‘Dear Chairman Mao’

Truth had met its end in Lushan. Although speaking out is never advisable in a one-party state, the clash among leaders in the summer of 1959 left nobody in any doubt about the danger of offering an opinion that diverged from the party line. And as Mao was often cryptic in his pronouncements, it was prudent to veer to the left rather than stray to the right. In the midst of mass starvation nobody actually mentioned famine, as leaders used euphemisms such as ‘natural disasters’ or ‘temporary difficulties’. Lower down the ladder famine was such a taboo that local cadres went to great lengths to hide the starving and the sick from the prying eyes of inspection teams. When the party committee of Longhua county, Hebei, sent a group of officials to investigate the countryside, some villages herded the sick together and hid them in the mountains.1

A string of foreign visitors – carefully screened by the party and given a lavish tour of model communes – were all too willing to jump to the defence of Maoism.2 François Mitterrand, a left-wing politician who later became president of France, felt privileged to report the Chairman’s words of wisdom to the West. In his opulent villa in Hangzhou, Mao, ‘a great scholar known in the entire world for the diversity of his genius’, told him in 1961 that there was no famine, but only ‘a period of scarcity’.3 At the other end of the political spectrum, the Englishman John Temple, Conservative MP for Chester, toured the country in late 1960 and declared that communism worked and the country was making ‘great progress’.4

But not everybody was so willing to be duped. Foreign students with a Chinese background were far less gullible. The majority of the 1,500 foreign students in Nanjing – most from Indonesia, others from Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam – expressed doubts about the Great Leap Forward, openly wondering about the viability of the communes and questioning the whole idea of collectivisation. As early as March 1959 quite a few were acutely aware of the effects of hunger on the countryside.5

Some foreign students were less inhibited than their local counterparts, but critical views were widespread in schools around the country – despite repeated campaigns against ‘rightist conservatism’. As an investigation team dispatched by the Communist Youth League found, misgivings about the Great Leap Forward, the communist party and socialism in general were common. University students openly asked why, if the people’s communes were such a superior form of organisation, food was short and peasants were abandoning their villages. Why was the supply of goods so poor in a socialist system? Why was the standard of living so low if the rate of development was higher than in capitalist countries? ‘Indonesia may be a colony but people there live a good life,’ one student opined.6

In the cities talk about the famine was muffled by the roar of propaganda, but was clearly audible to the many agents of the party. As informers working for a street committee noted in the Putuo district of Shanghai, ordinary factory workers like Chen Ruhang speculated openly about the number of deaths caused by the famine. Mass starvation was the main topic of conversation in his household, with visitors coming from the famished countryside in 1961.7 In Hubei – as the Federation of Trade Unions discovered – half of all workers were talking critically about the famine by the end of 1961. Some openly defied their leaders. In one case, a man who was reprimanded for shirking work patted his stomach, then looked the cadre right in the eye and said ‘It’s empty!’8

In the south, closer to Hong Kong and Macau, talk about the free world beckoning just across the border was common by 1962. In Zhongshan county young people tilling the fields swapped stories about the crown colony, and hundreds actually attempted to make the passage each year. Many were arrested and sent back to their villages, where they regaled their friends with tales from their odyssey.9 In Guangzhou young workers openly admired Hong Kong, allowing flights of fancy to take them to a mythical place where the food was bountiful and the work was easy.10 ‘Hong Kong is a good world!’ somebody scribbled on the wall of a primary school.11

Other scribblers appeared determined to leave behind more permanent traces of their discontent. Messages of opposition were scrawled on toilet walls. In Xingning city one angry hand etched a slogan in a public toilet insulting Mao.12 A lengthy diatribe against the export of food was found on the wall of a toilet in the Nanjing Automobile Factory.13

More daring were those who came out at night to post flyers and posters critical of the party. In Shanghai somebody left a two-metre poster inciting rebellion.14 Sometimes hundreds of leaflets were involved. In Gaoyang a hundred flyers with handwritten slogans on pink or red paper appeared overnight, prominently posted on walls or pinned on trees around the city: ‘Why are the people of our country starving? Because all the grain is being shipped to the Soviet Union!’ Another sounded a warning: ‘The harvest is coming up soon and we must organise a movement to steal the wheat: he who wishes to join in, please be prepared!’15 In Lanzhou over 2,700 flyers advocated a general strike in May 1962.16 In Hainan, the large island off the coast of Guangdong, some 40,000 anti-party leaflets were reportedly distributed, some apparently dropped from planes sent by Chiang Kai-shek.17 The extent of these subversive activities is difficult to gauge, as traces of opposition must have been erased as soon as they were spotted. But in Nanjing, in a mere three months, some forty separate slogans and flyers about the famine were reported by the police.18

Farmers too used posters to seek redress, vent their anger or denounce a cadre. In Ningjin county, Hebei, Zhang Xirong was brave enough to post a long wall-essay, called a dazibao, in protest over the conditions of his local canteen. He immediately attracted the attention of the local Public Security Bureau and was dragged away. His plea, in any event, was a lonely one, lost in a sea of 1.7 million flyers, posters and slogans the county deployed in its campaign to heighten public security.19 Just as stubborn was farmer Wang Yutang. His response to an anti-rightist campaign, with its millions of official propaganda posters and ceaseless radio broadcasts, was to post his own dazibao in Shishou county. ‘The Great Leap Forward in 1958 was all bragging, workers suffer greatly and our stomachs go hungry,’ it boldly proclaimed.20 But even if the balance of power was heavily tilted towards the party, which used a sea of propaganda to drown out the slightest grumbling of discontent, posters could sometimes achieve their goal. In Dazhu county, Sichuan, villagers effectively turned some of the propaganda weapons of the party against a local leader, denouncing him in more than twenty posters for embezzling six yuan. The public humiliation was such that the man refused to oversee the harvest and went fishing instead. Farmers immediately took possession of the crop.21

But more popular were verses. Just as Mao had demanded that everyone be a soldier, he proclaimed every man and woman a poet. The population was forced to produce millions of verses in the autumn of 1958, as festivals were organised and prizes handed out for the best folksongs that rhapsodised bumper harvests, steel plants or water-conservancy measures. A frenzied vision of a socialist future was conjured up in rhymed quatrains churned out by the million. In Shanghai alone it was claimed that a mere 200,000 workers had composed some 5 million poems.22 While much of the officially sponsored poetry was rather trite, a truly creative spirit did appear in some of the ditties spontaneously created by villagers in response to collectivisation. Here, in the midst of famine, was a playful sense of humour that helped people get through times of misery. In Shanghai a popular saying was ‘All is well under Chairman Mao, a shame no one can eat his fill.’23 In Jiangmen county, Guangdong, farmers sang the following song:

Collectivisation, collectivisation,

Nobody earns, somebody spends,

Members earn but teams spend,

Teams earn but brigades spend,

Brigades earn but communes spend,

Only fools become party activists!24

An illiterate villager came up with a poem to describe the thin gruel served in the canteen:

We enter the canteen,

We see a big pot of gruel,

Waves swell on each side of the pot,

In the middle people drown.25

Local cadres were given satirical nicknames that mocked their greed, bad temper or gluttony. In Kaiping county, Guangdong, farmers referred to one particularly rotund cadre as ‘Cooked Food Dog’ (yanhuogou). ‘Golden Fly’ and ‘Chopping Block Aunt’ were also used. Elsewhere, ‘Big Belly’ was common, while every commune seemed to have a demon from the ghostly underworld. Many a cadre was called ‘King Yan’, the King of Hell.26 Irony was not uncommon. In Sichuan – where, as we have seen, provincial leader Li Jingquan noted how people became even more corpulent than Mao Zedong thanks to the bounty brought about by collectivisation – some of the villagers mocked the canteens, saying that ‘the advantage of the mess hall is that we are all much fatter’, referring to the swelling of bodies in famine oedema.27

Just beneath the surface of official propaganda lay a shadow world of rumours. They turned the world upside down, offering an alternative, dissident form of truth which subverted the censored information emanating from the state.28 Everybody listened to rumours, trying to make sense of the wider world and waiting for an end to the folly of collectivisation. Rumours questioned the legitimacy of the party and discredited the people’s communes. In Wuhan it was feared that even wives might be shared.29

Rumours encouraged acts of opposition to the state. Informal news about farmers who took possession of their land or grabbed grain from state granaries were common. In Chaoyang, Guangdong, one prophetic woman proclaimed that taking food in times of hunger would be condoned by the party.30 In Songzi, Hubei, some seven brigades decided in the winter of 1959–60 to dissolve the collectives and divide up the land.31 Rumours about land distribution also ran rampant in Anlu, Chongyang and Tongshan.32 ‘Mao has died, the land will be returned to the people!’ was the message relayed by villagers in the midst of famine in Jiang’an, Sichuan.33

Deafening noise about shortages also contributed to a state of permanent chaos on the ground which, in turn, prompted the propaganda machine to churn out even louder slogans. People and party were locked in a war of words, as every dogma found its obverse in rumour. Panics, for instance, were triggered when ration coupons for certain goods were said to be phased out. Some workers in the Angang Steel Works bought up to thirty-five pairs of socks in June 1960 as long queues spontaneously appeared out of nowhere to stockpile all cotton goods.34 Similarly, in a commune in Changle, Guangdong, a rumour that salt might be withdrawn led to local panic in January 1961, with people struggling to hoard some 35 tonnes of salt in five days, forty times more than usual.35

Rumours of war and impending invasion engulfed entire communities, spreading fear by turning the party propaganda upside down. And fear, in turn, promoted a sense of cohesion, as apocalyptic imagery united a disgruntled countryside. In Guangdong farmers heard that Guangzhou was up in arms and Shantou had been taken, as Chiang Kai-shek had invaded the country. Banners wishing the Guomindang a long life appeared by the roadside. The information was precise: ‘The Guomindang has reached Dongxi Village on the 14th!’ or ‘Chiang Kai-shek will come back in August!’36 Defying common assumptions about the parochial lives that peasants allegedly lived in isolated villages, these rumours spread like wildfire, leaping from county to county and across provinces, reaching Hunan in a matter of days.37 In Putian, Fujian, the province opposite Taiwan, a secret society distributed yellow banners to be prominently displayed after the fall of the communist party. Apparently the banners also protected against the effects of nuclear radiation.38

Some wronged villagers were confident enough to appeal to the law. In Liuhe, near Nanjing, a cadre snatched and later ate the chicken an old woman was trying to sell. Incensed, she went straight to court and lodged a complaint.39 But more often than not litigation was meaningless, all the more so since the judicial system had crumbled under political pressure – even leading to the abolition of the Ministry of Justice in 1959. Politics was in command, curtailing formal justice – as well as formal recourse. In Ningjin county, for instance, the number of cadres in charge of the police, the inspectorate and the courts was halved in 1958. The local courts were overwhelmed with civil cases brought by ordinary people.40

In response, many turned instead to a tradition of complaint in the form of letters and petitions. As misinformation proliferated within the party bureaucracy, every level feeding false reports and inflated statistics to the next one up, the state security tried to bypass official organs and reach straight down to street level. It paid close attention to popular opinion and encouraged anonymous letters of denunciation.41 Class enemies, after all, could worm their way into the ranks of the party, while spies and saboteurs were lurking among the masses. Popular vigilance was necessary to ferret them out: the people monitored the party. Even the most insignificant nobody had the power to put pen to paper and bring down a mighty cadre, a negligent local official or an abusive bureaucrat. Arbitrary denunciation could strike at any time up the ladder of power. And people wrote furiously, sending bags of letters each month to beg, protest, denounce or complain, sometimes coyly and humbly, occasionally vociferously. Some denounced their neighbours over a trifle, others merely sought help in changing jobs or moving house, and a few went into a long tirade against the entire system, peppering their letters with anti-communist slogans. They wrote to newspapers, the police, the courts and the party. Some wrote to the State Council, and not a few addressed their letters to Mao Zedong personally.

In Changsha the provincial authorities received some 1,500 letters or visitors a month. Many wrote to seek redress from a perceived injustice, and a few even ventured to write letters critical enough to be deemed ‘reactionary’. Those who presented a specific case with a concrete request had a chance of receiving an answer. After all, within the huge monitoring system of the party bureaucracy, local authorities had to show that they acted on ‘requests from the masses’.42 By March 1961 in Nanjing, around 130,000 letters had been received since the start of the Great Leap Forward. The majority of complaints concerned work, food, goods and services, but a more detailed analysis of 400 letters ‘by the masses’ showed that one in ten made a direct accusation or threatened to sue.43 In Shanghai the bureau for handling letters from the public received well over 40,000 items in 1959. People complained about lack of food, poor housing and work conditions, with a few attacking the party and its representatives.44 The point of a denunciation was to prompt an investigation, and some letters carried enough conviction to spur the authorities into action. After a complaint was sent to the provincial governor of Guangdong alleging that the Institute for Nationalities included dozens of fictitious students on its roster to increase its grain allocation, a local security team was dispatched, and managed to extract several confessions and an apology from the Institute’s leaders.45

Some readers sent letters to the People’s Daily. Few of these were published, but their contents were summarised and circulated among the leadership. Coal miners from Guangxi province, for instance, wrote to complain that some of them fainted on the job because the food rations had been slashed even though their working hours had increased.46 The State Council received hundreds of letters each month. Some writers were bold enough to attack the policies of the Great Leap Forward and lament the export of grain in the midst of hunger.47Some wrote directly to the top leaders. In doing so they reproduced a long-standing imperial tradition of petitioning the emperor, but they also demonstrated their belief that abuses of power were local, not the result of a campaign of collectivisation initiated by Mao himself: ‘if only Mao knew’. Justice, surely, had survived in the capital. Letters offered hope. Xiang Xianzhi, a poor girl from Hunan, had a letter addressed to the Chairman stitched inside her coat for a full year before handing it over to an investigation team sent by the provincial party committee.48 ‘Dear Chairman Mao’ was a standard opening greeting, for instance in the case of Ye Lizhuang’s letter about the starvation and corruption in Hainan. His appeal worked. It led to a lengthy investigation by a high-powered team, which brought to light ‘oppression of the people’ by local party members.49

But many letters never reached their destination. After Liu Shaoqi personally complained to the minister of public security, Xie Fuzhi, that letters sent to him by fellow villagers had been opened by the local police (see Chapter 16), the full extent of the abuse came to light. In Guizhou the post office and the Public Security Bureau routinely opened the mail, which led to the arrest of the authors of denunciations for ‘anti-party’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities. When a cadre wrote about mass starvation in Zunyi, he was interrogated for several months and sent to work in a kiln factory.50 More than 2,000 letters were opened by the police every month in Gaotai county, Gansu. Anonymity, apparently, offered little protection. In one case, He Jingfang mailed eight unsigned letters, but the local police still managed to track him down, extract a confession and send him off to a labour camp.51 In Sichuan, Du Xingmin’s letter denouncing party secretary Song Youyu led to a frantic search throughout the brigade in which writing samples were compared. Du was unmasked and accused of being a saboteur. But before being handed over to the Public Security Bureau, Du had both his eyes gouged out by an enraged Song. He died a few days later in prison.52 No wonder some people turned to violence instead.

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