China, famine, and authoritarianism



Famine was the issue that originally got me and Steph Haggard collaborating and food security issues remain central to this blog. So a story, which I believe was originally reported by Tom Phillips in The Guardian, and was picked up by the China Digital Times where I saw it, struck a nerve. Yang Yisheng, a retired Xinhua correspondent, has been awarded Harvard’s Louis M Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. In granting the award, the Nieman Fellows cited Yang’s “ambitious and fearless reporting” culminating in the book Tombstone: the Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 documenting China’s disastrous experience during the Great Leap Forward. Previous Lyons Award winners include Edward R. Murrow and Raymond T. Bonner.

The only problem is that Yang has been denied permission to travel to the United States next month to accept the award. The issue is that in his book, which the government of China banned, Yang reaches a conclusion originally articulated by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and echoed in our book Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, that famines are effectively impossible in democratic, accountable political systems. Famines occur in societies without free presses, effective legislative assemblies, and other institutions that impose basic accountability on political leadership. In the introduction to the book he writes:

“I originally intended to title this book The Road to Paradise, but I eventually changed it to Tombstone. I had four reasons for choosing this title: the first is to erect a tombstone for my father, who died of starvation in 1959; the second is to erect a tombstone for the 36 million Chinese who died of starvation; and the third is to erect a tombstone for the system that brought about the Great Famine. The fourth came to me while I was half way writing this book, when a temporary health scare spurred me to complete the book as a tombstone for myself. Although my health concerns were subsequently put to rest, the risk involved in undertaking this project might yet justify its serving as my own tombstone. But, of course, my main intentions are the first three.

A tombstone is memory made concrete. Human memory is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness. The authorities in a totalitarian system strive to conceal their faults and extol their merits; gloss over their errors and forcibly eradicate all memory of man-made calamity, darkness, and evil. For that reason, the Chinese are prone to historical amnesia imposed by those in power. I erect this tombstone so that people will remember and henceforth renounce man-made calamity, darkness and evil.”

More pointedly, in ascribing causation for the famine, in an interview with the New York Review of Books, Yang remarked,

“The key reason is political misjudgment. It is not the third reason. It is the only reason. How did such misguided policies go on for four years? In a truly democratic country, they would have been corrected in half a year or a year. Why did no one oppose them or criticize them? I view this as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.”

As if scripted by Yang, no one is talking. No one in China is giving any reason why Yang cannot travel, and perhaps prudently the Nieman committee has simply issued a statement reading “We understand that Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng may not be able to travel to Cambridge to accept the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. As members of the Nieman class of 2016, we still intend to honor him and his work in March. If circumstances change and he is able to visit the Nieman Foundation, we will be honored to welcome him to campus,“ and has declined to comment further.

Needless to say, this is just one more reminder of the backwards trajectory China has taken under Xi Jinping’s leadership. According to Phillips’ reporting, historians are complaining of increasing difficulty in accessing archives documenting sensitive periods such as the Great Leap Forward. As cover-ups, censorship, intimidation, and exultation of the Chinese Communist Party increasingly become the norm, it is ever more difficult to be optimistic about China’s long-term prospects.

And needless to say, China is information paradise compared to North Korea.

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