Tens of millions of people died in China in the famines that followed the start of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), a bid by then supreme leader Mao Zedong to catch up with U.S. levels of development in just a few years. Estimates of the total range from the official 10 million figure, to at least 45 million. But more recently, reports have begun to emerge suggesting that not all of those deaths were from disease or starvation. Reports have come to light of starving people eating their friends, relatives, and even their own children. Veteran U.S.-based dissident and rights campaigner Harry Wu of the Laogai Research Foundation spoke to RFA's Mandarin Service about his personal memories of that time and how he came to be convinced that cannibalism did occur on a large scale.
Q: There has been a lot of debate in China in recent years about how many people died during the famines of 1958-1961, and whether they died of starvation. Can you tell us your view?
A: There's a saying: One person's death is a tragedy, but the death of a great many is just a question of figures. So someone might say that 1.5 million people died, while another will say that 1.6 million died. But you should realize that that is 100,000 people more.
Right now, we [at Laogai Foundation] say that 35 million died, while the Chinese state statistical bureau says it was 10 million. That's still in the tens of millions, whether it's 10 million or 35 million.... It's all numbers now. They're without meaning.... Those people are already dead.
All the files are locked up now... No one talks about the fact that [current President] Xi Jinping's father is Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao Zedong's closest associates.... But one day, those locked archives will be published, as they were in the Soviet Union. The truth will eventually get out.
Q: What is the most shocking thing to you about that era?
A: In 1960 [during my time in labor camp], two things had a huge impact on me. One was hunger. There was no grain. I was right down to 80 pounds.... But I wasn't doing too badly. At least I was alive. The dead were being carried out every day. And the living were coming in and waiting to die. Nobody cried, shouted, or kicked up a fuss throughout the entire prison camp. People just lay there in the quiet. They didn't know if they were waiting for their next meal or waiting to be carried out dead.
The second thing was that one night, when we were asleep, back in 1960, a large number of people burst in. They were farmers. Back then, the rules said that farmers ... couldn't be arrested. They set up tents in the courtyard, and slept there, each close up against the other in rows, like sardines in tins, with their quilts over the top of them. After eight hours, they would get up and take the watch, while the others slept there.
But I never once thought about eating people. I never heard of anyone in a starving state killing someone to eat them, even someone who would probably die the next day. Never.
Because there's a very clear line between starvation and cannibalism.... How can people eat their own children, or eat dead people?
Q: I too have read a lot of accounts of terrible natural disasters [in China] and I have never seen reports of cannibalism. What is your view?
A: [Then premier] Liu Shaoqi is reported to have said this to [then supreme leader] Mao Zedong: "When people start eating each other, it'll be my name and yours that are written down." We don't know what discussion this referred to, nor what came after this remark.... At the time, I thought to myself at the time: "Cannibalism. Well that's huge. And it has even come to the knowledge of Mao Zedong." But I still had no basis [to believe it was true]. The [ruling Chinese] Communist Party is a very secretive organization.
But the head of the Anhui police department ... wrote a report [during the 2000s] in which he said that [there had been] 1,289 cases of cannibalism reported in the province in 1960. That's 1,289 cases. These were considered "special cases." That's the name they gave to cases of cannibalism.
Recently, I have received another article. It's an official document that was sent for forwarding to an office in Gansu province. It's a report written by an investigative team that was sent to the province.... It documents nearly 50 cases. Here it shows you the time, and the rural work unit the people belonged to, and the names of those involved, and who it was that they ate, and how they ate them.
Here's one: "Ma Waiyou, of Maiji commune, Xinmin village. Status: common peasant. He ate Chen Zaxi. Relationship: spouse. He ate his own wife. He dug up her body and cooked it."
Here's another: "Yang Wenyi and Yuan Shuying of Houxiyan village together with ... eight people in total, dug up the body of a child, cooked and ate it."
Here's another, at the Xihe commune. A person called Liu Chuan. "They killed him and ate him...."
This is a secret report carried out by the Chinese Communist Party itself.... Mao Zedong knew about this.... Many more reports will come out like this, when those files are finally opened. This was an era of cannibalism.
Q: So there are official accounts?
A: There's one ... about a labor camp in Gansu ... where there were more than 3,000 "rightists." Now some prisoners in labor camp get special privileges. They might get extra grain, or they might be allowed visits from their relatives, things like that. This is in return for special jobs they do. There are three people here, named. Wei Changhai. Rightist. His job? To sell dead bodies.
When I was in labor camp, there was a guy like that. He drove the truck out every day to sell dead bodies. Sometimes I went with him. They all had enough grain to eat, those guys. He looked pretty healthy.... They were so strong, not like us who looked like we might keel over any minute. We asked our brigade leader why this was, and he said, "I'll show you something." He took us to the graveyard, which was a huge area of wasteland where they would dig pits, throw in the bodies, and then cover them up again.
It was a ghastly chaos. One would have an arm broken, another a leg missing, one would be naked. He dug one up and said "Look!" The body's clothing was ripped open and their chest had been cut open too. There was no flesh on the body's bones. It was skin on a frame of bone. You couldn't eat the flesh on those bodies because there was nothing on them. But when we looked inside, we saw that the heart, liver, and lungs were gone.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.