Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Great Leap Forward by Dongpin Han

Before my speech, an old man sitting in the front challenged me. He almost yelled at me: “Young man, face it, 40 million people starved to death, and you have the guts to come here to tell us the accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward!” I was really angered by the arrogance of Americans. 

The Great Leap Forward

With the great help of the then Soviet Union, the Chinese government and Chinese people made great strides in industrialization particularly during the Great Leap Forward years. Starting from a low base, the Chinese made their first car, their first truck, their first tractor, their first airplane, their first gunboat, and so on, in the late 1950s during the Great Leap Forward. A number of important plants were built with the help of the then Soviet Union, and began to play important roles in China’s economic life.

Also during the Great Leap Forward, Chinese peasants built a great number of reservoirs throughout China. Of the ten biggest reservoirs in China today, the Danjiangkou Reservoir, Miyun Reservoir, Shisanling Reservoir, Xiashan Reservoir,  Xinanjiang Reservoir, Lushui Reservoir, Xinfengjiang Reservoir, Songtao Reservoir, Shengzhong Reservoir, and Guanyinge Reservoir, nine were built during the Great Leap Forward.

  From 1949 to 1976, the 27 years of the Mao Era, Chinese peasants, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao, worked on 200,000 kilometers of banks of the Yellow River, Hui River, Hai River, Liao River, and so on to prevent floods. In 1949, before the Communist Party came to power, there were only 6 big reservoirs, 13 medium-sized reservoirs, and 1,200 small reservoirs in China. During the 27-year Mao Era, the organized peasants built 302 big reservoirs (a 50-fold increase, mostly during the Great Leap Forward), 2,110 medium-sized reservoirs (a 162-fold increase), and 82,000 small reservoirs (a 68-fold increase). The total reservoir capacity rose from 20 billion cubic metres before Liberation to 450 billion cubic meters in 1976 – a 21-fold increase. These irrigation projects, combining the functions of irrigation, flood control and electricity generation, effectively mitigated the potential damages of floods and droughts that threatened the livelihood of peasants for thousands of years. Chinese peasants no longer were helpless before the vicissitudes of nature for their grain production.14

This past summer (2014), I was invited by Xu Junshan, Professor of Zhongshan University and Vice President of Guangdong University, to give a talk at Zhongshan University on China’s agricultural development. While there, Professor Xu took me to see the two big reservoirs built during the Great Leap Forward in Guangdong Province: Xin Fengjiang Reservoir and Fengshubai Reservoir. Xinfengjiang Reservoir was nationally famous at the time it was built. I had read about it before, but seeing it in person this summer nevertheless had a profound impact on me. The reservoir has a 14 billion cubic meter capacity, an average of ten cubic meters of clean water for each Chinese citizen today. It has generated billions of kilowatts of electricity, helping power China’s rural and urban development. It has been an important asset in flood control and irrigation for the region. Today, it is one of the most important water sources for Guangdong Province and Hong Kong.    

In the reservoir’s museum, I wept in front of the pictures of peasants working with hand tools at night on the projects. They touched me because they reminded me of my own participation in the building of the biggest irrigation project in my own village during the Cultural Revolution. I was in middle school in 1970. But when we heard that our village’s irrigation project was reaching a critical stage in construction, my classmates, teachers, and I all went there to volunteer at night. We worked with the peasants until past midnight. Local government officials, school teachers, and soldiers all came to volunteer. It was the social climate of the time under the Communist government. 

After my recent visit to Guangdong, I was asked to say a few words in front of a TV camera. I said that the Mao Era was an era of construction, laying the foundation for China’s future take-off. The peasants and workers of the Mao era, our predecessors, were born to unprecedented hardship and made tremendous sacrifices for China’s rise today. They were the heroes of China and they should be remembered as such by the young people of today. Tears almost came to my eyes when I spoke because there were so many in China who were actually accusing Chairman Mao and his generation of leaders of undermining Chinese development because of the Great Leap Forward. They have been effectively brainwashed by the rumours spread by China’s enemies. 

The Great Leap Forward also laid the foundation for China’s industrialization. During the three years of the Great Leap Forward, China made great strides in the output of steel, coal, machine tools and electricity. The increase of output over these three years accounted for 36.2 per cent of China’s total coal production, 29.6 per cent of China’s cloth production, and 25.9 per cent of China’s electricity generation between 1949 and 1979.15 Of the industrial projects the Chinese government launched between 1949 and 1964, two-thirds were started during the Great Leap Forward. During the second five-year-plan, which included the three years of the Great Leap Forward, China invested 120,090 million yuan and completed 581 big and medium industrial projects. Fixed national industrial assets increased by 861,820 million yuan. Without the hard work of the Great Leap Forward, it would be hard to imagine that China would be able to take off in the automobile, boat, transportation, and national defence industries. That China would develop nuclear bombs and satellites would be questionable.16 

The Great Leap Forward grain shortages

Post-Mao Chinese scholars, together with their foreign counterparts, try to paint a very dark picture of the Great Leap Forward.  They claim that the Great Leap Forward created an unprecedented famine in China. They circulate rumours that 36 or more millions of people  starved to death. In 1958, 1959 and 1960, the Americans, the Russians, the British, the Jiang Jieshi regime in Taiwan, the Japanese, and South Koreans were all hostile to China, had spies in China, and listening devices around China to monitor what was going on. But they did not have any evidence to show there was a famine in China at that time. 

The post-Mao struggle between the representatives of opposing lines in the Communist Party ended in an anti-Mao faction coming to power. This anti-Mao faction began a political campaign to tarnish the Mao era in order to legitimize their political return and to introduce a different political platform, opposed to that of Chairman Mao’s. 

They started changing population statistics, and began to focus on the shortcomings of the Great Leap Forward. For many years, they only allowed one sided anti-Mao materials to be published. 

They used questionable methods to project the population changes in China during the Great Leap Forward, and eventually claimed dozens of millions of Chinese people perished during that period. A Chinese mathematics professor, Sun Jingxian, and an Indian economist, Utsa Patnaik, have refuted these claims and denounced them as an ideologically motivated attack on socialism.17

 I will not repeat their argument here.  Rather, I shall present some of my own field research, which will provide a case study of experiences of people in the Great Leap Forward and corroborate some of these findings. 

I grew up during the Great Leap Forward, and I have done rural research in China during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. In 1958, the year when the commune was formed, we had the greatest summer and fall harvests in recorded history. People ate so well. That was true not only in my hometown in Shandong Province, but also in Henan and Anhui Provinces, where I studied. Peasants in Henan and Anhui told me that they were able to eat very well, better than ever before, in 1958. This indicates that the forming of the people’s communes and the Great Leap Forward only improved people’s livelihoods in 1958. 

In 1959, my hometown suffered a summer flood without precedent in the last hundred years. I still remember that my mother and my aunt took me to the fields in those days. After several days of rain, the ditches beside the roads were filled with water. All of our fields were water-logged. My mother pulled out some of the sweet potato plants which were planted about a month earlier, and saw no growth. I heard my mother tell my aunts that we were going to have a hard time that year. In the spring of 1960, my hometown had a very bad drought. On top of that, we had another very bad summer flood. The crops failed again. Quite a few people in my village migrated to the Northeast with their families, and quite a few young people left the village to look for opportunities elsewhere. 

Thus our region was hit very badly by natural disasters for two consecutive years. The Shandong Provincial Government, as well as the Central Government sent teams of investigators to our county to find out what was happening with the local leadership. The County Party Secretary Xu Hua and the Head of County Government Office Wang Changsheng were both dismissed by the upper government because of the grain shortage in the county.18

But during the two years of natural disasters, we got relief grains from the Central government, the provincial government, Qingdao City, Shanghai City and many other regions. I still remember the two dried wild vegetables shipped to us from Yunan Province: one with golden hair which we called ginmaogou (golden-haired dog), because it was shaped like a tiny dog, and another which was brown and shaped like a pig liver, called yezhugan (wild pig liver) by the local people. For many years, my parents kept a piece of each of these wild vegetables as souvenirs of the two hardship years, and also to remember the help we got from other people in China. 

People in Baoding Prefecture, Hebei Province, published a collection of memoirs titled During the Difficult Days, whichdescribes how, amid the severe grain shortages, people worked together helping each other, and how the local government leaders shared the hardship of the common people.19 When I read the book, I was reminded that the reason very few people starved amid the natural disasters of the Great Leap Forward was because of the spirit of socialism. Whenever and wherever one place had difficulties, people from other places helped. I remember many peasants told me that if it were not for the help of the People’s Government, many people would have starved amid disasters like the one in 1960. 

By contrast, in Northern Henan Province (where the grain shortage during the Great Leap Forward was supposed to have been severe), five million people had starved to death in 1942. The Government at that time had done nothing to help the local people.20 In the 1990s, I accompanied Ralph Thaxton, my advisor in graduate school, to study (on a Guggenheim scholarship) the region’s famine. When he said that he had come to study the famine, peasants thought that he was studying the famine of 1942-3. During that 1942-43 famine, not only did five million people starve, but many people had to sell their land, their houses, and their children, before fleeing their hometowns. The local government and national government did nothing to help the people there. 

But nothing like that took place during the grain shortage of the Great Leap Forward.21 Amid the grain shortages, my maternal grandfather died of a disease. My paternal grandfather also died that year at the same age. They were both in their sixties. (Chinese people’s life expectancy was less than 60 years then.) They had been sick for a long time. The grain shortage might have weakened them, and they may have eventually succumbed to disease. But I think there is a significant difference between that and saying that they starved to death. Only people with ulterior motives would blame principally the Great Leap Forward, or the public dining halls, or the people’s communes, for the grain shortage we faced during these three years amid severe natural disasters. The grain shortage was caused first and foremost by natural disasters.

My village during the Great Leap Forward

In my production team of about 30 households, only one young child, Wang Daying’s younger brother, died amid the grain shortage. In our team, there were five Wang families. The three Wang brothers had in all 20 children, 10 boys and 10 girls; all survived. The other two Wang families were also related. There were no deaths in these two Wang families except for Wang Daying’s younger brother. There were three Guan families. Guan Dunshi’s family consisted of five children, his mother, and his wife. Guan Dunshi was the only full-time bread-winner of the family. All eight people survived well. Guan Zhaojie, the head of another Guan family, had seven children: three sons and four girls. Guan Zhaojie was the only full time bread–winner. All his children survived well. 

There were six Liu families. Liu Kongxun had one grown son. Liu Zengxun, the third younger brother of Liu Kongxun, had five children. Liu Mengxun was the second of the Liu brothers and was the chief of the production team. One of the village leaders accused him of mismanaging the production teams’ grain supplies. He got scared and hanged himself in the production team’s forest one night. His widow, who shared a big house with her younger brother-in-law, convinced her brother-in-law to migrate to the Northeast with her. My mother and people in the team used to say that Liu Zengxun was stupid to migrate with his elder sister-in-law. She wanted to find a new husband in Northeast because her husband died and because she had no children. She needed to sell her half of the house. If her younger brother-in-law was not willing to sell his half of the house, she would not be able to sell her half of the house. Because she convinced her younger brother-in-law to migrate, she was able to sell her half of the house together with that of her younger brother-in-law. Liu Zengxun figured out late that he was being stupid, and moved back to the village in 1966, but the village had to help him to build a new home on a collective village building lot. 

There were three other Liu families in my production team. Liu Chengrui, his younger brother, and his elder sister lived with their mother. His father had been drafted by the Nationalist army in 1949, just before the Communists came, and he later went to Taiwan. Liu Chengrui’s mother had bound feet, and could not work in the fields. But the three brothers, one sister, and the mother all survived well. Liu Jiamin, of another Liu family, was also young at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. His mother too had bound feet. Liu Jiamin and his three younger sisters and his mother all survived well during the Great Leap Forward. The last Liu family was that of Liu Junxun. He was only seven years old at the time of Great Leap Forward. His father was mentally sick, and one day cut his genitals himself and died of bleeding. His mother took him and his two younger sisters to the Northeast. Later he came back to the village, while his mother and two younger sisters remained in the Northeast.22 

There were two Zhang families. My mother was one of the Zhangs. There were three children and my grandfather in my family. Only my grandfather died. All three children born before the Great Leap Forward, and both the children born after the Leap, have survived. The other Zhang family had five children. The father died of a disease before the Great Leap Forward and the mother decided to migrate to the Northeast with three younger children during the Great Leap Forward, leaving the two older sons home. All five of the children survived, and of the three children who migrated to the Northeast, two came back to the village afterwards; only the youngest decided to remain away.23

There was also a Zhou family, a Song family and Lu Family in my production team. They all survived the Great Leap Forward unharmed. Of the more than 130 people from about thirty families in my production team, none could be said to have died of starvation, even though we all felt the pain of hunger. I remember that every morning before my mother went to work in the collective, I would hold on to her clothes, refusing to let her go. I said to her that I would starve to death if she did not give me some more food. My mother would knead a piece of dough, roast it on a small fire, and give it to me. With that, I would let her go to work. I do not know anybody in my village who really starved to death. 

Of those who left the village during the Great Leap Forward, most managed to come back, and all those who did not come back were accounted for.24

Like my mother, my father never went to school when he was young.  He started working as an apprentice when he was 13 years old. When the Communist Party came to power, the Government set up night schools for workers who wanted to learn how to read and write. He learned how to read and write at the night school. Later, the factory sent him to get training from Shandong Industrial College in Jinan. Because of the training he got, he and a few others were put in charge of building a steel factory in my county (Jimo County) during the Great Leap Forward. The factory was set up in 1958, and in a very short time span, the factory recruited 2000 workers from the rural areas in the county, mostly young men in their late teens and early twenties. For three months, my father interviewed and recruited these workers. Two years later, faced with economic difficulties caused by the natural disasters and the souring of relations with the Soviet Union, the Government decided to close down the steel factory. The 2,000 young workers my father recruited and trained were all asked to go back to their original villages.25

Mr. Sun Jingxian (who, as mentioned earlier, wrote a refutation of the inflated estimates of deaths during 1959-61) argues in his article that the alleged population loss (on paper) during the Great Leap Forward was partly caused by the fact that a large number of people moved in this period. First they moved as a result of industrialization at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward; and later they moved because the closing down of these factories led to workers being sent back. What happened in my father’s factory could support Mr. Sun’s argument. An important point I want to make here is that these rural youth received important training during the two years working in my father’s factory. Later, when the economic situation improved in the country, these people became important resources and assets for the development of their villages, particularly during the Cultural Revolution years. They helped set up village industrial projects. Some of my father’s former apprentices came back to my father for technical advice on a regular basis till his death in 1984.26

In 1993, I gave a lecture at Hunter College in New York. My topic was “the Accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward.” When I entered the room that morning, the big lecture hall was packed. Before my speech, an old man sitting in the front challenged me. He almost yelled at me: “Young man, face it, 40 million people starved to death, and you have the guts to come here to tell us the accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward!” I was really angered by the arrogance of Americans. 

They thought that they knew more than I did about China and about the Great Leap Forward simply because they were Americans. They disregarded the fact that I was Chinese and I lived through the Great Leap Forward. But I kept my calm, and said to him: “Let us examine it together. Tell me how you know that 40 million people starved to death in China.” He said: “We sent the best American demographers to Qinghai and Gansu Province in China in the mid-1980s to talk with the local officials, and they were told by the local officials that twenty per cent of the local population starved.”

“That is how you find out how many people starved during the Great Leap Forward? Twenty years after the event?  Did they make sure that the officials they were talking to had even been born by the time of the Great Leap Forward?” Let me tell you how I found out if people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward. I went to the places where the famine was supposed to have been very bad. I talked with all the old people in the village and asked them how many people starved to death in their village. In one village, where there were 2,000 people during the Great Leap Forward, some people said that about 100 people died and some people said that 50 people died. I then asked these same people to tell me the names of these people who died and how old these people were when they died. It turned out that in this village of 2,000 people, these old people could only name 15 people collectively, and those who died were all over 60 years old (when life expectancy then was less than 60 years), except one man who was in his forties. But this man was a mentally handicapped orphan, who lived alone, could not care for himself and had nobody else to help him. And sadly, he died prematurely.27 In the last 30-odd years, one heard many stories about starvation and famine during the Great Leap Forward. But most of the stories could not stand close scrutiny and examination. 

After hearing how I studied the Great Leap Forward famine, the angry old man who confronted me told me that he was Hugh Deane, the president of the US-China Friendship Association.  He  asked me to send my writing to him, and promised me that he would read it. I did send him my writings, but I never got a reply from him. 

Frank Dikötter, the author of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, Britain's most prestigious book award for non-fiction.28 

It is also rumoured that he received a $2 million scholarship for writing his book. But one of my friends in Malaysia alerted me that the front cover of his book used a picture from Lifemagazine of 1946. This friend wrote to Dikötter about this. Dikötter answered saying that he used the picture of the famine of 1946 in China because he could not find any pictures of the Great Leap Forward famine. 

Such is the academic honesty of anti-Mao scholars in the West. Because they could not find any authentic pictures, they resort to fake pictures. And yet they are able to get away with such dishonesty. 

Frank Dikötter also claimed that he had documents to prove that Chairman Mao was willing to starve half of the Chinese people to death so that the other half could have more than enough to eat. My friend challenged him to produce the document. Dikötter said that he had an agreement with the source of the document not to show the document to anybody. But under pressure, he agreed to let my friend in Hong Kong to see the document. It turned out that the document was a speech by Chairman Mao at a meeting discussing the investment planned in industrial projects. China had planned to launch over one thousand industrial projects in 1960. Chairman Mao said in the speech that he would rather cut the number of investment projects by half so the Government would have enough money to quickly complete the remaining half of the projects. But Dikötter interpreted Chairman Mao’s words to mean that he was willing to starve half the Chinese population in order that the other half have more than enough to eat. Dikötter claimed that he was a China specialist. I wonder if he was able to read and understand Chinese text, or he was in fact a linguistic genius who could read into the Chinese language something that was not there in the first place.  

I had a debate with one of my professors when he said in class that 40 million Chinese peasants starved to death in the Great Leap Forward. I asked him why the Chinese peasants, allegedly facing certain starvation, did not rebel during the Great Leap Forward. Chinese peasants had rebelled so many times in history when there was a famine. He said that Chinese people were too starved to rebel then. I said that apparently the Chinese peasants were not too starved to build thousands of reservoirs during the Great Leap Forward. 

He then said that the Chinese peasants did not have weapons during the Great Leap Forward with which to rebel. I said that throughout Chinese history, the Chinese ruling classes never allowed Chinese peasants to have weapons. But that did not prevent Chinese peasants from rebellion with sticks and shovels, again and again. In our Chinese language, we have a proverb, “jie gan erqi” (pick up a bamboo stick and rebel), to describe one of the earliest rebellions in the Qin Dynasty. I also told my professor that the Mao era was an exception in Chinese history: under Chairman Mao, the Chinese State did allow the Chinese people, both peasants and workers, to have weapons. During the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government called upon the Chinese people to organize several hundred divisions of militia. Peasants worked in the fields with rifles stacked beside them.  

This summer I interviewed the former village party secretary of Yakoucun Village in Guangzhou. He told me that during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution years, his village’s militia had more than 200 rifles, machines guns, and even anti-air artilleries. The village militia was trained regularly. The weapons were taken away from the village when Deng Xiaoping started the rural reforms in 1982. It would be much easier for peasants to rebel, if they wanted to, with such easy access to weapons. But there was not even a protest, let alone a rebellion, during the Great Leap Forward.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this!!

Anonymous said...

Great reads and great information