Book Review: Tombstone, The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng

I had been hunting for this book for long, and was delighted to have finally laid my hand on it. A highly disturbing book, it describes and analyses the worst man made famine in human history during the period 1958-62 that was inflicted by the rulers of their own country over its own people in China, a complete rarity in the world; but then that is what Communism and Communists are capable of.  Frankly, I never underestimate the capacity of a Communist to be a willing participant in murder!

Author Yang Jisheng, investigated and wrote this book to ‘erect a tombstone for my father, who died of starvation in 1959’. Using his authority as a distinguished journalist working with Xinhua news agency, in the 1990s he began researching the famine, using his reporting trips to access archives, collecting secret party records and interviewing people who had survived the famine. His research revealed that 3.6 crore (36 million) people starved to death in China from 1958 to 1962. Starvation also caused a sharp drop in birth rate leading to an estimated shortfall of 40 million births during those years in China. Seen in context 3.6 crore (36 million) was 450 times more than the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and greater than the number of people killed in World War 1. Further research showed Yang’s estimate to be an underestimation, for an official fact-finding mission in early 1980s estimated that 4.2 crore (42 million) to 4.3 crore (43 million) people had starved to death in the famine. Objectively speaking the Chinese Communist leadership killed more Chinese that what the brutal Imperial Japanese Army had managed to do. So much for Communists as liberators and nationalists!

Yang’s book remains banned in China for it clearly holds Mao, his colleagues and Communist party responsible for the death of crores in China. The authoritativeness of the documentation that he carried out seems to have further appalled the Communist leadership. The 2 volume masterpiece running into 1200 was first published in Chinese Mandarin in Hong Kong in 2008, and ran into 8 reprints within two years. The English translation that I got my hand on is an abridged version, running into 582 pages excluding appendices.

The book starts with young Yang being informed by his school mate that his father was about to die due to starvation and that he should rush home from his boarding school. He reaches home to see his famished father breathe his last. The house had nothing to eat, the trees around the house reduced to barkless trunk with even its root dug up and eaten leaving only a dry hole. No dogs, chicken, fish even bird droppings were available. Deeply brainwashed as a young Communist, he thought of his father’s death initially as a personal tragedy.  It was only later that he became aware that the tragedy had not only befallen on him and his family but on the whole country. It was the Cultural revolution which made him question the views of the Communist establishment when much to his astonishment, many revolutionaries whom he revered, were now being branded as corrupt and debased. ‘I began to lose faith in authority and officialdom’ he argues.

He blames Communist totalitarianism for the millions of death that happened during the famine. ‘The CCP’s dictatorship of the proletariat made Mao the most powerful emperor that ever ruled China….In 1955, in accordance with Mao’s wishes, economic policy took on a ‘rash advance’ marked by high production targets at high speed that burdened the national economy…The regime considered no cost or coercion too great in making the realization of the Communist ideals the supreme goal of the entire population. The peasants bore the chief burden of realizing these ideals; they shouldered the cost of industrialization, of collectivization, of subsidizing the cities, and of the extravagant habits of the officials at every level. Most of the cost was imposed through the state monopoly for purchasing and marketing. With official priority placed on feeding the burgeoning urban population and importing machinery in exchange for grain exports, grain was all but snatched from the peasants’ mouth…The inadequacy of the grain left after the peasants sold their ‘surplus’ to the government was one of the reasons so many starved to death.’

The collectivization of agriculture deprived the peasants the power to decide what would be planted over how much area and by what means. All agricultural products including food stuff were procured and marketed by the state and all goods of daily life were supplied through a system of state issued ration coupons and could be exchanged only in the locality in which the households were registered (hukou). Further under the hukou systems the peasants could engage only in agricultural labour and could leave their villages only with the permission of production heads of the collectives. In case the collective failed to supply the daily necessities the peasants had no recourse but to starve.

Further, communal kitchens were established which forcibly replaced home kitchens. Home stoves were dismantled and the Communists forced common people to hand over all cooking equipment’s, table chairs food stuffs etc. to the communal kitchens. These communal kitchens initially wasted food believing in Mao’s pronouncements that there was ‘too much food’ (all based on inflated and false figures of production reported from provinces and prefectures), but when no replenishments came after the initial stocks were exhausted, starvation set in amongst common folks. These communal kitchens became bastions of privilege for communist cadres. Yang writes, ‘By controlling the communal kitchens, cadres were able to impose the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ on every individual stomach, as anyone who proved disobedient could be deprived of food.’

The book details the brutal punishments meted out on villagers for extracting food grains from them as well as on those conscientious officials who saw figures of production being fudged or who were truthful in highlighting the plight of peasants. They were tortured, brutally and repeatedly beaten, publicly humiliated and accused of rightwing tendencies. Many paid with their lives and careers.  

The most poignant and disturbing part of the book is the horrific survival choices that people made to survive; many keep one child alive by starving others to death, deserted one’s family fleeing to another province knowing that this would lead the local CCP to kill their family members, protected themselves by informing on one’s neighbor, selling themselves to an official for few morsels of food (for the officials always had plenty to eat).

The most gut wrenching stuff that Yang’s investigation reveals is the extent to which cannibalism was resorted to by people to survive. Not only did people eat dead relatives to survive, they also dug up corpses to eat. In Liuchangying village when the adult members of a family died, their three surviving children stayed alive by eating the corpses over several months. In their interview with Yang, they informed him that the heels and the palms tasted the best! In Panggwang village, an 18-year-old girl drowned her 5-year-old cousin and ate him. Another girl aged 14, was also driven by hunger to eat her brother’s flesh.

While reading the book I could not get over the fact that this was only the part one of the death and destruction that Communists and that destructive ideology of Communism had imposed on China through the Great Leap Forward. The part two of the death and destruction was still to come in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution was unleashed. But then such mass killings are child plays for the Communists, they revel in them. The common factor amongst all Communists be it Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Che, East European leaders, North Korean leaders etc. is the ease with which they have murdered millions. But since their murder apologist followers have complete hegemony over academia and media, sadly their crimes against humanity have never been called out. No Communist has ever faced a Nuremberg kind of trial, or is condemned for believing in this ideology. Surprisingly, (s)he holds it like a badge of honour. Isn’t it surprising that one can still proudly call oneself a Communist though the number of deaths that the followers of that ideology have been responsible for exceeds the abominable fascists by millions? It is for this reason why books like these and ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ should be made compulsory reading for all. This is what Communism looks like/operates when it is put to practice. All the ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’ and ‘to each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ is as fictitious as the Indian traditionalists fetishizing about the existence of Pushpak Vimana in Treta Yug.


Chinese aggression in COVID times!

(Illustration: Nichole Shinn for Bloomberg Businessweek)

While the world fights the pandemic of COVID 19, China is busy fighting the world and its own people. Apart from mobilizing troops in Eastern Ladakh against India, it has been actively militarizing the South China sea, crushing protests in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, Japan and the other South East Asian counties. Internally, it has been quelling dissent in Tibet and Xinxiang with an iron hand. So what drives this aggressive Chinese behavior?

President Xi Jinping and his China Dream
Since his ascent to power in November 2012, President Xihas become the most powerful person in China. Not only has he built a personality cult around himself but with the abolition of presidential term limitsin 2018, he is now President for life. He heads both the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chinese Military Commission (CMC) thereby controlling all government, party and military institutions of China. He has centralized the conduct of foreign policy under his leadership with the creation of the National Security Committee (NSC) in Nov 2013 thereby limiting the influence of other institutions and interest groups. His ‘China Dream” providesfor ‘two centennial goals’. First,that of China becoming a ‘moderately prosperous society’ with a per capita GDP of $10,000 by 2021, (the 100th anniversary of the CPC), and second,of China becoming a ‘fully developed, rich, and powerful’ nation by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China).As against Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of ‘hide your capability and bide your time (taoguangyan hui), Xi in October 2013 gave the slogan of ‘strive for achievement’ (fenfayouwei) signaling a more aggressive and pro-active foreign policy. The PLA, under Xi has acquired a larger voice in foreign policy, a fact helped by Xi’s military experience (he served as vice-premier in the Central Military Commandbetween 1979-82). Xi has brought about military modernization and reforms and exhorted the armed forces to be ready for war to defend China’s core interests. Xi seeks to promote China’s political and moral vision and international leadership through his advocacy of ‘great power diplomacy’ (daguowaijiao) with Chinese characteristics. His vision is of a hierarchical international order wherein China is at the ‘core’ of the international order and the other states at the ‘periphery’. China as ‘core’acts as the international rule maker and the‘peripheral’ states depend on it for prosperity and survival.

Return of the ideology
While pragmatism defined the conduct of Chinese politics during Deng and Jiang, under Xi ideology has become an important component of Chinese politics. In 2013, he issued Document 9, which warned against the infiltration of western ideas and values in China such ashuman rights, media independence, neo liberalism and civic participation. In his article published in Qiushi, he sought further strengthening of CPC rule over China. China was asked torefrain from copying the model and practices of other countries. This ‘return to ideology’ and the attendant complications of Chinese international engagement however precedes President Xi starting with his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Since 2002, Huhad started rolling back the limited economic and legal reforms initiated by Deng and Jiang. State PSU’s were supported and subsidized at the cost of private enterprises. Jintao aggressively pushed China’s maritime interests, redoubled China’s efforts to build ports and naval bases throughout the Indian Ocean under his ‘string of pearls’ strategy, Chinese navy started regular patrolling and exercising in the South China sea including the territorial waters of other countries, they harassed foreign companies exploring oil, militarized the islets, strengthened the Sansha administrative district tasked with governing territories in the South China sea and extended control over Scarborough Shoal. Alarmed by democratic movements like the Arab Spring, he ruthlessly quelled all dissent through his powerful internal security czar Zhou Yongkang. He humiliated President Obama during his trip to China in 2009 lecturing him on US economic policy and human rights, and disallowed him from speaking to ordinary Chinese. In many ways President Xi has continued with the policy of Hu Jintao.

Slowing economy, rising nationalism
As to the question as to how close is China to achieving Xi’s ‘China Dream’, the path does not seem easy. Economic growth has slowed down from the double digits in the 2000s to 6.1 per cent in 2019. The lack of transparency in arriving at the growth figures – the same person Ning Jizhe is responsible for both setting the targets of GDP growth as well as measuring achievements – makes many analysts skeptical of the veracity of these growth figures. Brookings Institute estimates that China has overestimated its GDP by 1.7 per cent every year. Revenue growth of China has slowed to 3.8 per cent in 2019 compared to 6.2 percent in 2018 (was 7.4 per cent in 2017), while expenditure continues to grow at 8.1 per cent. This has led to widening fiscal deficit at 4.9 per cent of GDP in 2019 with the IMF estimating the shortfall in government revenues at more than 12 per cent of GDP. These have impacted fund commitments for OBOR and induced cuts in funds of military modernization. China now seems reluctant to pay for the construction of a port in Myanmar and no progress has been made on road and rail building to Nepal as was agreed to in 2015. According to the estimates of Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese defense spending may actually fall in real terms in 2020. The J-20 fighter programme is experiencing problems as are the construction of the proposed six aircraft carriers. The plans for four nuclear powered carriers has been shelved indefinitely. With foreign firms seeking to relocate out of China and Chinese firms facing a push back from other nations, unemployment figures are as high as 70-80 million in China. Though Xi still remains all powerful, voices of dissent have started to grow. CPC leaders like Ren Zhiqiang and intellectuals like Xu Zongrun, Xu Zhiyong, Yu Linqui have asked Xi to step down.
Aggressive behavior against other states and promoting nationalism domestically, has long been the chosen strategy of Chinese leadership during periods of domestic discontent and challenge to their rule, Xi being no exception. This helps him externalize his problems.

Chinese self-perception, historical narratives
China is an ancient civilization ruled bypowerful dynasties who subjugated and ruled over peripheral states. Chinesehave long considered themselves to be the ‘centre of the world’, the Middle Kingdom (zhongguo). The Sino-centric world view is reflected in the expression ‘tian xia’, meaning ‘all under the heaven’,which belonged to China. This perception of greatness continues to influence the Chinese mind till date. However, the Chinese were in for a rude shock when the Treaty of Nanking (1842) was imposed on the Qing dynasty by the western colonial powers after the first opium war (1839).Apart from Britain, China was defeated by the Russians and the Japanese. The territory of the Chinese empire shrunk to nearly one third and in public perception,China was ‘carved up like a melon’ (guafen). The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) considers this period from 1839 till October 1949 as the ‘century of humiliation’. During this period, not only did China lose territory but also control over its internal and external policies and its international standing.This narrative of ‘century of humiliation’ continues to impact the imagination of the Chinese – both people and its government. The Chinese government led by the CPC seeks to undo this humiliation and regain the power, prestige, dignity and territory of the erstwhile Chinese empire. The west (including Japan) are still projected in the propaganda narrative as rapacious powers seeking to expand their territories and power at the cost of a peaceful China. China can resist these hostile powers only by being strong – both economically and militarily – and by being led by a strong government under the CPC.
It is this will to power that has made China follow policies that has made it emerge the giant it is today. Not only is it the second largest economy (largest in PPP terms) in the world (14.14 trillion dollars), it is the number one country in manufacturing output (28 per cent in 2018) and global trade (12.4 per cent in 2018) with the largest foreign exchange reserves (3.15 trillion dollars). Its military budget at 181.1 billion dollars (2020) is just second to the United States. In 2019 with 58,000 patent applications, it overtook the USA to become the country filing the largest number of patent applications with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). It is one of the world leaders in emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and semi-conductors. It proposes to spend a trillion dollars to build transport infrastructure around the world so that Pax-Sinica can be realized.

China’s core interests
That this powerful China is never ever humiliated again,CPC has from time to time spelled out certain non-negotiable‘core interests’. These are protection of national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of China, national unification, protection of Chinese communist political system, social stability and economic development. The CPC believes that these core interests were compromised when China was weak,and now that it is powerful it should pursue its core interests with vigour, even if the world considers it aggressive. Therefore,China takes an uncompromisingly hard line on the South China sea, brands Tibetans and Uyghurs as ‘splittists’ and represses them, clamps down on democratic protests in Hong Kong and passes the ‘anti-secession’ law in 2005 allowing it to use force for the unification of Taiwan with the mainland if that does not happen peacefully.
In conclusion it can be said that a host of factors, both personality driven as well as historical and structural lie at the root of this aggressive behavior by China. With the economy slowing, international push back, rise of nationalistic sentiments and growing dissent against Xi domestically, the world needs to brace up for more aggression, not less from the Chinese.

My first videocast: What drives Chinese aggression in these times of COVID?

Dear friends,

This is my first videocast on why China is behaving the way it is during these challenging times, when the world is battling COVID 19 and also an economic meltdown. In case you like the video, kindly give it a like, share it and subscribe to my channel. I will keep bringing you more videos in future.

Book Review: The Emperor Far Away: Travels At The Edge Of China – David Eimer

Finished reading

This book named on an ancient Chinese proverb, ‘The hills are high and the emperor is far away’ is an excellent travelogue by David Eimer, the Post correspondent and the former China correspondent of Britain Sunday Telegraph, who travelled around the periphery of China between 2005 to 2012 to understand the lives of Chinese ethnic minorities (China recognises 55 of them and they are said to number about a 100 million) inhibiting the periphery of China. His travels took him to Xinxiang, Tibet, Yunan, Dongbei and to Heilongjiang. Interestingly, to circumvent the restrictions that Mr. Eimer would face in visiting some of these minority areas as a journalist, he used his second passport (which the Chinese don’t know about) which was stamped with a tourist visa.

His travels to Xinxiang and Tibet clearly reveal the chafe that the Uighurs and the Tibetans feel under the Han Chinese rule. There is a lot of distrust and resentment between these minorities and the Han Chinese population and the government. The feeling is mutual with the Hans too not having too much love lost for them. One Han which the author met characterised the Uighurs as Pandas, few in number and coddled by the government.   On the other hand, a young Uighur tells the author that we are not like the Chinese, we are Muslims and believe in Allah, they in turn believe only in money. Adherence to Islam is seen as a major problem by the regime and the Chinese government has done all in its power to control Islamic beliefs and practices. It has taken over the mosques and there is the China Islamic Association which appoints all Imams. Those under 18 are barred from going to mosques and Uighur only schools are also banned. This makes the Uighurs fear for their language and traditions. However, Uighurs still try and keep their own version of Islam alive by praying in some of the older non-governmental mosques. The author describes the changes he noticed in Kashgar, (a 1000 year old city), from the time he visited it earlier as a student. He mentions that the entire old city has been bulldozed in the name of modernisation and replaced with concrete apartment blocks. This obviously makes it easier for the police to monitor the citizens and their activities.

The situation is not much different in Tibet. During his entire trip there he is shadowed by an appointed guide with the old part of Lhasa city subjected to 24 hour armed patrols. (As a Hindu what was fascinating for me was his trek around the Mount Kailasa and Mansarovar. I did not know that Kailasa was a holy place for the Buddhist, Jains as well as the animists like Bon worshippers.) Further it was difficult for both the Uighurs and Tibetans it is to leave China as they are discriminated against also in issuance of passports. Generally, the young find it difficult to obtain a passport.

Interestingly the author finds different and subtle ways by which minorities have found ways to resist the Chinese (Han) government attempts at domination and homogenization. While the Uighurs show their resistance by open acts of terrorism and the Tibetans by their monks committing self-immolation, the Dais living in the sub-tropical climate of Dailand in Yunnan province do so by maintaining their own and ‘wearing a smile’ as the author says. They are seen as the ‘model’ minorities by the Chinese and so the government does not take a hard line here. But they maintain a janus like face and maintain a low profile seemingly being the ‘model’ minority but in their private space maintain their culture and traditions thus resisting homogenization.

The author takes a journey down the Mekong river in a boat in the area bordering Myanmar and Thailand, probably one of the most dangerous areas of the world which forms part of the infamous drug producing and supplying ‘golden triangle’. He manages to make a journey to the narco-state of Wa sitting at the border of China and Burma which is effectively independent. His host is the General of the Wa province and he describes a night spent there inhaling meth with hookers in a club having the son in law of the General and his lackeys for company. It is surprising the with all its addiction problem, the all-powerful Chinese state has little control over this place just across the border which is full of ‘child soldiers and teenage hookers…precious gems sold next to vegetables’.  It was heart wrenching to read about the trafficking of young girls from Myanmar’s Pengshang and being sold as brides for 5000 Euros in China. China with its one child policy has huge imbalance in its sex ratio due to the natural preference for boys. This problem is father accentuated with many young girls who are now better educated moving to cities in search of jobs. This has left many villages in rural China only with men and old women. The growing number of Chinese bachelors are referred to as ‘guand guan’ or ‘bare branches’ across rural China and they are willing to pay for these trafficked women. Poverty is also another reason forcing many Burmese women to migrate to China illegally for better jobs.

Of all the Chinese minorities it is the Koreans who occupy the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Province and seem to be the most well integrated and most trusted by the Chinese authorities. Unlike in Xinxiang and Tibet where the Hans live in segregation in their own parts of the cities, in Yanji the Hans and the Koreans co-exist in a far more amenable atmosphere. They have privileges that are denied to many other minorities like right to education in their own language at school or college. They also find it easy to obtain a passport.  Since there is no conflict between being Chinese by nationality and Korean culturally, the Koreans have little reason to resent the Han. One interesting aspect that came out in the book was the increasing interest that the Koreans are showing towards Christianity and also evangelical activity which is gradually unnerving the Chinese Communist Party which even served diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951 in an effort to assert control over China’s Catholics.

The book ends with Mr. Eimer’s journey to the far north (Manchuria) where the city of Heihe sits just opposite the less prosperous city Russian city of Blagoveshchensk across the river Amur. Today many Russians cross the border every day to buy cheap stuff from the city of Heihe. The Chinese however it seems have not forgotten the 1858, Treaty of Aigum which formalised the division of Manchuria and allowed the Russians to occupy large parts of Manchuria without firing a shot. They were also for a long period of history the poor less important and junior partner of the USSR, post the communist revolution in 1949. Now that the power equations have changed, it seems they are doing everything possible to make the Russians realize it.  The author writes, “Every evening at 11 o’clock sharp, the street lights of Heihe dim abruptly. The electricity that fuels them instead is diverted to the multitude of neon lights and displays on the buildings displayed on the buildings overlooking the Amur. A Dongbei version of the glittering Las Vegas Strip, it is an unsubtle boast of how Heihe is thriving at the expense of far less luminous Blagoveshchensk, a nightly show whose significance is understood by every Russian.’ Further, the Russians while crossing the border after their shopping are treated rudely by the Chinese customs officials. The Russians of the far east also fear that the Chinese would expand in the resource rich areas of Russia, (under the classical principle of ‘lebensraum’), after all they are merely 6.5 million as compared to 100 million Chinese (in the north eastern provinces alone). Also the book brings out clearly the apathy of Moscow to these areas (air tickets to Moscow are exorbitantly high and many Russians in these areas find it easy to live in and visit China than go to the western parts of their country), thus making Russians living in these areas look more at the growing China for the betterment of their future than Russia. Systematically Chinese capital and traders are taking over the commercial enterprises of far east Russia, thus making it a commercial rather than imperial conquest.

All in all, an excellent read. One gets to understand how the Chinese state maintains its control over the minorities through a mix of military presence, suppression of local cultures and mass Han migration. It is pertinent to quote here what Mao had said, ‘We say China is a vast country, rich in resources and large in population. As a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich’





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