A vast mountain range runs across the north of Jiangxi province with summits and craggy peaks rising 1,500 metres above sea level. Mount Lushan itself is an area of sedimentary rocks and limestone out of which gullies, gorges, caves and rock formations have been carved by water and wind, giving it a wild and rugged character much admired by visitors. Forests of fir, pine, camphor and cypress, clinging to cliffs and crevices, compete with waterfalls for attention, while temples and pagodas offer views as far as the sand dunes on the shores of the Boyang Lake down in the Yangzi valley. A temperate climate gives much-needed respite during the stifling heat of summer. Before the revolution Europeans also trekked to the region during the winter months to toboggan and ski. An English missionary first bought the Guling valley in 1895, and over the following decades several hundred bungalows, built of soft granite hauled up from the valley, turned Lushan into a sanatorium and summer residence for foreigners. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the ruling Guomindang, acquired an attractive villa where he and his wife spent many summers in the 1930s. Mao reserved the place for himself, making sure that the name of Meilu Villa, carved into a stone by the Generalissimo himself, was preserved.
The Chairman opened the Lushan meeting on 2 July 1959. Party leaders referred to the gathering as a ‘meeting of immortals’. Immortals lived far above mere humans, seated on the clouds of heaven, playfully gliding through the mist, unencumbered by earthly restraints. Mao wanted his colleagues to feel free to talk about any topic they wanted, and he had in mind eighteen initial points for discussion. But he had overheard critical comments made by defence minister Peng Dehuai that very day and added a nineteenth point to his agenda: party unity.1 He set the tone by praising the achievements of the Great Leap Forward and lauding the enthusiasm and energy of the Chinese people.
One way for Mao to find out what party leaders thought about the Leap was to have them discuss problems in small groups divided geographically: each reviewed issues specific to their own regional area for a week, while the Chairman retained overall oversight by being the only one to be given a daily report about each group’s meetings. Despite his suspicion that Peng Dehuai might be up to something, Mao seemed at first in good spirits, full of plans to visit the rock caves, Buddhist temples and many Confucian landmarks for which Lushan was so famous. The local leadership also organised evening entertainment with music and dance troupes performing in a former Catholic church, which was invariably followed by dancing parties at which Mao found himself surrounded by several young nurses. Mao would entertain them in his room, tightly protected by special security.2
Mao did not intervene, but was briefed by the reports submitted by reliable provincial bosses on how each group approached the question of the Great Leap Forward. Many of the conference participants believed that the Lushan gathering would push further for economic reform, as problems with the Great Leap Forward had already been discussed at previous meetings and some measures had been taken to tackle a situation sliding out of control. As the days went by, the absence of any intervention by the Chairman and the intimacy of a small group setting lured some leaders into talking more and more openly about starvation, bogus production figures and cadre abuses in the countryside. Peng Dehuai, assigned to the north-west group, was outspoken, on several occasions blaming Mao for the direction of the Great Leap Forward: ‘We all have a share of responsibility, including Mao Zedong. The steel target of 10.7 million tonnes was set by Chairman Mao, so how could he escape responsibility?’3 But silence from the Chairman was not approval, and Mao was becoming increasingly upset as the limits within which he thought discussion would take place were being ignored and some leaders started focusing not only on the failures of collectivisation but also on his personal role in them.
Mao spoke again on 10 July, convening a meeting of the regional leaders and arguing that the achievements of the past year far exceeded the failures. He used the metaphor consecrated at the Nanning meeting in January 1958: ‘Doesn’t everybody have ten fingers? We can count nine of those fingers as achievements, and only one as a failure.’ The party could resolve its problems, but only through unity and shared ideology. The general line, he said, was completely correct. Liu Shaoqi chimed in by explaining that the few problems that had appeared were the result of a lack of experience: was there not always a tuition fee to be paid for valuable lessons? Zhou Enlai added that the party was quick in discovering problems and expert in solving them. The Chairman concluded: ‘The situation in general is excellent. There are many problems, but our future is bright!’4
Silence followed Mao’s speech. But not everybody was willing to fall in line. Defence minister Peng Dehuai was well known for being stubborn. When Peng had gone back to his home in Xiangtan, Hunan, the same region where Mao had grown up, he found abuse and suffering everywhere, from farmers forced to practise close cropping to cadres tearing down houses in the iron and steel campaign. Visiting a retirement home and a kindergarten, he saw nothing but misery, the children in rags and the elderly crouched on bamboo mats in the freezing winter. Even after his visit he continued receiving letters from his home town about widespread starvation.5 Peng felt strongly about what he had witnessed in the countryside, and had high hopes of addressing the failures of the Great Leap in Lushan. He now feared that the meeting would turn into a mere formality in which out of deference to Mao the subject of the famine would be skirted.6 None of the leaders, he believed, had the courage to speak out: Liu Shaoqi had just become head of state, Zhou Enlai and Chen Yun had been silenced a year earlier, Zhu De had few critical ideas, Marshal Lin Biao was in poor health and had a limited understanding of the problems, while Deng Xiaoping was reluctant to voice any criticism.7 He decided to write to Mao instead, dropping off a long letter at his lodging as the Chairman was asleep on 14 July.
With the body of a bull and the face of a bulldog, a stout man with a shaven head, Peng Dehuai was known for being a leader who did not hesitate to speak his mind openly to Mao.8 Mao and Peng went back to the early days of guerrilla fighting in Jinggangshan, but had clashed on several occasions, notably during the Korean War when an incensed Peng had stormed past a guard into Mao’s bedroom to confront the Chairman about military strategy. The Chairman disliked the old marshal intensely.
Peng’s letter of opinion started like a memorial: ‘I am a simple man and indeed I am crude and lack tact. For this reason, whether this letter is of value or not is for you to decide. Please correct me wherever I am wrong.’ Peng was careful to give due praise to the accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward, as agricultural and industrial production had soared while the backyard furnaces had brought new technical skills to the peasants. Peng even predicted that Britain would be overtaken in a mere four years. Whatever problems had appeared, he wrote, were due to a poor understanding of the Chairman’s ideas. In the second part of his letter Peng insisted that the party could learn from the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward: these included considerable waste of natural resources and manpower, inflated production claims and leftist tendencies.
His letter was balanced and prudent, all the more so in light of what was to come in the following days, yet it managed to incense Mao. Peng’s mention of ‘petty-bourgeois fanaticism leading to leftist errors’ had touched a raw nerve in the Chairman. Just as offensive was an ironic statement according to which ‘dealing with economic construction does not come quite as easily as bombing Quemoy or dealing with Tibet’.9
According to his doctor, Mao did not sleep all night. Two days later he called a politburo standing committee in his villa, receiving the leaders in a bathrobe and slippers.10 Rightists elements outside the party had attacked the Great Leap Forward, Mao explained, and now people from within the ranks were undermining the movement as well, claiming that it had done more harm than good. Peng Dehuai was one such person, and his letter was to be distributed to all 150 participants at the Lushan meeting for discussion in small groups. He then asked Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai to call in reinforcements from Beijing: Peng Zhen, Chen Yi, Huang Kecheng and others were to join the meeting as soon as possible.11
Most senior cadres by now understood how serious the situation had become and spoke out against Peng. Zhang Zhongliang, the Gansu leader, claimed that the successes in his province illustrated the wisdom of the Great Leap Forward. Tao Zhu, Wang Renzhong and Chen Zhengren, all of whom had a stake in the Leap, also agreed.12 But several did not. Huang Kecheng, army chief of staff, arriving the following day from Beijing, unexpectedly spoke in favour of Peng Dehuai. As Huang would admit in the weeks to come, he had been unable to sleep because of the scale of starvation in the countryside.13Tan Zhenlin, who could always be counted on, exploded: ‘Have you eaten dog meat [meaning, are you hot in the head]? Are you suffering from fever? All this nonsense! You should know that we asked you to come to Lushan to help us out.’14 Others wavered too. Zhou Xiaozhou, the first party secretary of Hunan province, praised the letter, although he agreed that it contained a few barbs. The turning point was a bombshell dropped by Zhang Wentian in a stunning attack on Mao and the Great Leap Forward on 21 July.
Zhang Wentian had defied Mao’s leadership in the early 1930s as a member of the opposing faction, but later rallied to the Chairman’s cause. As vice-minister of foreign affairs he carried considerable weight, and Mao could only see his support of Peng as an alliance between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.15 Zhang spoke for several hours on 21 July, despite frequent heckling from Mao’s supporters. Contrary to established party rituals, he brushed aside the achievements in a short opening paragraph and stormed straight into a close examination of the problems caused by the Great Leap Forward. Targets were far too high, claims about the crop were bogus, and as a consequence people were dying of hunger. The cost of the backyard furnaces was 5 billion yuan, to say nothing of a crop lost because peasants were too busy smelting iron to collect the harvest from the fields. Zhang denounced slogans such as ‘Let All the People Smelt Steel’ as absurd. Stoppages in production were frequent. Foreigners complained about the low quality of products made in China, damaging the country’s reputation. Most of all, the Great Leap Forward had made no difference in the countryside: ‘Our country is “poor and blank”, and the socialist system gives us the conditions to change this rapidly, but we are still “poor and blank”.’ Mao encouraged leaders to pull the emperor off his horse, Zhang conceded, yet nobody dared to speak out for fear of losing his head. In conclusion, he inverted Mao’s metaphor of ten fingers: ‘The shortcomings outweigh the achievements by a factor of nine to one.’16
Mao must have wondered whether this was a concerted attack on his leadership. Peng Dehuai commanded the army, Zhou Xiaozhou headed a province, Zhang Wentian was in foreign affairs. Could there be more opponents hiding in the background? Peng had been assigned to the north-west group on account of his experience of Gansu province, which he had toured in the previous months, and both Peng and Zhang repeatedly discussed the problems that had appeared in that part of the country.17 As the Lushan meeting was unfolding, a coup took place in Gansu province. After Zhang Zhongliang, the man in charge of Gansu, had left Lanzhou to attend the Lushan meeting, the provincial party committee was swayed by his rival Huo Weide. On 15 July they sent an urgent letter to the centre announcing that thousands had died of hunger and that over 1.5 million farmers were suffering from a famine raging across half a dozen counties. The chief responsible for this famine was Zhang Zhongliang, who as leader of the province had ratified inflated crop figures, increased state procurements, condoned cadre abuses on the ground and failed to act when starvation had appeared in April 1959. Before Mao’s own eyes, in the middle of the Lushan meeting, one of his most zealous followers was thus being undermined by a provincial party committee.18
More bad news reached Mao. In April Peng Dehuai had visited Eastern Europe on a goodwill tour, briefly meeting with Khrushchev in Albania. Shortly after his return, during a debriefing session with Mao, Peng Dehuai uttered a clumsy remark which made the Chairman’s face turn red: several dozen leaders close to Tito, he observed, had fled to Albania. Tito was the ruthless leader of Yugoslavia who had dared to oppose Stalin, alienating some of his close supporters. Mao must have interpreted the comment as a veiled criticism of his own rule.19 A few weeks later, on 20 June, the Soviet leadership reneged on its agreement to help China develop nuclear weapons.
Then on 18 July Khrushchev publicly condemned the communes while visiting the Polish town of Pozna. He accused those who had pressed for communes in Russia in the 1920s of having a poor understanding of what communism was and how it should be built. The initial release of his speech on Polish radio did not mention the communes, but a few days later a full version was printed in Pravda, which to close observers could only look like a carefully planned attack on Mao. A translation in Chinese appeared a few days later in a newsletter reserved for the Beijing leadership,20 but already on 19 July Mao circulated a report compiled by the embassy in Moscow showing how some Soviet cadres openly discussed the fact that people were dying of hunger in China as a result of the Great Leap Forward.21Could there be collusion between enemies within the party and revisionists abroad? Was it a coincidence that Khrushchev made his speech precisely when both Peng Dehuai and Zhang Wentian were attacking the Great Leap Forward?
Ke Qingshi, the party boss in Shanghai, was so incensed by Zhang Wentian’s talk that he approached Mao and urged him to take on his enemies then and there. Li Jingquan also spoke with Mao. Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai conferred with the Chairman on the evening of 22 July, although the details of what was said that evening are not known.22 In a rather disingenuous but clever way that implicated Liu Shaoqi, Mao would claim a few weeks later that he had been puzzled by requests for greater freedom of speech by some comrades: Liu was the one who had pointed out to him that these were not isolated voices but a faction fighting the party line.23
On 23 July Mao gave a long and rambling speech lasting three hours in which obscure metaphors were mixed with blunt threats aimed at frightening his opponents. He opened his speech thus: ‘You have spoken at great length, so how about you allow me to say a few words – what do you think?’ He then rebutted Peng Dehuai’s letter, reviewed all the attacks on the party since its foundation and cautioned leaders not to waver in a moment of crisis – some comrades were a mere thirty kilometres away from being rightists. He repeated the threat he had made at a party meeting three months earlier: ‘If you don’t attack me, I won’t attack you, but if you attack me I for sure will attack you.’ If every little problem in every brigade was to be reported in the People’s Daily at the expense of any other news, he said, it would take at least a year to appear in print. And what would be the result? The country would collapse, the leadership would be overthrown. ‘If we deserve to perish, I will go to the countryside to lead the peasants and overthrow the government. If the People’s Liberation Army won’t follow me, I will then go to find a Red Army. But I think that the Liberation Army will follow me.’ Mao admitted overall responsibility for the Great Leap Forward, but he also implicated a string of colleagues, from Ke Qingshi, the Shanghai boss who had first proposed a steel campaign, Li Fuchun who was in charge of overall planning, Tan Zhenlin and Lu Liaoyan who together oversaw agriculture, to the provincial leaders he labelled leftist, whether the province be Yunnan, Henan, Sichuan or Hubei. Mao delivered an ultimatum: leaders would have to choose between Peng and himself, and the wrong choice would bring about enormous political consequences for the party.24
His audience was shell-shocked. As Mao walked out with his doctor, he bumped into Peng Dehuai. ‘Minister Peng, let’s have a talk,’ Mao suggested.
Peng Dehuai was livid. ‘There’s nothing to talk about. No more talk,’ he answered, cutting through the air by bringing down his right hand in a chopping motion.25
On 2 August, Mao opened the plenum of the central committee in a short but fierce speech which set the tone for the following two weeks. ‘When we first arrived in Lushan there was something in the air, as some people said that there was no freedom to speak openly, there was pressure. At the time I did not quite understand what this was all about. I could not make head or tail of it and did not see why they said there was not enough freedom. Indeed, the first two weeks felt like a meeting of immortals and there was no tension. Only later did it become tense, as some people wanted freedom of speech. Tension appeared because they wanted the freedom to criticise the general line, freedom to destroy the general line. They criticised what we did last year, and they criticised this year’s work, saying that everything we did last year was bad, fundamentally bad . . . What problems do we have now? Today, the only problem is the rightist opportunists launching a furious attack on the party, the people and the great and dynamic socialist enterprise.’ Mao warned his colleagues that there was a stark choice to be made. ‘You either want unity or you want to split the party.’26
The following week small working groups were charged with grilling Peng Dehuai, Zhang Wentian, Huang Kecheng, Zhou Xiaozhou and others on every detail of their plot against the party. In a series of tense confrontations and cross-examinations, the ‘anti-party clique’ had to subject themselves to ever more detailed self-criticisms in which every aspect of their pasts, their meetings and their talks was scrutinised. Allegations about famine had cast a shadow over provincial bosses such as Li Jingquan, Zeng Xisheng, Wang Renzhong and Zhang Zhongliang, and they needed no encouragement to attack the men who had undermined their credibility. Lin Biao proved just as ferocious. A gaunt, balding general who had destroyed the best Guomindang divisions in Manchuria in the civil war, Lin had been quietly promoted by Mao to one of the vice-chairmanships of the party a few months earlier. Suffering from all sorts of phobias about water, wind and cold, he often called in sick, living a mole-like existence, but at Lushan he rallied to the Chairman’s defence, accusing Peng Dehuai of being overly ‘ambitious, conspiratorial and hypocritical’. In his shrill voice he crowed that ‘Only Mao is a great hero, a role to which no one else should dare to aspire. We all lag very far behind him, so don’t even think about it!’27
Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai also had their parts to play. Both had a lot to lose, and either one could be blamed for what had gone wrong in the country if Mao decided to retreat. Liu Shaoqi had enthusiastically backed the Great Leap Forward and been rewarded for his loyalty with a promotion to head of state in April. He also viewed himself as the potential inheritor of the party’s leadership and had no desire to rock the boat. After Mao’s outburst Liu became so nervous that he increased his use of sleeping tablets. At one point he overdosed and collapsed in the toilet.28 But he pulled himself together, and on 17 August, the last day of the meeting, he gave a display of fawning flattery, extolling Mao’s many qualities.29
Zhou Enlai, as premier, had been involved in the day-to-day running of the country and would have had to account for the disastrous turn of events if Peng Dehuai had had his way. He also had personal reasons to feel threatened by the old marshal. Huang Kecheng, during one of the grilling sessions, revealed that years earlier Peng had described Zhou as a weak politician who should step down from all important posts.30 But most of all Zhou backed Mao because he had made a decision long ago never to cross the Chairman: loyalty to Mao, as he had discovered over decades of fierce political infighting, was the key to staying in power. His position had already been weakened after Mao’s withering attack on him at Nanning over a year ago and he had no desire to incur the Chairman’s wrath again. Mao was thus the centre of an uneasy coalition of leaders who felt threatened by Peng Dehuai. Without their support the Chairman might not have prevailed.
As the meetings progressed and the criticisms escalated, the men who had spoken out against Mao were gradually broken down until full confessions were obtained. Peng admitted that his letter and the comments he had made in the early sessions were not isolated incidents, but ‘anti-party, anti-people, anti-socialist mistakes of a rightist opportunist nature’.31
Mao spoke again on 11 August, singling out Peng Dehuai: ‘You said that at the North China meeting I fucked your mother for forty days, and here at Lushan you only fucked my mother for twenty days, so I still owe you twenty days. Now we indulge your desire, and I even added five days on top of the forty we have had so far so that you can insult us as much as you want, otherwise we would owe you.’ In the more standard jargon of socialism, Mao claimed that Peng and his supporters were ‘bourgeois democrats’ who had little in common with the proletarian socialist revolution, thereby stripping them of their positions and casting them into the ranks of the bourgeoisie.32
At the closing meeting of the conference five days later a resolution was adopted in which Mao’s opponents were found guilty of having conspired against party, state and people.33 The next few months would unleash a nationwide witch-hunt against ‘rightist’ elements.