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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 - Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher, Jian Guo Nutshell: a mix of five-star primary reportage & archival work with one-star reckless inferences & commentary.

Text is like Solzhenitsyn's [b:The Gulag Archipelago|70561|The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1170735849s/70561.jpg|2944012] insofar as it is an indictment, proceeding from the position of internal critique, written by an author as yet subject to the jurisdiction of the accused state. It is therefore written at the writer’s dire risk, and should be regarded as proof of the author's integrity and boldness.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn, however, this is no "literary investigation," stylized, ironic, or otherwise non-journalistic. Both Yang and Solzhenitsyn rely heavily on an accumulation of anecdotes, backed with statistics. In itself, the accumulation of anecdotes, the parade of horribles, can't be overemphasized. The statistics drawn from internal archives make this point all the more persuasive. This isn't to say that the anecdotes aren't an attempt at naked manipulation; recitation of individual tragedies, amidst the deaths of millions of persons, is a sort of micro-theatre, part and parcel to the genre of anti-communist literature. That doesn't make it wrong, of course--just obvious in its antecedents. I would nevertheless not deny the writer the moral force of his particularized evidence--and that evidence exerts irresistible force: what else might be said of numerous cases of anonymous cannibalism, patricidal cannibalism, pedophagia, up to and including the eating of one’s own minor children?

This volume is also, on the one hand, unlike [b:The Black Book of Communism|106169|The Black Book of Communism Crimes, Terror, Repression|Stéphane Courtois|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348453002s/106169.jpg|102344], which is an external critique that masks the local political goals of French anti-communists. On the other hand, Yang partakes of some of the standard anti-communist sleights of mind, such as indicting "communism" grossly (technically a reference to an economics), while focusing at times on carceral injustices, trifling ideological mass movements, want of parliamentary procedure, monopolization of education, police state thuggery, and so on. My criticism does not exhaust this book, however, as 1) Yang is also indicting "totalitarianism" at times, which sweeps up the items mentioned, and 2) Yang does focus on the economics of the Great Leap Forward, which is something that does not get much attention in some standards of the anti-communist genre.

Translated text was much longer in its original publication; translation is heavily edited, containing only "four of the original 'provincial' chapters, the six 'central,' or 'policy,' chapters, and five (instead of eight) 'analysis' chapters" (xiv). Includes a chronology of major events, extensive notes, bibliography, index. There’s also a provincial map included, but this volume should likely be read with an atlas on hand, as the included map does not break out prefectures, counties, cities, towns--and the narrative is sufficiently detailed to involve very local micro-detail (a great virtue).

The translated provincial chapters detail Henan, Sichuan, Gansu, and Anhui. Three of these are the top three in terms of highest unnatural deaths from the famine and within the top four regarding highest unnatural mortality rate, whereas the fourth has the eighth highest death toll and is the fifth highest death rate (see handy chart at 395-96). The chapters are well selected, then, to maximize the propaganda effect for the English-speaking audience. By contrast, Shanxi province had the seventh highest death rate, but the lowest death toll (~60,000 human persons) during the famine.

Author presents numerous calculations for overall death and birth rates, and settles on "36 million unnatural deaths" and "shortfall of 40 million births" (430) for the years 1958-62. Though author's preferred toll is on the high end of the range of estimation, I feel no need to dispute his numbers.

Similarly, author here avoids the normal anti-communist cliche, as one finds in Richard Pipes, say, that all of this commie stuff was just a waste, with no accomplishments. Author, rather, is willing to admit certain accomplishments, such as the precipitous rising of capital construction, which pulled laborers from the fields (90) or a brief list of “necessary and successful“ irrigation canals (125). I don't endorse the make-big-omelet/break-million-eggs approach to totalitarian development projects, but will merely insist that the famine paid a price that needn't've thereby been paid later. We see how that might work in [b:The Political Economy of Hunger|258325|The Political Economy of Hunger Selected Essays|Jean Drèze|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348927966s/258325.jpg|250375], by Dreze & Sen, who compare post-war India & China, noting that the Chinese regime caused the deaths of over 30 million human persons during the Great Leap Forward, whereas India's parliamentary system did not suffer any such massive, concentrated loss. However, China's post-war policies added 10-15 more years than India's to life expectancy, a result of medical care, infrastructure development, and so on. Outside the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese lead in life expectancy meant that "every eight years or so more people in addition die in India--in comparison with Chinese mortality rates--than the total number that died in the gigantic Chinese famine."

We might also call attention to Sen's work in [b:Poverty and Famines|173962|Poverty and Famines An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation|Amartya Sen|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348225024s/173962.jpg|3314345], which develops the definitional work at issue in discussing famine: "Starvation is a normal feature in many parts of the world, but this phenomenon of 'regular' starvation has to be distinguished from violent outbursts of famine" (39). Poverty "can reflect relative deprivation as to absolute dispossession," and can "exist, and be regarded as acute, even when no serious starvation exists" whereas "starvation does imply poverty" (id.). Famine in 1958-62 aside, Sen notes that the "elimination of starvation in socialist economies--for example China--seems to have taken place even without a dramatic rise in food availability per head, and indeed, typically the former has preceded the latter" (7).

Yang doesn’t mention "British refusal to ban rice exports from famine-affected Hunan" in 1906 or from Changsha in 1910 (Sen 161). This latter omission is particularly salient, as Yang argues that “With official priority placed on feeding the burgeoning urban population and importing machinery in exchange for grain exports, grain was all but snatched from peasant mouths” (19).

The Chinese state exported substantial grains in order to generate the currency necessary to purchase industrial equipment abroad. This is no mere incidental, but rather was intrinsic to the Great Leap Forward: industrializing as quickly as possible to catch the UK, the US, the USSR. Chapter 9 lays out the numbers in several succinct charts, regarding the amount of grains grown, procured, exported, and so on (320-49). It is no defense to suggest that someone else is guilty of one’s own crime--however, it suggests that sale of foods on the international market by the Maoists is the issue, rather than the property forms or the political despotism. We note that the same mechanism was in place during the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s: “at the beginning of the thirties, grain production decreased, bread was in short supply, and millions of peasants were starving,” and yet “Stalin insisted on exporting great quantities of grain” (Medvedev, [b:Let History Judge|744407|Let History Judge The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism|Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348012607s/744407.jpg|730556], at 69). The common theme of the British exports, the Chinese exports, and the Soviet exports is that they are global market participation for profit without regard for the livelihood of the workers who produced the grain. The problem, then, is insufficient workers’ rights--that is, insufficient socialism.

The practice of imposing hardship on the working population in order to procure exportable crops reminds one rather of IMF austerity programs; Zhou boasted afterward that China “not only did not borrow one yuan in foreign debt, but we also repaid nearly all of our past foreign debt” and also contributed “aid to socialist and nationalist countries” (458). (Author cites this language as evidence that China’s foreign debt was not a proximate cause of the great famine. I’m inclined to agree that repayment of the debt was not the primary or even a major cause.) Export is maximized, services to internal population minimized, debts repaid. This is violation of the basic Marxist principle of providing for the producers; instead, the state expropriated the producers, the standard for capitalist economics: “intolerable is the fact that while China’s people starved, the government continued to export large quantities of grain” (Yang 450).

Even though author cites Sen otherwise for the proposition that "no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press" (16), the passages that I‘ve quoted above are not mentioned in this translation. Author continues with Sen: "China, although it was in many ways doing much better economically than India, still managed (unlike India) to have a famine" (id.). Given Sen’s other work, I find this usage of Sen to be at best manipulative.

Top rate is the presentation of memoranda, speeches, and other official statements by Mao, Zhou, Liu, and so on, regarding policy, ideological struggles, and the famine. These details are fascinating.

It is nevertheless the synthesis of the anecdotes/archives with the political memoranda/speeches that reveals author's recklessness. For instance, it’s routine to quote some memoranda from the government, and then note, post hoc ergo propter hoc that many deaths followed thereafter. So, Wu Zhipu, Henan’s governor at the pertinent time, is called out on the carpet for finding “grievous rightist errors” in the population and setting impractical, unrealistic industrial and agricultural targets (see e.g. 72-73 et seq.), leading inexorably to three millions dead in Henan (83). This process of quoting dumb commietalk and then highlighting deaths is pedestrian in the genre. Now, lest I sound like a scumbag defense attorney, the plaintiff lawyer in me counter-argues that it is a case of res ipsa loquitur: given the state monopoly over procurement and distribution, as well as the carceral institutions that compelled work and dictated residence, what other cause is even possible, let alone plausible? There can be no serious objection, as far as I’m concerned, that state policy is a proximate cause of the great famine--but the attempt to isolate policy as the sole cause, or, further, to isolate remote-seeming commietalk as the cause, is woefully inadequate. Famine historically is a political occurrence, with policy roots.

Another type of reckless inference is a repeated insistence that “no one dared speak the truth” (119, 191, &c.)--because of repressive techniques of the carceral apparatus--regarding exaggerated grain yields, overinvestment in steel production, failures of capital projects, food shortages, death tolls. While it is certainly fair to state that repressive techniques caused a chilling effect among those who knew that problems existed, it is inconsistent, page by page even, to suggest that no one dared speak the truth. We are, in fact, treated to many discussions of central committee members, local cadres, provincial officials, non-party members, and so on requesting relief, making grievances, filing oppositional memoranda, even taking arms against the state. Liu himself authored a tract against “rash advance” in industry and agriculture, for which he endured censure and underwent self-criticism. Zhou spoke out of turn and was disciplined. So, when Communist ideas are said to be “etched into every soul” (495), it can hardly be taken seriously, if there exist “right deviationists,” “right opportunists,” “left adventurists,” “left opportunists,” bourgeois peasants, degenerate elements, feudal remnants, and so on. We have, that is, an extraordinarily good presentation by author of the multi-layered debates that occurred at all levels during the great famine--but then we get categorical inferences that bear little relation to the evidence presented in the text, and arise instead out of the febrile clichés of the anti-communist genre.

The reckless inferential chains never become dishonest--except for the refutation of the official thesis that weather caused a natural disaster, leading inexorably to famine (452). Author contends, first, that the state “blamed it all on Mother Nature” (id.). The very next paragraphs, however, quote Liu for the proposition that “natural disaster was not the chief cause” and that the famine was “three parts natural disaster and seven parts man-made disaster” (id.). Author, second, contends that “the three years of the famine” were “in no way exceptional” (453). Analysis of rainfall and temperature thereafter follows, with several useful charts (453-56). Author suggests that some years during the famine were flood years, but only moderately, not worse than other years with no famine, whereas some years in the famine were drought years, each less severe than other times with no famine. Also, “divergence in [temperature productivity] for the years 1958-61 is not the largest for the forty-year period” (456). How weasely is that? The problem with the analysis is that each year is examined in isolation from other years. So, 1960 had a moderate drought, “less serious than in 1955, 1963, 1966, 1971, 1978, 1986, and 1988” (453), whereas 1959 and 1961 had less flooding than 1954, 1973, and so on (id.). Ergo, no weather problems! The chart helps visualize the effect: 1956-57 are normal, then 1958 has moderate drought, 1959 moderate flood, 1960 moderate drought, 1961 moderate flood--1962 is back to normal range (454). Cursory review of the other years cited for drought or flood are bordered by normal years on at least one side. The great famine sits astride four straight years of abnormality, alternating drought and flood. The aggregate effect, however, is not considered in author’s analysis.

Davis, in [b:Late Victorian Holocausts|7859|Late Victorian Holocausts El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World|Mike Davis|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1352512855s/7859.jpg|10888], has considered this aggregation: “the ‘strong’ El Nino of 1957-59, which also produced a famous famine and nearly a million refugees in the Brazilian sertao was the likely culprit responsible for the onset of drought in 1958-59” (251). Davis passes along that “for the first time in human memory, people could actually wade across the Yellow River” (id.). Further review of the literature produces the conclusion that “‘the weather was the main cause of the enormous grain-yield losses in 1960 and 1961,’ but that the communes could still have survived the crisis without mass mortality if Beijing had not stupidly reduced its own sown acreage in 1959 (to divert labor to public works and backyard steel-making) and criminally enforced confiscatory procurement quotas in 1959-60,” the latter a reference to the export of grains (id).

The ultimate political thesis here is that the cause of 76 million aggregate human losses was "a ruthless suppression of political dissent with a highly centralized planned economy to produce a system that Mao Zedong himself characterized as 'Marx plus Qin Shihuang,'" a "combination of Soviet-style autocracy and ancient Chinese despotism" (17). The system at fault, therefore, is a palimpsest of the very ancient bleeding into the most modern, much as Pipes himself has described regarding the Russian Empire, a "peculiar type of political authority, blending native and Mongol elements, which arose in Moscow once the Golden Horde began to lossen its grip" ([b:Russia under the Old Regime|206954|Russia under the Old Regime (Penguin History)|Richard Pipes|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348724361s/206954.jpg|200302] at 57). At the other end of the spectrum, Medvedev considers, then rejects, the popular thesis that "to explain Stalinism we have to return to earlier and earlier epochs of Russian history, very likely to the Tartar yoke"(Medvedev at 359)--but also concurs that "for centuries the cult of the tsar, the ideology of absolutism, had been ingrained in Russia" (Id., at 364). Those "centuries," we find, are long, as "the Novgorod Chronicle began referring to the new ruler not only as Khan Batu of the Mongols, but also as Tsar Batu, a title that literally meant Caesar Batu, signifying a new united rule over the many warring princely families of Russia," [b:Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World|93426|Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World|Jack Weatherford|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320531289s/93426.jpg|2468245] (150). Mao's reference to Qin Shihuang summons a ghost greater than a millennium more ancient than the Mongols in Russia, in view of which I am genuinely staggered. Mao accordingly became "the most powerful emperor who had ever ruled China" (17).

One very interesting late chapter addresses the issue of why, when “the Great Famine of the 1960s was unprecedented in scale,” did it not "give rise to major social turmoil?” (465). We are thereafter treated to a roll call of uprisings that did occur, as well as an approved list of totalitarian social controls that prevented rebellion. Uprisings “were more likely in the ethnic minority regions” (id.). A number of the uprisings described occur in and around Yunnan, which borders Burma in part. Author doesn’t get into it, but we know from Blum’s [b:Killing Hope US Military and CIA Interventions|78130|Killing Hope U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II--Updated Through 2003|William Blum|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1354209919s/78130.jpg|75452] that many of Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists took unlawful refuge in Burma and, organized and supplied by the CIA, began making incursions into Yunnan in the 1950s (Blum, at 23-24). The nationalists raided across the border and developed opium production in the Golden Triangle (25). So, some real subversion, omitted by Yang.

Text devolves from there, erecting a “communist fundamentalism” conceit (492-93), later to become “Marxist fundamentalism” (520), leading into the hackneyed suggestion that Mao gave us Pol Pot (521). An lengthy quotation of Herr Hayek (486) late in the volume seals it.

Last, an early admission reveals that the famine during the Great Leap Forward is different in degree, but not in kind, from prior Chinese famines: "most severe famine previously recorded occurred in 1928-30 [...] broke all previous records, but still killed only 10 million people" (13). Also, in 1920 through 1936, crop failures took the lives of 18.36 million people" (id.). These are crass statements, and reveal that this volume is, in part but not in whole, a hit piece, a concept assassination. "Only" 10 million? “Crop failures”? Famine is always already a political event. The point, of course, is that there is an interest here in minimizing prior famines, suppressing other parades of horribles, in order to effect a hayekian policy preference. This last is damning, in my not-at-all humble opinion.

All that said, a most substantial book on a most important subject. Highest recommendation.