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The Great Leap Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Post Mao Rural Reform: The Lessons of Rural Development in Contemporary China

by Han Dongping | 1 April 2003 | One Comment | Last modified: 19 Aug 9:24 am


China scholars in the West are fascinated with ‘The Great Leap Forward famine’ but mostly not because of the famine itself. Like many other poor countries in the world, there is nothing special about famines in China. Reading the chronology of any Chinese county gazettes, one is abhorred to see the frequency and severity of cyclical famines. A look at any county record would produce a few famines in modern history. An incomplete record showed more than a dozen famines in Jimo County gazettes.[1] Also in Shandong, Zichun District Gazettes had recorded 34 famines, and several of which resulted in cannibalism in the early days.[2]

As a rule, famines are usually triggered off by natural disasters. Human activities, such as hoarding grain for profit and lack of organized relief effort on the part of the government, usually exacerbated the already bad situation. However, under normal circumstances, people could hardly blame anyone for the occurrence of famines. What made the Great Leap Forward famine different from others is the government’s policies and behaviors in triggering the famine and the way it carried out famine relief. In other words, people can blame the government for what had happened. The major debate in the China field regarding the Great Leap Forward famine is, of course, how much the Chinese Communist government, particularly Mao, should be blamed for the catastrophe. There have been at least three different verdicts about the causes of the famine. The first verdict, given by Maoist Government following the Great Leap Forward, downplayed the impact of human errors and attributed the famine largely to the three years of natural disasters and the Russian betrayal.[3] At the time, the authorities divided the blame in mathematical terms as qifen tianzai, sanfen renhuo (seventy percent natural disaster, and thirty percent of human error). This verdict basically exonerated the government from a major blame for the Great Leap Famine. There had been no talk about the responsibilities for the famine in any official documents, until the Deng Xiaoping era. This is also the most common response farmers gave concerning the direct causes of the Great Leap Forward famine in rural Shandong and Henan, where the worse famine conditions occured.[4]

The revisionist verdict sponsored by the Deng Xiaoping Government since 1978, twenty years after the incident, recognized the impact of natural disasters, but also downplayed impact of the natural disasters. The Dengist government reversed the mathematical division of blames into sanfen tianzai, qifen renhuo, (thirty percent natural disasters and seventy percent of human errors), and it also, for the first time, began to publish the estimated figures of people who died during that famine, (which ranged from 20 million to 40 millions). It thus placed the major blames on the Maoist government for triggering as well as handling the famine. In evaluating the second verdict, one has to weigh the factor of political expediency, which started the revision of the previous verdict. The serious power struggle going on at the top of the Chinese political hierarchy and the tremendous stakes involved colored the verdict, and it was by no means any more objective than the first verdict.

The third verdict given by some Chinese and Western scholars is that natural disaster did not play any significant role, and the famine was caused by human errors. It argues that natural disasters were common and frequent in northern China, but they seldom automatically translated into famines, let alone famines of the scale and extent of the Great Leap Forward. Many Chinese scholars ‘suffered’ under the Communist rule in China and their resentment against the Communist policies is understandable. However, Chinese intellectuals are also known for their tendency to despise farmers, despite Mao’s deliberate effort to ‘educate and transform’ them during the Cultural Revolution. As a group, Chinese intellectuals, in contrast to the farmers, may have suffered the least during the Great Leap Forward famine. The government, despite the grain shortages, was able to extract enough grain from the rural areas (in fact many rural areas suffered because the government extracted too much grain from them in the first phases) and made sure that the urban population was adequately provided. Rural residents, as grain producers, on the other hand, did not enjoy priority in the government’s centralized grain planning. Consequently, farmers in disaster-stricken regions suffered much more severe grain shortages during the so-called Great Leap Forward famine. Therefore it may sound ironic when Li Zhisui, Mao’s physician, professes that the purpose of his writing of his memoirs was to educate Chinese people about their sufferings under Maoist regime.[5] If the Chinese people, particularly farmers and workers who made up 95 percent of the Chinese population, suffered under the Maoist government, they should be the first to know. Why do people need to be educated about their own life experiences? If Chinese farmers and workers had suffered under the Maoist regime the way the current Chinese Government and Chinese and foreign scholars asserted, why has Mao become more and more popular among the Chinese farmers and workers?[6] It is possible to attribute Mao’s popularity while alive to government propaganda and manipulation. But Chinese official as well as the not-so-official efforts to tarnish Mao’s image after his death should have more than offset that.[7] We cannot simply condemn the Chinese farmers and workers as not knowing what was best for themselves or accuse them all of being victims of amnesia, as many Chinese elite are suggesting.[8]

This paper attempts to briefly examine not only the blames the developing and modernizing Maoist state had to bear for the Great Leap Forward famine in light of the three different verdicts, but also the connections between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, as well as the post Mao rural reform. More importantly, I want to look at the lessons of rural development in contemporary China from rural residents’ perspective.

Great Leap Forward and the Ensuing Famine

Critics of Mao blamed the Maoist state for the famine following the Great Leap Forward largely because Mao supported establishing the gigantic people’s communes and the big public dining halls. These factors, without question, contributed to the severity of the famine when crises struck. However, many farmers also say that these factors alone could not have resulted in famine the way it did, and not all communes had suffered famine either.[9] The commune was a big unit, bigger than anything the Communists had previously organized. And the procession from mutual aid groups to the lower level agricultural cooperatives, to the higher level of agricultural cooperatives and finally to the people’s commune was so fast it left farmers no time to catch their breath. However, the majority of mutual aid groups and agricultural cooperatives had been doing well, and production and yields had been increasing in the early and mid 1950s. 1958, the year when the people’s communes were being set up, actually witnessed bumper harvests throughout most of China.[10] Of course, in many places, the bumper crops were not properly harvested, and for various reasons, some crops were left in the fields to rot. In some places, too many farmers were dispatched to engage in steel making or irrigation projects. In other places, irresponsible local officials ordered farmers to plow the fall crops under in order to plant winter wheat to meet their superior’s quota.[11] But there was no evidence to suggest that the communes were too big a unit to cultivate or properly harvest the crops. The blame should go to the wrong decision making of the local officials.

Before the Great Leap Forward famine, the 1950s were a decade of unprecedented triumphs for the Chinese people and the Communist state. The successes of the land reform, the military confrontation with the U.S. led UN forces in Korea, the socialist transformation of industry and commerce, and the organization of mutual aid groups, lower level and high level agricultural cooperatives resulting in significant increase of grain yield, created a climate of triumphalism. Conventional wisdom regarding what was possible and impossible has become irrelevant under the new circumstances. The importance of social organization has been proven and witnessed by farmers. Never before had Chinese farmers seen so many dramatic changes in their lives, with new organizations, new farm implements, new fertilizers, and new ways of life. As a rule, people relax their guard against possible dangers amid of successes. Many farmers, particularly poor farmers, began to feel that the Communist Party was representing their best interests and their policies could not be wrong, When things were going well, they were willing to follow the Communist policies, even blindly.[12]

Major village leaders who were mostly Communist Party members, and who owed their power and authority to the party, were willing to push the party’s policies if it did not hurt them directly. They also learned from their experiences that they could not successfully resist their superior’s initiatives. More importantly, many commune and county government officials acquired much more control over local resources during the agricultural communization movement. The Jimo Commune and County Government, for example, took away from production brigades materials and grains valued at 5.71 million yuan during 1958 and 1959 without compensation, which seriously hurt farmers’ incentive.[13] Some commune and county officials did not know much about conditions of rural life, but they wanted their orders obeyed by the people under their jurisdiction.[14] This did not cause much trouble in itself when there was enough food to eat in the public dining halls.

Some scholars accused the public dining halls of being the major culprit of the famine. The public dining halls as an emerging institution in the countryside had attracted many criticism because of their numerous shortcomings and problems. Among other aspects, the foods cooked were not up to everybody’s tastes, and it could be wasteful compared with individual household cooking. However, all these were not insurmountable problems. What the critics did not usually recognize was that the public dining halls had enjoyed farmers’ support in the beginning. They liberated many people, particularly women, from the traditional burden of cooking, processing the grain and washing dishes. As the scale of cooking increased, it actually saved fuel.[15] At the time, factories, schools, and government offices all had public dining halls, where employees could get their ready-cooked meals at the price of cost. Most farmers regarded this as an advantage workers and other government employees enjoyed over them. They wanted the same benefit.[16] The establishment of public dining halls was supposed to extend the same benefit to farmers. Du Shixun, deputy party secretary of Liu Jiazhuang Commune, Jimo County, was one of few local officials opposed to public dining halls for its wastefulness. In his candid letter to Mao Zedong, he said that with the establishment of public dining halls nobody wanted to cook at home any more, but the economy at the time could not support such an wasteful life style.[17] There was no evidence to suggest that the public dining halls actually caused the famine by itself, or that the public dining halls were unpopular among farmers. In fact, many farmers recalled the beginning of public dining halls with fond memories. Some farmers said that they never had eaten so well in their life, and never before could they eat as much as they wanted. The food was much better than at home, with meat and tofu dishes and fried cakes.[18] As a result, they consumed much more grain than they usually would. As one farmer in South Village commented, they never had consumed so much grain in such a short time in their lives.[19]

With the bumper harvests of 1958 and the establishment of people’s commune, many people, local officials and ordinary people, felt that the grain shortage had become something of the past. They relaxed their guards, and began to handle grain very carelessly. They did not harvest the crops as carefully as they should, and threw away the leftovers in the public dining halls very carelessly. The unrealistic assumption was that if they run out of grain, they could always get more from the commune or the government.[20] The sad reality was that Chinese society at the time could by no means afford this kind of wasteful life style.

When there was plenty food to eat, most problems and shortcomings of the people’s communes and the public dining halls were concealed. But as soon as grain shortage was felt, all other problems and shortcomings began to turn their heads. As rationing of food had to be imposed in the public dining halls, some village officials began to eat more than their fair shares, and some of them began to steal grains to make sure that their family had enough to eat.[21] This hurt the public morale, and ordinary villagers began to find ways to get more food for themselves. As Du Shixun, deputy party secretary of Liu Jiazhuang commune asserted, in the struggle for more grain, farmers would defeat village leaders as well as government attempts to extract more grain from the countryside. If the government wanted to take the grain after the crops were harvested, farmers took them before crops were harvested. If the government wanted to take the grain in the fields, farmers would preempt it before crops were ripe.[22] That was why there was the widespread practice of eating grain crops during the Great Leap Famine in the countryside.

By eating grain crops, farmers eventually damaged the prospects for good harvests and hurt themselves in the end. The practice of eating green crops became widespread mostly because people were hungry. As Du Shuxun, the deputy party secretary of Liu Jiazhuang commune told village leaders, they should understand villagers who ate green crops, reminding them that people who were not hungry would not eat them.[23] It was one thing to understand farmers, but another thing to evaluate the impact of eating green crops. As the practice became wide spread, some places lost all their crops to this practice, which meant that honest farmers who did not participate or participated less, in eating green crops, would lose, and that everybody was forced to face even worse food shortages in the end. The widespread practice of eating green crops only made the grain shortage much worse.[24]

The loss of crops to natural disaster and to chiqing (eating green crops), depleted farmers’ hope for a recovery for the next season, which led to a serious population exodus in Jimo County. This, in turn, started a vicious cycle. As grain shortages worsened, many young and able farmers began to flee the countryside, searching for opportunities outside their hometown. More than 80,000 able farmers left Jimo County in 1960 alone. Some villages in Jimo lost more than two thirds of their labor force.[25] Because of labor shortage, and low morale, 1,355 million mu of land in Jimo laid waste, causing an estimated grain loss of 50 millions kilos and a serious grain shortage for 673,300 people in Jimo county in 1960.[26]

Severe whether conditions in 1959, 1960 and 1961 only made things worse. Jimo County, one of the worst hit places in the whole country, suffered spring draft and summer floods for three consecutive years. On June 30, 1958, a ten-hour rainstorm with a precipitation of 249 mm caused 22 rivers to overflow and wrecked 69 dams and reservoirs. On June 15, 1959, intense rain damaged 75,900 mu crops, wrecked 4,629 houses and killed 8 persons. In summer of 1959, there was a locust breakout in five communes that ruined 18,584 mu crops.[27] On May 27, 1959, a hailstorm ruined 31,000 mu crops of five communes in west of Jimo County, causing an estimated grain loss of 1.35 million kilos. On July 27, 1960, a hurricane attacked the whole county, ruining 777,000 mu of crops. On August 17, 1961 a rain storm with a precipitation of 230 mm in three hours flooded 280,000 mu crops.[28] On top of that, there were also other minor natural disasters.[29] These natural disasters, compounded by other problems, caused severe grain shortages in Jimo County. Most rural women stopped having periods, and many old folks suffered from swollen legs. As a result, Jimo population had for the first time since 1953 negative growth, with minus 14,300 in 1960, and minus 18,843 in 1961.[30] There were no doubt, Jimo people, like people in other places, suffered tremendous grain shortages. Many, mostly old people, died of diseases caused by malnutrition and hunger. Among them were my paternal and maternal grandfathers who were both 60 years old in 1960. Young people could steal green crops in the fields, and they were allowed to eat more because they had to work. Old folks like my grandfathers did not work in the fields at the time, and could not eat green crops as conveniently as the younger people. When food shortages took place, people ate tree leaves, vegetable roots and other wild vegetables. The central government delivered many varieties of wild plants from Yunnan and Guangxi provinces: one was shaped like a small dog with golden hairs, which Jimo people called jinmao gou (golden-haired dogs); another was shaped like pig livers with a dark red color which Jimo people called yezhu gan (wild hog liver). Each family got a big quantity of them free of charge, but they were very hard to swallow and digest. Old folks like my grandfathers had a hard time eating them. Poor nutrition weakened their health and they became very susceptible to diseases, and were the first to die.

There was no doubt the Great Leap Forward turned out to be a failure despite the fact that the country made great stride in many other ways. The national industrial bases were greatly expanded, and the foundations of important rural infrastructure were laid during the Great Leap Forward. The most important four reservoirs in use in Jimo County today were all built during the Great Leap Forward.[31] But the government and the people’s commune suffered tremendous setbacks. Under pressure, Mao accepted some responsibility for the failure, and made a self-criticism at the 7000 person meeting in Beijing from January 11 to February 7 in 1962.[32] The Great Leap Forward ended without an official ending. But because the natural disaster did occur, it was not very easy to convincingly pin down the real culprit for the famine. For all we know, Mao might never have been convinced that the Great Leap Forward was wrong in design. He might still think that if only the weather had been favorable and local officials had been less arbitrary than they had been, it would have succeeded.

The Great Leap Forward ended up in a unprecedented grain shortage under the Communist rule in China. But it was not the only thing that was unprecedented. There were no grain riots, no peasant rebellion, no grain hoarding for profits, no selling of children and wives, which would have been normal occurrence with a famine like that in Jimo and in China in general. It was so unlike China that even today many younger people still asked their parents why they did not storm the government granaries which were not even guarded by any military forces.[33] Is not this something worthy studying too? Mao did not talk about anding tuanjie (security and order) at the time, as the current Chinese leaders do today, but his government was able to maintain order and security in the face of such unprecedented national disaster. Why?

There is no question that Mao bore tremendous responsibility for the Great Leap Forward famine. If he had not pushed for the Great Leap Forward and the establishment of peoples’ communes in such a hasty manner, the Chinese people would have been in a better position to deal with the natural disasters. Without the wastefulness of the public dining halls, the impact of the natural disasters would have been much less. On the other hand, without the organized relief efforts of the Maoist state, the impact of the natural disasters of 1959, 1960 and 1961 would have been much greater in Jimo for all we know. That was why many farmers say ‘without the Government’s relief efforts, more people would have died.[34] In 1960, six southeast provinces donated 215,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos of dried vegetables and large quantities of winter clothes to Jimo County.[35] In the same year, Qingdao municipal government provided Jimo County with 110,000 suites of clothes, 12,790 quilts, 10,052 meters of cloth, 8,010 kilos of cotton, 54,677 pairs of shoes and hats, 125,000 kilos grain, and over half of the households in Jimo County benefited.[36] In November of 1960, a Shanghai municipal delegate brought to Jimo 60,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos dried sweet potatoes and other relief materials.[37] In 1961, Shandong provincial government donated 15,000 tons of grain to Jimo and provided 200 grams of grain per villagers each day before the next harvest.[38] Mao’s mistakes and Mao’s merits were paradoxically entwined to such an extent that any effort to separate the two would be simply impossible. For that reason, few Chinese workers and farmers ever blamed Mao for what happened during the Great Leap Forward. It is not that Chinese farmers and workers are too dumb to know any better, as many Chinese elites suggest. It is their wisdom to see both Mao’s mistakes and his merits at the same time.[39]

The Cultural Revolution

Mao accepted some responsibility for the Great Leap Forward famine, and gave the driver’s seat to his colleagues Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping for the management of the national economy. But he was not convinced that the Great Leap Forward failed because of his misguided leadership. He felt the need to vindicate himself. Liu and Deng started to dismantle the framework of the people’s commune by encouraging the free market, private plots, fiscal responsibilities and individual household farming, which were collectively called sanzi yibao by the farmers. These policies were quickly carried out by the Communist government hierarchies. By end of 1961, 520 production brigades in Jimo, over half of the total, adopted the household farming system, and 310,000 mu of land was divided to farmers.[40] By September 1962, 362,760 mu land, amount to 19.8 percent of the total was divided to individual households. This new policy provided farmers with more incentives, and was apparently more beneficial to those families with more labor force. But it was also resisted by others, particularly by those who did not have enough farm hands and implements to farm effectively on their own. Yang Shushan, the party secretary of Xi Shanpo Production Brigade, Lingshan Commune challenged the new policies. He asked whose interests did the new policy represent? Shandong Provincial government used his resistance as an example and reversed the household farming practice in October 1962.[41]

Because of the ambiguity regarding the causes of the Great Leap Forward famine, and because the quick erosion of the collective system after the Great Leap Forward famine, Mao was waiting and searching for an opportunity to strengthen and improve the chance for the collective agriculture. One of his first attempts was the socialist education movement in 1964. But the project was rejected by Liu Shaoqi and his wife Wang Guangmei, who sent a large number of work teams composed of outside government officials to the villages and targeted a vast number of village leaders for minor offenses, Mao characterized this as ‘xingzuo shiyou (rightist movement with left appearance) in his big character poster ‘bombard the Headquarters’ written on August 5, 1966.[42] By this time, Mao already realized the harm and limitation of sending outside work teams to the villages. He saw the need to empower ordinary people to be masters of their own lives as a check and balance against official wrongdoings, which was a negative lesson from the Great Leap Forward experiences. Seen from this perspective, it is not difficult to see why Mao allowed the mass movement to operate outside the leadership of Chinese Communist Party for the first time in the Communist Party’s history at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. The post-Mao Chinese government condemned this as tikai dangwei nao geming. (kick the Party Committee aside and make revolution without it).

The Cultural Revolution swept Chinese rural areas after the local Chinese Communist Carty organizations were paralyzed by the challenges of mass organizations and associations in December of 1966. The methods of the Cultural Revolution, in Mao’s own words, were ‘rang qunzhong ziji jiaoyu ziji, ziji jiefang ziji (allow the masses to educate and empower themselves) in the revolution. This new policy led to the establishment of mass organizations and associations throughout China, including the countryside. Different mass organizations mushroomed in villages, communes and counties, and began to assert themselves almost overnight. The organized rural masses challenged village, commune and county officials face to face, through big character posters, at public debates and mass meetings. Never before in Chinese history, were farmers able to stand up to government officials and criticize them. In front of the organized rural masses, many village leaders and commune and county government officials were completely dwarfed. They were forced to confess and apologize for their wrongdoings during and after the Great Leap Forward years. Major village leaders lost all their power in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.[43] The commune leaders who did not lose their power immediately, were forced to reform themselves by working, eating and living with farmers in the villages. They were not allowed to order farmers around without knowing the local conditions first, which had been common practice during the Great Leap Forward period.[44] The unprecedented democratic practices during the Cultural Revolution created a real democratic culture in the Chinese countryside.[45] The side effects of the Cultural Revolution in the form of unnecessary violence against some intellectuals, and the destruction of some cultural relics and others, though were regrettable and could have been avoided, should not be used to condemn its democratic main thrust. It is understandable that Chinese elites, both intellectual and political, who suffered serious drawbacks during the Cultural Revolution, condemned the Cultural Revolution. But it is inconceivable that Western scholars, who profess democratic traditions and beliefs, almost unanimously sided with the Chinese elite in condemning the Cultural Revolution in complete disregard of its democratic tendencies. In the 1930s, one American scholar wrote that any American, whether he was a congressman, a senator or president, would have supported the Chinese Communists if he knew what was going on in China’s countryside. If American scholars knew how the Chinese officials treated farmers, they would have understood the violent eruption of the Cultural Revolution. In this sense, Western scholars’ understanding and knowledge of the Chinese Cultural Revolution has been biased, and not well balanced.

As the Cultural Revolution empowered ordinary farmers, villagers began to have much more control in the management of the affairs of the production teams and production brigades. During the Cultural Revolution years, the production team leaders, usually a committee of five members, unlike during the Great Leap Forward years, were democratically elected by the villagers. Production plans and budgets, and distribution plans were all discussed and approved by the members. [46] Economic activities of the production team became more transparent. Consequently, collective farming fared much better during the Cultural Revolution years than during the Great Leap Forward years. The crop yields more than doubled in Jimo.[47] In Fushan County, crop yield increased from 230 jin per mu in 1965 to 490 jin per mu in 1976.[48] In Haiyang County wheat yield increased from 138 jin per mu in 1965, to 284 jin per mu in 1976.[49] In Pingdu County, crop yield increased from 205 jin per mu in 1965 to 506 jin per mu in 1976.[50] In Laoshan County, unit yield increased from 383 jin per mu in 1965, to 868 jin per mu in 1976.[51] In Qixia County, crop yields increased from 422 jin per mu to 810 jin per mu in 1976.[52] Because of the development of rural industrial enterprises during the Cultural Revolution years, farmers’ per capita net income also increased significantly. In Fushan County, for example, farmers’ per capita net income increased from 85 yuan in 1965, to 235 yuan in 1976.[53] In Jimo County, farmers’ per capita net cash income increased from 36 yuan in 1965 to 79 yuan in 1975.[54] On top of that, farmers during the Cultural Revolution years enjoyed free education and free rudimentary health care, which they never enjoyed before or after.[55]

The most important development of the Cultural Revolution, of course, was the democratic practices in the countryside. Production team leaders were elected, and village leaders as well as commune and county government officials were under popular supervision of the common people. Production team leaders had to work with villagers everyday. Village leaders had to work with farmers at least 300 days a year. Commune officials had to work at least 250 days a year with farmers. In some places, even county officials had to work around 200 days with farmers each year.[56] During the Cultural Revolution, like everybody else in China, farmers also enjoyed the democratic rights to write big character posters to criticize village and commune leaders. More importantly, Provincial, County and Commune government officials were no longer composed of the Communist Party elite. Respected farmers and workers who were recognized by the people as model workers and farmers became important components of the different levels of government structures. In Jimo County, Li Aichang, an expert farmer from Aoshan Production Brigades who led his villagers in to prosperity became deputy director of the Jimo County Revolution committee. Zhang Ziyu, a farmer from Moshi production brigade, and Lan Shengyu, a farmer from Yaotou Production brigade, both of whom had proved themselves in leading their villages to prosperity, became deputy directors of Chengguan Commune Revolution Committee. When these farmers, who still kept intimate contact with rural life, conducted the business of government, it was democracy of a very high level. These democratic practices that distinguished the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward made the difference of success and failure between the two time periods. Because of these democratic practices, there was very little corruption, very few crimes, no unemployment, no homelessness, no drugs, no prostitution, no traffic of women and children, no polarization of the poor and rich and little official abuse of power in the vast Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution years.[57] With this in mind, is it difficult to understand why Mao has become more and more popular among farmers and workers in today’s China amid rampant official corruption, widespread trafficking of women and children, crime, drugs and prostitution? As farmers in Shandong and Henan say, Mao was more than vindicated by what is going on in China after he died.[58]

Post Mao Revision of the Great Leap Forward Famine and Rural Reform

As I pointed out elsewhere, Mao’s biggest mistake in his life was his failure to institutionalize the democratic practices developed during the Cultural Revolution years.[59] He had ten years to do it, but he did not. Of course this is not a completely fair criticism of Mao in light of China’s long culture of officialdom. But if he did, Deng Xiaoping would not have undone Mao’s life work so easily. For one thing, Chinese farmers would not have allowed the division of land in the first place, if there had been a national referendum at the time. Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 by schemes considered highly unethical and dishonest by Chinese farmers and workers. Of course, politics is not a game of ethics and honesty, even though we always advocate honesty as the best policy. Deng Xiaoping lost power twice during the Cultural Revolution, and his image was fatally tarnished by Mao’s criticism of his policies and his character, In order to consolidate his power after his second return, it was a political necessity to vindicate himself. The method he used was simple and straightforward: the revision of the Great Leap Forward verdict. By placing the blame of the Great Leap Forward famine squarely on Mao and his followers, he was able to achieve multiple political goals. First, he made untenable the position of his opponents, Hua Guofeng and others within the Communist Party who tried to exclude him from political power by ‘upholding every word and policy made by Mao’ this significantly weakened their hold on power. Second, after placing the responsibility of the Great Leap Forward famine on Mao and his followers, he was also able to present himself as a savior of the Chinese people from the Great Leap Forward famine, caused by the Mao’s idealistic tendencies. It was, after all, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping who introduced the pragmatic solution of individual household farming to the Chinese countryside when the Great Leap Forward failed. This political maneuver proved to be very effective in mobilizing intellectual support among Chinese elites who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and eventually helped him gain political supremacy in China. Once in power, Deng Xiaoping, like Mao, also felt the need to vindicate himself, which was to return the Chinese countryside to individual household farming.

To be fair, the individual household farming as an emergency measure in the context of grain shortage was necessary and had the support of more farmers and local officials, even though it was not the direction of modern agriculture in the Chinese context. But the social environment in the early 1980s was completely changed from that of 1960. With the democratic practices of the Cultural Revolution years, Chinese farmers and local officials had slowly developed a political and economic system that worked well for them and most people were happy with it.[60] The collectively owned and managed farm machines and irrigation system made the steady increase of agriculture production possible and reduced labor intensity for the farmers at the same time. The collectively owned and managed industrial enterprises, which effectively channeled the surplus rural labor to productive employment, began to significantly improve farmers’ income in general and in Shandong Province in particular, as mentioned above. Village primary schools, joint middle schools and the commune high school system provided rural children with adequate education free of charge. Village medical clinics and commune and county hospital networks began to provide farmers with rudimentary free medical care. Counties and communes and production brigades also built up a network for propagating new information and technology throughout the countryside. Farmers’ lives had significantly improved. With modern organization, education and technology, the potential for further improvement was tremendous. Consequently, few farmers wanted to change.[61]

But Deng Xiaoping wanted to change despite farmers feeling otherwise. When Mao started his agricultural cooperative movement, he at least had mobilized the support from village, district and county level leaders.[62] But Deng Xiaoping dismantled collective farming without mobilizing grassroots support. His support was the suspicious case of 18 households in Xiaogang Village, Fengyang County, Anhui province, who allegedly secretly divided the collective land among themselves.[63]

Accompanying the dismantling of collective farming, the government also doubled the grain price for government procurement to give farmers more incentive to grow more grain in early 1980s. For a couple of years, the government was able to boast about the increase of grain yields, which they alleged was the result of its policy of individual household farming. However, since 1985, the grain yields in China had stagnated, and the cost of grain production had been constantly going up because of increased modern inputs, with more chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and new varieties of seeds. Consequently farmers’ net incomes have been declining since then. Even the Central Government admitted this.[64] Farmers could no longer support themselves in farming. They have to leave their home to find temporary employment in the urban areas. In the last twenty years, hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers were working in the urban areas as cheap labor under discriminatory conditions. They usually work 12 to 14 hours or more on construction sites with very low pay and in hazardous conditions. Unlike during the collective time, their labor did not help improve the infrastructures of their home community, and their meager salaries were barely enough to cover increased prices of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, electricity, seeds, and government taxes and levies. The price of grain remained about the same over the last twenty years: both wheat and corn were only about forty cents a jin in the summer of 2000. But the prices of the chemical fertilizers, pesticides and electricity have already increased from five to ten times. The government taxes and levies have been increased from 20 jin of grain per mu during the collective era to 200 jin per mu or more in most regions in China today.[65]

The central government has been blaming the township government for increasing the burdens of farmers for the last twenty years, which directed farmers’ anger to the village and township governments. But this is very irresponsible, as well as dangerous on the part of central government, as one township government leader pointed out in an interview with the author, because it was not true.[66] It is true that the central government only took about five percent of farmers’ income, but the central government does not cover the various costs of the township government. In order for the township and village government to carry out the central government policies and initiatives, they have to place extra levies on the farmers, sometimes ten times more than the central government’s tax.[67]

The central government demanded the township government enforce its family planning schemes. Major township government officials who failed to enforce it strictly would be dismissed. But the central government did not provide enforcement instruments and funds. In order to enforce this very difficult policy, township governments had to hire many people. During the collective era, collecting tax grain was never a problem. Today, the government has to hire extra people to collect the tax grain from farmers who resist the tax in many different ways. Because of all this, the government payroll has increased tremendously in the last twenty years. During the collective era, a typical commune government had a payroll of no more than thirty people. Today, a typical township government has more than l50 people.

Today, the township government has to pay all the teachers in the rural school system. During the collective era, the village school teachers were all paid with work points by production brigades. Since the collectives were dissolved, township governments have to pay rural teachers’ salaries like other government employees. To help cover the cost of education, school children have to pay a relatively high tuition for their education. Parents who were used to free education during the collective era very much resent paying tuition for their children. Some parents cannot afford their children’s tuition and as a result more and more rural children became illiterate.

With the dissolution of collective framework, the collective medical care system disappeared with it, because the barefoot doctors were paid by the collective with work points. Today, the medical expenses can easily break the back of most farmers. Many farmers cannot afford to seek medical treatment for ordinary diseases. The World Journal, a New York based Chinese newspaper reported with a funny tone that a farmer from Henan Province who was tortured by pain from his infected testicles cut them off with knife at home and almost killed himself. These kinds of tragic incidents are anything but funny. The farmer simply could not afford the medical treatment for such problems. Another farmer, the same paper reported, tied an explosive to his body and threatened a doctor at a state-owned hospital that he would destroy the hospital if he did not get treatment. In the end, he was arrested by the smart armed police officials. When farmers have to use such extreme measures to get medical treatment, we know what is wrong with the system.

The Chinese government has been publishing impressive economic growth figures for the last twenty years. But however impressive the growth figure may be, an economy that laid off more than 30 million workers from the state-owned enterprises is in serious trouble. When many of those unemployed workers, who are struggling to make ends meet, denounced the government and professed that they would not hesitate to join a struggle to overthrow the government, the government is in serious trouble.[68] When most rural township governments are seriously in debt; when many farmers are broke, in debt and cannot afford to pay tuition for their children and basic medical care; when many farmers are demonstrating, protesting against local government; and when many more radical farmers are organizing underground groups whose goal is to overthrow the government, we know the government is in serious trouble. In the last few years, when the Chinese government has been strengthening its armed police and upgrading them with advanced imported anti-riot equipment, we know who is the enemy of the Chinese state. When the state regards millions of workers and farmers as its most dangerous enemy, there should be no question about the nature of the Chinese government.

Conclusion: Lessons of Rural Development in China

What does the Great Leap Forward represent in Chinese politics? Did the Chinese government and Chinese people learn important lessons from the Great Leap Forward? The Great Leap Forward and the commune system it established were no doubt an important experiment in contemporary Chinese history to solve the problems Chinese agriculture faces in its course of development, despite the fact it failed in the end. We cannot expect every experiment of human endeavor to succeed, and we can not use the failure of the Great Leap Forward to condemn the Chinese Agricultural Collective movement. Mao and his government learned the lessons from the Great Leap Forward and made necessary adjustments and improved on the commune system. More importantly, Mao realized that in order to make collective farming work, which was based on the idea of economic equality, ordinary farmers needed to be empowered to act like their own masters. Seen from this perspective, it is not hard to understand why Mao was willing to allow young students, and farmers and workers, to educate and empower themselves during the Cultural Revolution years at the expense of the local party officials, who had fought with him during the revolutionary years.

The critics of the collective farming system in China often use the tragic failure of the Great Leap Forward to condemn the idea of collective farming in China. They did not pay attention to the fact that the Great Leap Forward only represents a short learning curve of the collective farming years, and many of the experiments that failed during the Great Leap Forward flourished during the Cultural Revolution years. As I demonstrated to a small extent in this paper and elsewhere, the empowered farmers began to take control of their own lives during the Cultural Revolution years and made huge stride in life.

What was tragic in Chinese political life was that Deng Xiaoping, who was a leading party official during the Great Leap Forward years, was completely discredited at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution years, and thus did not have the opportunity to see what the empowered farmers could do with collective farming in China. He also learned the lessons of the Great Leap Forward. But he was apparently a simple learner, a learner who was willing to wade the river by feeling the stones. Unlike Mao who saw the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward in a more analytic manner, Deng Xiaoping, who did not understand the dialectical way of seeing things, wanted to retreat to square one after he saw the failure of the Great Leap Forward. The tragic thing about Chinese politics was that Mao did not institutionalize his democratic innovations during the Cultural Revolution, and thus made it possible for Deng to dismantle everything Mao stood for. If Mao made some institutional protection for his democracy, Deng might not have succeeded so thoroughly in dismantling collective farming in China, and Chinese rural areas would not be in such disarray today.


[1] Jimo Xianzhi Compiling Committee, Jimo Xianzhi, (Jimo Gazattes) (Beijing: Xinhua Publishing House, 1991) 15 -29.

[2] Zichuan District Records Compiling Committee, Zichuan Qu Zhi (Zichuan District Gazettes) ( Jinan: Qilu Publishing House, 1990) 145-147.

[3] On July 16, 1960, the Soviet Government unilaterally broke up 600 contracts with China, and notified the Chinese Government that it would withdrew all its 1,390 experts, and stop sending the agreed upon 900 new experts. The Russian experts left with all their blueprints, plans and materials. The Soviet Government also stopped delivering urgently needed equipment and parts to China. As result, the construction and operation of over 250 large industrial enterprises had to be suspended, which exacerbated China’s economic difficulties. See New China News Agency, Zhonghua remin gongheguo dashi ji, (Chronology of Important Events of People’s Republic of China) (Beijing: Xinhua Publishing House, 1982) 522.

[4][4] Interviews with farmers in Shandong Province.

[5] Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, (New York: Random House, 1995) Chinese Version.

[6] Jacob Heibrunn ‘Mao More Than Ever,’ New Republic, 21 April 1997 P20 and Orville Schell, ‘Once Again, Long Live Chairman Mao,” Atlantic, December, 1992. P32. I have interviewed numerous workers and farmers in Shandong, Henan, and I never met one farmers or workers who said that Mao was bad. I also talked one scholar in Anhui who happened to grow up in rural areas and had been doing research in rural China for the last ten years. He told me that in his research in the Anhui, he never met one farmer that said Mao was bad nor a farmer who said Deng was good.

[7] The official efforts to tarnish Mao’s image can be seen from CCP Central Committee’s Resolution on Many Historical Events, adopted at Third Session of Eleventh Central Committee in 1978, and the unofficial one by the numerous memoirs by the former victims of the Cultural Revolution.

[8] Many Chinese elite condemn Chinese farmers as dogs. The communist gave them some land during the land reform, and they became grateful to the Communist forever.

[9] Interviews with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[10] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[11] Interviews with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[12] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[13] Jimo County Gazettes, 43.

[14] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[15] Interview with farmers in Jimo and Shandong.

[16] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[17] Jimo xianzhi compiling committee, Jimo Xianzhi (Jimo Gazettes)

[18] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[19] Interview with farmers in Henan.

[20] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[21] Jimo County Gazettes, manuscripts.

[22] Du Shuxun,’Letter to Chairman Mao,’ manuscripts of Jimo County Gazettes.

[23] Jimo Xianzhi Compiling Committee, Jimo Xianzhi (Jimo Gazettes) 862.

[24] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[25] Interview with farmers, and Jimo County Gazettes, (manuscripts)

[26] Jimo County Gazettes, 43.

[27] Ibid. 41

[28] Ibid, 42-43.

[29] Ibid, 132-141.

[30] Ibid, 148-149.

[31] Interview with farmers in Jimo.

[32] New China News Agency, Zhonghua remin gongheguo dashi ji, (Chronology of Important Events of People’s Republic of China) (Beijing: Xinhua Publishing House, 1982)16.

[33] Interview with farmers in Jimo.

[34] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[35] Jim County Gazettes, 43.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Jimo County Gazettes, 43.

[39] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[40] Ibid, 44.

[41] Jimo County Gazettes, 45.

[42] Mao’s big character poster was first pasted on his office door, and later was published by all the official and unofficial papers. It was considered by many people as a starting point of the Cultural Revolution. See New China News Agency, Zhonghua remin gongheguo dashi ji, (Chronology of Important Events of People’s Republic of China) (Beijing: Xinhua Publishing House, 1982)18.

[43] Interview with farmers in Jimo.

[44] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[45] Interview with farmers in Jimo.

[46] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[47] Jimo County Gazettes, 240-49, see also Dongping Han, ‘The Hukou System and China’s Rural Development,’ The Journal of Developing Areas, Vol. 33 No.3 , Spring 1999, 355-378.

[48] Fushan County Gazettes, 109-110.

[49] Haiyang County Gazettes, 167.

[50] Pingdu Gazettes, 217-218.

[51] Laoshan County Gazettes, 163-164.

[52] Qinxia County Gazettes, 166.

[53] Fushan County Gazettes, 132.

[54] Jimo County Gazettes,

[55] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[56] Huanghua County Gazettes, 353.

[57] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[58] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[59] Dongping Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000)

[60] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[61] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[62] The Communist Party held several national grassroots party organizations - meetings in Beijing and elsewhere. See New China News Agency, Zhonghua remin gongheguo dashi ji, (Chronology of Important Events of People’s Republic of China) (Beijing: Xinhua Publishing House, 1982)12, 201, 206.

[63] Some scholars from Anhui Province hinted that the incident could be a fraud.

[64] World Journal, ‘Dang zhu tancheng nongmin fudan guozhong: zaocheng shouru huanman, chengxiang jinyibu lada’(The Government admitted that farmers are overburdened, rural income stagnated and gap between rural and urban income increased tremendously) January 6, 2001.

[65] Interview with farmers from Shandong, Henan, Anhui and Hebei.

[66] Interview with rural officials in Shandong and Henan.

[67] Interview with farmers in Shandong and Henan.

[68] Yan Dongyuan, Survey of unemployed workers in the Northeast China

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One comment on “The Great Leap Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Post Mao Rural Reform: The Lessons of Rural Development in Contemporary China

  1. Incredible article. Much needed and much hard to believe. The Cultural Revolution helped rural workers with urban workers’ and intellectuals’ blood, almost literally; while Deng Xiaoping reforms seem to be working the other way round. The Chinese people had and have to face very difficult decisions, no doubt on that.

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