This autumn sees two new books on China’s Great Famine. One is Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, and the other is Zhou Xun’s The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962. While it’s soil that’s been ploughed before—most notably by Jasper Becker and Frank Dikotter—Yang and Zhou bring additional perspectives.
It’s not a pretty story. Referring to estimates of 45 million dead, the Wall Street Journal’s reviewer puts it bluntly: “It was not war that produced this shocking number, nor natural disaster. It was a man. It was politics and one man’s vanity.”
The man in question was Mao Zedong, and the political enterprise was the delusionary Great Leap Forward, whereby he set about transforming 1950s China into an industrial powerhouse replete with backyard furnaces. As with most utopian makeovers, coercion was the order of the day, even extending to the concept of “arrest quotas” applied to those who didn’t get with the program. In the process, agricultural production fell sharply with famine the result.
Mao, however, was not to be deterred. In 1966, he launched another disastrous transformation. This time it was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, aimed at purging undesirable elements and enforcing ideological orthodoxy. Massive upheaval and much suffering ensued before it too eventually petered out.
But if Mao’s China was an unpleasant place, you’d never have guessed it from many of the reports brought back by Western visitors. And these were not just the usual suspects, but rather included the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith, James Reston (of New York Times fame), and David Rockefeller.
Reports tended to stress things like how “spotlessly clean” streets and homes were, the “atmosphere of intelligent and purposeful work,” the absence of consumerism and alienation, the bus conductors inspiring their passengers by reciting quotations from Mao, and so forth. Wherever it resides, Mussolini’s ghost must have been envious. After all, he was only credited with making the trains run on time!
After Mao’s death, the story began to change. Two early contributions particularly stood out—Simon Leys’ Chinese Shadows (1977) and Fox Butterfield’s China: Alive in the Bitter Sea (1982). Between them, they painted a picture substantially at odds with the earlier happy talk. In a particularly pungent formulation, Leys likened Western enthusiasm for China’s lack of traffic problems as being akin to praising “an amputee because his feet aren’t dirty.”
Look after their material wants generously, tell them what they’re already predisposed to hear, control what they actually see, and the job’s done.
Asked about the gullibility of so many Western visitors, Butterfield partly attributed it to “an infatuation with China.” In addition, he noted how good the regime was at the “very practiced art of entertaining and persuading foreigners.” In other words, look after their material wants generously, tell them what they’re already predisposed to hear, control what they actually see, and the job’s done.
Then there was the matter of access control. If one wanted to be allowed back for a second visit, it was prudent not to offend. (Leys got around this by writing under a pseudonym; his real name is Pierre Ryckmans.)
But perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of the happy talk phenomenon was provided by Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims, first published in 1981. As he put it, “political tourists of the early 1970s embarked on the journey to China with reverence, solicitousness, and guilt, a blend of attitudes that rarely stimulates the exercise of critical faculties.”
Hollander’s study covered much more than China, going back as far as the starry-eyed visitors to Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s. And the 1998 edition’s subtitle—Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society—neatly captured the underlying motivation for the whole enterprise.
In his view, the political pilgrims were subject to three driving factors.
First, a strong predisposition to find only good things. Psychologists describe this as confirmation bias. Look for evidence that confirms your starting position, and discount whatever undermines it.
Second, strong dissatisfaction with important aspects of your own society. In effect, the pilgrim is in search of an alternative social model.
And third, ignorance about the real conditions of life in the society being visited. Combine this with what Butterfield characterized as superb Chinese “hostmanship,” and there’s a very potent brew indeed.
Although modern China certainly has its admirers, it no longer enjoys the utopian cachet of Mao’s heyday. But maybe political pilgrims just need a new destination.
Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics. Copyright Troy Media Corporation.
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