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.

"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."

Discussions online and in print have focused on two things: estimating the death toll and recounting personal stories from the period. Because official historical research has been so limited, the number of casualties is still murky (some estimates put it somewhere between 32.5 million and 40 million). But, in many ways, this resurgent national conversation is as much about surfacing the human side of these events as it is about reckoning with the past. Web users who have rushed to share their family experiences on social media are helping their society reconstruct a period of history that had been left to fade. Accounts of subsisting on weeds and bark, of watching relatives die, and of cannibalism, posted on Weibo, have validated the memories of those who lived through the catastrophe and informed those who have had little exposure to it.

"After reading some accounts about the Great Famine ... I remembered that my parents were also born at around 1958 and 59." Weibo user shuaihubutaigao wrote. "I called them, and learned that my dad still could not stand at the age of two due to the lack of nutrition. I suddenly want to buy a recording pen and hear about that part of history from my grandfather, who was a commander at the people's militia at the time."

The surge of talk, though only tens of thousands of disjointed Weibo posts and a few articles in national magazines, is mainland China's largest-ever public discussion on the Great Famine. Both the outburst of public emotions and the fact that it is allowed at all, especially at such a sensitive moment, are surprising and fascinating. As the dam that has long suppressed public discussion cracks, many people seem barely able to hold back, releasing a flood of thoughts and memories.

Others chime in for a different reason: to point out ominous parallels between Chinese society today and during the Great Leap Forward, the devastating political movement that directly led to the Great Famine. They worry about the expansion of costly government projects, the rising price of food staples, and political turmoil like that of the Bo Xilai saga. That doesn't mean that they think another Great Famine would happen: the Maoist era of fanatical totalitarian communism is over, as is Mao Zedong's practice of forcing through such disastrous policies as having farmers produce steel instead of tending their crops, which contributed to the famine. Still, as their knowledge of the Great Leap Forward increases, so does their sensitivity to echoes, however faint, of the old political mentality manifesting today, in subtler ways.

"The railways ministry is conducting a Great Leap Forward by building the high-speed rail network, and the local governments are conducting their own versions of it by building highways and airports," jameslin5555 wrote on Weibo. "It worries me that local governments' debt is even worse than that of the railways ministry."

Weibo user I am not an angry youth saw similar risks in Chinese higher education. "[Chinese universities' decision to] increase enrollment is the source of their problems," he said of the universities that aim to win more government funding by expanding. "Like during the Great Leap Forward, they do not have the resource to carry on the size of the student body, but insist on doing it."

This maelstrom of public criticisms compounds the mystery of why government censors have allowed this discussion, and why now. For an apparatus known for its responsiveness and ability to quash or fine-tune social discussions, it's hard to imagine that this might have been a case of negligence. Mark MacKinnon of The Globe and Mail offered one hopeful explanation: Could this be the start of a larger national conversation of the Communist Party's dark moments, right through to 1989?

"Addressing the famine of the Great Leap Forward might open the door to an eventual discussion of the Cultural Revolution, the murderous political milieu that Mr. Xi and his generation grew up in," MacKinnon writes, citing "veteran China-watchers." He goes on, "And after that might come a debate of the biggest taboo of all -- the use of tanks and soldiers to quell the pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in June of 1989."

Though the Party leadership has long avoided these topics, MacKinnon writes, "Perhaps the rising generation of Communist Party 'princelings' are interested in fighting the battles of their fathers."

Were they to confront history with honesty and openness, the future Chinese party leadership would be fighting for more fathers than just their own.