Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with and overtake Britain in less than fifteen years. By unleashing China’s greatest asset, a labour force that was counted in the hundreds of millions, Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors. Instead of following the Soviet model of development, which leaned heavily towards industry alone, China would ‘walk on two legs’: the peasant masses were mobilised to transform both agriculture and industry at the same time, converting a backward economy into a modern communist society of plenty for all. In the pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivised, as villagers were herded together in giant communes which heralded the advent of communism. People in the countryside were robbed of their work, their homes, their land, their belongings and their livelihood. Food, distributed by the spoonful in collective canteens according to merit, became a weapon to force people to follow the party’s every dictate. Irrigation campaigns forced up to half the villagers to work for weeks on end on giant water-conservancy projects, often far from home, without adequate food and rest. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.

Unlike comparable disasters, for instance those that took place under Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, the true dimensions of what happened during the Great Leap Forward remain little known. This is because access to the party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians backed up with party credentials. But a new archive law has recently opened up vast quantities of archival material to professional historians, fundamentally changing the way one can study the Maoist era. This book is based on well over a thousand archival documents, collected over several years in dozens of party archives, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and large provincial collections in Hebei, Shandong, Gansu, Hubei, Hunan, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan and Guangdong to smaller but equally invaluable collections in cities and counties all over China. The material includes secret reports from the Public Security Bureau, detailed minutes of top party meetings, unexpurgated versions of important leadership speeches, surveys of working conditions in the countryside, investigations into cases of mass murder, confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people, inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward, general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign, secret opinion surveys, letters of complaint written by ordinary people and much more.

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier transforms our understanding of the Great Leap Forward. When it comes to the overall death toll, for instance, researchers so far have had to extrapolate from official population statistics, including the census figures of 1953, 1964 and 1982. Their estimates range from 15 to 32 million excess deaths. But the public security reports compiled at the time, as well as the voluminous secret reports collated by party committees in the last months of the Great Leap Forward, show how inadequate these calculations are, pointing instead at a catastrophe of a much greater magnitude: this book shows that at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962.

The term ‘famine’, or even ‘Great Famine’, is often used to describe these four to five years of the Maoist era, but the term fails to capture the many ways in which people died under radical collectivisation. The blithe use of the term ‘famine’ also lends support to the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programmes. Mass killings are not usually associated with Mao and the Great Leap Forward, and China continues to benefit from a more favourable comparison with the devastation usually associated with Cambodia or the Soviet Union. But as the fresh evidence presented in this book demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward. Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed – amounting to at least 2.5 million people. Other victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. Many more vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work – and hence unable to earn their keep. People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked, for whatever reason, by the man who wielded the ladle in the canteen. Countless people were killed indirectly through neglect, as local cadres were under pressure to focus on figures rather than on people, making sure they fulfilled the targets they were handed by the top planners.

A vision of promised abundance not only motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history, but also inflicted unprecedented damage on agriculture, trade, industry and transportation. Pots, pans and tools were thrown into backyard furnaces to increase the country’s steel output, which was seen as one of the magic markers of progress. Livestock declined precipitously, not only because animals were slaughtered for the export market but also because they succumbed en masse to disease and hunger – despite extravagant schemes for giant piggeries that would bring meat to every table. Waste developed because raw resources and supplies were poorly allocated, and because factory bosses deliberately bent the rules to increase output. As everyone cut corners in the relentless pursuit of higher output, factories spewed out inferior goods that accumulated uncollected by railway sidings. Corruption seeped into the fabric of life, tainting everything from soy sauce to hydraulic dams. The transportation system creaked to a halt before collapsing altogether, unable to cope with the demands created by a command economy. Goods worth hundreds of millions of yuan accumulated in canteens, dormitories and even on the streets, a lot of the stock simply rotting or rusting away. It would have been difficult to design a more wasteful system, one in which grain was left uncollected by dusty roads in the countryside as people foraged for roots or ate mud.

The book also documents how the attempt to leap into communism resulted in the greatest demolition of property in human history – by far outstripping any of the Second World War bombing campaigns. Up to 40 per cent of all housing was turned into rubble, as homes were pulled down to create fertiliser, to build canteens, to relocate villagers, to straighten roads, to make room for a better future or simply to punish their occupants. The natural world did not escape unscathed either. We will never know the full extent of forest coverage lost during the Great Leap Forward, but a prolonged and intense attack on nature claimed up to half of all trees in some provinces. The rivers and waterways suffered too: throughout the country dams and canals, built by hundreds of millions of farmers at great human and economic cost, were for the greatest part rendered useless or even dangerous, resulting in landslides, river silting, soil salinisation and devastating inundations.

The significance of the book thus is by no means confined to the famine. What it chronicles, often in harrowing detail, is the near collapse of a social and economic system on which Mao had staked his prestige. As the catastrophe unfolded, the Chairman lashed out at his critics to maintain his position as the indispensable leader of the party. After the famine came to an end, however, new factional alignments appeared that were strongly opposed to the Chairman: to stay in power he had to turn the country upside down with the Cultural Revolution. The pivotal event in the history of the People’s Republic of China was the Great Leap Forward. Any attempt to understand what happened in communist China must start by placing it squarely at the very centre of the entire Maoist period. In a far more general way, as the modern world struggles to find a balance between freedom and regulation, the catastrophe unleashed at the time stands as a reminder of how profoundly misplaced is the idea of state planning as an antidote to chaos.

The book introduces fresh evidence about the dynamics of power in a one-party state. The politics behind the Great Leap Forward has been studied by political scientists on the basis of official statements, semi-official documents or Red Guard material released during the Cultural Revolution, but none of these censored sources reveals what happened behind closed doors. The full picture of what was said and done in the corridors of power will be known only once the Central Party Archives in Beijing open their doors to researchers, and this is unlikely to happen in the near future. But the minutes of many key meetings can be found in provincial archives, since local leaders often attended the most important party gatherings and had to be kept informed of developments in Beijing. The archives throw a very different light on the leadership: as some of the top-secret meetings come to light, we see the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders in all their rawness. The portrait that emerges of Mao himself is hardly flattering, and is far removed from the public image he so carefully cultivated: rambling in his speeches, obsessed with his own role in history, often dwelling on past slights, a master at using his emotions to browbeat his way through a meeting, and, above all, insensitive to human loss.

We know that Mao was the key architect of the Great Leap Forward, and thus bears the main responsibility for the catastrophe that followed.1 He had to work hard to push through his vision, bargaining, cajoling, goading, occasionally tormenting or persecuting his colleagues. Unlike Stalin, he did not drag his rivals into a dungeon to have them executed, but he did have the power to remove them from office, terminating their careers – and the many privileges which came with a top position in the party. The campaign to overtake Britain started with Chairman Mao, and it ended when he grudgingly allowed his colleagues to return to a more gradual approach in economic planning a few years later. But he would never have been able to prevail if Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, the next two most powerful party leaders, had acted against him. They, in turn, whipped up support from other senior colleagues, as chains of interests and alliances extended all the way down to the village – as is documented here for the first time. Ferocious purges were carried out, as lacklustre cadres were replaced with hard, unscrupulous men who trimmed their sails to benefit from the radical winds blowing from Beijing.

But most of all this book brings together two dimensions of the catastrophe that have so far been studied in isolation. We must link up what happened in the corridors of Zhongnanhai, the compound which served as the headquarters of the party in Beijing, with the everyday experiences of ordinary people. With the exception of a few village studies based on interviews, there is simply no social history of the Maoist era, let alone of the famine.2 And just as the fresh evidence from the archives shows how responsibility for the catastrophe extended far beyond Mao, the profuse documentation which the party compiled on every aspect of daily life under its rule dispels the common notion of the people as mere victims. Despite the vision of social order the regime projected at home and abroad, the party never managed to impose its grand design, encountering a degree of covert opposition and subversion that would have been unheard of in any country with an elected government. In contrast to the image of a strictly disciplined communist society in which errors at the top cause the entire machinery to grind to a halt, the portrait that emerges from archives and interviews is one of a society in disintegration, leaving people to resort to whatever means were available to survive. So destructive was radical collectivisation that at every level the population tried to circumvent, undermine or exploit the master plan, secretly giving full scope to the profit motive that the party tried to eliminate. As famine spread, the very survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend on the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state. As Robert Service points out, in the Soviet Union these phenomena were not so much the grit that stopped the machinery as the oil that prevented the system from coming to a complete standstill.3 A ‘perfect’ communist state could not provide enough incentives for people to collaborate, and without some degree of accommodation of the profit motive it would have destroyed itself. No communist regime would have managed to stay in power for so long without constant infringements of the party line.

Survival depended on disobedience, but the many strategies of survival devised by people at all levels, from farmers hiding the grain to local cadres cooking the account books, also tended to prolong the life of the regime. They became a part of the system. Obfuscation was the communist way of life. People lied to survive, and as a consequence information was distorted all the way up to the Chairman. The planned economy required huge inputs of accurate data, yet at every level targets were distorted, figures were inflated and policies which clashed with local interests were ignored. As with the profit motive, individual initiative and critical thought had to be constantly suppressed, and a permanent state of siege developed.

Some historians might interpret these acts of survival as evidence of ‘resistance’, or ‘weapons of the weak’ pitting ‘peasants’ against ‘the state’. But techniques of survival extended from one end of the social spectrum to the other. Just about everybody, from top to bottom, stole during the famine, so much so that if these were acts of ‘resistance’ the party would have collapsed at a very early stage. It may be tempting to glorify what appears at first sight to be a morally appealing culture of resistance by ordinary people, but when food was finite, one individual’s gain was all too often another’s loss. When farmers hid the grain, the workers outside the village died of hunger. When a factory employee added sand to the flour, somebody down the line was chewing grit. To romanticise what were often utterly desperate ways of surviving is to see the world in black and white, when in reality collectivisation forced everybody, at one point or another, to make grim moral compromises. Routine degradations thus went hand in hand with mass destruction. Primo Levi, in his memoir of Auschwitz, notes that survivors are rarely heroes: when somebody places himself above others in a world dominated by the law of survival, his sense of morality changes. In The Drowned and the Saved Levi called it the grey zone, showing how inmates determined to survive had to stray from their moral values in order to obtain an extra ration. He tried not to judge but to explain, unwrapping layer by layer the operation of the concentration camps. Understanding the complexity of human behaviour in times of catastrophe is one of the aims of this book as well, and the party archives allow us for the first time to get closer to the difficult choices people made half a century ago – whether in the corridors of power or inside the hut of a starving family far away from the capital.

The first two parts of the book explain how and why the Great Leap Forward unfolded, identifying the key turning points and charting the ways in which the lives of millions were shaped by decisions taken by a select few at the top. Part 3 looks at the scale of destruction, from agriculture, industry, trade and housing to the natural environment. Part 4 shows how the grand plan was transformed by the everyday strategies of survival by ordinary people to produce something that nobody intended and few could quite recognise. In the cities workers stole, dragged their feet or actively sabotaged the command economy, while in the countryside farmers resorted to a whole repertoire of acts of survival, ranging from eating the grain straight from the fields to taking to the road in search of a better life elsewhere. Others robbed granaries, set fire to party offices, assaulted freight trains and, occasionally, organised armed rebellions against the regime. But the ability of people to survive was very much limited by their position in an elaborate social hierarchy which pitted the party against the people. And some of these people were more vulnerable than others: Part 5 looks at the lives of children, women and the elderly. Finally, Part 6 traces the many ways in which people died, from accidents, disease, torture, murder and suicide to starvation. An Essay on the Sources at the end of the book explains the nature of the archival evidence in more detail.



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