The most effective strategy of survival in times of famine was to leave the village. Ironically, for millions of farmers the Great Leap Forward meant departure to the city rather than entry into a commune. As targets for industrial output were ceaselessly revised upwards, urban enterprises started recruiting cheap labour from the countryside, creating a migration of tidal dimensions. More than 15 million farmers moved to the city in 1958 alone, lured by the prospect of a better life.1 From Changchun, Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai to Guangzhou, cities exploded as, according to the official census, the total urban population ballooned from 99 million in 1957 to 130 million in 1960.2

The great outflow from the countryside happened despite formal restrictions on the movement of people. The household registration rules described in Chapter 22 were brushed aside in the rush to industrialisation. But few migrants managed officially to change their place of residence from the village to the city. A great underclass was created, relegated to dirty, arduous and sometimes dangerous jobs on the margins of the urban landscape, and facing discriminatory barriers against assimilation in their place of work. Migrant workers were deprived of the same entitlements accorded city dwellers, for instance subsidised housing, food rations and access to health, education and disability benefits. Most of all they had no secure status, dwelling in a twilight zone of legality and risking expulsion back to the countryside at any time.

This happened in early 1959, as food reserves ran out and the country faced its first winter of hunger. In all major cities, as we have seen, grain reserves fell to historic lows, shortages in industrial centres such as Wuhan being so severe that they risked running out of food within a matter of weeks.3 The mounting crisis prompted the leadership to ramp up the household registration system, erecting a great wall between city and countryside. As it could provide food, housing and employment only to urban residents, it left farmers to fend for themselves. In order to ease the burden further, the state capped the growth of the urban population. Tough restrictions on the movement of people were imposed by the State Council on 4 February 1959 and again on 11 March 1959, stipulating that the free market in labour could no longer be tolerated and villagers had to be sent back to the countryside.4 As the police started enforcing the household registration system in Shanghai, it was revealed that in some districts up to a fifth of all families had only temporary residence permits, the majority being farmers from Jiangsu province.5 An estimated 60,000 villagers resided in the city illegally, most working in the freight and construction industries. In the wake of the State Council’s repeated directives, a quarter of a million farmers were rounded up and sent back to the countryside.6 Adrift between two worlds in the midst of starvation, migrants throughout the country were being forcibly returned to their villages. In the countryside, in turn, local authorities did their best to prevent anybody from leaving for the city, locking people into the famine.

The attempt to impose a cordon sanitaire around cities was defeated by a myriad of factors. The great outflow in 1958 had created patterns of migration and networks of contacts which were used by villagers to return to the city. In Hebei in early 1959 one in every twenty-five agricultural workers was roaming the countryside in search of employment. Those who returned to the village over the Chinese New Year encouraged others to follow, heading back as a group to enterprises where good connections had been established and few questions were asked. Letters were sent from the city, including money and detailed instructions on how to join the exodus. In Xinyang, one of the most devastated regions in Henan, letters came ‘incessantly’ from Qinghai, Gansu and Beijing, according to local officials – who opened the mail. Li Mingyi sent three letters, including 130 yuan, to his brother, urging him and four other relatives to join him in working for the railway bureau in Xining.7

In the village tales were told about life in the city, seen as a haven where rice was plentiful and jobs abounded. Some communes actually supported a form of chain migration by agreeing to take care of children and the elderly, as remittances from workers in the city contributed to the survival of the entire village. From Zhangjiakou, a major hub along the railway to the west of Beijing, a third of a million people vanished during the 1958–9 winter, representing some 7 per cent of the entire workforce.8

Even in relatively sheltered provinces such as Zhejiang villagers took to the road in the winter of 1958–9. Some 145,000 people were known to be on the move, although many more must have escaped the attention of the local authorities tasked with arresting them. As elsewhere, most were headed for a city in search of employment. They were ambitious, the majority intending to travel as far as Qinghai, Xinjiang and Ningxia, where the famine was less intense. But proximity to a city remained a key factor in prompting villagers to flee. In Longquan, for instance, one in ten of all able-bodied villagers crossed into Fujian province, a mere forty kilometres away, while others trekked to the cities of Xiaoshan, Fenghua and Jinhua. Most were young, male workers; the women were left behind to look after the family and the village. In Buxia Village, forty kilometres south of Xiaoshan, 230 workers left in several large groups, including local cadres and members of the Youth League. A significant proportion of these had already experienced the city as factories eagerly recruited from the surrounding villages during the Great Leap Forward. Many absconded in the middle of the night, while others walked away in broad daylight, claiming to visit a sick relative in town. In a few cases cadres themselves wrote letters of reference and provided travel permits, encouraging villagers to pull up stakes and take their chances in the city. Some made a profit by selling blank permits bearing an official stamp.9 Elsewhere, for instance further south in Guangdong, local cadres adopted a lenient attitude, sensing that more movement of people could alleviate the famine. In Lantang commune a mere one in seven of all workers in a brigade participated in collective labour. The others performed private work or traded with neighbouring counties, some going as far as Haifeng, over 100 kilometres down the coastline.10

Many left in groups, boarding freight trains headed for the city. On one day in March 1959, a group of about a hundred farmers managed to board a train at Kongjiazhuang, Hebei, without buying a single ticket. A few days later, a similar number boarded from Zhoujiahe station, a tiny village in Huai’an.11 In Hubei, on the stretch from Xiaogan to Shekou, hundreds of farmers would congregate at the station each day and board en masse. Some intended to flee the village, but many simply went to the city to sell wood or visit friends. When asking for a ticket, collectors faced verbal abuse and physical assault. In the chaos of boarding, accidents happened, as weaker fare dodgers fell off the train, including a five-year-old child who had a leg severed in the process.12

All these groups amounted to a large number of people on the move. In the first four months of 1960, for instance, over 170,000 farmers escaping from the countryside were found ticketless on trains in Beijing alone, most of them hailing from Shandong, Hebei and Henan. Once on board, every available bit of property was used in the struggle for survival. As one official noted in disgust, they ‘wantonly spoil and damage goods, some urinating and defecating on them, a few using high-quality stockings as toilet paper’.13

After they had arrived at their destination, many migrants would be met at the station by a friend or by a tout recruiting labour.14 Others found a job on the black market. Called ‘human markets’ (renshi) in Beijing, they opened early in the morning as a mob of unemployed men pushed, shoved and jostled for attention as soon as a prospective employer turned up. Most lived in temporary shelters, a few stayed with friends and family. They would work for as little as 1.3 yuan a day, although carpenters could fetch up to 2.5 yuan, the highest salary for skilled labour being 4 yuan. Some were recruited underground by state companies, others were hired by private individuals for menial jobs or domestic service.15

The cumulative effect of this outflow could overwhelm the city, despite the cordon sanitaire designed to keep the urban population insulated from the rural famine. Thousands found their way into Nanjing every month, and by the spring of 1959 some 60,000–70,000 refugees had either arrived or transited through the city, overrunning the temporary shelters hastily erected by the municipality. On a single day in February 1959 around 1,500 refugees disembarked. Two-thirds were young men, and most came from the surrounding counties, although a number also hailed from Anhui, Henan and Shandong, the three provinces most affected by famine. A few wanted to visit friends and family, most had no money, and all were in search of a job. Factories and mines secretly recruited them, paying them by piece rate, less than workers with residence permits. Some enterprises actually faked the necessary papers to register them locally, but the vast majority – some 90 per cent of all factories – simply inflated the official number of workers in order to secure sufficient food to feed illegal workers.16

Not every migrant found a job on the black market, and some were forced to live a marginal existence in the shadows of the city, stealing, begging, scavenging or selling themselves in order to survive. Kong Fanshun, a twenty-eight-year-old male, was described as a vagrant who would climb walls at night to steal clothes and money. Su Yuyou was caught after he entered a shop, grabbed a large flatbread and stuffed the whole thing into his mouth while making a run for it. Young women could be found soliciting customers in the centre of the city. For a ration coupon worth ten or twenty cents or for a pound of rice they would perform a sexual favour in a quiet corner of a public park. Those who failed faced starvation: some twenty bodies were collected each month during the harsh winter.17 All were described as a threat to social order by the local authorities, reinforcing the negative imagery associated with country folk. When they were caught they were sent back to their villages, only to return to the city again after a few weeks.18

Some of the refugees, when questioned by officials, told their stories. Yu Yiming, interviewed in May 1959, had been surviving on two bowls of gruel a day in her village in Anxian county. After the cadres turned over all the grain to the state, nothing but cabbage remained. Then all the bark on elm trees and the chestnut tubers vanished, leaving the village depleted. Wang Xiulan, a fellow villager, broke down in tears, crying that ‘we are not lying, we have not had any food for several months, everything has been eaten – what can we do?’ Other escapees explained how they had managed to abscond under the cover of night. Tao Mintang, from Lishui county, recounted how eleven of them fled as a group one evening, lured by rumours that in Heilongjiang young workers could make up to seventy yuan a month.19

Not all migrants lived in the city’s dark underbelly, eking out a miserable existence at the mercy of rapacious factory bosses. In the rush towards industrialisation during the Great Leap Forward, some of the most able men recruited from the countryside were given good salaries as incentives to stay.20 In Pukou, Nanjing’s busy port, a team of loaders working on the docks had no right to food rations, reserved for city residents, but they earned about 100 yuan a month, enough to eat in some of the top restaurants. Some made two salaries, making a better living for themselves than most of the registered workers in local factories.21 A few even specialised in trading ration coupons on the black market. One woman was caught with coupons worth 180 kilos of rice, which she bought in Shanghai to double her money in Nanjing, exploiting one of the countless loopholes in the planned economy by which the same basic commodity was sold at vastly different prices across the country. Most migrants in factories and construction sites were men, but the majority of villagers who left the rural areas to trade were women.22

On the other hand, as the famine went on, whatever leverage some young migrants might have had on a black market desperately short of labour simply vanished, replaced by desperation for a scrap of food. By 1960 in Lanzhou some 210,000 migrants worked in factories without any pay, being given no more than board and lodging. Zhang Zhongliang, the gung-ho boss of Gansu, personally endorsed the arrangement. But outside the provincial capital complicity from the leaders led to conditions of slave labour. In Tongwei, a steel factory locked up migrants and forced them to work themselves to death, refusing to feed them: a thousand died that year, as factory bosses were assured of a steady supply of vagrants and drifters looking for work.23 Who knows how many factories operated in similar conditions?

As the years of famine went by, the motivations behind migration changed. In a nutshell, the lure of employment was replaced by the compulsion of famine. As a sense of despair grew, some would steal off into the mountains, hoping to survive on berries, insects and possibly small animals. But few actually made it, some being forced to return to the village, emerging from the forest with dishevelled hair and torn clothes, sometimes entirely naked, a wild look in the eyes, so changed that they were no longer recognised.24 On the other hand, when disaster struck, people left en masse, children in tow, their meagre possessions strapped on their backs; local authorities could only stand by and watch the exodus. After the Cangzhou region in Hebei was hit by a typhoon in 1961, listless masses of humanity took to the roads, trailing along in total silence, the only sound being the shuffle of their feet. Entire brigades left collectively – cadres, men, women and children, trading their clothes for taro along the way, with many of the adults and most of the children ending up stark naked.25All over the country people died by the roadside.

What was the effect of the exodus on the village? In many cases, villagers and even local cadres supported mass emigration, as they hoped that remittances would allow them to survive. But the countless tales of life in the city, where jobs were easy, the pay was generous and food limitless, must have contributed to a general sense of demoralisation. The revolution, after all, had been fought for the farmers, but all too obviously life in the countryside was inferior to that in the city. The imposition of a cordon, shielding towns from villages, can only have worsened a pervasive feeling of worthlessness; in effect, the countryside was quarantined, as if peopled by lepers. As the best workers were poached by recruiters from the city, villages were sometimes split, as jealous farmers turned against families with migrants in the city, beating them or depriving them of food.26 And even if some communities may have welcomed migration, they soon found themselves crippled by labour shortages: those who left were overwhelmingly healthy, enterprising young men. Organised flight, on the other hand, had a domino effect which could deplete some villages of all working adults. In Huai’an county, strategically located by the Beijing–Baotou railway, one village had some fifty working men but a mere seven remained by the spring of 1959; even the head of the village and the party secretary had become drifters looking for work in the city.27 Where people left because of famine, nothing but ghost villages survived; only those who were too weak to walk stayed behind.

With jobs crying out to be filled during the initial rush of the Great Leap Forward, some of the village officials went after the migrants, trying to persuade them to return home during the busy season. A great many people crossed the border from Hunan into Hubei, following an earlier pattern of migration established during severe shortages in 1957.28 A team of cadres was dispatched to find the villagers, but they were met with a volley of abuse: the migrants refused to go back to the village where food was rationed. The cadres then turned against the local authorities, accusing them of poaching their people to help build a reservoir. They, instead of the migrants, were thrown behind bars; once released they were forced to make a humiliating retreat back to Hunan.29 A more subtle approach was tried elsewhere, for instance in Hengshui, Hebei, where half of all the 50,000 migrants from Qingliangdian commune were wheedled into returning home in 1960. Relatives were made to write letters imploring them to come back to the village. Sometimes these letters were hand-delivered by local cadres anxious to ensure that they reached their destination.30

But most of the time brute force was used to prevent villagers from leaving. As we shall see in greater detail in a subsequent chapter, local cadres beat, starved and tortured those who tried to flee, or exacted punishment from family members. Throughout the countryside, located at strategic junctions, ‘dissuasion stations’ (quanzuzhan) or ‘custody and deportation stations’ (shourong qiansong zhan) were set up by the militia, responsible for arresting people on the run and escorting them back to the village. These centres could arbitrarily detain people without judicial supervision or legal charge, even if they held a temporary residence permit: they survive to this day, specifically targeting beggars and migrant workers. Over 600 were in operation throughout the country at the height of the famine. Eight cities alone – from Guangzhou to Harbin – held more than 50,000 people in such stations by the spring of 1961.31 In Sichuan in 1960 some 380,000 people were detained and sent back.32

Cut off from a social network which could provide a measure of protection, adrift on the road with only the bare essentials, escapees were ideal prey. As the Ministry of the Interior reported in May 1960, in Shandong these stations not only confiscated food coupons, rations and train tickets, but also strung drifters and migrants up and beat them black and blue. Women were molested.33 In Tianshui, Gansu, one in every eight guards said they had raped a woman, while all of them routinely beat villagers in their custody. A special ‘school’ was even set up to reform the escapees: they were insulted, spat upon, tied up and forced to kneel or stand for hours on end. Their few possessions were stolen, from small knives, eggs, noodles, wine and rope to socks and trousers. Women were threatened, beaten or starved in order to obtain sexual favours. Many were put to work to cook meals, launder clothes, clean the toilets and wash the feet of the guards. Failure to prepare the noodles of guard Li Guocang properly led three of the inmates to be sent to a ‘school’ where they were beaten for a whole day.34

But however harsh the treatment meted out to refugees, they rarely gave up, and often managed to burst through the fetters of the system. When a group of seventy-five villagers were sent back to Wuhu from Shanghai, sixty managed to escape.35 A month later 150 out of 250 refugees escorted back north to Shenyang from Tianjin succeeded in absconding. Many were what party officials referred to as ‘habitual’ refugees (guanliu), escaping from the village again and again.36 Life on the road might have been bitter, but it was better than waiting for death in the village.

The tide turned in 1961: surrounded by famine, beleaguered by migrants and facing a growing population that could no longer be fed, the leadership in Beijing decided to send back 20 million people from the cities to the countryside. The order came on 18 June 1961, the target being a reduction of 10 million people before the end of the year, leading to savings of 2 million tonnes of grain. The rest would follow in 1962, and stragglers would be swept up by 1963.37

The authorities moved fast. In Yunnan, where cities had ballooned from 1.8 million inhabitants in 1957 to 2.5 million by 1961, around 300,000 people, many of them unemployed, were selected in order to fill the quota.38 Those sent back included 30,000 prisoners from Kunming, relocated to labour camps in the countryside.39 In the cities of Guangdong close to 3 million people were unemployed: some 600,000 were moved to the countryside by the end of 1961.40 In Anhui, where 1.6 million had been added to an urban population of 3.1 million after 1957, some 600,000 people were removed.41 By the end of the year, state planner Li Fuchun announced that 12.3 million people had been moved, another 7.8 million being targeted for 1962.42 In the end, the state proved more resilient than the villagers, mercilessly employing new methods of coercion to keep the urban population at an historic low for years to come.

The lucky ones managed to cross the border, but this came at a cost. In Yunnan, where minorities living near Vietnam, Laos and Burma voted with their feet as soon as the Great Leap Forward started, punishment was brutal. Some 115,000 people left the country in 1958 from villages adjacent to the border, protesting against the lack of free trade, restrictions on the freedom of movement, forced collectivisation and hard labour on irrigation schemes. Those caught fleeing were routinely beaten. A young woman with a baby daughter was bayoneted to death in Jinghong, while others were locked up in a house which was then blown up with dynamite. Even those who voluntarily returned to their villages were tortured and executed, their bodies left by the side of the road. The stench of rotting corpses was pervasive.43 Numbers are hard to obtain, but according to the British Foreign Office some 20,000 refugees arrived in Burma in 1958, most of whom were sent back across the border into China.44 Given that many of the ethnic minority peoples had relatives on both sides of the border, the total is likely to have been much higher. In the southern provinces frontier people fled to Vietnam. Many were smugglers, but when hunger became too intense they used their knowledge of the terrain to cross the border, never to return.45

The exodus took place all along China’s extended borders, in particular during a lull in policy enforcement in 1962. What began as a trickle of refugees from Xinjiang became a flood, and by May some 64,000 people had made the crossing, often in large groups, as families with children and their meagre possessions stumbled into the Soviet Union.46 Half the population of Chuguchak (Tacheng), from cadres to toddlers, marched along the ancient silk road to the border, leaving behind a wasteland.47 Thousands crossed the border every day at the Bakhta and Khorgos checkpoints on the Kazakhstani–Chinese border, overwhelming the border patrols. Many were weak and ill, turning to the Soviet authorities for help.48 Millions of rubles were made available to provide the refugees with jobs and temporary housing.49In Kulja (Yining) chaos ensued after the Soviet consulate was invaded by an armed mob, eager to take away all archives relating to the nationality of minority people, as only those registered as Soviets could cross the border. Granaries were robbed and shots were fired at the militia.50 According to Soviet sources, rumours that the local authorities actually sold bus tickets to the border caused mayhem. As crowds gathered around the party offices to demand transportation, they were fired upon, and some of them were killed.51

A similar scramble to escape took place at the border in Hong Kong in May 1962. Throughout the famine people managed to make their way to the British colony: in 1959 illegal immigration was estimated at some 30,000.52 This was on top of legal immigration, with the mainland handing out around 1,500 visas a month to those it no longer needed at home.53 But in May 1962, as the mainland temporarily relaxed its border controls, a steady flow became a flood, reaching a peak of over 5,000 a day. Overnight, Hong Kong became the free Berlin of the East. The great exodus was well planned, and those who undertook it tended to be young urban residents recently sent to the countryside following factory closures: faced with severe food shortages and abandoned by the system, some decided to flee. Many had money, biscuits, tinned food and a map. Speculators in Guangzhou even sold improvised compasses called Paradise Pointers.54 Tickets for the border area were on sale at the railway station, although clashes occurred between mobs and police in early June during a riot put down by troops.55 Those lucky enough to have a ticket boarded a train, but others trekked along the coast or hiked through the hills for several days. When a crowd large enough to overpower the guards had gathered by the border, the refugees made a run for it, swimming across the river that separated the mainland from Hong Kong, scrambling through the barbed-wire entanglements and working their way under the steel mesh of the border fence. Accidents happened. Some refugees mistook a reservoir near the border for the river, and tried to swim across it at night: some 200 bodies were later found floating or washed up against the abutment.56 Others were smuggled on sampans for a fee, some landing on offshore islands, the unlucky ones capsizing in rough seas and drowning.57

Once they had reached Hong Kong, the refugees had to evade British border patrols. Most were arrested on the spot, but a few slipped into the hills, poor, in rags, mostly barefoot, and some with broken ankles. Unlike in Berlin, they were not welcome, as the crown colony feared being swamped by mainlanders. Nobody else offered to take them, with the United States and Canada rigidly sticking to their quotas, and even Taiwan accepting very few for resettlement.58 The United Nations refugee agency, on the other hand, did not recognise the People’s Republic: ‘refugees from China’ could not exist in political terms and therefore could not be aided under the UNHCR’s system.59 As Hong Kong’s colonial secretary Claude Burgess put it, the refugee problem was one that ‘no country in the world is in practice willing to share with us’.60 Only those who could be vouched for by relatives in Hong Kong were allowed to stay, and the vast majority were eventually returned to the mainland. Crowds sympathised with the plight of the refugees, providing food and shelter or obstructing vehicles returning them to the border point at Lo Wu. By June China had closed its border again and the influx ceased as suddenly as it had started.

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