China is again showing that it remains an authoritarian government fearful of its own people learning the truths of history or politics. This week, China barred Yang Jisheng, 76, a former journalist with China’s official news agency, from traveling to the United States to accept a Harvard University prize for Tombstone, a 2008 book uncovering the devastating toll of the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1961.
The 1,200-page account of the famine details the death at least 36 million Chinese lives in one of the worst man-made disasters. He also details the efforts by the government to cover up the famine’s causes and costs. Yang’s writings have caused him to be targeted by party members to leave his job.
Yang began his career as a committed communist party member. He was born nine years before Chairman Mao’s takeover of power and became a Communist party member in 1964. He graduating from Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University in 1966 and went to work at Xinhua where he worked until his retirement in 2001. However, he then began to journey across China and saw the tragedy brought about by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. He became more critical after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. He began to collect an extensive record of the famine which has been called China’s hidden Holocaust.
It is an extraordinary life’s story showing how an intellectual overcame years of indoctrination to discover the truth. Yang is dangerous precisely because he not only published the truth about the famine but personifies the powerful desire among people to find the truth. For an authoritarian regime, Yang personifies their greatest fear: an inquisitive and courageous populous. Of course, this petty measure will not stop Yang or his work. It merely confirms that the excesses of the Maoist period continue with the current regime.