Even the Soviet Union eventually acknowledged Stalin's Great Famine. Why does China still hide evidence of its own mass starvation under Mao?
For decades, the Soviet Union hid its horrors behind the Iron Curtain. The worst of them was Joseph Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine and southern Russia, the result of his program of forced rural collectivization that claimed the lives of 7 to 10 million people in 1932 and 1933. Land, property, livestock, even houses were requisitioned as farmers became state employees forced to deliver ever higher grain quotas. Those who resisted or tried to hide food were deported to the Gulag or executed. Whole parts of the Ukrainian countryside turned into death zones. Millions perished, yet Stalin managed to silence all talk of the famine, sending those who breathed a word of it to labor camps in far-off Siberia. The census data, which would have shown a huge spike in mortality rates, were locked away for half a century.
But even before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Communist Party leaders in Ukraine started investigating the famine in their own party archives. They found a wealth of gruesome documentation. Some of the most shocking evidence came from photographs of starving children with skeletal heads, ribs poking through their skin, begging for a scrap of food on the pavement in Kharkov, Ukraine’s capital at the time of the famine. One picture showed emaciated corpses piled onto a cart, drumstick limbs akimbo amid a tumble of bodies. These were not a few isolated snapshots — there were hundreds of images. Leonid Kravchuk, who would later become Ukraine’s first democratically elected president, was one of the first to see this evidence. He was so haunted by the faces of the children killed by the famine that he persuaded Vladimir Ivashko, then the first secretary of Ukraine’s Communist Party, to approve the reproduction of 350 photographs in a book released to the public in 1990. Today, the famine is officially and universally remembered across Ukraine as the Holodomor, literally “death by hunger.”
A man-made disaster of even greater magnitude shook China in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a campaign he called the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao Zedong herded the countryside into giant collective farms in 1958, believing that they would catapult his country into a utopia of plenty for all. As in Ukraine, everything was collectivized: Villagers were robbed of their work, homes, land, belongings, and livelihood. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known; at least 45 million people died of starvation over four years, as I found out when I was given unprecedented access to recently opened Communist Party archives in China.
I read through thousands of documents: secret reports from the Public Security Bureaus, detailed minutes of top party meetings, investigations into cases of mass murder, inquiries compiled by special teams tasked with determining the extent of the catastrophe, secret opinion surveys, and letters of complaint written by ordinary citizens. Some were neatly written in longhand, others typed out on flimsy, yellowing paper. Some were excruciating to read, for instance, a report written by an investigation team noting the case of a boy in a Hunan village who had been caught stealing a handful of grain. A local Communist Party cadre forced his father to bury the boy alive. The father died of grief a few days later.
Other documents presented the famine’s horror in the sterile language typical of communist bureaucracy. A police report I discovered in one provincial archive listed some 50 cases of cannibalism, all in a city in Gansu, a province in northwestern China:
Date: 25 February 1960. Location: Hongtai Commune, Yaohejia Village. Name of Culprit: Yang Zhongsheng. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: 1. Name of Victim: Yang Ershun. Relationship with Culprit: Younger Brother. Number of People Involved: 1. Manner of Crime: Killed and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.
But despite months of patient work sifting through mountains of yellowing folders, I never came across a single photograph of the catastrophe in those archives.
Historians in Beijing explained away the lack of photographic evidence by telling me that party cadres at the time did not have any cameras, as China was still a poor country. It’s not a convincing explanation: The archives are replete with criminal investigations that contain exhaustive photographic evidence from the 1950s and 1960s — mug shots of criminals, photos of crime scenes, even rolls of film documenting land disputes between collective farms. Certainly the state propaganda machine never lacked for photographic equipment. Today, it’s easy to find online black-and-white photos from 1958 to 1962 showing peasants cheerfully driving the latest tractor model through the fields; rosy-cheeked children gathering around tables laden with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat in collective canteens; and Chairman Mao plodding through the fields in a straw hat and cotton shoes, or marveling at a bumper harvest. There are even photos of Mao’s nemesis, head of state Liu Shaoqi, investigating the famine in his home district in Hunan province in 1961.
So what happened to the visual evidence of one of the world’s most horrifying atrocities?
The Red Guards, Mao’s armed revolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution, probably destroyed it. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, in part to eliminate senior officials who criticized his reckless economic experiments that had led to the famine. As Red Guards started seizing state institutions by force in 1967, government servants destroyed records and any visual material en masse — anything that could have discredited Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Individuals with photos of the brutal starvation acted with the same impulse. Rae Yang, the daughter of a family of diplomats who had served abroad, saw her parents burn all the letters they had kept, as well as some old photographs, flushing the ash down the toilet.
But not all the evidence was reduced to ashes. It’s a pretty good guess that photographs of the famine are still locked away deep inside party vaults. After all, some of the most sensitive material on the Great Leap Forward remains classified. Entire collections — most of the central archives in Beijing, for instance — remain beyond the reach of even highly accredited party historians. In their acclaimed biography of the chairman, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday report that during the Cultural Revolution, when senior officials like Liu were tortured to death, security personnel took photographs and sent them to Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. These, too, are probably filed away in some secret gallery of horrors.
For four years, I studied Mao’s famine, and only once have I seen a visual illustration of its awfulness. In 2009, I visited a historian in a drab concrete building in the suburbs of Beijing. He, too, had been working on the history of the Great Leap Forward, burrowing in archives for more than a decade and obsessively documenting the starvation that had decimated the region of his birth, a county barely 100 miles north of Mao’s hometown in Hunan. Stacks of photocopied archival material bulged out of filing cabinets in his sparse office. I asked him whether he had ever seen a photograph of the famine. He frowned and reluctantly pulled out a folder with a reproduction of the only picture he had discovered. It came from the files of the party committee in his home county and was from a police investigation into a case of cannibalism. The small, fading picture showed a young man standing against a brick wall, peering straight into the camera, seemingly emotionless. By his feet stood a large pot containing the parts of a young boy, his head and limbs severed from his body.