Faced with a bankrupt economy, Zhou Enlai, Li Fuchun and Li Xiannian, the triumvirate in charge of foreign trade, began in August 1960 to move the trade structure away from the Soviet Union towards the West. In the following months Zhou Enlai and Chen Yun managed to convince Mao that imports of grain were needed to get the economy back on its feet after the agricultural losses attributed to natural disasters. The party planners also started quietly masterminding a turnaround by tinkering, ever so prudently, with policy guidelines. Li Fuchun initiated work on a new motto that emphasised ‘adjustment’ instead of great leaps forward in August 1960. In a one-party state where government by slogan held sway, the very notion of adjustment would have been unthinkable only six months earlier. Zhou Enlai warily added the term ‘consolidation’ to make it more palatable to Mao.1 Li Fuchun would have to navigate carefully to get the new mantra past a mercurial Chairman.
Then, on 21 October 1960, a report from the Ministry of Supervision landed on Li Fuchun’s desk. It was about mass starvation in Xinyang, a region in Wu Zhipu’s model province of Henan. Where an earlier investigation had mentioned 18,000 deaths in the county of Zhengyang alone, now the figure had quadrupled to 80,000 deaths. In Suiping, the seat of the hallowed Chayashan commune, one in ten villagers had starved to death.2
When Li Fuchun handed over the report to Mao Zedong three days later, the Chairman was visibly shaken: here were counter-revolutionaries who had seized control of an entire region, carrying out horrific acts of revenge against class enemies. After an urgent meeting with Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, a team was dispatched under the leadership of Li Xiannian, who was joined en route by Tao Zhu and Wang Renzhong.
In Xinyang they found a nightmare. In Guangshan county, ground zero of the famine, they were met by quiet sobs of despair from famished survivors, huddled in the bitter cold among the rubble of their destroyed homes, surrounded by barren fields marked by graves. The hearths were stone cold, as everything from doors, windows and lintels to the straw roofs had been ripped out for fuel. The food was gone. In a reign of terror after the Lushan plenum, the local militias had rampaged through the villages searching for hidden grain, confiscating everything to make up for the shortfall in output. In a hamlet once humming with activity, two children with drumstick limbs and skeletal heads, lying by their cadaverous grandmother, were the only survivors.3 One in four people in a local population of half a million had perished in Guangshan.4 Mass graves were dug. Ten infants, still breathing, had been thrown into the frozen ground in Chengguan.5 In total in 1960 over a million people died in the Xinyang region. Of these victims 67,000 were clubbed to death with sticks.6 Li Xiannian cried: ‘The defeat of the Western Route Army was so cruel yet I did not shed a tear, but after seeing such horror in Guangshan even I am unable to control myself.’7
‘Bad people have seized power, causing beatings, deaths, grain shortages and hunger. The democratic revolution has not been completed, as feudal forces, full of hatred towards socialism, are stirring up trouble, sabotaging socialist productive forces’: Mao could no longer deny the extent of the disaster, but as a paranoid leader who saw the world in terms of plots and conspiracies, he blamed the trouble on class enemies.8 Rich farmers and counter-revolutionary elements had taken advantage of the anti-rightist campaign to worm their way back into power and carry out acts of class revenge. At no point did the Chairman acknowledge that the regime of terror he modelled at the top was being mirrored at every level down the party hierarchy.
Mao ordered power to be taken back. Across the country a campaign unfolded to root out ‘class enemies’, often backed by powerful delegations sent by Beijing. Li Xiannian and Wang Renzhong supervised a purge in Henan in which county leaders were overthrown and thousands of cadres investigated, some arrested on the spot.9 A general with a forty-man team was dispatched by Beijing to clean up the militia.10 In Gansu a delegation sent by the Ministry of Inspection led by Qian Ying oversaw a major purge, which resulted in the downgrading of Zhang Zhongliang to third secretary of the provincial party committee. Other regions followed, as one urgent order after another pressed for an overthrow of ‘abusive cadres’ in the people’s communes. On 3 November 1960 an emergency directive was finally issued allowing villagers to keep private plots, engage in side occupations, rest for eight hours a day and restore local markets, among other measures designed to weaken the power of the communes over villagers.11
It was the beginning of the end of mass starvation. Sensing a change in the wind, Li Fuchun pushed through his policy of economic adjustment for the year 1961.12 He had been the first planner to back Mao in the launch of the Great Leap Forward. Now he was the first one to backtrack, prudently steering a policy of economic revival past the Chairman.
At this stage Liu Shaoqi was still looking from the sidelines. He shared the Chairman’s view that the countryside had become a breeding ground for counter-revolution. Like other leaders, he had preferred to ignore what happened on the ground after the confrontation at Lushan, and instead devoted much of his energy to stridently denouncing the revisionist path taken by the Soviet Union. He was not oblivious to the famine. Malnourishment was evident even inside the vermilion walls of Zhongnanhai, the compound which served as the headquarters of the party in Beijing. Meat, eggs and cooking oil were scarce, and famine oedema and hepatitis were endemic.13 But it was politically safer to interpret the signs of starvation as the result of environmental disasters. On 20 January 1961, Liu Shaoqi harangued an audience from Gansu about the dangers of feudalism, which had led to the calamity witnessed in Xinyang: ‘This is a revolution: the key is in mobilising the masses. We should mobilise the masses and allow them to free themselves.’14
Only days before, Mao had voiced his surprise at the extent of the bourgeois backlash in the countryside: ‘Who would have thought that the countryside harboured so many counter-revolutionaries? We did not expect that the counter-revolution would usurp power at the village level and carry out cruel acts of class revenge.’15 Instead of relying on the reports from the grass-roots which, Mao claimed, had obviously misled the leadership, the Chairman decided to dispatch several high-powered teams to investigate the countryside. Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Peng Zhen were all sent off to visit communes around Beijing. Mao himself spent several weeks in Hunan. In the hope that farmers would speak to him without inhibition, Liu Shaoqi headed back to his home in Huaminglou, Hunan. It would be a revelatory experience with far-reaching repercussions.
Determined to avoid the large retinue of bodyguards and local officials that inevitably came with every visit from a top dignitary, Liu set off on 2 April 1961 from Changsha, travelling in two jeeps in the company of his wife and a few close assistants, bowl and chopsticks tucked away in light luggage, ready for a spartan regime in the countryside. Soon the convoy came across a sign announcing a giant pig farm. On closer inspection, it turned out that the farm consisted of no more than a dozen scrawny hogs foraging in the mud. Liu decided to spend the night in the fodder store, and his escorts combed the place in vain for some rice straw to soften the plank beds. Liu noted that even the dried human excrement piled up for fertiliser consisted of nothing but rough fibre, another telltale sign of widespread want. Nearby a few children in rags were digging for wild herbs.16
Liu Shaoqi’s fears were confirmed over the following weeks, however difficult it was to get wary farmers to tell the truth. In one village where he stopped on his way home, he found that the number of deaths had been covered up by local leaders, while an official report drew a picture of everyday life which had nothing to do with the destitution Liu saw on the ground. He clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer the team away from speaking with villagers. He tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959: Duan Shucheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a red flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meagre crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.17
In his home village Tanzichong, friends and relatives were less reluctant to speak out. They denied that there had been a drought the year before, blaming cadres instead for the food shortages: ‘Man-made disasters are the main reason, not natural calamities.’ In the canteen cooking utensils, dirty bowls and chopsticks were tossed in a pile on the floor. A few asparagus leaves were the only vegetable available, to be prepared without cooking oil. Liu was shaken by what he saw. A few days later, he apologised to his fellow villagers in a mass meeting: ‘I haven’t returned home for nearly forty years. I really wanted to come home for a visit. Now I have seen how bitter your lives are. We have not done our jobs well, and we beg for your pardon.’ That very evening the canteen was dissolved on Liu’s orders.18
A committed party man, Liu Shaoqi was genuinely shocked by the disastrous state in which he found his home village. He had dedicated his every waking moment to the party, only to find that it had brought widespread abuse, destitution and starvation to the people he was meant to serve. What he also discovered was a complete lack of connection between people and party: he had been deliberately kept in the dark – or so he claimed.
While the details of his trip to the countryside are well known, his clash with the local officials is not. Liu first deflected blame on to party boss Zhang Pinghua, who had taken charge of the province after Zhou Xiaozhou’s fall from power: ‘My home town is in such a mess but nobody has sent me a report, not even a single letter or a complaint. In the past people used to send me letters, then it all stopped. I don’t think that they didn’t want to write, or refused to write, I am afraid that they simply were not allowed to write, or they did write and their letters were inspected and confiscated.’ With the provincial Bureau for Public Security he was blunt, accusing the security apparatus of being ‘completely rotten’. How could the local police be allowed to check and retain personal letters, and how could they get away with investigating and beating people for trying to bring local malpractices to his attention? Later Liu confronted Xie Fuzhi, the powerful minister of public security and close ally of Mao, asking him why abuse was allowed to go on unchecked in his home town. Gone was the patient party builder Liu: here was a man shaken in his faith who had promised to speak out on behalf of his fellow villagers.19
Back in Beijing Liu continued to speak his mind. On 31 May 1961, at a gathering of leaders, he made an emotional speech in which he bluntly placed the blame for the famine on the shoulders of the party. ‘Are the problems that have appeared over the past few years actually due to natural disasters or to shortcomings and errors we have made in our work? In Hunan the peasants have a saying that “30 per cent is due to natural calamities, 70 per cent to man-made disasters.” ’ Liu dismissed the attempt to gloss over the scale of the calamity by dogmatically insisting that the overall policy of the party was a great success, touching a raw nerve by debunking one of Mao’s favourite aphorisms: ‘Some comrades say that these problems are merely one finger out of ten. But right now I am afraid that this is no longer a matter of one out of ten. We always say nine fingers versus one finger: the proportion never changes, but this doesn’t quite fit the actual reality. We should be realistic and talk about things as they are.’ About the party line he did not mince his words. ‘In carrying out the party line, in organising the people’s communes, in organising work for the Great Leap Forward, there have been many weaknesses and errors, even very serious weaknesses and errors.’ And he was in no doubt as to where the responsibility lay. ‘The centre is the principal culprit, we leaders are all responsible, let’s not blame one department or one person alone.’20
Liu was parting company with Mao. He got away with his blistering critique because the horror, by now, was so evident everywhere that it could no longer be brushed aside. He would pay dearly for his challenge during the Cultural Revolution, but for the time being other leaders cautiously leaned towards the head of state, ever so slightly inflecting the balance of power away from Mao. Zhou Enlai, always circumspect, acknowledged some of the errors made in the wake of the Lushan plenum, and then, to help the Chairman save face, openly accepted blame for everything that had gone wrong.21
Liu Shaoqi took a chance by pushing the limits for critical debate, but Li Fuchun was the one who used the shift to engineer a strategic retreat away from the Great Leap Forward. A bookish man with self-effacing airs, he had been wary of putting forward dissenting views, but he too changed his tone, delivering a trenchant assessment of the economy at a meeting of party planners in Beidaihe in July 1961. Only a few months earlier, attentive to the moods of the Chairman, he had smoothed over widespread shortages, claiming that a socialist economy never developed in a straight line, as even the Soviet Union had gone through periods of decrease in grain output.22 But in the wake of Liu Shaoqi’s attack he no longer dodged the issue. In Shandong, Henan and Gansu, he noted, tens of millions of farmers struggled to survive on a handful of grain a day, and the famine had little to do with natural calamities. People were starving because of the mistakes made by the party. He had seven adjectives to describe the Leap Forward: too high, too big, too equal (meaning that all incentives had been erased), too dispersed, too chaotic, too fast, too inclined to transfer resources. A lengthy analysis followed, as well as concrete proposals aimed at lowering all production targets and getting the economy back on track. A close follower of Mao, he had an astute way of absolving him of all blame: ‘Chairman Mao’s directives are entirely correct, but we, including the central organs, have made mistakes in executing them.’23
Li received the Chairman’s endorsement. The following month he gave a similar report at a top-level party meeting in Lushan, again exempting the Chairman from any responsibility. It was the turning point in the famine. Li was a soft-spoken, unassuming man whose loyalty towards Mao could hardly be doubted and who, unlike Peng Dehuai, had found a way of presenting the facts without incurring his wrath. Mao, a paranoid leader who suspected betrayal behind the slightest disapproval, praised the report instead.
A series of biting assessments followed Li Fuchun’s speech. Li Yiqing, a senior party secretary, reported that in 1958 more than 140,000 tonnes of farming tools had been thrown into the backyard furnaces in the model province of Henan. Wu Jingtian, vice-minister of railways, explained how one in five locomotives was out of circulation because of engine damage. Peng De, vice-minister of transportation, announced that fewer than two out of three vehicles under his command actually worked. Vice-minister of metallurgy Xu Chi noted that the steelworks of Angang were forced to stop for weeks on end over the summer because of coal shortages.24
Mao rarely attended the meetings, following them instead through written reports compiled every evening. He was in retreat, strategically withholding judgement and finding out where his colleagues stood. But the Chairman was not pleased. Letting off steam with his doctor Li Zhisui, he said: ‘All the good party members are dead. The only ones left are a bunch of zombies.’25 But he took no action. At last, party leaders started to discuss among themselves the extent of the damage done by three years of forced collectivisation. What they discovered was destruction on a scale few could have imagined.