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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Mao's Great Famine

From Falun Gong to Frank Dikotter's wonderful book, Mao's Great Famine - where Dikotter delves into the archives to dissect the overwhelming effect The Great Leap Forward had on China. He records how a series of crazed development policies combined with sycophancy, ideological one-upmanship and downright brutality to kill over 40 million Chinese people. There were deaths through starvation (especially when food was withheld from the less ideologically sound peasant) from food poisoning (as people starved so they sought out nourishment from weeds, tree bark, wood pulp and mud - which would often set and have to be gouged out of the anus with a stick).

Add to that the fact that between 30 and 40 per cent of houses were destroyed in the Great Leap Forward (the straw could be used as fertiliser, the wood for the backyard furnaces that were supposed to, but didn't propel China to overnight industrial powerhouse). Dikotter calls this"the greatest demolition of property in human history."

This helped contribute to the vast number of deaths from disease and the cold (on one commune villagers were forced to work without tops in Winter - the idea being that the cold would make them work harder to keep warm. Except for the 400 who died).

In this atmosphere state-sanctioned crime mixed with that committed merely to survive. There were 500 train robberies in one month in Gansu Province - by peasants searching for grain, rape was rampant amongst Communist Party officials, sex was used for barter and children were brutalised beyond belief.

The prime reason for this horror show was the inability of people from the top down to confront Mao and tell him what was really happening. If you did this, you would be punished (as Peng Dehuai and countless others discovered). If you lied and said everything was great, then you would be rewarded.

I wonder if there aren't similarities between the failures to confront the truth during Mao's rule, and the failures we have in confronting the truth today. The Great Leap Forward lasted only 3 years though and was limited to China, albeit in an astonishingly acute form. The sycophancy for which people are rewarded today takes place over a much longer period of time with effects that are not limited to one geographical area but which resonate around the world in their destructive power. You get rewarded for your lies and if you tell the truth you are pilloried - and the cost is the planet.

Mao wanted to develop China and in the process he destroyed just about every sector of Chinese society and industry. Today when people say they want growth and development, doestn't the baggage that comes with it do the same thing - but on a global scale. The only difference is it is on a much longer timeline and on a global scale - so, with our short attention spans, we look at a baseline that is only a few years past and look only in our own backyards. So things don't look quite so bad. How about extending our baseline from a few years to decades. And looking beyond our own backyards. Then what is the diagnosis?

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