On the Sly

Under the cloak of collectivisation, backed up by the naked power of the militia, party officials proceeded to strip people of every conceivable possession – in particular in the countryside, where farmers were more often than not defenceless in the face of rapacious cadres. It was a war of attrition waged against the people, as every new wave of plunder nipped in the bud even a faint hope of actually owning something private. In Xiangtan, Hunan, local people remembered six ‘winds of communism’ blowing over the villages. The first came in the winter of 1957–8, as money, china, silver and other valuable objects had to be handed over for ‘capital accumulation’. The second took place in the summer of 1958 with the advent of the communes. A third ‘wind’ blew away pots, pans and iron utensils as the steel campaign gripped the county. Then, in March 1959, all savings in state banks were frozen. By the autumn of that year large irrigation projects were launched again, and tools and timber were commandeered. Finally, in the spring of 1960, a project for a giant pigsty was hatched by a local leader, who seized pigs and building materials.1

Most people had little recourse against open pillage. But they were not passive victims, and many devised a whole range of strategies of survival. The most common one was to slack at work, allowing natural inertia to take over. Loudspeakers might be blaring exhortations to work, propaganda posters might extol the model worker who overfulfilled the plan, but apathy more often than not governed the factory floor. In a typical workshop of forty workers in Beijing, half a dozen would habitually crouch around the stove to warm up in winter, while others would leave the factory in daytime to queue for goods or watch a movie. Cadres simply did not have the means to control every worker and punish every disciplinary breach.2 A more comprehensive study by the Propaganda Department showed that in Shanghai up to half of all workers failed to pay much heed to work discipline. Some would arrive several hours late, others spent time chatting with each other. A few loafers failed to do any work at all, simply waiting for the next meal. Many disappeared well before the end of the day.3

The deeper the country sank into famine, the greater the shirking became. By 1961 each worker in Shanghai was contributing 40 per cent less value than in 1959, as more workers managed to produce fewer goods. Slacking, of course, was only one of several reasons why productivity plummeted, as we have seen in Chapter 18, but by 1961 factory workers had become masters of time theft.4

In the countryside, by 1959, many villagers had to work all day without eating. Apathy at work, besides being a result of malnutrition, was essential for survival, as every bit of energy had to be saved to get through the day. Farmers would till the fields under the watchful eye of a passing cadre, but as soon as he was out of sight they would drop their tools and sit by the road, waiting for the end of their shift. In parts of the countryside people slept all afternoon, placing their own sentries at key intersections along the fields.5 Where cadres were lenient, up to half the local population managed to avoid work.6In some villages under a tolerant leadership, entire families would huddle together and sleep for days on end, literally hibernating through the winter months.7

Some historians have interpreted black-marketeering, obstruction, slacking and theft as acts of ‘resistance’, or ‘weapons of the weak’ pitting ‘peasants’ against ‘the state’. But these survival techniques pervaded the social spectrum, so much so that if these were acts of ‘resistance’ the party would already have collapsed. In the conditions of starvation created by the regime, many people had little choice but to ignore customary moral standards and steal as much as they could.

Theft was endemic, its frequency determined by need and opportunity. Transportation workers were in the best position to pilfer state property, as millions of tons of goods passed through their hands. In the Wuhan Harbour Number Six Dock over 280 of the 1,200 employees systematically stripped freight trains while pretending to carry out maintenance and repair work.8 In Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, half of the 864 porters at the railway station stole goods.9 Mail theft was common, and was often organised by party members. In the Guangzhou Post Office a team of four was responsible for opening more than 10,000 overseas parcels, taking watches, pens, ginseng, milk powder, dried abalone and other gifts. Many of the stolen wares were then sold at auction to postal workers. The entire leadership at the post office, or more than a hundred cadres, had a hand in the operation.10

Students stole from the canteen, fifty cases a month being brought to light in Nanjing University in 1960.11 In Hushu Middle School in Jiangning county, just outside Nanjing, petty theft was the norm among students, a way of life that started with a simple carrot pilfered from the kitchen.12 In state shops and department stores clerks at the counter subtly doctored receipts or even produced counterfeits, while in the back assistants rummaged through the storage rooms. Xu Jishu, a sales assistant at the Friendship Store in Shanghai, tampered with receipts, adding small sums of money that amounted, over time, to around 300 yuan. Li Shandi, employed in a pharmacy, confessed to putting away one yuan each day over several years, almost doubling her salary.13

Opportunity was greatest in the city, but need ruled the countryside, where many farmers had to survive famine by living on their wits. At every stage of the production cycle, villagers tried to keep back some of the grain from the demands of the state. This started in the field, even before the wheat or maize was fully ripened. Harking back to a traditional practice called chiqing, or ‘eating green’, villagers quietly clipped off spikes of grain straight from the field, husked and ground it in their hands and ate the raw, green kernels when out of sight of the militia. Eating the crop before it reached maturity was more common in the north, as it was easier to hide among dense rows of maize or in a field thick with wheat than in a rice paddy. Maize was also a more durable crop, standing in the fields for a longer period of time, and thus allowing for a greater number of thefts to take place.14

The autumn harvest in 1960 almost vanished in some communes as a result of crop eating. In Guangrao, Shandong province, several brigades took up to 80 per cent of the maize before it ripened, while crops of millet and green beans vanished altogether. In Jiaoxian county, also in Shandong, up to 90 per cent of all grains disappeared. Thousands of similar incidents rocked the province, as many of those discovered eating from the fields were beaten to death by the local militia.15 In Xuancheng, Anhui, entire fields were eaten clean, as if a swarm of locusts had passed over them.16 Recollecting the years of hunger, farmer Zeng Mu captured the importance of theft: ‘Those who could not steal died. Those who managed to steal some food did not die.’17

Once the grain had been threshed and bagged, it was bulked up with water and sold to the state – with or without the complicity of local inspectors. As we have already seen, in Guangdong alone almost a third of 1.5 million tonnes of state grain suffered from a high water content, although poor storage conditions no doubt contributed to the rot in the subtropical south.18 Once sold to the state, grain on the move was exposed to a plethora of thieving hands. In Xinxing county, Guangdong, close to 900 incidents of theft were reported in 1960. Lin Si, a boatman from Xinhe, took about half a tonne of grain on dozens of occasions. Others were more prudent, replacing stolen foodstuffs with sand and stones. In Guangzhou shippers would extract the grain with a bamboo tube and pour sand back into the bags.19 In Gaoyao, Jiangsu, just about every boatman helped himself to the grain, each taking an average of 300 kilos a year.20

Guards in charge of state granaries stole. In Zhangjiakou, bordering Hebei and Inner Mongolia, a fifth of all watchmen were dishonest, sometimes stealing with the complicity of party members. Half of all cadres in charge of collection points in Qiuxian county were corrupt.21 In the end, with the grain passing through so many grasping hands, one wonders how much actually reached the canteen table. In Suzhou local investigators estimated that out of a kilo of rice only about half made it to its final destination. It was pilfered from the granaries, taken during transportation, pocketed by accountants, confiscated by cadres and finally filched by cooks before a bowl of rice was ever served in a canteen.22

When local cadres colluded with the farmers, powerful forms of collective theft, subterfuge and deception could emerge, shielding the village from the worst effects of the famine. Some cadres kept two sets of books, one with the real figures in the village and another with fake numbers for the eyes of grain inspectors. This was widespread in several counties in Guangdong province.23 In Xuan’en county, Hubei, one in three bookkeepers falsified the accounts. In Chongyang county, one party secretary took the initiative by declaring some 250 tonnes to the commune higher up but pencilling 315 tonnes into the local account book.24 In June 1959 the office of the Hebei provincial committee concluded from a discrepancy between the amount of grain actually stored and the official inventory that 160,000 tonnes were missing, much of it as a consequence of false reporting and creative accounting.25

Then the grain had to be hidden, which was no easy task in the midst of ferocious and often bloody campaigns to take it from the farmers. In Xiaogan, Hubei, one of the largest stashes discovered by inspection teams contained some 60 tonnes of grain. In Yitang commune, 110 tonnes were hidden behind false walls, inside coffins or in wardrobes. A search in Wuluo among fifteen households yielded 26 tonnes. In some cases local leaders distributed the grain immediately after the harvest and urged farmers to eat as much as they could before the militia could strike.26

Throughout the country there were cases of local leaders quietly distributing grain to the farmers, helping many to survive the famine. In Yixian county, Hebei, 150 to 200 kilos of harvested grain per hectare were handed out in one commune. Elsewhere inspection teams commonly found ‘black granaries’. In Jiaohe county, virtually every team had ‘underground grain’ of around 750 kilos.27 Near Tianjin, the leader of Sunshi commune put it in simple terms when he withheld 200 tonnes of seed: ‘the state’s grain is also the people’s grain, and what belongs to the people also belongs to the state’.28 In Hunan some twenty-three counties were discovered to have 5 to 10 per cent of grain above what had been declared, totalling 36,000 tonnes. One of the most extreme cases was Liuyang, where 7,500 tonnes turned up after a painstaking check of 30,000 granaries.29 But all too often the reverse was true. In many villages local leaders preferred to lower the grain consumption rather than ask for help higher up the chain of command, as they feared being seen as slackers who would beg rather than work towards a higher crop.30

Another stratagem used by local cadres was to ‘borrow’ grain from state granaries. In Hebei some 357,000 tonnes were thus ‘borrowed’ up to April 1959, often under pressure from highly placed party members. Party secretary Li Jianzhong from Sungu commune, near Tianjin, thus phoned the granary for a ‘loan’, which the employees flatly refused, only to be visited by the local boss who exerted the power of his position: ‘When you are asked for a loan you should lend; even when you are not asked for a loan you should lend. From now on if there is a problem I will come and sort it out.’ A loan of 35 tonnes was agreed on the spot. Units and institutions in cities too were keen to borrow without ever paying back. One middle school borrowed grain to feed its students, incurring a debt of 35,000 yuan.31

But in the end, when the food ran out, people turned on each other, stealing from other villagers, neighbours or even relatives. In Nanjing half of all conflicts between neighbours involved food, as people stole from each other, some of the incidents leading to fist fights.32Children and the elderly suffered most, for instance when a blind grandmother was robbed of the little rice she had been able to buy with relief coupons in Danyang city.33 In the countryside, fierce competition for survival gradually eroded any sense of social cohesion. In Liaojia village, just outside Changsha, larceny was so bad that desperate cadres could do nothing but tell the farmers to steal from other villages instead, for which they would not be punished.34 And once community bonds in the countryside unravelled, the family became an arena for strife, jealousy and conflict. One woman remembered how her mother-in-law slept with food coupons in a pouch tied around her neck. A nephew cut the string and stole the coupons one cold winter night, exchanging the lot for sweets. The woman died several days later.35

Communes, villages, families: all were seething with tension and resentment, as famine increasingly pitted erstwhile neighbours, friends and relatives against each other. As one party official noted in Hubei during the distribution of the summer crop, ‘between the state and collectives, between brigades, between individuals, up, down, left, right and centre: at all levels there are disputes’.36 Violence flared, fights over the crop tearing apart units or teams. Sticks and knives were produced as villagers confronted each other in fights over food.37 In Yingshan county, Hubei, two poor men were hung from a tree after they were found stealing millet.38

In times of famine one person’s gain was another’s loss. Even when it seemed that petty theft took place against a faceless state, somebody down the chain of distribution paid the price. In Xuanwei county, Yunnan, a number of village leaders pumped up the figures when making grain deliveries in December 1958. The grain was earmarked to feed 80,000 railway workers. The plan on paper had pencilled in enough calories for each worker, but it failed to predict that the amounts delivered by the neighbouring villages were below the planned requirements. The railway workers – ordinary farmers conscripted from the countryside – went hungry for several days, and some seventy died of hunger before the end of the month.39 Throughout the countryside, radical collectivisation created conditions of extreme shortage in which one person’s survival depended on another person’s starvation. In the end, through a combination of destructive policies initiated from above and covert forms of self-help pursued from below, the country imploded. But while self-defence and self-destruction in the famished countryside were often hard to disentangle, it was the weak, vulnerable and poor who suffered the most.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!