Empty Skies, a new short film by Wenting Deng and Luke Fisher, tells the story of Mao Zedong’s Great Sparrow Campaign. Two children work together to capture the last sparrow, a bird targeted as a pest responsible for grain shortages, in order to bring about a better harvest. One child is motivated by euphoric support for the Communist Party; the other simply wants to earn some food to feed his starving grandmother. After a long and exhausting hunt for the sparrow, the children are surprised to learn that the only reward is a badge with Mao’s face on it. They are sent home empty handed. The film ends with a shot of a swarm of crickets emerging from the wheat fields.
Although this story may sound like a fable, the Great Sparrow Campaign is an actual historical event that took place during Mao’s regime in communist China. As a part of the Four Pests Campaign in 1958, Mao declared that sparrows were responsible for shortages of grain, and were therefore enemies of the communist mission. Citizens were commanded to go out and hunt the birds, banging pots and yelling anytime a sparrow would land so that the creatures could never rest. After just one year, sparrows had been hunted to near extinction.
Things did not progress as Mao had anticipated, however. Although the sparrows did help themselves to Chinese grain, they were also the main predators of grasshoppers and locusts. By 1960, Mao retracted the ban on sparrows, but the insect population had already grown beyond quick repair, doing far more damage to the harvest than the birds had done. The result was absolute catastrophe; the Great Sparrow Campaign, combined with the other programs of Mao’s Great Leap Forward plan, resulted in widespread famine. It is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 45 million people starved to death.
How was it even possible for Mao to make this grotesque farce a reality? One reason was one of communism’s foundational premises: that the Party is always right. Marxist-Leninist theory taught that the Party represented historical forces that—as a matter of scientific truth—would eventually triumph. It stood on the right side of history, and was thus essentially infallible. The idea that the Party cannot make mistakes opens the door to seemingly insane pursuits like attempting to reengineer an entire country’s very ecosystem. Another issue comes from the totalitarian nature of communism. In expecting and receiving complete obedience, the Party actually could drive a species to near extinction on command. Mao’s directive to the Chinese people to spend their time banging on pots and yelling at birds is an excellent insight into his views concerning his people. This is not the sort of task one gives to valued, esteemed human beings; it is the sort of work given to an excess of expendable manpower.
The Great Sparrow Campaign is far from the only imagination-straining act of hubris carried out by the Chinese Communist Party. In 1980, Song Jian, a top Chinese scientist, teamed up with mathematicians and determined that the “correct” population of China was 700 million. To make this a reality, China introduced its infamous One Child Policy, which brought about a sharp drop in fertility rates and skewed the gender ratio of the Chinese population through sex-selective, and often forced, abortions. A United Nations forecast projects that “China will lose 67 million working-age people by 2030, while simultaneously doubling the number of elderly.” We cannot begin to predict what such a shift will do to the labor force and economy.
Other communist regimes have undertaken similarly ambitious projects with equally lasting effects. Pol Pot tried to guide Cambodians to an agrarian communist lifestyle by forcefully relocating entire cities into the wilderness, banning fishing, and forbidding the use of western medicine. His regime was responsible for anywhere between 1.4 and 2.2 million deaths in a country with just over seven million inhabitants. In a modern-day example, communist North Korea has attempted to create an autarkic, self-sufficient, and nuclear-armed state, completely cut off from the world outside. The result has been, according to the UN, crimes against humanity unparalleled in the world.
Empty Skies offers one small snapshot of how these catastrophic ideologies can gradually push a country ever closer to disaster. The children chasing the sparrow are oblivious to the widespread ecological shift their actions will help to promote. In many ways, the hunt becomes a game between two new friends, complete with firecrackers and peals of laughter. For two children, making mistakes is a necessary aspect of growing up: the ability to admit mistakes is a way for individuals, and for the human collective, to slowly grow in knowledge. But a regime that believes in its own infallibility cannot correct its mistakes, and they quickly become genocidal. The growth of the collective halts immediately. It is no hyperbole to claim that communism is inherently life-denying—it makes impossible the very processes that make us human. An ideology that declares a ruler unable to fail and places millions of lives at his disposal brings him to the very limits of human power. It also makes catastrophe inevitable.