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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

An advertisement from a Tianjin candy company reads in part "Hail to the Victory of Maoism; Hail to the Great Leap Forward."
XINYANG: A Great Leap Nowhere, 1958
Sowing the Seeds of Famine

It was one of the blackest moments in Chinese history. In villages across the country, millions were dying of hunger even as the granaries stood full. Communist Party officials driving through the countryside of provinces like Henan and Shandong saw corpses littering the roadside. In some cases starving survivors stoned the cadres' cars, but even then few in the party dared speak out. Even now China officially keeps silent about the 30 million or more who died. Today's youth scarcely know of it.

The Great Leap Forward was Chairman Mao's master plan to wrench the country into a communist Utopia without money, without private property, without want. The state would feed and clothe everyone. Each peasant was to become a soldier, marching to work behind a red flag. Each worker was to become a steelmaker. In the giant people's communes, scientific methods were to replace, overnight, ancient ways of farming. Mao ordered the 600 million peasants to employ techniques pioneered in the Soviet Union. The idea was taken to extremes: furrows were ploughed 3.5 m deep and densely spaced rice seedlings were planted in fields. The People's Daily proclaimed output gains of double, triple, even 10 times previous yields.

Propaganda photos, clearly falsified, showed wheat stems growing so densely together that children could sit atop them. They depicted pumpkins the size of cars and miracle rice plants that produced three ears where one had grown. The country was gripped in a frenzy of euphoric adulation as party officials outbid each other in what was later called a "wind of exaggeration." Those who dared question found themselves, at best, in detention like Marshal Peng Dehuai or, at worst, beaten to death in a "struggle session."

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"The bloody lessons of that fateful period still haunt me," Zhang Shufan writes in a posthumous memoir released this year. He had been the deputy party secretary of Xinyang prefecture in Henan province, where 12,000 people were "struggled against" for questioning--or being suspected of doubting--these miracle harvests.

The first people's commune was set up in Xinyang's Chayashan county, and local leaders felt a special duty to demonstrate success. Xinyang's party boss reported that the 1959 harvest had more than tripled, to 3.6 million tons. In fact it totaled only 1 million tons. In China the state has traditionally taxed peasants by collecting a share of their harvest; the communists established a grain monopoly in the 1950s and raised the tax to extreme levels. In Xinyang, authorities confiscated 800,000 tons and launched a massive "anti-hoarding campaign" to forcibly extract an additional share based on the fictional harvest.

Peasants still recall how party cadres tortured peasants to make them reveal their secret caches and went from house to house poking iron rods into roofs and floors. They seized families' last possessions and animals, leaving nothing to eat when winter came. Peasants could eat only in the communal kitchens set up in each village, and gradually there was nothing but "grass soup," served once a day. Dizzy with hunger, people fought each other to be first in line. "So many died of hunger while there was food in the granaries" from the government seizures, Zhang recalls. "All the big and small granaries were full." People had maintained an edifice of lies to protect Mao's reputation.

In Xinyang, the party secretary ordered the militia to man roadblocks so no one could flee. Those who wrote letters appealing to the provincial party secretary, Wu Zhifu, were handed over to the secret police; their families and friends were arrested. In Hunan, meanwhile, officials were so fanatically loyal to Mao they even deceived China's President Liu Shaoqi when he came to inspect his home village. They plastered mud over the trunks of trees and painted it all so he wouldn't notice that the bark had been stripped by hungry villagers.

Resistance was hopeless. By the time the peasants realized the state was not going to open the granaries and supply them food, many were already weak from hunger. Besides, they had few possessions left, not even knives or pitchforks. Metal implements had been taken and melted down to make steel in backyard furnaces in the 1958 drive to quadruple China's steel output.

In his memoirs, Zhang claims the peasants preferred to die rather than rob from the state, and he blames them for their childlike innocence. "It proves how obedient our people are, how much ... trust they gave to the party," he writes. Those left behind ate tree bark and wild grasses and caught frogs and insects. In villages in Henan and elsewhere, every single person died. In others, according to party documents, cannibalism became common. People ate the flesh of corpses and, in insane rages, sometimes killed and boiled their offspring.

The famine continued through 1960; so many died that party officials banned daytime funerals. Children left to fend for themselves were put in orphanages. They were usually boys; the girls were often sacrificed first. By 1961, the dead were being left unburied. In Xinyang alone, the death toll totaled around 1 million people, or one in eight.

The state blamed the hardship on "three years of natural disasters," but the heaviest death tolls were recorded in provinces with ultra-leftist leaders who exaggerated harvests and forcibly seized large amounts of grain. Fatalities exceeded 7 million in each of several provinces: Henan, Anhui, Shandong, Sichuan. Demographic data indicate the national death toll was 30 million, and some claim it was much higher. No one can be sure until the party's archives are opened up.

In Henan, Zhang claims he finally managed to get word to Beijing, which sent an inspection team to investigate the excesses. After 1961, rural policies were adjusted, the grain tax was lowered and China began to import food. Using a motto that Deng Xiaoping would adopt years later as justification for pushing capitalist reforms--"It doesn't matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice"--peasants were allowed to subsist on what they grew on private plots. In Xinyang, even after an investigation, no one was punished. Mao protected his allies and then, in the Cultural Revolution, turned his full fury against those he believed had betrayed his vision, leaders like Liu Shaoqi and Deng.

Jasper Becker, Beijing bureau chief of the South China Morning Post, is the author of Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine

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