The army was purged. Lin Biao, who could be depended on to ferret out any ideological opposition among the military, was rewarded for his performance at Lushan with Peng Dehuai’s job. Lin knew that speaking the truth about conditions in the countryside was a naive approach bound to fail, and he showered the Chairman with flattery instead. But in private he was much more critical than Peng, confiding in his private diary – unearthed by Red Guards years later – that the Great Leap Forward was ‘based on fantasy, and a total mess’.1Rarely was the distance between a leader’s inner thoughts and his public statements so vast, but all over the country party officials scrambled to prove their allegiance to the Chairman and the Great Leap Forward as a new purge unfolded.

The tone was set at the top. In language auguring the Cultural Revolution, Peng Zhen beat the drum for a purge of the ranks: ‘The struggle should be profound, and should be carried out according to our principles, whether it is against old comrades-in-arms, colleagues or even husbands and wives.’ Tan Zhenlin, the zealous vice-premier overseeing agriculture, pointed out that enemies were entrenched at the very top: ‘this struggle should separate us from some of our old comrades-in-arms!’2 In Beijing alone thousands of top officials were targeted by the end of 1959, including almost 300 up to the level of central committee member, or 10 per cent of the top echelon. More than sixty were branded as rightists. Many were old veterans, but as the leadership explained they had to be smashed resolutely or else the ‘construction of socialism’ would be imperilled.3

Across the country anybody who had expressed reservations about the Great Leap Forward was hunted down. In Gansu this struggle started as soon as Zhang Zhongliang returned to Lanzhou. Huo Weide, Song Liangcheng and others who had ‘shot a poisoned arrow at Lushan’ were denounced as members of an ‘anti-party clique’. Well over 10,000 cadres were hounded throughout the province.4 Where his rivals had revealed widespread famine in a letter of denunciation to Beijing, Zhang wrote instead to the Chairman: ‘Work in every department is surging ahead in our province, the changes are momentous, including those concerning grain. We are looking at a bumper harvest across the province.’5 Then, as his realm turned into a living hell in 1960, he wrote again to explain deaths by starvation, blaming them on Huo Weide, the leader of the anti-party clique. Zhang minimised what would later be revealed to be death on a massive scale by again calling it a problem of ‘one finger out of ten’.6

Anybody who had stood in the path of the Great Leap Forward was removed. In Yunnan, the deputy of the Bureau for Commerce was dismissed for having made critical comments about food shortages and the people’s communes – and for having snored while recordings of the Chairman’s speeches were being played.7 In Hebei, the vice-director of the Bureau for Water Conservancy was purged for having expressed doubts about the wisdom of dismantling central-heating systems during the steel campaign.8 County leaders who had started to close some of the canteens were persecuted for abandoning socialism and ‘reverting to a go-it-alone policy’.9 In Anhui vice-governor Zhang Kaifan and some of his allies were sacked, as Mao suspected that ‘such people are speculators who sneaked into the party . . . They scheme to sabotage the proletarian dictatorship, split the party and organise factions.’10 Similar high-level dismissals also occurred in Fujian, Qinghai, Heilongjiang and Liaoning, among other provinces.

Provincial leaders who had managed to soften the impact of the Great Leap Forward were removed. Under constant fire from Mao and his acolytes for his caution, Zhou Xiaozhou, the reluctant leader of Hunan province, had relented and inflated the crop projections in 1958. But he rarely lost an opportunity to put a damper on the enthusiasm of local cadres during inspection trips. In Changde he had openly scoffed at all the bragging about grain output. He questioned the supply system. Approached by a woman who complained about the local canteen, he had suggested that she simply walk out and cook a meal back home. He had refused point-blank to have anybody in Hunan follow the example set by Macheng, seeing the sputnik fields as a dangerous diversion from pressing agricultural tasks. In Ningxiang, where he had discovered that only women were working in the fields, he had demanded that the menfolk be recalled from the backyard furnaces. His response to the work–study programme requiring all students in primary schools to participate in productive labour had been a mere expletive: ‘Rubbish!’11 Despite his best efforts, many local cadres had forged ahead, embracing the Leap Forward through a mixture of conviction and ambition, leading to the same kind of abuses on the ground as could be found elsewhere.

But, all in all, Hunan was in better shape than its neighbour Hubei, run by Mao’s sycophant Wang Renzhong. When Mao’s special train had stopped in Wuchang in May 1959, just before the Lushan meeting, the city was in a terrible state. Even in the guesthouse set aside for Mao, there was no meat, no cigarettes and few vegetables. Changsha, in Mao’s home province of Hunan, was different, with open-air restaurants still serving customers. Zhou Xiaozhou was all too conscious of the contrast, prodding his rival Wang, who was accompanying Mao to Changsha: ‘Hunan was criticised for not having worked as hard. Now look at Hubei. You don’t even have stale cigarettes or tea. You used up all your reserves last year. Today, we may be poor, but at least we have supplies in storage.’12 With hindsight, maybe Zhou had made too many enemies to survive in the fierce environment of a one-party regime. As a key member of the ‘anti-party clique’ he was purged immediately after the Lushan plenum, paving the way for leaders like Zhang Pinghua who were willing to follow Mao’s every dictate – and starve the local population as a result.

Whatever remnants of reason had managed to survive the folly of the Great Leap Forward were swept aside in a frenzied witch-hunt which left farmers more vulnerable than ever to the naked power of the party. At every level – province, county, commune, brigade – ferocious purges were carried out, replacing lacklustre cadres with hard, unscrupulous elements who trimmed their sails to benefit from the radical winds blowing from Beijing. In 1959–60 some 3.6 million party members were labelled or purged as rightists, although total membership surged from 13,960,000 in 1959 to 17,380,000 in 1961.13 In a moral universe in which the means justified the ends, many would be prepared to become the Chairman’s willing instruments, casting aside every idea about right and wrong to achieve the ends he envisaged. Had the leadership reversed course in the summer of 1959 at Lushan, the number of victims claimed by famine would have been counted in the millions. Instead, as the country plunged into catastrophe, tens of millions of lives would be extinguished through exhaustion, illness, torture and hunger. War on the people was about to take on a wholly new dimension as the leadership looked away, finding in the growing rift with the Soviet Union a perfect pretext to turn a blind eye to what was happening on the ground.

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