China’s Great Famine and its impact on Chinese Politics

Posted on September 11, 2012


From May 7 to 11, 1962, Liu Shaoqi presided over the Central Committee’s “May Conference,” the focus of which was a plan for restructuring the Chinese economy. Although Mao had requested that participants not paint a uniformly bleak picture, Liu called again for a thorough estimation of the difficulties, and observed, “The foundation is unstable, and under difficult conditions it’s possible that the political situation will take a turn for the worse.”

Since finances were handled through a centralized bursary system that both received and allocated key goods, leaders in charge of practical operations were receiving appeals for reduced requisition quotas from the same provincial officials who were telling Mao of their excellent situation. It was therefore officials such as Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai who perceived the extent of the crisis.

Acting on Liu Shaoqi’s guiding principle of “adequate retrenchment” and Chen Yun’s views, the May Conference adopted measures to put the national economy on a more balanced, sustainable, and stable footing by further reducing the urban population, cutting back capital works projects and reviving agricultural output, and bringing inflation under control. Even more important was that all Party members who had come under criticism and discipline for Right-deviation were to have their cases reexamined. The question was whether Mao would tolerate these adjustments, and Liu requested his instructions.

When Mao returned to Beijing in July 1962, Chen Yun reported the viewpoints upon which the standing committee members had reached agreement. He gained the impression that Mao did not oppose the ideas, but was merely considering them. Soon after that, Mao called Liu Shaoqi in for a meeting while he swam. Liu rushed to the pool and warmly greeted him, only to have Mao start firing questions at him: “What’s your hurry? Can’t you hold the line? Why can’t you keep things under control?”

Caught by surprise, Liu went into the changing room and waited for Mao to come out of the pool before replying, “The views Chen Yun and Tian Jiaying expressed within the Party didn’t violate organizational principles. There’s nothing wrong with them having ideas to discuss with you.”

Mao said, “It’s not a matter of organizational principle but of content! They came to you, Deng Zihui spouted off for so long, the picture painted was so bleak, what’s the rush?”

Mao was releasing resentment that had been building up for a long time, and Liu, just as eager to get the issue off his chest, responded, “History will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized!”

Mao said, “The Three Red Banners have been refuted, the land has been divided up, and you did nothing? What will happen after I die?”

Liu calmly stated his views: the Three Red Banners would not be overturned, the People’s Communes would not be disbanded, there would be no more elevated targets, the communal kitchens would no longer be operated. Mao also calmed down and agreed to continue with the economic restructuring. Liu returned feeling under great pressure, but believing that the worst was over.

A former vice-minister of the Food Ministry later told me that around this time, Chen Yun went to Shanghai and sent aides to the countryside to observe the situation. In the major food-producing regions of Hubei Province they saw vast collective fields lying fallow, while crops on household plots of land flourished. When the group reported back, Chen Yun said, “It appears that agricultural collectivization has done a lot of harm. But now is not the time to talk about it — the political risk is too great.” Chen Yun warned the aides to say nothing of what they had seen once they returned to Beijing. He personally discussed these matters with Mao for an hour when he reported to him in July.

As household responsibility was increasingly implemented in 1961 and 1962 after earlier false starts, Deng Zihui repeatedly voiced his support of the system. In April 1962, he said, “There’s no need for misgivings or fearing accusations of individual farming or Right-deviation — we need to be practical and realistic.” Deng Xiaoping shared this view, observing, “Anhui comrades have good reason for saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or yellow; as long as it catches mice, it’s a good cat.’ The responsibility fields are a novelty, so let’s give them a try.” When Chen Yun reported to Mao in July, he also spoke of reviving the practice of dividing the fields among the peasants.

Mao, however, declined to embrace a “retreat” from the Three Red Banners because it was contrary to communist ideals. Also causing great anxiety to Mao at that time was a trend toward reversing verdicts. Economic readjustments were accompanied by reexamination of cases of injustice, concessions to intellectuals, and greater respect paid to the democratic parties. These initiatives irritated Mao.

In February 1962, Wang Jiaxiang, who was then head of the Central Committee’s External Liaison Department, voiced the opinion that with so many domestic worries, it was inadvisable to invite foreign aggression. Mao, however, criticized Wang for “an attempt to pacify US-led imperialism, Soviet-led revisionism, and reactionaries in all countries.” Around the same time, domestic restructuring measures giving peasants more freedom to plant their own crops and further opening free markets were attacked as part of a “program for capitalist restoration.”

Mao perceived the Central Committee under Liu Shaoqi’s leadership to be departing ever further from his line in economics, politics, and domestic and foreign policy. Most alarming to Mao was when Liu in March 1962 instructed the Public Security Ministry to summarize the lessons of beating deaths and abuse of the innocent over the past few years. Liu said, “If we don’t uncover it while living, it will be uncovered by the next generation after we’re dead.” Liu’s words made Mao think of Khrushchev’s exposure and criticism of Stalin.

Popular resistance to collectivization policies had been reduced to an undercurrent by the powerful state machinery, but Mao still felt the pressure of this undercurrent. Sensed the gathering of a powerful force hostile to him, Mao chose the opportunity of the tenth plenum of the Eighth CCP Central Committee to fight back.

During the working conference preceding the plenum, Mao departed from the intended agricultural focus by giving an impromptu speech on class. He continued to express his views during committee meetings, and ultimately changed the theme of the conference to a criticism of the “wind of gloom” (hei’anfeng) the “go-alone” or “individual farming wind” (dan’ganfeng) and the “verdict reversing wind” (fan’anfeng).

Mao repeatedly objected to the “wind of gloom,” saying, “A portion of our comrades…encourage gloom, encourage talking about shortcomings and errors. But when it comes to talking about the bright spots, or about achievements or about collective economy, they have no enthusiasm.” Remarks like these showed that Mao had rejected the lessons of the Great Leap Forward and had never wholeheartedly embraced the “regressionist” measures of the last few years.

Mao’s criticism of the “individual farming wind” was particularly virulent. Alleging increasing class polarization, Mao blamed the trend on a “certain petty bourgeois component” within the Party: “There are quite a few comrades within our Party who lack adequate psychological preparation for socialist revolution.” Deng Zihui suffered Mao’s harshest criticism and was removed as head of the Central Committee’s Rural Works Department.

Criticism of the “verdict reversing wind” repeatedly targeted Peng Dehuai. Mao said, “The campaign against Right-deviation in 1959 for the most part targeted the wrong people, but I think Peng Dehuai’s demand for a reexamination of his case and rehabilitation means that we can’t cancel the whole movement.” Several other senior officials were also forced to undergo self-criticism.

Mao summarized his thoughts on class struggle in the bulletin of the tenth plenum of the Eighth CCP Central Committee:

In the transition from capitalism to communism… there exists a class struggle between the proletarian and bourgeois classes and a struggle between the two roads of socialism and capitalism. The overthrown reactionary ruling class has not resigned itself to its demise; they’re still scheming for a restoration to power. At the same time, society retains some bourgeois influence and the force of custom from the old society … Under these circumstances, class struggle cannot be avoided… It’s unavoidable that this class struggle should be reflected within the Party. The influence of foreign imperialism and domestic bourgeoisie are the social roots of revisionist thinking within the Party. While carrying out struggle against class enemies at home and abroad, we must be at all times on guard and resolute in our opposition to all types of opportunistic ideological tendencies within the Party.”

Liu Shaoqi immediately fell in line with Mao’s formulations on class struggle, and some of his pronouncements were even more radical than Mao’s. Little did Liu know that these words would become the guiding ideology for the Cultural Revolution and the embryo of the theory of continuous revolution under the proletarian dictatorship; even less did he know that they would ultimately spell his own doom.

After October 1962, all the provinces responded with reports describing intense class struggle and attempted capitalist restoration. This upsurge in class struggle was followed by a socialist education movement.

Yang Jisheng

(Excerpts from Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. By Yang Jisheng, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, hard cover. Translated from the Chinese by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian.)

China: Mao Sends the Cadres to the Country

The view from the countryside

Following the tenth plenum of the Eighth CCP Central Committee, Mao launched a nationwide socialist education movement and large-scale class struggle to “combat revisionism” and prevent “peaceful evolution.” The movement in the countryside was devoted to cleaning up accounts, inventory, financial affairs, and work points, and was therefore referred to as the “four clean-ups.”

The Central Committee issued a series of documents providing increasingly dire assessments of class struggle. One in early 1965 broadened and elevated the scope of the campaign to political, economic, organizational, and ideological cleansing. University students and military cadres were recruited into an immense workforce to push aside and “clean up” grassroots cadres.

I myself served as a member of a work group that carried out an eight-month “clean-up” of a production brigade at Dabailao Commune. We intended to ferret out a “counter-revolutionary clique,” and assumed that the village’s branch Party secretary was a “capitalist roader.”

In mid-1960, Liu Shaoqi had shared Mao’s concern about problems in some villages, and the need for class struggle in the countryside to reclaim “power that is not in our hands,” but a disagreement developed between Mao and Liu on the Four Clean-Ups,” resulting in a personal rupture. This rupture came to a head through the participation of Liu’s wife, Wang Guangmei, in a “clean-up” of the Taoyuan production brigade of Hebei’s Luwangzhuang Commune.

Wang’s description of her experience at a meeting of the Hebei provincial Party committee received encouraging comments, and put Liu Shaoqi on the ascendance just when Mao was suffering a setback in the Great Leap Forward. On August 1, 1964, Liu gave a major report on the “Taoyuan experience” to the heads of the central Party, political and military organs at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. This report was to sow the seeds of endless trouble for him.

A participant at the meeting, Li Xin, recalls:

Liu spoke of the necessity for all cadres to be seconded to units for work experience, and called on everyone to emulate Wang Guangmei. He said, ‘Wang Guangmei went down to the countryside, and isn’t that how she discovered so many new problems? And she wrote up everything and summarized many new experiences very meaningfully. I suggest you all go to the countryside — hurry and go!’ At this point, Liu looked at Premier Zhou for a moment, and then addressed the group again: Anyone who didn’t want to go should be made to go!

Li Xin writes that upon walking out of the meeting, he heard others discussing what had transpired. “‘What was that all about? Were we being lectured?’… Walking down the steps from the Great Hall of the People, up ahead of me two or three military cadres were cursing up a storm, in particular berating Liu Shaoqi for stepping forward personally to flatter his ‘old bag.’ As I drew closer, they turned around and looked at me, and it turned out that we knew one another, so we shared a laugh.”

During his speech, Liu not only pumped up Wang Guangmei but also criticized Mao, although without naming names. Mao vacillated on whether to distribute Wang Guangmei’s report, especially after his wife Jiang Qing’s teary comments on Liu’s speech: “After Stalin died, Khrushchev made a secret report, and now you aren’t even dead and someone is making an open report.” Pushed by Liu, however, the Central Committee disseminated “The Taoyuan Experience” throughout the country, along with an editorial comment emphasizing the report’s “universal significance.”

Sharing Mao’s grave assessment of the class struggle situation in the countryside, Liu followed “The Taoyuan Experience” with several documents that pushed the Four Clean-Ups further into Left-deviating error and led to even more cases of injustice throughout the country. Although these methods were clearly a Maoist legacy of the Great Famine years, Mao nevertheless denounced Liu at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, and referred to his massive purge as “Left in form but Right in essence.”

The split between Mao and Liu came to the surface during a month-long Central Committee work conference starting on December 15, 1964. Wang Guangmei and Liu Yuan describe the previously docile Liu engaging in an open wrangle with Mao:

Mao Zedong said that the landlords and rich peasants were the backstage operators and the “unclean” cadres their frontmen. The unclean cadres were the persons holding authority, and merely attacking the landlords and rich peasants would not allow the poor and lower-middle peasants to rise. It was essential to target the cadres, and to mobilize the masses to rectify the Party.

Liu Shaoqi said that all kinds of contradictions had come together during the “Four Clean-Ups” campaign, and the situation was complicated. It was better to use facts as a starting point and to resolve contradictions as they were discovered rather than to elevate all of them to contradictions between the enemy and us.

December 26, 1964, just a few days after this confrontation, was Mao’s 71st birthday, and he hosted a dinner at the Great Hall of the People. Mao shared a table with several model workers and scientists, with the other central government leaders at another table. Mao was normally ebullient at such events, but this time his demeanor was solemn. He started off by saying he had not invited his own children to the dinner because they had contributed nothing to the revolution. He went on to criticize some phrases used in the socialist education movement, saying they were not Marxist. He also censured some central organs as “independent kingdoms,” and spoke of the danger of revisionism within the Party. No one else dared utter a word.

The Four Clean-Ups campaign was still under discussion on January 28, 1965, when Deng Xiaoping was to preside over a meeting of the Central Committee secretariat. Thinking it was a routine briefing, Deng told Mao, “Chairman, you’re not feeling well. You don’t have to attend the meeting.” Mao marched into the meeting with a copy of the PRC Constitution and the Party Constitution in each hand.

He said, “One person told me not to come to the meeting (alluding to Deng Xiaoping), and one didn’t want me to speak (alluding to Liu Shaoqi). Why am I being stripped of the rights to which I’m entitled under the Party Constitution and the Constitution?” In his later years, Chen Boda recounted:

At a Central Committee meeting discussing the ‘23 Provisions,’ Chairman Mao spoke first, but he had spoken only a few sentences when Liu Shaoqi interrupted him. It’s fine to interpose a few comments, as long as you then let the other person finish. But Liu Shaoqi just kept going on and on, and Chairman Mao had no opportunity to pick up where he’d left off.

This showed how deep the rift had grown between Mao and Liu. As Wang Guangmei and Liu Yuan put it, “Mao Zedong could not tolerate even the slightest challenge to his authority. A discussion between equals implied a scorning of his authority, and even the smallest contradiction could send him into a rage. He told Liu Shaoqi, ‘Who do you think you are? All I have to do is lift a finger and you’re finished!’”

In a conversation with the American journalist Edgar Snow in 1970, Mao confirmed that he had decided to strike down Liu Shaoqi in January 1965.

Mao did strike down Liu Shaoqi during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, this involved not just lifting a finger but launching a large-scale political movement. It would be overly simplistic to attribute the Cultural Revolution to nothing more than the power struggle between Mao and Liu or to Mao’s idiosyncrasies; all the same, Mao’s suspicion and dissatisfaction toward Liu were a factor.

Democratic systems provide a normal mechanism for changing leaders, but in an autocratic system, the supreme leader is surrounded by toadies and conspirators, and any change in leadership is accompanied by brutality and violence. The person occupying the position of supreme power finds himself in the hot seat (the Three Kingdoms warlord Cao Cao said crowning him emperor would be like putting him on the stove). Mao’s deep familiarity with Chinese history made him naturally suspicious and wary of all those around him.

Excerpts from Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. By Yang Jisheng, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, soft cover. Translated from the Chinese by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian

Yang Jisheng

China: From “Revisionism” to “Fundamentalism”

He’s finally dead

The ultimate program of the Chinese Communist Party was to build a communist society in China. The Party not only required its members to steadfastly uphold communist ideals but also used that ideology to educate all Chinese.

In the actual practice of constructing communism, however, these ideals suffered the repeated assaults of reality. In the mid-1950s, a divergence of opinion began to emerge among the CCP’s top leaders: should they adhere to communism in its purest form, or make revisions based on actual conditions? Should socialism be constructed rapidly, or more progressively in line with practical circumstances?

The resolution of the CCP’s Eighth National Congress in 1956 was in fact a concession of ideals to reality, but Mao used the totalitarian system and class struggle to overturn that resolution and accelerate China’s progress toward communism, thereby bringing about the Great Famine.

Following the Great Famine, the CCP could be viewed as consisting of roughly two factions: the “pragmatists,” who had retreated from communist ideals to doing what reality required, and the “idealists,” who persisted with political struggle to push forward the realization of communist ideals.

This is, of course, a simplistic demarcation. The pragmatists sometimes felt conflicted when dealing practically with concrete matters required them to go against their ideals; likewise, the idealists often ran up against a cold reality, and in defending their ideals were prone to assume a crisis of class struggle and attack from hostile forces. When the idealists brought about economic chaos, it was left to the pragmatists to salvage the situation. In the process, the pragmatists departed even further from their ideals, causing the idealists to regard them as even more of a threat.

The most powerful weapon Mao could wield against the pragmatists was criticizing revisionism, as he did when class struggle was resurrected during the tenth plenum of the Eighth National Party Congress. “Revisionism” was first used in a pejorative sense by Lenin, when the Second International criticized Russia’s October Revolution and the system that had arisen from it.

Criticizing revisionism served Mao as a weapon in domestic political infighting, but was also related to his ambitions to assume leadership of the international communist movement. Success in the Korean War, the establishment of an industrial foundation through the First Five-Year Plan, and China’s contribution to the “satisfactory resolution” of the uprisings in Poland and Hungary had all raised the status of the CCP and Mao personally in the socialist camp, and it was in the frame of mind of an international leader that Mao made his second trip to Moscow in November 1957.

At a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, Mao’s speech aroused a standing ovation from the audience. After the conference, Mao acted like a co-host, lobbying the leaders of the Eastern European parties and busily reconciling conflicts between them and the Soviet Communist Party. If the Soviet Union had been the undisputed leader of the socialist camp in the past, Mao now appeared to have risen to an equal footing with Khrushchev.

Khrushchev’s wholesale criticism of Stalin in 1956 both gladdened and worried Mao. Toppling Stalin from his pedestal raised Mao’s own status within the international communist movement, but the challenge to Stalin’s prestige also threatened Mao, who was the Stalin of China. Mao therefore maintained that Stalin’s “merits outweighed his demerits,” and castigated Khrushchev for tossing away the “daggers of Leninism and Stalinism,” which would undermine Chinese socialism.

Just as Mao began dreaming of attaining the leadership of the international communist movement, Khrushchev proposed a peaceful competition with the capitalist world and suggested that the Soviet Union would outstrip the United States in fifteen years. This was when Mao jumped in with China’s new goal: “In fifteen years, we can catch up with or surpass the United Kingdom.” Some scholars therefore believe that both international and domestic factors caused Mao to embark on the Great Leap Forward, as he strove for leadership of the international communist movement.

Soviet skepticism, ridicule, and criticism toward China’s Great Leap Forward and People’s Communes spurred Mao’s propaganda campaign against Moscow, in particular the concepts of “peaceful coexistence” and “peaceful transition.”

These strident criticisms of the Soviet government and Khrushchev did not pass unnoticed; in June 1960, Khrushchev responded by openly criticizing CCP policies. From this point forward, “Soviet revisionism” became part of everyday language in China, equated with “Right-opportunism.” Mao labeled both Peng Dehuai and Liu Shaoqi revisionists, and in the early 1960s made “countering and preventing revisionism” one of the Party’s chief political tasks.

This campaign against revisionism reached its height when a Central Committee leading group headed by Deng Xiaoping spent the months from September 1963 to March 1964 writing nine essays criticizing “Khrushchev revisionism.” These “Nine Critiques” were published in People’s Daily and Red Flag, as well as being read out in a strident and bellicose tone over the Central People’s Broadcasting Station to impress them on every Chinese mind.

The “Nine Critiques” pushed the CCP’s line even farther left into a Marxist fundamentalism that began to be practiced in China in 1958. After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution practiced this fundamentalism even more fanatically.

At the same time, Marxist fundamentalism was being widely adopted in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, one of the “great achievements” of Mao’s exported revolution. Mao once expressed his complete satisfaction with his star pupil, telling Pol Pot, “You’ve done well. You’ve managed to do things that we wanted but were unable to do.” Mao did not know at this time that Cambodia was to lose a quarter of its population under the rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (known to the outside world as the Khmer Rouge).

Following the Great Leap Forward, the struggle between China’s “idealists” and “pragmatists” was repeated again and again, leaving behind ever deeper scars. As the struggle intensified, it ultimately led to the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution took the stand of the idealists to an extreme — and toward destruction. By the end of the twentieth century, the banner of communism had lost all the glory of its former days, both in China and across the world. The pragmatists salvaged the situation after Mao’s death by pushing China onto the road of reform and opening.

Reform brought unprecedented development of China’s economy, but at the same time intensified the crisis of faith: the majority of Chinese people, and even many within the CCP, no longer believed in communism. Even so, the rulers dared not call communist ideals into question, because abandoning the flag of communism meant losing their own legitimacy. The only way out was to relegate communism to the distant future.

By abandoning attempts to mold the country’s future and individual behavior through the forcible imposition of ideals, leaders could focus on facing reality as effective managers of society. This could be considered progress, but a ruling clique serving as society’s managers should have its powers conferred, and limited, by the people, and the assessment of its managerial effectiveness should be based on practical experience, not on a priori criteria.

This conferment and assessment of managerial authority can only be expressed through the people’s ballots in a democratic system. The other alternative is to replace communist ideals with preservation of the CCP’s leadership status as the highest goal. This is extremely dangerous, because a regime that takes as its highest priority the preservation of the interests of the ruling clique will never gain popular respect and can have no long-term future. Judging from the political practice and developmental direction after Deng Xiaoping, China should be moving toward a democratic system and not one of this latter type.

We cannot be too optimistic, however. Gustave Le Bon once said:

A long time is necessary for ideas to establish themselves in the minds of crowds, but just as long a time is needed for them to be eradicated. For this reason crowds, as far as ideas are concerned, are always several generations behind learned men and philosophers. All statesmen are well aware to-day of the admixture of error contained in the fundamental ideas I referred to a short while back, but as the influence of these ideas is still very powerful, they are obliged to govern in accordance with principles in the truth of which they have ceased to believe.

That is why it will take a very long time for a modern democratic system to be established in China.

We must not wait passively for that eventuality, however; each and every one of us should use all available resources to push for democracy. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that the transformation of a political system cannot be too radical or hasty. Over the past 100 years, the Chinese have suffered too much from radicalism, and they have learned a profound lesson. Radical methods can cause society to spin out of control. An overnight imposition of democracy combined with the radical actions of anarchists could cause a weak regime to lose its ability to control society and allow the emergence of a new dictator — because autocracy is the most effective means of restoring order out of chaos. Those members of the public who find anarchy intolerable will welcome a dictator as a savior. In that way, the very people who are most radical and hasty in their opposition to autocracy may be the very ones who facilitate the rise of a new autocratic power.

Excerpt from the final chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. 608 pp. softcover, to be published in November by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian

Yang Jisheng