Part Three




The term ‘command economy’ comes from the German Befehlswirtschaft. It was originally applied to the Nazi economy, but was later used to describe the Soviet Union. Instead of allowing dispersed buyers and sellers to determine their own economic activities according to the laws of supply and demand, a higher authority would issue commands determining the overall direction of the economy following a master plan. The command principle entailed that all economic decisions were centralised for the greater good, as the state determined what should be produced, how much should be produced, who produced what and where, how resources should be allocated and what prices should be charged for materials, goods and services. A central plan replaced the market.

As planners took over the economy in China, farmers lost control over the harvest. In 1953 a monopoly over grain was introduced, decreeing that farmers must sell all surplus grain to the state at prices determined by the state. The aim behind the monopoly was to stabilise the price of grain across the country, eliminate speculation and guarantee the grain needed to feed the urban population and fuel an industrial expansion. But what was ‘surplus grain’ in a country where many farmers barely grew enough to scrape by? It was defined as seed, fodder and a basic grain ration set at roughly 13 to 15 kilos per head each month. However, 23 to 26 kilos of unhusked grain were required to provide 1,700 to 1,900 calories per day, an amount international aid organisations consider to be the bare minimum for subsistence.1 The notion of a surplus, in other words, was a political construct designed to give legitimacy to the extraction of grain from the countryside. By forcing villagers to sell grain before their own subsistence needs were met, the state also made them more dependent on the collective. Extra grain above the basic ration had to be bought back from the state by villagers with work points, which were distributed on the basis of their performance in collective labour. Farmers had lost control not only of their land and their harvest, but also of their own work schedules: local cadres determined who should do what and for how many work points, from collecting manure to looking after the buffaloes in the fields. As the market was eliminated and money lost its purchasing power, grain became the currency of exchange. Most of it was in the hands of the state.

But a more insidious problem lurked behind the notion of a grain surplus, namely the enormous pressure applied to local leaders to pledge ever greater grain sales. The amount sold to the state was determined in a series of meetings which started from the village up, as a team leader passed on a quota to the brigade, where the pledges were adjusted and collated into a bid passed on to the commune, which then negotiated how much it would deliver to the county. By the time a pledge reached the level of the region and the province, the amount had been revised upwards several times as a result of peer pressure. A figure very far removed from reality finally landed on the desk of Li Fuchun, the man responsible for planning the economy and setting national production targets. He, in turn, inflated the target according to the latest policy shifts agreed on by the leadership: that new figure was the party’s command.

The pressure to show sensational gains in grain output reached a climax during the Great Leap Forward. In a frenzy of competitive bidding, party officials from the village all the way up to the province tried to outdo each other, as one record after the other was announced by the propaganda machine, in turn spurring even more cautious cadres to inflate the figures. Even after the party had tried to rein in some of the more extravagant claims in early 1959, failure to project a substantial leap in output was interpreted as ‘rightist conservatism’, in particular during the purges which followed the Lushan plenum. In a climate of fear, village leaders followed orders rather than try to haggle over quotas. More often than not, a party secretary or deputy from the commune would simply drive up to a strip of land, have a look around and casually determine the target yield. A team leader explained the process as follows: ‘In 1960 we were given a quota of 260 tonnes. This was increased by 5.5 tonnes a few days later. Then the commune held a meeting and added a further 25 tonnes. After two days, the commune phoned us to say that the quota had gone up to 315 tonnes: how this all happened we have no idea.’2

The higher the office, the greater the power to increase the quota, which had repercussions for every subordinate unit, and each had to juggle the figures to comply. When Xie Fuzhi, the boss in Yunnan, was told by Beijing that the national target for grain output had been raised to 300 million tonnes, he immediately convened a telephone conference to explain to county leaders that this really meant 350–400 million tonnes. Yunnan, he rapidly calculated, contained about one-thirtieth of the total population, meaning a share of 10 million tonnes. Since Yunnan did not want to trail behind the rest of the country, Xie raised this to a nicely rounded total of 25,000,000,000 jin, equivalent to 12.5 million tonnes.3 Everybody from the region down to the county, commune, brigade and village had to scramble and adjust the local quotas accordingly.

With inflated crops came procurement quotas which were far too high, leading to shortages and outright famine. But if the figures were made up, how do we know what the real crop was and what proportion of the harvest was procured by the state? Kenneth Walker, a specialist in agrarian economics at the University of London, spent a decade painstakingly assembling statistical data from a whole range of local newspapers, published statistics and policy guidelines. He showed that the state imposed the highest levies in 1959–62 at a time when the average output per head was actually at its lowest.4

Just as his study appeared in print in 1984, a statistical yearbook was published by the National Statistical Bureau in China with a set of historical data covering the famine years. Most observers have relied on these official figures. But why should we trust a set of statistics published by a party notoriously protective of its own past? Problems with the official statistics appeared when Yang Jisheng, a retired journalist from the Xinhua agency, published a book on the famine based on party archives. He relied on a set of figures compiled in 1962 by the Bureau for Grain. But this merely transferred the problem from one set of numbers to another. The fact that a document comes from an archive does not automatically make it right. Every archive has a series of competing figures, put together in different ways by different agencies at different times. As a result of political pressure the statistical work of the Bureau for Grain disintegrated from 1958 to 1962, to such an extent that the state itself could no longer calculate a realistic level of grain production. And the distortion was at its greatest at the very top, as false reporting and inflated claims accumulated on their way up the party hierarchy. If the leaders themselves were lost in a morass of statistical invention, it seems unlikely that we can magically extract the numerical truth from a single document in the party archives. Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and other leaders knew all too well that they were looking at the world through layers of distorted filters, and their solution was to spend more time investigating what happened on the ground in field trips to the countryside.


On the other hand, between 1962 and 1965 local statistical bureaus tried to rebuild their credibility and often went back to the years of famine to find out what had happened. The figures they produced indicate a much higher degree of procurement than those provided by the Bureau for Grain. Table 5 compares the figures compiled by the Bureau in 1962 with the local numbers calculated in 1965 by the provincial Office for Statistics in Hunan in an attempt to determine how much farmers had actually contributed to the state. The difference in estimates for the grain output is minimal, but when it comes to the size of the levies the figures provided by the province turn out to be much higher, ranging from 28 to 35 per cent of the total harvest. Why is there a discrepancy of 4 to 10 per cent? One reason can be found in the nature of the statistical evidence. Closer scrutiny indicates that the figures provided by the Bureau for Grain were not carefully reconstructed in the aftermath of the famine, but rather mechanically compiled from the plans the Bureau had handed out in the previous years. Each plan had two sets of numbers, one set indicating the procurements ‘actually realised’ in the current year, the other setting targets for the coming year. The procurement figures given for 1958, for instance, come from the plan for 1959, meaning that they were rough approximations.5 To this we should add the fact that the Bureau for Grain in Beijing was under much pressure in 1962 to show that it had not allowed excessive procurements to drain the countryside of grain, and would thus have adopted a set of low figures. But there is another reason for the mismatch: at every level of society, from the village and the commune up to the province, grain was being hidden. The figures compiled in 1965 by the Office for Statistics in Hunan were based on careful research after the famine. The Office could go back to whole sets of commune and county statistics to find out how much had actually been procured, in contrast to the numbers the province officially handed over to the centre. The discrepancy, in other words, corresponds to the amount of procured grain which escaped the gaze of the state.

Other examples confirm that the rates of procurement were much higher than those suggested by the Bureau for Grain. In Zhejiang, for instance, Zeng Shaowen, a top provincial official, admitted in 1961 that some 2.9 million tonnes, or 40.9 per cent of the harvest, was procured in 1958, followed by an even larger 43.2 per cent in the following year. The Bureau for Grain gives much lower percentages, namely 30.4 per cent for 1958 followed by 34.4 per cent.6 A similar story comes from Guizhou. In the provincial archives, which Yang Jisheng was unable to access, a document from the provincial party committee shows that an average of 1.8 million tonnes was procured each year from 1958 to 1960, meaning 44.4 per cent, with a peak of 2.34 million tonnes in 1959 – equivalent to an enormous 56.5 per cent of the crop. The figures given by the Bureau for Grain are on average 1.4 million tonnes for the same three years, or about a quarter less.7

Some of these calculations may seem rather abstract, but they matter a great deal. Grain is not only the currency of exchange in a command economy; it becomes the source of survival in times of famine. When either Hunan or Zhejiang increased their procurements by 8 to 10 per cent, taking an extra 750,000 tonnes of grain from the countryside in the middle of the famine, the number of people forced into starvation grew proportionally. We have seen how one kilo of grain provided a sufficient number of calories for one person each day, meaning that a family of three could live on a tonne per year. But the real point is that many farmers could have survived famine if their rations had been only marginally increased by some 400 or 500 calories a day, equivalent to a large bowl in the evening. In short, in order to understand how people perished on such a scale, it is vital to see the role played by increased procurements in times of declining harvests.


How much grain was procured overall? Table 6 has three sets of statistics. The first two show the overall figures reached by Kenneth Walker in 1983 following his research into published statistics as well as the numbers provided by Yang Jisheng from the Bureau for Grain. But, as we have seen, the Bureau for Grain should not be taken at its word, as it had neither the expertise nor the political inclination to collect the actual figures. The third set of statistics comes from the notes taken by the Yunnan Office for Statistics in 1962 as its members attended one of the national conferences periodically convened by the Bureau for Statistics in Beijing. No one set of true numbers will ever be discovered in the archives, since every figure was a statement bound by politics and expediency rather than by expertise. But it seems that the Bureau for Grain compiled figures which were far below both what foreign observers managed to calculate on the basis of published regional statistics and what the Bureau for Statistics compiled in 1962. In short, evidence from different sources shows that the level of procurement varied from 30 to 37 per cent nationally, far above the more usual 20 to 25 per cent extracted up to 1958. As Mao had indicated on 25 March 1959 at a secret gathering of party leaders, ‘If you don’t go above a third, people won’t rebel.’ He himself encouraged much greater procurements than usual, at a time when it was well known that the crop figures had been inflated.8 In other words, the idea that the state mistakenly took too much grain from the countryside because it assumed that the harvest was much bigger than it was is largely a myth – at most partially true for the autumn of 1958 only.

A proportion of the procured grain was sold back to the farmers – at a premium – but they were at the end of a long waiting list. As we have seen in Chapters 10 and 15, the party had evolved a set of political priorities which ignored the needs of the countryside. The leadership decided to increase grain exports to honour its foreign contracts and maintain its international reputation, to such an extent that a policy of ‘export above all else’ was adopted in 1960. It chose to increase its foreign aid to its allies, shipping grain for free to countries like Albania. Priority was also given to the growing populations of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and the province of Liaoning – the heartland of heavy industry – followed by the requirements of city people in general. The consequence of these political decisions was not only an increase in the proportion of procurements, but also an increase in the overall amount of grain handed over to the state out of these procurements. In the case of Zhejiang, for instance, an annual average of 1.68 million tonnes left the province from 1958 to 1961, in contrast to 1.2 million tonnes in each of the preceding three years. In 1958 alone that meant that more than half of the procured grain was handed over to Beijing even before the province started to feed its urban residents.9 Overall, the amount of grain taken out of the procurements by the state to feed Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Liaoning province and maintain its export market went up every single quarter, from 1.6 million tonnes in the third quarter of 1956 to 1.8 million tonnes in the same period in 1957, to 2.3 million tonnes in 1958, to 2.5 million tonnes a year later and to a high of 3 million tonnes in three months in 1960.10

The net effect of these policy priorities was that the lives of many villagers were destroyed. As Wang Renzhong put it in a meeting of the leaders of all southern provinces in August 1961, ‘extraordinarily difficult conditions demand extraordinary measures’, explaining that grain could be provided only to the cities, so that villages in the grip of famine would have to fend for themselves. As he saw it, some of the parts had to be sacrificed in order to keep the whole.11

He was not alone. Zhou Enlai, for one, was relentless in pushing for greater requisitions. He was the man in charge of making sure that enough grain was taken from the countryside to feed the cities and earn foreign currency. He badgered provincial bosses in person, over the phone, through his deputies and in a ceaseless string of telegrams marked ‘urgent’. He too had a keen sense of hierarchy in which the needs of the countryside had to give way to the interests of the state – which he represented. He knew full well that the vast amounts of grain he was given by Li Jingquan, a radical follower of Mao, could lead only to a situation of mass famine in Sichuan. But others, too, clung rigidly to the view that the starvation of the people mattered less than the demands of the state. Deng Xiaoping thought that in the command economy requisitions had to be enforced ruthlessly ‘as if in a war’: no matter how much a provincial leader tried to defend his turf the party line had to be held, or the state would perish. Speaking at the end of 1961, when the extent of the famine was well known among the leadership, this is what Deng Xiaoping had to say about Sichuan, where huge requisitions caused the deaths of many millions of people: ‘In the past, procurements have been too heavy in some regions, for instance in Sichuan, where they have been heavy for quite a few years, including this year, but there was no alternative. I approve of the Sichuan style, they never moan about hardship, we should all learn from Sichuan. And I am not saying this because I myself am from Sichuan.’12 As we have seen, Mao phrased it differently: ‘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.’13

The procurement prices paid by the state for grain varied from province to province. In the case of maize, for instance, it ranged from 124 yuan per tonne in Guangxi to 152 yuan just across the border in Guangdong in early 1961. The difference for rice could be up to 50 per cent, for instance 124 yuan per tonne in Guangxi versus 180 yuan for the same quantity in Shanghai.14 The state made a substantial profit by exporting rice for 400 yuan per tonne.15 These prices were periodically adjusted, but the procurement prices remained so low that more often than not farmers produced grain at a loss. As late as 1976 it was unprofitable simply for that reason to cultivate wheat, barley, maize and sorghum. The income on rice was marginal.16 But in a command economy farmers no longer decided for themselves which crop they could grow, as they had to follow the orders of local cadres instead – who in turn had to apply the commands of the party. And the planners were transfixed by grain output, deciding to force an ever greater proportion of farmers to concentrate on grain – to the detriment of the overall economy. This vision was translated in 1959 into a policy of encouraging grain production above all else, leading many provinces to extend the surface cultivated with grain by some 10 per cent.17 Farmers who were asked to abandon more remunerative crops for maize, rice or wheat lost out. For instance, after some villages in Zhejiang were told to grow grain instead of the melons, sugarcane and tobacco they had habitually cultivated, they saw their income plunge.18

Another problem with the command economy was that officials on the ground did not always know what they were doing, and they imposed decisions which turned out to be disastrous. We have already seen how close cropping and deep ploughing were insisted on by the regime at the height of the Great Leap Forward. This was compounded by capricious interventions by local cadres with little knowledge of agriculture. In 1959 in Luokang commune a local leader decided to replace the existing crop with sweet potatoes on half of the available acreage, only to change his mind later and substitute the potatoes with peanuts. These were then torn out to make room for rice instead. The previous year the commune had tried deep ploughing, using vast concentrations of manpower on small strips of land to dig deep furrows, much of it by hand. Huge amounts of fertiliser were applied, in some cases up to 30 tonnes a hectare. It all came to nothing.19 In Kaiping county, Guangdong, thousands of villagers were repeatedly forced to plant a crop in the early spring of 1959 despite bitterly cold weather: the seeds froze on three occasions, and in the end fields yielded a paltry 450 kilos per hectare.20

But even more disastrous was the command to plant less. Mao was so convinced that the countryside was heaving under the weight of grain that he suggested that a third of the land be allowed to lie fallow. ‘People in China on average cultivate three mu, but I think that twomu is enough.’21 Combined with an exodus of farmers towards the cities, the overall acreage under cultivation plummeted. In Hunan in 1958 some 5.78 million hectares were cultivated with grain, but by 1962 this was down by 15 per cent to 4.92 million hectares.22 In Zhejiang province some 65,000 hectares of cultivated land vanished every year, leading to a loss of about a tenth of the total acreage by 1961.23 These provincial averages masked deep regional differences. In the Wuhan region, for instance, just over half of the available 37,000 hectares were tilled.24 Tan Zhenlin, the man in charge of agriculture, noted in 1959 that some 7.3 million hectares were allowed to lie fallow.25 Speaking in early 1961 Peng Zhen estimated that the total sown area stood at 107 million hectares: if true this would have meant a waste of 23 million hectares since 1958.26

To this loss had to be added a change in the proportion of grains grown. The urban population much preferred fine grains – rice, wheat, soybeans – although in the north considerable amounts of coarse grain – sorghum, maize and millet – were also consumed. But sweet potatoes were regarded as peasant fare and were not generally eaten in significant amounts.27 Sweet potatoes, moreover, were a perishable commodity, meaning that the state had a limited interest in them: most of the procurements were in fine grains. But the proportion of sweet potatoes grew during the years of famine, as cadres responded to pressure to increase the yield by switching to the tuber, which was easy to cultivate. More often than not farmers were left with potatoes only.

By imposing a monopoly on the sale of grain the state undertook a task of mammoth proportions. State employees had to buy the grain, store it, transport it to different destinations across the country, store it again and distribute it against ration coupons – all according to a master plan rather than the incentives created by the market. Even a wealthy country might have baulked at the immensity of the task, but China was a poor nation, and a very large one at that. State storage – as opposed to small inventories distributed across a wide range of private and public producers, retailers and consumers – contributed in no small measure to the destruction of grain. Insects were common, rats abounded. A detailed investigation by the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress showed that in Nanxiong county an astonishing 2,533 of all 2,832 local granaries had rats. Insects infested a third of all 123 state granaries and an even larger proportion of the 728 commune granaries in Chao’an county.28 In Yunnan in the first half of 1961 some 240,000 tonnes were contaminated by vermin.29 In Zhucheng county, Shandong, each kilo of grain was crawling with hundreds of insects.30

And then there was rot. Poor storage conditions contributed to it, as well as the practice, not always successfully detected by grain inspectors, of bulking up grain with water. In Guangdong close to a third of 1.5 million tonnes of state grain contained too much water, so that one granary after another succumbed to rot.31 In Hunan one-fifth of all grain in state granaries was either infested with insects or corrupted by a high water content. In Changsha, the provincial capital, over half of all stored grain was contaminated.32 Temperatures in the state granaries were often too high, accelerating the blight, and in turn benefiting the insects, which took advantage of the heat and moisture. In Yunnan the temperature in some of the granaries reached 39–43 degrees Celsius.33 Even far away from the humidity of subtropical China, in the cold winter of the northern plain, rot was common. Just outside the capital, in the middle of the worst year of famine, well over 50 tonnes of sweet potatoes decayed in a dozen villages in Yanqing county. A further 6 tonnes putrefied in storage facilities across the Haidian district in Beijing.34

Significant losses were also caused by fire, through arson or accident. In Yunnan alone 70 tonnes of food went up in smoke each month in 1961; more than 300 tonnes were completely written off each and every month in 1960 and in 1961 due to blight, insects and fire. The Bureau for Security calculated that the grain lost to fire in 1960 alone in that province would have been sufficient to feed 1.5 million people adequately for a whole month.35 Yunnan was not the worst offender. In the Anshan region, Liaoning province, 400 tonnes were destroyed each month in 1960, although this figure included only losses that could be attributed to theft and corruption – a topic we will address later.36

The transportation system was disastrously affected by the programmes of the Great Leap Forward. The railway system was paralysed by early 1959, overwhelmed by the amount of goods the plan directed from one end of the country to the other. Lorries rapidly ran out of fuel. All over the country grain was going to waste on railway sidings. In the small provincial capital of Kunming, some 15 tonnes were lost on trains and lorries each month.37 But this was nothing compared to what happened in the countryside after the harvest. In Hunan, the entire system seized up in the summer of 1959 because of a shortage of hundreds of freight wagons which were needed every day. Lorries were lacking too, so that only half the grain could be transported from the countryside to the main railway stations. Some 200,000 tonnes of grain accumulated by the roadside, although only 60,000 tonnes could be loaded every month.38

In the end farmers did not even have enough seed left to plant the crop. Travelling by train from Beijing to Shanghai in early spring 1962, foreign visitors noted that swathes of farmland along the tracks were sparsely planted at best, field after field lying fallow.39 Across the country, once carefully manicured fields now looked desolate, with clumps of stunted wheat or rice withering for lack of fertiliser. Large plots lay abandoned because the farmers had nothing to plant. Everywhere vast amounts of seed normally put aside for sowing in the following season had been eaten by desperate farmers. Even in Zhejiang, relatively sheltered from the worst effects of the famine, one in five villages lacked the seed necessary to plant the fields.40 In subtropical Guangdong, normally ablaze in every shade of green in spring, 10 per cent of the sprouts routinely rotted, the seed weak and impoverished, the land leached of all nutrients. In some communes in Zhongshan county half the fields wilted, as fledging plants turned yellow and then slowly decomposed into a brown mush.41

As the planners directed an ever larger proportion of the farmland to be cultivated with grain, the output in commercial crops and edible oils plummeted. But unlike grain, there was no notion of a subsistence threshold below which the state should not intervene, and procurements soared as a result.

Cotton is a good example. We have already noted how textile products from China flooded the international market in 1958, as the country declared a trade offensive by exporting goods at prices below economic cost. The strategy backfired, but exports of textiles nonetheless increased in order to settle the trade agreements entered into with foreign partners. China shipped 1 million metres of cotton cloth to the Soviet Union in 1957, then 2 million metres in 1959 and a huge 149 million metres in 1960.42 The cost of importing 10,000 tonnes of raw cotton to feed the textile industries was US$8 million. The mathematics was simple. As finance minister Li Xiannian exclaimed in November 1961, calculating the equivalent import cost of an extra 50,000 tonnes of cotton that had been procured from the countryside that year, ‘40 million US dollars is really wonderful!’43


The lure of the greenback was irresistible. Procurements increased from 1.64 million tonnes in 1957 to 2.1 million tonnes the following year. Although only half of that amount was levied in 1960, as the cotton crop collapsed, it still meant that between 82 and 90 per cent of the total cotton output ended up in the hands of the state.44 Take the example of Hunan (Table 7). As the actual output plunged after a peak in 1959, the percentage taken by the state shot up from 80 per cent to 95 per cent in 1960. In 1961, Hunan officials managed to procure more than the total cotton output by fanning out all over the province and sweeping up every bale of cotton, including reserves set aside by teams and communes from the previous crop. This strategy had been adopted by Hebei in 1959 and was highly commended by the leadership. As the State Council explained in February 1959, Hebei had managed to increase its procurements by a third by commandeering reserves found in collective storage facilities and by ‘taking the cotton still in the hands of the masses’.45

The masses were left without much clothing. Just as grain was distributed according to political priorities which favoured the export market above domestic needs, a large proportion of the cotton was fed to the textile industries and sold on the international market. What remained was rationed and distributed in dribs and drabs following a well-established pecking order which placed party and army at the top followed by the urban population, each of these categories being further fine-tuned into an intricate hierarchy which had one thing in common: the producers of cotton, namely people in the countryside, were generally excluded. Out of the 3.5 million cotton pieces (jian) produced in 1961, about half were reserved for party and army uniforms and 1 million were put aside for the export market, leaving 800,000 for a population of 600 million.46 In Guangzhou ration coupons were required for towels, socks, shirts, vests and raincoats. Cotton cloth was rationed to a metre a year, those living in the suburbs getting one-third less than city dwellers. Before the Great Leap Forward, by contrast, anyone could buy more than seven metres of cotton a year.47

By 1960, the situation in the countryside had become so desperate that farmers ate the cotton seeds. In Cixi county, Zhejiang, some 2,000 villagers were poisoned in a single month by eating cakes made of seeds, an indication of the extent of despair reached in one of the most sheltered provinces of China. In Henan they poisoned over 100,000 people in the region around Xinxiang alone, killing more than 150.48 Across the land desperately hungry villagers ate anything they could get their hands on, from leather belts and straw roofs to cotton padding. Spending a month travelling through some of the most devastated regions along the Huai River in September 1961, Hu Yaobang, a party chief and associate of Deng Xiaoping who would soar to pre-eminence decades later by steering the country away from orthodox Marxism, reported seeing women and children stark naked. Many families of five or six shared one blanket. ‘It is hard to imagine if you do not see it with your own eyes. There are several places where we should urgently address this issue, to avoid people freezing to death.’49Throughout the country those who died of starvation often did so naked, even in the middle of the winter.

Although slaughtered in significant quantities during the Great Leap Forward in 1958, over the years poultry, pigs and cattle mainly succumbed to neglect, hunger, cold and disease. Numbers give a sense of the extent of the devastation. Whereas some 12.7 million pigs were rooting about in 1958, a mere 3.4 million scrawny animals were alive in 1961 in Hunan province (Table 8). Hebei had 3.8 million pigs in 1961, half of what the province boasted five years earlier. A million cattle had also vanished.50 Shandong lost 50 per cent of its cattle during the famine.51


Neglect was widespread, as incentives to look after livestock were removed once all the animals had been turned over to the people’s communes. In Huaxian, just outside Guangzhou, pigs stood in a foot of excrement. In some villages the pig sheds were destroyed for fertiliser, leaving the animals exposed to the elements.52 Routine quarantine measures broke down, as veterinary services lay in disarray. Rinderpest and swine fever spread; chicken flu was common.53 The winter exacted the highest toll. Tens of thousands of pigs died of hunger in Cixi county, Zhejiang, in a single winter month.54 In December 1960 alone 600,000 pigs died in Hunan province.55

Even more revealing are the disease rates, which rocketed sharply. In Dongguan, Guangdong, the death rate for pigs was just over 9 per cent in 1956. Three years later a quarter of all pigs died, and by 1960 well over half of all pigs perished. The county was left with a million pigs where more than 4.2 million had existed a few years earlier.56 In Zhejiang, the death rate in some counties was 600 per cent, meaning that for every birth six pigs died; the entire herd was soon eliminated.57 In all of Henan the situation with livestock was better in 1940, in the middle of the war against Japan, than it was in 1961 – according to Zhou Enlai himself.58

Before the pigs died of hunger they turned on each other. More often than not livestock was not segregated by weight, meaning that they were all locked up in a common space where the smaller ones were pushed aside, trampled on, mauled to death and devoured. In parts of Jiangyin county, for instance, many of the pigs froze to death, but quite a few were cannibalised by larger hogs.59 When large numbers of pigs are thrown together in a harsh environment, apparently no pecking order develops, and each animal regards all others as its enemy. In Beijing’s Red Star commune, where the death rate for livestock was 45 per cent, villagers noticed that hogs ate piglets, as all were confined together indiscriminately.60

A small proportion of the deaths were caused by innovations in animal husbandry. Like close cropping and deep ploughing, these were supposed to propel the country past its rivals. All sorts of experiments were carried out to increase the weight of pigs, some of them inspired by the fraudulent theories of Trofim Lysenko. A protégé of Stalin, Lysenko rejected genetics and believed that inheritance was shaped by the environment (Lysenko, it might be added, openly expressed his contempt for the Great Leap Forward in 1958, to the great irritation of the leadership in Beijing).61 Just as seeds of hybrid varieties were developed for greater resistance, hybrid breeding of livestock was envisaged by senior leaders. Jiang Hua, party secretary of Zhejiang, thus asked the county leaders to take steps to ‘actively shape nature’: he suggested cross-breeding sows with bulls to produce heavier piglets.62 Local cadres, eager to fulfil impossible quotas for meat delivery, also artificially inseminated animals that had not even reached maturity, including ones weighing a mere 15 kilos (a healthy adult pig should weigh between 100 and 120 kilos). Many of the animals were crippled as a result.63

Despite a precipitous decline in livestock, state procurements were relentless. In Hebei and Shandong a ban on the slaughter of animals was imposed in the countryside for a period of three months in early 1959. As we have seen, Mao applauded the ban, going so far as to suggest that a resolution be passed that nobody should eat meat: all of it should be exported to honour foreign commitments.64 Mao did not quite get his way, although the rations for the urban population were slashed several times. Even in Shanghai, a city where on average each person consumed some twenty kilos of meat annually in 1953, a mere 4.5 kilos in ration tickets were allocated by the plan in 1960, although in reality much less was available.65 But party members continued to receive a regular supply of meat. Guangdong was thus ordered in 1961 to deliver 2,500 pigs to the capital, all earmarked for state banquets and foreign guests: this was in addition to the more regular state procurement quotas.66

The fishing industry was also badly damaged by collectivisation, as the equipment was either confiscated or poorly maintained. In Wuxing, a district of the prosperous silk city of Huzhou situated on the south of Lake Tai, one in five boats was no longer seaworthy because of insufficient tong oil to repair sprung seams. The number of leaks steadily increased, since the marine nails were no longer being made of forged iron.67 The overall catch tumbled. On Chaohu Lake, Anhui, a single team of fishermen routinely caught some 215 tonnes of fish in 1958. Two years later no more than 9 tonnes were hauled aboard, as boats and nets rotted away without any care being taken. Many fishermen abandoned the trade because of a lack of incentives.68

Ploughs, rakes, sickles, hoes, shovels, buckets, baskets, mats, carts and tools of every kind were collectivised, but which collectivity actually owned them? A tug of war began between teams, brigades and communes, with mutual recriminations and random repossessions, the result of which was that in the end nobody really cared. Some villagers would simply throw their ploughs and rakes aside in the field at the end of the day. Whereas in the past a good tool could last up to ten years – some ploughs managing to survive for sixty years with careful repairs – they no longer lasted for much more than a year or two. A mat used to dry millet, when carefully maintained, might only have to be repaired after ten years, but with the advent of the people’s communes most were worn out after one season. Some rakes, it was reported by a team of investigators from Shanghai, had to be repaired after a day.69

And those were the tools that had not been devoured in the backyard furnaces during the frenzied iron and steel movement in 1958. At the Lushan plenum held in the summer of 1961, Li Yiqing, secretary of the south-central region, told the party leaders that 140,000 tonnes of farming tools had been thrown into the fires in the model province of Henan.70 When these losses were tallied with what was destroyed through neglect, the total varied from about a third to half of all equipment. In Shandong a third of all tools were useless within a year of the Great Leap Forward.71 In the Shaoguan region, Guangdong, 40 per cent of all necessary equipment was gone by 1961, meaning a loss of some 34 million tools. A third of what was left was broken.72 The number of waterwheels in Hebei was halved, while carts were also reduced by 50 per cent.73 In Zhejiang province half of all water pumps, over half of all planting machines and more than a third of all threshing machines were damaged beyond recovery.74

Besides the fact that there were few incentives to repair tools that belonged to everybody in general and nobody in particular, other reasons stood in the way of recovery. Widespread shortages of natural resources, especially timber, meant galloping inflation – despite the fixed prices of the planned economy. In Zhejiang, for instance, bamboo was 40 per cent more expensive than before the Great Leap Forward, and the iron allocated to the countryside for tool production was of inferior quality.75 Their homes already stripped of cooking utensils and agricultural implements to feed the backyard furnaces, the villagers were then handed back useless ingots of brittle iron. Half the metal allocated to villages in Guangdong in 1961 was defective.76 Tool production in state enterprises, as we shall see, did not fare any better.

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