By Paul Mason
In the era whose secret he uncovered, a journalist's office would have looked just like the one where Yang Jisheng works now. The tiled floor, the grimy window panes, the desk piled two feet high with papers, envelopes and books. The Mao-era radiators. The cigarette ash and the dust.
Under Mao Zedong, Yang's good fortune was to find a job as a reporter with China's state-run Xinhua news agency. His misfortune had been to see his father die of hunger in 1961, at the height of the famine that killed an estimated 36 million people:
"When my dad died, I thought it was just my family's problem. I blamed myself because I hadn't gone back home to pick wild plants to feed my dad. Later on, the governor of Hubei province said millions of people had died. I was astonished," Yang says.
In the 1990s Yang, by now a senior editor at Xinhua, used his status to secretly research the truth about the famine in 12 different provincial archives:
"I could not say I was looking for data about the famine, I could only say I was looking for data about the history of China's agriculture policy. In the data, I found a lot of information about the famine, and people who starved from it. Some of the libraries allowed me to take photocopies; some only let me write the information down. These," he gestures casually at a teetering pile of brown envelopes on the floor, "are the photocopies".
Chinese communists launched the Great Leap Forward campaign under Mao Zedong's leadership
The result was Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine, published in the West this year to high acclaim.
Yang, aged 72, is neat, small, swaddled in two jumpers despite the shafts of winter sunlight that stream across his desk. He is rummaging through his shelves on the hunt for a book whose title is important: by a Western author whose name has slipped his mind.
"Something about slavery?" he says. I try the name Hayek and after a bit of transliteration it works. He had stumbled on Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom in a library and chuckles with mild scepticism when I tell him it is probably the most influential book in Western economics:
"Before I read Hayek, I had only read works the party wanted me to. Hayek says that to use the state to promote a utopia is very dangerous. In China that's exactly what they did. The utopia promoted by Marx, even though it is beautiful, it is very dangerous."
Even now, 50 years on, Chinese official history insists the famine of 1958-61 was a natural disaster. Yang's work demonstrates the famine's massive scale and its direct, political causes.
Agriculture was brutally collectivised, leaving peasants dependent on centrally distributed grain. Local cadres ordered the forced pooling of family kitchens, confiscating all ladles and punishing those who kept private food supplies.
Then, as Mao ordered rapid industrialisation during the Great Leap Forward, the grain supplies disappeared. Simultaneously local officials, terrified of failure, began to report fictional bumper harvests. Mao, meanwhile, publicly humiliated any party leader who voiced doubts. The result was the greatest famine in modern history.
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