Just as the defenders of Chairman Mao formed a cultural revolution to suppress anyone’s thought but his, so too have the Obama supporters refused to face the truth about his regime. Religions and cults have their gods. They have their messiahs. For the religion of political correctness the messiah is named Obama.
It is difficult to look dispassionately at some 45 million dead. It was not war that produced this shocking number, nor natural disaster. It was a man. It was politics and one man’s vanity. The cause was famine and violence across rural China, a result of Mao Zedong’s unchecked drive to turn his country rapidly into a communist utopia and a leading industrial nation.
In 2010, Frank Dikötter produced “Mao’s Great Famine,” an authoritative account of the catastrophe, written with a bravura seldom seen in Western writing on modern China. Impassioned and outraged, Mr. Dikötter detailed the destruction, the suffering and the cruelty or hubris of China’s leaders. Sorting through forgotten and hidden documents with great intellectual honesty, Mr. Dikötter ended his journey pointing his finger directly at Mao, who notoriously said, as he called for higher grain deliveries from the countryside at the height of the famine: “It is better to let half the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
For the general reader, “Mao’s Great Famine” is unlikely to be bettered. “Tombstone” is something quite different, a condensed, yet magisterial 600-page edition of a densely detailed, two-volume Chinese-language account by Yang Jisheng, a retired Chinese journalist and Communist Party member.
Han [Suyin] admitted “lying through my teeth (with a smile) to the diplomats and the newsmen who probed” a massive famine in China in 1958-62. More than 30 million Chinese died due to forced collectivization and Mao’s insistence on continuing food exports to pay for his investments in heavy industry.
Han’s accounts of the political mania of the Cultural Revolution leave little doubt that she found it extremely unpleasant—she claimed to have suffered “fits of depression.” But she was free to leave the country at the end of her sojourns. Why did she intentionally mislead her readers when she could have exposed the truth, or just remained silent?
Part of the answer is that she would not have enjoyed any more trips to China, not to mention the loss of book royalties and her status in the West as a spokeswoman for China. Han’s tenuous sense of Chinese identity as a Eurasian probably also meant that she craved acceptance from the Beijing authorities.
However, these explanations only go so far. It is revealing that even after Han’s mendacity was exposed, the Western intelligentsia didn’t shun her. She and other hard-core pro-Party hacks continued to write books and articles supporting the legitimacy of the Communist regime as an alternative model to capitalist democracy. The unpleasant truth is that the self-delusion of the Western intellectual in the 20th century meshed perfectly with the Chinese propaganda machine, and Han was just one manifestation of this phenomenon.
Ultimately Han Suyin’s tale is a sad reminder that in the field of Sinology, intellectual honesty is a liability. Even today, most academics remain circumspect about Beijing’s faults because it is the done thing. Those who insist on writing the truth are labeled “anti-China” and denied visas. Their colleagues are loath to support them publicly.
Don’t imagine that there could never be another Han Suyin. Ambitious apologists for authoritarianism will certainly vie to take up her mantle. And who could blame them? Her works might appear odious to us now, but she had a very successful run.