From a review by Rana Mitter of Yang Jisheng's Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine this account of 'how dubious statistics and lack of transparency could culminate in the deaths of millions':
In 1958, China was a state still nervous about its place in the world – isolated from the capitalist countries and with its USSR alliance starting to fray. Mao Zedong pushed hard for a new programme that would boost China's economy at a stroke. His colleagues supported him in a drive that would become known as the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to increase agricultural and industrial production to levels never before seen in human history. Within a year, however, it became clear that the plans were going horribly wrong. In China's countryside, food became ever scarcer. Hugely exaggerated reports of grain harvests were taken seriously at high levels, and food was moved from the countryside to the cities while millions of farmers started to die of starvation and its associated diseases. The death toll has never been fully calculated, but Frank Dikötter's powerful Mao's Great Famine puts the number of dead at some 45 million between 1958 and 1962. The picture that Dikötter draws is devastating; but do we really need another long and detailed book on the famine?
The answer is yes. Tombstone is not just a history but a political sensation. Its author, Yang Jisheng, was a longstanding journalist at China's Xinhua news agency. His own father died of starvation in 1959, and the "tombstone" of the title is in part a tribute to a dead parent who was never acknowledged as a victim of the state's policies. Over the years, Yang used his access to collect materials from restricted archives detailing the famine. He was denied permission to publish on the mainland, but the book came out in Hong Kong in 2008 and went into eight reprints. This translation is an adapted version of the two-volume Chinese original. The editors and translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, have done a skilful job in reducing and recasting the book so that its chapters alternate between an examination of high politics and the details of the famine on the ground.
What Yang found is worth knowing. One of the most devastated provinces was Henan, in central China. Henan had known famine before; the province was at the centre of the horrific hunger that struck during the second world war in 1942-43, killing some 3 to 4 million people. The policies of the Great Leap led to a new desolation in the province. Reports uncovered by Yang make evident a cycle of starvation and violence: a file from 1959 tells of one farmer who was "harshly beaten" because a small piece of beef was found in his home; he died six days later. A woman who was found cooking grain was "subjected to group struggle" for stealing; bound up and soaked in cold water, she too died shortly afterwards.
For a while, it was possible to think that the leadership had not understood the full level of the catastrophe in the countryside. The shattering of such illusions came at the Lushan conference of 1959. Peng Dehuai, one of the great marshals of the Chinese civil war against the nationalists, was a strong supporter of the Leap. But the discovery that people from his own home area were starving to death prompted him to write to Mao to ask for the policies to be adapted. Mao was furious, reading the letter out in public and demanding that his colleagues in the leadership line up either behind him or Peng. Almost to a man, they supported Mao, with his security chief Kang Sheng declaring of the letter: "I make bold to suggest that this cannot be handled with lenience." Peng was sent off into political obscurity. While there were minor adjustments to the Leap policies, the fundamental flaws were not addressed, and millions more continued to die until the formal abandonment of the programme in 1962.
On the responsibility for what happened Mitter concludes:
One view is that while Mao must take clear responsibility for the policy, his fellow members of the Politburo were also complicit in its implementation. The accounts of high-level leadership meetings such as the Lushan conference bear this out dismally.
This is responsibility as assigned by historians and others looking back, for of course in a moral or political sense Mao never had to 'take clear responsibility' for the millions of dead. It's one lesson among too many in the meaning of irresponsible power.