Travelling extensively through the Qing Empire in the 1870s, Baron von Richthofen reported that the entire north of the country was destitute of trees, the barren mountains and hills offering a desolate view.1 Securing fuel for the long, cold winters was always a problem in imperial China. Farmers raised large quantities of maize and sorghum: seeds were used for food, while the stalks served as fuel to heat the kang, a hypocaust bed which the family slept on at night and sat on during the winter when it was heated by flues built inside.2 In a country depleted of forests, lack of fuel was widely felt: the scarcity of wood meant that every chip, twig, root and shaving was eagerly gleaned by children or elderly women, who stripped the ground bare.

Forest destruction – for clearing, fuel and timber – was made worse after 1949 by rash interference in the natural environment. Mao viewed nature as an enemy to be overcome, an adversary to be brought to heel, an entity fundamentally separate from humans which should be reshaped and harnessed through mass mobilisation. War had to be waged against nature by people pitted against the environment in a ceaseless struggle for survival. A voluntarist philosophy held that human will and the boundless energy of the revolutionary masses could radically transform material conditions and overcome whatever difficulties were thrown in the path to a communist future. The physical world itself could be reshaped, hills erased, mountains levelled, rivers raised – bucket by bucket if necessary.3 Launching the Great Leap Forward, Mao declared that ‘there is a new war: we should open fire on nature’.4

The Great Leap Forward decimated the forests. In the drive to increase steel output, the backyard furnaces that mushroomed everywhere had to be fed, farmers fanning out into the mountains to cut down trees for fuel. In Yizhang county, Hunan, the mountains were covered in lush primeval forest. A great cutting followed, some units felling two-thirds of the trees to feed the furnaces. By 1959 nothing but bare mountains remained.5 In Anhua, to the west of Changsha, an entire forest was turned into a vast expanse of mud.6 Being driven through thick ancestral forests along the road from Yunnan to Sichuan, Soviet specialists in forestry and soil preservation noted that trees had been randomly felled, resulting in landslides.7 Forests were brutalised everywhere, sometimes beyond recovery.

But random logging did not stop with the end of the steel campaign. The famine was not just a matter of hunger, but rather of shortages of all essentials, fuel in particular. As farmers were desperate for firewood and timber, they reproduced habits acquired during the steel campaign, returning to the woods to cut and slash. Stealing was easier than ever before because lines of responsibility for forestry had become blurred with collectivisation: the forest belonged to the people.8 In Wudu county, in arid Gansu, there had been some 760 people in charge of forestry before the Great Leap Forward; by 1962 about a hundred remained. The situation was the same all over China. In 1957 Jilin province was covered in dense forests and beautiful woodlands managed by 247 forestry stations. Only eight of these survived collectivisation.9

Not only were local brigades powerless to stop depredations of natural resources, but they were often complicit in them. When walking through the gates of Sihai commune in Yanqing county, up in the mountains just outside Beijing, a visitor in March 1961 was met with the sight of some 180,000 stumps of trees – linden and mulberry – cut an inch or two above the ground. This was the work of a mere two units.10 Farmers were so desperate for warmth that they even cut down fruit trees in the middle of the winter. As the Forestry Bureau from Beijing reported, 50,000 apple, apricot and walnut trees were hacked down by one village in Changping, while a brigade used a tractor to uproot 890,000 plants and seedlings for fuel.11 More often than not, communes would send teams to poach from neighbours: from Huairou a hundred farmers were dispatched across the county border to Yanqing, where they cut down 180,000 trees in less than three weeks.12 Closer to the capital, trees along the railway were felled, 10,000 vanishing along the line in Daxing county.13 Further south even telephone poles were taken down for fuel.14 Far inland, in Gansu, a single brigade destroyed two-thirds of all 120,000 varnish trees, crippling the local economy, while another team managed to fell 40 per cent of the tea-oil trees on which local villages had depended for their livelihoods.15

People were desperate for kindling. Some villages burned not only their furniture but even some of their houses after cutting down the trees: ‘What is under the pot is more scarce even than what is in the pot,’ farmers lamented.16 Even in Panyu, Guangdong, surrounded by subtropical vegetation, two-thirds of all households had no fuel to start a fire, some even lacking a match. Fire had to be borrowed from neighbours. Once started, it was guarded like a precious commodity, as entire villages sank back into a primitive barter economy.17

In cities too trees were felled, but for different reasons. As we have seen, many companies used the Great Leap Forward to expand their facilities, often out of all proportion to their actual needs. One arm of the Commercial Bureau of Nanjing destroyed a fruit yard with 6,000 cherry, peach, pomegranate and pear trees. The cleared field remained empty. Such destruction was common in Nanjing. As an investigation at the end of 1958 showed, a few dozen units were responsible for illegally hacking down 75,000 trees. Most were factories in need of timber, but some sold the wood on the black market to raise much-needed income.18

Although there were periodic campaigns to turn the denuded countryside green – barren deserts would be transformed into lush forests – widespread famine, poor planning and a more general collapse of authority combined to defeat efforts at afforestation. Trees that had just been planted instantly disappeared. In 1959, for example, Beijing sent thousands of people to plant 2,600 hectares of protective greenery at the Ming Tombs Reservoir. The local commune destroyed more than half within a year. Outside Beijing between a third and four-fifths of all reforestation and seedling projects were lost. The damage in regions further removed from the seat of power must have been even greater.19 In Heilongjiang, with its mountains clad in dense forest harbouring virgin larch, purple linden and Manchurian ash, one-third of all seedlings in new shelter forests died because they were poorly managed.20 In Hubei, some 15,000 trees planted to stabilise the banks of a dam in E’cheng were illegally felled as soon as they were put in the ground. They were replanted, but the job was carried out so badly that most simply tilted over and dried out.21

To the many causes of denudation must be added fire, cases of which soared as a result of greater human activity in forests and a collapse in effective forestry management. Some 56,000 hectares were destroyed in thousands of fires in Hunan during the first two years of the Great Leap Forward.22 In the arid northern plains of Shaanxi and Gansu, where forest was already rare, 2,400 fires claimed more than 15,000 hectares in the spring of 1962.23 Fires could be accidental, but often the forest was burned on purpose to produce fertiliser or hunt down wildlife. As fire advanced and the forest receded, so the animals were slaughtered. Even rare species were fair game for hunters, and some of them – golden monkey, wild elephant and sable – were driven to the edge of extinction.24

Fire was also used to clear the land for cereal grain, although most of the reclamation took place in pastoral areas. Elsewhere the cultivated surface actually shrank since collectivisation was supposed to bring about such astonishing jumps in productivity that a third of all fields could be abandoned. In the Gansu corridor and the Ningxia plain, for instance, winter wheat intruded on the steppes, hastening desertification. The county of Yanchi – to take but one example from Ningxia – doubled its farmland to 50,000 hectares during the Great Leap Forward, cutting away the highland grasses and driving the sheep up the hills to graze: the county now faced the sand. Further to the west, in the arid Qaidam basin, a bleak expanse pockmarked by salt marshes and surrounded by mountains so cold that little could grow, communes destroyed 100,000 hectares of shrubbery and desert vegetation to make way for grain cultivation. The risk of being buried by drift sand then forced several collective farms to move.25

The extent of forest coverage lost during the famine is difficult to estimate.26 Up to 70 per cent of the shelter forest was destroyed in some counties in Liaoning province. In east Henan, 80 per cent of all shelter forests vanished; in Kaifeng it had gone altogether, and some 27,000 hectares were given up to the desert.27 Throughout the immense expanse of the north-west – from Xinjiang to Shanxi – a fifth of all trees were cut down.28 In Hunan half of the forest was felled.29 In Guangdong just under a third had disappeared.30 Yu Xiguang, an expert on the famine, claims that 80 per cent of the forest coverage went up in smoke, although that may be an overestimate.31 The damage varied from place to place, and even in the archives statistics are political artefacts rather than objective reflections of reality. What is certain is that never before had such a large diversity of forests, from the bamboo groves in the south to the alpine meadows and boreal stands of fir and pine in the north, suffered such a prolonged and intense attack.

After dark clouds filled the skies, thunder and rain exploded over Hebei in the early summer of 1959. As the torrential downpour continued unabated, the drainage system choked with mud, excrement and foliage, irrigation canals caved in, streets turned into rivers and the region north of the capital flooded. The monsoon dissolved the houses made of mud and destroyed the fields, either waterlogging them or washing away the topsoil. Streets were coated with silt and heaped with wreckage. A third of all farmers in Tongzhou were affected, as homes collapsed, crops were lost and animals drowned.32Other catastrophes besieged China during the summer. Heavy rain lashed Guangdong. Typhoons pummelled the coast further north. Extreme variations in the weather had unforeseen consequences, causing the worst drought in Hubei in several decades.33 Much was made of the impact of nature on the economy, as the leadership deflected attention away from politics by attributing economic setbacks to these calamities. The exact proportion of blame to be assigned to nature became a point of contention, and Liu Shaoqi would later get into trouble by openly claiming that only 30 per cent of ‘difficulties in production’ were caused by natural disasters, the remaining 70 per cent being due to man-made factors.

But Liu’s explanation, while quite common, reproduced rather than challenged the notion which lay at the root of environmental degradation in China at the time, namely that humans were an entity separate from nature altogether.34 Both were intertwined, as detailed studies carried out on ‘natural calamities’ at the time show. When an investigation team revisited Tongzhou the following summer, they found extreme destitution, as the state had all but abandoned the villagers, who barely survived without adequate food, clothing or shelter.35 Traditional coping mechanisms in times of disaster – private charity, state assistance, mutual help, family savings and migration – had failed to take effect, and the flooding had a far more profound and prolonged effect as a result of collectivisation. But none of this explained why Tongzhou had been hit so badly. Did it rain more over that part of the region? The answer came a year later, after Liu Shaoqi pointed out the marginal role played by catastrophes in a speech attended by thousands of top cadres. In the more open political climate of 1962, the Water Conservancy Bureau started taking stock of how the Great Leap Forward had affected the irrigation system. It singled out Tongzhou for special attention. The conclusion was unambiguous: poorly conceived irrigation projects, hastily implemented during the water-conservancy movement of 1957–8, had disturbed a carefully balanced natural water system. Combined with a huge extension of agriculture, more water than ever before was forced to go underground. When the clouds burst over Tongzhou in 1959 the water had nowhere to go, inundating fields and villages.36

The same happened all over the country. In Hebei, the Cangzhou region was so devastated by a typhoon in July 1961 that a team of twenty-four men was immediately sent from the provincial party committee. They spent ten days in the region, where close to half of all the fields stood under water. The team quickly realised that the natural drainage system had been destroyed by irrigation work undertaken since the Great Leap Forward. Poorly designed reservoirs, canals and ditches contributed to the disaster, but increased cultivation made it worse, as big, square fields had replaced the small and uneven plots that traditionally followed the topography of the terrain. Even villages which had never suffered from inundation now stood waterlogged. Mud houses topped by heavy stone roofs caved in on their inhabitants. As the team noted, nature and people paid the price of past policies: everything was ‘emaciated’ (shou): ‘people are emaciated, the earth is barren, animals are skinny and houses are thin’.37

Tongzhou and Cangzhou are two well-documented examples, but even greater belts of starvation ran along the Huai River and Yellow River plains: from Shangqiu in Henan to Jining in Shandong, from Fuyang in Anhui to Xuzhou in Jiangsu, Hu Yaobang spent a month travelling some 1,800 kilometres inspecting the devastation caused by heavy rain in September 1961. As we shall see, many of the sites of horror where the death rate was at least 10 per cent were located in those two areas. Some of these names – Fengyang, Fuyang, Jining – have since become symbols for mass starvation. The first thing Hu Yaobang observed was that the rainfall that autumn had hardly been exceptional. In some of the most devastated counties such as Fengyang ‘the rainfall was basically normal’. Further enquiries revealed that the main reason these regions were devastated by inundations of no more than 700 millimetres was the extraordinary extent of water-conservancy projects carried out since the autumn of 1957. These vast irrigation networks trapped the water, then silted up and became ‘an evil dragon turning the land into a sea’. So bad was the situation that any rainfall exceeding 300 millimetres could cause devastation. The local villagers deeply resented the canals and channels built over the past few years, seeing them as the main reason for the inundations. Hu noted that ‘some of the cadres are honest and are learning the lesson, but others are confused, some even insisting that it is a natural catastrophe’.38

Throughout the country the irrigation projects, built by hundreds of millions of farmers at great human and economic cost, were for the main part useless or downright dangerous. Many violated the laws of nature, resulting in soil erosion, landslides and river siltation. We saw how in Hunan, a province blessed with fertile soil, river valleys and terraced fields, lush mountains covered with primeval forest were defaced by local communes during the steel drive. The denuded mountains were washed bare by torrents, since there was no longer a canopy to intercept rainwater. As the capacity of forests to retain water was degraded, natural hazards were amplified into disasters. Large irrigation projects that had disrupted the natural flow of water with stopbanks, culverts, reservoirs and irrigation channels only aggravated matters. Accumulated deposits heightened the bed of local rivers in Hunan by up to 80 centimetres, so that water threatened to spill over and flood the neighbouring villages.39

Local reclamation projects made things worse. Launched by the state and local communes in response to food shortages, they showed little sense of stewardship of nature. In Hunan over 100,000 hectares were opened up, much of it on steep mountain slopes. The rain then flushed the soil and took it to the newly built reservoirs, choking them with sediment. One team in Longhui reclaimed ten hectares on a gradient against the mountain: the runoff from torrential rain in May 1962 took enough soil to silt up thirty dams and five roads.40

Shortages of different goods also tended to reinforce each other in a vicious circle of want. Once all the fertiliser had been squandered in the Great Leap Forward of 1958, the fields turned barren. Paths between the rice paddies were poorly maintained, as farmers lost control over the land and crops were randomly planted and frequently changed. Close cropping and deep ploughing further stripped the farmland, as the soil was played out. In the past a field could retain carefully irrigated water for four to five days, but by 1962 the water seeped through the earth in less than seventy-two hours. This meant that twice as much water was needed, precisely as the system was silting up.41 The Bureau for Water Conservancy and Hydroelectricity in Hunan concluded that some 57,000 square kilometres suffered from soil erosion, including most of the river basin of the Yangzi and between a quarter and a third of the Xiang, the Zijiang and the Yuanjiang – three of the four largest rivers in the province. Up to half of all devices for water and soil conservation had silted up and been washed away. In the wake of the irrigation campaign the amount of soil erosion had increased by 50 per cent.42

Shabby workmanship, carried out by starved farmers without much planning and often in disregard of expert opinion, also marred new irrigation projects. In Hunan, by the end of the famine, less than half of all pumps actually worked. Many were broken, others simply stopped working in the absence of any supervision.43 In the Hengyang region, two-thirds of all medium-sized reservoirs and a third of all small dykes were dysfunctional, as water was lost through leaks and seepages.44 In the province as a whole, a tenth of all medium reservoirs were described as completely wasted projects, and they were abandoned halfway through. None of the ten large ones had much of an impact, as they submerged large cultivated surfaces but actually irrigated very little, causing great anger among local people who had been forced to resettle.45 In many cases the building material was so brittle that the movement of the waves inside the reservoirs created grooves of a depth of fifty to seventy centimetres inside the dam.46 The use of dynamite by hungry farmers to fish near dams and sluices did not improve the situation.47

Hunan was no exception. In neighbouring Hubei, during the drought of 1959 which the party leadership identified as one of the catastrophes to have ravaged the country, water from the mighty Yangzi could not be diverted into the fields because more than three-quarters of all new sluices were too high. The river passed along arid fields, as people and cattle went thirsty.48 Along the 100-kilometre stretch between Jianli and Jingzhou, in the midst of the drought, farmers dug holes into local dykes to irrigate the fields, but later these were flooded during heavy rains.49 By 1961 an estimated 400,000 small reservoirs were in a state of disrepair; roughly one in three either collapsed, silted up or leaked dry.50

But as in other parts of a country in the grip of gigantism, large projects also mushroomed. In Hubei they swelled from a few dozen before 1957 to well over 500. Once these were completed they were often simply abandoned to local communes, many of which failed to provide any supervision whatsoever. Stones were carted away from embankments, aqueducts were left to silt up, holes were dug in retaining walls, and cowsheds, pigsties and even entire houses were built on top of dams. The rubber used to seal sluices hermetically was cut away, while the telecommunication equipment from unmanned sentry posts was stolen.51 The conclusion was inescapable: despite the huge efforts devoted to irrigation schemes with the forced enlistment of millions of farmers throughout the province, by 1961 less than a million hectares were irrigated, in contrast to the 2 million in 1957.52 The position in Hunan was only marginally better: after massive investment in water conservancy the overall irrigated surface in the province increased from 2.66 million hectares in 1957 to about 2.68 million in 1962, or less than 1 per cent.53

Dams throughout the country lacked spillways, used shoddy material and were built without regard for the local geology. Many collapsed. In Guangdong, the dam at Fenghuang, Chao’an county, burst in 1960, followed by another at Huangdan, Dongxing county. These were large reservoirs, but medium-sized and small ones also caved in, for instance in Lingshan, Huiyang and Raoping.54 Nationwide, 115 large reservoirs, or 38 per cent of the total, were unable to hold back the floodwaters during the rainy season.55 According to a report from the central leadership, three large, nine medium and 223 small dams or reservoirs collapsed in 1960 because they were badly built.56

While many of those erected with earth collapsed almost immediately, some were dangerous time bombs ticking away for decades. This happened with the Banqiao and Shimantan dams in Zhumadian, Henan, built as part of the ‘Harness the Huai River’ campaign in 1957–9, as we have seen in an earlier chapter. When a typhoon hit the region in August 1975, these dams broke, unleashing a tidal wave which drowned an estimated 230,000 people.57 By 1980 some 2,976 dams had collapsed in Henan. As the chief of the provincial Bureau for Water Resources later put it, referring to the Great Leap Forward, ‘the crap from that era has not yet been cleared up’.58

Interference with nature increased the alkalisation – also known as salinisation or sodification – of farmlands, although this was a phenomenon more commonly associated with the semi-arid plains of the north. Alkalisation is often seen as a drawback of irrigation in dry regions where a lack of rainfall allows the soluble salts contained in water to accumulate in the soil, severely reducing its fertility. New irrigation schemes had a disastrous effect on the alkalisation of the North China Plain. In Henan, some two-thirds of a million hectares of soil turned into alkaline land.59 In Beijing and the surrounding suburbs, as the Water Conservancy Bureau found out, the amount of soil lost to alkalisation had doubled to 10 per cent during the Great Leap Forward.60 But along the coast, too, salinisation increased through the intrusion of marine water, a consequence of the half-baked schemes of local cadres courting the attention of their superiors. In a Hebei  commune located twenty kilometres from the sea, tradition was brushed aside in the pursuit of a vision of symmetry, as grand canals were dug to criss-cross square paddy fields rebuilt from uneven plots that customarily hugged the contours of the land. The crop plummeted as the proportion of alkaline land doubled.61 Throughout the province the amount of alkaline land jumped by 1.5 million hectares.62

Hebei was hardly exceptional: in his report on salinisation, Liu Jianxun noted that in many counties in northern Henan the extent of salinisation had doubled, reaching as high as 28 per cent.63 Hu Yaobang, inspecting counties along the Yellow River, found that huge irrigation schemes in some counties in Shandong had increased the overall proportion of alkaline soil from 8 per cent to as much as 24 per cent.64 This was confirmed in a more detailed report on the northern and western parts of the province, where on average salinisation was above 20 per cent by 1962, having doubled since the Great Leap Forward. In Huimin county it was close to half of all cultivated land. There was little doubt about the reasons for this: ‘Over the last couple of years the development of irrigation schemes has disturbed the natural drainage system.’65 How many millions of hectares were lost to salt during the great famine is not clear, but it is likely to have reached 10 to 15 per cent of all irrigated cropland.

No nationwide or even provincial figures exist, but qualitative evidence suggests that air and water pollution also contributed to an environmental crisis of considerable proportions. China had no treatment plants, and both urban sewage and industrial waste were discharged directly into local rivers. In the drive to transform a predominantly agricultural society into an industrial powerhouse capable of leading the socialist camp in its conquest of the world, the amount of pollutants such as phenol, cyanide, arsenic, fluorides, nitrates and sulphates released into water streams surged. Phenol is one of the most common contaminants: 0.001 milligrams per litre is advisable for drinking water and 0.01 for farming fish. In spillages in the Songhua and Mudan rivers, which flow through the bleak industrial heartland of the north, the amount of phenol ranged from two to twenty-four milligrams per litre. Where carp, catfish and sturgeon once teemed, nothing but a noisome flow of toxic materials remained. In a 150-kilometre stretch of the Nen River, a major tributary of the Songhua, some 600 tonnes of dead fish were removed by fishermen in less than a day in the spring of 1959. In Liaoning fish disappeared completely from the rivers near the industrial cities of Fushun and Shenyang. Along the coast near Dalian, it was not unusual to harvest some 20 tonnes of sea cucumber each year, but the delicacy vanished during the Great Leap Forward.66 Further south, in Beijing, the State Council complained about pollution: the powerful Anshan iron and steel complex discharged such large amounts of waste that the rivers reeked of petrol, with dead fish floating belly up on the slimy surface.67

So great was the amount of alkaline waste released by paper mills in Jiamusi that even the bottoms of boats corroded. The mills themselves were no longer able to produce high-quality paper because they relied on the river water they so heavily polluted. This was the case for all factories in the belt stretching from Shanghai down to Hangzhou. Oil companies were also culprits, a single plant in Maoming releasing 24,000 tonnes of kerosene into rivers each year. Other scarce resources in the midst of famine were emptied into the water: smelting plants in dirty, dusty Shenyang, the State Council calculated, could have saved 240 tonnes of copper and 590 tonnes of sulphuric acid a year – simply by recycling the water they used.68

Few comparative studies were made at the time to measure the increase of pollution after 1957, but one case study illustrates the impact of the Great Leap Forward. The leather, knitting, paper and chemical factories in Lanzhou, the industrial centre of the north-west, generated some 1,680 tonnes of waste water a day in 1957. This had rocketed up to 12,750 tonnes a day by 1959. Lanzhou is the first large city along the Yellow River, which contained eight times more pollutants than was allowed by the Ministry of Hygiene. The river slowly wound its way through the deserts and grasslands of Inner Mongolia before entering the North China Plain, where the water was diverted for irrigation through endless conduits and culverts, the pollutants becoming embedded deep in the cultivated soil.69

People too were poisoned, as rivers were often the only source of drinking water. Workers living near steel plants in the north suffered from chronic poisoning. In Zibo, Shandong, a hundred farmers became ill after drinking water polluted with contaminants from a pharmaceutical factory upstream.70 In Nanjing, a single factory employing a mere 275 workers produced 80 to 90 tonnes of sewage containing radioactive material each day. No measures for waste disposal existed, and all of it was dumped straight down the drain, ending up in the Qinhuai River, which turned into a cesspool. Even groundwater was poisoned: used by local people to wash their rice, the water in the wells near the factory turned red or green.71 In Baoshan, Shanghai, the waste water produced by steel plants leached into workers’ dormitories. Outside, heaps of corrugated iron waste accumulated, so that workers had to climb over the rubbish to gain access to their sleeping quarters.72 While slag was of less concern compared to pollution caused by waste discharges, a quarter of a million tonnes accumulated every day in busy Shanghai.73

The air too was polluted, although we have fewer specific examples since water was a far more precious resource than air and thus was monitored in greater detail. But one study shows that in Shanghai the equivalent of 20 tonnes of sulphuric acid mist, created in the production of phosphate fertilisers, was spewed into the air each day by a number of factories.74

Some of these factories also produced pesticides, which contaminated animals, people, soil and air. In Shanghai, for instance, thousands of tonnes of Dipterex and DDT were produced, as well as benzene hexachloride (BHC), a highly toxic farm chemical labelled 666 which degraded only slowly in the soil.75 The effects of pesticides on livestock, agricultural land and aquatic products are well known, but in times of famine chemical poison found new applications, spreading far beyond the farm. Desperate for food, some communes used pesticides to catch fish, birds and animals. In Hubei, insecticides such as Systox and Demeton, commonly called 1605 and 1059 powders, as well as a hypertoxic pesticide known as 3911, were deliberately spread to capture ducks, which were then sold to the cities. In Shakou alone dozens of customers were poisoned and several died after eating the contaminated fowl. Famished farmers also foraged independently for food, releasing chemicals in ponds and lakes to kill the wildlife. In some places the water turned green, killing all.76

But the most popular form of pest control was mass mobilisation. Enthralled by the power of the masses to conquer nature, Mao had raised the call to eliminate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows in 1958. Sparrows were targeted because they ate grain seeds, depriving the people of the fruits of their labour. In what is one of the most bizarre and ecologically damaging episodes of the Great Leap Forward, the country was mobilised in an all-out war against the birds. Banging on drums, clashing pots or beating gongs, a giant din was raised to keep the sparrows flying till they were so exhausted that they simply dropped from the sky. Eggs were broken and nestlings destroyed; the birds were also shot out of the air. Timing was of the essence, as the entire country was made to march in lockstep in the battle against the enemy, making sure that the sparrows had nowhere to escape. In cities people took to the roofs, while in the countryside farmers dispersed to the hillsides and climbed trees in the forests, all at the same hour to ensure complete victory.

Soviet expert Mikhail Klochko witnessed the beginning of the campaign in Beijing. He was awakened in the early morning by the bloodcurdling screams of a woman running to and fro on the roof of a building next to his hotel. A drum started beating, as the woman frantically waved a large sheet tied to a bamboo pole. For three days the entire hotel was mobilised in the campaign to do away with sparrows, from bellboys and maids to the official interpreters. Children came out with slings, shooting at any kind of winged creature.77

Accidents happened as people fell from roofs, poles and ladders. In Nanjing, Li Haodong climbed on the roof of a school building to get at a sparrow’s nest, only to lose his footing and tumble down three floors. Local cadre He Delin, furiously waving a sheet to scare the birds, tripped and fell from a rooftop, breaking his back. Guns were deployed to shoot at birds, also resulting in accidents. In Nanjing some 330 kilos of gunpowder were used in a mere two days, indicating the extent of the campaign. But the real victim was the environment, as guns were taken to any kind of feathered creature. The extent of damage was exacerbated by the indiscriminate use of farm poison: in Nanjing, bait killed wolves, rabbits, snakes, lambs, chicken, ducks, dogs and pigeons, some in large quantities.78

The main casualty was the humble sparrow. We do not have any reliable figures, as numbers were part of a campaign in which rhetorical inflation combined with specious precision to produce digits as surreal as the campaign itself. Shanghai thus triumphantly reported that it had eliminated 48,695.49 kilos of flies, 930,486 rats, 1213.05 kilos of cockroaches and 1,367,440 sparrows in one of their periodic wars against all pests (one wonders how many people secretly bred flies or cockroaches to obtain a medal of honour).79 Sparrows were probably driven to near extinction, and few were seen for years afterwards. By April 1960, as the leaders realised that the birds also ate insects, they were removed from the list of harmful pests and bedbugs substituted instead.80

But the reversal came too late: insect infestations spread after 1958, ruining a significant proportion of the crop. The biggest damage was done before the harvest, as swarms of locusts would obscure the sky and cover the countryside under a bristling blanket, devouring the crop. Taking advantage of the drought in Hubei in the summer of 1961, they infested some 13,000 hectares in the Xiaogan region alone. In the Jingzhou region more than 50,000 hectares were devastated. Overall, in the province, some 15 per cent of the rice crop was lost to the voracious grasshopper. Everything was stripped bare, over half of all cotton being lost in the Yichang region.81 Around Nanjing, where a ferocious campaign had been fought against sparrows, some 60 per cent of all fields suffered from insect damage in the autumn of 1960, which led to severe shortages of vegetables.82 All sorts of harmful species thrived: in Zhejiang province 500,000 to 750,000 tonnes of grain, or roughly 10 per cent of the harvest, were lost in 1960 to snout moth, leafhopper, pink bollworm and red spider, among other pests. Preventive measures were hampered by lack of insecticide: farm chemicals had first been squandered in the assault on nature in 1958–9, and then shortages of all commodities extended by 1960 to pesticides, just as they were needed more than ever.83

In the war on nature, different factors thus combined to amplify dramatically what the leadership described as ‘natural catastrophes’. The steel campaign caused deforestation, leading in turn to soil erosion and water loss. Grandiose irrigation schemes further disturbed the ecological balance, worsening the impact of inundations and droughts, both of which were drivers of locusts: drought eliminated all competition, while the heavy rains that followed allowed locusts to hatch more quickly than other insects and take over a mauled landscape. Because sparrows had vanished and pesticides had been misused, the insects descended unopposed on whatever meagre crop the farmers had managed to grow.

Mao lost his war against nature. The campaign backfired by breaking the delicate balance between humans and the environment, decimating human life as a result.

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