The People’s Communes

A day after the meeting with Khrushchev by the swimming pool, Li Zhisui was summoned by Mao. At three o’clock in the morning, the Chairman wanted an English lesson from the doctor. Later, over breakfast, a relaxed Mao handed him a report about the creation of a people’s commune in his model province, Henan. ‘This is an extraordinary event,’ Mao said excitedly about the fusion of smaller agricultural co-operatives into a giant collective. ‘This term “people’s commune” is great.’1 Could this be the bridge to communism that Stalin had never found?

Soon after the water-conservancy campaign had kicked off in the autumn of 1957, collective farms had started to merge into much larger entities, in particular in regions where large inputs of manpower were required. One of the largest collectives appeared in Chayashan, Henan, where some 9,400 households were fused into a giant administrative unit. But the inspiration behind the people’s communes can be traced back to Xushui county.

Located a hundred kilometres south of Beijing in the dry and dusty countryside of North China, marked by harsh winters, spring floods and an alkaline soil that hardly yielded enough grain for villagers to survive on, Xushui, a small county of some 300,000 people, quickly came to the attention of the Chairman. Its local leader Zhang Guozhong approached the irrigation projects like a field campaign. Conscripting a workforce of 100,000 men, he divided farmers along military lines into battalions, companies and platoons. He cut off links with the villages and had the troops live in the open, sleeping in makeshift barracks and eating in collective canteens.

Zhang’s approach was highly effective and attracted the attention of the leadership in Beijing in September 1957.2 Tan Zhenlin, for one, was bowled over: ‘Xushui county’, he exclaimed in February 1958, ‘has created a new experience in water conservancy!’ By collectivising the villagers into disciplined units responding to the call with military precision, Zhang had simultaneously solved the problem of labour and that of capital. Where other counties faced labour shortages as the men abandoned the fields to work on irrigation schemes, he deployed his troops in a continuous revolution, tackling one project after another, one wave coming in as another crested. The key terms were ‘militarisation’ (junshihua), ‘combatisation’ (zhandouhua) and ‘disciplinisation’ (jilühua). Each brigade was handed responsibility for seven hectares from which an annual yield of fifty tonnes was mandated. ‘Two or three years of hard work will transform our natural environment,’ explained Zhang. ‘A mere two seasons and a Great Leap Forward appears!’ enthused Tan.3 Mao read the reports and added his comment: ‘the experience of Xushui should be widely promoted’.4

A few weeks later the People’s Daily hailed Xushui, identifying the militarisation of the workforce as the key to success.5 Then, in a short article in Red Flag published on 1 July 1958, Chen Boda, the Chairman’s ghost-writer, envisaged farmers armed as militia, all welded into giant communes: ‘a nation in arms is absolutely vital’.6 In a spurt of publicity, Mao toured the country, visiting Hebei, Shandong and Henan, praising the way in which farmers were regimented into battalions and platoons, and lauding the canteens, nurseries and retirement homes which freed women from domestic burdens to propel them to the front line. ‘The people’s commune is great!’ he proclaimed. China was on a mobilisation footing, as local cadres throughout the country scrambled over the summer to fuse collective farms into people’s communes, bringing together up to 20,000 households into basic administrative units. By the end of 1958 the whole of the countryside was collectivised into some 26,000 communes.

At the leadership’s annual retreat by the beach resort of Beidaihe, where large, luxurious bungalows overlooked the Bohai Sea, Mao believed he stood on the verge of a millennial breakthrough. On 23 August 1958, as the heavy bombardment of Quemoy was about to start, he poured scorn on the rigid system of material incentives devised by Stalin. ‘With a surplus of grain we can implement the supply system . . . The socialism we are building right now nurtures the sprouts of communism.’ The people’s commune was the golden bridge to communism, bringing free food to all: ‘If we can provide food without cost, that would be a great transformation. I guess that in about ten years’ time commodities will be abundant, moral standards will be high. We can start communism with food, clothes and housing. Collective canteens, free food, that’s communism!’7

Zhang Guozhong, lionised over the summer at party conferences in Beijing, responded to Mao’s prompting, and confidently predicted the arrival of communism by 1963.8 On 1 September the People’s Daily declared that in the not too distant future Xushui Commune would carry its members into a paradise where each could take according to his needs.9 In the midst of a nationwide euphoria, Liu Shaoqi visited the commune a week later. He had promised communism earlier than anybody else, telling workers at an electricity plant in July that ‘China will soon enter communism; it won’t take long, many of you can already see it.’ Overtaking Britain, he added, was no longer a matter of a decade: two or three years would suffice.10 Now, having seen the communes, he pushed for a supply system in which meals, clothes, shelter, medical care and all other essential aspects of everyday life were provided without pay by the commune.11 By the end of the month Fanxian county, Shandong, at a giant meeting of thousands of party activists, solemnly pledged to pass the bridge to communism by 1960. Mao was ecstatic. ‘This document is really good, it is a poem, and it looks as if it can be done!’12

The people’s communes satisfied a growing demand on the part of local cadres for labour, as they strained to accomplish ever more onerous tasks in the Great Leap Forward. On the ground, however, villagers were less enthusiastic. As everyday life came to be organised along military lines, villagers were ‘footsoldiers’ who had to ‘fight battles’ on the ‘front line’ in ‘battalions’ and ‘platoons’, while ‘shock brigades’ might ‘stage a march’ in ‘mobile warfare’. A revolutionary’s appointed position in society was a ‘sentry post’, while a group of people working on a large project was a ‘great army’.13

Martial terms were matched by military organisation. ‘Everyone a soldier,’ Mao had proclaimed, and the formation of popular militias helped to regiment the rest of society into people’s communes: ‘In the past in our army there was no such thing as a salary, or a Sunday, or eight hours of work a day. Rank and file, we were all the same. A real spirit of communism comes when you raise a giant people’s army . . . We need to revive military traditions.’ He explained: ‘Military communism in the Soviet Union was based on grain procurements; we have twenty-two years of military traditions, and the supply system is behind our military communism.’14

‘Ballistic missiles and atom bombs will never scare the Chinese people,’ bellowed the People’s Daily as shells hit Quemoy, the nation rising as one man, ready to do battle against the forces of imperialism: 250 million men and women were to be transformed into a sea of soldiers.15 By October 30 million militiamen in Sichuan spent two hours in military training in the evening. In Shandong 25 million fighting men were the ‘main army’ on the ‘front line’ of steel and grain production. In Yingnan county alone, 70,000 of these drilled men took charge of half a million villagers in the battle to deep-plough. In Heilongjiang, out in northern Manchuria, there were 6 million militiamen, as martial habits were instilled into nine out of ten young men.16 Tan Zhenlin raved about the militia, prescribing that each adult should learn how to use a gun and fire thirty bullets a year.17 In reality few carried guns. Many merely went through the motions, training half-heartedly by the fields with a few old-fashioned rifles after work. But a small proportion practised with live ammunition and were trained as shock troops.18 They would turn out to be crucial in enforcing discipline, not only during the frenzy to establish communes, but throughout the years of famine that lay ahead.

The militia movement and a small corps of trained fighters brought military organisation to every commune. All over China farmers were roused from sleep at dawn at the sound of the bugle and filed into the canteen for a quick bowl of watery rice gruel. Whistles were blown to gather the workforce, which moved in military step to the fields, carrying banners and flags to the sound of marching songs. Loudspeakers sometimes blasted exhortations to work harder, or occasionally played revolutionary music. Party activists, local cadres and the militia enforced discipline, sometimes punishing underachievers with beatings. At the end of the day, villagers returned to their living quarters, assigned according to each person’s work shift. Meetings followed in the evening to evaluate each worker’s performance and review the local tactics.

Labour was appropriated by the communes, men and women being at the command of team leaders, more often than not without adequate compensation. Explained party secretary Zhang Xianli in Macheng: ‘Now that we have communes, with the exception of a chamber pot, everything is collective, even human beings.’ This was understood by poor farmer Lin Shengqi to mean: ‘You do whatever you are told to do by a cadre.’19 Wages, as a consequence, were virtually abolished. Members of a production team, working under the supervision of a squad leader, were credited with points instead, calculated according to a complex system based on the average performance of the team as a whole, the job carried out and the age and gender of each worker. At the end of the year, the net income of each team was distributed among members ‘according to need’, and the surplus was in principle divided according to the work points that each had accumulated. In practice a surplus hardly ever existed, as the state came in and took the lot. Work points, moreover, devalued rapidly during the Great Leap Forward. In Jiangning county, just outside Nanjing, one work day was equivalent to 1.05 yuan in 1957. A year later it was worth no more than 28 cents. By 1959, its value had declined to a mere 16 cents. Locals referred to the point system as ‘beating a drum with a cucumber’: the harder you beat the less you heard, as all incentives to work had been removed.20

Some never got paid at all. Chen Yuquan, a sturdy young man interviewed in February 1961 in Xiangtan county, Hunan, recalled that he had made a total of 4.50 yuan in 1958, with which he bought a pair of trousers. The following year, having been dispatched to a coal mine where no record of work was kept, he did not receive anything.21 Some communes did away with money altogether. In Longchuan county, Guangdong, villagers who sold their pigs were handed credit notes instead of cash, prompting people to slaughter and eat the animals themselves.22 But in many cases villagers had to borrow from the commune, entering a form of bonded labour. Li Yeye, who had to feed his chronically ill wife and five children by carrying manure all day long, never had any cash: ‘People like us had no money, we were constantly in debt. We had to pay back our debt to the commune.’23 Feng Dabai, a barber from northern Sichuan who looked after a family of nine during the famine, had to borrow so much food that he was still paying off his debt fifty years later.24

In the most radical communes, private plots, heavy tools and livestock all had to be turned over to the collective. In many cases people were allowed to keep nothing but the bare essentials. As Li Jingquan, the leader of Sichuan, put it: ‘Even shit has to be collectivised!’25 In response villagers tried to salvage as much of their property as possible. They slaughtered livestock, hid grain and sold assets. At the very start of the movement, Hu Yongming, a farmer from the humid, hilly north-east of Guangdong, killed four chickens, followed on day two by three ducks. Then came three female dogs, the puppies being slaughtered next. Finally the cat was eaten.26 Many did the same, as farmers devoured poultry and livestock. Throughout the villages of Guangdong, chicken and ducks were eaten first, followed by hogs and cows. Local officials, keen on numbers, thought that the consumption of pork and vegetables alone increased by some 60 per cent with the advent of the communes, as locals consumed the produce of their private plots in fear of collectivisation.27 A common saying in Guangdong was ‘What you eat is yours, what you don’t is anyone’s.’28

A similar scenario followed in the cities, although attempts to impose urban communes were generally abandoned until a few years later. In the first few weeks of October 1958 over half a million yuan was withdrawn from the bank in one single district in Guangzhou.29 In Wuhan there was a run on the bank, a fifth of all savings having been cashed within two days of the foundation of the East commune.30 Some workers in small enterprises even sold the sewing machines on which they relied for their livelihoods, others tearing up the floorboards of their homes for timber, to be sold as fuel.31 Afraid that their savings would be confiscated, once parsimonious people started to indulge in conspicuous consumption. Ordinary workers bought expensive brands of cigarettes and other luxury goods; some even splurged on extravagant banquets.32 Rumours fired collective fears: it was said that in some villages each person was allowed only a blanket, everything else being communal: ‘even clothes have numbers’.33

In the drive to increase production and meet ever higher targets, homes were also confiscated: the commune, after all, needed bricks for the canteens, dormitories, nurseries and retirement homes planned on paper. In Macheng, as we have seen, houses were initially pulled down for fertiliser, a trend made worse by the advent of the people’s communes. Throughout the county villagers started sharing houses, some families ending up in makeshift sheds. Recalcitrant farmers were told that ‘no grain rations will be issued to those who do not move out’. In some villages a grandiose vision of modernity justified the elimination of old houses. In Guishan commune, thirty dwellings were pulled down to make way for a utopian plan in which paved streets and skyscrapers would replace the mud huts lining dusty lanes. Not a single new house was built, and some families ended up living in pigsties or abandoned temples, with rain leaking through the roof and wind blowing though porous walls built of mud and straw. ‘Destroying my home is even worse than digging up my ancestor’s gravestone,’ one villager cried. But few dared to complain. Most quietly stood by, sometimes in tears, as the local leader walked past without uttering a word, simply lifting his finger to mark out a house for destruction.34 In Dianjiang county, Sichuan, a team of eleven people went around torching hundreds of straw huts. ‘Destroy Straw Huts in an Evening, Erect Residential Areas in Three Days, Build Communism in a Hundred Days’ was the leading slogan. Some villages were emptied altogether, although somehow nobody quite managed to get beyond the destruction phase of the plan.35 Houses were also pulled down specifically to separate men from women in the great drive to regiment the countryside. In Jingning, Gansu, some 10,000 dwellings were pulverised during the Great Leap Forward on the order of provincial boss Zhang Zhongliang. Most of the displaced people ended up not in dormitories as envisaged by model communes but living on the streets, destitute.36

Except for the most deprived villagers, most people did not like the canteens, if only because sprawling collectives run on a shoestring could hardly cater to individual whims, tastes and diets. Some people had to walk for many kilometres to reach the collective facilities. In Hunan over two-thirds of all villagers were opposed to communal eating, according to the head of the province, Zhou Xiaozhou.37 Across the country cadres had to apply pressure to get the villagers into the canteens. In Macheng they used a simple but effective approach by simply cutting off grain supplies to the village. But families who had hoarded their own provisions still failed to turn up. They were denounced as ‘rich peasants’ intent on ‘sabotaging the people’s communes’. The militia then stepped in, patrolling the streets and fining families who had smoke escaping from the chimney. The final step was house-to-house confiscation of food and utensils.38

Once they sat down, villagers tucked in with a vengeance, all the keener as the new facilities had been set up with funds, food and furniture taken from the village. In one commune in Macheng, some 10,000 pieces of furniture, 3,000 hogs and 57,000 kilos of grain as well as countless trees, chopped down from private plots for fuel, went into the canteens.39 Their labour exploited, their possessions confiscated and their homes demolished, villagers were presented with an opportunity to share in their leaders’ vision. Communism was around the corner, and the state would provide. ‘To each according to his needs’ was taken literally, and for as long as they could get away with it people ate as much as they could. For about two months, in many villages throughout the country, people ‘stretched their bellies’, following Mao’s directive at Xushui: ‘You should eat more. Even five meals a day is fine!’ Especially in regions where crops other than food were grown – for instance cotton – restraint was less pronounced, as the grain was provided by the state. Workers stuffed themselves, some being scolded for lack of appetite. Leftover rice was poured down the toilet by the bucketload. In some teams people held competitions to see who could eat the most, children being reduced to tears for failing to keep up. Others took Mao at his word, ‘launching a sputnik’ by having five meals a day. Food that would have fed a village for half a week vanished in a day.40 In Jiangning county, Jiangsu, some villagers gobbled down a kilo of rice in a sitting. Extravagance in consumption was even greater in the cities, some 50 kilos of rice ending up in the gutter on a single day in late 1958 in a Nanjing workshop. Steamed dough buns blocked the toilets: one punctilious inspector noted that the rice on the bottom of a sewage vat was thirty centimetres thick. In some factories workers wolfed down up to twenty bowls of rice a day; the leftovers were fed to the pigs.41 The feast did not last.

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