China's Great Leap Forward

This is a long essay on the Great Leap Forward, Mao Ze Dong's attempt to overtake capitalist countries and leapfrog into " communism'. By all reports it was an unmitigated disaster, but eh scale of the disaster is only now becoming apparent as archives are being opened and survivors are opening up to scholars and journalists. This essay originally started as a review of Dikotter's 2010 book, but I thought it would be useful to record what actually happened. I lay no claim to original research, the essay is based mainly on Dikotter's book. However, I have consulted other sources and have referenced them. The material which is between quotes is all directly quoted from Dikotter.

The book I am referring to is Frank Dikotter: Mao’s Great Famine: The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1958-62, Bloomsbury, London, 2010.

 The illustrations are from  Brown, Clayton: China’s Great Leap Forward, Education About Asia, 17:3, 2012.

China's Great Leap Forward.
A 1960 propaganda poster from “Develop
industrial and agricultural production, realize the simultaneous
development of industry and agriculture . . .”

There can be very little doubt that the Great Leap Forward in China led to one of the worst man-made disasters in the twentieth century. It has been estimated that between early 1958 and the first few months of 1961, between 30 and 45 million people died; this number is equivalent to the entire population of a mid-sized European country. According to Dikotter, it also led to the greatest demolition of property in human history by far outstripping any World War II bombing campaign. It also led to a complete breakdown of society and its norms because the “very survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend upon the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state.” 
The Communist victory in the civil war led to the formation of Red China in 1949. Mao’s speech from atop the Tiananmen Gate on October 1st that year announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China . The Chinese people had suffered decades of warfare, runaway inflation and misgovernment. (Brown, Clayton: China’s Great Leap Forward, Education about Asia, 17:3, 2012). The New government immediately implemented policies that made the Party, and specifically Mao very popular countrywide. These included the reduction of rents and redistributing land seized from the rich peasants.   This agrarian reform policy was designed to free rural production forces from feudal systems, develop agriculture and to set up a basis for industrialization. (Adriana Palese: The Great Leap Forward, Lunds University, Hossterminen 2009
During the first 5 year plan, a gradual process of collectivization of agricultural production was set up. Initially groups of ten families voluntarily cooperated to form Mutual Aid Teams. Each family agreed to share their tools, labour and draught animals with other team members while retaining formal ownership of these tolls and animals. This was similar to the mutual help that peasants had given to each other for centuries. The next step involved formation of low level agricultural cooperatives ( APCs)  5 Mutual Aid teams or around 50 households comprised a APC.  Families still owned their own land and were paid depending on their contribution of land and labour. By late 1955 “Mao moved to the next—and more controversial—phase by combining approximately five low-level cooperatives into higher-level cooperatives, encompassing some 250 households each. Private property was abolished as land; animals, tools, or other resources became property of the cooperative; and labor became the sole criterion for compensation.”  (Brown, Clayton: China’s Great Leap Forward, Education About Asia, 17:3, 2012).
By all accounts the First Five Year plan was a resounding success. The economy expanded by about 9% every year, industrial output increased by a mind boggling 19%. Life expectancy increased by 20 years by 1957.  Mao was emboldened to announce, in Moscow, where he had gone for the celebrations to mark the 40th Anniversary of the October revolution, that China would catch up and then overtake Great Britain in 15 years. Flush with success Mao launched a “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom “campaign in 1956. To his dismay, the intellectuals and ordinary people took this opportunity to criticize the party and the government in fairly robust terms. To this was added the indignity of the Hungarian near revolt which had to be put down by Soviet forces. This led to a reversal of strategy and an anti-Rightist campaign was then launched to root out the 5% of the population who were allegedly rightist elements bent on reversing the revolution.

Propaganda poster depicting a bumper harvest.
In 1958, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward. This would lead to unprecedented increases in industrialization and agriculture using the enthusiasm and hard work of the masses. One of the chief instruments was to be the agricultural communes each having some 5,500 households about 5 times larger than the previously formed APCs. His call was enthusiastically supported by Liu Shaoqi, who was an old comrade and a very hard worker and saw himself as the successor to the Chairman. On 1January, 1958 the People’s daily came out with an editorial that called upon the masses to “Go All out and Aim High”. Provincial leaders also threw their weight behind the call from the center. Opponents in the party called the step a “rash advance” but Zhou En Lai who was now Mao’s slavish follower and willing to swallow all manner of insults in order to keep on the right side of the Chairman, lent his support. As the policy began to get party support even the dissidents fell in line. They included Li Xiannian, minister of Finance and Bo Yibo, the Chairman of the State Economic Commission.
Those party members who showed any hesitation about the Great Leap were ruthlessly purged. It started with the purging of party leaders in the provinces. Deng Xiao Ping acted as the hatchet man in the provinces. “By summer of 1958, 2000 of the party members were gone”. One in 15 top leaders was fired. Enthusiastic cadres discovered anti party cliques everywhere. In the province of Henan, Pan Phusheng who had described the collectivization programme as herding peasants like beasts of burden, and painted a grim picture of girls and women pulling ploughs and harrows “with their wombs hanging out” was purged as were countless others.
One of the early grandiose projects that marked the Great Leap was a project to dam the Yellow River. A plan was delivered to dam the river at the Three Gate Gorge which entailed a relocation of about 1 million peasants and the inundation of 220,000 hectares of land. Despite being opposed by hydraulic engineers, Mao gave the political go ahead and in a truly heroic effort; the dam was completed by end 1958. Tens of thousands of villagers had toiled to move some 6 million square meters of land. The dam, its outlets having being blocked by reinforced concrete used hastily to finish the project, began to sediment almost immediately. The backed up pool threatened the city of Xian. To protect this, extensive revision was done, which, while saving the city, caused the turbines to become useless. The situation was so dire, that foreigners even from friendly socialist countries were banned from visiting the Dam.
The term Great Leap Forward was first used in the context of the water conservancy projects. Mao envisioned that the villagers who were “idle” in the winter would transform the countryside by water conservancy and irrigation projects.   By October 1957, about 30 million people were involved and they moved an estimated 580 million cubic meters of rocks and soil. Grandiose projects such as the Tao river project would, it was decided, “move up the mountains” and irrigate as well as supply drinking water to Gansu province which would be turned into a garden. The project was jinxed from the beginning. Frequent landslides caused by soil erosion caused the rivers to be filled with silt and workers were forced to go to remote regions where there was little provision for grains supply. The project got nowhere and having irrigated not even one acre of land, was abandoned in March 1962. 2400 peasants died and 150 million yuan were spent on nothing at all. This was by no means the exception, as many other projects throughout the country demonstrated. Reports of the first starvation deaths In Kumming came in February 1958. By June a thousand villagers had died and in the end the dead were not even given proper burials, but just dumped in ditches near the construction sites.
In the meanwhile, China was in the grip of target fever. In response to the call from the center, fantastic targets were set for agricultural and industrial output. The problem was that this was based on slogans which were widely removed from the reality on the ground. Zhou Xiaozhou , the leader of Mao’s native Hunan was one of the first to be accused of falling behind. In response, Zhou began to inflate crop figures. This competitive spirit that Mao inculcated led the provinces to outdo each other in setting unrealistic targets which they then vainly tried to fulfil at vast human cost. Soon “All of China was in a grip of target fever, as fantastic figures for agricultural and industrial outputs competed for attention.”
During this process, most buildings made of straw and mud were torn down in an attempt to provide more nutrition to the soil. Stables, where animals had defecated and urinated also, were used to provide more soil nutrition. Thousands of such houses were destroyed in Macheng, 50,000 buildings were destroyed by the end of 1958. The villagers who had been witness to the anti- rightist campaign were too wily to speak out. On the other hand, with such rosy reports from the provinces, Mao proclaimed on the 4 August 1958 “How are you going to eat so much grain?”
The next “big thing” was to be the people’s communes. As recorded earlier, bigger and bigger communes were setup. Here the peasants lived together and ate together. The idea was that with all the surplus grain, collective canteens would supply free food and this would be the beginning of communism. 1963 was set as the date when communism would appear. Unfortunately, the villagers were not so enthusiastic about this project. Most of those who had surplus food ate them, and culled their livestock to prevent them from going into collective farms where they would have no control. A common saying at that time went “What you eat is yours, what you don’t is anyone’s.” This did not prevent the drive to fulfil bigger and bigger targets. In Sichuan, a group went about torching hundreds of straw huts. “Destroy straw huts in an evening, erect residential areas in three days, build communism in a hundred days” went the slogan.
One of Mao’s pet projects was to bring industry to the village. Industry would be constructed in people’s communes by inexpensive innovations using indigenous technology without large investments. This led to inventions of wooden conveyor belts, rice planting machines and even wooden cars. Needless to say, these were basically useless for the purpose they were meant to serve.  But the real emphasis was to produce steel. Mao was fixated on steel production and wanted to over strip more developed nations in a matter of years, if not months. To put matters in perspective, a production target of 6.2 million tons set in February 1958 was revised to 8.5 million tons in May and then increased to 10.7 million tons in June and then 12 million tons in September. This would be achieved by small furnaces in villages in the backyards of the communes. A simple model for steel production was set up; it may even have worked if the cadres did not force the population into crazy and unachievable targets. Everywhere farmers were forced to go without adequate food or rest as they frantically tried to make steel using pots and pans and anything made of iron including agricultural implements. The produce of these furnaces were mostly slag, unwashed ore or iron ingots that were too brittle to be of any use. 
During the great Leap Forward, millions of backyard furnaces dotted the countryside. 

The death parade had already begun. Even before the communes really took off, people were starving to death. By April 1958, hunger had spread across the country; children were being sold and in Gunangxi, for instance, one out of six villagers had no money or food. In Shangdong, 67000 were starving and 1.3 million were reported to be destitute in Anhui. To help the farmers find food,” the Entomological Research Institute of China’s Academy of Sciences helpfully supplied lists of the protein and fat content of many insects: dried larva of the corn borer, dried fly maggot, dried dung beetle, termites, locusts and silkworm pupae, together with recipes for their preparation. Before reaching this point, people had eaten the green crops in the fields (chi qing), thereby reducing the harvest that the authorities could seize to negligible proportions. Quite apart from scouring the environment for everything and anything that could be eaten, they did what any starving people would do. They tried to flee, first to the cities, where the food supply was better. For the most part they were stopped on the roads and at transportation hubs by militiamen, who arrested and beat them. If they couldn’t escape, they raided public granaries and storerooms; they stole; they rustled livestock and fodder; they torched the homes of hated cadres, and they rioted.”
 By this time even Mao had to sit up and take notice. Numerous reports filed by some courageous provincial leaders, personal letters etc. proved that living conditions were horrific and people were dying in an attempt to raise output. To him, however even this was akin to battle casualties in the war to achieve a communist utopia. The alarm bells really began to ring when the center realized that grain procurements were nowhere near targets though the country had ostensibly had a record harvest. In November, 1958, even Mao realized that disaster had struck. Mao now made an about turn blaming everybody else for the disruptions that had been caused by his campaigns. The Public Security Bureau which was led by his loyalist Xie Fuzhi, did, however, provide him with the true facts. Mao now hit the road, touring provinces to see things for himself. In Wuchang, for instance, his ally Wang Renzhong showed that the province could produce a maximum of 11 million tons of grain against the projected 30 million tons.  Mao now did a volte face, saying that the farmers were right in secreting grain and cadres were correct in inflating figures of production because of the pressures to which they had been subjected.
In a meeting of party leaders in Shangai in April 1959, he called out all the top leaders including Liu Shao Qi, Zhou en Lai, Lin Bia, not even exempting the now dead Ren Bishi. Grain procurement targets were reduced, but it was too little too late. By this time widespread starvation could not be concealed. Zhou en Lai estimated the death toll to be 1, 20,000 which was a laughable underestimate.
In July 1959, the top party leadership met in Lushan, a hill station where rich foreigners (and General Chiang Kai Shek) had spent many summers in the past. The meeting was opened by the Chairman on July 2, and then broke up into small groups, divided mainly by geographical areas. The meetings continued over days. As Mao maintained a sphinx like silence, emboldened leaders began to speak of “starvation, bogus production and cadre abuses in the countryside”. Some, like Peng Dehuai, the defense minister, directly blamed Mao for setting an unrealistic steel production target. Mao only spoke after 10 days, claiming that the Great Leap Forward had been mainly a success with a few failures here and there. Liu Shaqi and Zhou en Lai were quick to endorse this line, considering the failures to be “tuition fees to be paid for valuable lessons”.
Peng Dehuai however would not be silenced. He penned a letter to Mao, where, while being careful to shower praises on the accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward, he did not hesitate to point out the considerable “waste of natural resources and manpower and inflated production claims.” Mao was incandescent with rage. He distributed copies of the letter to all the participants of the meeting and accused “rightist elements: of having attacked the policies of the party.  While most of the leadership predictably fell in line, some did not. Huang Kecheng, the Army Chief of Staff, spoke in favour of Peng, but the Zhang Wentian, the vice –minster of Foreign affairs stunned the meeting by mounting a strongly worded attack on Mao. In a speech which lasted several hours, he pointed out that the crop claims were bogus, backyard furnaces cost 5 billion Yuan for no discernable advantage and one crop was lost as the peasants “were too busy smelting iron to collect the harvest from the fields”. At the same time, in Ganshu province, the provincial party committee revolted, sending a letter to the center, pointing out that famine was raging over a dozen counties.
Mao struck back by giving a rambling speech where he ended by giving an ultimatum. The party, he said, must choose between Peng and himself. The party predictably rallied to Mao and in the following week, working groups grilled Peng, Zhang and other dissidents to uncover” plots against the party.”  Peng was forced to confess to being “anti-party, anti-people and anti-socialist.”

Peng Dehuai (L): Korean war hero and minister of defense, (R): under house arrest as an accused rightist.
Source: (L), (R)
The Lushai meeting was followed by a purge in the Army. Lin Biao was put in charge. While he had personal reservations at the happenings, he was careful to flatter the chairman publicly. Across the country all those who had pointed out the problems were purged. The last chance that the famine would consume only millions was lost; the famine was, over the next few years, to consume tens of millions.
It was around this time (1960) that the Sino Soviet rift occurred. The causes need not detain us here, but as the Soviet advisors were pulled out, a depressed Mao took to his bed. Bereft of leadership or any attempts at control, the famine raged. The country descended into chaos. Some numbers will be instructive. One in four people in Gunagshan County (out of a total of half a million) had died. In the Xinyang region, in 1960, 1 million people died. Crazed cadres, ostensibly clearing out class enemies, clubbed 67,000 people to death following the Lushan Meeting.
Liu Shao Qi, who was dispatched to his home province in Hunan to investigate matters, was flabbergasted at what he saw.  Everywhere he went there was desolation, starvation and death. Back in Beijing, he spoke bluntly, blaming the famine squarely on the Party. Liu was to pay for his temerity during the Cultural Revolution. Others like Li Fuchun also pointed out the disaster in the countryside, though he was careful to absolve the Chairman form any blame.
The scale of the disaster was epic. Farmers were being forced to plant crops not according to their long standing experience, but as dictated by party leaders. The result was, in most cases, disaster. Production targets were inflated in ways that now seem insane, and grain was forcibly procured from peasants leaving them to starve. A lot of the procured grain now rotted as no proper storage facilities had been built. Large portions also were contaminated and significant losses were caused by fire. “In the end, farmers did not have seeds to plant the next crop.” Livestock were slaughtered, first by farmers unwilling to hand them over to the authorities, and then died in their millions due to neglect, hunger, cold and disease. In December 1960, 600,000 pigs died in Hunan province. Finally, most of the agricultural tools were devoured by the backyard furnaces in the frenzied iron and steel production rush.
If this was the situation in agriculture, industry was scarcely better off. Quotas, based on imaginary targets were imposed and workers were pressurized to meet the numbers. Output was the only goal, so that input costs and requirements were neglected. Equipment was ordered, mostly from abroad, but then treated so poorly that that most of them became damaged and then unserviceable. The goods that were produced were understandably shoddy and in some cases positively dangerous. Harmful pigment s were labelled as food additives and fruit mislabeled as pork in tinned goods to meet quotas.  The workers, many of whom had been moved from the countryside to urban areas to boost production, were housed miserably in unheated dormitories which were cramped and flea ridden.  The health of the workers who were faced with such terrible living conditions suffered and unsurprisingly output collapsed by 1961.
The revolution had brought major changes to the retail industry. In prerevolutionary China, all manner of goods were delivered at home by vendors carrying goods in baskets on shoulder poles, wheelbarrows and even donkey panniers. The enterprising salesmen “reached even isolated villages in the hinterland”, carrying many items of day to day life. Similar vendors also clogged the cities. There were also periodic markets in the countryside where brisk trade was carried out. This was in addition to usual shops and department al stores. This world had largely vanished by 1949. Most of the major retail outlets were closed down. Hawkers were taken off the streets and most shopkeepers became government employees. The Great Leap Forward led to severe dislocation of the retail industry as it now existed. Even goods which were earlier available now disappeared and when some shoddy goods were made available, they were at such high prices that the population was unable to buy them.  Simultaneously transport was in the doldrums, thus compounding the problem of moving grain and other goods.
The Great Leap Forward also “constitutes by far, the greatest demolition of property in human history.” As a rough approximation, between 30-40% of all houses were turned into rubble. This was true for the cities where entire sections of cities were torn down to provide land to build grand structures for the  tenth anniversary of the revolution. The villages were also affected as the bigger houses of the richer peasants were demolished and poorer peasants were forced to donate bricks for major utopian building projects. As the Great Hall of the People rose in Beijing and its clones in provincial capitals, hundreds of thousands of peasants and poorer people in the cities shivered, having been rendered homeless. The reckless destruction also encompassed archeological sites and temples, many of which were destroyed and the materials used for projects which were often never finished.  
One of Mao’s slogans when launching the Great Leap Forward, was that “we should open fire on nature” And that is exactly what the Chinese communist Party proceeded to do.  Forests were decimated as trees were cut down to fuel the backyard furnaces. In Yizhang county in Hunan province, fully two thirds of the lush mountain trees were cut down.” In Anhua, west of Changsha, an entire forest was turned into a vast expanse of mud.” Even fruit trees were not spared. Near Beijing, a visitor noted in March 1961, 180,000 stumps of linden and mulberry trees were cut to within an inch of the ground. In one village in Changping , 50,000 apple, apricot and walnut trees were cut down for fuel. These were no isolated incidents; this was the picture countrywide. Despite some attempts at replanting, the efforts failed as the replanted trees were almost instantly cut down by peasants desperate for fuel.
This degradation of the environment led to utter disaster when, in the early summer of 1959, torrential downpours and other natural disasters struck wide swathes of China. Poorly designed agricultural projects added to the misery having destroyed carefully balanced natural water systems.  This was well documented in Tongzhou, Hebei and many other widely dispersed regions.  “Throughout the country, irrigation projects, built by hundreds of millions of farmers at great human and economic cost, were for the most part, useless or downright dangerous.” If, and where the irrigation projects did work, alkalinisation of the soil increased exponentially. Most of this was due to development of irrigation schemes that destroyed the natural drainage system. An estimated 10-15% of the irrigated cropland was lost to salinization. Poorly designed factories compounded the problem by polluting the sir and the water with heavy metals, poisonous chemicals and sewage. The now well-known call to eliminate sparrows led to devastating consequences: a vast increase of insects which ruined a major part of whatever crop was still standing.
As the system became more and more complex, the lowliest of functionaries developed a sense of power which they utilized to make arbitrary and capricious decisions about goods and services in short supply. “A network of personal contacts, and social connections was required to get the simplest of things done.” The ingenuity that party cadres used to cheat the system was stupendous. One head of a storage unit in Shanghai recruited 19 relatives to work with him so that diverting material became easy. Bribery was common and “barter exchange became one of the most efficient ways of distributing goods.” Villagers, who more the brunt of suffering including the outright pilferage of their possessions and money, struck back in many ways. Some simply slacked off, working as little as possible. In any case lack of nutrition left no energy for anything except survival. Theft became endemic, students stealing from canteens, railway porters stealing goods in transit and mail theft was rampant. Farmers quietly clipped off the spikes of grain in the fields and then husked and ate the raw green kernels. As one farmer recollected “those who could not steal died. Those who managed to steal some food did not die.”
Resistance also took the form of posters and fliers which spread the news of the discontent. Rumours circulated, some claiming that Chiang Kai Shek would be back and others claiming that Mao was dead and land would now be returned to the people. Villagers also flooded the authorities with complaints, but this was risky as some unfortunates like He Jiang Fang of Gansu realized when he was led off to a labour camp for his pains. Violence also occurred. It was scattered and unorganized, but occasionally people took things into their own hands and beat up and even killed local lower level leaders. However the widespread apathy caused by the famine prevented any organized armed resistance and whatever there was, was quickly mopped up by the authorities.  Ironically there was a widespread belief that Mao was unaware of the dire conditions and many felt that everything would be different, if only he knew the conditions.
The most effective strategy for survival was to leave the village. More than 15 million moved to the cities in 1958 alone. This occurred despite a formal restriction on people movement. It was preferable to be in the cities which were better supplied with grain rather than stay on in the villages where, by early 1959, hunger had already set in. Authorities tried to prevent this, but it was like stopping a hole in a dam with a finger. Mostly the migrants were young males; women remained behind to look after the family. However by 1961 the authorities had had enough. Facing a huge urban population that was impossible to feed, “Beijing decided to send 20 million people back from the cities to the countryside”. This was reinforced with brutality and coercion that kept the urban population at a historic low. Many fled the country. Large populations fled to Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan and some 30,000 left for Hong Kong.
As the communes were set up, women left their homes to participate in the Great Leap Forward. Their children were herded into ramshackle, inadequate accommodation cared for by overworked and undertrained caregivers. Accidents, disease outbreaks and child abuse were rife. Cadres also stole food from kindergartens, compounding the food shortage. Children of school going age were also supposed to work; all students were put to work in furnaces, irrigation projects and brick kilns among other work areas. Literally thousands died in accidents. Children were also abused as hostages if their parents were considered to have committed any crimes. Parents were also asked to punish their own children who participated in misdemeanors. In one documented case “when a boy stole a handful of grain in a village in Hunan, local boss Xiong Changming forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later.” The starvation also led to a breakdown in family relations. In many families, children fought fiercely over food. Murders took place regularly, especially of older “useless” relatives and in one terrible case in Liuhe, a paralysed girl was thrown into a pond by her parents. Many parents simply abandoned their children.
Collectivization was supposed to liberate women from the shackles of patriarchy.  The Revolution had done just that enabling a Women’s lib of epic proportions. But the Great Leap Forward was actually a leap backward of the women as they were now expected to do  additional work that they had never done before ( filed work, digging etc.) , but the home duties still remained. Sexual abuse was common, local cadres starting a “contagion of rape.” Petty misdemeanors were punished by stripping and a significant section was forced to turn to sex work for survival. Retirement homes were set up for the elderly, but here too abuse and corruption led to inmates going without winter clothing or a proper diet. Some were reduced to eating leaves to survive.
Death was everywhere, like the 10th horseman of the apocalypse. One major cause of mortality other than starvation was accidents. The mad rush to increase production at all costs led to led working groups to totally ignore safety norms and accidents happened with increasing frequency.  Foreign Minister Chan Xi, compared the Great Leap Forward to a battlefield and was adamant that a “few” industrial accidents were like war casualties: sad but inevitable echoing other leaders. Fires, either accidental or due to arson broke out everywhere. In Hunan about 50 people died every month. One estimate by Li Rui, one of Mao’s secretaries put the total number of fatal industrial accidents at 50,000 in 1958 alone.
Health services had practically collapsed and particularly in the countryside, these had almost ceased to exist. However, to its credit, the regime did manage to contain epidemics swiftly, thereby preventing spread of disease over larger populations and preventing large scale deaths. However malaria and oedema due to malnutrition was ubiquitous.
Labour and detention camps dotted the countryside. Severe sentences for relatively minor offences were the norm. A 17 yuan robbery caused a PLO veteran to be jailed for 12 years. However one saving grace was that the number of executions decreased. In 1959, some 4500 were executed decreasing to 4000 in 1960. A short spell in the horrendous conditions of the prisons could, on the other hand lead to disease and death. According to one estimate, even excluding the vast prison house that was Tibet, 1.8 million were held in labour camps in 1960. In addition, local jails held large numbers of prisoners at any one time. If one counted the so called reeducation camps, 8-9 million were incarcerated at any one year of the Great Leap Forward.
Violence was everywhere. The exhausted workforce was forced to work by the threat of violence. Beatings administered to an oedematous famine victim led to oozing of the fluid from the broken skin: thus the common expression “beaten till all the water came out.” Investigation teams reported on “torture fields”. Other than beatings, pouring of boiling water, urine and excrement over ‘wrong doers” was common. Mutilation was also commonplace. Hair was ripped out, ears and noses lopped off. According to one estimate, “6-8% of famine victims were killed by cadres or militia” Suicide also reached epidemic proportions.
Did cannibalism occur? The first report of human flesh consumption was from Yuan in the summer of 1958. There were reports also of human carcasses being dug up and eaten after burial. In one commune, several children were reported to be eaten. Some fairly comprehensive documentation exist that record in chilling detail the horror of cannibalism.
How many died? The final tally will always remain a mystery. Most demographers who have carefully examined the statistics suggest s figure of 30 million, others have suggested that 45 million is a more likely number.

The whole sorry affair finally ended in January 1962, as Liu Shaoqi issued an official report to a packed audience of 7000 cadres at the Great Hall of the People. He clearly stated that 30% of the deaths during the Great Leap Forward were due to natural disasters and 70% were manmade. This went against the official party line that all difficulties and deaths could be blamed on natural disasters. However none dared to blame Mao and Lin Biao rallied to his defense as did Zhou En Lai. However a halt was called to this disastrous episode thought there was only a 5 year respite before the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.


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