A chronicler of Mao’s depredations finds much to worry about in modern China.
An Interview with Yang Jisheng, by Bret Stephens
In the spring of 1959, Yang Jisheng, then an 18-year-old scholarship student at a boarding school in China’s Hubei Province, got an unexpected visit from a childhood friend. “Your father is starving to death!” the friend told him. “Hurry back, and take some rice if you can.”
Granted leave from his school, Mr. Yang rushed to his family farm. “The elm tree in front of our house had been reduced to a barkless trunk,” he recalled, “and even its roots had been dug up.” Entering his home, he found his father “half-reclined on his bed, his eyes sunken and lifeless, his face gaunt, the skin creased and flaccid . . . I was shocked with the realization that the term skin and bones referred to something so horrible and cruel.”
Mr. Yang’s father would die within three days. Yet it would take years before Mr. Yang learned that what happened to his father was not an isolated incident. He was one of the 36 million Chinese who succumbed to famine between 1958 and 1962.
It would take years more for him to realize that the source of all the suffering was not nature: There were no major droughts or floods in China in the famine years. Rather, the cause was man, and one man in particular: Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman, whose visage still stares down on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square from atop the gates of the Forbidden City.
Mr. Yang went on to make his career, first as a journalist and senior editor with the Xinhua News Agency, then as a historian whose unflinching scholarship has brought him into increasing conflict with the Communist Party—of which he nonetheless remains a member. Now 72 and a resident of Beijing, he’s in New York this month to receive the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize for “Tombstone,” his painstakingly researched, definitive history of the famine. On a visit to the Journal’s headquarters, his affinity for the prize’s namesake becomes clear.
“This book had a huge impact on me,” he says, holding up his dog-eared Chinese translation of Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.” Hayek’s book, he explains, was originally translated into Chinese in 1962 as “an ‘internal reference’ for top leaders,” meaning it was forbidden fruit to everyone else. Only in 1997 was a redacted translation made publicly available, complete with an editor’s preface denouncing Hayek as “not in line with the facts,” and “conceptually mixed up.”
Mr. Yang quickly saw that in Hayek’s warnings about the dangers of economic centralization lay both the ultimate explanation for the tragedies of his youth—and the predicaments of China’s present. “In a country where the sole employer is the state,” Hayek had observed, “opposition means death by slow starvation.”
So it was in 1958 as Mao initiated his Great Leap Forward, demanding huge increases in grain and steel production. Peasants were forced to work intolerable hours to meet impossible grain quotas, often employing disastrous agricultural methods inspired by the quack Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko. The grain that was produced was shipped to the cities, and even exported abroad, with no allowances made to feed the peasants adequately. Starving peasants were prevented from fleeing their districts to find food. Cannibalism, including parents eating their own children, became commonplace.
“Mao’s powers expanded from the people’s minds to their stomachs,” Mr. Yang says. “Whatever the Chinese people’s brains were thinking and what their stomachs were receiving were all under the control of Mao. . . . His powers extended to every inch of the field, and every factory, every workroom of a factory, every family in China.”
All the while, sympathetic Western journalists—America’s Edgar Snow and Britain’s Felix Greene in particular—were invited on carefully orchestrated tours so they could “refute” rumors of mass starvation. To this day, few people realize that Mao’s forced famine was the single greatest atrocity of the 20th century, exceeding by orders of magnitude the Rwandan genocide, the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Holocaust.
The power of Mr. Yang’s book lies in its hauntingly precise descriptions of the cruelty of party officials, the suffering of the peasants, the pervasive dread of being called “a right deviationist” for telling the truth that quotas weren’t being met and that millions were being starved to death, and the toadyism of Mao lieutenants.
Yet the book is more than a history of a uniquely cruel regime at a receding moment in time. It is also a warning of what lies at the end of the road for nations that substitute individualism with any form of collectivism, no matter what the motives. Which brings Mr. Yang to the present day.
“China’s economy is not what [Party leaders] claim as the ‘socialist-market economy,’ ” he says. “It’s a ‘power-market’ economy.”
What does that mean?
“It means the market is controlled by the power. . . . For example, the land: Any permit to enter any sector, to do any business has to be approved by the government. Even local government, down to the county level. So every county operates like an enterprise, a company. The party secretary of the county is the CEO, the president.”
Put another way, the conventional notion that the modern Chinese system combines political authoritarianism with economic liberalism is mistaken: A more accurate description of the recipe is dictatorship and cronyism, with the results showing up in rampant corruption, environmental degradation and wide inequalities between the politically well-connected and everyone else. “There are two major forms of hatred” in China today, Mr. Yang explains. “Hatred toward the rich; hatred toward the powerful, the officials.” As often as not they are one and the same.
Yet isn’t China a vastly freer place than it was in the days of Mr. Yang’s youth? He allows that the party’s top priority in the post-Mao era has been to improve the lot of the peasantry, “to deal with how to fill the stomach.”
He also acknowledges that there’s more intellectual freedom. “I would have been executed if I had this book published 40 years ago,” he notes. “I would have been imprisoned if this book was out 30 years ago. Now the result is that I’m not allowed to get any articles published in the mainstream media.” The Chinese-language version of “Tombstone” was published in Hong Kong but is banned on the mainland.
There is, of course, a rational reason why the regime tolerates Mr. Yang. To survive, the regime needs to censor vast amounts of information—what Mr. Yang calls “the ruling technique” of Chinese leaders across the centuries. Yet censorship isn’t enough: It also needs a certain number of people who understand the full truth about the Maoist system so that the party will never repeat its mistakes, even as it keeps the cult of Mao alive in order to preserve its political legitimacy. That’s especially true today as China is being swept by a wave of Maoist nostalgia among people who, Mr. Yang says, “abstract Mao as this symbol of social justice,” and then use that abstraction to criticize the current regime.
“Ten million workers get laid off in the state-owned enterprise reforms,” he explains. “So many people are dissatisfied with the reforms. Then they become nostalgic and think the Mao era was much better. Because they never experienced the Mao era!” One of the leaders of that revival, incidentally, was Bo Xilai, the powerful former Chongqing party chief, brought down in a murder scandal last year.
But there’s a more sinister reason why Mr. Yang is tolerated. Put simply, the regime needs some people to have a degree of intellectual freedom, in order to more perfectly maintain its dictatorship over everyone else.
“Once I gave a lecture to leaders at a government bureau,” Mr. Yang recalls. “I told them it’s a dangerous job, you guys, being officials, because you have too much power. I said you guys have to be careful because those who want approval from you to get certain land and projects, who bribe you, these are like bullets, ammunition, coated in sugar, to fire at you. So today you may be a top official, tomorrow you may be a prisoner.”
How did the officials react to that one?
“They said, ‘Professor Yang, what you said, we should pay attention.’ ”
So they should. As Hayek wrote in his famous essay on “The Use of Knowledge in a Society,” the fundamental problem of any planned system is that “knowledge of circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”
The Great Leap Forward was an extreme example of what happens when a coercive state, operating on the conceit of perfect knowledge, attempts to achieve some end. Even today the regime seems to think it’s possible to know everything—one reason they devote so many resources to monitoring domestic websites and hacking into the servers of Western companies. But the problem of incomplete knowledge can’t be solved in an authoritarian system that refuses to cede power to the separate people who possess that knowledge.
“For the last 20 years, the Chinese government has been saying they have to change the growth mode of the economy,” Mr. Yang notes. “So they’ve been saying, rather than just merely expanding the economy they should do internal changes, meaning more value-added services and high tech. They’ve been shouting such slogans for 20 years, and not many results. Why haven’t we seen many changes? Because it’s the problem that lies in the very system, because it’s a power-market economy. . . . If the politics isn’t changed, the growth mode cannot be changed.”
That suggests China will never become a mature power until it becomes a democratic one. As to whether that will happen anytime soon, Mr. Yang seems doubtful: The one opinion widely shared by rulers and ruled alike in China is that without the Communist Party’s leadership, “China will be thrown into chaos.”
Still, Mr. Yang hardly seems to have given up hope that he can play a role in raising his country’s prospects. In particular, he’s keen to reclaim two ideas at risk of being lost in today’s China.
The first is the meaning of rights. A saying attributed to the philosopher Lao Tzu, he says, has it that a ruler should fill the people’s stomachs and empty their heads. The gambit of China’s current rulers is that they can stay in power forever by applying that maxim. Mr. Yang hopes they’re wrong.
“People have more needs than just eating!” he insists. “In China, human rights means the right to survive, and I argue with these people. This is not human rights, it’s animal rights. People have all sorts of needs. Spiritual needs, the need to be free, the freedoms.”
The second is the obligation of memory. China today is a country galloping into a century many people believe it will define, one way or the other. Yet the past, Mr. Yang insists, also has its claims.
“If a people cannot face their history, these people won’t have a future. That was one of the purposes for me to write this book. I wrote a lot of hard facts, tragedies. I wanted people to learn a lesson, so we can be far away from the darkness, far away from tragedies, and won’t repeat them.”
Hayek would have understood both points well.
Mr. Stephens writes “Global View,” the Journal’s foreign-affairs column.