Thursday, July 20, 2017

Cuba and China

Both Cuba and China have produced monsters that dwarfed their own lands.

Leaders of communist China and Cuba meet

By Dimon Liu

I remember the year Cuba came into my consciousness.  It was 1960, the height of famine during the years of Great Leap Forward.  I was a child living in the southern city of Guangzhou in China. Meal time meant a little rice, and whatever we could scrape together.  For nearly two years, we had no meat, fish or even cooking oil. We were starving.  All of a sudden, there was cane sugar from Cuba, and we school kids had to learn Cuban songs.

We had been on rations even before the Great Leap Forward which began in 1958. Thirty jin (one jin is about 1.1 pound) of grains per month for an adult, and fifteen jin for a child above the age of seven.  Two jin of meat and two ounces of cooking oil, also for a month.  Except for my family.  Having been categorized by the government as the enemies of the people, and tarred as the "black five sorts," our grain rations were half of everyone else's.  My mother's grain ration was 15 jin a month, but I got less than half - mine was 7 jin a month. During the times of shortages, even half a jin of ration coupon meant a great deal, but during the years of Great Leap Forward, the ration coupons were nearly useless.

The persistent gnawing of hunger felt like a sharp knife twisting and thrusting in my gut without respite, and on many a night I shed silent tears until I was finally able to fall asleep - a memory so painful and vivid that it still haunts me more than half a century later. During the day, small gangs of children roamed the streets looking for food. My pals and I, skinny 7-year olds, foraged as best we could to supplement our meager fares. We hunted frogs, birds, and water cockroaches.  We climbed trees for mulberries and nuts, and scraped tree barks for our mothers to cook. I built traps to catch rats and sparrows - the beginning of my architectural career. In truth, everything was skinny, only the rats had any meat on them. People on our streets were dying of many infectious diseases, though no one dared to say anyone died of hunger.

On my eighth birthday, I got a hard-boiled egg all to myself.  It was so rare and precious, I couldn't bear to eat it.  I put the egg in my pocket.  I took it out, looked at it, and put it back into my pocket; and on and on as I wandered the streets; because staying home might mean my older brother could snatch the egg from me.  Another small gang of children saw me with my egg, and ran towards me. I quickly stuffed the egg into my mouth, barely chewed it, and swallowed it, eggshells and all, even as I was being jumped on and pummeled.

Frank Dikotter, the historian at the University of Hong Kong who wrote "Mao's Great Famine", a book about this period, said in a social media post that "the first thing the regime did in September 1960 was to procure an extra 100,000 tons of grain and ship it to Cuba," in order to help break the economic blockade imposed by Washington on the island.  Dikotter added that "you can feed about 2000 people for a day with a ton of rice... Or over half a million people for a year."

Properly fed people rarely existed in China at that time, unless you belonged in the very small and exclusive club of Chinese Communist elite. For a child like me who received coupons for under 8 pounds of rice a month, you could have fed more than 2 million of us for a year; or about half a million Chinese adults for a year on a standard ration of 30 jin, or 33 pounds of rice per month for the amount of grain sent to Cuba.

Cuba was not the only place that China exported food to during those harrowing years. Yang Jisheng, author of the searing book "Tombstone," which documented meticulously the period of the Great Leap Forward, noted that China exported a total of 5 million tons of grains in 1959, to North Korea, Vietnam, East European countries, and especially to the former Soviet Union to help cover China’s debts when famine began; and a further 2.72 million tons in 1960, the height of starvation, along with a large quantity of cooking oil, eggs and other foodstuffs.

5 million tons of grains would have fed 25 millions adults for the year 1959, and 2.72 million tons would have fed 13.6 millions for the year 1960.

As of now, estimates of the dead during this time of famine range widely, from a low of 30 million acknowledged by the Chinese government, to a high of 80 million; and we won't have a firm idea of what the figures really were until the Chinese Communists are gone from the scene, and all the archives can be opened.

The fact remains that millions of people would not have starved to death if there were some error-correcting mechanisms that existed in the Chinese Communist system, but there were none; and millions died needlessly, and in a most painful way; as the government forcibly took the grain away from its people and shipped it overseas.  Chinese Communists often extolled their system as superior to democracy because of its efficiency. It is efficient, no doubt; but also most efficient in killing its own people.

I have often wondered if the Cuban people knew about the sufferings of the Chinese people at that time, and how many starved to provide them with food. I wondered if Fidel Castro knew, and if he did know, I wondered if he cared.  We knew Mao didn't care, or he wouldn't have shipped rice to Cuba and other places when his own people were starving.  As my mother used to say, only the leaders could afford to be so magnanimous about the sufferings of the people...

Ernesto "Che" Guevara meets Mao Zedong

Castro was never given to expressiveness for the help he received from China. Or perhaps Castro couldn't express it since he relied on the Soviet Union to remain in power, and by 1958, the Sino-Soviet split was bitter, and out in the open. Or perhaps Castro shared the derogatory views of the Soviets towards the Chinese at the time.  Diplomatic relations were established in 1960, but Castro didn't visit China until 35 years later, in December of 1995, after the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and long after Mao - the man who starved his own people to help Cuba – had died in September of 1976.

In a documentary about Castro, aired shortly after Castro’s death was announced on November 25, 2016, CCTV, China's state run television station, said that Fidel Castro admired Mao Zedong and “regretted not being able to get to know him." However, in his 1977 interview with Barbara Walters, which surprisingly went into considerable detail on his views about China, Castro said Mao "practically destroyed the Chinese Communist party," and that Mao "admitted [to] becoming a god and betrayed the people’s revolutionary solidarity," which Castro categorized as "Mao’s gravest error."

"The men that participate in these processes acquire great power and later abuse that power," Castro told Barbara Walters about Mao and his revolutionary comrades. "I also acquired that power, but I never abused it, nor did I retain it in my hands. I distributed it. I gave it to the revolutionary institutions," he said.

It wasn't true, of course, what Castro told Barbara Walters about himself.  If Mao had Li Zhisui, who published "The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician" in 1994, which exposed Mao's luxurious, debauched and abusive life in excruciating detail, Castro had Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, who published "The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Líder Maximo" in 2015, which described Castro's hidden life of brutality, womanizing, and outsized greed, also in excruciating detail.

I can't help but perceive a difference between Mao and Castro, even as they loom large on the international scene, both in life and in death.  Mao's atrocities were unprecedentedly large, whatever estimates one cared to use, as he unleashed famine and wave upon wave of mob violence on the Chinese people; but they felt impersonal, as if Mao, on his elevated pedestal, couldn't care less if his people suffered, lived, or died.  Not so for Castro, he seemed as if he cared, and his brutalities - gouging out eyes of a dissident here, chopping off limbs on another one there, sending his closest comrades to the executioners, and even as the numbers piled up horrifyingly, still had the feel that they were more personal.  Perhaps it is the difference between a vast continent and a small island, but both Cuba and China have produced monsters that dwarfed their own lands.

This brings me to the family of the Trudeaus.  In 1960, the same year Cuba came into my consciousness, Pierre Trudeau, the future Canadian Prime Minister, went to China as a journalist, and didn't notice that there was a famine going on. Huh? How could he be so unobservant as a journalist? Pierre Trudeau perhaps didn't want to notice, because that might have disqualified him as a future leader who was full of magnanimity when it came to the sufferings of the people, and who pridefully counted Castro, a grand practitioner of this dark art, as a family friend.  "The point is not to judge other worlds by the standards of your own," Alexandre Trudeau explained, when he had his father's 1960 book, written with Jacques Herbert, "Two Innocents in Red China", reissued in 2007. What did Alexandre Trudeau mean exactly? That the Chinese people aren't really human? That they feel no pain, and could die in the tens of millions without the Trudeaus ever noticing or caring? That civilized standards which rightly apply to the Trudeaus, need not be applied to the Chinese?

"His Hunkiness", the current Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Pierre Trudeau's other son, issued an official statement upon Castro's death, warmly lauding Castro as “a legendary revolutionary and orator," and having "made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation," without, as is the wont of the Trudeaus, ever noticing or caring about Castro's legions of human rights abuses; as if Castro's alleged accomplishments justified or eradicated his atrocities. They don't, of course, by any stretch, but by following their father's convenient blindness, the Trudeau sons, like their father before them, are simply abetting the tyrants in furthering the people's sufferings.

Dimon Liu was born in China and immigrated to the United States in 1965. She became a human rights activist after witnessing conditions in China during a three-month trip there in 1972.

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