Long-time Washington public affairs fixture and editorial buddy Wes Pedersen died last week at the age of 91. I had the privilege of editing (very lightly) his commentaries since he began submitting them in 2008 or so.
Pederson, a proud veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, taught me the importance of listening to the people in the trenches rather than those in the upper echelon of government, corporations or even PR firms.
He was fond of recounting his own experience as a young U.S. Information Agency staffer in Hong Kong in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period that saw Chairman Mao’s consolidation of power in China.
Mao had launched the massive “Great Leap Forward” in the '50s to accelerate industrialization to catch-up with the West. Millions of rural peasants were dispatched to mines to ore iron to feed steel mills. Cropland was bulldozed for factories. Sustenance farmers were ordered to construct mini-industrial furnaces or dispatched to giant mechanized communal farms.
The central government in then-Peking soon ginned up its propaganda machine, churning out chart-busting industrial and agricultural production statistics that awed the West. The People’s Republic of China was apparently on the march to global dominance.
Pedersen saw things differently. He noticed a flood of refugees streaming into Hong Kong from China’s hinterland. They told horrible tales of massive famine and untold deaths. Pedersen listened and compiled their stories into a report called “Grime Specter Over China,” which countered Mao’s official line that was swallowed hook, line and sinker by the U.S. Government and the rest of the world. Pedersen’s report was ridiculed as a flight of fancy.
During the 1980s, China admitted Mao’s Great Leap Forward triggered the greatest famine in world history, where a minimum 30M people perished during 1959-1961. Pedersen was vindicated.
What if the U.S. accepted Petersen’s well-documented report as the truth? If so, Mao’s policies would have been discredited. His hold on power may have weakened, changing the course of world history.
More important, the outing of Mao could have saved millions of Chinese from starvation and millions more who fell victim to the ensuing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, a political indoctrination version of the Great Leap Forward.