Sunday 18 August 1996
The best account yet of the famine caused by Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts, details the ludicrous claims of ever-greater grain yields made by zealous cadres. Propaganda photographs showed fields of wheat so thick that children could stand on it (in fact they were standing on a bench hidden by the stalks); China claimed to have overtaken the US in wheat production; surpluses were said to be so great that grain was given away free to Chinese allies like North Korea and Albania.
"Model communes" which vied with each other to claim new world records for grain output were actually condemning their members to death. The higher the reported production, the greater the quota which had to be handed over to the state, and since this often exceeded actual production, there was nothing left for the peasants to eat. The result: between 1958 and 1961, at least 30 million people starved to death, the worst such disaster in history.
Even though China, as Becker points out, has to this day never officially acknowledged that the famine took place, you would think the Communist Party and its propaganda organs might have learned a few lessons. Yet what is this I read? Last week the official Xinhua news agency claimed that Kesong village in faraway Tibet had set a world record of 15.075 tonnes of wheat per hectare in its summer harvest.
The Tibet Agricultural Research Institute, Xinhua solemnly reported, attributed the unusually high yield to favourable geographic conditions and the fine variety of wheat. All this just happens to be in the area which Tibetans regard as the cradle of their people, where they first tilled the soil.
At least the achievement was not attributed to the people's love of Marxist- Leninist-Maoist Thought, and nobody is likely to starve as a result of such nonsense. China has changed in many ways since the Great Leap Forward, even if some of its propagandists haven't.
Gourd and bad
THE Filipinos say anyone can grow kalabasa - the local breed of squash - simply by scattering the seeds on the ground. If you want to describe someone as stupid or inefficient in the Philippines, you call him or her a squash, apparently: President Fidel Ramos issues annual kalabasa awards to underperforming public servants.
All this may be very amusing to Filipinos, but the vegetable has become highly successful on export markets, especially in Japan. The Agriculture Secretary suggested that another name be found for the inefficiency prize, and the cabinet decided unanimously to switch to the term kulelat, or tail-enders.
But as we all know, the future lies in intellectual property, not in boring old agriculture. Rather than the kalabasa, the Philippines should be exporting what it symbolises. The idea of the head of state holding up the lousiest officials to ridicule has equal merit here - suitably adapted, of course. With acknowledgements to Graham Taylor and the Sun, the Queen should bestow annual turnip awards on the most uncivil servants.
Roar at a boar
I NOTE that officials in Romania have told peasants to shout or "make a loud noise" at herds of wild boar which trample their cornfields. The beasts are protected, and may not be shot.
This advice may not be as fatuous as it seems. At a game reserve where I was staying in Swaziland, the guests dived into their cabins when three rhinos lumbered into the camp. A member of the kitchen staff got rid of the pachyderms by waving a tea towel at them and shouting "Shoo! Shoo!"
The same tactic worked on the local pelican, but not before it had stolen a string of sausages I was about to barbecue. And wearing rubber flip- flops provoked the cranes to peck your ankles ... but all that is another story.
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