Stalin had financed industry at the expense of agriculture, as punishing procurements drained the countryside of all wealth. In search of an alternative to the Soviet model, Mao instead wanted to bring industry to the village. Industrial output in the people’s communes could be raised immediately by relying on inexpensive innovations and indigenous techniques which did not require large amounts of investment, leading to an instant jump in productivity. This, in turn, would galvanise the villagers to achieve even greater economic targets: here was the key to industrialising a backward countryside without big foreign investment. Bourgeois specialists were excoriated as conservative rightists, while the earthbound wisdom of simple peasants was hailed instead. In Yunnan party boss Xie Fuzhi openly scoffed at geological measurements and technological surveys recommended by Russian experts, relying instead on the wisdom of the masses in building dams and reservoirs.1 Intuitive knowledge and native ingenuity, rather than foreign expertise, would introduce cheap and effective innovations that would propel the villages of China past the Soviet Union. The countryside was to be mechanised through simple devices, developed by ordinary farmers in research institutes. ‘The humble are the cleverest, the privileged are the dumbest,’ Mao wrote on a report showing how workers had managed to build a tractor by themselves.2 Or, as Xie Fuzhi claimed, repeating words of wisdom from the Chairman, ‘We are supernatural. Maybe we are supernaturals of the second order. Maybe on another planet there are people who are brighter than we are, in which case we are of the second order, but if we are brighter than they are then we are supernaturals of the first order.’3
Model workers peopled party propaganda. He Ding, a poor farmer from Henan who never had a day of schooling in his life, devised a system of wooden earth-carriers moving on overhead cables with an automatic dump-and-return mechanism which reduced the amount of labour needed to build a reservoir by eight times.4 Wooden conveyor belts, wooden threshing machines and wooden rice-planting machines, all were hailed as everyman miracles. In Shaanxi province, villagers even trotted out native cars and locomotives: every part was made of wood.5 Most of these were innocent enough, but the waste could reach huge proportions. In Diaofang commune, Guangdong, some 22,000 beams, trusses and floorboards were torn out of people’s homes overnight in a movement to mechanise the commune. The carts produced were so ramshackle that they fell to pieces the moment anyone tried to use one.6
But the real benchmark was steel. Here was material worthy to stand for socialism – hard, shiny, industrial, modern and working class. ‘Stalin’ stood for a man of steel willing to smash all the enemies of revolution to smithereens. Smoking factory stacks, whirring machine tools, the hooting of factory whistles, towering blast furnaces glowing a deep red with fire: these were the consecrated images of a socialist modernity. Alexei Gastev, the worker poet, wrote, ‘We grow out of iron,’ as man coalesced with iron in a fusion announcing a world in which machine became man and man was a machine. Steel was the sacred ingredient in the alchemy of socialism. The amount of steel produced was a magic figure recited with religious fervour in socialist countries. Steel output magically distilled all the complex dimensions of human activity into a single, precise figure that indicated where a country stood on the scale of evolution. Mao may not have been an expert on industry, but he seemed able to rattle off the steel output of virtually every country at the drop of a hat. He was possessed by steel, and overtaking Britain increasingly meant outstripping its annual steel production. Steel was the prime mover in the escalation of targets, and he pushed hard to have its output increased. It was 5.35 million tonnes in 1957. The target for 1958 was set at 6.2 million in February 1958, which was increased to 8.5 million tonnes in May, until Mao decided in June that 10.7 million tonnes could be produced. This changed to 12 million tonnes in September. As he juggled with the numbers he became convinced that by the end of 1960, China would catch up with the Soviet Union, the United States being overtaken in 1962 when an output of 100 million tonnes would be achieved. Then China would pull away, reaching 150 million tonnes in a few years. Seven hundred million tonnes of steel would be produced by 1975, leaving Britain trailing far behind.7
Mao was encouraged in his ravings by some of his close colleagues. Li Fuchun, for one, pronounced that China could develop at a speed unprecedented in human history thanks to the superiority of the socialist system: Britain could be outstripped in a mere seven years. Then he presented an extravagant plan seeking to overtake Britain in iron, steel and other industrial commodities in less than three years.8 In early June 1958, as Mao lounged by the swimming pool and asked minister of metallurgy Wang Heshou if steel production could be doubled, the minister replied, ‘No problem!’9 Ke Qingshi bragged that East China alone could produce 8 million tonnes.10 Provincial leaders such as Wang Renzhong, Tao Zhu, Xie Fuzhi, Wu Zhipu and Li Jingquan all made extravagant pledges about steel production, indulging the Chairman in his visionary whims.
The key to success was small furnaces operated by villagers in every backyard of the people’s communes. Built of sand, stone, fire clay or bricks, they were relatively simple affairs allowing every villager to be mobilised in the effort to overtake Britain. A typical backyard furnace was some three or four metres high with a wooden platform at the top, supported by beams. A sloping ramp provided access to the furnace, farmers scuttling up and down with sacks of coke, ore and flux on their backs or baskets slung on long poles. Air was blown through the bottom, the molten iron and slag being released through tap holes. Based on traditional blast methods, some may well have worked, but many were a sham, forced on the communes by cadres in the grip of steel fever.
The drive reached a climax in the late summer of 1958. Chen Yun, the party planner who had fallen into disgrace earlier in the year, was put in charge of the movement, and worked hard to redeem himself. On 21 August he transmitted orders from Mao that not a tonne below target would be tolerated, failure to fulfil the plan resulting in punishments ranging from a warning to expulsion from the party.11 To maintain momentum Mao visited Wuhan in September to inaugurate a giant iron and steel combine built with Soviet help, watching the molten iron from the first firing come out of the furnace. That same day Beijing dispatched a team of 1,500 party activists to spread out over the country, whipping up support for the steel drive.12 Then 29 September was designated as the day to achieve an even higher target in celebration of National Day. Two weeks ahead of the event, minister of metallurgy Wang Heshou in a telephone conference asked provincial leaders to rise to the challenge. They in turn galvanised county representatives by phone the following day.13
In Yunnan, Xie Fuzhi ordered everyone to become a soldier in the campaign, announcing a day-and-night assault for two weeks to increase production.14 Party activists fanned out in the morning, some leaving well before sunrise to reach remote villages in good time. In Dehong county, 200,000 villagers were thrown into the campaign, as the sky shone crimson with the glow cast by thousands of brick furnaces. Villagers dispersed into the forests in search of fuel, others collected coal, sometimes digging with pick, spade and hands in the open country. In the frenzy to achieve targets, accidents were frequent. Trees were randomly felled, keeling over on villagers; explosive devices used by inexperienced workers to open up mines also claimed lives.15 Xie Fuzhi phoned regularly to check the latest results.16 He, in turn, was egged on by Bo Yibo, who transmitted a new target of 12 million tonnes, boasting that 40 million workers operated some 500,000 furnaces all over the country.17 On National Day Bo announced that October should be the leap month for steel production, and another bout of madness followed. In Yunnan, the number of people involved in the movement jumped from 3 to 4 million, as a special ‘high production’ week was announced to set another record. ‘The eyes of the world are fixed on China,’ exclaimed Xie Fuzhi, as the country had to achieve the target it had trumpeted or face a humiliating climbdown.18
With pressure all the way from the top, villagers had little choice but to participate in the campaign. In the Qujing region, Yunnan, floorboards were torn up, and chickens were slaughtered so that their feathers could be used to feed the flames or make bellows. Squads of party activists moved from door to door to collect scrap iron, often confiscating household implements and farming tools. Those who failed to show enough enthusiasm were verbally abused, pushed around or even tied up and paraded. Critical reports written by party inspectors at the time talk about fear and intimidation. Coming in the wake of a year of relentless campaigns, one following on the heels of the last – irrigation schemes, fertiliser campaign, deep ploughing, close cropping, the onslaught of the people’s communes – the mere mention of the slogan ‘launching a satellite’ was enough to instil dread, as it augured another ‘bitter war’ or ‘night battle’ in which nobody would be allowed any sleep for days on end. Some tried to slip away and sleep in the cold and wet forest in order to get a few hours of rest, looking from a distance at the furnaces glowing like fireflies in the night. They were cold and poorly fed: local cadres tried to lower the cost of making steel, thus inflating the figures, by skimping on provisions, which were now entirely in their hands thanks to the advent of collective canteens.19
China was dipped into a sea of fire. Everywhere furnaces were red hot, although the human dramas which played out during the campaign were different in each village. In Yunnan some farmers were forced to go without adequate food or rest and were worked to death near the furnaces in the rush to complete the production target.20 In other hamlets across the country people got away with a small gift of a pot or a pan. But two new dimensions were added to the theatre of violence, nipping in the bud any suspected insubordination. First, cadres could now count on the militia established within the people’s communes to force through their orders. In Macheng, for instance, militiamen would come to a village and conscript people for work on the furnaces for days on end. One man who left work early was paraded through the streets with a dunce’s cap inscribed: ‘I am a deserter.’21 Second, as all the food was now in the hands of the communes, cadres could use rations as a form of reward or punishment. Refusal to work – or any sign of slacking – was punished with a ration cut or deprivation of food altogether. Women who stayed home at night in Macheng to look after their children were banned from the canteen.22 As Zhang Aihua, who lived through the famine in Anhui, later explained: ‘You did as you were told, otherwise the boss gave you no food: his hand held the ladle.’23 The grip cadres had over the food supply was reinforced even further as everywhere pots and pans were routinely taken away.
In the cities too the campaign was tough on ordinary people. In Nanjing one furnace alone set a record of 8.8 tonnes in a single day, but the fires had to be fed constantly and some teams went so hungry that they fainted by the smelters. Despite huge pressure, still people protested. Wang Manxiao simply refused to work more than eight hours a day. When challenged by a party secretary, Wang was defiant, asking point-blank, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Others openly doubted that backyard furnaces would help to overtake Britain in steel production. Close to half of all the workers in some teams were described as ‘backward’, meaning that they shirked hard work.24
In the end, the leadership got its record, although much of it was slag, unwashed ore or mere statistical invention. Iron ingots from rural communes accumulated everywhere, too small and brittle to be used in modern rolling mills. According to a report from the Ministry of Metallurgy itself, in many provinces not even a third of the iron produced by backyard furnaces was usable. And the price tag was exorbitant. One tonne of iron from a backyard furnace was estimated to cost 300 to 350 yuan, twice the amount needed by a modern furnace, to which had to be added four tonnes of coal, three tonnes of iron ore and thirty to fifty working days.25 The total losses from the iron-and-steel drive in 1958 were later estimated by the Bureau for Statistics at 5 billion yuan – not including damage to buildings, forests, mines and people.26
When Mikhail Klochko, a foreign adviser who had grown up in the Ukraine with its undulating and irregular fields, travelled to southern China in the autumn of 1958 he was taken aback by the bare, yellow patches of earth divided into narrow terraces: these were the fabled rice paddies, but hardly a single human being could be seen.27
Where were the farmers? Many were mobilised by the militia on backyard furnaces, some were deployed on large irrigation schemes, and others had left the village in search of work in the many factories chasing after ever higher targets. In total more than 15 million farmers moved to the city in 1958, lured by the prospect of a better life.28 In Yunnan the number of industrial workers jumped from 124,000 in 1957 to 775,000, meaning that over half a million people were taken out of the countryside.29 One-third of the entire workforce in the province was sent to work on water-conservancy projects at some point or another that year.30 To put it differently, out of the 70,000 working adults in rural Jinning, Yunnan, 20,000 were deployed on irrigation schemes, 10,000 on building a railway, 10,000 in local factories, leaving only 30,000 to produce food.31 But the figures masked another shift in patterns of work: as most of the men left the village, women had to work in the fields. Many had almost no experience in maintaining complex rice paddies, planting the seedlings unevenly and allowing weeds to invade the fields. In Yongren county a fifth of the crop rotted as a consequence.32
Up to a third of the time devoted to agriculture was lost,33 but Mao and his colleagues believed that innovations such as deep ploughing and close cropping amply compensated for this shortfall. On the other hand, in the ‘continuous revolution’ hailed by the leadership, farmers were deployed along military lines, moving from the industrial field in the slack season back to the agricultural front during the harvest. As Xie Fuzhi put it, ‘a continuous revolution means ceaselessly coming up with new tasks’.34 But even as all available sources of manpower were mobilised in the harvesting campaign, from office clerks, students and teachers, factory workers and city dwellers to the armed forces, the situation on the ground was chaotic. Many of the farming tools had been destroyed in the iron and steel campaign, labour was still diverted to building dams, and communal granaries in the people’s communes were poorly managed. In Liantan, the model commune where a slogan praising the Great Leap Forward had been chiselled in the mountains to welcome an inspection team, several thousand farmers were conscripted to deep-plough seven hectares during the autumn harvest; as nobody was available to collect the crop, some 500 tonnes of grain were abandoned in the fields.35
But deliveries of grain to the state had to be made according to yields that local cadres had officially declared. The actual grain output for 1958 was just over 200 million tonnes, but on the basis of all the claims made about bumper crops the leadership estimated that it was close to 410 million tonnes. Punitive extractions based on entirely fictitious figures could only create fear and anger in the villages. The stage was set for a war on the people in which requisitions would plunge the country into the worst famine recorded in human history. Tan Zhenlin was blunt, addressing some of the leaders of South China in October 1958: ‘You need to fight against the peasants . . . There is something ideologically wrong with you if you are afraid of coercion.’36