Note: This was submitted by Rhan on the “Cultural Differences” thread but I felt it deserved its own space for comment.
“Food is central to the Chinese psyche and I think they believe that everybody should be entitled to food whereas Westerners look at it differently.”
Sorry Steve, what I paste below is a bit long, if you think the content is irrelevant, please go ahead to delete or collapse. No hard feeling on my side. This piece was written by a friend of my few years back, whom I respect very much. My intention is not to criticize the west, but to partially answer the point raise by Chinktalk.
+++ Since the First Opium War, the vast number of Chinese masses never had sufficient food to eat. Famine was a feature of China, as it was for India for much of its history. That country had 25 famines during the BRITISH administration alone. One of the worst took place at the Deccan area, which killed over four million. In Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts,” it was estimated that there were between 12 and 33 million avoidable deaths in India between 1876 and 1908. And as late as 1943 around 4 million died in the Bengal famine, an event that some commentators have blamed on official policy, but which others have claimed as an act of genocide. All these have not been focussed or even mentioned in passing by the West. There was no talk about the failure of capitalism, of imperialism, or even racism. Indeed, if Davis has not come out with his recent book, much of the world wouldn’t have known such things happened.
Let’s talk a bit about China’s Great Leap. That was a period of hardship or at least near-starvation as well, and indeed part of the problem was due to inexperience, incompetence, and macro-management. That’s not too surprising as, after a century of being a semi-colony, few Chinese understood the geography of China, much less how to administer the continental-sized country. Almost all of China’s main cities, rivers, and even provinces were in foreign control one way or another. Even China’s customs was in foreign hands until 1943 – a huge shame on Chinese civilization and bitterly felt by the Chinese people. The Chinese were described in travel books as incapable of logical thinking, that they were unruly and deserved to be crushed by the boots of Prussian discipline. Meanwhile, foreign-occupied Shanghai was sporting clubs with signs saying “No dogs and Chinese allowed.” This, in China! The Chinese didn’t find the West weeping for their democratic rights then. The poor, wretched, hungry masses died like flies EVERY DAY – average life expectancy was like pre-1950 Tibet – around 35 years.
If this was the situation during PEACETIME, it was worse during the war. But all things have their seasons, and in 1950 China, for the first time in over 100 years, emerged as an independent country under the Chinese Communist Party. There was much to be done, but straightaway the country was faced with the possibility of its perceived enemy at the Korean border. So Chinese troops were sent to face the armed forces of the greatest power in the world. After being the “Sick Man of Asia” for a century the country, united as never before, managed to surprise the world by forcing American troops into what Cold War architect George Kennan called “the longest retreat in US military history.” Even more surprising, it was the US that called for peace, on the threat that they would use atomic bombs if China were to refuse to negotiate.
But the war took a great toll on the Chinese, which besides the loss of over a million lives owed the Soviets billions of roubles for their often inferior armaments (only the MIG 15 was considered world class, and that too eventually was not a match for the improved American fighter jets). The country, just emerging from a century of devastation, was faced with enormous challenges both from nature and from external threats such as SEATO and the American 7th Fleet in Taiwan. China was unable to get UN help as the Americans had persuaded the world to recognize Taiwan as the true representative of all China (nowadays, with Beijing having the upper hand, the hint is that Taiwan should be independent!). Worse, Taiwanese agents were regularly sent to sabotage the mainland’s infrastructure – this was proudly shown in a magazine called “Free World” and distributed to many Malaysian schools by the USIS (my elder brother used to tear the mag to wrap his books. Once, however, I recognized the fabulous paintings of Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman, and snatched the pages from him). Threats along the coastal areas forced Mao to locate China’s industries in the hilly hinterlands, which of course was difficult and expensive. Many modern Chinese just don’t understand how difficult it was for China to develop then, not to mention the Western embargo on China of advanced industrial goods, which continues even today.
Older Malaysians – those at least over 60 – know from their geography books that China’s Yellow River was known as the “River of Sorrow.” When it flooded, millions of lives would be lost. Drought was another curse. Thus the new government started from the basics – building dams, shoring up the dikes, and planting trees to prevent desertification, cool the land and conserve water. There was little money for machinery – most were done by human labor. Yet, by the mid-fifties, the country was gaining ground – it even had some surplus grain for export.
There were often open military threats – Chiang Kaishek was probably encouraged to put the heat on China by promising “imminent” invasion on every national day in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the US had proceeded from the atomic to thermonuclear or H-bomb. China had no choice but to keep up with the R&D, and by 1958 was able to send its first sounding rockets to space.
Could it be that the progress of a few years made China’s leaders swollen-headed? Perhaps a bit of that, but the point of the Great Leap wasn’t merely a struggle to become a modern power. The mass collectivization and setting up of people’s communes was to make every commune a fortress. These communes were to make not merely basic implements for farming, but also the manufacture or repair of armaments. Mao had envisioned not only an entire country of self-sufficient farmers, but also soldiers. That was the faith he had in his people – few real dictators would dare to place arms in the hands of millions of powerless people.
The plan was good, even revolutionary, but the implementation was disastrous. First, China was such a large country that one really could not tell the peasants what to plant – they knew their land better than the leaders in Beijing. So it was an error to turn rice fields into wheatlands, or vice versa. Moreover, local uneducated cadres, always wanting to be heroes, would send glowing reports of their districts when crop disaster was staring at their faces. If China were a small country like England, things might’ve been easier. It was not that easy to find out the truth in a huge land with primitive infrastructure (a more democratic press might’ve helped, as Amartya Sen suggested).
On top of administrative failures and backward technology was one of the worst droughts in modern Chinese history. Plants withered in many places, and many people didn’t have sufficient water for daily use, not to say watering the crops. Deng Hsiao-ping, to impress his newfound foreign American friends, later claimed that about 16 million died during those years. If we take the years 1958 to 62, that would mean about 4 millions per year – somewhat the same as the Bengal famine of 1943. But I doubt that figure as many of us in Malaysia had relatives who, despite telling us of their hardships, never gave any hint of any famine. Foreign visitors, including well-known ones such as BBC head Felix Greene, reported hardships but no famine. Another reason for the numbers could be the normal deaths from decades of malnutrition: the revolution was merely eight years old and many of the survivors were born during a time when life expectancy was around 35.
But that people were in near famine conditions – that I believe was a possibility. It was brought about through over-optimistic planning, bad administration, and the worst drought in modern history. However, the 16 million, already inflated to support Deng’s “reforms”, was as usual doubled to 30 millions by the West, and a decade or so later that was doubled again to 60 millions. We all know the Western play on figures. The tens of deaths at Tiananmen was inflated to “hundreds, if not thousands” whereas, DURING THE SAME DECADE IN KWANGJU, KOREA, over 2000 students were run over by tanks and armored cars by the US supported Korean dictator but often reported as “200.” In the Korean episode, the massacre was approved, if not planned, by the US military (did the mass media report on that at all?).
Whatever the case, the Great Leap was a disaster, but the farmers knew that the drought had played a large role, and on the whole did not blame the CCP. This was proven in an indirect way: around 1962 the US, knowing that China had experienced great economic difficulties, thought it might be time to support a Chiang invasion. Chiang’s troops were ready, and so were the transport ships. The invasion was debated by Congress, and finally given up because American intelligence suggested that the peasants would rise up and demolish Chiang’s troops. The US did, however, persuaded Australia from selling grain to China – another sign how caring that country was towards the Chinese people (and the crocodile tears they shed today).
The Russians under Khrushchev did not help either: instead, they demanded that China send grain to them as part of the agreed payments for Korean War loans. That, and little else, was why China became the Soviet’s bitterest enemy, until the break-up of that country.
The Leap was the only agriculture disaster in the last 50 years. Industrially, though many of the goals were not achieved, there were progress in a number of fields. One was the manufacturing of farm products that were inexpensive yet helpful to peasants, such as a rice-transplanter machine that made backbreaking labor a thing of the past. To alleviate the energy problem, biomass – the use of rotted vegetation for energy – was used to give even the remotest villages electricity. Small hydro-electric equipment that could be placed across streams were used by poor farmers around the country: it was so useful that the product was exported to countries in Africa and especially the Philippines. Though not really a success, the experiment saw a population that began to understand the requirements for an industrial state: this experience was to pass on to a new generation which, after the Cultural Revolution, saw China’s explosive growth.
It was clear that by the 60s, socialism was the best way to develop, but what Mao saw an insidious growth of capitalist tendencies. Towns and cities seemed to grow at the expense of rural areas. New hospitals flourished, while peasants were left to their own devices. In a famous speech, he scolded the Ministry people: “Why call yourself the Ministry of Health? Why not the Ministry of Urban Health? Better still, why not call yourself the Ministry of Urban Gentlemen’s Health?”
His speech galvanized the movement of medical care to the countryside. The country began to train people in providing basic care to the poor. “Barefoot doctors” roamed the countryside, giving traditional Chinese medicines and acupuncture and helping to build sanitation facilities. Every Chinese – from civil servants to the poorest peasant – had by then been required to have a midday nap. All had to wake up as the sun rises for morning exercises. In the cities, lights were off not long after dark. Traditional martial arts were modified for health purposes. Chinese life expectancy rose from the pre-1950 35 to over 65. China’s population boomed. At the end of the 70s, it was clear that China needed a population policy. The one-child system was adopted a few years later.
But all the while, from 1962 onwards, there was much dissatisfaction among urban people WITHIN THE CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY. These were people who’d travelled abroad and attracted by the brights lights and big cities of their neighbors. And they wanted a change in policies. On Mao’s side were young people who wanted China to continue its own unique journey, who saw the desire for personal wealth as a vice. They also thought, correctly, that those who wanted some of the old ways to return were reactionaries, for the old ways inevitably would bring about great disparity in wealth, promote a dog-eat-dog world, result in prostitution, in people believing in ancient superstitions, etc. Mao’s struggle to wipe out the old was not necessarily all that was old – that was a charge by his enemies – but the vices that he’d seen before when he was a young man. But the very idea of building the new without the old, something that demanded a total change in mentality, was not something that many party members could accept. Hence the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution.
Most of Mao’s Red Guards were young, inexperienced, idealistic students. These were no match for their enemies in the CCP, who would often put around THEIR own armband and called themselves “Red Guards.” A lot of violence were committed by these fake Maoists – which prompted a commentator to mention about “using the name of Mao to go against Mao.” But the number of deaths was never in the hundreds of thousands. Mao’s order, after all, was to “bombard the headquarters!” In other words, his enemies were within the Communist Party, and if we divide them into two roughly equal sides there was hardly a couple of millions on each side (like all conflicts, most would stand at the sidelines). Moreover, most people don’t deal with guns, and the deaths mentioned even in the West were often stuff like beatings with sticks and so on. As usual, the West and their proxies would inflate the numbers, and in this some in the present leadership would even support as justification for their present oligarchical rule.
Deng’s revision of history found much support in the West: Time magazine pronounced him as China’s greatest leader. Zhou Enlai, when asked about what he thought about the French Revolution, said “it was too early to tell.” Whether the present move to capitalism is really that wonderful remains to be seen. Much of the “success” of the new regime was accomplished on the backs of the poor. As I said before, a couple of years ago I’d even suggested on some websites a new guerilla war against the present CCP. Since then, the leadership has been focusing on helping the peasants who were and still are most responsible for the rise of New China. We just have to wait and see.
I’ve taken this opportunity to provide an alternative view of China’s history. Part of the idea is to give an inkling as to how important the rice bowl is to China. For most of the past century, rice was a luxury for the average Chinese, which is why older Malaysians of Chinese ancestry might remember the slap on their faces if they dropped even a speck of the grain. Let not any Chinese tell me he’ll rather go without food than free speech. I’m not impressed. I agree, however, that China can now afford both food and free speech. It will improve in due time, I hope. +++