Poor safety was endemic to the command economy, despite detailed labour legislation and meticulous rules on every aspect of industrial work, from the provision of protective clothing to the standards of lighting. An extensive network of labour inspectors – from the Federation of Trade Unions, the Women’s Federation and the Communist Youth League, as well as from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labour – periodically toured workshops, monitored health hazards and looked into the living standards of workers. They operated under huge political pressure and often preferred to turn a blind eye to widespread abuse, but they could file hard-hitting reports. Despite this vast apparatus, factory managers and team leaders, regardless of their personal sympathies for their workers, remained obsessed with increased output.
On the ground both zealots and dawdlers set the tone. Party activists cut corners, reduced standards, ignored safety and abused the workforce as well as every piece of equipment in their relentless quest to meet higher production targets. On the factory floor and in the fields, ordinary people tried to counter the blow of each new production drive with the force of collective inertia. But widespread apathy and negligence, while easing the pressure from above, also had a corrosive effect on safety in the workplace, as people abdicated responsibility for anything that did not concern them directly. And as collectivisation produced growing shortages of food, clothes and fuel, much riskier techniques of self-help appeared, from lighting a stove in a thatched hut to stealing safety equipment, leading in turn to more accidents. Worker fatigue only made matters worse, as people fell asleep by the furnace or at the wheel.
To this should be added a simple if grisly calculation: failure to fulfil a target could cost a manager his career, while violation of labour safety attracted a mere slap on the wrist. Life was cheap, costing a lot less than installing safety equipment or enforcing labour legislation. After all, what were a few deaths in the battle for a better future? As we have seen, foreign minister Chen Yi, comparing the Great Leap Forward to a battlefield, was adamant that a few industrial accidents were not going to hold back the revolution: ‘it’s nothing!’ he said with a shrug.1
Take the case of fire. We have noted how the Ministry of Public Security estimated that some 7,000 fires destroyed 100 million yuan in property in 1958, the year of the Great Leap Forward. One reason for the extent of the damage was a lack of firefighting equipment. Most of the fire hoses, pumps, extinguishers, sprinklers and other tools had been imported, but foreign purchases were suspended in a drive towards local self-sufficiency. By the end of 1958, however, all but seven out of the eighty national factories making the equipment had closed down. In some cases firefighters had to stand by empty-handed and watch the flames spread, powerless to intervene.2
The situation did not improve over the following years. Workers in overcrowded shacks cobbled together from mud, bamboo and straw huddled around improvised fires, which sometimes got out of control. Hundreds of fires raged through Nanjing in a single month in 1959.3 Accidents also happened when people sneaked away from the canteen to cook their own meals on the sly. When a young girl lit a fire in dry weather, the wind carried a spark and set fire to her hut, which erupted into a blaze destroying lives and property.4 When a kerosene lamp was kicked over during engineering work at Jingmen, Hubei, an inferno claimed sixty lives.5 Villagers recruited to work on large irrigation sites lived in hastily erected straw huts, which regularly went up in flames as exhausted workers bumped into lamps or furtively lit a cigarette.6 Few reliable statistics exist about actual death rates, but in Jiangxi a mere twenty-four incidents burned or asphyxiated 139 people in a single month.7 In Hunan about fifty people died each month; the Public Security Bureau listed some ten fires a day in the first half of 1959.8
Industrial accidents soared, as safety was considered a ‘rightist conservative’ concern. In Guizhou the provincial party committee estimated that the number of accidental deaths had multiplied by a factor of seventeen in early 1959 compared to a year earlier.9 The exact number of casualties was unknown, as few inspectors wanted to pour cold water on the Great Leap Forward with talk of death, while enterprises routinely concealed accidents. Li Rui, one of Mao’s secretaries purged in the wake of the Lushan plenum, later estimated the total of fatal industrial mishaps in 1958 at 50,000.10 According to the Ministry of Labour, some 13,000 workers died in the first eight months of 1960, equivalent to over fifty deaths each day. Although this was probably only a fraction of the actual accidents, the report highlighted some of the problems which beset the mining and steel industries. In the Tangshan Iron Plant more than forty powerful blast furnaces were jammed together in a square kilometre, but no protective fences were erected around the cooling basins. Workers slipped and fell into the boiling sludge. In coal mines across the country, inadequate ventilation allowed asphyxiant and highly inflammable gases to accumulate. Coal-gas explosions ripped through the mines, sometimes ignited by the sparks coming from faulty electrical equipment. Flooding was another mining hazard which claimed numerous lives, while badly maintained mine stopes collapsed and buried the miners alive.11 In March 1962, a blast tore through the Badaojiang mine, Tonghua county, Jilin, claiming seventy-seven lives, although the worst case was probably in the Laobaitong mine in Datong, where 677 miners died on 9 May 1960.12
But explosions also happened routinely in smaller concerns, although such cases were no doubt excluded from the statistics gathered by the Ministry of Labour. In Hunan a critical report noted how mining accidents had increased every quarter since the launch of the Great Leap Forward. By early 1959 an average of two miners every day were killed in an accident somewhere in the province.13 In the Guantang mine in Nanjing – opened during the Great Leap Forward – three heavy detonations occurred in a fortnight, among other accidents described as ‘avoidable’. Lamps fell down shafts, safety belts were discarded and inexperienced workers were sent down into the mines without proper training, sometimes barefoot. Shafts and tunnels were dug in a manner described a few years later as ‘chaotic’, in utter disregard of local geology.14
The coal mines claimed more lives than any other industry, but everywhere death was on the increase. Dirt and clutter encumbered the workshops, uncollected litter and abandoned parts were strewn about passageways, while a chronic lack of lighting, heating and ventilation turned the factory floor into an intrinsically hazardous environment. Most workers did not even have a uniform, let alone protective clothing. In Nanjing lethal blasts occurred every month from 1958 onwards, as concerns over the safety of workers were discarded in the pursuit of higher targets.15 Many of the factories were hastily set up and badly conceived during the Great Leap Forward: in several cases entire roofs caved in on the workers.16
The situation was not much better when it came to public transportation. Inexperienced drivers joined an expanding fleet; weight and speed limits were flouted if not denounced as rightist; while trucks, trains and boats were poorly maintained and driven beyond endurance, often breaking down only to be patched back together with substandard equipment and scavenged pieces. Figures, again, are missing, but the extent of the problem is indicated by a summary report from Hunan. On the roads and rivers criss-crossing the province, more than 4,000 accidents were reported in 1958, claiming 572 lives. In one case a blind man and his handicapped colleague operated a ferry.17 In the neighbouring province of Hubei, boats often navigated in the dark, as lamps and lighting were missing. On Macang Lake, Wuhan, an overloaded passenger ship without any safety equipment caught fire, and twenty passengers drowned in August 1960. Similar accidents happened throughout Hubei.18 In Tianshui, Gansu, more than a hundred people, most of them students, died in two separate incidents in less than a month in the winter of 1961–2. The ferries across the Wei River were three times over the passenger limit.19Buses were just as congested. On those in Guangzhou, people were crammed ‘like pigs’, and breakdowns were so common that crowds of waiting passengers slept for days on end outside the station. Fatal accidents were common.20
Train disasters were less frequent, but as famine worsened railway wagons too became conveyors of death. In January 1961 passengers were marooned in the middle of the frozen countryside of Gansu, suffering delays of up to thirty hours as engines broke down or ran out of fuel. No food or water was provided on board, urine and excrement spread through the carriages, and the corpses of starved travellers rapidly accumulated. As the railway system clogged up, unruly crowds were also left stranded at railway stations. In Lanzhou, up to 10,000 people were put up in temporary accommodation because of the huge delays. The station itself was packed with thousands of waiting travellers without adequate provisions. Several died each day.21
For each accidental death several people barely escaped with their lives. But in the midst of the famine, even a minor injury could spell doom. Workers rarely received compensation for an industrial accident, and were often ruined by medical expenses or sacked from their jobs. In the countryside food could be used as a weapon by rapacious cadres. Absence from work, even for a medical reason, was met with a reduced food ration. Infections, malnutrition or partial invalidity reinforced each other, putting sick people at a disadvantage in the struggle for survival and all too often dragging them down in a vicious circle of want.