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Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Researcher: ‘Hostile Western Forces’ Behind Great Leap Death Tolls

Anger at a government think tank's attempt to gloss over history erupts on Chinese social media.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese citizens, and the Communist Party leaders who govern them, both love to boast of the country’s 5,000 years of history. But the exact details of that history — especially recent history — sometimes act as flashpoints in the struggle to define the relationship between the party, the people, and the nation. And this week, the battle for historical memory spilled over into China’s sprawling social media spaces.

On Sept. 22, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), China’s premier academic research institute and one generally perceived to be a stronghold of orthodox party thought, published an article accusing "hostile Western forces" of greatly exaggerating the number of people who died during the so-called Great Leap Forward, in order to "negate the legitimacy" of the party. The Great Leap Forward, a campaign launched in 1957 by then-Chairman Mao Zedong, aimed to push China’s industrial capacity beyond that of Britain in just 15 years. But from 1958 to 1961, the disastrous industrial and agricultural policies that undergirded it, such as farm collectivization and communal kitchens (pictured above), combined with a tragically timed drought to create a three-year famine across China, often called the "Three Years of Hardship." Official data has been suppressed, but later studies estimated that some 30 million to 45 million people died of starvation — more people than perished in all of World War I.

The nature of the famine remains a sensitive one for the ruling Communist Party, which was at the helm when the fateful initiative began. It’s a topic rarely visited in China’s tightly controlled media, and some Chinese consider it a period of dark tragedy too painful to bring up, even with family members. But the CASS article, also published in state-run outlets Xinhua and People’s Daily, euphemized the party’s policies in that period, calling them an "exploratory error."

The phrase quickly struck a nerve. Wang Zhousheng, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, China’s second-largest social sciences research institute after CASS, blasted the article in a widely shared comment on her verified account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. "This ‘exploratory error’ renders me unable to sleep," Wang wrote. She described how, during the three-year period of famine, her village ran out of food and her uncle’s family nearly starved, with only wild greens to eat until her uncle left for Shanghai to seek aid. Wang wrote that her older sister, who served as a village official, was punished for speaking the truth about the situation. "For the past several decades, the statistics about this bitter event have been twisted and tied into knots," Wang finished. "To rub salt into the wounds of the common people is intolerable."

Some critics were even harsher. Ye Tan, an economics columnist, wrote in a Weibo post shared over 3,800 times that those who called the Great Leap Forward an "exploratory error" should be sent back to the 1950s. "China should starve them, freeze them, force them to constantly study [revolutionary] materials, make their inner soul explode with revolution, and let everyone watch." She finished, "Let them get what they ask for." Other social media users manipulated the phrase in ways that sound awkward translated into English, but that highlighted the underlying absurdity of the term when read in Chinese. "Robbery," wrote one user, "is an assets transfer exploratory error." Another user, on a subject still deeply personal to many Chinese, charged, "So wasn’t Japan’s invasion of China a territorial expansion exploratory error?" Censors reacted swiftly to the online clamor. On Sept. 22 and 23, two of the most-censored words on Weibo were "exploratory" and "explore," according to Weiboscope, an analytics project run by the University of Hong Kong.*

That wasn’t the only firecracker that the CASS set off this week. Wang Weiguang, dean and party secretary of the CASS, wrote an op-ed on Sept. 24 for the state-run, nationalist Global Times in which he declared "class struggle can never be extinguished in China." During the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966, the party under Chairman Mao Zedong’s leadership promoted class struggle as a way to rid the country of "class enemies" — and for the next 10 years, the ensuing chaos and violence pitted the country against itself. The Cultural Revolution left deep scars in Chinese society and left the nation largely disillusioned with Marxist thought. As a result, class struggle is no longer promoted in contemporary party thought.

"What kind of organization is the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences?" Fan Jianchuan, a member of Sichuan’s provincial legislature, wrote on his verified Weibo account. Other popular comments called for Wang to make his assets public so that "everyone can know which class you belong to."

With China’s top social sciences research organization touting historical views so offensive to much of the country’s microblogging populace, it’s clear that Chinese memory is very much alive, though not necessarily well.

*Correction, Sept. 29, 2014: Weiboscope is run by the University of Hong Kong. An earlier version of the article stated incorrectly that Weiboscope is run by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Return to reading.)

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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