20 September 2019
Women break stones at a people's commune in 1958. 
In his book, historian Frank Dikotter estimates the death toll from the Great Famine of 1958-1962 at 45 million. Photo:
Women break stones at a people's commune in 1958. In his book, historian Frank Dikotter estimates the death toll from the Great Famine of 1958-1962 at 45 million. Photo:

Like Abe, Communist Party refuses to face its past

This year the Hong Kong government is holding many events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan. The largest will be on Sept. 3, the same day as a large military parade in Beijing.

The death and suffering of millions of Chinese, and other people in Asia, during World War Two is of course worthy of respect and reflection, as is an accurate history of what happened during those terrible years.

Each day the mainland media attack Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government for “not facing the past” and not acknowledging the murder, medical experiments on humans and other atrocities carried out by his country’s military between 1931 and 1945.

But China’s Communist Party equally refuses to face the past and acknowledge the atrocities it has carried out.

In May 2013, the Ministry of Education issued an instruction to university teaching groups with seven “no’s” – including universal values, judicial independence, freedom of the press, the privileges of the capitalist class and the past mistakes of the Communist Party.

The biggest hole in the textbooks and the media is the Great Famine of 1958-1962. Yang Jisheng, a veteran Xinhua journalist, wrote the most authoritative account of this in Tombstone (墓碑), published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2008 and in English, French and German in 2012.

He estimates the death toll at 36 million. In his “Mao’s Great Famine”, Frank Dikotter, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, puts the figure at 45 million.

The evidence Yang presents is irrefutable. A staff member of Xinhua from 1966 to 2001, he had the access of an insider, able to see local party and government records and interview people who were active during the famine. No ordinary Chinese, even less a foreigner, would have such access.

“I call this book Tombstone. 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 my death and perhaps myself for writing this book,” reads the preface. It runs to 1,208 pages and volumes, with meticulous citing of sources aimed at preventing the government from dismissing it.

The official account describes this period as “the three years of natural disasters”, putting the blame for starvation on drought, floods or other causes beyond the reach of man.

Yang’s book is banned on the mainland. Most people have no idea what happened. Many of those who lived through it do not wish or fear to talk about it.

Another “blank” is the anti-rightist movement of 1957-1959 aimed at purging the party of people considered “rightist”. Work units were given quotas of such people to find and root out; even if there were none, they had to find enough to meet the quota.

An estimated 550,000 people were persecuted, among them future premier Zhu Rongji, who was dismissed from the State Planning Commission and sent to the countryside for “re-education”. He always refused to discuss this episode in public, despite the pain and injustice caused to him.

This is a taboo topic in China because one of the main executors of the campaign was Deng Xiaoping, who is revered as the father of the open-door and reform policy.

There is more material available on the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, in which millions were subject to persecution and other forms of abuse. In 1981, the party declared that this was “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic”.

But what is missing from textbooks and the media is analysis of the key role of Mao Zedong, who launched the upheaval in May 1966 and directed it thereafter.

He remains untouchable – his face is on the country’s banknotes and his image overlooks Tiananmen Square. His place is essential to the party’s version of history and its support among the public.

Historians estimate the death toll of Chinese, military and civilian, during World War Two at between 15 and 20 million. If the casualties from the anti-rightist movement, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution were added together, the figure would surely exceed that.

Of course, Abe and other revisionists in Japan should recount history as it really was. So also should the Chinese Communist Party.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker