The Mass Line on a Massive Famine

Anthony Garnaut is a lecturer at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies and the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. He wrote his doctorate on the life of the Muslim religious leader Ma Yuanzhang (馬元璋, 1853-1920) under the supervision of Geremie Barmé, at the Division of Pacific and Asian History, The Australian National University. He has worked as a research associate at the University of Melbourne on an ARC-funded project led by Stephen Wheatcroft on the comparative history of modern famines, and as a postdoctoral fellow at the Contemporary China Centre, University of Oxford. Anthony can be contacted at: [email protected]The Editors


In April 2013, the new party-state leader Xi Jinping announced that, from the middle of the year, his administration would focus on reviving the Mass Line 群众路线, the mode of mass mobilisation that underpinned the political campaigns of the Mao era. In June, Liu Yunshan 刘云山, the Politburo member responsible for propaganda, formally launched what was dubbed the Mass Line Education and Practice Campaign 党的群众路线教育实践活动. Over the following months the movement was promoted in every realm of government and Communist Party activity. In academia and intellectual life, the most striking intervention came in the form of a series of articles published in party ideology journals that questioned the existence of a massive famine during the High-Maoist era of socialism. This ‘revisionism’ regarding what is commonly called ‘The Great Famine’ or ‘The Three Difficult Years’ reached a zenith at an international conference convened in Wuhan in July 2014. It illustrated how the new mass line may well apply to historical scholarship more broadly.

Contra Historical Nihilism

The Xi administration has breathed new life into the old Chinese Communist Party concern with managing its public image and reputation. Ideological Work 思想工作 stands at the centre of the administration’s affairs in a way that has reinvigorated the rote behaviour of party propagandists in the late-Hu-Wen decade (2003-2012). As scholars like Anne-Marie Brady have pointed out, Ideological Work aims to unite the hearts and minds of members of the Party, the Army and the masses around the collective leadership of the Party and, now, the personality of its leader, Xi Jinping.[1] On the one hand, it promotes positive evaluations of the Party’s contribution to China’s national development and on the other, it attacks, undermines and degrades the visibility of worldviews and value systems that are incompatible with those of the Party. The Xi administration seeks in particular to oversee the Internet with the same rigour that the Party has previously applied to traditional media, but without entirely alienating online users. It has entrusted this delicate task to a new generation of Internet content managers and independent scholars, the modern equivalent of the apparatchiki and grass-roots activists who oversaw mass campaigns in the Mao era. Following the inauguration of the new Mass Line Campaign, the propaganda system issued what is known simply as Document Number Nine.[2] As discussed in the China Story Yearbook 2013, this internal communiqué identified seven ‘false ideological trends, positions, and activities’ 错误思潮和主张及活动 that had to be actively countered if the Party was to retain command over the ideological and cultural superstructure of the state. One of the dangers was named as ‘Promoting historical nihilism, negating with ill-intent the history of the Chinese Communist Party and of New China’ 宣扬历史虚无主义,企图否定中国共产党历史和新中国历史. ‘Historical nihilism’ has a long pedigree in Marxist-Leninist cultures and the expression has been routinely used since 1989 to attack ideas, historical works or reinterpretations of the past that challenge party hegemony.

How this would affect historical research was elaborated in a lengthy People’s Daily article compiled by the Central Party History Office which outlined Xi Jinping’s ‘important discourse’ on ‘the two [historical eras] that can not be negated’ 两个不能否定.[3] The message of that article was that mistakes, difficulties and setbacks in party history could and should not be used to negate the overall achievements of the Party, during either the Mao era or the post-Mao Reform era. Rather than dwelling on the material hardships suffered by the Chinese people in the Mao era, it suggested, historians should acknowledge the achievements of the Chinese people in overcoming adversity and extol ‘the spirit of Lei Feng 雷锋, of “Iron Man” Wang Jinxi 王进喜, of the tireless cadre Jiao Yulu 焦裕禄 and the spirit of the Two Bombs and the Satellite’ 雷锋精神、“铁人”精神、焦裕禄精神、“两弹一星”精神等富有时代特色的精神. Each of these ‘spiritual achievements’ of the Mao era, including China’s atomic bomb project, have been the subject of major film or documentary projects in the last three years, although none have performed particularly well at the box office.


The spirit of ‘iron man’ Wang Jinxi 王进喜. Actor Wu Gang吴刚 plays Wang Jinxi in the 2009 film Iron Man铁人directed by Yin Li 尹力, here shown shortly emerging from his famous cement bath.

The actor Wu Gang 吴刚 plays Wang Jinxi in the 2009 film Iron Man 铁人directed by Yin Li 尹力. Here Wang is shown shortly after emerging from his famous cement-churning bath.


The People’s Daily article also called for greater party scrutiny over historical scholarship in general and for those working on the ideological front to take charge of the correct framing of public discussions and debates relating to the Party and to the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The article quoted the famous Qing scholar-official Gong Zizhen (龚自珍 1792-1841): ‘To destroy a state, one must first erase its history’ 灭人之国,必先去其史. The point here was that those engaged in ideological work needed to limit the scope for liberal critiques of the Mao era and radical (neo-Maoist) critiques of the Reform era alike. Discussion of the history of the PRC should focus on the Party’s accomplishments, rather than dwelling in a nihilistic manner on the human suffering and economic crises that occurred on a mass scale during, for example, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or June Fourth 1989.

A Two-line Struggle over the Famine

Even in formal evaluations of the past, the Party has been coy about publicly acknowledging the extent of the Great Famine or how its own disastrously misguided policies contributed to it. At the time, the international scholarly community had only limited access to reliable statistical information – indeed, the first clear indication of the scale of the crisis came in the form of demographic analysis done by Ansley Coale in 1981 using newly released official statistical data.[4] The prevailing view at the ‘Seven Thousand Cadres’ conference, convened in January 1962 to forge a consensus within the Party about the Great Leap Forward, was that there had been serious agricultural problems and even some deaths from malnutrition in isolated districts; these problems and deaths had been caused primarily by natural disasters, and were aggravated by counter-revolutionary forces within certain local governments.

The 1981 Central Committee ‘Resolution on Party history’ revised this view to describe the period 1959-1961 as one in which ‘the national economy suffered serious difficulties, and both the nation and the people suffered major setbacks’. Emboldened by the critical stance taken by the Party in the early Reform era in regard to the social and economic problems of the Mao era, the State Statistical Bureau (SSB) released previously suppressed data that indicated that a massive demographic crisis had occurred in China in the late 1950s. Relying on the newly released data, including annual crude mortality figures and the detailed results of the first three population censuses conducted in the PRC, several groups of demographers concluded that around twenty-seven to thirty million people had died of famine-related causes between 1957 and 1962.[5] From the mid-1990s, a number of historians and journalists drew on the results of internal party investigations or archival sources not endorsed by the SSB to claim the death toll was considerably higher. The most influential of these was Yang Jisheng 杨继绳 who, in his two-volume chronicle of the famine published in 2008, Tombstone 墓碑, endorsed a figure of thirty-six million deaths.[6] In 2013-2014, the intervention of the Mass Line Education and Practice Campaign in famine research seems to have been set on raising doubts about the accuracy of all of these estimates, with a focus on the work of Yang in particular.

The intervention started with an article by Sun Jingxian 孙经先, a mathematics professor from Jiangsu Normal University, which appeared on 23 August 2013 in the Chinese Social Sciences Weekly produced by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The timing of the article was significant, coming four days after Xi Jinping convened an internal Party conference to establish the Ideological Work agenda of his administration.[7] As the China Media Project investigative journalist and media analyst Qian Gang 钱钢 has pointed out, this was a peculiar week in PRC media history: while the General Political Department of the PLA and the Central Propaganda Bureau strongly promoted an interpretation of Xi’s speech that emphasised the need for ‘positive propaganda and public opinion struggle’ 正面宣传,舆论斗争, the tone of the official summary of the speech reported in the People’s Daily was far milder. The tone and content of Sun’s article fits squarely within the Central Department of Propaganda’s interpretation of Xi’s speech.

In the opening line of his article, Sun characterised the view that ‘thirty million people starved to death during the Three Difficult Years’ as being nothing more than a ‘massive rumour’ 重大谣言, one disseminated by Yang Jisheng as well as the likes of Cao Shuji 曹树基, Jin Hui 金辉, Ding Shu 丁抒 and Wang Weizhi 王维志, scholars and others who had produced the estimates of famine mortality that Yang Jisheng considered credible. (It should be pointed out that the accusation of ‘spreading rumours’ coincided with a highly publicised, and extremely punitive, official crackdown on rumour-mongering over the Internet.)

Sun argued that claims that there had been thirty million or more famine-related deaths in the Great Leap Forward era were based on statistical fallacies. According to Sun, China’s household registration data had been skewed by large-scale rural-to-urban migration during the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent repatriation of tens of millions of registered urban residents to the countryside. This gave rise to the appearance of mass population loss during those years, whereas in fact the missing people were alive and well and were gradually reintegrated within the household population registers. Sun concluded that in a ‘very few’ districts, such as Xinyang prefecture, fewer than 2.5 million people in total had died of ‘nutritional deaths’. The latter term was a broad morbidity class of Sun’s invention, and included deaths caused by edema and other nutrition-related illnesses as well as a small number of deaths caused directly by starvation. He said he used several different methods of statistical analysis to verify his conclusions, although we must await the publication of his promised book to learn the details. His conclusion is, I’d note, fortuitously consistent with the evaluation of the Great Leap Forward that was determined and then enforced on party history at the Seven Thousand Cadres conference of 1962.


The spirit of Jiao Yulu Actor Wang Luoyong王洛勇 plays the model local official Jiao Yulu in the 30-part television series directed by Li Wenqi李文岐, released in 2012. The above still from the series shows Jiao Yulu shortly after taking up his post in Lankao county in 1962, as he surveys the devastation caused by the three years of natural disasters that propaganda officials then and now promote as the main cause of the Famine.

The actor Wang Luoyong 王洛勇 plays the model local party official Jiao Yulu in a thiry-part TV series directed by Li Wenqi 李文岐 and released in 2012. The above still shows Jiao Yulu shortly after taking up his post in Lankao county, Henan, in 1962, as he surveys the devastation caused by the three years of natural disasters that propaganda officials then and now promote as the main cause of the Famine. In 2013-2014, Xi Jinping’s obsession with the frugal but tragic figure of Jiao was backed up by a number of trips to Lankao county and tireless exhortations for cadres today to emulate this red saint.

Sun’s article offered little that was new. He had fully elaborated his argument about the effect of migration on the data two years previously in a piece published in Studies in Marxism 马克思主义研究, a journal also published by CASS. In this earlier work Sun had taken aim not at Yang Jisheng but rather at Jiang Zhenghua 蒋正华, a cyberneticist-turned-demographer who, supported by a national research grant, estimated that the Great Famine had caused seventeen million excess deaths, the lowest of the serious estimates of famine mortality.[8] Even though Yang was not mentioned in the 2011 article, he responded to it in great detail on his blog.

What was remarkable about Sun’s more recent article was that the editorial committee of a major official publication had sanctioned the use of the term ‘grand rumour’ to characterise new research on the famine. Sun had used the term ‘grand rumour’ in this way before, at a public forum in 2009 hosted by the neo-Maoist online publisher ‘Utopia’ on the ‘True Face of Population Change in the 1960s’. But for such an inflammatory expression to appear in the Chinese Social Sciences Weekly indicated a high-level of official endorsement. (By contrast, the prominent online campaign run by ‘Utopia’ in 2011 to have the independent economists and thinkers Mao Yushi 茅于轼 and Xin Ziling 辛子陵 tried on rumour-mongering charges never received comparable endorsement.)

With this official stamp of approval, Sun was able to publish an opinion piece in the Global Times on 5 September 2013, and a second article in the Chinese Social Sciences Weekly 中国社会科学报 four days later that listed ten errors he claimed to have found in Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone. Over the following months, he elaborated on various aspects of his population research in a string of articles that appeared in journals managed by the Party’s Central Department of Propaganda, including Red Flag Manuscripts 红旗文稿 and The Observer 观察. Sun’s thesis was also the focal point of a book by an independent scholar affiliated with ‘Utopia’ named Yang Songlin 杨松林 published in August 2013 (though not approved for distribution through retail book stores), and of a collection of papers attacking various ‘rumours’ about party history that appeared in December 2013. The editors of the latter collection were Li Shenming 李慎明, head of the Institute of World Socialism 世界社会主义研究所 at CASS, the home of the journal Studies in Marxism, and Li Jie 李捷, head of the Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies 当代中国研究所, both of whom at the time were serving vice-presidents of CASS.[9]

Colleagues and Patrons

Producing such a large volume of scholarship in such a short period of time requires both collegial support and patronage. In Sun’s case, the Utopia Forum on Population Change provided him with a supportive environment. The online version of the Forum brought together over one hundred research papers debunking particular claims about the Great Famine, or shifting blame for famine deaths from Mao Zedong to Liu Shaoqi, Zhao Ziyang and other leaders associated by neo-Maoists today with the liberal or reformist tradition within the CCP. (The online Forum was discontinued but not ‘harmonised’ when the ‘Utopia’ site was refurbished in the wake of the dismissal of Bo Xilai.) The Forum helped Sun to develop a vocabulary and methodology for denying the historical existence of a massive famine that was effective in the special context of the Chinese-language Internet. The Forum also produced some original contributions that failed to support its overall aim. For example, the ‘Utopia’-affiliated independent scholar Yang Songlin pointed out in the introduction to his recent book There will always be people to give witness to the truth: On the ‘Thirty million starvation deaths’, that there were fewer people over the age of sixty-five recorded in the 1964 census than in the 1953 census across China as a whole, and a lot fewer in the most severely affected provinces such Henan, Anhui, Shandong, Sichuan and Gansu, testifying to the extraordinarily high mortality of the elderly in the Great Leap era.

Among Sun’s patrons was the ninety-three-year-old former head of the Bureau of Statistics, Li Chengrui 李成瑞, whose preface to Sun’s as yet unpublished book was posted on an online forum in September 2013. This endorsement, though qualified (‘It’s a good thing that Professor Sun has raised some new perspectives on many people’s research. After all, comparison brings discernment, and truth is illuminated by debate!’ 孙教授对许多人的研究成果提出不同意见是一件好事。有比较才能鉴别,真理愈辩愈明嘛!), lent considerable weight to Sun’s work, as it came from the person responsible for releasing the statistical data that made demographic research on the famine possible, and whose previous contribution on the famine debate was to argue that the death toll was ten times greater than in Sun’s revisionist account. One clue as to how someone whose career had been dedicated to restoring integrity to Chinese government statistics could become associated with Sun’s work, is that the preface was written while Li Chengrui was a special research fellow at the Institute of World Socialism, CASS.[10]

This Institute is headed by Sun Jingxian’s ultimate patron Li Shenming, mentioned above. Li Shenming’s journal Studies in Marxism gave Sun’s ideas about famine demography their first outing in print, his Institute of World Socialism awarded Sun a fellowship to develop further his research into the famine, and his name can be found amongst the editors of the party ideology journals and books Sun’s ideas were propagated.[11] Li, in turn, has strong patrons within the network of princelings and intellectuals that have led the revival of Maoist rhetoric and organisational forms over the past decade.[12] In an article published in May 2013 that reads like a draft of Xi Jinping’s ‘important discourse’ on PRC history, Li claimed that the notion that Stalin and Mao had each killed thirty million people had been manufactured from falsified statistics and spread by hostile Western forces in order to promote the downfall of socialism. He did not cite any authority for his claims about Stalin, and I am not aware of any other arguments that the famine deaths and extrajudicial killings that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s are mere statistical fallacies.[13] On the Chinese side, he backed up his assertion by pointing to Sun’s argument about household registration data.

Yang Jisheng is not without patrons and colleagues of his own, though they tend not to hang out at the ‘Utopia’ bookshop in Beijing. Although the ban on the distribution of Tombstone in mainland China remains in force, the Hong Kong edition continues to sell well there and pirated editions have been sighted in roadside bookstalls from Beijing to rural Sichuan. An abridged English translation made it into paperback and was awarded the 2013 Hayek Prize by the Manhattan Institute. Both Caixin 财新 and The New York Times published articles supportive of Yang within a fortnight of Sun’s first article appearing in the Chinese Social Sciences Weekly.[14] While the Chinese Social Sciences Weekly did not give Yang the opportunity to publish an extended response to Sun (Yang declined the editors’ offer to publish a short rejoinder), he was able to produce a lengthy rebuttal in the December edition of Annals of the Yellow Emperor 炎黄春秋, the liberal party history journal where Yang serves as deputy commissioning editor. The May 2014 edition of the same journal published four articles that challenged the view of the ‘false trend’ of historical nihilism promoted by the Central Propaganda Department, including the argument that the main nihilist trend that had to be countered was the denial of the basic facts of history. As of writing, these articles have not landed the journal in political hot water. It appears that on the question of the scale of famine-related deaths, the administration is willing to allow two schools of thought to contend.

Mass Lies and Statistics

Sun Jingxian and other radical critics of what has become mainstream famine-related scholarship have met with their intellectual adversaries at two scholarly colloquiums. The first was held near Shanghai in November 2013 under the auspices of Open Times 开放时代, the newspaper of the Guangzhou Municipality Academy of Social Sciences, which also published a record of the proceedings. It was attended by Sun Jingxian, but not Yang Jisheng. Sun presented a version of his thesis on household registration data. The population and environmental historian Cao Shuji said in response that Sun’s thesis rested on a series of suppositions and failed to engage with the methods employed by any of the famine historians or demographers. Wang Shaoguang 王绍光, one of the senior figures associated with ‘Utopia’, invoked Mark Twain’s famous remark about statistics (‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics’) in arguing that all calculations of famine mortality were based on politically motivated choices, and offered a series of examples of evidence that he claimed had been misused by famine scholars. Some of these examples were valid (the norm against which ‘excess’ mortality is measured can be defined in a number of different ways), some were ridiculous (excess mortality during the Great Leap Forward was a delayed demographic response to tight food conditions during the Japanese Occupation), and all supported the general contention that the Mao era was not the dark night before the dawn of liberalism in the Reform Era.[15]

Sun Jingxian and Yang Jisheng were both present at the second colloquium, an international conference on land tenure held in Wuhan, 3-5 July 2014. The organisers of the conference were Cao Tianyu 曹天予, a philosopher of quantum physics based at Boston University and a lay Marxist theoretician and He Xuefeng 贺雪峰, director of the Rural Governance Institute at Huazhong Science and Technology University. Amongst the speakers and discussants were a dozen political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and historians from outside the Mainland, including this writer.[16]

At the conference, Yang Jisheng focused his spoken remarks on the asymmetrical nature of the recent debate about famine mortality. Most people at the conference were familiar with Sun Jingxian’s thesis, he claimed, thanks to the series of articles that circulated via the Internet since August 2013, while few had read his own book because, as noted above, its distribution on the Mainland was banned. Yang pointed out that he had published detailed responses to the three main articles by Sun published in Studies in Marxism and Chinese Social Sciences Review, including detailed responses to the ten alleged errors Sun claimed to have found in his own work, while in subsequent articles Sun had continued to restate his original arguments without reference to Yang’s responses.

Sun had a member of the audience to read out his contribution to the conference on his behalf, as he was suffering from high blood pressure. The paper repeated his original argument and his list of Yang’s alleged errors without mentioning Yang’s written responses, and Sun did not engage with Yang’s written or spoken responses to his research later in the three-day program.

Many of the conference participants had in their own research proposed or endorsed various collectivist initiatives that aimed to ameliorate the social tensions and economic inequalities that have arisen in the Chinese countryside since the rural communes were disbanded thirty years ago. The historical experience of famine in the High-Maoist era raises serious questions about how collectivism might improve the lives of people in the Chinese countryside today. The general tone of most of the presentations at the conference and questions from the audience were sympathetic to the aspect of Sun’s project that aimed to absolve collectivism from blame for having contributed to the largest famine in modern history. At the same time, most of the speakers, including Sun himself, demonstrated some degree of support for the principles that arguments should be well framed and grounded in robust evidence. In this context, the weaknesses of Sun’s statistical arguments were obvious. Sun used ad hoc demographic methods and ignored the entire body of statistical evidence that Ansley Coale and other demographers had used to argue that a massive famine had occurred in the High-Maoist era, including the population censuses, fertility surveys and annual crude death rates released by the SSB.

Rather than discussing what these various data series can tell us about the demography of the High-Maoist era, Sun set about to account for the discrepancy between two of the least reliable data series, namely the annual total population and the annual number of births and deaths reported by the SSB. In relation to the latter series, Ansley Coale demonstrated thirty years ago that the official crude death rates omitted over one third of actual deaths and one fifth of actual births between the 1953 and 1964 censuses. As for the annual total population figures, this data appears to have originated in the population growth assumptions written into the national economic plan, adjusted in response to the annual demographic data reported in from the provinces but only so far as the planning system would allow — that is, this data series was commonly falsified to conform with the assumption of the national economic plan that the population would grow by two to three percent annually.[17] The reported number of births less the reported number of deaths should square with the annual change in the reported total population. Instead, a large gap between the different data series is apparent from the latter half of the 1950s, closes off in 1961, then an even larger gap emerges in the opposite direction through the 1960s and closes off in 1979.

Sun’s thesis provides a logically plausible explanation for the rise and fall in the gap between different sets of official data, neither of which has a simple or consistent relationship to the historical experience of the Chinese population. The historical reality underlying Sun’s thesis is a phenomena of the Chinese statistical bureaucracy in the period of economic planning: there was internal consistency between the various series of official population data series when the accuracy of population statistics was a priority of the political leadership, namely in 1952-1953 (when the SSB was established), between late 1960 and early 1962 (in the tail end of the famine), and in the early years of the reforms.

A Successful Intervention

Despite Sun Jingxian’s failure to convince most of the participants at the Wuhan conference of the credibility of his population research, the intervention of the Mass Line Education and Practice Movement into famine research may still be regarded as a success. Sun, a retired mathematician with no expertise in historical or demographic research, managed to promote his ideas about the famine for a full nine months in the press and at panel discussions in the face of scathing criticisms by formidable and highly influential intellectuals including Yang Jisheng, Cao Shuji and others. In the booming left-leaning ideological marketplace of contemporary China, editors of leading ideological journals and managers of online opinion forums have supported Sun in the spreading of his ideas, and as a result, the Chinese language Internet is now saturated with radical critiques of the notion that there was a massive famine during the Mao era. Internet users who avail themselves of Baidu or Google to browse the Chinese-language Web for information about the famine will now find two contesting views: one that there was a massive famine (thirty million deaths) and one that there was only a moderately large famine (three million deaths). The intervention introduced a sense of credible doubt to a sound and scientific analysis of those events, much as climate change sceptics have generated public confusion about a theory that is well established within scientific circles. In the process, a stubborn source of criticism of the Party’s historical judgement was converted into a manageable ‘two-line struggle’ between so-called liberals and radicals.

This was all done with minimal collateral damage. No famine scholars were arrested, jailed or physically intimated by members of the security agencies or by radical activists. (The colloquium on the famine convened in November 2013 had several heated exchanges, but the Wuhan conference was a highly civilised affair.) At no point in the campaign was the central party leadership required to take a public stand for or against the new line on the famine, thereby forcing them to choose between Mao’s legacy and science. The academic credentials of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences may have been damaged, but the Academy has always acted as an intermediary between government policy and scientific knowledge, and it performed this function well.

To take the campaign further, such as by using coercive measures to silence Yang Jisheng or other proponents of the view that a massive famine occurred in the High-Maoist era, would promote the primacy of ideology over scientific method in academic research, something which none of the senior figures in Xi Jinping’s administration has advocated to this date. In any case by July 2014, the broader Mass Line Education and Practice Movement was approaching the end of its designated lifespan (its conclusion was formally announced by Xi Jinping at the end of September), and the political wind was blowing towards new horizons: rumours were circulating that charges against Zhou Yongkang were about to be announced, suggesting that the anti-corruption campaign would shortly be moving from tigers to flies; and the rule of law rather than the Mass Line was being touted as the next focus of political work to be discussed at the Party’s summer conference in Beidaihe and then at the late October Fourth Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress.

Li Shenming was also moving with the times. In April 2014, he gave up his position as Vice-President of CASS to take up a new post as Deputy Director of the Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee 内务司法委员会 of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). In this new capacity, his latest contribution to the public opinion struggle was a full-page article published in the People’s Daily on 30 September commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the NPC in which he spelled out the perils of One Person, One Vote for the benefit of his restless Hong Kong compatriots.[19]

Yang Jisheng also commented on the founding of the NPC in his book on the famine.[20] The first act of the NPC in 1954 was to pass the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, which stated that China was guided by the General Line for the Transition Period (实现社会主义工业化,对农业、手工业、资本主义工商业进行社会主义改造), a relatively moderate political program that would be upheld for at least ten to fifteen years, according to the public statements of the party leadership. Four years later, this program was replaced by the General Line for Socialist Construction (鼓足干劲,力争上游,多快好省地建设社会主义), and the accelerated leap to Socialism began.

The good burghers of Hong Kong, where nihilist history books are still available, can read Yang’s book to find out about what came next.



The author would like to acknowledge the contributions this essay of Stephen Wheatcroft, who submitted a paper to the Wuhan conference on Soviet and Chinese population statistics. The author would also like to acknowledge detailed comments and editorial suggestions of John Garnaut, Stephen Smith, Cai Yong, Mark Henderson, and especially, Alice Kelly, Linda Jaivin and Geremie Barmé.



[1] Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

[2] The full Chinese text of Document Number Nine was published in the September 2013 edition of Mingjing Monthly. A translation of the document by ChinaFile can be found here. A second translation by Rogier Creemers, with the original text, can be found here.

[3] See Paul Gewirtz, ‘Xi, Mao, and China’s Search for a Usable Past’, ChinaFile, 14 January 2014.

[4] Ansley J. Coale, ‘Population Trends, Population Policy, and Population Studies in China’, Population and Develoment Review, vol.7, no.1 (1981): 85-97.

[5] The four main demographic studies of the data available in the early 1980s produced very similar results, by slightly different methods, based on the reliable information that was available at the time. Coale (1984) and Banister (1987) both found that there were ‘around 27 million’ excess deaths between 1958 and 1963, Calot that there were 28 million excess deaths between 1958 and 1961, and Ashton et al (1984) that there were 29.5 million excess deaths over the fiscal years 1958 to 1962. See Ansley Coale, Rapid population change in China, 1952-1982, Washington: National Academy Press (1984); Basil Ashton, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza and Robin Zeitz, ‘Famine in China, 1958-61’, Population and Development Review, vol. 10 no. 4 (1984): 613-645, 619; Judith Banister, China’s Changing Population, Stanford: Stanford University (1987): 85; Gerard Calot, ‘Donnees nouvelles sur l’evolution demographique chinoise’, Population, No. 4-5 (July-October 1984): 807-834, and no. 6 (December 1984): 1045-1062, 1034.

[6] See Anthony Garnaut, ‘Hard facts and half-truths: The new archival history of China’s Great Famine’, China Information 27 (2013): 223-246.

[7] The original Chinese text of the ‘spirit’ of Xi’s August 19 speech can be found here, and an English translation by Rogier Creemers here; and, Qian Gang’s commentary on the reception of the speech in the PRC media can be found here.

[8] Yang Jisheng discusses Jiang Zhenghua’s work in Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: A chronicle of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s 墓碑: 中國六十年代大饑荒紀實, Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, 2012 (tenth edition), Chapter 23; Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, trans. Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, Chapter 11.

[9] Yang Songlin, There will always be people to give witness to the truth: On the ‘30 million starvation deaths’ 总要有人说出真相——关于“饿死三千万”, Haikou: Nanhai, 2013; Li Shenming and Li Jie, eds, Restoring history to its original form 还历史的本原, Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2014.

[10] The affiliation is not given in the online version released in September, but only in the print version published in World Socialism Research Trends 世界社会主义研究动态 and anthologised in the yearbook of the Institute of World Socialism; Li Chengrui, ‘On a new development in research on population change in the “three years”: a preface prepared for Sun Jingxian’s book Restore history to its true form 关于“三年困难时期”人口变动研究的新进展——为孙经先著《还历史以真相》一书所写的序言, in Li Shenming, ed., World Socialism Tracking Research Report 世界社会主义跟踪研究动态, Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2014, pp.367-373, 373. Li Chengrui’s previous contribution on famine research was a survey article in which he presenteda new estimate of 22 million excess deaths, drawing on the work of Ansley Coale and Jiang Zhenghua; Li Chengrui, ‘Population change brought about by the “Great Leap Forward”’ “大跃进”引起的人口变动, Population Research 人口研究, vol. 21 no. 1 (1998): 3-12, 10.

[11] Sun Jingxian is listed as a special research fellow 特邀研究员 at the Institute of World Socialism in articles published in January and February 2014.

[12] Li Shenming served as personal secretary to the noted party ideological iron man Wang Zhen 王震 in the 1980s, and is currently a Vice-President of the Spirit of Yan’an Study Group, a important forum for internal party discussions of theoretical issues established in the wake of the 1989 Beijing Massacre. On Li Shenming’s background, see Gao Xin 高新, ‘Li Shenming and his former boss were both beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution holocaust’ 李慎明和他的前主子都曾是人类浩劫的受益者’, posted on Radio Free Asia on 21 May 2013, see here.

[13] For a recent discussion of the Terror in Soviet history, see James Harris, ed, The Anatomy of Terror: Political Violence under Stalin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[14] A year earlier, the Chinese edition of The New York Times had ran a short article on Yang Jisheng’s response to Sun Jingxian’s 2011 article, and in October 2013 ran a longer article about the new school of famine denialism.

[15] ‘Special issue on statistics and politics 统计与政治’, part 1 and part 2, Open Times 开放时代 no.1 and no.2, 2014.

[16] The organisers of the Wuhan conference hope to publish a Chinese-language volume of proceedings at the end of 2014, followed by an English-language version.

[17] There are strong parallels between this series of total population data and the corresponding Soviet series in the 1920s and 1930s, which stayed within the planners’ population growth band of two-to-three percent with the exception of 1933, when a one-off adjustment was made to partially acknowledge the effect of famine mortality on the national economic plan. See R.W. Davies and S.G. Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1933, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p.415.

[18] See the three-stage scheme used in describing rural policy cycles in G. William Skinner and Edwin A. Winckler, ‘Compliance succession in rural Communist China: A cyclical theory’, in Amitai Etzioni, ed., A Sociological Reader in Complex Organizations, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969 (second edition), pp.410-426.

[19] Li Shenming, ‘Steadfastly support the People’s Congress system while promoting improvements with the times’ 毫不动摇坚持并与时俱进完善人民代表大会制度, Renmin ribao, 30 September 2014.

[20] Yang Jisheng, 杨继绳, Tombstone: A chronicle of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s 墓碑——中國六十年代大饑荒紀實, Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, 2008, p.600.