Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine
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In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Chinese people suffered what may have been the worst famine in history. Over thirty million perished in a grain shortage brought on not by flood, drought, or infestation, but by the insanely irresponsible dictates of Chairman Mao Ze-dong's "Great Leap Forward," an attempt at utopian engineering gone horribly wrong.
Journalist Jasper Becker conducted hundreds of interviews and spent years immersed in painstaking detective work to produce Hungry Ghosts, the first full account of this dark chapter in Chinese history. In this horrific story of state-sponsored terror, cannibalism, torture, and murder, China's communist leadership boasted of record harvests and actually increased grain exports, while refusing imports and international assistance. With China's reclamation of Hong Kong now a fait accompli, removing the historical blinders is more timely than ever. As reviewer Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Becker's remarkable book...strikes a heavy blow against willed ignorance of what took place."
period, a careful record would have been made at times of the number of mouths to feed. On the other hand, at the height of the famine in the countryside, no one was burying the dead, let alone recording the number of deaths. The births and deaths of small children, in particular, would often have passed almost unnoticed. Nor would officials have kept track of those who fled and managed to survive or of those who died on the roads. And there is another, final question-mark about Chinese figures:
groups of people had the time and patience to analyse the fragments of information which became available and they thus exerted an unusually strong influence on both public opinion and the reactions of Western governments. Above all they influenced the United States, whose citizens were kept out of China but which was reluctant to trust what its ally, Taiwan, said was happening. The China-watchers’ views also influenced the newly independent countries of the Third World as they sought new allies
in banks on deposit became ‘public accumulation funds’. Chen Boda had envisaged the complete abolition of money and this almost came true. The peasants had to use ration tickets for just about everything, including hot water. Within each commune, a new unified administrative structure was set up which was responsible for every decision, no matter how trivial. The commune Party secretary ran a handful of committees which supervised agriculture, food and trade, political, legal and military
grain was delivered but it was returned by the Xinyang leadership who continued to insist that they were enjoying a bumper harvest. In the atmosphere of terror, no cadre at any level dared admit the truth: Liang Dezhen, the First Secretary of Huang Chuan county, turned back relief grain because he suspected that it was a ruse to trap him into making a political mistake, and one production brigade in the county that did take the grain sent it back as the fruits of its ‘anti-hiding-grain
than smile and mumble.34 Many of the peasants in this commune subsequently starved to death. As in Anhui and Henan, fantastic reports of bumper harvests, called the ‘exaggeration wind’, led in turn to the brutal seizure of grain. Those who refused to hand over all their grain were beaten and tortured. After the Lushan summit, Li Jingquan also set about trapping officials who might be guilty of disloyalty. On his return, he circulated a document containing Marshal Peng Dehuai’s criticisms and