... the collection has the shortcomings that are to be expected in a book of essays by academic authors. The prose style is mostly stodgy and convoluted, and the contributors seem anxious to avoid anything that might smack of a negative attitude towards the ideas and events they describe. “As a group,” the editor continues, “we are diverse with respect to age, gender, ethnicity and political sympathies.” He is right that, judged by prevailing standards, it is a well-balanced group. All of the relevant disciplines are represented – history, area studies, literature, political science and sociology – and although ten of the 13 contributors teach in the US, the collection is representative of the range of views of China that you will find in universities in much of the world. However, the fact that it reflects the present state of academic opinion is also the book’s most important limitation.There is a Principal-Agent problem going on with academic authors. You may think that academics should seek the truth and do things that matter, but what most academics do on most days is worry about what journal editors and referees would think about their work if X was done. This generates all kinds of distortions. It's more like the fashion industry than most of us care to admit: will blue look better than black? The journal editors define what is fashionable and hordes scurry after that. It's bad enough in economics (link, link). It's much worse in the humanities where the anchor to empirical evidence is weaker than the weak link to reality that's found in economics.
Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives. “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death,” Mao observed laconically. “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” He did not specify how those condemned to perish would be made to accept their fate. Ensuing events provided the answer: mass executions and torture, beatings and sexual violence against women were an integral part of a politically induced famine that reduced sections of the population to eating roots, mud and insects, and others to cannibalism. When Mao ordered an end to the horrific experiment in 1961, it was in order to launch another.
Gray's article also reminded me of the famous essay by Omar Ali (link, link) on the Indian and Pakistani Left. I often get struck by the odd subset of persons that write on India in the New York Times.