China′s forgotten famine | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 22.06.2012
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China's forgotten famine

The Chinese government does not like to talk about certain parts of its past - like the worst-ever famine caused by man. Yang Jisheng's book, 'Tombstone,' which deals with the issue, has been published in German.

Between the years 1959 and 1961, 30 to 40 million people died as a result of Mao Zedong's failed attempt at industrialization.

Yang Jisheng researched the catastrophe for years and documented his findings. His book, "Tombstone: the Great Chinese Famine" is blacklisted on the Chinese market. On June 21, it was published in German under the title "Grabstein."

Yang Jisheng himself can remember the hunger. And the death. As a youth and an adamant supporter of founder of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong, he experienced his father dying from hunger in 1959. Yang's father was one of the early victims of the "Great Leap Forward" movement that began at the end of the 1950s. The campaign was an attempt by the Communist Party to rapidly industrialize the country.

"I was in school at the time and I remember writing on the chalkboard about the "Great Leap Forward." Then children from the village came and told me my father was dying," Yang recalls.

Yang was not able to save his father. He will never forget what he lived through during that time - how the people had to eat anything they could get their hands on. In some cases, they ate meat from dead bodies.

"They had no other choice. Eating human flesh was the last resort. There was simply no food," Yang says, adding that people also ate tree bark and roots from grasses.

A group of laborers with the first blast furnace of the new steel producing center at Wuhan, China in 1958

Farmers were turned into steel workers

"There were no fish in the river. Some people even ate cow dung or clay. Many died because of that."

Rural tragedy

The "Great Leap Forward" was above all a rural tragedy. That's why today there is hardly any literature or photo documentation of it.

Mao Zedong's goal was to transform China's agricultural land into an industrialized, Communist utopia. Farmers were forced to live in communes, which caused agrarian production to collapse. Yet record harvests were reported to party leadership and much of the little food that was produced was sent to the cities.

Those who were suffering were not able to speak out against the system - all opposition was brutally suppressed. Tens of thousands of farmers were directed to work on various dubious large-scale projects and stopped cultivating the fields. They were instructed to increase steel production by melting down scrap metal in primitive ovens. Pots and pans and even tools were melted down. It was a big mistake with catastrophic consequences, says Yang.

"At that time, Mao was number one. He was the decision maker. But it would be oversimplifying to blame everything on him alone. Other high-ranking party members were also responsible - at least partly. But the main problem was the totalitarian system itself. Whenever mistakes were made, the system made it very difficult to fix. There was no room for corrective action."

It took Yang Jisheng years to research and gather documents on the horror and brutality of the party cadres. Working as a high-ranking journalist for China's official news agency, Xinhua, he was able to gain access to sensitive documents from the party archives, saying he was researching rural development. He also spoke to a countless number of surviving witnesses.

Coping with the past

The Communist Party's official version of history does not include the whole truth about the "Great Leap Forward." The party has to avoid attracting too much criticism, and thus jeopardizing its tight grip on power. That's why the famine is only briefly mentioned in the history books.

A steel factory in a people's commune in Shanghai

The rural workforce turned their attention from the fields to factories

"Our country still cannot confront its own history. That is why I took the risk of writing this book. But (political) pressure is an indication just how necessary it is to tell the truth."

Nonetheless, there are signs that China is gradual opening up. In Chinese language, Yang's book was only allowed to be sold in Hong Kong. But he has not had any trouble yet.

On the Internet recently, there was a surprising public debate on the number of people who died in the devastating famine. And a documentary filmmaker from Beijing started a project on it. Yang says keeping this event in the collective memory is vital.

He titled the book "Mubei," or "Tombstone," because "it is a tombstone for my father. Secondly, it is a tombstone for the 35 million people who died. And thirdly, it is a tombstone for the totalitarian system."

Author: Ruth Kirchner / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams

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