A Critique of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Book (Mao, the Unknown Story) Part 3

Part 3


12.    27 Millions Deaths in Jails/Labor Camps

Jung Chang’s second large group of Mao’s peacetime victims is those who died in Chinese government custody. The number is actually thrown out with a magic formula, in which the number of inmates and their annual death rate are not estimated professionally. Mao’s responsibility is not discussed, just assumed.


During Mao’s 27 years rule, “the number who died in prisons and labour camps could well amount to 27 million” (p. 338). The proof: “China’s prison and labour camp population was roughly 10 million in any one year under Mao. Descriptions of camp life by inmates, which point to high mortality rates, indicate a probable annual death rate of at least 10 per cent” (p. 338fn). So 10m×10%×27 = 27 million.


JC accuses Mao of killing a number of people x = a×b×c, where a = “China’s prison and labour camp population”, b = “annual death rate”, and c = the years of his rule. She does not explain why a = 10 million. Her justification of b = 10% is based on “descriptions of camp life by inmates”. If we apply this magic formula to Deng Xiao-ping, taking his reign as 1978–89, we get his responsibility for 12 million deaths. His successor Jiang Ze-min (1990-2003) gets 14 millions. JC does not show why Mao was responsible. It seems she simply blames Mao for every Chinese death whatsoever.


13. The Superpower Program

Throughout a large part of the book, JC repeated alleged that Mao started a secret “Superpower Programme” in 1953 and continued up to his death to pursue his dream of world dominance. This definitely sounds very alarming to the Western world, echoing the theory of “China threat”. But she does not provide any evidence such a program ever existed. The word program should mean an explicit plan, not someone’s hidden ambition. The word superpower did not even exist in the Chinese language in 1953.


In Ch. 36, titled “Launching the Secret Superpower Programme”, we read: “in May 1953, Stalin’s successors in the Kremlin agreed to sell China ninety-one large industrial enterprises. . . . It was in effect Mao’s Superpower Programme. Its utterly military nature was concealed, and is little known in China today” (p. 396). Right after that, Mao forced through “collectivization of agriculture” and “ordered the nationalization of industry and commerce in urban areas, to channel every single resource into the Superpower Programme” (p. 412). During the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, Mao realized that the only thing he could offer Egypt were “small arms such as rifles”, and hence became “more impatient to speed up his Superpower Programme” (p. 425). Later he silenced dissent through the Anti-Rightist Campaign and launched the Great Leap Forward “to accelerate his Superpower Programme” (p. 444). In spite of the setback during the famine, “becoming a superpower had remained Mao’s dearest dream. This was partly why he had carried out the Purge – to install new enforcers who were more in tune with his demands. After this process was complete, he started to accelerate the Programme” (p. 573). Even to the Western world, “Mao began seeking relations with America, in order to gain access to Western technology for his Superpower Programme” (p. 601).


Mao’s superpower ambition, even if it truly existed, is not the same as a program. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the word Program means: (i) “a proclamation”, which means “something that is proclaimed, or announced officially”; (ii) “a prospectus”, which means “a statement outlining the main features of a new work or business enterprise”, (iii) “a plan or procedure for dealing with some matter”. In one word, a program is something proclaimed, announced or stated explicitly regarding concrete features, objectives or procedures of certain undertakings. It is not something completely hidden in one person’s head but never expressed either in papers or in words.


Within the whole book, we cannot find any record, written or spoken by Mao or his colleagues, referring to a Superpower Programme. Its name is dubious, because Mao maintained China belonged to the third world (p. 650) and would never seek to be a superpower (declared by Deng Xiaoping at UN in 1974). Even if he had a plan to become a superpower, he could hardly use that name. In fact, the word “superpower” did not exist in the Chinese language until the 1970s. How could Mao have “first outlined his Superpower Programme” in 1953 (p. 432)? If Mao used another name or just a code, what was it? “It”? “That”? “The Thing”? Without a name or even a code, how could Mao and his colleagues discuss and implement it?


Without evidence of its existence, JC gives two examples as components of Mao’s Superpower Program. One is the “ninety-one large industrial enterprises” sold by the Soviet Union to China in 1953. She does not explain what kind of the “utterly military nature was concealed” in these hydro-power plants, dams, tractor factories, mines, steel mills, truck factories, oil refineries, machine-tool factories etc.


Her other example is of course the atom bomb. Several nations have possessed such weapons before China and after. JC offers no explanation as to why China’s possession of them must be a part of a Superpower Program. She does remind us though that, “In March 1955 the US said it would use nuclear weapons under certain circumstances. Eisenhower very deliberately told a press conference on the 16th that he could see no reason why they should not be used ‘just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else’. . . China seemed to be in real danger of a US nuclear strike” (p. 414). She does not mention that before Eisenhower, during the Korean War, General McArthur requested to drop 20+ atom bombs on Beijing and other Chinese cities, and his plan was only vetoed by President Truman after a long and hotly contested discussion. Nor does JC mention that, after Eisenhower and before China had its atom bomb, “JFK was ready to use nuclear bomb on China” too (The Independent 27 Aug. 2005).


But she knows that “China seemed to be in real danger of a US nuclear strike” by “bombing and strafing more Nationalists-held islands”, which are within China’s own territory (p. 414). JC probably knows whether other nuclear nations faced the same nuclear threat. At the moment of its first bomb exploded, China pledged never to use nuclear weapons first. JC probably knows if other nuclear nations did the same. Does JC think they all have Superpower Programmes?


14.   38 Million Deaths in 1958 – 1961

The famine is no doubt the biggest disaster to the Chinese people under the CCP and Mao in particular. JC is entitled to choose the highest estimated death toll to condemn Mao. But her claim that Mao intentionally made this famine cannot be substantiated by her evidence which suggests the opposite.


JC writes: “Close to 38 million people died of starvation and overwork in the Great Leap Forward and the famine. . . . Mao knowingly starved and worked these tens of millions of people to death” (pp. 456–457).


The number of deaths claimed in the book is not Jung Chang’s finding, but to insert the word “knowingly” is definitely her innovation. She gives no evidence that Mao knew that millions of people were dying and did not take actions to stop it. Her strongest argument is: “During the two critical years 1958–9, grain exports alone, almost exactly 7m tons, would have provided the equivalent of over 840 calories per day for 38 million people – the difference between life and death” (p. 457).


The Chinese government had to make its export plans for 1958 and 1959 about one year earlier, mainly based on the grain production in 1957 and 1958 respectively. The bad news had not emerged then. Mao could not know that millions of people would die. The large scale of grain export in 1959 reflected Mao’s false estimate of the grain production one year earlier, which led him to “announce that the harvest figure for 1958 was more than double 1957’s” (p. 461), which he apparently believed.


This unreliable estimate in turn was based on a nationwide misreporting. For example, as cited by JC, “in September (1958), People’s Daily reported that ‘the biggest rice sputnik’ yet had produced over 70 tons from less than 1/5th of an acre, which was hundreds of times the norm” (p. 446). Mao should be condemned for his bad judgment and responsibility for creating the political atmosphere conducive to such misinformation. He could also be blamed for not abolishing grain export contracts earlier, possibly in part due to his national pride. But these are different from “knowingly starved . . . tens of millions of people to death”.


To judge whether Jung Chang’s word “knowingly” is valid, we should not underestimate the difficulty of getting accurate information at that time. A convincing example is related to JC herself. According to her autobiography, Wild Swans, her father was the minister of Sichuan’s Department of Propaganda (she coined a special name for her father’s unit, “Department of Public Affair”). His main job was to visit peasants and provide needed help. According to JC, 7 million people die in Sichuan during the famine. No one should know this better than her father. If he reported what he saw, it is extremely unlikely that he could hide it from his wife (another “Public Affair” official – propagandist) for more than a decade. It is even more unlikely that his wife could hide it from JC for the next three decades. However, in neither Wild Swans nor this book can one find any information that Jung Chang’s father knew about the famine in Sichuan.


 Even the figure of 7 million deaths, was told to JC more than a decade after her departure from China. If the top “Public Affair” official in the province did not know it, how could Mao in Beijing “knowingly starved . . . tens of millions of people to death”?  In fact, it should not be so difficult for JC to prove her word “knowingly”. She could simply present evidence that the Sichuan government had reported to Beijing that people were starving to death and asked for urgent food relief, but got no immediate response. If JC claims the absence of such evidence was because of Mao’s terror, she should offer at least one example that Mao had punished anyone for asking food relief. Her story of Peng Dehuai (p. 468–70) does not fit here, because he did many other things, e.g., he “contemplated something akin to a military coup” (p. 464) and during the party congress in Lushan he publicly asked why he could not fuck Mao (p. 273 for a partial quote).


Why does JC fail to give such evidence? The fact is, the Sichuan party leadership concealed millions of death in Sichuan very well. When the news of mass starvation reached Beijing, most famine stricken provinces saw their party bosses sacked for not reporting people’s suffering in time (Wu Zhifu of Henan, Zeng Xisheng of Anhui, Shu Tong of Shandong, Zhang Zhongliang of Gansu etc). The only exception is the Sichuan boss Li Jingquan who was promoted instead. Li put all the blames on his inferiors, at county or commune levels, accusing them of “knowingly starved . . . people to death”. Most people in Sichuan believe that Li just used them for scapegoats. The issue may be debatable. But it seems fair to say that if we use word “knowingly” on Li, the same has to apply to those local officials, unless their plea for help was ignored by the provincial authority. For the same reason, if JC accuses Mao of “knowingly starved . . . people to death”, the same charge must apply to Li and his colleagues, unless their plea for help was ignored by Beijing.


For Li to conceal starvation and his own responsibility there was a crucial and necessary condition: the full cooperation of the Sichuan media, which was under the absolute control of the Department of “Public Affair” Department of Propaganda, led by Jung Chang’s father. Let’s stop here. Moreover, for readers’ information, the death toll of 38 million is the highest among many widely varying estimates. It is, astonishingly, as high as the estimated total Chinese deaths during the Sino-Japanese war in 1937–45. To convince readers its validity, JC provides the death rates and population numbers, backed up by China Statistics Year Book 1983 in her references. However, neither of these data cited by her agrees with those published in the yearbook. Without telling readers those disagreements, JC argues, “The official statistics published in 1983 are recognized as partly defective, because local policemen understated the number of deaths in the years 1959-61” (p. 457 fn).


If Chinese statisticians are professional, they should have corrected such obvious defects in the yearbook, unless JC proves the otherwise. JC does not explain how her “corrected” data come out, though the correction is not minor. For instance, her 1960 death rate is 4.34%, while the official one is 2.54%. This alone generates extra deaths of 12 million, almost one third of her total death toll.


Furthermore, whatever the true figures should be, the abnormal deaths, as explained by JC (pp. 456–7 fn), include all deaths related but not directly caused by starvation or overwork, such as deaths caused by illness partially due to malnutrition, and those caused by various injuries and senile problems due to poor medical and social care. These deaths may account for a larger part of the “abnormal deaths” shown in statistic data, but were not considered “starved to death”, and did not draw immediate attention from the society and government. This is probably why there is no widespread evidence of large scale starvation in China, nearly compatible to Jung Chang’s claim. If we apply Jung Chang’s method to the Russian population data after the shock therapy, the abnormal death rate would be higher than those during China’s famine. Yeltsin could be blamed for genocide, as some Russians (unfairly) alleged.


Finally, let us see how JC shows that Mao even intended to let tens of million people die. She wrote: “We can now say with assurance how many people Mao was ready to dispense with. . . . On 21 November 1958, talking to his inner circle about the labour-intensive projects like waterworks and making ‘steel’, and tacitly, almost casually, assuming a context where peasants had too little to eat and were being worked to exhaustion, Mao said: ‘Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die. If not half, one-third, or one-tenth — 50 million — die.’ Aware that these remarks might ssound too shocking, he tried to shirk his own responsibility. ‘Fifty million deaths’, he went on, ‘I could be fired, and I might even lose my head . . . but if you insist, I’ll let you do it, and you can’t blame me when people die’.” (p. 457 – 458)


In her interview with BBC, Jung Chang uses this quotation to show that Mao knew that half of the population would die under his policy and he “deliberately” starved tens of millions of people to death. It is worthwhile to check where this sinister quotation comes.

These words are taken from Mao’s speech in the politburo meeting in Wuchang, 21 November 1958. The honest translation including the context should be as follows:

Do not pursuit the vanity, and get a disaster. We should reduce the amount of our task. On the waterworks, the whole nation accomplished 50 billion cubic meters of earth in the last winter and this spring, but for this winter and the next spring, the plan is 190 billion, three times more. There are various other tasks, steel, iron, copper, aluminum, coal, transport, machinery, chemicals, how much labor and financial resource needed? Working like this, I am afraid that, half of China may well have to die. If not half, one-third, or one-tenth — 50 million deaths. 50 million deaths, if you are not fired, at least I will be. Should we do so much? It is ok if you really want, but the principle is no death. If you insist, I cannot stop you, but I should not be killed when people die. Next year’s plan is to produce 30 million tons of steel, should we plan so much? Can we do it? How many people must work for it? Will people die? We should lower our tone in this meeting, cool the air down. The string of the Huchin (a Chinese instrument) should not be pulled too tightly. There is a risk of breaking down.


After seeing the true text, indeed, “we can now say with assurance how many people Mao was ready to dispense with.





About kchew

an occasional culturalist
This entry was posted in Chairman Mao. Bookmark the permalink.

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