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?
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.