China’s past threatens sustainability of gains

Farm workers were forcibly pushed into poorly conceived and technically unfeasible projects like setting up backyard furnaces for steel-making.

China’s past threatens sustainability of gains

Representational Image (Getty Images)

When China emerged as a People’s Republic in 1949, the new government had the support of millions of landless peasants who stood to benefit from the radical land reforms and land redistribution which had been promised, and which had already started in preceding years in areas under the control of the communists.

This support not only helped to sustain the new government in early years, but made available at least some land to the landless for reducing poverty and hunger, as widely recognized by scholars. This achievement was marred by at least three factors. Firstly, there was large-scale killing and persecution of landlords, often in very cruel ways, which could have been avoided. Secondly, the so-called Great Leap Forward proved to be a big disaster around the period from 1959 to 1961.

Farm workers were forcibly pushed into poorly conceived and technically unfeasible projects like setting up backyard furnaces for steel-making. Then, reduced food grain production was forcibly diverted to cities and exports. To facilitate this, false claims of surplus grain in rural areas were made, while in reality there was a deficit.


Those who spoke the truth risked being attacked as rightists, so the myth of surplus was maintained even while people had started dying due to food shortages in villages. There was much disruption and violence too. Estimates of the people who died in the resulting chaos range from 5 to 50 million, with 20 to 25 million being an estimate widely accepted.

Thirdly, while Mao tried to recover lost ground following this disaster, a lot of violence and disruption was unleashed under the cover of a cultural revolution to correct diversions from radical communism and Maoism. While some say that this phase starting in 1966 lasted right up to Mao’s death in 1976, other accounts refer to it in terms of the first half of this period.

These three major disruptions led together to the death of nearly 30 million people, judging from conservative estimates. There was much cruelty; many of the affected people suffered so much that they committed suicide. An important factor in all these disastrous situations was the inability to take corrective actions in time to avoid (or check at a very early stage) catastrophic situations.

During 1959- 61, for instance, even the easier option of reducing or postponing food grain exports as well as importing food grain (by paying for it or as emergency aid) was not adopted, probably motivated by considerations of false international prestige based on claims of local adequacy.

While there was some internal criticism, it was not adequate and was probably overwhelmed at crucial times by propagandist tendencies of exaggerating official achievements. The glaring inadequacy of internal checks and balances was revealed all too clearly. Lack of transparency also kept the alarming situation under wraps from the rest of the world to a considerable extent, so that the timely role of international whistle-blowers was minimised.

To the credit of China and its resilient, hard-working people, it could recover from these terrible, human-made disasters. In more recent decades what the world has repeatedly heard in the context of China has been about unprecedented growth rates and equally unmatched rates of poverty reduction. Some doubts have been occasionally expressed about some of these estimates. Should not the poverty line be fixed higher for a country that has experienced high growth rates?

Have not there been several signs of growing peasant and worker discontent? Has not the massive acquisition of land for too many infrastructure and related projects taken away so much land from peasants that the sustainability of their livelihoods has been very adversely affected? It may be possible to tap enough resources from high growth rates to provide shorter term gains to people, but sustaining these may be more difficult. While these and other questions remain relevant, on the whole there has been fairly broad acceptance of significant gains having been made regarding growth as well as poverty reduction. However some aspects of the troubled past may continue to endanger the durability of these gains.

These aspects include the continuing lack of an effective system of checks and balances to enable corrective actions at an early stage when things go wrong, the lack of adequate transparency in the system to bring out festering problems before these become too serious, the discouragement (to use a mild word) of internal agencies and scholars to be critical of more basic aspects of official policy and priorities – these had been problems in the context of the troubled past and these may continue to be problems in a system dominated by one political party and one supreme leader.

A frequently expressed opinion is that in conditions of multi-party democracy, it is much more likely that serious mistakes can be identified and corrected at a relatively early stage. Certainly the potential is there, but if the democratic spirit is missing and there is instead a tendency for arrogant exercise of power then the potential for early corrective actions in a democracy may not be properly realized. Hence along with multi-party democracy, a deeper commitment to the democratic spirit and to the ideals of democracy is also needed. This also results in high levels of not just tolerance but also of responsiveness to other viewpoints, as well as high levels of transparency. It is only then that the capacity for early corrective actions increases.

(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.)