The turning point came in January 1962, as 7,000 cadres arrived from all parts of the country to attend the largest work conference ever held in the vast, modernistic Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Liu Shaoqi, the head of state, issued the official report to a packed audience, speaking for three hours without a break – but not without interruption. He did not confront Mao directly, which would have been unthinkable, but he openly repeated everything he had said behind closed doors to a small gathering of senior leaders half a year earlier. In Hunan, he explained, the farmers believed that the ‘difficulties’ were due 30 per cent to natural calamities and 70 per cent to a man-made disaster. The very use of the term ‘man-made disaster’ (renhuo) was a bombshell, drawing gasps from the audience. As Liu proceeded to dismiss the expression ‘nine fingers to one’, Mao’s favourite phrase to emphasise achievements over setbacks, the tension became palpable. ‘In general our successes have been primary, shortcomings and errors are secondary, they occupy a second position. I wonder if we can say that, generally speaking, the ratio of achievements to setbacks is seven to three, although each region is different. One finger versus nine fingers does not apply to every place. There are only a small number of regions where mistakes are equal to one finger and successes equal to nine fingers.’ Mao interrupted Liu, visibly annoyed: ‘It’s not a small number of regions at all, for instance in Hebei only 20 per cent of regions decreased production and in Jiangsu 30 per cent of all regions increased production year after year!’ But Liu refused to be intimidated, and carried on: ‘In general, we cannot say it is merely one finger, but rather three, and in some places it is even more, for instance in the Xinyang region [in Henan] or in the Tianshui region [in Gansu].’ And who was responsible for this disaster? Liu squarely placed the blame on the central leadership.1
Liu did try to appease the Chairman by defending the general party line, postponing the verdict over the communes to five or maybe even ten years later. But Mao was furious nonetheless. ‘He talks about natural disasters versus man-made disasters. This kind of talk is a disaster in itself,’ he confided to his doctor.2
Lin Biao, the general who had rallied to the defence of the Chairman at the Lushan plenum in 1959, again lauded the Great Leap Forward, hailed as an unprecedented accomplishment when compared to any other period of the country’s history. He rhapsodised: ‘The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct . . . Chairman Mao’s superiority has many aspects, not just one, and I know from experience that Chairman Mao’s most outstanding quality is realism. What he says is much more realistic than what others say. He is always pretty close to the mark. He is never out of touch with reality . . . I feel very deeply that when in the past our work was done well, it was precisely when we thoroughly implemented and did not interfere with Chairman Mao’s thought. Every time Chairman Mao’s ideas were not sufficiently respected or suffered interference, there have been problems. That is essentially what the history of our party over the last few decades shows.’3
Zhou Enlai did what he always managed best. He tried to absolve Mao by assuming much of the blame for what had gone wrong, taking personal responsibility for excessive grain procurements, inflated production figures, the draining of grain away from the provinces and growing exports of food. ‘This is my mistake,’ he declared, going on to claim that the ‘shortcomings and errors of the last few years have occurred precisely when we contravened the general line and Chairman Mao’s precious instructions’.4 He was trying to build a bridge across the gap that had opened between Mao and Liu, but it was to no avail.
We will never know when Mao decided to get rid of Liu, setting in motion a Cultural Revolution that would destroy the lives of all those who had opposed him during the Great Leap Forward. But a good guess is that he started plotting the elimination of his ever more threatening nemesis as soon as he realised that his entire legacy as well as his standing in history was at stake.
The defining moment may have been a summer afternoon in July 1962, when Mao was floating in his swimming pool. He had been urgently called back to Beijing by Liu, and the Chairman was in a foul mood. Liu’s son recalls that his father hurriedly approached the Chairman, having been summoned to explain what the rush was all about. Liu started by reporting that Chen Yun and Tian Jiaying, two of the most outspoken critics of the Great Leap Forward, wanted formally to present their views about land distribution. Mao soon exploded into a torrent of invective. But Liu would not desist. He spoke in haste: ‘So many people have died of hunger!’ Then he blurted out, ‘History will judge you and me, even cannibalism will go into the books!’
Mao went into a towering rage. ‘The Three Red Banners have been shot down, now land is being divided up again,’ he shouted. ‘What have you done to resist this? What’s going to happen after I’m dead?’
The two men soon calmed down, and Mao agreed that an economic policy of adjustment should continue.5 But the Chairman was now convinced that he had found his Khrushchev, the servant who had denounced his master Stalin. Liu, he concluded, was obviously the man who would issue a secret speech denouncing all his crimes. Mao was biding his time, but the patient groundwork for launching a Cultural Revolution that would tear the party and the country apart had already begun.
No photographs other than those taken for propaganda purposes are known to exist from the years of the famine.
Chairman Mao pensively overlooks the Yellow River in 1952. A large dam was built in 1958–60 to attempt to tame the river known as ‘China’s Sorrow’, but, as with many dams and dykes all over the country built during the Great Leap Forward, it was so poorly designed that it had to be rebuilt at huge expense.
Mao and Khrushchev at the Kremlin in November 1957. Mao saw himself as the leader of the socialist camp and believed that the Great Leap Forward would allow China to forge ahead and make the transition from socialism to communism, leaving the Soviet Union far behind.
On 25 May 1958 Chairman Mao galvanises the nation by appearing at the Ming Tomb Reservoir to help move earth (the original photo also shows Peng Zhen, the mayor of Beijing, but he was later airbrushed out of the picture).
Building a cofferdam of straw and mud to divert the Yellow River at the Qingtong Gorge in Gansu, December 1958. Forced labour on water conservancy schemes all over the country claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of exhausted villagers already weakened by hunger.
The people of Beijing collect scrap iron in July 1958. In a frenzy to produce more steel, everybody was required to offer pots, pans, tools, even door knobs and window frames to feed the backyard furnaces, which more often than not produced useless lumps of pig iron.
Breaking stones for the backyard furnaces in Baofeng county, Henan, October 1958. To fuel the furnaces, the forests were denuded of trees while many houses in the countryside were stripped of wood.
Carrying fertiliser to the fields in a spirit of competitive emulation, Huaxian county, Henan, April 1959. Attempts to set new agricultural records encouraged a scramble for fertiliser, as every conceivable kind of nutrient was thrown onto the fields, from animal manure to human hair. Everywhere buildings made of mud and straw were torn down to provide fertiliser for the soil, leaving many villagers homeless.
Chairman Mao inspecting an experimental plot with close cropping in the suburbs of Tianjin in August 1958. Close cropping, whereby seeds were sown far more densely than was usual, was seen as a cornerstone of innovative tilling, but the experiment only contributed to a famine of unprecedented proportions.
A bumper harvest of sugar cane in Guangxi province, November 1959. During the Great Leap Forward reports came in from all over the country of new records in cotton, rice, wheat or peanut production, although most of the crops existed on paper only.
On the right, Li Jingquan, leader of Sichuan province where more than 10 million people died prematurely during the famine, shows off a model farm in Pixian county, March 1958.
Chairman Mao on a visit to Wuhan in April 1958, with Hubei provincial leader Wang Renzhong on the right of the photo; Shanghai mayor Ke Qingshi, also a staunch supporter of the Great Leap Forward, appears on the left behind Marxist philosopher Li Da, standing in the middle.
Peng Dehuai, who would speak out against the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan plenum in the summer of 1959, meets with party activists in December 1958.
Tan Zhenlin, a close follower of Mao and in charge of agriculture, addresses a party conference in October 1958.
Li Fuchun, the top official in charge of economic planning, meets several cadres in the suburbs of Tianjin, autumn of 1958.
Liu Shaoqi tours the countryside in his home province of Hunan and discovers the extent of the famine in April 1961.
From left to right, Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping at the party conference in January 1962, dubbed the Seven Thousand Cadres Assembly, at which Liu openly blames ‘human errors’ rather than nature for the catastrophe.