How Many Died in the Great Leap Forward? - 1958-1962

Between Chinese “commiephobes” and “commiephiles” and competing factions in both, estimates range from 4 million all the way up to 38 million. The topic comes up for discussion at enormous length here. Is there a way of getting to the bottom of it? Is there a reason to? Human government of all types is one train wreck after another, and thus those of biblical bent recognize that it is all slated for replacement. In the words of Daniel 2:44:

In the days of [certain then-future] kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed. And this kingdom will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it alone will stand forever.

But as to the machinations that collectively result in a variance of 34 million:

When you see such shenanigans in present human interactions of entirely different spheres, you don’t assume that you are seeing it for the first time ever. Rather, you figure that this is but the latest example of what humans will do in pushing their own point of view. Exaggeration, over-promotion, running the other side off the road, muddying the waters so the other side will give up, outright denial, seeing only what one wants to see: these are the stock in trade tools of humans. Whether right or wrong, to have someone assert it has been put to work in the analysis of Chinese communism, is not shocking.

It doesn’t speak well of our ability to “know” anything. If we may go from this weighty example to one of pop trivia—if there is one fixed star in Dylanography, it is that Bob was booed at the Newport Festival of folk music snobs because he forsook acoustic for electric. Not so, says Pete Seeger, who was there, and who is usually thought the foremost critic. It was because the sound was so garbled nobody could understand him, but the producers refused to fix it, saying “young people like it this way.”

One reason I like the Bible so much is that it doesn’t make nearly the attempt to appeal to the head that it does the heart. Try to appeal to the head and you must compete with liars, frauds, loonies, and zealots. Try to appeal to the heart and it is a straight shot. Those too “educated” for the Bible might reflect on Carl Jung, who not only acknowledged that there is a spiritual side of things, but maintained that the spiritual side is the more genuine, the more real, the more true. The “statements of the conscious mind,” he says, “may easily be snares and delusions, lies, or arbitrary opinions, but this is certainly not true of statements of the soul.” 

When it comes to government, who cannot identify with the Bible analogy of ancient rulership being like the heavens over mankind that might rain on you one moment, bless you will sunshine the next, blow away in a windstorm all you own in yet another moment, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it? For all the material advances in both education and what is called political science, the reality is not so different today—but participatory government better presents the illusion that “we” are in control. Communism makes no bones about saying we’re not. Someone else is. You are cogs in someone else’s machine. You have no say. If you are going to take over someone’s life, you’d better not screw it up. 

For all practical purposes, most people have no say in Western government either, but they do have some. Put in $1000 worth of effort and you may see a $10 return. That’s not a lot, but it is something, and people like the idea of control. Even in situations where communism might produce a $20 return, it will be opposed by many, as it goes against that aspect of human nature.

I took a public speaking course in college in which the professor coincidentally was a huge advocate of participatory government. With student elections coming up—who will run the Student Council of campus affairs—he relentlessly pushed for getting out the vote, and I got fed up. When it was my turn to prepare and present my speech, I chose the topic, “Why we shouldn’t vote.” (This was before I knew anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses) I developed three reasons not to vote: 1) candidates lie, saying whatever they must to get elected. 2) Candidates “grow”—they reassess their views afterward—maybe for good or maybe for ill, but independent of your wishes. 3) Candidates may earnestly try to deliver, but find themselves outmaneuvered by those of opposite view. The upshot the three points is that it is just not worth it sinking that much time into politics—there are plenty of other things that offer better payoff. The professor was sporting about it, muttering that he didn’t agree but that I had raised solid points. He didn’t flunk me.

Q: (from an apologist for the Great Leap Forward): But the success of the Chinese economy in years to come shows that not all its lessons [of the Great Leap Forward] were wasted.

I doubt it shows that at all. The success is more likely due to the Chinese people better capturing the spirit of Proverbs 6:6: “Go to the ant, you lazy one, consider its ways, and become wise.” Substitute only “cooperative” for “lazy” and you have a perfect fit. China had an “industrial revolution” that precedes that of the West by almost 1000 years—Mao had nothing to do with it.

“In the State of Wu of China, steel was first made, preceding the Europeans by over 1,000 years. The Song dynasty saw intensive industry in steel production, and coal mining. No other premodern state advanced nearly as close to starting an industrial revolution as the Southern Song,” says Wikipedia. Only lack of a middle class, Wiki speculates, prevented that early revolution from catching on, something that makes a hero of Henry Ford, for realizing that without someone to buy his products, he could only go so far.

One author I came across raised the point of Chinese cooperation due to long-ingrained Confucian value system that  emphasizes responsibly and holds that the group is more important than the individual—and asks whether that isn’t the very antithesis of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, that holds as “self-evident” the individual’s right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The point is well-taken. The only trouble with too much “group-think” is that it becomes to easy for either visionary or scoundrel to himself at the head and direct the body any which way.

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