What must Mao have thought when in 1968 he heard that towering intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre were enthusiastically distributing newspapers on the prosperous boulevards of Paris bearing his portrait and eulogising his ideas? By then Mao, along with most Chinese, knew that just six years earlier his attempt to create a Marxist utopia in the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1962 had catastrophically failed. The Chinese revolution was effectively over.
His People’s Communes had destroyed the lives of at least 36 million, and possibly many more. Millions of others were tortured, imprisoned or fled their homes to escape an orgy of violence and terror. The economy collapsed after the Chinese Communists seized all private property in the countryside and sought to abolish all money and trade. Yet around the world, and China too, students chanted Mao’s slogans and drew inspiration from his supposed achievements in destroying capitalism and creating a better world. There was nothing to eat, but Mao’s rural policies led a generation of aid workers to copy his ideas all over the Third World. His successes also inspired the New Left, attracting all those disenchanted with the Soviet Union and the Soviet-funded Communist parties. Many of these European Maoists are still with us today like European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, the former leader of Portugal’s Maoist student group.
This is one reason why it has been so hard for the truth about Mao’s genocidal record to become accepted history. The China ‘holocaust deniers’ are still actively denying or minimising what really happened. When earlier this year Harry Wu of the Laogai Foundation organised a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Famine, only one American think tank, the Heritage Foundation, was prepared to host it, and only one Chinese student out of the tens of thousands in America was brave enough to turn up.
People are not only afraid of what the Chinese government might do to those who talk about it, they are reluctant to draw the real lessons from what happened in China, for these are lessons which are universal and apply to any politician offering to win votes by making things freer or fairer.
Although it has been known since the early 1980s, when the Chinese population statistics for the period were released, that a lot of people died, the ‘excess’ deaths have been variously attributed to bad weather, an incompetent bureaucracy, rash planning, the repayment of debts owed to Moscow and so on. It was held that Mao could not be compared to Hitler because he did not deliberately seek the deaths of millions. Besides, he was inspired by noble ideals and his followers were uncorrupted by the avarice and greed of the rival Nationalists.
More information is increasingly coming to light from Chinese sources, often from Party documents taken from the archives. And the latest two books on the subject are by Chinese. One of the most damming citations is found in a document that Dr Zhou Xun discovered. In a top-secret conference in March 1959, Mao responds thus to the efforts by a close colleague Li Xiannian to be more cautious:
To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward. When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.
True, this is not quite as damning or premeditated as the 1942 Wannsee Conference documents which show how the Final Solution was planned, but it reveals, together with other documents, Mao’s indifference to loss of life on a vast scale. What the book certainly proves is that he was not ignorant of what was going on: the Party bureaucracy provided a steady stream of reports revealing how colossally inhumane and disastrous the Leap was. Mao just could not accept it.
What is still missing is documentary proof that Mao and the others knew before they created the People’s Communes that millions would perish as a result. As keen students of Lenin and Stalin, they should have known that the Soviet Union had suffered two devastating famines by closing markets and forcibly commandeering all the grain. And if they did know that, it would certainly put them in the same category as the Nazis.
Certainly, all through the three decades of civil war when they were fighting to win power, they hid the fact that they intended to confiscate all peasant land and private property. Had they admitted it, no peasant would have fought for them.
Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone is an abridged but still monumental account of what happened in each of the provinces across China. As a former Xinhua journalist he had access to many documents and interviewees. The details are often new and fascinating and will shock many contemporary Chinese readers who remain largely ignorant of just how brutal and insane it was.
Although Yang is a courageous man to have written this book, his background as a Party member blinds him to the significance of the events. He blames the catastrophe on China’s totalitarian system. But China remains to this day under a grim one-party dictatorship, and there is plenty to buy and eat. Yang also believes that Mao was a prisoner of the feudal totalitarianism established by the first emperor, Qinshi Huangdi, over 2,000 years earlier. But surely he was a prisoner of Marxism-Leninism, an imported western ideology that had little in common with a Bronze Age king with very different fundamental beliefs?
As one reads the book, it is striking that no matter how ruthlessly Mao tried to implement the Communist Manifesto, he could not succeed in wiping out ‘capitalism’. Perhaps it is impossible to do so. Human society cannot exist without it. Only a cast-away on a desert island has no use for money, as Ben Gunn discovers.
In China those who trusted in the benevolence of the state and its promises of free food and shelter died first. Others secretly resorted to trading and survived, even if in the end they were selling their own children and wives, or buying the human flesh of their deceased neighbours.
In the absence of the market, the Chinese didn’t get utopia or equality but the fatal dissolution of all social bonds and moral obligations. Individual life lost all value, and the greater the power of the state, the worse it got. Again and again Yang records how officials feasted on the food they had confiscated while peasants dropped dead from starvation outside full granaries.
The next time someone moans about the injustices of capitalism buy him a copy of one of these books.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012