Terror and violence were the foundations of the regime. Terror, to be effective, had to be arbitrary and ruthless. It had to be widespread enough to reach everyone but did not have to claim many lives. This principle was well understood. ‘Kill a chicken to scare the monkey’ was a traditional saying. Cadres who forced villagers in Tongzhou – just outside the capital – to kneel before beating them called it ‘punish one to deter a hundred’.1
However, during the Great Leap Forward something of an altogether different nature happened in the countryside. Violence became a routine tool of control. It was not used occasionally on a few to instil fear in the many, rather it was directed systematically and habitually against anybody seen to dawdle, obstruct or protest, let alone pilfer or steal – a majority of villagers. Every meaningful incentive to work was destroyed for the cultivator – the land belonged to the state, the grain he produced was procured at a price that was often below cost of production, his livestock, tools and utensils were no longer his, often even his home was confiscated. The local cadre, on the other hand, faced ever greater pressure to fulfil and overfulfil the plan, having to whip up the workforce in one relentless drive after another.
The constant hammering of propaganda may have helped in the early days of the Great Leap Forward, but the daily meetings villagers were required to attend contributed to widespread sleep deprivation. ‘Meetings every day, loudspeakers everywhere,’ remembered Li Popo when interviewed about the famine in Sichuan.2 Meetings, some of them lasting several days, were indeed at the heart of collectivisation, but they were not so much a forum of socialist democracy, where the peasant masses openly voiced their views, as a site of intimidation where cadres could lecture, bully, threaten and shout themselves hoarse for hours on end. All too often farmers were woken in the middle of the night to work in the fields after an evening at a village meeting, so that they slept for less than three or four hours a day in the ploughing season.3
In any event, as the promise of utopia was followed by yet another spell of back-breaking labour, the willingness to trade hard work for empty promises gradually eroded. Soon, the only way to extract compliance from an exhausted workforce was the threat of violence. Nothing short of fear of hunger, pain or death seemed to be able to galvanise them. In some places both villagers and cadres became so brutalised that the scope and degree of coercion had to be constantly expanded, creating a mounting spiral of violence. With far fewer carrots to offer, the party relied more heavily on the stick.
The stick was the weapon of choice in the countryside. It was cheap and versatile. A swing of the baton would punish a straggler, while a series of blows could lacerate the back of more stubborn elements. In serious cases victims could be strung up and beaten black and blue. People were forced to kneel on broken shells and beaten. This happened, for instance, to Chen Wuxiong, who refused to work on an irrigation project far away from home. He was forced to kneel and hold a heavy log above his head, all the while being beaten with a stick by local cadre Chen Longxiang.4 As famished villagers often suffered from oedema, liquid seeped through their pores with every stroke of the stick. It was a common expression that someone ‘was beaten until all the water came out’, for instance in the case of Lu Jingfu, a farmer chased by a team of thugs. So enraged was their leader Ren Zhongguang, first party secretary of Napeng commune, Qin county, that he beat the man for twenty minutes.5
Party officials often took a lead. The report compiled by the local party committee which investigated abuses in a commune in Qingyuan explained that the first party secretary Deng Zhongxing personally beat more than 200 farmers, killing fourteen in an attempt to fulfil the quotas.6 The brains of Liu Shengmao, too sick to work at the reservoir in Huaminglou, Hunan, were widely spattered by the beating he received from the brigade secretary, who continued to pummel his lifeless body in a blind fury.7 Ou Desheng, party secretary of a commune in Hunan, single-handedly punched 150 people, of whom four died. ‘If you want to be a party member you must know how to beat people’ was his advice to new recruits.8 In Daoxian county – ‘everywhere is a torture field’, an investigation team wrote – farmers were clubbed on a regular basis. One team leader personally beat thirteen people to death (a further nine subsequently died of their injuries).9 Some of these cadres were veritable gangsters, their mere appearance instilling fear. In Nanhai county, brigade leader Liang Yanlong toted three guns and stalked the village in a big leather coat.10 Li Xianchun, team leader in Hebei, injected himself with morphine daily and would swagger about the village in bright red trousers, swearing loudly and randomly beating anybody who had the misfortune to catch his attention.11
Overall, across the country, maybe as many as half of all cadres regularly pummelled or caned the people they were meant to serve – as endless reports demonstrate. Four thousand out of 16,000 villagers working on the Huangcai reservoir in Hunan in the winter of 1959–60 were kicked and beaten, and 400 died as a result.12 In a Luoding commune in Guangdong, more than half of all cadres beat the villagers, close to a hundred being clubbed to death.13 A more comprehensive investigation of Xinyang, Henan, showed that over a million people died in 1960. Most died of starvation, but some 67,000 were beaten to death by the militias.14
The stick was common, but it was only one tool in the arsenal of horror devised by local cadres to demean and torture those who failed to keep up. As the countryside slid into starvation, ever greater violence had to be inflicted on the famished to get them into the fields. The ingenuity deployed by the few to inflict pain and suffering on the many seemed boundless. People were thrown into ponds, sometimes bound, sometimes stripped of their clothes. In Luoding a ten-year-old boy was tied up and thrown into a bog for having stolen a few stalks of wheat. He died after a few days.15
People were stripped naked and left in the cold. For stealing a kilo of beans, farmer Zhu Yufa was fined 120 yuan. His clothes, his blanket and his floor mat were confiscated, then he was stripped naked and subjected to a struggle session.16 In one commune in Guangdong, where thousands of farmers were sent to do forced labour, stragglers were stripped of their clothes in the middle of the winter.17 Elsewhere, in the rush to complete a reservoir, up to 400 villagers at a time were made to work in sub-zero temperatures without cotton-padded clothing. No exceptions were made for pregnant women. The cold, it was thought, would force the villagers to work more vigorously.18 In Liuyang, Hunan, a team of 300 men and women were made to work bare-chested in the snow. One in seven died.19
And then, in the summer, people were forced to stand in the glaring sun with arms spread out (others had to kneel on stones or on broken glass). This happened from Sichuan in the south to Liaoning in the north.20 People were also burned with incandescent tools. Hot needles were used to singe navels.21When farmers recruited to work on a reservoir in Lingbei commune complained about pain, the militia seared their bodies.22 In Hebei people were branded with a hot iron.23 In Sichuan a few were doused in petrol and set alight, some burning to death.24
Boiling water was poured over people. As fuel was scarce, it was more common to cover people in urine and excrement.25 One eighty-year-old woman, who had the temerity to report her team leader for stealing rice, paid the price when she was drenched in urine.26 In Longgui commune, near Shantou, those who failed to keep up with work were pushed into a heap of excrement, forced to drink urine or had their hands burned.27 Elsewhere, a runny concoction of excrement diluted with water was poured down a victim’s throat. Huang Bingyin, a villager weakened by starvation, stole a chicken but was caught and forced by the village leader to swallow cow dung.28 Liu Desheng, guilty of poaching a sweet potato, was covered in urine. He, his wife and his son were also forced into a heap of excrement. Then tongs were used to prise his mouth open after he refused to swallow excrement. He died three weeks later.29
Mutilation was carried out everywhere. Hair was ripped out.30 Ears and noses were lopped off. After Chen Di, a farmer in Guangdong, stole some food, he was tied up by militiaman Chen Qiu, who cut off one of his ears.31 The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied up with wire, a ten-kilo stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a hot iron – as punishment for digging up a potato.32 In Yuanling county, Hunan, testicles were beaten, soles of feet were branded and noses were stuffed with hot peppers. Ears were nailed against the wall.33 In the Liuyang region, Hunan, iron wires were used to chain farmers.34 In Jianyang, Sichuan, an iron wire was run through the ears of thieves, pulled down by the weight of a piece of cardboard which read ‘habitual thief’.35 Others had needles inserted under their nails.36 In several parts of Guangdong, cadres injected salt water into people with needles normally used on cattle.37
Sometimes husbands and wives were forced to beat each other, a few to death.38 One elderly man, when interviewed for this book in 2006, quietly sobbed when he recounted how as a young boy he and the other villagers had been forced to beat a grandmother, tied up in the local temple for having taken wood from the forest.39
People were intimidated by mock executions and mock burials.40 They were also buried alive. This was often mentioned in reports about Hunan. People were locked up in a cellar and left to die in eerie silence after a period of frantic screaming and scratching against the hatch.41 The practice was widespread enough to prompt a query by provincial boss Zhou Xiaozhou during a visit to Fengling county in November 1958.42
Humiliation was the trusted companion of pain. Everywhere people were paraded – sometimes with a dunce cap, sometimes with a placard on their chests, sometimes entirely naked.43 Faces were smeared with black ink.44 People were given yin and yang haircuts, as one half of the head was shaved, the other not.45 Verbal abuse was rife. The Red Guards, ten years later during the Cultural Revolution, invented very little.
Punishment also extended to the hereafter. Sometimes the corpses of those who had been beaten to death were simply left to rot by the roadside, destined to become pariahs of the afterlife, their wandering ghosts – according to popular belief – never able to rest without proper burial rites. Signs were put up by some graves. In Longgui commune, Guangdong, where one in five died in 1959, some people were hastily buried by the roadside, the site marked by a signboard with the word ‘sluggard’.46 In Shimen, Hunan, the entire family of Mao Bingxiang starved to death, but the brigade leader refused to give them a burial. After a week rats had gnawed through their eyes. Local people later told an investigation team that ‘we people are not even like dogs, nobody buries us when we die’.47
Family members could be punished for trying to bury a relative who had fallen foul of local justice. When a seventy-year-old mother hanged herself to escape from hunger, her child hurried back home from the fields in a panic. But the local cadre was infuriated by the breach of discipline. He chased the daughter down the road, punched her head and then, when she was down, kicked her upper body. She was crippled for life. ‘You can keep her and eat her,’ he said of her mother, whose body was left for days to decompose.48 The worst form of desecration was to chop up the body and use it as fertiliser. This happened with Deng Daming, beaten to death because his child had stolen a few broad beans. Party secretary Dan Niming ordered his body to be simmered down into fertiliser for a field of pumpkins.49
The extent of the violence is difficult to underestimate: in a province such as Hunan, which did not rank as one of the worst in terms of overall casualties, a report by a central inspection committee addressed to Zhou Enlai at the time noted that people were beaten to death in eighty-two out of eighty-six counties and cities.50 But it is harder to come up with reliable figures, and none are likely ever to be produced for the whole country. It was difficult enough for investigators at the time to determine how many people had died during the famine, let alone ascertain the cause of death. But some of the teams sent to the countryside probed further and came up with a rough idea of what had happened on the ground. In Daoxian county, Hunan, many thousands perished in 1960, but only 90 per cent of the deaths could be attributed to disease and starvation. Having reviewed all the evidence, the team concluded that 10 per cent had been buried alive, clubbed to death or otherwise killed by party members and the militia.51 In Shimen county, Hunan, some 13,500 died in 1960, of whom 12 per cent were ‘beaten or driven to their deaths’.52 In Xinyang, a region subject to an inquiry headed by senior leaders such as Li Xiannian, a million people died in 1960. A formal investigation committee estimated that 6–7 per cent were beaten to death.53 In Sichuan the rates were much higher. In Kaixian county, a close examination by a team sent by the provincial party committee at the time concluded that in Fengle commune, where 17 per cent of the population had perished in less than a year, up to 65 per cent of the victims had died because they were beaten, punished with food deprivation or forced into committing suicide.54
Report after report detailed the ways in which people were tortured, and the image that emerges from this mass of evidence is that at least 6 to 8 per cent of all the famine victims were directly killed or died as a result of injuries inflicted by cadres and the militia. As we shall see in Chapter 35, at least 45 million people perished above a normal death rate during the famine from 1958 to 1962. Given the extent and scope of violence so abundantly documented in the party archives, it is likely that at least 2.5 million of these victims were beaten or tortured to death.
There is no simple explanation for the violence that underpinned crash collectivisation. One might very well point to a tradition of violence stretching back many centuries in China, but how would that have been any different from the rest of the world? Europe was steeped in blood, and mass murder took an unprecedented number of lives in the first half of the twentieth century. Modern dictatorships can be particularly murderous in their combination of new technologies of power, exercised through the one-party state, with new technologies of death, from the machine gun to the gas chamber. When powerful states decide to pool these resources to exterminate entire groups of people the overall consequences can be devastating. Genocide, after all, is made possible only with the advent of the modern state.
The one-party state under Mao did not concentrate all its resources on the extermination of specific groups of people – with the exception, of course, of counter-revolutionaries, saboteurs, spies and other ‘enemies of the people’, political categories vague enough potentially to include anybody and everybody. But Mao did throw the country into the Great Leap Forward, extending the military structure of the party to all of society. ‘Everyone a soldier,’ Mao had proclaimed at the height of the campaign, brushing aside such bourgeois niceties as a salary, a day off each week or a prescribed limit on the amount of labour a worker should carry out.55 A giant people’s army in the command economy would respond to every beck and call of its generals. Every aspect of society was organised along military lines – with canteens, boarding kindergartens, collective dormitories, shock troops and villagers construed as the footsoldiers – in a continuous revolution. These were not merely martial terms rhetorically deployed to heighten group cohesion. All the leaders were military men attuned to the rigours of warfare. They had spent twenty years fighting a guerrilla war in extreme conditions of deprivation. They had coped with one extermination campaign after another unleashed by the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and then managed to survive the onslaught of the Japanese army in the Second World War. They had come through the vicious purges and bouts of torture which periodically convulsed the party itself. They glorified violence and were inured to massive loss of life. And all of them shared an ideology in which the end justified the means. In 1962, having lost millions of people in his province, Li Jingquan compared the Great Leap Forward to the Long March, in which only one in ten had made it to the end: ‘We are not weak, we are stronger, we have kept the backbone.’56
On the ground party officials showed the same callous disregard for human life as they had to the millions mobilised into the bloody offensives against Chiang Kai-shek. The brute force with which the country had been conquered was now to be unleashed on the economy – regardless of the casualty figures. And as sheer human willpower was deemed capable of just about any feat – mountains could be moved – any failure looked suspiciously like sabotage. A slacker in the ‘war on sparrows’ was a ‘bad element’ who could derail the entire military strategy of the Great Leap Forward. A farmer who pilfered from the canteen was a soldier gone astray, to be eliminated before the platoon was threatened with mutiny. Anybody was potentially a deserter, or a spy, or a traitor, so that the slightest infraction was met with the full rigour of martial justice. The country became a giant boot camp in which ordinary people no longer had a say in the tasks they were commanded to carry out, despite the pretence of socialist democracy. They had to follow orders, failing which they risked punishment. Whatever checks existed on violence – religion, law, community, family – were simply swept away.
As the party purged itself several times during the Great Leap Forward, it also recruited new members, many of them unsavoury characters who felt little compunction in using violence to get the job done. The village, commune or county with the most red flags was generally also the one with the most victims. But red flags could be taken away and given to a rival at any moment, forcing local cadres to keep up the pressure, although the workforce was increasingly exhausted. A vicious circle of repression was created, as ever more relentless beatings were required to get the starving to perform whatever tasks were assigned to them. In the escalation of violence, the limit was reached when the threat of punishment and the threat of starvation cancelled each other out. One villager forced to work long shifts up in the mountains in the cold of winter put it succinctly: ‘We are exhausted; even if you beat me I won’t work.’57
The way in which violence escalated at the time was analysed in an extremely interesting manuscript entitled ‘How and Why Cadres Beat People’, written by one of the investigation teams dispatched to the countryside in Hunan. The authors of the report not only spent time collecting incriminating evidence against cadres guilty of abuse of power, but they also interviewed them in a rare attempt to find out what had gone wrong. They discovered the reward principle: cadres beat villagers to earn praise from their superiors. However chaotic the situation was on the ground, violence always followed a line, namely from the top towards the bottom. Zhao Zhangsheng was an example. A low-ranking party member, at first he refused to hit people suspected of being ‘rightists’ in the purges following the 1959 Lushan plenum. He was taken to task by his superiors, and even risked being denounced as a ‘conservative rightist’ himself, but he continued to express reluctance at using violence against party enemies. So he was fined five yuan as a warning. Then, at long last, he succumbed to the pressure, coming back with a vengeance, bashing a small child till it was covered in blood.58
Peer pressure all too often dragged local cadres down to the same level, binding all in a shared camaraderie of violence. In Leiyang, county leader Zhang Donghai and his acolytes considered violence to be a ‘duty’ intrinsic to the ‘continuous revolution’: ‘having a campaign is not the same as doing embroidery, it is impossible not to beat people to death’. Local cadres who refused to beat slackers were themselves subjected to struggle sessions, tied up and beaten. Some 260 were dismissed from their jobs. Thirty were beaten to death.59 In Hechuan county, Sichuan, cadres were told that ‘There are so many people working, it doesn’t matter if you beat a few to death.’60
Some of the interviews collected by party inspectors in 1961 confronted the perpetrators of violence with their victims. Shao Ke’nan was a young Hunanese who was beaten for the first time in the summer of 1958, at the height of the collectivisation frenzy. Dispatched to work for twelve hours a day in the middle of the winter on an irrigation project in the Huaguo mountains, he was covered in blows again. One of his tormentors was a cadre called Yi Shaohua. Shao knew Yi from his childhood, and recalled that the man had never resorted to violence before the Great Leap Forward. With the unfolding of new political campaigns he changed, beating and cursing on a mere whim. He punched hard, leaving his victims bruised, battered and bleeding.61 When Yi Shaohua, in turn, was asked why he was so violent, he explained that the pressure had come from his superior. Yi was afraid of being labelled a rightist. His boss told him that ‘if you don’t beat them the work won’t get done’. The pressure had to be passed along a chain of command: ‘the people above us squeeze us so we squeeze the people below us’.62 In other words, as party members were terrorised themselves, they in turn terrorised the population under their control.
Cadres had a choice. They could improve the living conditions of the villagers – against all odds – or instead try to meet the party’s targets. The one came at the expense of the other. Most took the path of least resistance. Once that choice had been made, violence assumed its own logic. In conditions of widespread penury it was impossible to keep everybody alive. There simply was not enough food left in the village to provide even reliable farmers with an adequate diet, and in the climate of mass repression following the 1959 Lushan plenum it did not look as if the problem of shortages was about to be solved very quickly. An expedient way to increase the available food was to eliminate the weak and sick. The planned economy already reduced people to mere digits on a balance sheet, a resource to be exploited for the greater good, like coal or grain. The state was everything, the individual nothing, his worth being constantly assessed through work points and determined by the ability to move earth or plant rice. In the countryside farmers were treated like livestock: they had to be fed, clothed and housed, all of which came at a cost to the collective. The logical extension of these bleak calculations was to cull those judged unworthy of life. The discriminate killing of slackers, weaklings or otherwise unproductive elements increased the overall food supply for those who contributed to the regime through their labour. Violence was one way of dealing with food shortages.
Food was commonly used as a weapon. Hunger was the punishment of first resort, even more so than a beating. Li Wenming, deputy party secretary of a commune in Chuxiong county, clubbed six farmers to death, but his main tool for discipline was hunger. Two recalcitrant brothers were deprived of food for a full week, and they ended up desperately foraging for roots in the forest, where they soon died of hunger. One of their wives was sick at home. She too was banned from the canteen. An entire brigade of seventy-six people was punished with hunger for twelve days. Many died of starvation.63 In Longgui commune, Guangdong, the party secretary of the commune ordered that those who did not work should not eat.64 Describing what happened in several counties in Sichuan, one inspector noted that ‘commune members too sick to work are deprived of food – it hastens their deaths’. In the first month the ration was reduced to 150 grams of grain a day, then in the following month to 100 grams. In the end those about to die were denied any food at all. In Jiangbei and Yongchuan, ‘virtually every people’s commune withholds food’. In one canteen catering for sixty-seven people, eighteen died within three months after they were barred from the premises on grounds of sickness.65 Few reliable figures exist, but a team of inspectors who looked closely at a number of brigades in Ruijiang county, Sichuan, believed that 80 per cent of those who had died of hunger had been denied food as a form of punishment.66 And even those who were given food in the canteen often received less than they were formally entitled to. As one farmer explained, the ladle that was dipped into the pot could ‘read people’s faces’. By this he meant a phenomenon that many interviewees recalled, namely that the man in charge of the canteen deliberately discriminated against those he considered to be ‘bad elements’. Whereas the spoon reached deep to the bottom of the pot for good workers, it merely skimmed the surface for ‘bad elements’, who were given a watery concoction: ‘The water looked greenish and was undrinkable.’67
Report after report alleges that the sick were also forced to come out and work in the fields. Of the twenty-four villagers suffering from oedema who were compelled by cadre Zhao Xuedong to take part in labour all but four died. In Jinchang commune those who were lucky enough to be given medical treatment were driven to perform heavy labour by the local party secretary as soon as they were released from medical care.68 Throughout the country those who were too ill to work were routinely cut off from the food supply – a decision easily reached by those cadres who interpreted illness as opposition to the regime. In the worst places even those who managed to accomplish their daily task were given only a bowl of watery rice.
‘To each according to his needs’ was the slogan heralded by model counties such as Xushui, but all too often the reality was much closer to Lenin’s dictum that ‘he who does not work shall not eat’. Some collectives even divided the local population into different groups according to their work performance, each being given a different ration. Calories were distributed according to muscle. The idea was to cut the ration from those who underperformed and use it as a bonus to encourage the better workers. It was a simple and effective system to manage scarcity, rewarding the strong at the expense of the weak. A similar system had been devised in similar circumstances when the Nazis were confronted with such food shortages that they could no longer feed their slave labourers. Günther Falkenhahn, director of a mine that supplied IG Farben’s chemicals complex, divided his Ostarbeiter into three classes, concentrating the available food on those workers who provided the best return per unit of calories. Those at the bottom fell into a fatal spiral of malnutrition and underperformance. By 1943 he had received national recognition, and the idea of Leistungsernährung, or ‘performance feeding’, was promulgated as standard practice in the employment of Ostarbeiter.69
No order ever came from above, instructing party members to restrict adequate feeding to above-average workers, but it seemed an effective enough strategy to some cadres keen to obtain maximum output for minimal expense. In Peach Village, Guangdong, the cadres divided the farmers into twelve different grades, calibrated according to performance. Workers in the top grade were given just under 500 grams of grain a day. Those lingering at the bottom received a mere 150 grams a day, a starvation diet that weeded out the most vulnerable elements. They were replaced by others who inexorably slipped down the ranks, edging closer to the end. One in ten were starved to death in 1960.70 In fact, throughout the country, as we have seen, units were divided into different ranks, red, grey and white flags being handed out to advanced, mediocre and backward units. It was a small step to elaborate the system further and make calorie income dependent on rank. In Jintang county, for instance, one village divided its members into ‘superior’, ‘middle’ and ‘inferior’ groups, their names respectively listed on red, green or white paper. Members of different ranks were not allowed to mix. Red names were praised, but white names were relentlessly persecuted, many ending up in makeshift labour camps for ‘re-education’.71
Suicide reached epidemic proportions. For every murder, an untold number suffered in one way or another, and some of these opted to end their lives. Often it was not so much the pain that pushed a person to end it all as the shame and humiliation endured in front of other villagers. A set phrase was that such and such, having strayed from the path, ‘was afraid of punishment and committed suicide’. ‘Driven to their deaths’ or ‘driven against the wall’ were also common expressions used to describe self-murder. In Fengxian, Shanghai, of the 960 people who were killed in the space of a few months in the summer of 1958, ninety-five ‘were forced into an impasse and committed suicide’, while the others died of untreated illnesses, torture or exhaustion.72 As a very rough rule of thumb (figures, again, are woefully unreliable), about 3 to 6 per cent of avoidable deaths were caused by suicide, meaning that between 1 and 3 million people took their lives during the Great Leap Forward.
In Puning, Guangdong, suicides were described as ‘ceaseless’; some people ended their lives out of shame for having stolen from fellow villagers.73 When collective punishment was meted out, those who felt guilty for having endangered others committed suicide. In Kaiping county, a fifty-six-year-old lady pilfered two handfuls of grain. Her entire household was banned from the canteen for five days and sent to a labour camp. She committed suicide.74 Sometimes women took their children with them, knowing that they would not survive on their own. In Shantou a woman accused of theft tied her two children to her body before jumping into the river.75
In cities, too, suicide rates rocketed, although there are few reliable figures. The Bureau of Public Security in Nanjing, for instance, was alarmed when it reported that in the first half of 1959 some 200 people had jumped into the river to commit suicide. The majority were women.76 Many killed themselves because their families had been torn apart by collectivisation. Tang Guiying, for instance, lost her son to illness. Then her house was destroyed to make way for an irrigation project. She joined her husband who worked in a Nanjing factory. When the authorities launched a campaign to send villagers back to the countryside, he did nothing to protect her. She hanged herself.77