Deaths under Mao and those under the “Free Press”

Update: On March 20, the UK Observer finally corrected the Nicholas Noe article I wrote about below. It now reads that Mao was responsible for "tens of millions of deaths" rather than "hundreds of millions" as Noe originally claimed. The Observer put a note at the end of the article saying that it had been corrected.

About a month ago I started sending emails to the Observer (and Guardian) about a Nicholas Noe article (published on February 12) that claimed Mao was responsible for the deaths of "hundreds of millions of Chinese".


Appropriately enough, this outrageous exaggeration appeared in a comment piece about Syria – as if to highlight (inadvertently) how the corporate press will print almost any accusation provided it is made against an official enemy.

I finally heard back from Observer editor Stephen Pritchard early this week (on March 6). He told me that they are looking into the matter.

What is there to look in to? Noe doesn't have a leg to stand on, and neither do the Observer editors for letting "hundreds of millions" slip through – much less for letting it stand weeks after it was brought to their attention. I honestly wonder if Nicholas Noe could have written "billions" and had it get past the editors.

Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, in the very careful and scholarly book "Hunger and Public Action", wrote

"The Chinese famine of 1958-61 followed the debacle of the so-called Great Leap forward that was tried out from 1957 onwards….Estimates of extra mortality vary from 16.5 million to 29.5 million.." [1]

Sen and Dreze go on to compare the record of India after Independence with the record of China.

"The fact that there has been no large-scale famine in India since independence is a positive contrast with the Chinese experience….given the political system of post-Independence India, it is extremely hard for any government in office….to get away with neglecting prompt and extensive anti-famine measures…And these signs themselves [are] more easily transmitted given India's relatively free media and newspapers…as well as opposition politicians…."

According to Sen and Dreze

"What was lacking when the famine threatened China was a political system of adversarial journalism and opposition. The Chinese famine raged on for three years without it being even admitted in public that such a thing was occurring, and without there being an adequate policy response to the threat…even the population itself did not know about the extent of the national calamity and the extensive nature of the problems being faced in different parts of the country."

But then Sen and Dreze go on to drop a bombshell – or what would have been a bombshell if the "free media" in capitalist countries were really free. Sen and Dreze wrote

"Comparing India's death rate of 12 per thousand with China's of 7 per thousand, and applying the difference to the Indian population of 781 million in 1986, we get an estimate of excess mortality in India of 3.9 million per year. This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958-61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame." [my emphasis]

Sen and Dreze conclude that sadly

"Starvation deaths and excessive deprivation are newsworthy in a way the quiet persistence of regular hunger and non-extreme deprivation are not."

But who determines what is "newsworthy"? It obviously isn't the seven million children around the world who, according to UNICEF figures, now die avoidable deaths every year or their loves ones. [2]

And who determines when horrific policy outcomes get counted as murders and when they are simply "tragedies" for which nobody gets stuck with a murder rap?

Applying the standard that Nicholas Noe and others apply to Mao, Israel murders 3500 Palestinian children every year if we compare child mortality rates in Israel with the Occupied Territories. Economic strangulation of the Palestinians is deliberate Israeli government policy. [3] And as for West's most powerful governments, those who Nicholas Noe advises to negotiate with Assad despite his crimes (as if they had any claim to moral superiority), those governments have accumulated more blood on their hands than Mao – never mind Assad.

Rich countries clearly lack a "political system of adversarial journalism and opposition" and the consequences are lethal.


[1] See Chapter 11 section 3 of "Hunger and Public Action", pages 210-215

[2] According to UNICEF about 8 million children die each year, but the global child moratilty rate is about eight times higher than it is for rich countries. That means roughly 90% of those child deaths are avoidable.


[3] Israel's child mortality rate is 4 per 1000 live births. It is 30 in the Occupied Territories.See UNICEF link above in note 2.

UNICEF table shows that there were 4000 Palestinian child (under 5 years of age) deaths in 2009. About 87% of those deaths (3500) would not have happened in Israel. It would take a very determined apologist for Israel to absolve it of responsiblity for the plight of Palestinians it has illegaly rulesd for over four decades.

Democracy Now! recently reported


WikiLeaks: Israeli Blockade Meant to Keep Gaza on "Brink of Collapse" Newly released classified U.S. diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks reveal that Israeli officials openly told U.S. diplomats that the aim of the blockade of Gaza was to keep Gaza’s economy on the brink of collapse. According to a November 2008 cable, Israel wanted Gaza’s economy to be "functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis." In addition, the WikiLeaks cables reveal the United States offered to transfer $70 million to Gaza in November 2008 in an attempt to ease the economic situation. However, Israeli Major General Amos Gilad refused to allow the transfer, saying that the Palestinians should not receive anything. The cables were first reported by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

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