The Dissident Within

What a book about China’s great famine says about the country’s transformation.

Mao Zedong

Cymbals clashed; a giant scroll unfurled. There were fireworks, kites, ancient soldiers marching in formation, modern dancers bending their bodies into impossible shapes, astronauts, puppets, little children, multiple high-tech gizmos. The Olympic opening ceremony showed you China as China wants you to see it.

But for a deeper understanding of how far China has come—and of how odd its transformation continues to be—switch off the Olympics. Instead, spend a few minutes contemplating the existence of a new book, Tombstone. It is the first proper history of China’s great famine, a catastrophe partly engineered by the Chinese Communist Party and its first leader, Mao Zedong.

“It is a tombstone for my father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book,” writes the author, Yang Jisheng, in the opening paragraph.

Tombstone has not been translated. Nevertheless, rumors of its contents and short excerpts are already ricocheting around the world. (I first learned of it in California, from an excited Australian historian.) Based on a decade’s worth of interviews, and unprecedented access to documents and statistics, Tombstone—in two volumes and 1,100 pages—establishes beyond any doubt that China’s misguided charge toward industrialization—Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”—was an utter disaster.

A combination of criminally bad policies (farmers were forced to make steel instead of growing crops; peasants were forced into unproductive communes) and official cruelty (China was grimly exporting grain at the time) created, between 1959 and 1961, one of the worst famines in recorded history. “I went to one village and saw 100 corpses,” one witness told Yang. “Then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.”

So thorough is his documentation, apparently, that some are already calling Yang “China’s Solzhenitsyn,” in honor of the Russian dissident who probably did the most to expose the crimes of Stalin—and who died last week. But the comparison is not quite right. Yang is not a dissident, but a longtime Communist Party member. For more than three decades, he was a reporter for Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. As a result, he had privileged access to party documents, which no one else has ever had before.

More to the point, he is not an outsider: On the contrary, he, his book, and the story of the famine itself have a strange, hard-to-define status in China. Though the book is banned on the mainland, it was published in Hong Kong, where it sold out immediately. At the same time, while the famine officially doesn’t exist—Chinese history textbooks speak of “three years of natural disasters,” not of a mass artificial famine caused by Chairman Mao—many people clearly remember it well, fully understand Mao’s role in what happened, and are willing to discuss it openly.

Like the Communist legacy itself, the famine exists in a kind of limbo: undiscussed, unacknowledged, yet a vivid part of popular memory. Because China is no longer a totalitarian country, merely an authoritarian one, a journalist like Yang could spend 10 years working on the history of the famine, openly soliciting interviews and documents. But because the Chinese Communist Party neither openly embraces nor openly rejects the legacy of Mao—his name was not mentioned during the Olympics opening ceremony—there is no public discussion or debate.

It’s not hard to understand why not. If the Chinese Communist Party were to present an honest version of its own past, its own legitimacy might also come into question. Why, exactly, does a party with a history drenched in blood and suffering enjoy a monopoly on political power in China? Why does a nominally Marxist party, one whose economic theories proved utterly bankrupt in the past, still preside over an explosively capitalist society? Because there aren’t any good answers to those questions, it’s in the Chinese leadership’s interest to make sure they don’t get asked.