Unrecorded history: a queue forms at a street food tall in Hankou, capital of Hubei Province, in 1959
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The road to perdition

When Yang Jisheng’s father died from starvation in 1959, he thought it was an isolated tragedy. Years later, he learned the truth about the Great Famine.

At the end of April 1959, I was assembling a wall newspaper for my boarding school’s Communist Youth League when a childhood friend suddenly arrived from our home village of Wanli. He told me, “Your father is starving to death! Hurry back and take some rice if you can.” He said, “Your father doesn’t even have the strength to strip bark from the trees – he’s starved beyond helping himself.”

I collected a three-day meal ration of 1.5 kilos of rice from the school canteen and rushed home. When I got there, I found utter destitution. My father was half-reclined on his bed, his eyes sunken and lifeless, his face gaunt, the skin creased and flaccid. He tried to extend his hand to greet me but couldn’t lift it, just moving it a little. A murmur escaped from his lips, his voice faint as he told me to go quickly, go quickly back to school.

I kneaded my father’s hand, then hurried off with buckets on a shoulder pole to fill the water vat. Then I grabbed a hoe and went to dig up sprouts. I dug and dug some more, my heart full of remorse and guilt. Why had I not come back earlier and harvested some wild herbs? Why hadn’t I come back earlier with some rice? But all my self-blame was useless. I boiled congee from the rice I’d brought and took it to my father’s bed but he was no longer able to swallow. Three days later he departed this world. With the help of other villagers, I hastily buried him.

I grieved deeply over my father’s death, but never thought to blame the government. I believed that what was happening in my home village was isolated and that my father’s death was merely one family’s tragedy. Compared to the advent of the great communist society, what was my family’s petty misfortune? The party had taught me to sacrifice the self for the greater good when encountering difficulty and I was completely obedient. I maintained this frame of mind right up until the Cultural Revolution.

My sadness at my father’s death did not weaken my confidence in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Like me, many young people who enthusiastically participated in the Great Leap Forward were suffering from hunger along with their family members, but they never complained.

My support for the Great Leap Forward was due not only to the inspiration of communist ideals but also to ignorance. I came from a remote village whose residents knew virtually nothing about matters beyond the hills. The vast majority of us never circulated beyond a 50-kilometre radius of our village. Although we were situated only a little more than 100 kilometres from Hankou, that great city seemed impossibly remote to us. The county seat, Xishui, was much closer but even going there took one full day, with half of the roadway consisting of rugged mountain paths.

After the CCP gained power, it sealed China off from information beyond its borders and imposed a wholesale negation of the country’s traditional moral standards. The government’s monopoly on information gave it a monopoly on truth. As the centre of power, the party was also the heart of truth and information.

The government used its monopoly apparatus to instil communist values while eradicating all others. In this way, young people developed a violent longing to realise communist ideals. I sincerely believed that a weak and impoverished China that had been bullied by imperialism for nearly 100 years could go on to implement the highest ideal of mankind: communism. Compared to this sublime ideal, what were the petty problems I faced?

In 1960, I passed the entrance exam for Tsinghua University in Beijing. As soon as I entered the campus, I toured the university’s anti-rightist exhibition, embarking on an education in loyalty. While at university, I served as the Youth League’s branch secretary and joined the Communist Party in May 1964. At that time young people like me were considered very naive and simple, and it was true: our minds contained only the beliefs instilled by the public opinion apparatus and nothing else. In this way the party moulded the generation growing up under the new regime into loyal disciples.

My thinking began to change when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. I was astonished by the appearance of thousands of “big character posters” at the university, which exposed the corrupt lives and debased mentalities of old revolutionaries whom I had long revered. I began to lose my faith in authority and officialdom, and I no longer believed everything I read. I began to doubt the myths the party had inculcated in me, and it was opposition to official privilege that led me, like most ordinary people, to take part in the Cultural Revolution. It was also during this period that the governor of Hubei Province, Zhang Tixue, said something that shocked me: during the three years of hardship in that province, some 300,000 people had starved to death. Only then did I realise that my family’s tragedy was not unique.

“Reform and opening” in the late 1970s brought considerable relaxation of intellectual strictures and the historical truth began to come out. In the past, the party had taught us that natural calamity had caused famine in limited areas of the country. Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death. My family tragedy was repeated in some ten million families throughout China.

Agricultural collectivisation had deprived peasants and cadres of the power to decide what would be planted, over how large an area and by what means. The labour and lives of peasants were tightly restricted. And if an error in policy prevented a collective farm from supplying daily necessities, peasants had no other recourse. Communal kitchens were a major reason why so many people starved to death. Home stoves were dismantled and cooking implements, tables and chairs, foodstuffs and firewood were handed over to the communal kitchen. Believing the state would come up with more food when current supplies were exhausted, some communes consumed all their grain by the end of 1958 and were left to wait for government replenishment that never arrived.

Multiple sources indicate around 36 million starvation deaths in China from 1958 to 1962. In some regions, nearly every family experienced at least one death from starvation and some families were completely wiped out. Entire villages were left without a single living inhabitant. It was, as Mao Zedong wrote in one of his poems: “A thousand villages overgrown with weeds, men wasted away;/Ten thousand homes where only ghosts sing.”

The Great Famine makes all of China’s other famines pale in comparison. The most severe famine previously recorded occurred in 1928- 30 and affected 22 provinces. That famine broke all previous records, but still killed only ten million people. The number of people who starved to death between 1958 and 1962 was many times greater than the number who died in any previous disaster in China.

Yet there were no anguished appeals to heaven, no hemp-robed funerals, no fire crackers and hell money to see the departed to their final destination. Tens of millions departed this world in an atmosphere of mute apathy. Some villages transported corpses by the truckload for burial in common graves. In villages where survivors lacked the strength for proper interment, the limbs of the dead protruded from the ground. In some places, the dead remained along the roadsides where they had dropped in their futile search for food. More than a few were simply left in their homes, where rats gnawed at their noses and eyes.

Refugees who escaped to Hong Kong and family members of Chinese living overseas managed to spread news of the calamity, and based on this information, some western media published reports on the famine. The Chinese government labelled these reports as “vicious attacks” and “slanderous rumours”.

To shape international public opinion, the Chinese government invited “friends of China” to visit and see for themselves, in the hope that they would write reports that “clarified the facts and truth”. The government meticulously planned every step of visitors’ itineraries, including which places they would visit and the people with whom they could come into contact. Foreign guests were kept segregated from ordinary people, and well-fed and well-clothed individuals were sometimes put on display.

Confronted by the severe consequences of the Great Famine, President Liu Shaoqi once said to Mao Zedong: “History will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people . . .” In the spring of 1962, Liu noted that “deaths by starvation will be recorded in the history books”. Yet, after more than 40 years, no full account of the Great Famine has been published in mainland China.

Liu Shaoqi also once said that this disaster should be engraved on a memorial tablet as a record “to be passed down to our children and grandchildren so that such an error will never be committed again”. China should erect memorials to the victims of the Great Famine in the places where the deaths were most concentrated, such as Xinyang, Tongwei, Luoding, Bozhou, Fengyang, Zunyi, Jinsha, Pi County, Yingjing, Rong County, Fengdu, Dayi, Guantao and Jining. These memorials would not only commemorate the dead but also serve as a permanent reminder of the importance of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.

Later generations will know that there was once a system established at a certain juncture of history in the name of “liberating mankind” that in reality enslaved humanity. This system promoted itself as the “Road to Paradise,” but in fact it was the road to perdition.

Extracted from “Tombstone: the Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine” by Yang Jisheng, published by Allen Lane on 1 November (£30) © Yang Jisheng, 2012 (penguin.co.uk).

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit