After 50 Years of Silence, China Slowly Confronts the 'Great Leap Forward'

Half a century after the famine that killed perhaps 30 million people, censors have quietly loosened their ban and citizens are moving past the taboo. Why now?

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A 1958 propaganda poster urges Chinese to produce steel. It reads, "Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields." (Wikimedia)

When Bo Xilai, the now-sacked Chongqing party chief, blanketed the city with a Maoist-style campaign of nationalism and state control, the critics who worried about the dangers of reviving red culture in modern Chinese society included the Communist Party's top leaders. Premier Wen Jiabao and others have publicly countered Bo's rhetoric, warning that it could throw China back into the worst practices of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. But this battle is not limited to government-controlled discourse. As the country looks ahead to its leadership transition amid political and economic uncertainties, Chinese officials and citizens alike are looking back into their country's recent past. The Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, taboo subjects for half a century, are re-entering the public discourse. As China resurfaces these two traumatic events, the competing narratives may shed some light on the dynamics and tensions of today's China and its future.

Many of the millions of people who use Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media service, represent the nation's post-80s generation. So they were likely surprised when they logged onto the site in early May and found the service populated with black-and-white photos that looked strange yet familiar. A child clad in rags with a swollen stomach and with tear streaming down his cheeks, or a scrawny beggar lying on the ground with a vacant stare at the camera -- these were images from the country's 1960-1962 Great Famine, following the Great Leap Forward, or, as it's called in Chinese history textbooks, Three Years of Natural Disaster. Though death toll estimates vary widely, a commonly cited number is 30 million, or about twice the number killed in the Holocaust. Having been largely blocked from public discourse by the government for the past half-century, it suddenly caught fire in Chinese state and social media after several prominent Chinese intellectuals made controversial comments questioning the scale and the casualties of the disaster.

The most provocative came from Lin Zhibo, an editor at the party's mouthpiece newspaper People's Daily, who posted a message on his Weibo accusing Mao-bashers of "[fabricating] lies about the deaths of tens of millions of people from 1960 to 1962." His message was immediately picked up and reposted by tens of thousands of Weibo users, who poured out disbelief and outrage.

"I brought up this bitter episode to my dad tonight, and his voice grew louder, mixed with anger and sorrow.

"Since Lin Zhibo can deny the Great Famine, it is no surprise the Japanese can deny the Nanking Massacre!" Weibo user Hongludianyue wrote.

"Because of [Lin's comment]...I brought up this bitter episode to my dad tonight, and his voice grew louder, mixed with anger and sorrow," huzizfl wrote. "Calling it natural disaster is to excuse the government for its crime! When the fifty-cents are singing their praise for the party, go ask if the ghosts of the tens of millions of innocent victims will agree!" "Fifty-cents" refers to Internet commentators hired by the Chinese government to post messages that advance the party line in an attempt to shape and sway public discussion. They are said to be paid 50 cents per post.

"Lin Zhibo has daringly torn off the scab over the great historical scar and educated the public about the Great Famine," yemeicun, suggested half-mockingly. "Maybe he is actually a spy from our side?"

Lin at first attempted to defend himself on Weibo, but soon surrendered to public outrage and posted an apology, in which he claimed to have been ignorant of historical facts and was "deeply shocked by what [he has] learned" from netizens' responses.

The apology, brushed off by most web users, has only intensified the Weibo discussion on the deadliest catastrophe in modern Chinese history, and pushed the talk into print media, which is typically censored heavily. Southern People Weekly, a magazine under the Chinese media mogul Southern Daily Media Group, ran an 18-page, in-depth feature on the Great Famine, complete with detailed personal accounts and vivid photos. "Sometimes history is divided into two parts: history itself and the 'admitted history,' " the article reads. "For the new generation, the history of the Great Famine is like a tale ... if we don't save it, it will surely be lost."

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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