30 Million Chinese Dead. Why?

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by DeRisk
Friday, Feb 24, 2023 - 7:00

Between 1960 and 1962 an estimated thirty million Chinese died of starvation as the direct result of the policies of their leader Mao Zedong.   Why did this happen?  What can we learn that helps bring an end to the troubles we face?

Labourers during the Great Leap Forward

Let us begin with the obvious.  30 million Chinese died because of the actions of men and women.  Like most troubles today the event was not a physical catastrophe.  The deaths were the direct result of implementing the policies of the Great Leap Forward aimed at bringing China into the industrial age by harnessing its human labour.  This means that we are dealing with psychology.  We are asking the question why do men and women do these kinds of things?

The second obvious fact commonly overlooked in history books is that we are not dealing just with the psychology of a single man or woman.   

Yes it is true that after China’s successful centralizing reforms of the early 1950s Mao turned into a paranoid despot as he purged critics and fostered a blind, fanatical devotion to his own naïve policies.  But we have also to take into account the tens of thousands of men and women who were prepared to follow Mao’s policies and enthusiastically implement them.  We have to look at why, when the deaths began, those responsible for the implementation did nothing to stop the genocide from going further.

Beyond these Mao devotees we also need to ask why millions of Chinese consented, albeit often under duress, to have these policies foisted upon them.  To paraphrase Ghandi, it is not possible for a few to impose their will upon millions without their tacit acceptance.

So in looking at the reason why 30 million Chinese died between 1960 – 1962 we are seeking an explanation for:

The psychopathic behaviour of the leader, in this case Mao;

The enthusiastic implementation of the policies by government/party officials;

The tacit acceptance of the policies by the majority of the population.

Mao ZeDong

In other words, we are looking for a psychological cause for the event pervasive across most of the population. 

We want to understand not only what turns leaders like Mao into psychopaths, but why so many are willing to implement the psychopath’s directives.  We also want to know why the majority of the population allow such directives to destroy their lives.

When we put the question like this it starts to become clear why the death of one in twenty Chinese sixty years ago is relevant today.

In his now classic book Death in Life Robert Jay Lifton reports the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb experienced a psychic numbing, a switching off, frequently within moments of the blast.  This is a common human reaction to a traumatising event too great for the human psyche to handle.  Just as the physical body goes into shock as a form of protection after an accident, the psyche blots out memories of otherwise overwhelming emotions through amnesia. 

It’s a natural reaction.  But just as we start to feel pain in our bodies as we begin to come out of shock, we begin to feel emotional pain if ever the amnesia begins to lift. 

If the body is not given time to release physical shock but instead kept in a perpetual state of fight or flight, signs physiological breakdown eventually appear. 

In the case of unresolved emotional trauma the unacknowledged feelings express themselves in compulsive behaviour.

Compulsive behaviour seeks to relive the feeling/beliefs of the original event or, through transference, project the feeling/beliefs of the event onto others.  As Carl Jung famously put it: what we do not come to consciously we experience as fate.

The idea that the behaviours observed during the Great Leap Forward are the result of emotional trauma buried in collective psyche has a number of features to recommend it.

First a collective trauma would explain why the majority of the population, not just the leader, participates in activities that do harm to themselves or others.

The unconscious nature of the trauma helps explain why men and women who also have children and friends engage in such behaviours.  They are driven by feelings their conscious minds are not aware of and therefore cannot assist in preventing.

Amnesia of a collective trauma also helps explain why men and women have been afflicted with seemingly endless troubles for millennia.  Because we are not aware of the origin of our compulsive behaviour we have no way of bringing it to an end.  Compulsive behaviour is like sniper fire.  We know it’s taking us down but we can’t figure out where it is coming from.

Is this what the death of 30 million Chinese between 1960 and 1962 suggests?

During recent global events one question in particular plagued me: why do people I know who otherwise are kind, loving and behave rationally participate in actions that are not kind, loving or rational?  The most plausible explanation I have found is that they/we are driven by feelings/beliefs that they/we are not aware of. 

To refresh: amnesia is a pervasive response to emotional trauma.  Painful feelings are removed from consciousness.  However amnesia only represents first aid at the time of the event.  It is not a cure.  If the repressed feelings are not brought to consciousness the result is compulsive behaviour.  Compulsive behaviour seeks to re-create the original feeling/beliefs either for ourselves or, through transference, for others.

If we unpack this in relation to the Great Leap Forward we can say that Mao and government officials acted compulsively by transferring the repressed feeling /beliefs onto the rest of the population.  This would explain why, even when the first deaths began to appear, they did nothing to change their behaviour.  The rest of the population acted compulsively by consenting to re-experience the repressed feeling/beliefs directly through their suffering and in many cases death.

However the idea of collective amnesia makes no sense unless there is a trauma that gave rise to the amnesia in the first place. 

In 1975 the Yale and Princeton researcher Julian Jaynes published a book with the extraordinary title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  In the book Jaynes provides historical evidence that just such an event took place around 1,500 B.C. as men and women became conscious for the first time. 

Importantly, Jaynes contends it is only after 1,500 B.C. that we see behaviour as witnessed during the Great Leap Forward.  The first known example comes from Tukulti Ninurta I of Assyria. 

Tukulti lived between 1243 and 1207 B.C.  He was the world’s first tyrant to unleash a bloody reign of terror as his armies swept into adjacent lands ruthlessly slaughtering the inhabitants.  Before Tukulti there were wars but never on the scale or with the savageness of Tukulti.

Tukulti Ninurta I of Assyria - the world's first tyrant

If Tukulti and his armies are the first known expression of compulsive behaviours that repeat themselves in China under Mao we have made massive progress in putting our troubles to rest. 

It means we have historical evidence in the form of statues, carvings and cuneiform texts of trauma induced changes in human psychology, and hence behaviour.  Because the role of amnesia and compulsive behaviour in emotional trauma is well understood, we now know where our troubles are coming from.  The snipers have been located.

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