In Moscow, Khrushchev had provided Mao with the ammunition to charge ahead. Not only had the sputnik demonstrated the ability of the relatively backward Soviet Union to take a lead over an economically advanced nation like the United States, but Soviet planners themselves were preparing a major economic drive similar to the Socialist High Tide the Chairman had been forced to abandon.
Back in Beijing, less than two weeks after his return from the Soviet Union, Mao secured the backing of senior vice-chairman Liu Shaoqi for a leap forward. A frugal and taciturn man, tall but slightly stooped with greying hair, Liu had dedicated his career to the party line, regularly toiling away through the night. He also saw himself as the Chairman’s successor, a position he believed would come to him as a reward for years of hard and selfless work. A few months earlier Mao himself had indicated his intention of stepping down from the post of head of state, and may even have privately assured Liu that he supported him in his role as heir apparent.1 Liu embraced Mao’s vision: ‘In fifteen years, the Soviet Union can catch up with and surpass the United States in the output of the most important industrial and agricultural products. In the same period of time, we ought to catch up with and overtake Britain in the output of iron, steel and other major industrial products.’2 Before the end of the year press articles heralding great advances in water conservancy, grain production and steel output appeared all over the country. On New Year’s day in 1958 the People’s Daily published an editorial approved by Liu Shaoqi which captured the leader’s vision: ‘Go All Out and Aim High’.3
Li Fuchun, a bookish man with a self-effacing air who as head of the State Planning Commission regularly sent blueprints as thick as a telephone book to each province, detailing how much of each product should be produced, also lent his support to Mao. A fellow Hunanese and childhood acquaintance of the Chairman, a veteran of the Long March, Li was the first among the economic planners to jump on to the bandwagon of the Great Leap Forward, whether out of fear, conviction or ambition. He joined Liu Shaoqi in praising Mao’s bold vision.4
Under the drumbeat of propaganda, and goaded and coaxed by Mao in private meetings and party conferences, provincial leaders threw their weight behind his go-all-out campaign, promising higher targets in a whole range of economic activities. At a small gathering of party bosses in Hangzhou in early January 1958, Ke Qingshi, a tall man with a bouffant haircut who was mayor of Shanghai and lived in genuine awe of the Chairman, enthused about the ‘new high tide in socialist construction’, proposing that the country ‘ride the wind and break the waves’ by relying on the great masses.5 Surrounded by supporters, and energised by Ke Qingshi, Mao was no longer able to contain the anger pent up over several years, exploding in the face of Bo Yibo, one of the chief economic planners who had resisted his vision. Bo was a veteran revolutionary, but one of his concerns was to keep a balanced budget. ‘I will not listen to that stuff of yours!’ Mao yelled. ‘What are you talking about? For the past few years I have stopped reading the budgets, but you just force me to sign off on them anyway.’ Then he turned to Zhou Enlai: ‘The preface to my book The Socialist Upsurge in the Countryside has had a tremendous influence on the entire country. Is that a “cult of personality” or “idolatry”? Regardless, newspapers and magazines all over the country have reprinted it, and it’s had a huge impact. So now I have really become the “arch criminal of rash advance!” ’6 The moment had come to crack the whip and herd the planners on to the road to utopia.
Situated in the extreme south of the country, Nanning is known as the ‘green city’ because of its lush, subtropical climate, mild enough for sweet peach, betel nut and palm trees to thrive all the year round. With citrus trees in blossom and a balmy temperature of 25 degrees Celsius in the middle of January, the setting should have provided some relief for party leaders coming from wintry Beijing, but the atmosphere was tense. As Zhang Zhongliang, the zealous leader of Gansu province, enthused, ‘From start to finish the Chairman criticised rightist conservative thinking!’7 Mao set the tone on the opening day of the meeting: ‘Don’t mention this term “opposition to rash advance” again, all right? This is a political problem. Any opposition would lead to disappointment, and 600 million discouraged people would be a disaster.’8
Over several days Mao repeatedly lost his temper as he badgered the planners, accusing them of ‘pouring cold water on the enthusiasm of the people’ and holding back the country. Those guilty of opposing ‘rash advance’ were a mere ‘fifty metres away from the rightists’. Wu Lengxi, editor of the People’s Daily which had published the critical editorial on 20 June 1956, was at the very top of the list of leaders summoned by Mao. The Chairman’s verdict: ‘Vulgar Marxism, vulgar dialectics. The article seems to be anti-leftist as well as anti-rightist, but in fact it is not anti-rightist at all but exclusively anti-leftist. It is sharply pointed against me.’9
Huge pressure was applied to the assembled leaders, and even for hardened men accustomed to the rigours of party life the stress was soon to prove too much. Huang Jing, chairman of a commission responsible for technological development and former husband of Mao’s wife, collapsed after the Chairman took him to task. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and mumbling incomprehensibly, he gave the doctor a bewildered look, begging for forgiveness: ‘Save me, save me!’ Put on a plane for medical treatment, he fell to his knees to kowtow before Li Fuchun, who was accompanying him to Guangzhou. Placed in a military hospital, he jumped through a window and broke a leg. He died in November 1958 aged forty-seven.10
But the real target for Mao’s ire was Zhou Enlai. On 16 January Mao brandished in front of the premier a copy of Ke Qingshi’s ‘The New Shanghai Rides the Wind and Breaks the Waves, Accelerating the Construction of Socialism’. ‘Well, Enlai, you are the premier, do you think you could write anything as good?’ he asked scornfully. ‘I couldn’t,’ the premier muttered, straining to absorb the attack. Then, after the ritual of public humiliation, came the blow: ‘Aren’t you opposed to “rash advance”? Well, I am opposed to opposition to “rash advance”!’11 A number of leftist party leaders joined the fray. Ke Qingshi and Li Jingquan, the radical leader of Sichuan, tore into the premier.12 Three days later Zhou made a lengthy speech of self-criticism, taking full responsibility for the reversal in 1956, admitting that it was the result of ‘rightist conservative thinking’ and accepting that he had deviated from the Chairman’s guiding policy. Mao’s notion that mistakes made by the party should not be overemphasised, being only ‘one finger out of ten’, was enshrined in the meeting’s manifesto, thus marginalising those who had attacked the Little Leap Forward.13
Zhou Enlai, whose suave, soft-spoken, slightly effeminate manners made him the ideal choice as China’s foreign emissary, had a talent for landing right side up. He could be all modesty and humility when required. Before the communist victory the nationalists used to call him Budaoweng, the Chinese name for the weighted toy tumbler that always lands upright.14 Early in his career as a revolutionary, Zhou had resolved never to challenge Mao. His decision was made after both had clashed in an incident that had left Mao seething with resentment. At a conference in 1932, critics of guerrilla warfare had ripped into Mao and handed command over the battlefront to Zhou instead. The result was a disaster, as a few years later nationalist troops mauled the Red Army, forcing the communists on the Long March away from their base areas. In 1943, as Zhou realised that Mao’s authority had become supreme, he proclaimed his undying support to the Chairman: ‘The direction and leadership of Mao Zedong’, he declared, ‘is the direction of the Chinese Communist Party!’ But Mao did not let him off the hook so easily. Zhou’s loyalty was tested in a series of self-criticism meetings in which he had to admit to his political crimes, labelling himself a ‘political swindler’ who lacked principles. It was a gruelling experience in self-abasement, but one from which Zhou emerged as the Chairman’s faithful assistant. From here onwards an uneasy and paradoxical alliance developed. Mao had to keep Zhou at bay as a potential contender for power; on the other hand he needed him to run the show. Mao lacked interest in matters of daily routine and organisational detail, and he was often abrasive with other people. Zhou was a first-rate administrator with a knack for organisation, a smooth operator skilled at forging party unity. As one biographer puts it, Mao ‘had to draw Zhou close even as he raised the whip, and sometimes lashed the man he could not live without’.15
The whipping did not stop at Nanning. Two months later, in Chengdu, the final days of a party gathering were devoted to rectification seminars. But first Mao spewed disdain on the blind faith with which the planners had been following Stalin’s economic path: a heavy emphasis on large industrial complexes, a sprawling apparatus of bureaucrats and a chronically underdeveloped countryside. As early as November 1956 he had lambasted some of his colleagues for ‘uncritically thinking that everything in the Soviet Union is perfect, that even their farts are fragrant’.16 Creative thinking was needed to find China’s own path to communism, rather than rigid adherence to Soviet methods, now frozen into socialist dogma. China should ‘walk on two legs’, simultaneously developing industry and agriculture, tackling heavy as well as light industry. And Mao, as the leader on that road, now demanded full allegiance. ‘What is wrong with worship? The truth is in our hands, why should we not worship it? . . . Each group must worship its leader, it cannot but worship its leader,’ Mao explained; this was the ‘correct cult of personality’.17 The message was immediately picked up by Ke Qingshi, who quivered enthusiastically: ‘We must have blind faith in the Chairman! We must obey the Chairman with total abandon!’18
Having consecrated his own cult of personality, Mao handed over the proceedings to Liu Shaoqi, his political crony. While virtually all the participants offered self-criticisms, the situation must have been agonising for Zhou. Both men were intensely competitive, and Liu may have seen Zhou as a threat to his prospects of taking over from the Chairman.19 That day Liu outdid Zhou in adulation of the leader: ‘Over the years I have felt Chairman Mao’s superiority. I am unable to keep up with his thought. Chairman Mao has a remarkable knowledge, especially of Chinese history, which no one else in the party can reach. [He] has practical experience, especially in combining Marxist theory and Chinese reality. Chairman Mao’s superiority in these aspects is something we should admire and try to learn from.’20Zhou, for his part, felt intense pressure to appease the Chairman, who had stripped him of his authority in economic planning after Nanning. Again, he submitted a long confession about his errors, but his offerings failed to impress Mao.
In May, at a formal party gathering of over 1,300 people, Zhou Enlai and the party’s economics tsar Chen Yun were summoned to prepare yet another self-examination. No longer knowing what would satisfy Mao, Zhou spent days in self-imposed isolation, struggling to find the right turn of phrase. After a telephone conversation with Chen Yun, who was in a similar predicament, he sank into such dejection that his mind simply went blank. All he could do was mumble a few words followed by long silences as he stared at his secretary. That evening late at night his wife found him sitting slumped at his desk. Trying to help, the secretary pencilled in a passage about Zhou and Mao having ‘shared the boat through many storms’. When Zhou later pored over the document, he angrily rebuked the secretary, tears welling in his eyes, accusing the man of knowing too little about party history.21 In the end Zhou grovelled, lavishing praise on the Chairman in front of the assembled party leaders and telling the audience that Mao was the ‘personification of truth’ and that mistakes occurred only when the party became divorced from his great leadership. A few days after this display, Zhou handed Mao a personal letter promising to study his writings earnestly and to follow all his directives. The Chairman was finally satisfied. He declared Zhou and the others to be good comrades. Zhou had saved his job.
During these first months of the Great Leap Forward, Zhou was repeatedly humiliated and demeaned, but he never withdrew his support, choosing instead quietly to accept the Chairman’s blistering outburst in Nanning. Zhou Enlai did not have the power to overthrow his master, but he did have the planners behind him, and he could have stepped back – at the cost of his career. But he had learned to accept humiliation at the hands of the Chairman as a way of staying in power, albeit in his colleague’s shadow. Zhou was loyal to Mao, and as a result the many skills of the servant went to abet his master.22 Mao Zedong was the visionary, Zhou Enlai the midwife who transformed nightmares into reality. Always on probation, he would work tirelessly at the Great Leap Forward to prove himself.
As Zhou Enlai was debased in a spectacle of power and humiliation, other top economic officials quickly fell in line. Li Fuchun, chair of the State Planning Commission, never had to resort to self-criticism, having broken ranks with the other planners by rallying round Mao’s slogans in December 1957. Chen Yun made several self-critical statements. Li Xiannian, minister of finance, and Bo Yibo, chair of the State Economic Commission, both opponents of the Little Leap Forward in 1956, now realised that they could not resist the tide. None dared to disagree. Li Fuchun and Li Xiannian were enlisted in the secretariat, the inner core of the party, after they had proclaimed their allegiance to Mao.
To increase the political pressure on the top echelon, the Chairman also presided over a shift in power from the centre to the provinces. Nanning was the first in a series of impromptu conferences called by Mao, who strictly controlled the list of participants, set the agendas and dominated the proceedings, allowing him to cajole his followers towards the Great Leap Forward. He brought the secretariat to the provinces, rather than summon the provinces to come to the more formal sessions of established bodies like the State Council in Beijing.23By so doing he tapped into a deep current of dissatisfaction among provincial leaders. Tao Lujia, first secretary of Shanxi, spoke for many local cadres when he expressed his impatience with the country’s widespread poverty.24 Mao’s vision of a China which was ‘poor and blank’ resonated with idealists who believed in the party’s capacity to catapult the country ahead of its rivals. ‘When you are poor you are inclined to be revolutionary. Blank paper is ideal for writing.’25 Radical provincial leaders lapped up their leader’s vision. Wu Zhipu, leader of Henan, heralded a ‘continuous revolution’ to crush rightist opponents and leap forward. Zeng Xisheng, long-term veteran of the People’s Liberation Army and leader of Anhui, provided the slogan ‘Battle Hard for Three Years to Change the Face of China’. But most of all, having witnessed the ritual abasement of their superiors on their own turf, the provinces were encouraged to launch their own witch-hunts, as a wind of persecution blew through the country.
Mao could be cryptic, leaving his colleagues guessing at the nature of his message, but this time there was plenty of pressure from Beijing concerning the right direction. To make sure that the purges against rightist elements were carried out thoroughly, Mao sent his bull terrier Deng Xiaoping to a series of regional meetings. Instructions were clear. In Gansu, Deng explained, the struggle against vice-governors Sun Diancai, Chen Chengyi and Liang Dajun had to be unequivocal.26 Gansu boss Zhang Zhongliang wasted no time, and a few weeks later he announced that an anti-party clique had been uncovered inside the party provincial committee. Coincidentally, its leaders were Sun Diancai, Chen Chengyi and Liang Dajun: they were accused of denying the achievements of the Socialist High Tide in 1956, attacking the party, denigrating socialism and promoting capitalism – among other heinous crimes.27
These were powerful leaders toppled with the support of Beijing. The purges, however, were carried out at all levels of the party, silencing most critical voices. Few dared to oppose the party line. In parts of Gansu, a poor province near the deserts of Inner Mongolia, any critical comment about grain procurement or excessive quotas simply became unthinkable. The message to party members concerned about the crop was blunt: ‘You should consider carefully whether or not you are rightists.’28 In Lanzhou University, located in the capital city of Gansu, up to half of all students were given a white flag, the sign of a politically conservative laggard. Some had a note pinned on their back: ‘Your father is a white flag.’ Others were beaten. Those who took a neutral stand were denounced as reactionaries.29 The purge continued for as long as Zhang Zhongliang remained in power. By March 1960, some 190,000 people had been denounced and humiliated in public meetings, and 40,000 cadres were expelled from the party, including 150 top provincial officials.30
Similar purges took place throughout the country, as radical leaders seized the opportunity to get rid of their more timorous rivals. From December 1957 onwards, the southern province of Yunnan was in the grip of an anti-rightist purge that reached from party seniors down to village cadres. In April 1958 the tough local boss Xie Fuzhi, a short man with a double chin, announced the overthrow of the leaders of an ‘anti-party clique’: Zheng Dun and Wang Jing, the heads of the Organisation Department, were guilty of ‘localism’, ‘revisionism’, advocating capitalism, attempting to overthrow the party’s leadership and opposing the socialist revolution.31 By the summer of 1958 the inquisition had resulted in the removal of some 2,000 party members. One in fifteen top leaders were fired, including more than 150 powerful cadres working at the county level or higher up in one of the province’s dozen administrative regions. A further 9,000 party members were labelled as rightists as the campaign unfolded.32
‘Anti-party’ cliques were uncovered almost everywhere. Mao prodded the provincial leaders on. ‘Better me than you as dictator,’ he declared in March 1958, invoking words from Lenin. ‘It’s similar in the provinces: is it going to be Jiang Hua or Sha Wenhan as dictator?’33 In Zhejiang Sha Wenhan was hounded by Jiang Hua, and similar battles took place in Guangdong, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Anhui, Liaoning, Hebei and Yunnan, among other provinces.34 In Henan, one of the provinces that would be most affected by famine, a moderate leader called Pan Fusheng was swept aside by Wu Zhipu, a zealous follower of Mao. Pan had painted a grim picture of collectivisation during the Socialist High Tide. ‘The peasants . . . are the same as beasts of burden today. Yellow oxen are tied up in the house and human beings are harnessed in the field. Girls and women pull ploughs and harrows, with their wombs hanging out. Co-operation is transformed into the exploitation of human strength.’35 Here, it seemed, was a blatant case of a retreat to capitalism, and all of Pan’s followers were hunted down, dividing party and village. Scarecrows with slogans appeared along dusty roadsides, reading ‘Down with Pan Fusheng’ or ‘Down with Wu Zhipu’. Most local cadres could see which way the wind was blowing, and fell in line behind Wu Zhipu.36
But, however great the pressure, there were always choices to be made. When Mao toured Jiangsu and asked the local leader whether they were fighting the rightists, Jiang Weiqing gathered up his courage and told the Chairman that if there were any bad elements he would have to be counted as their leader. The party should get rid of him first. Mao laughed: ‘You don’t fear being cut in pieces for pulling the emperor off his horse! Well, just leave it then . . .’37 As a result, fewer cadres were denounced in Jiangsu than elsewhere.
But rare were those who had the conviction, the courage or the inclination to swim against the tide. The purges percolated down the ranks of the party. Just as Mao imposed his will in Beijing, local overlords laid down the law in their own provinces, denouncing any opposition as ‘conservative rightism’. And just as provincial capitals had their hegemons, county leaders and their cronies used the purge to eliminate their rivals. They turned a blind eye on local bullies. On the ground, a world far removed from the utopia envisaged on paper started to emerge.
An early warning sign came in the summer of 1958, as a report circulating among the top brass showed how violence had become the norm during the anti-rightist campaign in Fengxian county, just south of Shanghai. A hundred people committed suicide, many others being worked to death in the fields. Wang Wenzhong, county leader, set the example with a motto that compared ‘the masses’ to dogs intimidated only by the sight of a stick in a cadre’s hands. Thousands of villagers were accused of being ‘landlords’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in public meetings that punctuated daily life for months on end. Many were routinely beaten, tied up and tortured, some being carried away to special labour camps set up throughout the county.38
Fengxian was a dire warning of the darkness to come. At the top, however, floating far above the ground, faith in the ability of the people to change heaven and earth was boundless. In December 1957 Chen Zhengren, one of Mao’s most trusted colleagues, attacked the conservatism of ‘rightists’ who hampered the enthusiasm of the masses in the water-conservancy campaign. This was the rallying cry of the Great Leap Forward.39