Launching Sputniks

Charts with rising targets, beautifully drafted with colour-coded diagrams, made a stark contrast with the killing fields. As targets rocketed skywards in every conceivable domain, from grain output and steel production to the number of wells dug in the countryside, a dark chasm appeared between a world of slogans and the reality on the ground. Behind the pressure which produced this gap was the hand of Mao. In informal exchanges he needled and goaded local bosses to commit to ever higher production targets.

Zhou Xiaozhou, the cautious leader of Mao’s native Hunan, was one of the first to be harangued in November 1957. ‘Why can’t Hunan increase its agricultural production?’ Mao asked, on a visit to the provincial capital Changsha. ‘Why do the Hunan peasants still plant only one crop of rice a year?’ After Zhou explained that the weather permitted only a single crop a year, Mao pointed out that Zhejiang was on the same latitude as Hunan and planted two crops of rice. ‘You are not even studying other experiences. That’s the trouble,’ Mao continued.

‘We will study the matter, then,’ Zhou responded meekly.

‘What do you mean study?’ Mao demanded. ‘You won’t get anywhere with your study. You can go now,’ he added, dismissing the party leader. He opened a book and began to read.

A humiliated Zhou then promised: ‘We’ll try to start two plantings right away.’ Mao ignored him.1

A few months later, when Zhou’s representative met the Chairman in Beijing, Mao lavished praise on Henan instead. Henan produced half the country’s wheat: ‘What do you think of that?’ Then he shared his disappointment with Hunan. Luxembourg had a population of 300,000 but produced 3 million tonnes of steel a year. Now how many people were there in Hunan?2

Mao also sent close allies to hammer home the message. Just as Deng Xiaoping was his trusted lieutenant in the campaign against rightists, Tan Zhenlin was a zealot put in charge of agriculture. A short man topped by a bush of dense hair with thick glasses and trout lips, he was a close follower of Mao and an ally of Ke Qingshi, the rising star of Shanghai. He was described by a former colleague as a sarcastic man who was ruthlessly ‘mission-oriented’.3 His advice to colleagues who were summoned by the Chairman was to proffer instant self-criticism, whether or not they were at fault.4 Tan spent many months touring the country, whipping up the pressure behind the Great Leap Forward. He was unimpressed with what he saw in Hunan, a province he considered a laggard.5 As he threatened to denounce it as politically backward, a reluctant Zhou Xiaozhou started inflating the crop figures.6

Outside the corridors of power where one-to-one encounters took place, the telephone was used to keep up the pressure. In a country the size of China, it allowed a leader to stay in touch with his subordinates regardless of physical distance. In the frenzy to produce more steel, for instance, Xie Fuzhi would phone around Yunnan to impress on county secretaries the danger of falling behind neighbours Guangxi and Guizhou.7 The party secretary, in turn, was regularly given updates by the Ministry of Metallurgy. On 4 September 1958, for instance, the latest results were phoned in by Beijing.8 Then on 6 September a speech by Mao was transmitted in a telephone conference, followed by a talk on steel targets by Bo Yibo on 8 September, by Peng Zhen on 11 September, and by Wang Heshou on 16 September. In the meantime, countless other conferences on agriculture, industry and collectivisation were given by telephone from the capital.9 How often the phone was used we do not know, but at the height of the campaign one local cadre in a commune in Guangdong estimated that some ninety telephone conferences took place in a single season in 1960 to ensure close planting (sowing seeds more densely in the hope that the crop would increase – also known as close cropping).10

Pressure was also maintained through the ad-hoc party gatherings called by Mao, who dominated the agenda to promote new ideological themes and escalate production targets.11 Bo Yibo – one of the planners taken to task by Mao for opposing a surge in output – contributed in no small measure to the frenzy by replacing a single set of national targets with a system of dual planning at the Nanning meeting in January 1958. To this Mao added a third set. It worked as follows: the centre was to have one set of targets that had to be achieved, while the second plan was merely expected to be accomplished. This second plan was handed over to the provinces and became their first set of targets which had to be reached at all cost. The provinces were then asked to have a second plan reflecting what they expected to be accomplished, making for three sets in total. The system percolated downwards to the counties, in effect adding a fourth set of production plans. As the national targets were ceaselessly revised upwards at party meetings, the whole system of defined and desired targets created an orgy of inflation all the way down to the village, resulting in a great leap in targets.12

A process of emulation further added to the political tension. Mao not only denigrated timorous colleagues and praised the more radical ones in full view of their subordinates, he was also inclined to compare everything and everyone with something else to heighten a competitive spirit. Hunan was juxtaposed to Luxembourg in steel production, China was stacked up against Britain when it came to industrial output, Gansu was set against Henan in the irrigation drive. This, too, was enshrined in the directives Mao distributed to party leaders at Nanning: to boost its competitive spirit the whole nation was to engage in comparison. Regular reviews in endless meetings at all levels bestowed three categories of designation on provinces, cities, counties, communes, factories and even individuals, all on the basis of their achievements. A ‘red flag’ was granted to those judged to be advanced, a ‘grey flag’ was given to those considered mediocre, and a ‘white flag’ was punishment for the backward. Handed out during meetings after work, these symbolic designations, sometimes drawn on a blackboard next to a unit’s name, had the power to confer shame in a society in which even the slightest lack of political enthusiasm could cause somebody to be labelled a rightist. The whole country became a universe of norms, quotas and targets from which escape was all but impossible, as loudspeakers blasted slogans, cadres checked and appraised work, and committees endlessly ranked and rated the world around them. And classification of individual performance would increasingly determine the kind of treatment meted out – down to the ladle of gruel in the canteen in times of hunger. Mao was clear: ‘Compare: how should we compare? What we call “comparison” [bi] is really “compulsion” [bi].’13 A county official recalled the experience thus:

That year, we pooled all our able hands together to work on water well drilling, leaving spring farming unattended. The prefecture party committee held a pingbi [assessment and comparison] meeting at which we received a ‘red flag’ for well drilling and a ‘white flag’ for spring farming. I went back to the county party committee to report this and got blasted by the party secretary: ‘how could you have left with a red flag but come back with a white flag!’ I realised then that the problem was very serious. I myself could be picked as a ‘white flag’. Thus I had to leave my sobbing wife who was due to give birth soon and my dying sister who was infected with tetanus to go back to the work site in the mountains.14

Soon all of China was in the grip of target fever, as fantastic figures for agricultural and industrial output competed for attention. These claims were trundled out at party meetings and publicised by a powerful propaganda machine, covering the leaders behind the latest record in glory. The numbers were stratospheric, and achieving a new high was called ‘launching a sputnik’ – in honour of the first satellite hurled into space by the socialist camp the previous year. To ‘launch a sputnik’, to ‘join the party in combat’, to ‘work hard for a few days and nights’ were ways of getting a red flag. In Chayashan, Henan, soon to become the country’s first people’s commune (known as the ‘Sputnik Commune’), a goal of 4,200 kilos of wheat per hectare was set in February 1958. As 6,000 activists roamed the countryside with a river of banners, posters, leaflets and slogans, targets were cranked up. By the end of the year an entirely fictitious level of 37.5 tonnes per hectare was promised.15

Many of these records were achieved on ‘sputnik fields’, high-yield experimental plots touted by local cadres keen on setting new records. These were generally limited to a small strip of land in any one collective farm, but the plots acted as showcases for new agricultural techniques that found a much wider application. Increasing the yield encouraged a scramble for fertiliser. Every conceivable kind of nutrient was thrown on to the fields, from weed dragged from the sea and garbage salvaged from refuse heaps to soot scraped from chimneys. Animal and human waste was carried to the fields by endless rows of people, sometimes until deep into the night. Where excrement was traditionally viewed as a dirty and polluting substance by the many minority people who lived along the outer reaches of the empire, outdoor toilets were built for the first time, the party riding roughshod over local sensibilities. Collecting it became a task assigned to punishment teams.16 Human waste extended to hair, and in some Guangdong villages women were forced to shave their heads to contribute fertiliser or face a ban from the canteen.17

But most of the time buildings made of mud and straw were torn down to provide nutrients for the soil. Walls of buildings where animals had lived and especially where they had urinated, such as stables, could provide useful fertiliser. At first old walls and abandoned huts were destroyed, but as the campaign gained momentum entire rows of houses were systematically razed to the ground, the mud bricks shattered and strewn across the fields. In Macheng, nestled against the south of the Dabie mountain range in Hubei, thousands of houses were demolished to collect fertiliser. In January 1958 the model county was exalted by Wang Renzhong, party secretary of the province, for reaching a rice yield of six tonnes per hectare: ‘Let Us Learn from Macheng!’ the People’s Daily declared rapturously. Once it had been praised by Mao for its experimental plots, Macheng became a shrine. In the following months it attracted half a million cadres, including Zhou Enlai, foreign minister Chen Yi and Li Xiannian. By August a new record was achieved with a yield of 277 tonnes of rice per hectare: ‘The Era of Miracles!’ the propaganda machine proclaimed.18

On the ground the pressure was unremitting, wild boasts and false figures vying for attention. In one Macheng commune the head of the Women’s Federation took the lead by moving out of her house and allowing it to be turned into fertiliser: within two days 300 houses, fifty cattle pens and hundreds of chicken coops had been pulled down. By the end of the year some 50,000 buildings had been destroyed.19 Trying to outdo one another, other communes throughout the country followed suit. In Dashi, Guangdong, a commune that also attracted nationwide attention with its ‘Twenty-five-Tonne Grain University’ and ‘Five-Thousand-Kilo Field’, local cadres pulverised half of all houses in Xi’er.20 Other organic matter found its way into the fields: in parts of Jiangsu province, the land was covered in white sugar.21

Deep ploughing was another revolutionary recipe meant to free the farmers from the capricious soil. The deeper the planting, the stronger the roots and the taller the stalk, or so ran the logic behind this experiment. ‘Use human waves, and turn every field over,’ commanded Mao.22 If shovelling gravel on irrigation projects was tough, deep tilling to a depth ranging from forty centimetres to more than a metre – sometimes three metres – was totally exhausting. Where tools were lacking, ranks of farmers dug furrows by hand, sometimes throughout the night by the light of fire torches. Goaded by cadres eager to achieve a coveted red flag, villagers now and then burrowed through the earth to bedrock, destroying the topsoil. By September 1958 some 8 million hectares had been tilled to a depth of about thirty centimetres, but the leadership still demanded more, all of it at least sixty centimetres deep.23

This was followed by heavy concentrations of seed in the search for higher yields. Initially these half-baked experiments were carried out on artificial plots, but they spread to the fields in the following years under the watchful eyes of radical cadres. In Diaofang, Guangdong, up to 600 kilos of seed were sown per hectare in barren, mountainous areas in the middle of the famine in 1960.24 Elsewhere in the province farmers were conscripted to sow more than 250 kilos of kernels on a single hectare: by the end of the season the yield per hectare turned out to be a paltry 525 kilos of peanuts.25

Close cropping was the cornerstone of innovative tilling. Seeds too, it seemed, showed a revolutionary spirit, those belonging to the same class sharing light and nutrients in a spurt of equality. Explained Chairman Mao: ‘With company they grow easily, when they grow together they will be more comfortable.’26 More often than not, villagers were instructed to transplant rice shoots from adjacent strips on to the experimental plot, squeezing the clumps closely together. Villagers, of course, knew better: they had tilled the land for generations, and knew how to care for a precious resource on which their livelihoods depended. Many were incredulous, some trying to reason with the cadres: ‘You plant the seedlings too closely, there is not enough breathing space between them, and then you add ten tonnes of fertiliser per field. It will suffocate them to death.’ But advice was ignored: ‘It’s a new technique, you don’t understand!’27

Most villagers, having witnessed a series of anti-rightist campaigns since 1957, were too wily ever to object in public. Every survivor who was interviewed for this book told a similar story: ‘We knew about the situation, but no one dared to say anything. If you said anything, they would beat you up. What could we do?’28 Another explained: ‘Whatever the government said, we had to follow. If I said something wrong, if what I said was against the general line, then I would be labelled as a rightist. No one dared to say anything.’29 What happened in a village in Quxian county, Zhejiang, provides a good example: large cauldrons of gruel were set up in the fields, and nobody was allowed to leave, be they pregnant mothers who needed to feed their children or elderly people wishing to take a rest. People had to slog throughout the night, since cadres had blocked off all exits back to the village. Those who objected to close planting were beaten by party activists. One stubborn old man who somehow failed to show enough enthusiasm was yanked by his hair and pushed face down into the ditch. Then the villagers were ordered to pull out the seedlings and start all over again.30

Visits were carefully stage-managed. In Macheng, villagers were warned never to say a bad word about the Great Leap Forward in front of visitors. As provincial leader Wang Renzhong inspected the fields, he saw farmers tucking into mounds of rice, carefully laid out for his visit.31 In Xushui, Zhang Guozhong, a military man, ruthlessly ensured that the image presented to the outside world was flawless: undesirable elements disappeared into an elaborate labour-camp system, extending from the county down to every commune, brigade and production team. In order to ‘stimulate production’, laggards were paraded before being locked up, some 7,000 people being rounded up between 1958 and 1960.32 In Luoding, Guangdong, inspection committees visiting Liantan commune in late 1958 were welcomed by a posse of young girls, expensive perfumes, white towels and a lavish banquet with sixteen dishes. Dozens of farmers worked for days on end to carve a huge slogan praising the communes into the mountainside.33 Li Zhisui, who accompanied Mao on his visits, was told that farmers had been ordered to transplant rice plants along the Chairman’s route to give the impression of a bumper harvest. The doctor commented that ‘All of China was a stage, all the people performers in an extravaganza for Mao.’34 But in reality a dictatorship never has one dictator only, as many people become willing to scramble for power over the next person above them. The country was full of local hegemons, each trying to deceive the next one up into believing that their achievements were genuine.

Mao was delighted. As reports came in from all over the country about new records in cotton, rice, wheat or peanut production, he started wondering what to do with all the surplus food. On 4 August 1958 in Xushui, flanked by Zhang Guozhong, surrounded by journalists, plodding through the fields in straw hat and cotton shoes, he beamed: ‘How are you going to eat so much grain? What are you going to do with the surplus?’

‘We can exchange it for machinery,’ Zhang responded after a pause for thought.

‘But you are not the only one to have a surplus, others too have too much grain! Nobody will want your grain!’ Mao shot back with a benevolent smile.

‘We can make spirits out of taro,’ suggested another cadre.

‘But every county will make spirits! How many tonnes of spirits do we need?’ Mao mused. ‘With so much grain, in future you should plant less, work half time and spend the rest of your time on culture and leisurely pursuits, open schools and a university, don’t you think? . . . You should eat more. Even five meals a day is fine!’35

At long last, China had found a way out of grinding poverty, solving the problem of hunger and producing more food than the people could possibly eat. As reports came in from all over the country pointing at a bumper harvest twice the size of the previous year, other leaders joined in the chorus. Tan Zhenlin, in charge of agriculture, toured the provinces to galvanise the local leadership. He shared Mao’s vision of a communist cornucopia in which farmers dined on delicacies like swallows’ nests, wore silk, satin and fox furs, and lived in skyscrapers with piped water and television. Every county would have an airport.36 Tan even explained how China had managed to leave the Soviet Union in the dust: ‘Some comrades will wonder how we manage to be so fast, since the Soviet Union is still practising socialism instead of communism. The difference is that we have a “continuous revolution”. The Soviet Union doesn’t have one, or follows it loosely . . . Communisation is the communist revolution!’37 Chen Yi, on the other hand, opined that since enough grain could be stored over the next couple of years, farmers should then stop growing crops for two seasons and devote their time instead to building villas with all modern amenities.38 Local leaders were just as enthusiastic. In January 1959 the State Council had to put a stop to the deluge of people, letters and gifts sent by communes to Beijing to testify to new records set in agriculture. The Chairman was inundated.39

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