A muddy river runs through the heart of China, flowing some 5,500 kilometres from the barren mountains in Qinghai to empty in the Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea near Beijing. The upper reaches of the river flow through mountain valleys where the water is clear, but after a series of steep cliffs and gorges it meanders through the dusty loess plateau, picking up the soft, silty sediment left behind over time by wind storms. As mud and sand are further discharged into the river, it turns into a dirty ochre colour. The loess is deposited in the slower sections downstream, causing the river bed to rise. By the time it passes the ancient city of Kaifeng, the river bed runs ten metres above the surrounding fields. When the banks burst, the flat, northern plain is easily inundated, turning the river into one of the most perilous natural hazards on record. Kaifeng itself was flooded, abandoned and rebuilt several times. Ditches and embankments were traditionally used as flood defences but they had little effect, the river carrying an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of silt annually. ‘When the Yellow River flows clear’, in Chinese, is the equivalent of the expression ‘when pigs fly’.
Another traditional saying heralds the advent of a miraculous leader: ‘When a great man emerges, the Yellow River will run clear.’ Could Chairman Mao tame the river that flooded so often that it had earned the name ‘China’s sorrow’? Early propaganda posters showed him sitting pensively on a rock overlooking the river, perhaps pondering ways to clear the water.1 In 1952, when these photos were taken, Mao had toured the river and uttered a single, somewhat cryptic line: ‘Work on the Yellow River must be carried out well.’2 Heated debates about the scheme ensued among engineers while Mao remained on the sidelines, and a faction in favour of a large dam finally prevailed. Soviet experts, themselves enamoured with gigantic projects, surveyed the lower reach and identified the Three Gate Gorge in Henan as a suitable site. A design for a dam setting the normal pool water at 360 metres was delivered in April 1956, meaning that close to a million people would have to be relocated as some 220,000 hectares of land would be submerged. The project was officially launched in April 1957, despite the reservations of several hydraulic engineers. Huang Wanli, an American-trained geologist who had visited every major dam in the United States, argued that dire consequences would follow from the attempt to clear the river of sediment. Blocking dirt and loess behind a giant dam would limit the reservoir’s lifespan and eventually lead to disaster. Then Mao intervened. ‘What is this trash?’ was the angry headline of his editorial published in June 1957 by the People’s Daily. The article listed a series of charges against Huang, alleging, among other things, that he had attacked the Chairman, harmed the party, propagated bourgeois democracy and admired foreign cultures.3 All criticism of the Three Gate Gorge Dam was brushed aside.
By the end of 1958 the Yellow River was blocked. Some 6 million square metres of earth had been moved in a pharaonic enterprise involving the labour of tens of thousands of villagers. A year later the dam was ready. The water was clear. But the initial design had provided for several outlets and tubes, allowing accumulated sediment to be flushed through the dam. These had been blocked by reinforced concrete in the haste to complete the project on schedule. Within a year the sediment started inching upstream, raising the waters and threatening to flood the industrial centre of Xi’an. Extensive rebuilding was required to purge the sediment, which in turn caused a drop in the pool level. With a lower waterline the 150,000 kilowatt turbines, installed at great cost, became completely useless and had to be removed to another site. The water was no longer clear. By 1961 the amount of silt carried by the Yellow River had doubled, Zhou Enlai himself admitted. Up to 95 per cent of a section of the Yellow River west of Zhengzhou consisted of mud.4 A few years later the area was so silted up that foreigners were banned from visiting the dam.5
The term ‘Great Leap Forward’ was first used in the context of the water-conservancy drive launched towards the end of 1957. Determined to overtake Britain in fifteen years, Mao saw a key to rapid industrialisation in the substitution of labour for capital. The masses were the country’s real wealth, and they should be mobilised during the slack winter season, before the spring ploughing, to transform the countryside. If water could be diverted to irrigate the thin topsoil of the many impoverished villages strewn across the arid north, if floods could be contained with giant dykes and reservoirs in the subtropical south, the yield of grain would jump. All over China tens of millions of farmers joined irrigation projects: collectively, so the propaganda went, they could accomplish in a matter of months what their forefathers had done in thousands of years. Some 30 million people were recruited in October 1957. By January one in six people was digging earth in China. More than 580 million cubic metres of rocks and soil were moved before the end of the year.6 Henan, where the Three Gate Gorge Dam was being built, took the lead, as local boss Wu Zhipu ruthlessly pushed the labour force into grandiose projects designed to impress Beijing. In the region bordering Henan and Anhui, centre of an ambitious ‘Harness the Huai River’ campaign which would unfold for several decades, more than a hundred dams and reservoirs were built between 1957 and 1959.7
In a country in the grip of gigantism, massive irrigation schemes appeared everywhere, although the leadership gave special emphasis to the north-west. Critical voices were few and far between. Mao distrusted intellectuals, and in the summer of 1957 persecuted hundreds of thousands of those who had dared to voice a critical opinion during the Hundred Flowers. But as we have seen in the previous chapter, the purge of party leaders in the anti-rightist campaign from late 1957 onwards was even more effective in removing opposition to the Great Leap Forward.
In Gansu province, for instance, senior leaders such as Sun Diancai and Liang Dajun were denounced as the heads of an ‘anti-party’ clique and expelled in February 1958. One of the accusations levelled against them was that they had expressed doubts about the speed and extent of the water-conservancy movement: for every 50,000 hectares of irrigated land, they had claimed, a hundred villagers paid with their lives. Their removal from power allowed local boss Zhang Zhongliang to take the lead and respond to the call from Beijing. Some 3.4 million farmers, close to 70 per cent of the Gansu workforce, were deployed on irrigation projects that cut across one of the country’s most arid provinces. Many of the villagers were made to build small dams and reservoirs, but these were not enough to satisfy the leadership. Zhang Zhongliang had a more daring vision of the future, one in which a large water highway would tunnel through snow-capped mountains and span deep valleys to provide water to the central and western regions of the province. The Tao River, quite literally, would ‘move up the mountains’, as it was diverted up the hills before flowing 900 kilometres from the Jiudian Gorges to Qingyang.8 As clean drinking water would be brought to parched villages across the province, Gansu would be turned into a giant park as lush and green as the Summer Palace in Beijing.9
Work started in June 1958, and attracted support from the country’s leadership. In September 1958 Marshal Zhu De used his calligraphy to signal the momentous nature of the project. The inscription read: ‘Raising the Tao River up the mountains is a pioneering undertaking by the people of Gansu in transforming nature.’10 But the project was bedevilled by problems from the start. Soil erosion caused frequent landslides, reservoirs filled with silt, rivers turned to mud.11 Villagers enlisted on the project had to dig caves in the mountains for shelter in the freezing cold of winter, foraging for herbs to supplement a meagre diet of grain.12 By the summer of 1961 work came to a halt, and in March 1962 the project was abandoned altogether. Total irrigated surface: zero hectares. Cost to the state: 150 million yuan. Number of work days: 600,000. Cost to the people: inestimable. At its peak some 160,000 people had been made to work on the project, and most of these were villagers diverted away from agricultural work. At least 2,400 died, some in accidents, but many more as a result of a brutal regime which forced workers to slave day and night in order to reach ever higher targets.13 Such was the frenzy with which cadres pushed villagers that Tongwei, an impoverished county in the mountains situated at the heart of the project, would have one of the highest death rates in the country: slow starvation and widespread physical punishment changed this desolate place into a site of horror.
Targets in water conservancy were measured by the number of tonnes of earth a province could move. This magic number – entirely unrelated to the actual usefulness of the projects being undertaken – was then compared nationwide in a spirit of emulation which determined the political clout of a province. Liu Derun, deputy director of the Office of Water Conservancy established specifically to supervise the campaign, later recalled that ‘Our daily work consisted of making phone calls to the provinces inquiring about the number of projects they were building, how many people were involved, and how much earth they had moved. With hindsight, some of the data and figures we gathered were obvious exaggerations, but no one back then had the energy to check them out.’14
In this campaign the tone was set by Beijing, and in the capital Mao made sure that everybody got involved. Some thirty kilometres north of Beijing, in a serene and sparsely populated valley, defended from the northern winds by several hills, many of the Ming emperors and their wives lay buried in their underground mausoleums. Protected by statues of elephants, camels, horses, unicorns and other mythical beasts, which in turn were followed by human sculptures in a funeral cortège, these emperors were now accused of having built vast palaces for themselves while their subjects were exposed to the torrents rushing down from the bare slopes of the mountains. In January 1958 the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army started work on a reservoir near the tombs. By damming a river in the valley, a regular supply of water would help the people. Shock troops were provided by the army. Work proceeded around the clock, manpower being furnished by factories and institutions from the capital, while the press and the radio brought constant coverage to the public.
The Ming Tombs Reservoir was to be the flagship of the Great Leap Forward, an example to be emulated by the rest of the country. Soon tens of thousands of ‘volunteers’ from the capital joined the effort, including students, cadres and even foreign diplomats. Work went on in all weathers and proceeded at night by the light of torches, lanterns and pressure lamps. Hardly any machinery was used: the people who turned up were given picks, shovels, baskets and poles to dump the rubble in railway wagons, which were shuttled to the dam where it was ground into gravel. Hewn stone was lifted by block and tackle. Then, on 25 May 1958, Mao appeared in front of the crowds and posed for the photographers with a bamboo pole slung across his shoulders, two buckets filled with earth dangling from the pole.15 The photos appeared on the front page of every newspaper, galvanising a nation.
Jan Rowinski, a young student from Poland, participated in the building of this reservoir. He and other volunteers were given a pole with two baskets which they filled with rubble, working their way around the track with straw hats for protection against the summer sun. The workers were divided into units of ten with an overseer who reported to a group of a hundred, who in turn answered to the next man up the chain of command. Everybody slept in tents put up by the military or in peasant huts, with banners proclaiming that ‘Three Years of Hard Work is Ten Thousand Years of Happiness’. Rowinski was quick to realise that the emperors, denounced for exploiting the common people, had probably used similar tactics to build the Great Wall, the Imperial Canal and the Ming Tombs – fusing tens of thousands of labourers armed with nothing but a bamboo pole into a docile but efficient workforce.16
Mikhail Klochko, a foreign adviser who had volunteered to help, was also sceptical, noting that the few spadefuls of earth he had shovelled around had little propaganda value, although it did provide a welcome opportunity for hundreds of workers to take a few minutes’ rest as they gathered around and gawked at the foreigner digging. Most of the work was disorganised, and a few hundred men with excavators and lorries would have done a more efficient job than the thousands of workers compelled to participate, all having to be transported, billeted and fed for weeks on end.17
The haste with which the project was executed resulted in major miscalculations, and in April 1958 leaks appeared in the reservoir. A Polish expert on soil solidification was flown in from Gdansk to freeze the ground, preventing the water from escaping. At long last, the dam was formally opened with a brass band and officiating dignitaries praising Mao and paying tribute to the voluntary workers.18 As the reservoir was built in the wrong location, it dried up and was abandoned after a few years.
Work at the Ming Tombs may have been an exciting event for some foreign students, but most people dreaded the back-breaking work. Mao himself started perspiring after half an hour of digging in the sun, his face turning bright red. ‘So little effort and already I’m dripping with sweat,’ he said, before retiring to the command tent for some rest.19 His immediate entourage – secretaries, bodyguards and private doctor – were also sent to the reservoir by Mao. ‘Just work until you are exhausted. If you really can’t stand it, just let me know.’ Group One, as they were known, remained a privileged elite, sleeping on quilts on the floor of a classroom when everybody else spent the night on reed mats outdoors. They were also spared the scorching heat of early summer, being assigned a night shift by the general in charge. Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal doctor, was healthy and still young at thirty-eight years of age, but the digging and carrying was the most arduous work he had ever done in his life. After two weeks he was exhausted, aching in every limb and trembling with cold at night; every reserve of energy in his body had been used up. Nobody in Group One wanted to continue, not even the strong bodyguards, but who would want to be labelled a backward element by suggesting that they quit? Mercifully, they were ordered back to Zhongnanhai.20
But outside the capital the pressure was much greater, and villagers were the ones who bore the brunt of the campaign: they were not called off after a mere two weeks of work to return to the luxuries of an elite cadre lifestyle. They were marched off in groups to construction sites far away from home and family, made to perform exhausting labour all day long for months on end, sometimes throughout the night without any rest, poorly fed and barely clothed, and exposed to the elements, come snow, rain or heat.
Yunnan provides a good example of what happened far away from the glare of publicity. Some villages in the subtropical province started work on reservoirs in the winter of 1957–8, but the local party boss was unimpressed. In early January 1958 Xie Fuzhi, the man who a few months later so ruthlessly purged his colleagues in the anti-rightist movement, complained loudly that far too many farmers were laggards who failed to perform their collective duties in the slack winter months. Eight hours of work a day was a strict minimum for every adult, while the amount of food consumed by workers on irrigation projects should be curtailed.21 Then, on 15 January, the People’s Daily listed Yunnan as one of the worst performers in the water-conservancy campaign.22 Determined to catch up, Xie called an emergency meeting the following day. Up to half the workforce in the province should join the movement, he commanded, and villagers were to work for up to ten hours a day, through the night if necessary. Shirkers should be punished, and targets should be met at any cost. Cadres who failed to comply would be sacked.23 Coming in the midst of an unfolding anti-rightist campaign which had already stripped thousands of local cadres of their jobs, this was no idle threat. Results followed promptly. On 19 January the People’s Daily reported that Yunnan, singled out only a few days earlier, now had 2.5 million people, a third of the workforce, moving earth.24 Emboldened, Xie Fuzhi declared that the province would be completely irrigated within three years.25
The cost of success was high. In Chuxiong, near a highland lake as large as a sea, farmers enrolled on irrigation projects were routinely cursed and beaten. Villagers were tied up for stealing a few vegetables, others who failed to work hard enough were stabbed with knives by cadres trying to impose a ruthless work regime. A makeshift labour camp took care of recalcitrant elements. Party leaders higher up the chain of command were aware of these practices. In April 1958 a team was sent by the Yunnan provincial party committee to investigate the county. Hopeful rumours began to circulate among the villagers, one courageous individual trying to muster support for a collective grievance about insufficient food and long working hours. He was denounced as a ‘reactionary’ and a ‘saboteur’ in the final report sent to Xie Fuzhi.26
Some 130 kilometres to the east of the provincial capital Kunming, in the midst of a primeval forest with craggy mountains shaped out of sand and stone by erosion, Luliang county had been savaged by the provincial party committee for giving in to ‘farmers’ rightist demands’ for grain in 1957. The new leader Chen Shengnian rigidly adhered to the party line, organising military squads who patrolled the village streets with leather whips, making sure that even sick villagers went out to work in the fields.27 The first cases of death by starvation appeared in February 1958. By June oedema, or water retention, was widespread and a thousand villagers died of hunger, most of whom had worked on the Xichong reservoir. Oedema happens when fluids accumulate in the feet, ankles and legs or beneath the skin in other parts of the body. In developed countries it can be caused by mild changes in behaviour, for instance by eating too much salt or standing a lot when the weather is warm. In poor countries, however, it is caused by lack of protein and is seen as a symptom of malnutrition; it is sometimes called famine oedema. In Luliang medical teams were dispatched on several occasions to investigate these cases, but in the midst of the anti-rightist campaign none had the courage to identify oedema as a condition generally caused by hunger – as was well known in a country with a long record of famine. Some doctors even wondered whether it might be a contagious disease and prescribed antibiotics instead of bed rest and food.28 At first the bodies of the dead were buried in coffins, but after a few months they were simply covered in mats and dumped in the ditches and ponds near construction sites.29
Yunnan was no exception. All over China farmers were being driven to the edge of starvation on gigantic irrigation schemes, pushed hard by cadres afraid of being labelled rightists. Having spent half an hour shovelling gravel himself, Mao was in a good position to see the human cost of the irrigation campaign. In March 1958, as he listened to a report by Jiang Weiqing on irrigation in Jiangsu, he mused that ‘Wu Zhipu claims he can move 30 billion cubic metres; I think 30,000 people will die. Zeng Xisheng has said that he will move 20 billion cubic metres, and I think that 20,000 people will die. Weiqing only promises 600 million cubic metres, maybe nobody will die.’30 Mass mobilisation on water-conservancy schemes continued unabated for several years, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of exhausted villagers already weakened by hunger. In a chilling precursor of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, villagers in Qingshui, Gansu, called these projects the ‘killing fields’.31