Victims of the Great Leap Forward: a little-known Chinese famine

Yuliia Poskrobok, Mitya Raievsky

About 61 million people, including unborn children, became victims of the Great Chinese Famine. All these people worked hard and died so that Mao Zedong could prove to the world the advantages of the Chinese economy.

‘Your father is dying of hunger. Hurry up and get some rice if you can.’ These words changed the life of a Chinese boy Yang Jisheng forever. On an April day in 1959, he was working on a wall newspaper at school when his friend came running in with the terrible news. Jisheng grabbed some supplies and ran to his father’s house in the Xishui County village.

There was not a soul in the village. No dogs barking, no livestock. The tree near the house was stripped of leaves and bark, and the roots have been uprooted. Instead of a pond, there was a hole. Yang couldn’t find a single grain of rice in the house. The father tried to raise his hand to greet his son, but could not. The boy hurriedly prepared a meal, but it was too late: the man could no longer swallow. Three days later, he died. Young Yang had no idea that millions of people across China were dying in the same way. He would find out the truth much later.

In 2008, Yang Jisheng’s book Tombstone. The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 would be published in Hong Kong. Being already a well-known journalist at the time, he would try to write directly and honestly about the connection between the terrible famine and Mao Zedong’s economic policy. Of course, the book was banned in China itself. WAS analyses what happened in China between 1958 and 1962.

Great Leap Forward

In the middle of the 20th century, China was a major agrarian state, and its economic development lagged far behind industrialised countries. In November 1957, Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev met in Moscow at the International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties. Relations between the leaders of the USSR and China were tense, with Mao accusing the Soviet leadership of deviating from Stalin’s course. In China itself, it was forbidden to even talk about the decisions of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party and the debunking of the cult of personality.

Mao Zedong wanted China to be the main socialist country, not the USSR. As part of his competition with Khrushchev, who said that he would overtake the United States in terms of production in 3 years, the Chinese leader promised to overtake the United Kingdom in steel production in 15 years. In May 1958, the 8th Congress of the CCP announced the Great Leap Forward program, which included an accelerated version of industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture. As part of the new five-year economic plan, industrial output was to grow 6.5 times and agricultural output 2.5 times.

Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev in China in 1959. Source: Library of Congress

In addition to smelting steel and working in the fields, the peasants had to exterminate the ‘enemies’ of the Chinese economy: flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows. The first three groups survived the campaign, and their numbers only increased due to unsanitary conditions. But the number of sparrows useful for the agricultural sector decreased significantly: by the end of 1958, up to 1.96 billion birds had been killed. There was no one left to exterminate locusts and real pests, which had a bad effect on crops. In 1960, Mao Zedong recognized his mistake and began to buy sparrows abroad.

Mao relied on USSR’s experience of collectivisation, but did everything in his own way. The basis for the new agrarian policy and the life of Chinese peasants in general became the people’s commune, with an average of 2,000 families in each. By the beginning of 1959, there were already about 26 thousand communes in China.

The life of peasants in communes became unbearable because they had to not only work in the fields but also smelt steel. By the Party’s directive, construction of small clay furnaces for melting metals began. By December 1958, there were already 700,000 of them. Steel was one of the magic indicators of a country’s success. Steel production was the main goal of the communes, and they were not very successful in achieving it. They added everything to steel, even their own hair, to strengthen it somehow. Officially for the world, China began to produce millions of tons of steel, but in reality, it was of extremely low quality and not suitable for production.

Steel production was considered a key indicator of large-scale industrialisation. It was decided that it should double each year. For this purpose, metal smelting furnaces were built in all the yards of the people's communes, 1958. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The working day in the commune began at dawn and ended at night. Men and women lived separately so that their personal lives did not distract from the implementation of the plan.

«Even a married couple did not have a sex life, except secret one. If someone was caught having sex, they were denounced. Some women felt so humiliated that they committed suicide» — Yang Jisheng wrote.

No one in the communes had any money, only labor points and workdays. So the old, the sick, and the pregnant were doomed to starvation. On average, a peasant should receive 250 grams (0.55 lb) of food per day. However, in order to get even this standard portion, you had to be friends with the commune leaders.

In his book, Yang Jisheng describes many atrocities committed by commune leaders. For example, one leader promised a woman two buns if she undressed for him. She undressed, but he did not like that she had no breasts because of hunger. He demanded that she bring her daughter. The woman complied in exchange for food, but later commited suicide. In Hunan province, a man was forced to bury his son alive because he stole food. The father died of grief three weeks later.

Grain was even more of a problem than steel. The communes were supplying so little grain that Mao Zedong decided to create competition between them by offering rewards. This strategy did not increase grain production, but it did spread massive falsification of reports. Part of the grain was used to pay off the debt to USSR, and another part was exported to prove to the world the advantages of the Chinese economy. The rest was distributed to cities and storage facilities, and only a small portion was left to the peasants. In 2 years, China exported 7 million tons of grain from the country. This grain could save about 16 million lives.

Commune members work in the field at night using lamps. Henan Province, China, 1959. Source: Wikimedia Commons

China’s losing humanity

Peasants began to starve and look for alternative sources of food: grass, sawdust, leather, and even seeds sifted from animal excrement. Dogs, cats, rats, mice, and insects all became food for people. Lack of food and total hunger were already evident. The birth rate dropped significantly because women did not menstruate and were too weak. Mao Yushi, head of the Beijing Institute of Economics, estimates that 16 million children were not born during this period because of the famine, and about 2-3 million peasants committed suicide.

One of the most horrific consequences of the Great Famine was cannibalism. Police reports detail specific cases of cannibalism. In Anhui province, 1289 cases were recorded in 1960. In Fenyang, a couple strangled and ate their eight-year-old son. Some parents did not dare to kill their own children for food, so they traded and ate other people’s children. Cannibalism was severely punished by the authorities, but nevertheless continued. There were many cases of child abandonment and sale, and forced prostitution. Some starving peasants killed their children and elderly relatives to put them out of their misery.

A starving peasant family, victims of the failed Great Leap Forward campaign in China, 1958-1960. Photo: akg-images / Pictures From History / EastNews

The end of the Great Leap Forward

In July 1959, natural disasters added to all these horrors. The Huang He River overflowed, and up to 2 million people died as a result of the floods in Eastern China. This was followed by a severe drought that burned up the remaining grain in the fields. About 55% of the country’s agricultural land no longer yielded crops. In 1960, the wheat harvest was 70% less than in 1958.

The CCP leadership sounded the alarm. At the Lushan Conference of the CCP Central Committee in July-August 1959, Zedong’s economic policy of the Great Leap Forward was criticized by his longtime opponent, Marshal Peng Dehuai. Peng was supported by other members of the Central Committee, such as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Wentian, Minister of Finance Li Xiannian, and Marshal Chen Yi. The ‘leader’ had to make concessions, and Mao Zedong partially admitted his mistakes. Back in April, he handed over the post of People’s Republic of China to Liu Shaoqi, just in case. Later, Mao would blame him for the failure of economic policy.

Liu Shaoqi, together with the future reformer of China, Deng Xiaoping, began a partial decollectivisation and a return to market methods of economic management. The famine would finally end only after 1962, when the Great Leap Forward policy officially ended, but the consequences would be felt for many years to come.

A model breakfast in a commune in the Haidian district. Beijing, China, November 6, 1958. Source: Xinhua / Wikimedia Commons

The world hardly knew about the famine in China. Migration within the country was prohibited. Even the peasants themselves did not know that the famine was widespread throughout the country. Everyone thought that the problem was local. In the international arena, China recognized only certain problems with the harvest, hiding the true extent of the famine. When foreign journalists working with the Xinhua News Agency came to Anhui Province in 1960, they were shown a false picture of shops full of food and beautiful and well-fed girls sailing boats in the lake. Just like the Soviet government during the Holodomor, the Chinese leadership tried to work with journalists in such a way that the world did not learn the truth about the famine.

What happened next:

  • Mao Zedong took revenge for the criticism of his mistakes. In 1966, he declared the Cultural Revolution, calling for a fight against the ‘restorers of capitalism.’ Among the ‘enemies of the people’ was Peng Dehuai, who would be tortured in prison until 1974. At the same time, Liu Shaoqi was arrested, and his fate is still unknown. Few of Mao’s critics survived the Cultural Revolution.
  • The official version calls the famine the ‘Three Years of Natural Disasters.’ Only in 1982 China has conducted a census that allowed to estimate the total number of deaths between 1959 and 1961. Official Beijing recognizes only 15 million victims. According to independent studies, the death toll is much higher: about 45 million victims and 16 million unborn children. In his book, Yang Jisheng writes about 36 million direct victims and 40 million unborn.
  • After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, his successor Hua Guofeng would try to relaunch a Great Leap Forward policy. He will be stopped by Deng Xiaoping, who will replace Guofeng as Premier of the State Council in 1980.
  • Yang Jisheng lives and works in Beijing. In 2016, Harvard University awarded him the prize for honest journalism. But Jisheng was not allowed to leave the country to receive the award.