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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reports Tell Horror of Mao's Policies

The first of two parts

BEIJING -- The time was more than three decades ago; the place, a county in east-central China. A ferocious, abiding hunger had settled across much of the land, and top official Zhao Yushu issued this ruling: Children abandoned in roads and fields by their starving parents must be left to die.

People were so desperate in one Fengyang County commune during the monstrous famine, which was caused by Mao Tse-tung's 1958-60 Great Leap Forward, that on 63 occasions they ate others who had died -- or resorted to killing, carving up and eating their own children.

"In Damiao commune, Chen Zhangying and her husband Zhao Xizhen killed and boiled their 8-year-old son Xiao Qing and ate him," said a startling report that has recently become available in the West.

"In Wudian commune, Wang Lanying not only picked up dead people to eat, but also sold two jin (1 kilogram) from their bodies as pork."

The 581-page report detailing how the famine affected Fengyang in Anhui Province, prepared in 1989 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for internal use by top Chinese officials, is just one example of material that has recently emerged about the staggering human toll exacted by Mao's policies.

This and other new evidence shows that the number of people who died in more than a dozen repressive, often violent political campaigns between 1950 and 1976 is millions higher than previously thought. According to some high estimates, Mao's repression, radicalism and neglect may have been responsible for up to 80 million deaths in this country of 1.2 billion people.

"I don't think we've yet come to grips with the horrors perpetrated by Mao," said Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of government at Harvard University. While Stalin "is seen as someone who didn't deserve to be where he was. Mao is still seen as a heroic figure."

Evidence that Mao, who died in 1976, caused tens of millions of deaths is potentially destabilizing for the present Chinese regime, which still draws its fundamental legitimacy from the guerilla leader who founded the People's Republic in 1949 after a bloody civil war. Senior leader Deng Xiaoping and other top authorities maintain that Mao's accomplishments far exceed his failures. In 1981, the Central Committee touched on the Great Leap in a carefully worded resolution, insisting the party's "general line" was "fundamentally correct." It admitted Mao's "gross mistakes" but said nothing about the famine.

In the view of Deng, exposing Stalin's crimes was one of Moscow's biggest mistakes. Thus Beijing has barred any close examination of Mao's misdeeds, although some scholars in China do so even though they cannot publish their findings.

At the time of the 20th century's most terrifying famine, which claimed tens of millions of lives across rural China between 1959 and 1961, few Sinologists in the West believed that massive starvation had resulted from the Great Leap Forward -- a utopian production drive in which Mao formed rural communes and ordered citizens to make iron and steel in primitive backyard furnaces.

According to most accounts, Mao's aim was to push China to catch up with Britain within 15 years. However, Wang Ruoshui, a former deputy editor of the People's Daily, the party's official newspaper, said recently that Mao really was trying to overtake the Soviet Union and establish his position as leader of the world Communist movement.

The iron-and-steel drive, which transformed millions of cooking pots and other utensils into useless slag, drew labor from the fields, leaving many crops unharvested. Meanwhile those farmers who remained in the fields saw their crop yields decline, because Mao, the son of rich peasants, had prescribed farming techniques that involved close planting and deep plowing -- unsuitable for many areas.

Chinese authorities concealed the truth about the famine from much of the world for nearly two decades and only in recent years, with China's opening to the West, have the dimensions of the tragedy begun to be known. An article appearing last year in the Shanghai University journal Society stated that at least 40 million died from 1959 to 1961. Previous estimates have ranged from 10 to 30 million. Authorities later banned this issue of the journal and withdrew it from circulation.

Chen Yizi of Princeton University did research for years in China and determined that 43 million had died in the famine, a figure recently matched by a report from a think tank in Shanghai. According to Chen, this made the total number of Chinese who died as a result of Mao's policies 80 million.

Historians agree that Mao, unlike Stalin in the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s that killed 10 million, did not set out deliberately to starve the peasants.

"The main point about Mao is that for long after he knew there was a famine, he refused to introduce policies that would eliminate the crisis," said Thurston, who wrote a doctoral thesis on the impact of the Great Leap as well as a book on the Cultural Revolution.

The 1989 report on Fengyang County, more than 800 kilometers south of Beijing, said that the local party leaders boasted to their superiors of higher and higher grain yields even as actual yields declined.

Then they pressured lower-level officials to procure more grain for the state. In one brigade, or village, "cadres interrogated and beat people every day" in an effort to secure more grain, the study said.

Several copies of the Fengyang report have found their way to Hong Kong and the United States. The report said that from 1959 to 1961, 60,245 persons out of Fengyang's total population of 335,000 at the time -- nearly one person out of five -- died of "unnatural causes."

Ding Shu, a Chinese physicist and author of a book on the Great Leap Forward called "Man-Made Disaster," has found statistics indicating that the number of deaths in Fengyang County was actually higher -- perhaps 90,000, or more than one out of four. According to Ding, the Fengyang case was not unusual.

Ultimately, Ding concluded, "this famine was at least 90 percent the fault of Mao Tse-tung."