Becker, Jasper 1956–
Becker, Jasper 1956–
Born May 19, 1956, in London, England; son of Alfred (an electronics engineer) and Ilse Becker; married Ruwani Jayewardene (a development consultant), August, 1987 (divorced, 1999); married Autoaueta Beglova, May, 1999; children: Michael, Jeremy. Education: Attended University of Munich, 1976-77; University of London, graduated (with honors), 1978.
Freelance writer. Journalist in Brussels, Belgium, 1980-83; Associated Press, Geneva, Switzerland, journalist, 1983-85; Guardian, London, England, journalist in London and China, 1985-91; British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), London, journalist, 1992-94; South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, China, Beijing bureau chief, 1995-2002. Has appeared frequently on news programs, including 60 Minutes, Nightline, Primetime Live, and World News Tonight. Becker is quoted regularly as a news analyst for television and radio news programs all over the world.
The Lost Country: Mongolia Revealed, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1991.
Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine, Free Press (New York, NY), 1996.
The Chinese, Free Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Dragon Rising: An Inside Look at China Today, National Geographic Society (Washington, DC), 2006.
Work represented in anthologies, including Reporting the News from China, Chatham House, 1992. Contributor to numerous periodicals, including Vanity Fair, National Geographic, Marie Claire, and Travel & Leisure.
Thirty million is an incomprehensible number of human beings, but it is a conservative estimate of how many Chinese peasants died from a state-caused famine between 1958 and 1962. Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine explores this underreported tragedy.
China's communist leader Mao Tse-tung's "Great Leap Forward" was an attempt to push China past the Soviet Union, "pass England and catch up with America" all within fifteen years. Through this plan, China would become the leading nation in the world, and Mao would be the greatest leader in the world. Equal parts pseudoscience, sycophantic bureaucracy, and Mao's will-to-power allowed the starvation of so many to occur. The illusion of progress was sustained by false reports, cover-ups, and deceit.
Famine was not new to China, but historic occurrences of it were largely due to flooding and drought, and relief was difficult due to the great distances that separated villages. The 1958 famine was not localized but affected all of rural China. Mao would not admit the truth when faced with it, and he apparently did not understand until 1961 that millions had already died. Becker collected eyewitness accounts of cannibalism, stories of people feasting on cats and dogs, mice, insects, bark, leaves, and even dirt long after the peasants' grain ran out. He further noted that the same government was still in power in the late 1990s and still reluctant to admit to all that occurred during those four years.
The world outside China was blind, Becker suggested. He shows how a broad spectrum of Westerners, from economists to Maoist supporters, were misled by Chinese information that asserted there was no starvation and only bad weather was causing slight supply problems. Some Sinophiles even make Mao out as an averter of a famine rather than an instigator.
Many critics found Hungry Ghosts to be powerful, if somewhat gruesome. Caroline Moorehead, writing in the New Statesman, called it "a painstakingly readable account of the famine that engulfed China." Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Paul G. Pickowicz called Hungry Ghosts "an important, sometimes spellbinding, account." He did, however, disagree with some of Becker's conclusions, namely that "even now in the West the famine is still not accepted as a historical event." Another complaint was voiced by Richard Bernstein in the New York Times: "Sometimes he includes information without giving the reasons he found the information credible." Nevertheless, Bernstein admitted the book was "remarkable." A New York Times Book Review article by Nicholas Eberstadt claimed that Becker "has offered both a grim tribute to the dead and a challenge to our consciences."
Hungry Ghosts was officially banned by the Chinese government, but Becker's exposé of an appalling slice of modern Chinese history did not seem to hinder his journalistic career there. He has corresponded from China for London's Guardian newspaper, and for the British Broadcasting Corporation as well. After the publication of Hungry Ghosts, he became Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong. His next book, The Chinese, was published in 2000, and examines the dramatic changes that have occurred in China since the death of Mao.
Becker's title encompasses 1.25 billion people, and as he notes, China is one of the world's oldest civilizations, with a state that is "probably the oldest functioning organization in the world." He begins by sketching China's history of autocratic rulers, a preference that was long entrenched before the darkest days of Mao's Communist rule. The bulk of the book discusses the sweeping economic reforms, designed to lead China into the global marketplace, launched in late 1970s by premier Deng Xiaoping. Under Deng, China sought to change course by instituting new trade policies and fostering private enterprise. Even with the 1989 crackdown on dissidents—who opposed the political corruption that the economic reforms had only exacerbated—China continued on a path to what it called a "socialist market economy."
Becker focuses on the social impact that these changes wrought, and looks at various segments of Chinese society and discusses who has benefited from them, and who has suffered. The author's long experience as a working journalist in China gave him a wealth of anecdotal and insider source material to illustrate his theories. Rural peasantry and industrial workers have not found their fortunes vastly improved by the heady new economic climate of the 1990s, as he shows, but the burgeoning entrepreneur class and high-ranking Communist Party members have reaped extraordinary profits. Other segments of The Chinese discuss the particular challenges faced by intellectuals, and the endemic political corruption that still plagues the corridors of power. A Wilson Quarterly assessment from Jonathan Mirsky found fault with some of the book's assertions, but concluded that Becker's experiences as a reporter there yielded a certain insight to his account of China at a crossroads. "His anecdotes make the book particularly valuable," Mirsky noted. A Publishers Weekly reviewer also commended the work, writing: "Becker's may not be the most optimistic view of contemporary China, but it is one of the most penetrating."
In 2005, Becker switched focus from China to North Korea in his book Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea. He gives readers a look inside North Korea and the mind of its ruler, Kim Jong Il. He writes about not only the possible threat the country presents to the United States, but also the threat it presents to its own people. Rogue Regime gives a "frightening and depressing account" of the past and present state of the country under Kim Jong Il, wrote Jay Freeman in a review for Booklist. Many reviewers found that the book presents a compelling portrait of a dangerous dictator, and is "of much interest to readers who wonder where the next war will be fought," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor.
Becker once told CA: "My interests are Oriental cultures, Buddhism, Chinese politics, archaeology, central Asia, and international politics. These stem from twelve years as a correspondent in Brussels, Geneva, and especially Peking."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Spectator, September, 2005, James R. Lilley, review of Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, p. 76.
Asian Affairs, February, 1993, C.R. Bawden, review of The Lost Country: Mongolia Revealed, p. 66; October, 1996, Colina MacDougall, review of Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine, p. 405.
Biography, fall, 2005, Carl Senna, review of Rogue Regime, p. 714.
Book World, April 5, 1998, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 12; September 10, 2000, review of The Chinese, p. 6; February 4, 2001, review of The Chinese, p. 9; June 19, 2005, Mike Mochizuki, review of Rogue Regime, p. 6.
Booklist, December 15, 1996, Gilbert Taylor, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 695; November 1, 2000, Julia Glynn, review of The Chinese, p. 513; April 15, 2005, Jay Freeman, review of Rogue Regime, p. 1426.
Business Week, January 15, 2001, review of The Chinese, p. 22.
Campaigns & Elections, July, 2006, review of Dragon Rising: An Inside Look at China Today, p. 58.
Chemical & Engineering News, February 26, 2001, Jean-Francois Tremblay, "A Look at China Today," p. 52.
China Quarterly, March, 1997, Frederick C. Teiwes, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 212; September, 2002, Thomas P. Bernstein, review of The Chinese, p. 744.
Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 1997, Ann Scott Tyson, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 15.
Economist, October 19, 1996, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 8; June 11, 2005, review of Rogue Regime, p. 82.
Far Eastern Economic Review, August 20, 1992, Alan Sanders, review of The Lost Country, p. 30; August 15, 1996, Margaret Scott, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 54; July-August, 2005, David C. Kang, review of Rogue Regime, p. 66.
Foreign Affairs, September, 2001, review of The Chinese, p. 174.
Geographical, October, 2005, Victoria James, review of Rogue Regime, p. 86.
Geographical Journal, July, 1998, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 233.
Globe & Mail, August 20, 2005, Carl Senna, review of Rogue Regime, p. 9.
Guardian Weekly, July 12, 1992, review of The Lost Country, p. 28.
Independent Review, winter, 2000, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 431.
Journal of Asian Studies, February, 1998, Lee Feigon, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 181.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1996, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 1642; September 15, 2000, review of The Chinese, p. 1326; February 1, 2005, review of Rogue Regime, p. 158.
Library Journal, January, 1997, Jack Shreve, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 117; November 15, 2000, Charles W. Hayford, review of The Chinese, p. 83.
London Review of Books, July 18, 1996, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 3; December 15, 2005, Bruce Cummings, review of Rogue Regime, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1997, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 3; February 18, 2001, Jim Mann, review of The Chinese, p. 2; December 2, 2001, review of The Chinese, p. 19.
Middle East, December, 1993, review of The Lost Country, p. 41.
New Statesman, June 14, 1996, Caroline Moorehead, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 44.
New Yorker, April 14, 1997, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 85; April 16, 2001, review of The Chinese, p. 18.
New York Times, February 4, 1997, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 15; February 5, 1997, Richard Bernstein, "Horror of a Hidden Chinese Famine," p. C15.
New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1997, Nicholas Eberstadt, "The Great Leap Backward," p. 6; June 1, 1997, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 39; December 7, 1997, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 70; August 9, 1998, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 28; December 6, 1998, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 97; August 7, 2005, Joshua Kurlantzick, review of Rogue Regime, p. 18.
Population and Development Review, March, 1997, Alphonse L. MacDonald, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 186.
Publishers Weekly, January 13, 1997, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 65; November 6, 2000, review of The Chinese, p. 78; February 21, 2005, review of Rogue Regime, p. 163.
Spectator, June 29, 1996, Ian Buruma, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 33.
Time International, February 21, 2005, Jasper Becker, "It's Time to Disengage with Kim Jong Il," p. 21; May 23, 2005, Austin Ramzy, review of Rogue Regime, p. 53.
Times Higher Education Supplement, November 29, 1996, Carl Riskin, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 20; February 3, 2006, James Hoare, review of Rogue Regime, p. 24.
Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 1992, Jeremy Swift, review of The Lost Country, p. 11; October 25, 1996, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. 3; December 22, 2000, Julia Lovell, review of The Chinese, p. 27.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 25, 2002, review of The Chinese, p. 6.
Wall Street Journal, February 7, 1997, Paul G. Pickowicz, review of Hungry Ghosts, p. A16.
Wilson Quarterly, winter, 2001, Jonathan Mirsky, review of The Chinese, p. 139.
Jasper Becker Home Page,http://www.jasperbecker.com (November 30, 2006).
New Humanities Reader,http://www.newhum.com/ (November 30, 2006), biography of Jasper Becker.
Open Democracy.net,http://www.opendemocracy.net/ (November 30, 2006), biography of Jasper Becker.