After I finished reading Yang Jisheng’s book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, an extensive analysis on the worst man-made calamity in human history, I couldn’t help but wonder: If Yang’s book were required reading for American college students, would so many young people embrace socialism so enthusiastically?
Yang opens the book with his father’s death in 1959. It was April, and Yang was a high school student. Since his school was far from the village where his father lived, Yang rarely saw his father during the school year. One day, a villager brought Yang the dreadful message—his father was dying of starvation. Yang rushed home. He found utter destitution.
The village felt like a ghost town. There were no animals running around, not even rats, and no living trees either. “All had been stripped of their leaves and bark by starving peasants,” he records. People ate whatever they could get their hands on, and when they were not searching for food, they barely had any energy to move or make a sound.
At the little hut his father lived in, Yang saw his father’s “eyes sunken and lifeless, his face gaunt, the skin creased and flaccid,” which reminded Yang of the human skeleton he saw in an anatomy class. Yang suddenly realized that “the term skin and bones referred to something so horrible and cruel.” Yang tried to feed his father some peanut sprouts—the only thing he could find—but his father was too weak to even swallow. He died three days later.
Despite losing his father to starvation, Yang “felt no suspicion and completely accepted what had been instilled in me by the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League.” Since the founding of Communist China in 1949, the CCP had sealed China off from the outside world. The government had a domestic monopoly on information and facts.
“From nursery school to university, the chief mission was to inculcate a Communist worldview in the minds of all students. The social science research institutes, cultural groups, news organs, and schools all became tools for the party’s monopoly on thought, spirit, and opinion, and were continuously engaged in molding China’s youth.” Furthermore, “all views diverging from those of the party were nipped in the bud.”
How to Kill 36 Million People
Growing up in this environment, young Chinese developed a fervent belief in Communist ideals and intolerance for dissenting voices. “Any words or deeds that diverged from these ideas would be met with a concerted attack.” Like many brainwashed young people, Yang believed that Chinese people’s suffering was the result of China being bullied by Western imperialism for nearly 100 years.
But under Mao’s leadership, China went on to implement the highest ideal of mankind: Communism, where everyone was supposed to have equal access to food, shelter, health care, and so much more. Yang was taught that such greater good was worthy of every bit of personal sacrifice. Yang was ready and willing to give his own life for the Communist ideal. Therefore, he regarded his father’s death and his own village’s misery as an isolated incident and minor setback for China’s march to paradise.
Only years later, when Yang became a journalist at Xinhua News (China’s state-run news agency), did Yang begin to have doubts. His beliefs were shook after he gained access to provincial population data from 1958 to 1962. These data are still highly guarded state secrets to this day, but Yang’s position gave him the cover and protection he needed to carry out his discovery of the truth. After extensive research, Yang was horrified to realize that what had happened to his father and his village was repeated throughout China during those years.
Yang estimates that at least 36 million Chinese people perished during the Great Chinese Famine between 1958 and 1962 (some scholars estimate the death toll could be as high as 45 million). Many were starved to death like his father, but others died as a result of the CCP’s brutal “anti-hoarding” campaign, which used violence to “extort every last kernel of grain or seed from peasants.”
Apart from the standard abuse of beating, there were other forms of torture, including “dousing the head with cold water, tearing out hair, cutting off ears, driving bamboo strips into the palm…and being buried alive.” When adults were tortured to death, the young children they left behind usually died of starvation soon after. Cannibalism was widespread too. No words are adequate enough to describe the magnitude of the horror and agony.
However, to date, the CCP not only denies that such mass starvation and suffering has ever taken place, but also insists that any life lost during this period was caused by natural disasters such as droughts. Yang’s book presents indisputable evidence to support his conclusion that the Great Chinese Famine was instead a man-made disaster.
The Famine took place during the height of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which aimed to transform China from a backward agricultural society into a communist industrial powerhouse within a decade. Mao and his radical comrades believed that as long as they had the willpower and an abundant supply of cheap labor, they could ignore the laws of nature and economics.
The CCP launched a number of campaigns to achieve the lofty goals Mao set. A mass steel campaign was one of them. Everywhere in China, people built small backyard furnaces, attempting to produce steel.
Every village had a quota to meet. Everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old seniors pitched in on around-the-clock shifts by the backyard furnaces. Anything that contained metal, including farming tools and cooking pots, was smashed and fed into the furnaces. However, none of these efforts increased steel production, and all of it only yielded useless output.
The most consequential campaign was agricultural collectivization, through which the government became the sole owner of all private and public land via coercive confiscation. Farmers were forced to surrender everything they had, including food, farming tools, and livestock, to the people’s communes.
Bureaucrats who had no farming experience dictated to farmers what and how to plant. Farmers had to show up and leave the field every day at the same time in teams. All produce had to be sold to the government at fixed prices, as private transactions were strictly prohibited. Farmers weren’t even allowed to cook at their own homes — everyone had to eat together at communal kitchens.
The CCP also treated farmers as a reservoir of cheap labor. Millions of men who were at the peak of their productivity were drafted by their local governments to work on various irrigation or industrial projects.
These policies had multiple disastrous effects. First, the collectives eroded people’s incentives. No one wanted to work hard because regardless of individual effort, everyone had equal access to the same amount of food — when there was still food available.
Second, by demanding farmers to attend backyard furnaces around the clock and drafting productive farmers to work on various government projects, fewer farmers were left behind to plant and take care of crops. So crops were left rotten in the fields.
Third, many of the government’s construction projects yielded no tangible benefits but ended up destroying the environment and upsetting the fragile ecosystem, which caused natural disasters to take place not only more frequently, but also with worse impact.
Finally, since meals at communal kitchens were free of charge, food waste was prevalent. Initially, “commune members gorged themselves” believing “the government would come up with more food when current supplies were exhausted.” But the government aid never came.
Making matters even worse, CCP leaders insisted communes must produce more grain for cities in China and for other communist countries. Local leaders were either pressured into falsely reporting or willingly exaggerating ever-higher grain production figures to their political superiors.
Yang wrote that everyone is a liar within a socialist regime, and these lies have consequences. The state forced villages to collect more grain than they could spare, based on these false production numbers. So even the seeds for the upcoming year were used to meet the government’s procurement. Therefore, very little grain was left in villages.
Without grain, communal kitchens tried to feed hungry farmers with food substitutes, such as rice straw, corn stalks, and cotton batting. In January 1959, the village communal kitchens had run out of food substitutes and had to close their doors for good.
Calamity, Darkness, and Evil
Yang concludes that because the state had monopolized “all production and life-sustaining resources,” the ordinary people had no means of saving themselves when calamities occurred. By handing over everything they had to the state, people also handed over control over their very survival.
The famine peaked in 1959 but continued until 1962 due to the CCP’s refusal to admit its wrongdoings. The CCP believed that such admission of mistakes would invite questions about the party’s ability to govern. Additionally, there was no free press to report the truth and no elections to hold those in charge accountable for their policies. Therefore, those murderous policies continued, and the death tolls multiplied.
Yang took tremendous personal risks to write this book, and it is still banned in Communist China. Yang originally wanted to title his well-researched book “The Road to Paradise,” but he changed the title to “Tombstone” for three reasons: He wanted to erect a tombstone for his father, for the 36 million Chinese people who perished in the famine, and he wished to bury socialism, the ideology that has inflicted so much suffering on Chinese people.
Unfortunately, socialism is getting a second chance in western democracies. One important step we need to take to combat socialism is to pass on the truth to the next generation, including reading and sharing books such as “Tombstone.” Yang writes that he wrote this book so “people will remember and henceforth renounce man-made calamity, darkness, and evil.” More calamities are sure to unfold if we do not heed his warnings.