People died of hunger even before the people’s communes were introduced. As early as March 1958, at a party conference on grain, a number of delegates voiced their concern about food shortages as the farmers were taken from the fields to work on irrigation projects. Telltale signs of famine were gangs of people shuffling along dusty roads begging for food, leaving behind empty villages. Li Xiannian, minister of finance, swept these reservations aside and pressed ahead with grain targets.1
By the end of April hunger and want had spread across the country. In Guangxi one person in six was without food or money, and villagers died of hunger in parts of the province. In Shandong some 670,000 were starving, while 1.3 million were destitute in Anhui. In Hunan one in every ten farmers was out of grain for more than a month. Even in subtropical Guangdong close to a million people were hungry, the situation being particularly bad in Huiyang and Zhanjiang, where children were sold by starving villagers. In Hebei grain shortages were such that tens of thousands roamed the countryside in search of food; children were sold in Cangxian, Baoding and Handan. From the devastated villages 14,000 beggars made it to Tianjin, where they were put up in temporary shelters. In Gansu many villagers were reduced to eating tree bark; hundreds died of hunger.2
This was spring famine, and it could be explained as a temporary aberration, but in parts of the country hunger got worse over the summer. Such was the case in Luliang, Yunnan. We saw in an earlier chapter how as early as February 1958 forced labour on irrigation campaigns resulted in cases of starvation. But famine was not restricted to villagers conscripted to work on dams and reservoirs. In the township of Chahua, to take but one example, one in six villagers died between January and August 1958, amounting to a total of 1,610 people. Some were beaten to death, although most died of hunger and disease.3 The county boss Chen Shengnian had been brought in to replace a party official purged for having been soft on grain requisitions in 1957. Chen encouraged the use of violence to impose strict discipline. Two out of three cadres in Chahua routinely resorted to corporal punishment, depriving villagers who were too weak to work of the right to eat.4
The problem was not confined to Luliang alone. Throughout the Qujing region in Yunnan people died of hunger. In Luliang some 13,000 were reported to have perished: thousands were also starving in Lunan, Luoping, Fuyuan, Shizong and other counties.5 In Luxi county the local party committee inflated the crop as early as 1957, proclaiming that each farmer had some 300 kilos of grain a year when only half of that amount was available. After May 1958, starvation claimed some 12,000 lives, equivalent to one in every fourteen people. In some hamlets a fifth of all villagers were buried.6
How many died in the Qujing region is difficult to assess, but hidden in the archives is a set of population statistics which throw some light on the issue. They show that 82,000 people died in 1958, or 3.1 per cent of the population. The number of births declined dramatically, from 106,000 in 1957 to 59,000 in 1958. In the province as a whole, the death rate stood at 2.2 per cent, more than double the national average of 1 per cent for 1957.7 Xie Fuzhi, the party boss in Yunnan, thought long and hard about Luliang and finally decided to report the losses to Mao in November 1958. The Chairman liked the report. Here, it seemed, was somebody he could rely on to tell him the truth. A year later Xie was promoted to head the Ministry of Security in Beijing. As to the deaths, Mao considered them to be a ‘valuable lesson’.8
Another ‘lesson’ came from Xushui, a shrine of the Great Leap Forward where Mao had enjoined farmers to have five meals a day to get rid of the grain surplus. Behind the splendid façade of Xushui, Zhang Guozhong ran an elaborate labour camp which held 1.5 per cent of the local population, from recalcitrant farmers to party secretaries who failed to toe the line. Punishment inside the camp was brutal, ranging from flogging to naked exposure to the cold in the midst of winter. One hundred and twenty-four people died as a result; others were maimed or crippled for life. Outside the camp some 7,000 people were tied up, beaten, spat upon, paraded, forced to kneel or deprived of food, resulting in another 212 deaths.9 Li Jiangsheng, the apparently affable head of the Dasigezhuang Brigade who had welcomed Mao and many other visitors to his showcase village, regularly beat farmers, some being hung up to freeze to death during the winter.10 Despite all the violence, the crop yield was nowhere near what Zhang had promised. When Zhou Enlai passed through Hebei in December 1958, he was approached by a humbled Zhang, who confided that Xushui had produced only 3,750 kilos per hectare, a far cry from the fifteen tonnes he had boasted over the summer. Xushui, in effect, was starving. Zhou promised to help.11
Much, but not all, of this came to light in a report written in October 1958 by the Office of Confidential Affairs at Mao’s behest. Mao circulated the document to others in the central committee, writing at the bottom that ‘these kinds of problems may not be restricted to one commune alone’.12 But as Zhang Guozhong fell from grace, the Chairman embraced the county of Anguo, eighty kilometres south of Xushui, as a model instead. After listening to reports about farmers producing 2,300 kilos of grain a year each, he contemplated the output of Hebei province soaring from a mere 10 million tonnes in 1957 to 50 million by 1959.13 When Hebei boss Liu Zihou warned Mao that some of these figures might be inflated, the Chairman brushed off these concerns and airily stated that errors were inevitable.14
Mao received numerous reports about hunger, disease and abuse from every corner of the country, whether personal letters mailed by courageous individuals, unsolicited complaints from local cadres or investigations undertaken on his behalf by security personnel or private secretaries. Xushui and Luliang are two telling examples; others will be invoked elsewhere in this book, while many more remain buried in the Central Archives in Beijing, closed to all but a few researchers hand-picked by the party.
By the end of 1958 Mao did make a few gestures to appease concern about widespread abuse on the ground. In the comments he circulated about the Luliang report, he accepted that the living conditions of villagers had been neglected at the expense of increased output. But to him Luliang was merely a ‘lesson’ that somehow magically ‘immunised’ the rest of the country against similar mistakes. In the case of Xushui, Mao simply switched his allegiance to the next county down the road willing to outdo others in extravagant production claims. As we will see in Chapter 11, Mao did slow down the pace of the Great Leap Forward between November 1958 and June 1959, but he was unwavering in his pursuit of utopia. The Great Leap Forward was a military campaign fought for a communist paradise in which future plenty for all would largely compensate for the present suffering of a few. Every war had its casualties, some battles would inevitably be lost, and a few ferocious clashes might exact a tragic toll that could have been avoided with the benefit of hindsight, but the campaign had to press on. As foreign minister Chen Yi put it in November 1958, addressing some of the human tragedies on the ground, ‘casualties have indeed appeared among workers, but it is not enough to stop us in our tracks. This is a price we have to pay, it’s nothing to be afraid of. Who knows how many people have been sacrificed on the battlefields and in the prisons [for the revolutionary cause]? Now we have a few cases of illness and death: it’s nothing!’15 Other leaders ignored the famine altogether. In Sichuan, in the grip of a terrible hunger in the winter of 1958–9, radical leader Li Jingquan enthused about the communes, noting that some villagers in Sichuan ate more meat than Mao Zedong, gaining several kilos in weight: ‘Now what do you think of the communes? Is it a bad thing that people get fat?’16
For a party attuned to decades of guerrilla warfare, having survived the Long March after five campaigns of annihilation by the Guomindang in 1935, constant harassment from the Japanese army in the Second World War and a vicious civil war with massive casualties, a few losses were to be expected. Communism would not be achieved overnight. The year 1958 had been a blitzkrieg, an unremitting assault on several fronts at once. The generals in command recognised that the footsoldiers needed some rest: 1959 was to be spent conducting more conventional guerrilla warfare. This meant, in a nutshell, that none of the key decisions about the Great Leap Forward was reversed.
Economics dictated that the pressure should be kept up in the early months of 1959. While Mao was concerned about cooling off the frenzy with which collectivisation had been pushed through, he was never given any reason to doubt that there had been an upsurge in agricultural production. In a joint report that was sent to him, the top economic planners Li Xiannian, Li Fuchun and Bo Yibo confirmed that ‘when it comes to grain, cotton and edible oils, output has increased hugely compared to last year as a result of a Great Leap Forward in agricultural production, and we only need to carry out our work and earnestly resolve any problems that may arise in order to get ahead’.17
According to the planners, the biggest problem was that the countryside was not sending enough food to the cities. The amount of grain procured for the urban population, which had swollen to some 110 million people, had increased by a quarter in the second half of 1958, reaching a total of 15 million tonnes.18 But it was not enough. In December Peng Zhen, the bald and vigorous mayor of Beijing, rang the alarm bell, followed by central planner Li Fuchun. Nanning and Wuhan, he noted, had no more than a few weeks of reserves, while Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and the province of Liaoning had procured barely enough to last for another two months. At least 725,000 tonnes should have been stored in December, but a mere quarter of that amount had actually been delivered, with large shortages from provinces such as Hubei and Shanxi. All three cities, as well as Liaoning, were placed under special protection, and provinces that declared a surplus – Sichuan, Henan, Anhui, Shandong and Gansu – were required to transfer an extra total of 415,000 tonnes. Insufficient grain was not the only problem, as many cities did not get enough meat to last for more than a day or two, with provinces such as Gansu and Hunan remitting a mere fraction of the hogs required. Vegetables, fish and sugar were also tight.19
Not only were cities given a privileged status, but exports were granted top priority too. As we shall see next, China spent vast amounts of money buying foreign equipment in 1958. Then, in the euphoria of the autumn harvest, more orders were placed for 1959. As the bills were coming in, the reputation of the country hinged on its ability to meet foreign commitments. From the end of 1958 onwards, Zhou Enlai, with the support of his colleagues and the backing of the Chairman, relentlessly pressed the countryside into fulfilling ever greater procurements for the export market. To ensure that the cities were fed and foreign contracts were honoured, no retreat on the ground was possible.