The truth behind the Great FamineThe film “Back to 1942” by director Feng Xiaogang chronicles the famine in Henan Province of China by showing a body of a young girl who died while eating grass, a dog eating dead bodies on the street and a woman who had to resort to prostitution for a handful of rice. As the year 2012 came to a close, intellectuals in China were contemplating the suffering the country had gone through 70 years earlier.
One month after the movie’s release, newspapers and broadcasters in China are now pouring out the truth of the famine. In Henan Province, a severe drought lasted for more than a year, and of the population of 30 million, three million died of starvation and 10 million left their homes. While the cause of the famine was a natural disaster, what made the situation more serious was the human factor. News about the reduction and concealment of the disaster by the Kuomintang officials, extortion of government subsidies by the financial industry, suppression of the media as well as the Japanese collaborators’ exploitation of people has come out day by day.
Now the controversy is being taken to a new level. The attention has shifted to the Great Famine of China from 1958 to 1962 when the country was under communist rule. It was a more serious catastrophe than the 1942 famine. The official government statistics say 16 million died, but experts estimate more than 30 million around the country perished. The rumors about trading human flesh was considered common knowledge.
Unlike the 1942 famine, the 1962 famine was largely a man-made calamity. There was no Japanese invasion nor a serious drought. Grains were stocked up at government warehouses, and China even exported food. Government organs such as the People’s Daily reported that it was a year of a good harvest, boasting the accomplishments of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward.” However, more than 30 million people died of hunger.
After watching the movie, viewers are asking the Communist Party why their grandparents had to starve to death 50 years ago. But the party is not responding. The books that revealed the truth are still on the list of banned materials, and no white paper has been published even when millions were lost. The intellectuals know the causes of the famine. The focus on industrialization, fabricated reports on agricultural production by officials and the Hukou system that prevented farmers from leaving their land led to the catastrophe. What they demand now is frank examination of the Communist Party.
The demand is in the same context as the growing calls for political reform since the inauguration of Xi Jinping. Many intellectuals say 2013 should be the first year of political democratization. “Back to 1942” is a cultural symbol of the trends of the time. As we welcome 2013, Chinese scholars are shouting out, “Farewell to 1942.” They are craving for new politics today.
*The author is the director of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Han Woo-duk