its real purpose was to serve as the vehicle for Mao’s revenge against his opponents. It, in turn, cost the lives of millions more and resulted in the loss of another generation of Chinese.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).