Chinese author of book on famine braves risks to inform new generations

Historians in the News

For such a bold writer, Yang Jisheng comes across as a surprisingly quiet, almost shy, scholarly man. Yet this slightly built 68-year-old retiree has become something of a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities in recent years.

After a 35-year stint as a journalist for Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, Yang has made a name for himself writing about things the Chinese Communist Party would rather people forgot.

His latest book,"Mu Bei" ("Tombstone"), published this year in Hong Kong, has been hailed as the most comprehensive and authoritative account by a mainland Chinese writer of the Great Famine of late 1958 to 1962, which was precipitated by the calamitous economic policies of Mao's Great Leap Forward and cost the lives of tens of millions of Chinese.

The title, he writes in the opening passage, has several meanings:"It's a tombstone for my father who died of starvation in 1959, it's a tombstone for the 36 million Chinese who starved to death, it's a tombstone for the system that led to the Great Famine."

He adds:"There was also a great political risk involved in writing this book. If something happens to me because of this, at least I'm making a sacrifice for the sake of my ideals, so this would also be a tombstone for myself."

The two-volume, 1,100-page work is banned in China, as is his previous book,"Political Struggles in China's Age of Reform," which contains his account of the 1989 military crackdown on student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and three interviews with former Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang. Zhao, who was purged for sympathizing with the students, met with Yang while under house arrest.

The authorities were so nervous about that first book - the interviews had been publicized in the overseas press - that they summoned him several times and ordered him to cancel its publication. He refused, and it was released in Hong Kong in 2004. After Zhao died in 2005, Yang was monitored by a plainclothes police officer to ensure he did not attend the funeral....

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