Mao had nudged, cajoled and bullied his colleagues into the Great Leap Forward, launching the country into a race to catch up with more developed countries through breakneck industrialisation and collectivisation of the countryside. Leaders who had been wary about the pace of economic development had been publicly degraded and humiliated, while on the ground those critical of the Leap had been swept away in a swirl of terror. Then, as the frenzy to come up with higher yields snowballed out of control and evidence about the damage on the ground accumulated, Mao turned around and started blaming everybody else for the disruptions that his campaign had created. A shrewd politician with an instinct for self-preservation honed by decades of political purges, he not only deflected the responsibility for the chaos on to the local party officials as well as his close colleagues, but also managed to portray himself as the benign leader concerned about the welfare of his subjects. During the process, which lasted from November 1958 to June 1959, the pressure temporarily abated, although the reprieve would turn out to be short-lived.
Misinformation proliferated in the political order entrenched by Mao. The Chairman was no fool, understanding all too well that the one-party system he had contributed to building could generate false reports and inflated statistics. In all communist regimes elaborate monitoring mechanisms existed to sidestep the official bureaucracy. Supreme leaders in particular had every interest in finding out about the problems which lower party officials preferred to keep to themselves, as failure to stay in touch could lead to a coup. Control organs supervised the formal workings of government bodies and party leaders, carrying out checks on finance, appointments, procedures and reporting. The state security, besides its usual tasks of preventing crime, running prisons and keeping the country safe, regularly surveyed popular opinion and gauged the extent of social discontent. In that capacity the minister of the Public Security Bureau was vital to Mao, and it is not surprising that he appointed Xie Fuzhi to the job in 1959: here, after all, was a leader who could be relied upon to tell the Chairman the truth. At all levels of the party machinery, confidential reports were regularly issued on a whole range of topics, although of course these too could be biased. These, in turn, could be bypassed by sending trusted officials on fact-finding missions. This is what Mao did in October 1958, also taking to the road himself to tackle the problems of the people’s communes directly with leading cadres in the provinces. As evidence about statistical inflation mounted, he became increasingly worried. In Wuchang, confronted with a critical report in which his close ally Wang Renzhong showed that his province could produce 11 million tonnes of grain at most, instead of a projected 30 million tonnes, his confidence was dealt a blow and he became dejected.1
A lifeline was provided by Zhao Ziyang, the secretary of Guangdong province. In a report to his boss Tao Zhu, he revealed in January 1959 that many of the communes had hidden grain and hoarded cash. In a single county some 35,000 tonnes were uncovered.2 Following up this clue, Zhao launched an anti-hiding campaign which turned up over a million tonnes of grain.3 Tao Zhu praised the report and sent it to Mao.4 Then came news from Anhui, under the leadership of radical Zeng Xisheng: ‘The issue of so-called grain shortages in the countryside has nothing to do with lack of grain, nor is it linked to excessive state procurements: it is an ideological problem, in particular among local cadres.’ The report went on to explain that team leaders on the ground had four apprehensions: namely, that the communes would not provide them with sufficient grain, that other teams might purposely fail to pull their weight and hide a part of the harvest, that excess grain might be confiscated in the case of a spring famine, and that heavier quotas would follow if they fully declared their true grain output.5 Mao immediately circulated these reports, commenting that ‘The problem of brigade leaders who hide grain and secretly divide it up is very serious. It worries the people and has an effect on the communist morality of local cadres, the spring crop, the enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward in 1959 and the consolidation of the people’s communes. The problem is widespread throughout the country and must be solved at once!’6
Mao took on the pose of a benevolent sage-king protective of the welfare of his subjects. The wind of communism had blown over the countryside, he explained. As overzealous cadres had taken collectivisation too far, randomly appropriating assets and labour in the name of the people’s communes, the villagers had started to hide the grain. In March 1959 Mao even spoke with admiration for the strategies that the farmers adopted in evading grain procurements, threatening that he might join them if the party did not change its ways.7 ‘I now support conservatism. I stand on the side of right deviation. I am against egalitarianism and left adventurism. I now represent 500 million peasants and 10 million local cadres. It is essential to be right opportunists, we must persist with right opportunism. If you don’t all join me in going to the right, then I will be a rightist on my own, and alone will face expulsion from the party!’8 Only Mao could have used the label ‘rightist’, which would have spelled political death for anybody else, so flippantly, as he postured as the lonely hero daring to speak truth to power. As to the local cadres whom he blamed for the excesses, 5 per cent should be purged. ‘No need to shoot every one of them.’9 A few months later Mao quietly increased the quota to 10 per cent.10
Mao also took his colleagues to task. The emperor, it seemed, had been misled by his close advisers: there was a bumper crop, but nothing like the fantastic claims made earlier in the campaign. Mao confronted the party bosses, repeatedly pouring scorn on outlandish predictions and demanding that projections for economic output be scaled back to more realistic levels. When a cautious Bo Yibo failed to cut back on industrial projects in March 1959, Mao was full of disdain. ‘What kind of people are running our industry: the spoilt sons of a rich family! What we need in industry right now is a Qin emperor type. You people in industry are too soft, always talking about justice and virtue, so much so that as a result you accomplish nothing.’11
Particular blame was reserved for the close cronies who had so faithfully implemented his wishes. In front of the assembled leaders in Shanghai in April, Mao recollected: ‘When I convened a small meeting at the Beidaihe conference in August nobody objected when we discussed the targets for 1959. At the time I was mainly busy with the shelling of Quemoy. The question of the people’s communes was not really mine, it was Tan Zhenlin who was in charge – I just wrote a few lines.’ About the resolution taken on the people’s communes he had the following thoughts: ‘That was somebody else’s idea, not mine. I had a look at it but I didn’t understand it, I just had a faint impression that communes are good.’ Contributing to inflated targets were incomprehensible documents: ‘We should forbid all these incomprehensible documents from leaving the room. You are university students, professors, great Confucian minds, I am merely an ordinary student, so you should write in plain language.’ And in case anybody had any doubts about his leadership, he warned his colleagues: ‘Some comrades still have not acknowledged that I am the leader . . . Many people hate me, in particular [defence minister] Peng Dehuai, he hates me to death . . . My policy with Peng Dehuai is as follows: if you don’t attack me, I won’t attack you, but if you attack me I for sure will attack you.’ Then Mao launched into a rambling tirade in which every party leader who had disagreed with him in the past was mentioned by name, including Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, Zhu De, Lin Biao, Peng Dehuai, Liu Bocheng, Chen Yi, even Ren Bishi, who had long since passed away. Every leader present was named, with the exception of Deng Xiaoping.12 The point of the outburst was to show that Mao had been right all along, while those who had opposed him at one point or another in the party’s past had all been wrong. Standing on the side of history, Mao was accountable to no one.
And no one was left in any doubt about the overall correctness of his line and the primacy of success. Mao never missed a chance to laud the Great Leap Forward: ‘No matter how many problems we have, in the final analysis it does not amount to more than one finger out of ten.’13 To mistake a tenth for the whole was an error. Even to think that a campaign of such a momentous nature could have been launched without making a single mistake was an error. To doubt the Great Leap Forward was an error, and to stand by and watch from a critical distance was an error.14 Mao could not be swayed from his overall strategy.
In the first half of 1959 close cropping and deep ploughing continued unabated, irrigation schemes proceeded apace and collectivisation went ahead. In a moment of retrenchment following an all-out drive to collectivise the countryside, Stalin had allowed farmers to leave the collective farms after he published an article entitled ‘Dizzy with Success’ in 1930. Unlike his former patron, Mao did very little about the people’s communes. He merely indicated that the brigade should be the basic accounting unit rather than the commune. Historians have interpreted this period as one of ‘retreat’ or ‘cooling off’, but this was simply not the case. Deng Xiaoping made this clear to the lieutenants on the battlefield in February 1959: ‘We need to warm up, not cool down.’15
Requisitions from the countryside to feed the cities and satisfy foreign clients were drastically increased precisely during this period. In the top-secret minutes distributed only to participants of a meeting held in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai on 25 March, Mao ordered that a third of all grain be procured, far above previous rates: ‘If you don’t go above a third, people won’t rebel.’ Regions that failed to fulfil their procurement quotas should be reported: ‘This is not ruthless, it’s realistic.’ The country had a bumper harvest, and cadres should study the example of Henan in raising procurements: ‘he who strikes first prevails, he who strikes last fails’. Mao made an extra 16,000 lorries available to carry out the task. As to meat, he praised the decision taken by Hebei and Shandong to ban the consumption in the countryside for a period of three months: ‘this is good, why can the whole country not do the same?’ Edible oils should be extracted to the maximum. He brushed aside an interjection by a colleague suggesting that the state should guarantee eight metres of cloth per person a year: ‘Who has ordered that?’ And as we saw in the last chapter, Mao also reversed the priority given to the local market. Exports trumped local needs and had to be guaranteed: ‘we should eat less’. A firm (zhuajin) and ruthless (zhuahen) approach was warranted in times of war when confronting practical problems. ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’16
Mao’s word was the law. But what was the meaning of some of his more obscure pronouncements, for instance ‘he who strikes first prevails, he who strikes last fails’? Tan Zhenlin, put in charge of agriculture by the party’s secretariat, clarified this in June 1959 in a telephone conference on procurements. He explained that the grain should be taken before the farmers could eat it: speed was of the essence, as each side tried to get to the crop first. ‘But this saying of “he who strikes first prevails” should be used only by county and regional party secretaries; if it were used below that level it could easily lead to misunderstandings.’17 Wang Renzhong, the man who had told Mao how cadres had inflated the crop figures, had the following recommendation: ‘We will try peaceful means before we resort to force. If they still fail to comply with the state’s unified planning, then we will apply the necessary measures, from a formal warning to dismissal or even removal from the party.’18
Signs of famine had appeared in 1958. In the first half of 1959 starvation became widespread, as villagers were hit by increased procurements ordered by the state. Even a zealot like Tan Zhenlin estimated that as early as January some 5 million people were suffering from famine oedema, 70,000 having starved to death. Zhou Enlai put the latter figure at 120,000. Both men were far below the mark, but had little incentive to investigate further.19 Mao was aware of the famine but downplayed it by circulating reports showing that villagers in distressed regions were getting enough food, up to half a kilo a day in model province Henan.20 On the ground local cadres were unsure how to respond, bewildered by the shifting and contradictory signals emerging from Beijing. At the top the leadership was taken aback by Mao’s outburst in Shanghai: it was an omen of things to come.