The Great Leap Backward

By Singapore Armchair Critic


Between 1958 and 1962, 45 million people perished in the Great Famine of China (watch documentary). The death toll exceeds the total casualties of World War One, and is close to that of World War Two.

It took decades for the real magnitude of this man-made catastrophe to come to light. Prior to the arrival of an archive law that allowed access to a legion of previously classified materials, historians, extrapolating the death toll from China’s population statistics, made more conservative estimates ranging from 15 to 36 million.

As the famine ravaged the countryside, the rest of the world and many in China who continued to consume produce forcibly procured from deprived peasants had little inkling of the scale and gravity of the unfolding tragedy: humans, reduced to bones, were dying by the droves; farmland was barren and trees were stripped bare of their barks for food; cannibalism was rife with many devouring corpses while others killed family members for their flesh.

This collective ignorance was the intended outcome of painstaking efforts to conceal the truth: lower level cadres hiding information from the upper echelons, as well as Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Communist Party deluding the outside world.

To the coterie of privileged leaders who feasted on meat and fish while ordinary people barely survived on roots and chaff, saving their own skin and face was far more important than saving precious lives.

Frank Dikötter, author of Mao’s Great Famine, wrote,

Obfuscation was the communist way of life. People lied to survive, and as a consequence information was distorted all the way up to the Chairman. The planned economy required huge inputs of accurate data, yet at every level targets were distorted, figures were inflated and policies which clashed with local interests were ignored… individual initiative and critical thought had to be constantly suppressed, and a permanent state of siege developed.

As with any totalitarian regime, the Chinese regime under Mao’s dictatorship was sustained through lies, systematic violence, terror and mind control.

Cadres with a conscience who dared speak the truth and criticize the excesses of Mao’s collectivization were promptly punished. They were branded as “rightists,” and tortured or beaten to death in ways no less brutal than those of the Japanese invaders during WWII. Many were subjected to grueling “struggle sessions” to “purge” them of politically-incorrect thought.

Starving peasants who resisted by hiding grains or running away also met with the same fate.

Freedom of Information

In Development as Freedom, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen famously argues that “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” He explains that this is because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”

Sen’s somewhat simplistic assertion has been challenged by many. But I think there is some merit to his theory if you dissect the term “democracy” and look at its components.

Reflecting on the Great Famine, I think the calamity could have been averted or scaled down had there been a free flow of information.

Had there been freedom of information as we have in this Internet age, news of food shortages would have been disseminated far and wide in no time. Peasants and their sympathizers could organize mass collective action against the forced procurement of grains. Top-level cadres, even those far away in Beijing, could not feign ignorance of the dire situation in other parts of the country. Food would be more evenly distributed and channeled to the needy localities. Pressure and humanitarian aid from the international community would force the Chinese leaders to rein in the situation and lives would be saved.

Protect Your Right to Know

In the last decade, the advent of the Internet has transformed how the state and society interact. In many instances it has empowered the society. Following the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008, for example, the Chinese civil society swiftly mobilized resources and manpower via their websites to deliver aid and relief to victims.

In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese netizens also exposed the shoddily constructed “tofu” school buildings that collapsed and buried tens of thousands of school children.

This was clearly not the “right thing” the Communist Party wanted the people to know. While it had relaxed its control on information earlier to facilitate rescue efforts and had allowed journalists largely unfettered access to disaster zones, it soon reverted to its old ways.

About a year after the devastating earthquake, officials announced the outcome of their investigation: not a single school had collapsed because of shoddy construction.

And today there are renewed concerns that some post-quake school buildings, also of poor building quality, may not be able withstand another major tremor.

The lesson from China is that the freedom of information and knowing the right thing are crucial, especially in a life-and-death situation. But the things we have a right to know may not always dovetail with the “right” thing our government wants us to know. In this circumstance do you trust your government to decide for you what you should know? What happens when your interests conflict with the government’s?

With the controversial Media Development Authority (MDA) Licensing Regime, ten news sites are now regulated. In Parliament on 8 July, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim let slip that there is no knowing how many more will be on the Licensing Regime list next year.

The Internet has been a game changer in Singapore, opening our eyes to alternative perspectives and revealing things that we would not have known had we relied on the tightly controlled and heavily self-censored mainstream media as our only source of information.

Our government is clearly discomfited by this and the highly repressive and regressive MDA Licensing Regime is yet another measure to allow it to act arbitrarily to regain some control over the Internet. No matter how the government frames it, the MDA Licensing Regime is a huge step backward in the progress of Singapore.

(This post is dedicated to my mother, who was born in Fujian and survived the Great Famine in her childhood to eventually settle down in Singapore).


Singapore Armchair Critic for The Online Citizen.

The author blogs at

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