The New York Review of Books has an amazing roundup of books about how unimaginably awful China was during the 50s and 60s. This is when for misguided reasons Chairman Mao ordered China's farms to modernize and named five pest species to be wiped out.
But the pests ate locusts and without the pests the locusts grew out of control and compounded other farming mistakes leading to the worst famine in human history. A famine not caused by disease or war or natural disaster. A fully human-caused famine that killed tens of millions of people and effectively ruined large swaths of China.
Because what happens in a village, in a region, when nearly everyone dies. What is that world like afterwards?
China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined by Ian Johnson | The New York Review of Books
I thought of the many scandals that have hit Henan province in recent years—the “AIDS villages” populated by locals who sold their blood to companies that reused infected needles, or the charismatic millennial movements that had sprung up. Crime is high and local officials notoriously brutal, running their districts like fiefdoms. But didn’t many other parts of China have such troubles?
“It’s different here,” he said slowly, looking at me carefully, trying to explain something very complex and painful that he wasn’t sure would be comprehensible. “Traditional life was wiped out around the time I was born, fifty years ago. Since then it has been a difficult area, with no foundation to society. Most people in China haven’t heard of this but here in Xinyang, people all know.
“It was called the Xinyang Incident. It destroyed this area like the wrath of God on Judgment Day.”
The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.