What caused the great Chinese famine

China : With force forward

In February of this year he spoke for the first time about that time. About the hunger that haunted him when there was enough to eat for months. About a winter day in Beijing, on which he had lined up freezing in a long queue of people standing in line for ice cream in the blowing snow - because you could get it without a food stamp. “I melted the ice in hot water and drank it,” he says. “That didn't fill you up. But happy, because of the warm feeling. ”It was a long time ago and he himself is well over 80 years old:“ But I still remember exactly. It was a nightmare, as if we Chinese had suddenly plunged into hell. "

Two months later, in April 2008. His soft voice sounds softer and a little brittle. Suddenly he changed his mind. “I'm very sorry,” he says. “But I no longer want my name to appear in your text. The time is not right for this story. "

Half a century has passed since what Zhang Ruiru, as he is supposed to be called in this article, reported. But the crimes of yore shouldn't be talked about openly in China. Otherwise you will quickly be declared a traitor. Especially now, when many Chinese believe that they are wrongly pilloried by the international public because of the Tibet conflict: "They feel offended in their national pride and dignity," says Zhang Ruiru of his compatriots. But you could also look at it this way: Few things violate the dignity of the Chinese as much as the persistent silence over one of the greatest tragedies in their history - a catastrophe that nobody will remember even now on its 50th anniversary.

In May 1958, the 8th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party adopted a new economic policy. It operates under the slogan “The Great Leap Forward” and is intended to quickly transform the impoverished country into a modern superpower. In return, China is breaking radically with traditions - and with its allies.

In terms of economic development in particular, China has so far closely followed the Soviet Union. But the dictator Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, breaks with the socialist brother state. He fears that the de-Stalinization of the new Khrushchev era there could also endanger his power. His country had to go its own way: A tremendous effort by the masses should revolutionize all branches of the economy at the same time and at the same time create communism - "paradise", as it was called at the time. Very soon every Chinese would lead a life of prosperity, even in abundance. “In 15 years we will overtake Great Britain!” Claims the propaganda. Three years after these promises, millions of Chinese are dead - died in the most devastating man-made famine the world has ever seen.

At that time, many Chinese are ready to believe anything in Mao. After all, he united China and led it to independence after a century of humiliation by the West. In addition, anyone who expresses doubts about the regime of the “Great Chairman” must expect dire consequences. In 1957, he had hundreds of thousands of intellectuals persecuted in the “anti-right-wing campaign”. Zhang Ruiru, then 30 years old, is one of them.

A few critical sentences about the personality cult around Mao were enough to make Zhang an "enemy of the people". He is a staunch communist and seemed on the way to making a career. From a young age, Zhang worked as an interpreter for the tour, later he was a lecturer for foreign literature. Now he is being transferred to the typesetting shop of his publishing house in the south of Beijing. There he has to wipe the toilets under “supervision of the revolutionary masses”. His new colleagues are allowed to boss him around and humiliate him. For them he is "the deviator from the law". Zhang himself doubts himself: "I was insecure, depressed, disoriented," he remembers today. "Sometimes I thought: How nice it would be if you didn't have to think!"

Later, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao will declare the intellectuals to be the "stinking ninth class enemy". He considers scientists to be “bourgeois” elements: anemic, timid and without the necessary revolutionary awareness. The “great chairman” relies on the farmers. They are supposed to achieve the impossible through their zeal and mass.

For the "big leap", life in the country is first collectivized at a breathtaking pace. As Konrad Seitz, the former German ambassador in Beijing, in his book “China. A world power is returning, ”writes, after a few months around 500 million people can be found in 24,000 people's communes.

Many of the people are excited about it, even if their land, poultry, furniture and houses are expropriated and you are no longer supposed to eat at home. Common canteens, day nurseries and old people's homes take over what everyone took care of beforehand. To achieve this, women and men are now working on huge infrastructure projects after working in the fields and in the winter months, building dams and digging irrigation canals. Mao is convinced that the harvest can be increased many times over quickly thanks to new, mostly hardly tested methods. Expectations are high, grains or vegetables are planted regardless of the local climate and centuries of experience. It is the power of action that is supposed to work miracles: Propaganda books tell of schoolchildren who simply multiply the harvest tenfold in an experiment. Farmers take on research at newly established institutes.

In the certainty of coming successes, the residents of the communes are asked to eat their fill in the “people's kitchens” free of charge. In communism there is no longer any hunger, is the motto. The productivity of agriculture is falling and the food supply deteriorating rapidly. Authorities and institutions in the cities are therefore planting their own vegetable gardens - and Zhang Ruiru is relocated again: this time outside, in the beds of the publisher. There he helps with the harvest until he is assigned, and at night he guards the field. Surrounded by mosquitoes, he does his laps and has to make sure that nobody steals the vegetables.

Meanwhile, several primitive ovens are being built in the courtyard of Zhangs Verlag. Mao called on the people to melt steel. This is also part of his plan: Light and heavy industry should develop parallel to agriculture, and the entire population should unleash an unprecedented industrialization. Like everyone else, Zhang Ruiru has to help out - even if it's just a few nails or an old pan. Any iron that can be found is melted down. The result is only a mountain of grotesquely connected chunks: Like most of the hundred thousand smelting furnaces in the country, those of the publisher do not reach the temperatures necessary for steel production.

But the blast furnaces are not only pointless, they tie up labor that is lacking in the fields and lead to the looting of the entire country. Valuable tools and kitchen utensils are destroyed because they want to adhere to the socialist planning specifications at all costs. Hardly any household will soon find a wok - the farmers should eat in the canteen anyway.

The population's trust in the party begins to wane: "But you only discussed your doubts behind closed doors and in whispers." Zhang himself only takes his sister into confidence. Everyone publicly praises the alleged successes. Lies rule the country: from the start, local cadres have falsified the harvest results. Nobody wants to be seen as a "deviator from the law". In view of the alleged record harvests, higher authorities are raising their targets and demanding more and more grain. China even exports some of it abroad. When rumors of a famine later leaked abroad, the Chinese government refused any international aid. The newspapers are still cheering when the elderly and the weak begin to die. "They showed farmers crying with happiness and holding bowls full of rice and meat in their hands," says Zhang Ruiru.

In 1959 some measures of the “big leap” are supposed to be reversed for a short time, but Mao suspects the work of counterrevolutionary and unruly peasants behind the difficulties that have arisen. Soon after, the campaign radically resumed. The misery is obvious. "The complexion of people on the streets of Beijing was pale," says Zhang Ruiru, "many were suffering from hunger edema." Almost all food is rationed. Only a few can afford what can be bought freely, and certainly not the “enemy of the people” Zhang Ruiru.

Zhang's diet mainly consists of "boiled cabbage, with maybe a corn roll". Often he wakes up in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep because his empty stomach torments him. While working, he breaks into a cold sweat, becomes dizzy and black in front of his eyes. His eyelids swell. “I could always have eaten. But there was just nothing. ”Zhang survived three years of starvation. Maybe because he's young. Or rather, because he lives in the city - cities are preferred when it comes to food distribution, only the weakest die there.

In contrast, horror prevails in the villages. To this day, it is hardly discussed. "The intellectuals are more likely to report on their experiences, the farmers have no voice in public," says Felix Wemheuer, sinologist at the University of Vienna. Wemheuer went to the country a few years ago and interviewed the elderly there. They told him how back then the soup in the people's kitchens was getting thinner and thinner, how their children starved to death, how the men fled and left their wives behind, how people stole from others in order to survive.

"Hunger was used by the cadres as a weapon to control the farmers." In other contemporary witness reports collected by the British journalist Jasper Becker, one encounters even more incomprehensible descriptions: emaciated people who are too weak to bury their relatives . Streets lined with corpses. Parents who kill their newborns get mad about it. “Many farmers could hardly put their suffering to me in words,” says Wemheuer. "But they were glad that someone asked them questions."

The end of the "Great Leap" came in 1961 in silence. Mao withdraws and the pragmatists Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping take over economic policy. They shut down inefficient factories, give private plots back to the farmers, and ensure that people are paid according to performance again. The situation stabilizes almost silently. But how many people died by then? Western researchers assume at least 15 million deaths. Other estimates put numbers of 30 to 40 million victims. There are no precise details, the Chinese statistical system collapsed during the “Great Leap”, and until Mao's death in 1976 it was unthinkable to come to terms with the catastrophe.

Today the topic is no longer a taboo in China. However, it is rarely discussed in public. The CP historians have determined that 30 percent of the famine was due to natural disasters - a number that is as arbitrary as it is controversial. Because reliable meteorological data are missing. After all, the party admitted that human error and “radical left politics” were the main causes. In China it is better to remain silent about the question of who made which mistakes, when and, above all, why. And the media are also ignoring the “big leap”. There will be no television documentaries or commemorations on its anniversary. To this day there is no memorial anywhere to commemorate the dead.

Even a man like Zhang Ruiru, who had to spend decades in prisons and labor camps after the starvation martyrdom, finds another event more important, which also marks the anniversary this year: "The economic opening began under Deng Xiaoping 30 years ago," he says. “We remember that. Why does the western media only cover the bad things? ”The CP argues that it learned from its mistakes and ended up on the right track. These are, of all things, those capitalist reforms that Mao fought all his life, which have given China a rapid rise for years, as the "Big Leap" was supposed to force it.

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