China's Great Famine and its impact on Chinese Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Tomorrow: The “four cleanups”: Mao decides to strike down Liu Shaoqi

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