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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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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