No.s 59-60, Oct. 2014
Remembering Socialist China, 1949-1976
– by Mobo Gao
The Battle for China’s Past
According to this story, what is good about China today has nothing to do the first half of the 60-year history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In their eyes, the three decades of socialist China were, if anything, a communist-inspired disaster, and only the subsequent ‘open and reform’ period has brought China to modernity. An example of how the socialist China of the past is sidelined for the sake of glorifying the capitalist present is that a Harvard University scholar and one-time US government intelligence officer, Vogel, in his monumental biography of Deng Xiaoping, spends only thirty pages on Deng before 1979. In the section of the book providing biographies of key people of the PRC, Mao is not even included. (Vogel, 2011) According to this fashionable and convenient historiography, the Mao Zedong socialist period achieved nothing economically.
Best-selling authors such as Frank Dikötter and Jung Chang go even further. For them, Mao was the worst possible mass murderer in human history: they claim millions of Chinese were killed by Mao. Frank Dikötter’s book Mao’s Great Famine was reported to have sold one hundred thousand copies and won the 2011 Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize. It does not matter that the cover photo of the book of a hungry boy was a photo of the 1946 famine in China. It does not matter that Dikötter not only has serious problems with his research methodology (Anthony Garnaut 2013) but also has deliberately distorted documentary evidence (Warren Sun 2013). Jung Chang’s book Mao: The Untold Story was hailed as a definitive history by media outlets such as the Guardian and politicians such as G.W. Bush and the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. It was immediately translated into a dozen languages even though the book was proved to have been manufactured on the basis of distortions of evidence (Gao 2008, Benton and Lin 2009). In fact nothing matters so long as you can manufacture arguments against the Mao era. The 1949 Chinese Revolution has to be denigrated, Mao’s anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist legacy has to be dumped.
For those who want to defend socialist values, there is a need to fight back in this battle for China’s past. As I have argued, to hail China’s economic development in the last thirty years as not only proof of the success of Deng’s reform, but also proof that the era of Mao was a communist-inspired disaster, is dangerously misleading in four ways:
In what follows, I will first outline briefly the enormous achievements made by socialism in the Mao era. Then I will offer an explanation for the relatively poor living standards in the Mao era, which will be followed by a discussion of two important events that are vital for the assessment of socialist China, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
The Enormous Achievements of Socialist China
Despite all the claims to the contrary, socialist China’s GNP grew at an average annual rate of 6.2 per cent between 1952 and 1978. Indeed, as Lin (2006) points out, the industrial sector outperformed most other developing economies. Although rural development was not as fast as was desired owing to the industrialization strategy that aimed at speedy accumulation of capital from the rural sector, the quality of life by the 1970s in rural China was improved and was on the edge of being transformed throughout county towns and villages. Though decades behind the economically developed world, China was already “on a par with middle-income countries” in human and social development (Bramall 1993, 335). Measured by social indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and educational attainment, China, especially urban China, in the Mao era had already forged way ahead of most market economies at similar income levels and surpassed a number of countries with per capita incomes many times greater. By the late 1970s, China stood up as a nuclear power, able to defy the bullying of capitalist superpowers, a country that had satellite technology and became the sixth largest industrial power in the world – whereas in 1949, when the PRC was established, China’s industrial capacity was that of tiny Belgium (Meisner 1999).
Today China is known as the “assembly factory of the world”, an appropriate label because most of the commodity products assembled in China are designed, technologically specified, and owned by transnational companies. Some Chinese are proud of this phenomenon of everything being “made in China”, while some non-Chinese feel threatened by it. But the fact is that China has gained from this global chain of production but a pittance (in the form of wages at sweated labour rates). Furthermore China has to bear the burden of absorbing industrial pollution for the benefit of consumers in Western affluent societies, who not only enjoy an environment free of industrial pollution, but also cheaper daily commodities.
In contrast, during the Mao era, the Chinese manufactured products for themselves. As a result, despite technological sanctions against China by Western developed countries throughout the Mao era similar to what they have been doing now to Cuba (note that China still faces sanctions in the area of highly sensitive military technology), the Chinese made great technological breakthroughs, ranging from military technology such as nuclear weapons and rockets to machinery, from engineering to agriculture, from health care to education. According to one poll survey of more than 50,000 responses, the four winning entries of modern Chinese technological inventions, as opposed to the four traditional Chinese inventions of paper, gunpowder, compass, and movable printing, are the hybrid rice crop, the laser type setting of Chinese characters, artificial synthetic crystalline insulin and the compound Artemether. All the four inventions were made during the Mao era (Tian Fu 2007).
In conclusion, socialist construction in the Mao era made great progress in economic development and technological breakthroughs. It accumulated enough capital to build a nation with a sound industrial basis, a strong independent country. (Note that it was China during the Mao era that fought the technologically most sophisticated and resource-rich superpower, the United States of America, first in Korea and then indirectly in Indochina). It developed comprehensive agricultural infrastructure such as reservoirs, dams, dikes, roads and newly cultivated land. Furthermore, it was the socialist policies that made it possible for China to have a healthy and literate labour pool for the post-Mao economic development.
How to Account for the Relatively Poor Living Standard in the Era of Mao?
Let me start with the prima facie evidence. In an empirical study of a village (Gao 1999) where I was born and brought up, I have demonstrated that since the 1990s, the villagers have a much improved material life. They don’t go hungry and they are very well clothed and sheltered. By the beginning of the 21st century, watches, televisions, smart phones, fridges are common consumer goods in the village. Almost all the villagers have built new houses, some of which are elaborate, decoratively modern and spacious. They wear sun-glasses, western suits, and leather shoes and some of them even have cars. In the era of Mao most Gao villagers could not even afford a bike. In this study I report that when I was a boy the three things I wanted most were a pair of rubber boots (for the muddy roads), a torch (as there was no electricity in the village upto the time I left), and a little folding knife. My family could not afford them. But as soon as I left the village to go to university I could afford them, though then I did not need them anymore. I also report that I did not know that I had been hungry all my life until I went to study in the UK, where I could use oil like water and where I put on weight in a matter of weeks.
There are two standard, widely accepted and mostly taken-for-granted explanations for this contrast between the material poverty in the era of Mao and the material improvement in post-Mao China. One is that Mao did not know economics, and all he cared about was personal power and political struggle. According to this version Mao’s lieutenants knew better, but they were constantly made victims of Mao’s personal power struggle. The other popular explanation is that the collective system in the Mao era gave no incentive for hard work. According to this version, the post-Mao reform “liberated” the Chinese from communism and privatization ensured a subsequent Chinese economic miracle.
I will deal with the first explanation later when I talk about the Cultural Revolution. So let me analyse why I don’t agree with the second explanation, which is basically an economic rationality narrative. In my village study I demonstrate that the villagers actually worked very hard. They worked hard for two main reasons. Although the land and every means of production were owned by the collective village, the villagers themselves had the sense of ownership because every decision and outcome related to land and means of production was transparent and accountable to the villagers. The Maoist collective system based on a natural village (usually consisting, furthermore, of members of the same clan) means that what is ownership and what is private is far more complex than is assumed by economic rationality. The second main reason why the villagers worked hard is that the collective system had a mechanism that enabled the village people to carry out two socialist principles, the principle of “from each according to his or her ability and to each according to his or her work”, and the principle of looking after the weak and poor. There was a democratic process to determine and record the contribution each person made to the collective system every day and annually. The products were distributed according to each person’s contribution, except for rice, the staple grain in the villagers’ diet. In other words, each villager was given an equal amount of grain each year, varying according to whether he/she was a child or adult. So the socialist principle of taking care of the weak and poor ensured that everyone had the same amount of grain to live on. At the same time the socialist principle of “to each according to his or her ability” ensured that those who contributed more would be rewarded with other produce like peanuts, cotton, or fish from the collective pond in front of the village. Those who made more contribution might borrow cash from the accounting centre while those who contributed less could not, and so on.
If the incentive to work was not a problem why was the production lower in the era of Mao? It is a plain fact that there was food shortage in the era of Mao and a plain fact that almost everything was rationed, while in post-Mao China today nothing is rationed and everything seems abundant in the market. How to explain this if you don’t buy the simple black and white economic rationality narrative?
My explanation involves four important issues: ecological pressure, development strategy, international environment, and technology. Let me start with the ecological pressure, again using Gao Village as an example. Gao Village has two main economic resources for villagers to work on: land and water. Land is to grow produce and water is used for production, but is also a source of food such as fish. However, land could not be expanded; and if anything water as a resource has been shrinking since there are less and less fish to be caught in the ponds and rivers as a result of environmental pollution. At the same time the population of Gao Village doubled in the era of Mao. And the population in urban China also doubled during the same period. In other words, Gao villagers had to produce well over double the amount of food they used to in order to maintain the same living standards. Therefore, it is not the case that the villagers did not work hard to produce more food; but just that they could not yet produce enough to catch up with the rapid growth of population, which itself was the result of longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality (as a result of socialist policies). This mismatch between agricultural growth and population also provides the rationale behind a brutal family planning policy in post-Mao China. However, socialist China had another approach to addressing this question, namely, improving agricultural productivity. (More on this later.)
Secondly, I will talk about the international environment before I talk about China’s development strategy, because the latter is related to the former. Just one year after PRC was established, the Korean War broke out. That war not only exerted great burden on China’s resources at the expense of China’s reconstruction, but also made China’s security more precarious. China faced a very hostile international environment and all Western developed countries placed capital, trade and technological sanctions against China. China first had to rely on the Soviet Union for technological assistance. But since the later 1950s China and the Soviet Union became hostile to each other.
In those circumstances the most rational development strategy included two aspects. One was to develop industry rapidly, especially heavy industry, and within that national defence technology, so that China could be ready to face urgent security threats. The other aspect was to be self-reliant, since there were no external sources in terms of either capital or technology.
This is related to the third issue, the issue of development strategy. We have to remember that China went through an eight-year period of fighting against the brutal Japanese aggression and invasion of China, involving the death of millions and very widespread devastation. Soon after the Japanese surrender in 1945, China had to undergo another three years of civil war between the Communist and the Nationalists, involving millions of troops. By the time the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949, China was virtually in ruins. China could not even produce simple commodities such as matches. One can imagine the difficulty of building up a strong country at great speed in such a situation. The development strategy adopted was that capital would be accumulated from the only available source, the rural sector. In order to maintain low wages for urban workers (again for the sake of accumulating capital), the Chinese government provided a whole range of welfare measures for the urban residents including free housing, free education, free health care, full employment, retirement pension, and an ensured supply of food and clothing at guaranteed stable and low prices. On the other hand, the rural people, who produced food, could keep only a rationed quantity, and the rest of their produce had to be handed over to the State at the government fixed prices. In order to make the whole system work, the household registration (hukou)system was introduced so that migration was strictly under control.
By the time US President Nixon visited China in 1972, the international environment had changed dramatically in favour of China. Nixon, an arch-enemy of Communism, went to China to meet Mao, not to save China but to save himself and the US. He and his Secretary of State Kissinger wanted to have a better relationship with China for two main reasons. One is that they wanted to get out of the quagmire of the Vietnam War, and they needed the help of China to do that. They also perceived the Soviet Union as the main threat to their interests, and they wanted to play the China card against the Soviets. Not surprisingly, it was during this period (in October 1971) that the UN expelled Taiwan and accepted PRC as the representative of China, and that a number of countries which used to be hostile to China in the Cold War, including Japan and Australia, established diplomatic relations with China.
It was in this relaxed international environment for China that two developments led to the consumer commodities boom in China. The first development was that China felt less threatened and therefore was able to shift from investing a high percentage of precious capital on heavy industry to investing in light industry. It was at this juncture that many factories involved in the military industry started to use their resources and technology to produce civilian commodities, such as motorbikes and even electric fans. This provided the opportunity to abolish the rationing of many items of daily use. The second development was that capitalists – from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan at the start, and later from other parts of the world including the USA – were allowed to invest in China. The second development led to the employment of millions of migrant workers from rural China who, though having to work in slave-like conditions, could earn enough money to send home and subsidize rural residents’ needs of clothing, items of daily use, and even house-building.
The final piece in the jigsaw of my explanation is technology. This again has something to do with the work done during the era of Mao. First of all, infrastructure such as reservoirs, dams, dikes and irrigation systems took years as well as collective efforts to complete. It was during the Mao era that this kind of work was possible and was done. The post-Mao era started just in time to pick up the benefit of the work done previously. Secondly, modern technology such as hybrid rice crops and chemical fertilizer and insecticide were not widely and abundantly available during the era of Mao, because technology for fertilizer plants was still in the process of being developed until the 1970s. Again the post-Mao era just started in time to pick up the fruit of this work as well. In my case study of Gao Village I also demonstrate how chemicals were rationed during the Mao era and how abusively they are now being used to raise production. We know that the hybrid seeding developed by scientists like Yuan Longping has made a great difference in rice output. But very few bother to point out that the development of hybrid seeding takes many years to fruition and scientists like Yuan Longping started working on this kind of project in the Mao era, usually with collective efforts, and the results of these have been implemented on a large scale during the post-Mao era.
Dispute over the Great Leap Forward
But the Chinese official statistics are based on data collected on household registration. There can be errors and fraud in household registration during the period for two important reasons. First, the data could not be complete and could be erroneous because the household registration system (hukou) was yet in the process of being established and it would take years to make it work properly. Secondly, the Great Leap Forward policies involved huge internal migration, first from rural to urban areas, as industrialization was expanding, and then from urban to rural areas as industrialization was contracting in the face of shortages of grain and failure of some foolish policies such as backyard iron and steel manufacturing. During these years households might have failed to register when they moved back to rural areas (Sun 2014). Because the population base of China is so huge that a tiny percentage of non-registration means large absolute numbers.
It is also worth remembering that in recent centuries the Chinese have been haunted by hunger and starvation. As foreign correspondents, missionaries and travellers witnessed before the establishment of the PRC, China was constantly devastated by natural disasters and starvation on a large scale which sometimes claimed millions of lives. The large-scale famine which took place during 1959 and 1960 was the first, last and only one in the whole history of the Mao era and the whole history of the PRC. This cannot be just luck or accident. It was the result of decades of hard work that built a solid infrastructure of irrigation and management of rivers and lakes by massive manpower mobilized by Mao’s campaign as well agricultural technological breakthroughs that are mentioned in the above text.
The Cultural Revolution
There is certainly evidence that Mao wanted the CCP to be criticized in 1957 and therefore launched what was called the “Two Hundreds” (let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend). It was his colleagues in the Party who resisted Mao’s ideas at first, and then wanted a harsh crackdown as soon as possible when they felt the very existence of the Party was under the threat. There is also evidence that Mao was not the only one who encouraged radicalism during the Great Leap Forward. For instance, Bo Yibo was the one who made a report to Mao that China could catch up with the UK in steel production in two years. Liu Shaoqi was the one who encouraged commune canteens, arguing that would liberate women from the kitchen, and would be one way to eliminate gender inequality. Zhou Enlai was the one who invented the term ‘Great Leap”. Chen Yi and Tao Zhu were the ones who believed and advocated unrealistic figures of agricultural output.
If one reads Mao’s wide-ranging talks in the 1958 Wuchang and Nanning Conferences and the 1959 Shanghai Conference, one can see Mao was the person who wanted to slow down the leap and hype. We also have to realize that the selection of what is allowed to be published, like Mao’s speeches, and speeches by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping in their collected works, is very political. In their selected works, the speeches of Deng and Liu during the Great Leap Forward years are not included. The politics here is obvious: to justify a dramatic change in their politics and their return to power, the post-Mao political and intellectual elite had to manufacture the narrative that they had been correct all the time, and it was Mao who was to blame for the past problems. For the Western audience too, it is satisfying to nail down a villain, Mao the monster of evil communism.
In spite of the fact that Mao and his lieutenants had fought together as convinced communists, there were a lot of ideological and policy differences among them. Therefore, the fact that some of Mao’s colleagues were ousted at one time or another should be seen as part of the normal process of politics, rather than as a pure personal power struggle. If one is engaged in politics one has to have a stand and view as to where China should go from one point to another.
There is a plenty of evidence of how Mao differed from Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. For example, Mao was not happy with the education policy introduced and implemented by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping (Li Yi 2005). According to Li, once the system was established it favoured the educated families and disadvantaged poor families. For instance in 1957, 80 per cent of the enrolled university students were from landlord, rich peasant and capitalist family backgrounds. Mao of course was not happy with this and he did not have the chance to address this until the Cultural Revolution, when one of the changes in education was that of recruiting students from among the workers, peasants and soldiers directly via mass recommendation.
Mao was very aware that China could be easily swept along with the dominant capitalist system in the world, and the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last, bold and desperate attempt to prevent China from moving into the trajectory of capitalism. Mao in his dying days tried to urge and to persuade Deng Xiaoping to acknowledge in writing or to be witnessed by other colleagues to say that he supported the Cultural Revolution, even if not the whole of it at least 70 per cent of it. Deng was very resistant to this, although in writing Deng did pledge to Mao that he would never reverse the verdict of the Cultural Revolution. But history proves that Deng did reverse the verdict, as Mao said with a sigh of despair, referring to Deng Xiaoping: “capitalist roader is still walking along the capitalist road. [He] says never reverse the verdict! Not reliable”. Deng did restore capitalism in China and the “socialism of Chinese characteristics” steered by Deng was more blatantly capitalist than many developed capitalist countries. No wonder some would say, only half-jokingly, that only China could save capitalism.
The Cultural Revolution has been routinely touted as Mao’s personal power struggle against his designated successor Liu Shaoqi, even though all the documentary evidence suggests otherwise. Mao’s authority in the CCP and PRC was supreme, so much so that it could never be challenged by anyone. Mao knew it and everyone else knew it. Mao could have gotten rid of Liu easily without mobilizing a mass movement like the Cultural Revolution that was supposed to have lasted ten years, from 1966 to 1976. In fact, as early as August 1966, when the Cultural Revolution had just started, during the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress held in Beijing, Liu was already demoted from number two position in the party to number eight. All Mao had to do to achieve this was to have written a few lines on a piece of scrap paper called the “big poster”. Many years later Liu’s widow, the very intelligent Wang Guangmei, who also suffered personally during the Cultural Revolution, admitted that Mao and Liu had policy differences, and that initially Mao did not intend to remove Liu politically. (Liu’s political and even personal fate went downhill only after Mao was presented with “solid evidence” that Liu was once a traitor during his days when he was an underground communist activist.)
Why did Mao launch the Cultural Revolution then? For Mao it was to decide the road to be taken for China: was China to move along the road to socialism or would it slip into capitalism? In 1965, barely a year before the Cultural Revolution, Mao made a trip to Jinggangshan, where Mao first started a base for guerrilla warfare. Mao’s symbolic visit to Jinggangshan was apparently to contemplate another new starting point for China. On some rare occasions during the visit to Jinggangshan, Mao talked to those around him about why he thought collectivization was crucial to Chinese socialism (Ma 2005). This is a point on which Mao disagreed with Liu Shaoqi. It is worth pointing out that the dismantling of the collective system in rural China was the starting point from which the post-Mao leadership launched its so-called reform of moving away from socialism to capitalism.
Mao knew the task of revolution against capitalism in China at that time was difficult because it required the remoulding of mentality and world outlook. That is why the aim of the Cultural Revolution was for the political and intelligentsia elite to go through “the cultural revolution”. In May 1966, when the launch of the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, Mao called the inner circle ideological leaders of the party, such Chen Boda, Qi Benyu and also Lin Biao’s hand-picked general Yang Chengwu to Shanghai to listen to what Mao thought was a concrete way to change people’s outlook and life style. That is what was later called the May 7th Directive, because it was a letter written by Mao on May 7th 1966 in praise of a People’s Liberation Army report which talked about how the soldiers and officers should together participate in not only military training but also cultural studies and agricultural production. The directive basically says that one should not work merely to earn money and live, but to become a revolutionary subject. Although division of labour could not be abolished, a worker should do some farm work and a farm should do some industrial work, a soldier should engage in production as well as military training. A student should do all kinds of physical labour as well social activities. Party official should sometimes live with those they lead and should engage in production work with them, and so on (Qi 2013).
Mao’s idea of the Cultural Revolution was written into the document called the Sixteen Articles. This document, which officially launched the Cultural Revolution, defines three stages of the movement: the first stage is to engage in struggle against the authorities, the second is to criticize capitalist ideas, and the third and final is to carry out reform (dou pi gai). All of the Chinese should engage in struggling against established ideas and habits, and especially those who are in leading or authoritative positions should go through the struggle session. After that, all of the Chinese should engage in criticism – criticism of others and of oneself. Finally, all the institutions should be reformed according to the new ideas and consensus should be reached out of the struggle and criticism stages. As it happened, the Cultural Revolution did not develop the way Mao had envisaged.
This in a sense is understandable. Mao’s theory of class struggle was used skilfully by the party leadership at various levels against the classic class enemies like landlords. However, when the same theory was applied to them seeing them as the new class enemies, it caused much consternation, fear and resistance. Even so nobody in the Party and the Army dared to challenge Mao directly and personally. Instead, they tried all kinds of other means to derail the course of the Cultural Revolution. In addition, those who tried to follow Mao either did not understand him or acted contrary to what was aimed at by the Cultural Revolution. It is quite possible that Mao did not have a well-thought-out plan to start with, and in many circumstances Mao was improvising to cope with unexpected developments. Finally, there was not enough time and effort for some of the innovative experiments and reform to come to fruition. As a result of all those complex factors, which require more comprehensive and in depth research, the Cultural Revolution not only failed as a whole but also caused a huge backlash from sections of the people, which helped Deng later to reverse the verdicts.
For the present writer the most plausible explanation for this paradox is that the policies in the socialist period of China benefited the majority of the lower class people, even though the socialist achievements were made because of their hard work and sacrifice, especially the hard work and sacrifice of the rural residents. This is one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is that the political and intelligentsia elite felt threatened, victimized and humiliated not only because they were not allowed to enjoy the privileges which they thought they deserved (and did enjoy at the beginning of the PRC) but also because they were forced to change and forced to identify with “the masses”. Witness the frantic and ferocious grabbing of privilege and wealth by the political and intelligentsia elite in post-Mao China.
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