Years ago I read "Alive in a Bitter Sea" by Fox Butterworth, an account of the Great Leap Forward and the horror that followed in China.
The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen, both within China and outside, as a major economic disaster, effectively being a "Great Leap Backward" that would affect China in the years to come. As inflated statistics reached planning authorities, orders were given to divert human resources into industry rather than agriculture. The official toll of excess deaths recorded in China for the years of the GLF is 14 million. Western writers using demographic assumptions and other manipulations have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million. The three years between 1959 and 1962 were known as the "Three Bitter Years" and the Three Years of Natural Disasters. Many local officials were tried and publicly executed for giving out misinformation. [More]
The book left me pulling for the long-suffering peasants of China, and colors my thinking about the nation still. Chinese farmers still have a long way to go, but perhaps at least some hope is on the horizon.
Second, the Chinese people, especially the peasant farmers, deserve a huge amount of credit. Here's a couple of paragraphs I wrote recently:It is difficult to face the reality of lives like theirs and then sanctimoniously demand my government protect me from these fellow humans via trade barriers. It also makes one wonder at the persistent US craving for more government involvement in agriculture.
The Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward - agricultural land was less productive in 1978 than it had been in 1949 when the communists took over. In 1978, however, farmers in the village of Xiaogang held a secret meeting. The farmers agreed to divide the communal land and assign it to individuals – each farmer had to produce a quota for the government but anything he or she produced in excess of the quota they would keep. The agreement violated government policy and as a result the farmers also pledged that if any of them were to be jailed the others would raise their children.
The change from collective property rights to something closer to private property rights had an immediate effect, investment, work effort and productivity increased. “You can’t be lazy when you work for your family and yourself,” said one of the farmers.
Word of the secret agreement leaked out and local bureaucrats cut off Xiaogang from fertilizer, seeds and pesticides. But amazingly, before Xiaogang could be stopped, farmers in other villages also began to abandon collective property.
Deng and others in the central leadership are to be credited with recognizing a good thing when they saw it but it was the farmers in villages like Xiaogang that began China's second revolution. [More]