Hungry Ghosts : Mao's Secret Famine
by Jasper Becker
March 1998 Henry Holt & Co

A gripping, gruesome history of one of the worst famines ever, all the more tragic because it was almost entirely man made. Most estimates say that about 30 million Chinese people died during the famine of the 1950s and 1960s, caused largely by Mao's "Great Leap Forward."

Basically Mao decided to reject western notions of science and scientific method, and to employ instead new agricultural techniques inspired by Marxist/Leninist theory. Among these:

  • soil should be "deep-plowed" (i.e. when plowing, plow several feet down instead of several inches). This, of course, destroyed all the top soil and nothing much would grow afterwards.
  • grain should be planted as close together as possible because the wheat stalks are like workers and will cooperate and not rob each other of resources. This, of course, isn't true, wheat stalks DO compete for the same resources and crop yields were tiny or non-existent. and
  • Genetics smacked of eugenics, therefore it was rejected. Instead, anything could become anything else. That means a lemon tree should be able to become an orange tree given the proper reeducation.

So what happened in the countrysides is that the agricultural ministers were told to enact these new policies. They did, crop yields were tiny, but because to report such a thing to their superiors was most likely to be executed, they instead reported bumper crops. "Great!" said the government. "We could use some more grain in the cities. And lets send some to Russia and sell some to generate money!" So the countryside exported almost all of their food and the peasants were left to starve, even as China was exporting more grain than ever before.

Many people died of malnutrition. Many more died of disease. Many also died because the local agricultural authorities poisoned the seed grain to prevent people from taking it from the fields and eating it. They ate it anyway. A few people, especially children, were cannibalized.

Some people defend Mao by saying he didn't know what was going on -- all his advisors kept telling him that the countryside was producing bumper crops, or that if they weren't it was the result of flooding or natural disasters. That's hard to believe, especially since the US state department did know what was going on. They chose not to do or say anything about it, however, because it was just Communists dying and that just weakens the Communist threat.

There is a good book written by a survivor of the famine called Grass Soup. (I forgot to mention, people should be able to digest grass if they are sufficiently revolutionary.)

Just a small aside: Even though I was raised in a strongly anti-Communist area during the Cold War, I actually never had much of a problem with Communism. I thought, "Well, at least everyone has enough to eat." (This book really changed my mind about a lot of things.) Also, I still think Marx was right-on about a lot of things, and that rabid anti-Communism has caused almost as much bloodshed as any revolution. (see: Rigoberta Menchu, Chiapas,Pinochet and anything else you can find about Central & South America and US foreign policy post-WWII)

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