Thursday, October 07, 2010

Misrepresenting a famine image

A correspondent has posted to my blog and elsewhere convincing evidence that Bloomsbury, publisher of Frank Dikötter's 2010 book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, has misrepresented the cover photo of an orphan begging during a 1946 famine in Nationalist China as an image from the mass famine of the Great Leap Forward period under Mao Zedong's Communist Party (1958-62).

The cover of Dikötter's book:


Here's a scan I made of a close-up of the apparent victim of "Mao's great famine":


And finally, the 1946 photo from LIFE (Mao's Communists did not seize national power until 1949):


(Link to the version of the image as posted on the LIFE site, captioned: "May 1946: Starving child holding out an empty rice bowl during famine.")

I think Wayne is deeply naive about the nature of Mao's rule and the devastation of the Great Leap Forward period. I discuss the famine and its terrible toll in my revised Chapter 5, "Stalin and Mao," for the second edition of my textbook, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. But this is clearly a serious error that the author and publisher need to address promptly.

Beyond the misrepresentation, may I also suggest that the very extensive airbrushing, replacement/grafting of background, colourization and so on of the original image is curiously reminiscent of communist practice under Mao and Stalin?

I have not yet read Dikötter's book, but it is at the top of my list.

15 comments:

  1. There is absolutely no way that Dikotter is unaware that using the photo is fraudalent.
    It is all over his website:
    http://web.mac.com/dikotter/Dikotter/Maos_Great_Famine.html

    It's not an error at all, but rather a contrived act of intellectual dishonesty. There is no two ways about it.

    Furthermore on another webpage at the same website, Dikota posts a video - in which again famine photos are shown which are clearly not from the GLF.

    http://web.mac.com/dikotter/Dikotter/Interviews.html

    The man is not just a defender of colonialism and the Opium War. He is a right wing revisionist historian, and his work should be judged in the same way as David Irving's. He is simply dishonest - and one certainly would wonder about his interpretation of the archival material purportedly used for the book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Those at the top -- and that most definitely included Mao -- have to bear responsibility for the unimaginable human costs of those policies."

    While I believe there was a famine, I do not think it was nearly as widespread or as massive as Jaspar Becker, Jung Chang, and Dikötter would have one believe.

    Various scholars have debated the statistics, and while not wanting to get into the details of the debate here, one complaint about the method various researchers have used to arrive at high figures is the fact that birthrates are assumed to not have dropped during the period concerned, and therefore the difference between expected population growth and actual population growth is hugely exaggerated.

    The figure itself of 45 million is simply outlandish and unbelievable. That is about one in ten Chinese dead during the time. Surely if so many people were dying, literally dropping dead like flies, along with the accompanying brutalization - this would reside in the collective memories of the Chinese people. But the simple fact is they do not. People recall great hardship during that period (including my own family members from rural Guangdong), but simply not the massive die offs claimed by people like Dikottor - let alone his wild atrocity stories.

    If things had been so terrible as described by Dikottor, no amount of government propaganda, no amount of cover up, could erase such memories, and Mao would be a near universally hated and despised figure in China. But in fact the opposite is the case. Mao is overwhelmingly popular in China and is deeply revered - especially in rural China, where the worst effects of the famine were supposed to have taken place.

    ReplyDelete
  3. There are works by Chinese 'New Left' scholars which provide a different account of the Mao years. They of course cast the GLF in a different light from Western, anti-communist authors.

    Two titles which are particularly good:

    "The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy" by Minqi Li (former political prisoner in China)
    http://tinyurl.com/3a2kszw

    and

    "The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution"
    by Mobo Gao
    http://tinyurl.com/24em6dk

    Of course you may dismiss these two as naive communist dupes.

    But at the same time Dikottor could similarly be dismissed - a right wing revisionist historian who claims pre-revolutionary China to be a great place, and the opium war as actually a positive good for China.
    And of course the disturbing issue of the cover of his book - which does say something about his integrity no matter which way you look at it.

    I think that you Dr Jones, as a scholar in these matters is duty bound to understand and consider China's modern history from a variety of angles. You have the time and money and expertise to do justice to the topic.

    ReplyDelete
  4. My friend Brian Threlkeld comments as follows:

    ======

    Your assessments, that (1) the use of a 1946 photo for the cover of a book on the Great Leap Forward famine is troubling, and (2) the person who has pointed this out is himself pushing unreliable notions about Mao and the GLF, appear on the... mark in both cases. The first problem may be no more than negligent editorial work; in any event, the use of the photo -- while a *terrible* idea -- would not appear instrumental to any substantial misrepresentation of historical fact. In contrast, the person who publicized the misuse of the photo seems to apply profoundly poor reasoning in making comparative assertions about Mao and about the GLF.

    I suppose the publishers of the book face a practical problem: while the catastrophic effects of the GLF famine has long been evident even from official statistics, photos of the worst of the devastation are exceedingly rare. I imagine that some exist, but are kept in government archives under extremely tight security. A recent review of "Mao's Great Famine," published within the last couple weeks (within a couple days of when the critic of the cover photo was placing his/her posts), observed,

    "Remarkably, Dikötter failed to locate any nonpropaganda photos for the book. Few are thought to exist. He describes meeting a Chinese researcher who came across 'a few horrific photos of the corpse of a child who had been cannibalized, chopped up, and put in a pot.' The rest of the surviving photos, Dikötter hypothesizes, 'are safely locked away.' "

    http://www.newsweek.com/2010/09/26/mao-s-great-famine.html

    Interestingly, that review displays a different book cover, with a photo described as, "Chinese refugees to Hong Kong beg for food as they are deported back to China during a 1962 famine." FWIW, the cover that Adam posted is featured on the Amazon UK site, while the one shown in the Newsweek review appears on the Amazon US site.

    I appreciate the practical problems the publishers faced in this regard. Still, it was bad judgment if a photo editor decided simply, "Oh, well; one destitute Chinese is as good as another . . . ."

    But there are many, and more serious, flaws in the arguments made by whoever flagged the problem with the book cover. One example will suffice. He correctly points out that statistics show that conditions in China before the establishment of the PRC in 1949 were terrible, and rapidly improved thereafter. But this doesn't refute the blame that accrues to Mao for the GLF famine; it requires a *more* severe judgment! Things were good once the PRC established a stable national government, and they *should* have stayed good.

    The catastrophe of the GLF famine -- 45 million dead ("give or take" 10 million) -- cannot be dismissed as a bump in the road that bad luck might bring to any country. In a stable nation, with the national government indisputably in control, such horrific, sustained devastation has to have reflected policies implemented not merely with utter disregard, but with absolute *contempt*, for the welfare of the people. Those at the top -- and that most definitely included Mao -- have to bear responsibility for the unimaginable human costs of those policies.

    ReplyDelete
  5. A couple of comments for Wayne:

    I cannot agree that "there is absolutely no way that Dikotter is unaware that using the photo is fraud[u]lent." Most book covers are designed by the publisher, often using stock images, rather than by the author. I imagine that is what occurred in this case. If Dikotter saw the cover prior to publication, he may have only glanced at it, rather than inquiring into the provenance of the image. That would be negligent in my view, but not necessarily conspiratorial.

    Your rejection of the notion of manipulated mass famine seems to me based on vague and speculative evidence. You say that if tens of millions had died, "this would reside in the collective memories of the Chinese people. But the simple fact is they do not." On the basis of what sample or research is that assertion made? What special access do you have to "the collective memories of the Chinese people"?

    If even your family members recall "great hardship" during this period, and in one of China's richest provinces (Guangdong), why was Mao undeniably exporting huge quantities of foodstuffs to the USSR throughout the famine? Why was this food not distributed to the suffering and starving masses?

    You write that "Mao is overwhelmingly popular in China and is deeply revered -- especially in rural China, where the worst effects of the famine were supposed to have taken place." Again, how do you know how popular Mao is, or how popular he would be if his crimes were widely known? Leaving aside the fact that tens of millions of his victims are not around to pass a verdict, how reliable could any survey (or any popularly-held opinion) be in a one-party state where "the Great Helmsman" is officially lionized, and where all contrary information is suppressed?

    ReplyDelete
  6. You say that if tens of millions had died, "this would reside in the collective memories of the Chinese people. But the simple fact is they do not." On the basis of what sample or research is that assertion made? What special access do you have to "the collective memories of the Chinese people"?

    I do not have the resources, time, or knowledge, to carry out some sort of scientific poll in this regard. But I can be confident of the result of such a poll if it were carried out.

    Likewise you also believe things for which you have little data. For example I'm sure you believe that most Canadians do not believe that they were invaded by, say, Russia in the 1970s. How do you know? Well simply because from your own personal experiences with a wide range of Canadians, I think you could confidently say that such a hypothetical Russian invasion does not reside in their collective memories.

    Of course to confirm that this is the case, certainly, I agree that a scientifially, statistically validated investigation would need to be carried out. But I'm sure you would be confident of its result in advance.

    That is how I know that atrocities and starvation claimed, at least on the scale claimed, is not a part of the Chinese collective memory.

    Of course you will mention that there is a whole lot of evidence that there was an economic disaster during that time. But think of this. If one in 10 chinese died of starvation, that would mean say another three or four walking around like something out of a Nazi concentration camp. That is four out of 10 Chinese were like something out of Belsen.

    There is no way that this was the case, and if it was, again, there is no way that this would not have been in the collective memories of the Chinese people.

    Maybe this is an area that someone like you could research - about how 'totalitarian' states can suppress the collective memories of massive atrocities in quite recent history.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "...if his crimes were widely known?"

    You assume his crimes are not widely known - which sort of contradicts what you imply in your second paragraph. OK you will then say - that the Chinese do not know Mao's actual responsibility for the disaster - and therefore do not hold it against him. But that to me is simply unbelievable - and would imply that the Chinese (many illiterate at the time) would be the most politically sophisticated group of people in the world.

    We all know that even in mature Western democracies with a highly educated electorate, people when voting will simply associate whatever party is in power at the time with their own personal well-being - and vote that party out if living standards drop. Even the national soccer team losing a major game has a not insignificant effect.

    I think all of us would agree that everyone in China, 1958 to 1961, would know who Mao was and that he was the leader of their country. Given the propaganda of the time, the peasantry would thus likely draw associations between their own personal well-being and the rule of Mao to an extraordinary degree.

    If much of China had resembled Auschwitz or Dachau - which would have been the case if the staggering numbers proposed are correct, the Chinese would simply have hated Mao with a ferocious venom that would not have abated even after several decades.

    But we do know that just six years after the GLF, hundreds of millions of Chinese, especially the poorest Chinese, came out and actively supported Mao when he called on them to rise up and depose the party bureaucratic elite.

    Either way, the problem is an interesting one. If in fact Dikotter is correct, an area for future research would surely be how the CCP managed to induce historical amnesia of massive proportions over a population of 500 million people and retain their support - even after the purported worst single catastrophe in human history.

    ReplyDelete
  8. If Dikotter saw the cover prior to publication, he may have only glanced at it, rather than inquiring into the provenance of the image.

    Dikotter himself says there are no famine images from the Great Leap. It is unbelievable that he would then find the image on the cover of the book to be uninteresting and would not have inquired into its provenance - as it would have been a major discovery on the part of the publisher if it really was a Great Leap image.

    Dikotter knows full well that the photo is a fake. I'd bet the house on it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Your final comment, if Dikotter himself states there are no famine images from the period he's writing about, is well taken.

    I think statistical debate over the precise number of victims in 1958-62 will continue forever, and low-range and high-range estimates will probably vary by tens of millions. I'm less concerned with that than with the evidence suggesting (a) mortality on a very large scale, and (b) forcible seizures of foodstuffs, much of it designated for export, throughout the famine period.

    I just finished reading Madhusree Mukherjee's book "Churchill's Secret War," about the Bengal famine of 1943. Mukherjee shows that in many districts of Bengal, well over ten percent of the population died in a single year of famine. It is far from inconceivable that a much more protracted famine in China could have killed over ten percent of the population, though I would agree this is a high-end estimate.

    Finally, I find your arguments still contain too many statements like: "hundreds of millions of Chinese, especially the poorest Chinese, came out and actively supported Mao when he called on them to rise up and depose the party bureaucratic elite" (i.e., during the Cultural Revolution). Hundreds of millions of active supporters of Mao during this period? Not a chance. Maybe a fervent few tens of millions (many of them soon disillusioned or purged), and hundreds of millions who did as they were told and hunkered down, often terrified, until the storm had passed. It wasn't a heroic popular uprising against "the party bureaucratic elite"; it was just Mao lashing out viciously at his perceived enemies and rivals, as usual.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anonymous2:29 AM

    Prof Jones:
    Did you know that under Mao, and this has been validated by Western scholars, the most rapid documented increase in life expectancy ever took place?


    And have you considered whether 'excess' deaths should really be categorised as 'genocide' in the same way that Hitler's crimes are?

    If excess deaths due to mismanagement is genocidal then consider this:

    India is obviously the country which is most comparable to China - given similar population sizes, years since independence, large proportion of population which is rural, and similar feudal system of land ownership at independence. Many experts make the India-China comparison because it is so apt. The famed Indian economist Amartya Sen said:

    “compared with China’s rapid increase in life expectancy in the Mao era, the capitalist experiment in India could be said to have caused 4 million excess deaths a year since India’s independence…India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame, 1958-61”

    Now this four million excess deaths per year has continued right up to the present day. That is India’s ‘democratic’ system has relative to China’s system killed about 240 million people since independence.

    Does that make democracy = nazism?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Anonymous9:25 PM

    I lived through the so-called Great Famine and my family has a lot of photos taken at the time. We all looked healthy and happy. I spent my summer vacation with my aunt's family in a tiny village in Liaoning Province in 1960. I did not see or hear of any death though I felt hungry from time to time especially at night. Like majority of Chinese, I believe that this fabrication of millions deaths serves both Deng Xiaoping's trashing Mao so that he could get legitimacy for his capitalism and an excuse for the haters of socialist China in the west.
    These white men recycle their so-called findings, actually fabrications, to feel good about themselves in order to "enlighten" the stupid Chinese who never knew the truth of anything. When could these descendants of imperialists and colonialists who had committed the greatest atrocities to China ever understand a simple truth: you do not know that you do not know!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I’m not surprised that Mao apologists desperately want to discredit Dikotter, because his masterful tome, meticulously researched, will almost permanently place Mao alongside Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot was one of the worst murderers in history. I have yet to come across a single critical review that challenges Dikotter’s primary findings. Most reviews I’ve read claim this is the definitive history of the Great Leap Forward. That being said, the use of the photo was a stupid move if it is indeed from the 1946 famine. I find it hard to believe it was deliberate considering it could prompt people to question the reliability of his work.

    One of the most important points brought up by Dr. Jones in this discussion has not been addressed by the Mao apologists posting here: that is the Communist government’s "forcible seizures of foodstuffs, much of it designated for export, throughout the famine period." Dikotter tells us that in a meeting in Shanghai 1959, Mao increased grain procurements by one third. He stated at the same meeting: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” (See p. 88 of Dikotter’s book, Walker & Company edition) This seems to corroborate Jung Chang’s view that Mao knew he was inflicting mass starvation on his own people but didn’t care. R.J. Rummel concurs with Chang and now considers the famine as “democide.” (http://democraticpeace.wordpress.com/2008/11/24/getting-my-reestimate-of-maos-democide-out/)

    It should be noted that there are other recent studies which also point to a high death toll. Yang Jisheng's "Tombstone" ("Mu Bei." Cosmos Books, 2008.) puts the deaths from starvation at 36 million (very close to Jung Chang’s estimate). The author, an employee of Xinhua, meticulously documented it to prevent the Chinese government from dismissing it. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/18/world/asia/18iht-famine.1.18785257.html?_r=1)

    Wayne argues that “Surely if so many people were dying, literally dropping dead like flies, along with the accompanying brutalization - this would reside in the collective memories of the Chinese people. But the simple fact is they do not.” Really? For his book “Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village” (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Robert Thaxton conducted over 400 interviews with people who had been “traumatized by years of famine, humiliation, torture, and death” and “uncovered how the elements of Communist rule—autocratic, brutal, corrupt, and mean-spirited—combined with the plunder, forced labor, and starvation of the famine itself to turn the Da Fo villagers against the Party.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/feb/26/the-china-we-dont-know/)

    The killings didn’t begin and end with the Great Leap Forward. At least 2 million were executed during the campaigns of the early 1950's (Maurice Meisner, 1999. p. 72), and around 750,000 to 1 million were killed in rural China alone during the Cultural Revolution (Roderick MacFarquhar, Michael Schoenhals, 2006. p. 262). Estimates of prison and labor camp deaths range 15 million (Harry Wu http://theweeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/009/039ezdcg.asp?page=2) to 27 million (Jung Chang, 2005. p. 338).

    Anonymous argues “Did you know that under Mao, and this has been validated by Western scholars, the most rapid documented increase in life expectancy ever took place?” Even if Mao is responsible for an increase in life expectancy (increases also occurred in Taiwan under Mao’s rival, Chiang Kai-shek), that doesn’t excuse his cold blooded murder of millions of people. Similar excuses have been made for Joseph Stalin. Noble ends do not justify nefarious means.

    Dr. Jones, I'm curious to know your opinion of Dikotter's book. I hope you post a brief comment here once you've read it. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "Wayne" has sought to post fully half-a-dozen responses to this. Wayne, you may respond at length, but in a single comment only. Please revise and resubmit your comments as a single text, and bear this in mind for the future.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Anonymous5:38 AM

    The China famime sounds a lot like the Ukrainian one. Assigning a nefarious motive to people who had no control of a situation seems to fit some political agandas I guess. Academics ( Wheatcroft I believe et al ) have pretty well shot down the evil Stalin story. However, it remains very popular - wikipedia, etc. I suppose this easily refuted "academic" work will live on for decades if not longer. I particularly love the use of guessimate censuses for the prosecution.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Mao's Famine is described by Dikotter and fellow travellers the worst catastrophe anywhere.

    They are quite wrong. The mortality rate during the GLF, while exceptional by the standards of socialist China, were quite unexceptional when compared to the mortality rates of the two other big Asian countries, Indonesia, and India of the time (26/1000, 24/1000, 25/1000 respectively).

    Furthermore, pre-revoultionary China, consistently had mortality rates which were at or exceeded the rates of the worst year (1960) of the GLF.

    The GLF was a catastrophe relative to the otherwise tremendous accomplishments of the new regime in reducing mortality and raising life expectancy.

    Dikotter is patently dishonest. He calculates excess deaths based on deaths over 10/1000. 10/1000 was the mortality rate of advanced countries like the US at the time. Yet Banister puts the mortality rate at 38/1000 in 1949, only 8 years before the GLF. If the communists really had achieved a 'normal' mortality rate of 10/1000 by 1958 (the same as the developed countries), then they surely deserve all the credit for saving millions of lives, up to that point.

    If you accept the massive excess deaths calculations of Dikotter and you then have to accept that mortality in revolutionary China was normally extremely low for a developing country - and then credit the number of lives saved to Mao.

    The fact is that the number of people (as a proportion of the population) who died in the three or four years of the GLF was less than over any three year period in pre-revolutionary China. More people died in India as a proportion of the population, over the same period as the GLF.


    So how can one logically proclaim the GLF to be humanity's greatest catastrophe?

    In fact the most rapid increase in China's population happened under the Mao era --- but in a time of falling fertility. Why? Obviously the only possible explanation is a dramatic decline in mortality. Amartya Sen calculates 4 million excess deaths on average for the Indian 'democratic' experiment over China's socialist system. I trust Sen over Dikotter anyday of the week. He is a Nobel prize wining economist.

    Mao's system probably saved close to 100 million lives (refer Chomsky on Sen's work). That is had China followed the development model of other backward countries, one hundred million more people would have died than under the Maoist system. Thus it could possibly argued that Mao was the greatest humanitarian in history.

    ReplyDelete

Please be constructive in your comments. - AJ