Wall Street Journal on May 25, 2013, published an article by Bret Stephens on Yang Jisheng, a Chinese author receiving Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize for his book Tombstone In the spring of 1959, Yang Jisheng, then an 18-year-old scholarship student at a boarding school in China’s Hubei Province, got an unexpected visit from a childhood friend. “Your father is starving to death!” the friend told him. “Hurry back, and take some rice if you can.”
Mr. Yang’s father would die within three days. Yet it would take years before Mr. Yang learned that what happened to his father was not an isolated incident. He was one of the 36 million Chinese who succumbed to famine between 1958 and 1962.
There were no major droughts or floods in China in the famine years. Rather, the cause was man, and one man in particular: Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman, whose visage still stares down on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square from atop the gates of the Forbidden City.
Mr. Yang went on to make his career, first as a journalist and senior editor with the Xinhua News Agency, then as a historian whose unflinching scholarship has brought him into increasing conflict with the Communist Party—of which he nonetheless remains a member. Now 72 and a resident of Beijing, he’s in New York this month to receive the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize for Tombstone, his painstakingly researched, definitive history of the famine. On a visit to the Journal’s headquarters, his affinity for the prize’s namesake becomes clear.
“This book had a huge impact on me,” he says, holding up his dog-eared Chinese translation of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Hayek’s book, he explains, was originally translated into Chinese in 1962 as “an ‘internal reference’ for top leaders,” meaning it was forbidden fruit to everyone else. Only in 1997 was a redacted translation made publicly available, complete with an editor’s preface denouncing Hayek as “not in line with the facts,” and “conceptually mixed up.”
Mr. Yang quickly saw that in Hayek’s warnings about the dangers of economic centralization lay both the ultimate explanation for the tragedies of his youth—and the predicaments of China’s present. “In a country where the sole employer is the state,” Hayek had observed, “opposition means death by slow starvation.”
So it was in 1958 as Mao initiated his Great Leap Forward, demanding huge increases in grain and steel production. Peasants were forced to work intolerable hours to meet impossible grain quotas, often employing disastrous agricultural methods inspired by the quack Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko. The grain that was produced was shipped to the cities, and even exported abroad, with no allowances made to feed the peasants adequately. Starving peasants were prevented from fleeing their districts to find food. Cannibalism, including parents eating their own children, became commonplace.
“Mao’s powers expanded from the people’s minds to their stomachs,” Mr. Yang says. “Whatever the Chinese people’s brains were thinking and what their stomachs were receiving were all under the control of Mao. . . . His powers extended to every inch of the field, and every factory, every workroom of a factory, every family in China.”
To this day, few people realize that Mao’s forced famine was the single greatest atrocity of the 20th century, exceeding by orders of magnitude the Rwandan genocide, the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Holocaust.
The power of Mr. Yang’s book lies in its hauntingly precise descriptions of the cruelty of party officials, the suffering of the peasants, the pervasive dread of being called “a right deviationist” for telling the truth that quotas weren’t being met and that millions were being starved to death, and the toadyism of Mao lieutenants.
Yet the book is more than a history of a uniquely cruel regime at a receding moment in time. It is also a warning of what lies at the end of the road for nations that substitute individualism with any form of collectivism, no matter what the motives.
“China’s economy is not what [Party leaders] claim as the ‘socialist-market economy,’ ” he says. “It’s a ‘power-market’ economy.”
“It means the market is controlled by the power. . . . For example, the land: Any permit to enter any sector, to do any business has to be approved by the government. Even local government, down to the county level. So every county operates like an enterprise, a company. The party secretary of the county is the CEO, the president.”
Put another way, the conventional notion that the modern Chinese system combines political authoritarianism with economic liberalism is mistaken: A more accurate description of the recipe is dictatorship and cronyism, with the results showing up in rampant corruption, environmental degradation and wide inequalities between the politically well-connected and everyone else. “There are two major forms of hatred” in China today, Mr. Yang explains. “Hatred toward the rich; hatred toward the powerful, the officials.” As often as not they are one and the same.
There is, of course, a rational reason why the regime tolerates Mr. Yang. To survive, the regime needs to censor vast amounts of information—what Mr. Yang calls “the ruling technique” of Chinese leaders across the centuries. Yet censorship isn’t enough: It also needs a certain number of people who understand the full truth about the Maoist system so that the party will never repeat its mistakes..
But there’s a more sinister reason why Mr. Yang is tolerated. Put simply, the regime needs some people to have a degree of intellectual freedom, in order to more perfectly maintain its dictatorship over everyone else.
As Hayek wrote in his famous essay on “The Use of Knowledge in a Society,” the fundamental problem of any planned system is that “knowledge of circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”
The Great Leap Forward was an extreme example of what happens when a coercive state, operating on the conceit of perfect knowledge, attempts to achieve some end.
“For the last 20 years, the Chinese government has been saying they have to change the growth mode of the economy,” Mr. Yang notes. “So they’ve been saying, rather than just merely expanding the economy they should do internal changes, meaning more value-added services and high tech. They’ve been shouting such slogans for 20 years, and not many results. Why haven’t we seen many changes? Because it’s the problem that lies in the very system, because it’s a power-market economy.
. . . If the politics isn’t changed, the growth mode cannot be changed.”
That suggests China will never become a mature power until it becomes a democratic one.
Still, Mr. Yang hardly seems to have given up hope that he can play a role in raising his country’s prospects. In particular, he’s keen to reclaim two ideas at risk of being lost in today’s China.
The first is the meaning of rights. A saying attributed to the philosopher Lao Tzu, he says, has it that a ruler should fill the people’s stomachs and empty their heads. The gambit of China’s current rulers is that they can stay in power forever by applying that maxim. Mr. Yang hopes they’re wrong.
The second is the obligation of memory. China today is a country galloping into a century many people believe it will define, one way or the other. Yet the past, Mr. Yang insists, also has its claims.
“If a people cannot face their history, these people won’t have a future. That was one of the purposes for me to write this book. I wrote a lot of hard facts, tragedies. I wanted people to learn a lesson, so we can be far away from the darkness, far away from tragedies, and won’t repeat them.”
Hayek would have understood both points well.