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Hungry Ghosts (Holt Paperback)


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About the Author

Jasper Becker is currently Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post. He has also written extensively on Chinese affairs for The Guardian, The Economist, and The Spectator. He lives in Beijing.


Becker, Beijing Bureau Chief for the South China Morning Post, sees the 1958-62 famine, even more than the Cultural Revolution that followed it, as China's greatest trauma of the century. Population statistics made public since 1979 reveal that at least 30 million people starved to death in the wake of Mao's Great Leap Forward. Although Becker concedes that the American press (especially Joseph Alsop) reported the famine with accuracy, he notes that other Western "foreign experts" who admired Mao, such as Edgar Snow, Rewi Alley, and Anna Louise Strong, remained silent or played down its severity. The tragedy could have been averted, Becker concludes, after the first year if Mao's senior advisers had dared to confront him. Unlike such academic works as Dali L. Yang's Calamity and Reform in China (Stanford Univ., 1996), this work presupposes little knowledge of communism and China; Becker's strength is his anecdotal, journalistic style. This is fascinating journalism, but the definitive study has yet to be written.‘Jack Shreve, Allegany Community Coll., Cumberland, Md.

Becker, Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, lays bare the facts surrounding the worst famine of modern times. In 1958, Mao Zedong decreed the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to spur productivity whereby peasants would be herded into giant communes and crop yields, following the dictates of Soviet quack scientist Trofim Lysenko, would increase dramatically. Because his lackeys feared to tell Mao the truth, false reports of fantastic harvests encouraged the Great Helmsman to believe his policies were a success. Thus, relates Becker, when stories of mass starvation in the countryside started reaching Beijing, Mao discounted them and chastised peasants for hiding their produce. As starvation spread, Mao refused to authorize emergency food distribution from state granaries and ordered grain exports to China's allies to stay on schedule. The author estimates that some 30 million people starved to death because of the Great Leap. In this gripping, well-researched account, Becker notes that the two worst famines of the century, the Chinese and the one in the Ukraine of the early 1930s, were both man-made. This study is a testament to the folly of utopian engineering. (Feb.)

"An accessible, masterly account of the greatest peacetime disaster of this century." --The New York Times Book Review

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