HUNGRY GHOSTS by Jasper Becker


Mao's Secret Famine
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The first serious attempt to unearth the truth of the massive human tragedy behind the ``Great Leap Forward'' in China between 1958 and 1961. Becker, Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, conducted hundreds of interviews in his effort to understand what happened. It is an extraordinary story, in which the errors that led Stalin to devastate agriculture in the Soviet Union, killing 11 million peasants, were duplicated in China by Mao, at the cost of another 30 million lives. Mao believed that wheat could be planted so close together that you could sit on it, furrows could be plowed 10 feet deep, and gigantic dams and canals built without expert advice. The plants died, the dams filled up with silt, and the canals were useless, but Mao was told that the national grain harvest had gone from 185 to 430 million tons. The officials now began to seize grain based on the inflated claims. When the minister of defense, Peng Dehuai, questioned the figures, he was put under house arrest and a campaign of terror instituted. The result, Becker notes, was bizarre because most of the party leadership knew the truth but couldn't acknowledge the widespread starvation until Mao did so. By the end of 1960 Mao's colleagues realized that the regime was in danger of collapse. Becker believes that the Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, may well have been directed at undermining those who had striven to restore sanity. One of the most tragic aspects of this story is the role played by respected Western observers including Edgar Snow, Gunnar Myrdal, and Franáois Mitterand. In ridiculing reports that China was suffering from famine, they may well have cost millions of lives. They also created a myth of what China had achieved, the consequences of which are still being felt in places like Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania a generation later. A remarkable book, the more devastating for its quietness and absence of rhetoric. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-83457-X
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1996


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