Robbers and Rebels

Violence was an act of last resort, as desperate farmers assaulted granaries, raided trains or plundered communes. After Cangzhou, Hebei, had been hit by a typhoon in 1961, some villagers armed themselves with sickles to steal the corn from the fields. One party secretary took charge of a brigade and organised raids against neighbouring villages, plundering dozens of sheep and several tonnes of vegetables.1 Some of these incursions were armed: in one incident a leader in Shaanxi provided the rifles with which a hundred villagers ransacked an adjacent commune and hauled away 5 tonnes of grain. Another local leader headed an armed gang of 260 men who slept rough in the daytime and pillaged at night.2 In parts of the countryside, large groups would assemble along county and provincial boundaries and make forays across the border, leaving behind a trail of destruction.3

But more often than not the target of peasant violence was the state granary. The scale of the attacks was staggering. In one Hunanese county alone thirty out of 500 state granaries were assailed in two months.4 In the same province the Xiangtan region witnessed over 800 cases of grain theft in the winter of 1960–1. In Huaihua farmers forced open a whole series of barns, taking several tonnes of millet.5

Raids on trains were also common. Farmers would gather along a railway and rob freight trains, using the sheer weight of their numbers to overwhelm the guards. This became increasingly common from the end of 1960 onwards, as the regime started to realise the extent of mass starvation and launched a purge of some of the most abusive party members. After provincial boss Zhang Zhongliang had been demoted in Gansu province, some 500 cases of train robbery were reported by the local police in January 1961 alone. The total losses were estimated at roughly 500 tonnes of grain and 2,300 tonnes of coal. And with each assault the crowds grew bolder. At the Wuwei railway station, only a few dozen people caused trouble in early January, but as others joined the fray the crowds swelled into the hundreds. Then, by the end of the month, 4,000 villagers ran amok, bringing to a halt a train from which every detachable portion of property was removed. Elsewhere, near Zhangye, a granary was pillaged from dusk to dawn by 2,000 irate farmers, who killed one of the guards in the process. In another case military uniforms were stolen from a wagon. On the prowl days later, the villagers were mistaken for special forces by the guards in charge of a warehouse and given access to the grain unopposed.6

All along the railway line, granaries were attacked, livestock stolen, weapons seized and account books burned. Armed forces and special militia had to be sent in to establish order.7 Some of the train robberies had diplomatic repercussions, for instance when the assailants of a freight train burned the exhibition goods that were in transit from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the People’s Republic of Mongolia.8 To the credit of the Ministry of Public Security, nobody was ordered to shoot into the crowds, and the police were instructed instead to focus on the ‘ringleaders’.9

Violence begets violence: sometimes the protective shield outsiders mistook for passivity and submissiveness broke down, and villagers erupted in a blind fury. In heated meetings at which higher quotas were introduced, farmers accused their leaders of starving them to death, some of the more disgruntled ones going so far as to assault and kill local cadres with cleavers.10 Others armed themselves with sticks and chased cadres suspected of skimming public funds. In Yunyang county, Sichuan, local people unleashed a collective anger upon their leader, who jumped into a pond to his death together with his wife.11 In the mountainous county of Tongjiang, local team leader Liu Funian was made to kneel on stones and was beaten with a flagpole.12 But such examples were unusual. Ordinary people may have pilfered, stolen, lied and on occasion torched and pillaged, but they were rarely the perpetrators of violence. They were the ones who had to find ways of ‘eating bitterness’ – the Chinese saying for enduring hardship – by absorbing grief, accepting pain and living with loss on a devastating scale.

Less overt but equally destructive was arson, although it was not always possible to distinguish between fires started accidentally, for instance by poor villagers trying to stay warm during the winter, and those ignited deliberately as a form of protest. The Ministry of Public Security estimated that at least 7,000 fires caused 100 million yuan worth of losses in 1958 – although it was unable to tell what proportion should be attributed to intentional burning.13 Dozens of cases of arson were reported every year by the public security organs in Hebei.14 Towards the end of 1959 there were three times more fires in Nanjing than there had been the previous year. Many were caused by neglect, but not a few were attributed to arsonists. Zhao Zhihai, for instance, started a fire in the dormitory of his factory as a form of protest.15 Xu Minghong burned four haystacks and was shot dead by the local militia.16 In Songzi, Hubei, the house of a party secretary was torched.17 Elsewhere in the province angry farmers doused a statue of Mao with petrol and set it ablaze.18 In Sichuan, Li Huaiwen set fire to the local canteen, which had once been his home, shouting: ‘Get the hell out of here, this canteen belongs to me!’19

By 1961 pyromania possessed the countryside. Around Guangzhou, hundreds of fires flickered at night in the weeks following the Chinese New Year, many started by farmers demanding their own private plot.20 In Wengyuan county the villagers scribbled a message on a wall near the granary they had just torched, proclaiming that the grain that was no longer theirs might as well be burned.21

As starvation sets in, famished people are often too weak and too focused on their own survival to contemplate rebellion. But inside the vaults of the party archives is plenty of evidence of underground organisations springing up in the last two years of the famine. They never posed a genuine threat to the party and were easily crushed, but they did act as a barometer for popular discontent. Many of these organisations never even got off the ground. In Hunan, for instance, 150 people along a county border armed themselves for rebellion in the winter of 1960–1, but were immediately swept up by local security forces. Near the provincial capital a Love the People Party was set up by a few disgruntled farmers in favour of the freedom to cultivate and trade in agricultural products. They too never stood a chance.22

But more credible challenges came from the provinces near Tibet, where an armed uprising in March 1959 was quelled with heavy artillery, resulting in the Dalai Lama’s flight to exile. In Qinghai in 1958 open rebellion continued for months on end, at places ranging from Yegainnyin (Henan), close to the Gansu border in the east, to Gyêgu (Yushu) and Nangqen (Nangqian) up in the Tibetan plateau. Some of the rebels were inspired by Lhasa, others were fuelled by Islam. The armed forces in the province were insufficient to deal with the uprisings, and the army initially focused on regaining control of all vital highways.23

The region continued to be rocked periodically by local uprisings. In the autumn of 1960, villagers in Xuanwei county, Yunnan, rebelled, an act of subversion that rapidly spread to several communes. The movement was backed by local cadres, including party secretaries in the higher echelons of power. Weapons were seized, and hundreds of discontented villagers rallied around slogans promising the abolition of the people’s communes, a free market and a return of the land to the farmers. The army swiftly intervened, capturing and eliminating all but one of the leaders. In his report to Zhou Enlai, top security boss Xie Fuzhi mentioned a dozen similar incidents in the south-western provinces that year.24 To this had to be added over 3,000 ‘counter-revolutionary groups’ detected by the public security forces: Yunnan alone harboured a hundred groups that referred to themselves as a ‘party’ (dang).25

Secret societies were ruthlessly crushed after 1949, but a long history of state suppression had prepared them for survival against all odds. A survey of one northern province gives an indication of the extent of their continued influence – although the numbers may have been inflated by overzealous cadres keen on more resources to fight the counter-revolution. In Hebei province about forty groups dubbed ‘counter-revolutionary’ were unmasked within the first few months of 1959. Half of these belonged to secret societies the party had tried to extirpate. Huanxingdao, Shengxiandao, Baguadao, Xiantiandao, Jiugongdao – there were about a dozen popular religious sects and secret societies active in the province. In Ningjin county alone, close to 4 per cent of the local population was thought to belong to one sect or another, many of them swearing allegiance to the Yiguandao.26 Some of these societies extended their influence across provincial boundaries. Despite restrictions on the movement of people from the countryside, followers would travel from Hebei to Shandong to pray at the grave of a leader of a village sect called the Heaven and Earth Teaching Society.27 Everywhere people turned to popular religion, despite party strictures against ‘superstition’. In Guangdong, where a ceremony to mark the birthday of the Mother Dragon remained popular, some 3,000 worshippers gathered for the occasion in Deqing in 1960. Even students and cadres joined in.28

But nothing could destabilise the regime even in its darkest hour. As in other famines, from Bengal and Ireland to the Ukraine, most villagers, by the time it became clear that starvation was there to stay, were already too weak even to walk down the road to the next village, let alone find weapons and organise an uprising. In any event, even a mild form of opposition was brutally repressed and severely dealt with: leaders of riots or uprisings faced execution, while others were given an indefinite sentence in a labour camp. What also prevented the country from imploding, even as tens of millions perished, was the absence of any viable alternative to the communist party. Whether they were dispersed secret religions or poorly organised underground parties, none except the regime could control this huge expanse of land. And the potential for a coup from within the army had been averted by extensive purges carried out by Lin Biao after the Lushan plenum in 1959.

Yet something more tenacious than mere geopolitics prevented the appearance of a credible threat to the rule of the party. The most common technique of self-help in times of mass starvation was a simple device called hope. And hope dictated that, however bad the situation was in the village, Mao had the best interests of his people at heart. A common conviction in imperial times was that the emperor was benevolent, but his servants could be corrupt. Even more so in the People’s Republic, the population had to reconcile a vision of utopia trumpeted by the media with the everyday reality of catastrophe on the ground. The belief that cadres who were abusive failed to carry out the orders of a beneficent Chairman was widespread. A distant entity called ‘the government’ and a semi-god called ‘Mao’ were on the side of good. If only he knew, everything would be different.

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