A hunger for the truth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2008, 12:00am

'I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book.'

This dramatic paragraph is the start of Mubei (Tombstone), the most authoritative account by a mainland author of the Great Famine of 1959-61, in which more than three times as many people died as in the first world war.

The two-volume, 1,100-page book is a meticulous account of the famine by someone who is particularly well qualified to write it. Yang Jisheng, now 67, joined the Communist Party in 1964, graduated in 1966 from the elite Tsinghua University and joined Xinhua, where he worked for 35 years before his retirement in 2001. He now works as a deputy editor of a Beijing magazine. The book was published in May by Cosmos Books of Hong Kong.

In the early 1990s, Yang began travelling the length and breadth of China to interview witnesses, eventually compiling more than 10 million words of records. His identity as a veteran reporter for the country's top news agency gave him access to people, reports, statistics and historical documents that would have been denied to ordinary people.

Each chapter quotes dozens of notes and sources: Yang's aim was to produce an account that is authoritative and can stand up to the challenge of official denial.

The famine has been a taboo subject on the mainland for the past 47 years and cannot be discussed publicly in books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television or the curricula of schools or universities. The official version is that there were 'three years of disasters', during which many people died of natural causes. The details and the number are left unexplained.

Yang's book is banned on the mainland.

Accounts of the famine have been written by foreigners, overseas Chinese and mainland scholars and published it in academic journals overseas. None had the privileged access and connections available to Yang.

'When my father died of hunger, I believed that it was an isolated phenomenon,' Yang said. 'During the Cultural Revolution, the governor of Hubei said that 300,000 had died in the province during those three years.

'Then I realised that the tragedy in my family was not isolated. Census figures revealed that between 1959 and 1960 the population dropped by 10 million.

'I felt a sense of responsibility. If I did not write this book, it would be more difficult for those after me. This is a huge historical burden, which must be lifted sooner or later,' he said.

The book explains the events that led up to the famine. In June 1959, the Soviet Union unilaterally broke ties with China, cutting provision of materials and technology it badly needed. Mao Zedong decided to pay back early to Moscow debts totalling 1.973 billion yuan from 1960 to 1962, equal to 12 per cent of the defence budget at that time, much of it in the form of food. Even more money was spent on aid to 'brother' Communist parties in other countries.

A ruthless campaign against 'rightists' in 1957, in which an estimated 500,000 people were purged, created a sense of terror, in which no one dared criticise official policy.

In August 1958, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, the aims of which included the doubling of steel production in one year and the collectivisation of agriculture.

Millions of farmers were diverted into producing steel in small furnaces, whose output was useless.

Under intense pressure to report record harvests, local officials competed with one another to announce exaggerated results: these were used to determine how much grain the state took to supply the cities and for export.

From 1958-60, China was a net grain exporter. In many places, this left little or none for the local populace.

Yang describes the result of these policies in Xinyang, in Henan province . In 1958, 1.2 million people in the district, one-third of the workforce, were employed in making steel.

In 1959, its grain output was 1.629 million tonnes, a drop of 46.1 per cent on 1958: but the local government reported a crop of 3.21 million.

Based on these figures, the provincial government took 525,000 tonnes, leaving the people in Xinyang with an average of 82kg of grain per head for the whole year. With 17.5kg the average monthly consumption, the grain ran out after four months.

As people began to die, those who remained ate whatever they could - mice, sparrows, grass, corn stalks, tree bark, cotton fibre, mussel shells and even heron droppings.

Lu Baoguo, a Xinhua reporter in Xinyang at the time, told Yang what he remembered.

'In the second half of 1959, I took a long-distance bus from Xinyang to Luoshan and Gushi,' Mr Lu said. 'Out of the window, I saw one corpse after another in the ditches. On the bus, no one dared to mention the dead. In one county, Guangshan, one-third of the people had died. Although there were dead people everywhere, the local leaders enjoyed good meals and fine liquor.'

Yang asked Mr Lu why he did not report what he saw in the internal newspapers that are shown only to the party leaders in Beijing. 'I had seen people who had told the truth being destroyed,' Mr Lu said. 'Did I dare to write it?'

Yu Dehong, the secretary of a party official in Xinyang in 1959 and 1960, told Yang that the deaths increased after the 10th month of the lunar calendar in 1959.

'I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.'

Mr Yu lost six members of his family, including his father, two uncles and two aunts. Of the 75 people in his production brigade, 38 died in three months during the winter of 1959.

'The party committee of Xinyang reported to Beijing the deaths of 1.05 million people. I do not consider that too much,' Mr Yu said.

He said that to stay alive, people ate human flesh, even from members of their own families.

'In many villages, this tragedy was commonplace,' he told Yang. 'I cannot bring myself to talk of them.'

Yang said more than a million died in Xinyang, despite the fact that Henan's granaries held 1.25 million tonnes of grain: the neighbouring province of Hebei held at least 650,000 tonnes. 'In Xinyang, people starved at the doors of the grain warehouses,' he said.

'As they died, they shouted, 'Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us'. If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfil the delivery of grain.'

Yang said the number of deaths through unnatural causes in Henan province from 1959 to 1961 was 2.93 million. According to the Henan Statistical Yearbook of 2000, a public document, its population fell from 49.61 million in 1959 to 48.98 million in 1960 and 48.11 million in 1961.

Yang gives similarly detailed accounts of the famine in other provinces, including Sichuan , Gansu , Anhui , Jilin , Jiangsu , Guangdong, Shandong , Zhejiang , Yunnan , Guizhou and Hebei.

He said the famine 'was man-made. There was small-scale violence against the shortages and an increase in crime by the hungry but nothing large and organised. People were terrorised and did not dare oppose the government and the army'.

Ding Shu, a mainland historian whose own book on the famine, Ren Huo (Man-Made Calamity), was published in 1993 and who is a visiting scholar at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Yang's book was the most detailed and comprehensive work on the subject.

'My book was based on materials that were publicly available. His contains additional material. It is very valuable,' he said.

'Among scholars in China, there is no disagreement on the figure of 30 million dead. In my book I said at least 35 million, and that was based only on published material. Some said it was too low.

'I once asked a senior party official in Anhui for the figure in his province: he said that opinions were divided within the party' - between 4 million and 6 million.

I realised that the

tragedy in my family was not isolated ... This is a huge historical burden, which must be lifted

Yang Jisheng,

author of the book Tombstone