University of Cambridge

Chinese History: The Great Leap Backward

Frank Dikötter looks at how historians’ understanding of China has changed in recent years with the gradual opening of party archives that reveal the full horror of the Maoist era.


Backyard furnaces in China during the Great Leap Forward era.
Backyard furnaces in China during the Great Leap Forward era.
In the People’s Republic of China archives do not belong to the people, they belong to the party. They are often housed in a special building on the local party committee premises, which are generally set among lush and lovingly manicured grounds closely guarded by military personnel. Access would have been unthinkable until a decade or so ago, but over the past few years a quiet revolution has been taking place as increasing quantities of documents older than 30 years have become available for consultation by professional historians armed with a letter of recommendation. The extent and quality of the material varies from place to place, but there is enough to transform our understanding of the Maoist era. 

Take, for instance, the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, when Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors by herding villagers across the country into giant people’s communes. In pursuit of a utopian paradise everything was collectivised. People had their work, homes, land, belongings and livelihoods taken from them. In collective canteens, food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party’s every dictate. As most other incentives to work were stripped away, coercion and violence were used instead to compel famished farmers to perform labour on poorly planned dams or irrigation projects, while the fields were being neglected.

A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine.

My recent research relies on hundreds of hitherto unseen party archives, including secret reports from the Public Security Bureau, detailed minutes of top party meetings, unexpurgated versions of important leadership speeches, surveys of working conditions in the countryside, investigations into cases of mass murder, confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people, inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward, general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign, secret police opinion surveys, letters of complaint written by ordinary people and much more.

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Chairman Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in human history, responsible for the premature deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten-kilo stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – as punishment for digging up a potato. The discriminate killing of slackers, weaklings, or otherwise unproductive elements increased the overall food supply for those who contributed to the regime through their labour. As report after report shows, food was used as a weapon.

Throughout the country those who were too ill to work were routinely cut off from the food supply. The sick, the vulnerable and the elderly were banned from the canteen, as cadres found inspiration in Lenin’s dictum: ‘He who does not work shall not eat.’

As the minutes of leadership meetings show, Mao was aware of the extent of the famine. At a secret gathering that took place in Shanghai on March 25th, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, much more than had ever been previously taken. At the meeting he announced that: ‘When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’

Other key events of the Maoist era are also being revisited thanks to party archives, more often than not by Chinese historians themselves. Yang Kuisong, a Shanghai historian, has cast new light on the terror that followed ‘liberation’ in 1949, showing how power seized with violence had to be maintained with violence. Up to a million were described as enemies of the people and fell victim to a killing frenzy in which everybody was encouraged to take part. In remote villages bystanders were sometimes allowed to cut the flesh from the dead and take it back home. The party itself decreed quotas for the killings, but these were often exceeded when mass murder was driven by personal vendettas and lineage feuds.

Fresh evidence is also being unearthed on the land reform that transformed the countryside in the early 1950s. In many villages there were no ‘landlords’ set against ‘poor peasants’ but rather closely knit communities that jealously protected their land from the prying eyes of outsiders: the state in particular. By implicating everybody in ‘accusation meetings’, during which village leaders were humiliated, tortured and executed while their land and other assets were redistributed to party activists recruited from local thugs and paupers, the Communists turned the power structure upside down. Liu Shaoqi, the party’s second-in-command, had a hard time reining in the violence, as a missive from the Hebei archives shows: ‘When it comes to the ways in which people are killed, some are buried alive, some are executed, some are cut to pieces, and among those who are strangled or mangled to death, some of the bodies are hung from trees or doors.’

There is hardly a topic that is not being explored thanks to fresh archival evidence, although the Cultural Revolution, for the greatest part, remains off limits. Even as vast masses of original party documents are gradually being declassified, much of the crucial evidence remains safely locked away, including most of the Central Party Archives in Beijing. A tantalising glimpse of the wealth of material that might one day become available is offered in Gao Wenqian’s extraordinary biography of Zhou Enlai. Gao was a party historian who worked with a team in the Central Archives in Beijing on an official biography of Zhou Enlai for many years. He smuggled his notes out of the archives before absconding to the United States in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. In the groundbreaking biography Gao subsequently published, Zhou is substantially different from the iconic figure most of us are used to: instead of a suave, well-mannered diplomat, the archives show him to be often devious and always willing to turn against his own friends in order to further his career. Gao describes him as Mao’s ‘faithful dog’. And Zhou was not only willing to endure humiliation and abasement at the hands of his master as a way of surviving politically in the many purges initiated by Mao: he acquiesced, as Gao puts it, in carrying Mao’s ‘execution knife’.

Why are these sensitive archives being declassified? There was a general feeling of goodwill and openness before the Olympics took place in Beijing, but the political atmosphere has worsened noticeably since. Let us hope that in the long term historians will be able  to access all the key documents of one of China’s most violent periods.

Frank Dikötter is Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. His latest book is Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe (Bloomsbury, 2010).

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