Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. By Jasper Becker. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1998. 416 pp.
Introduction: Hungry Ghosts is an intense book. Even though recent articles and books have disclosed that it was the Great Leap Forward that caused the famine that engulfed China, however, Jasper Becker clarifies the entire destruction of the time through his alluring interviews and graphic stories.
Becker places the blame for the horrors directly and uncompromising on Mao Zedong’s shoulders. After all, these events took place during Mao’s watch. However, Becker does not stop there; he proceeds to argue that Mao wanted to ruthlessly exploit the peasants so he established a Stalinist state. In this rendition, readers can view the Great Leap and attendant famine as the logical consequence of Mao’s hardheartedness, fanaticism, and as Becker writes, his “fundamental ignorance of modern science” (p. 99).
Becker rejects Mao’s socialist vision, calling it nothing but a disguise for the Chairman’s obsession with exercising power. Becker argues that Mao was senselessly committed to third-rate Russian thinkers and their discredited pseudo-scientific theories, and he believed he could rapidly almost miraculously industrialize China through them. Thus, it is obvious that Becker’s central thesis is that the famine was a direct result of the “deliberate act of humanity” (p. 274) by Mao Zedong.
Body: There is no doubt that the implementation of the Great Leap was deadly and ill-conceived, and Becker shows its evil by presenting powerful images. However, Becker rather easily dismisses Mao’s genuine wish to implement socialist ideals, even though they were definitely not an excuse for mass murder. Becker seems farfetched in his efforts to show that the Maoist thinking that was the cause of the famine stemmed from Russian roots since many writings have already emphasized that Mao’s ideas were unique. Many works have largely documented that Mao insistently wanted to travel on a path that was separate from the Russians. Becker mostly draws on unreliable accounts from Mao’s physician, Li Zhisui’s book (Li and Thurston), which is regarded as a controversial source, to contest Mao mental acuity and purpose. At times, Becker implies that Mao’s hopes and vision were ill-disposed, which is not necessary even though he was unsavory.
It is also surprising how easy Becker is on the likes of Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai, whom he considers as good guys and believes that they ultimately saved China. However, Becker ignores the fact that they did so after “at least 30 million people had starved to death” (p. vi). Despite excusing the failure of the others to respond to early warnings about the famine on time, Becker refuses to let Mao off the hook. At the same time, Becker correctly demonstrates how Chinese leaders and Western writes tried to hide most of the details of the famine from the West. Among those who deliberately or unintentionally helped cover-up the famine in China were Anna Louise Strong, Edgar Snow, and Gunnar Myrdal. Becker provides sufficient evidence that China’s neighbors, such as Taiwan, overseas Chinese, and the Western world were aware of the famine and its consequences. However, at the same time, he himself writes that, “[o]ne of the most remarkable things about the famine  was that for over twenty years, no one was sure whether it had even taken place” (p. xi).
Beck reveals that the false notion that the problems were caused or at least exacerbated by bad weather was promoted by the Chinese government. However, unlike reports fabricated by government propaganda, the weather during the years of the famine was good according to the State Meteorological Bureau data. Although there is no doubt that bad policies that were wittingly covered up largely led to the famine, however, Becker does not explore the possibility that problems in some areas could have been exacerbated by local or regional weather patterns (Yang 8). By then, even accurate reports about the famine, such as those from Taiwan, were being discredited. By then, even precise reports about the famine, such as those from Taiwan, were being discredited. Becker shows that as a result of this cover-up, a majority of urban people in China almost had no clue of the problems occurring in their own country.
Becker also notes that the scope of the problem was deliberately hidden by Mao’s lower-level officials. For instance, when Mao and other high-level official made local tours, vegetables would be heaped at the side of the road to fool them into thinking that people were throwing away food because of the abundance of crops. Even apparently responsible authorities like Zhao Ziyang, who was a low-level official at that time, published reports that claimed that the famine was false, and that the peasants were actually hiding food. It is true that it Mao was liable for the cultural and political system that attempted to cover up its problems, making it difficult for lower-level officials to inform their bosses about them. However, like other rules before him, Mao may also have been duped by the system, perhaps at times even deliberately.
Conclusion: Many readers will expect too much from Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine. However, as Becker starts his book by stating: This book is the story of what happened  in  China (p. 5). Nonetheless, this is an angry and spring account of the causes and consequences of the Great Chinese Famine that was caused by Chinas Great Leap Forward. In his book, Becker is not only blaming Mao for the famine, but is suggesting that China barely made any progress under Mao. Becker’s book has made a substantial contribution to the field and is remarkably written to boot. However, it must be kept in mind that Becker is present only his part of the story and this is not the final word on this subject.
Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. Reprint ed. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1998. Print.
Li, Zhisui, and Anne F. Thurston. The Private Life Of Chairman Mao, The Memoirs Of Mao's Personal Physician. New York: Random House Inc, 1996. Print.
Yang, Dennis Tao. "China's Agricultural Crisis and Famine of 1959–1961: A Survey and Comparison to Soviet Famines." Comparative Economic Studies. 50 (2008): 1–29. Print.