The Holodomor and Mao’s Famine


Based on Anne Applebaum, Red Famine (Signal, 2017), Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine , 1958-1962 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012)

Jump to: The Holodomor; Mao’s Famine

”The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” — Milan Kundera

In the early 1930s, approximately 3.9 million people in a population of 31
died in the Ukrainian famine now known as the Holodomor. More than nine-tenths of the dead had lived in the countryside. In the years around 1960, something like 36 million people — a little less than the current population of Canada — died in a famine in China, and again, almost all of the dead had lived in the countryside.

If these famines had been strictly natural events, they would have been humanitarian tragedies of historic proportions, but they were not strictly natural. The policies of the Soviet and Chinese governments substantially added to the death tolls. The Soviet government’s actions can plausibly be said to constitute a policy of genocide against the Ukrainians. The Chinese government’s actions were partly the result of blinkered ideology, and partly the result of a dog-eat-dog governmental structure that amplified Mao’s every whim.

Both famines occurred under totalitarian governments which let other considerations — ideological purity, suppression of dissent, consolidation of power, fevered dreams of a brilliant future — override the welfare of the people. This kind of behaviour would have been impossible under representative government; indeed, Amartya Sen has observed that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”1

Felix Wemheuer has identified other commonalities.2 China and the Soviet Union were both “lands of famine” in which drought or flood often devastated the harvest. Both countries were predominantly agrarian, with small industrial sectors. Each famine occurred roughly ten years after the country’s Communist revolution. Both governments had adopted policies of rapid industrialization that would require major purchases of foreign capital goods, and both governments expected the sale of agricultural produce to partially fund these purchases. They fully recognized that their plans required the exploitation of the peasant farmers, and agriculture was collectivized to facilitate this exploitation.

The two countries were led by strongmen (Stalin and Mao) who faced down challenges from more moderate leaders (Nikolai Bukharin and Peng Dehuai) during the course of the famines. Both men were fearful of counterrevolution. Both men had experienced war, and were prepared to think of the deaths of others as the cost of achieving their objectives.

Neither country appealed for international humanitarian assistance during its famine. Instead, each country took deliberate and wide-ranging measures to hide its famine from the world.

The Holodomor

The Ukraine has rich soil and a mild climate. Large parts of it are able to produce two crops each year: winter wheat planted in the fall and harvested in the summer, and a grain crop planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. The Ukraine’s agricultural potential, coupled with its lack of natural boundaries, made it a target of its neighbours, and before the twentieth century, it had been controlled by Poland, Russia, and Hapsburg Austria. This history of subjugation made the Ukraine a divided country. The cities were mercantile and administrative centers in which the main languages were Polish, Russian, and Yiddish. The countryside was inhabited by peasants who spoke Ukrainian. Each group regarded the other as somewhat foreign. A latent Ukrainian nationalism existed, primarily in the countryside, and defined itself by its opposition to the Poles, Russians and Jews who dominated the country.

The Ukraine was under Russian control when Tsar Nicholas II was deposed. The Ukrainians attempted to form an independent nation in the ensuing power vacuum. A provisional government was set up, but it failed to develop the bureaucratic and military apparatus needed to sustain the Ukraine’s independence. The Red and White armies, as well as the neighbouring European states, began to consider military options.

The Bolsheviks first invaded in January 1918. They believed that nationalism was the enemy of Bolshevism, and suppressed both Ukrainian nationalism and the Ukrainian language. Lenin, needing to feed his armies, ordered the seizure of the Ukraine’s grain. The Bolsheviks were countered by German and Austrian forces, who imposed their control over the Ukraine by March 1918 and attempted, unsuccessfully, to install a puppet government.

The Bolsheviks returned in 1919. They again suppressed Ukrainian nationalism, but nationalism was not their top priority. The Russian food supply had fallen in the wake of the revolution, and the Bolsheviks recognized that keeping the armies and cities fed was the key to maintaining their loyalty.

The urgent need for grain spawned an extreme set of policies, known then and later as “War Communism.” Launched in Russia in 1918 and brought to Ukraine after the second Bolshevik invasion in early 1919, War Communism meant the militarization of all economic relationships. In the countryside, the system was very simple: take control of grain, at gunpoint, and then redistribute it to soldiers, factory workers, party members and others deemed “essential” to the state.3

War communism did not end hunger for most Russians and Ukrainians, and many of them turned to black markets for food. Lenin came to regard the black markets, not as a sign of War Communism’s failure, but as the cause of its failure. The peasants, he said, were withholding food so that they could trade it privately. To force the peasants to give up their food, he formed the “extraordinary commission” or Cheka, the forerunner to the OGPU, the NKVD, and the KGB. The “extraordinary” aspect of the Cheka was its arbitrary and unrestrained exercise of power.

In the Ukraine the collection of grain was achieved by dividing the peasants. The Bolsheviks’ targets and scapegoats were the kulaks, or prosperous peasants, and their allies were committees of poor peasants called komnezamy:

Red Army soldiers and Russian agitators moved from village to village, recruiting the least successful, least productive, most opportunistic peasants and offering them power, privileges, and land confiscated from their neighbours. In exchange, these carefully recruited collaborators were expected to find and confiscate the “grain surpluses” of their neighbours…

The kulaks understood perfectly well that the komnezamy had been set up to destroy them; the komnezamy equally understood perfectly well that their future status depended upon their ability to destroy the kulaks. They were willing to exact harsh punishments on their neighbours in order to do so.4

A peasant rebellion that had begun in 1918 pushed out the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1919, but they returned a third time and were able to suppress the rebellion in 1920. War Communism was reimposed:

Lenin’s instructions explicitly called for the requisitioning of all grain, even that needed for immediate consumption and for planting next year’s harvest, and there were many people willing to carry out his orders.5

The peasants in both Russia and the Ukraine sowed less land the following year, knowing that their crops would be confiscated by the state. Then came drought, which further reduced the harvest. In the past the peasants had survived poor harvests by drawing on their stored surpluses, but these surpluses had already been confiscated. Starvation set in. By the end of the crisis in 1923, something between two and five million people had died in the Soviet Union.

The Bolsheviks were blamed for the famine. They responded with the “New Economic Policy” which ended compulsory grain collection and officially reintroduced free trade in grain. In practice, however, the grain markets continued to be far from free, and farmers often chose to feed their grain to their livestock rather than sell it at artificially low market prices. Grain was again in short supply, especially in the cities, by 1927.

After the death of Lenin, grain policy became entwined in the struggle for control of the Communist Party. Trotsky was sent into exile, and Stalin sidelined Bukharin. By the time the infighting had ended, Stalin had shifted from support of free grain markets to opposition to them. A new law was issued in January 1928: all farmers were required to sell their grain to the state at the state’s official price; anyone who refused to do so would be arrested and tried.

The scapegoating of the kulaks continued, and the peasants were confronted with a dilemma. Hard work made them prosperous, but prosperous peasants were “enemies of the people” and in danger of losing everything. The peasants’ safety lay in not attracting the attentions of the authorities, which meant resigning themselves to lives of poverty.

As much as this dilemma was the state’s doing, it did not benefit the state. The state’s overwhelming need was for the Ukraine’s farms to be productive. The armies and the urban population still had to be fed, and the Soviet Union’s new industrialization policy placed steep demands on agriculture. The first five year plan, set out in 1928, envisioned a 20% increase in industrial output, with commensurate increases in raw materials production. Workers would be shifted out of agriculture and into mining and manufacturing to meet these targets. As well, capital goods would be imported from abroad, and would be paid for by selling agricultural goods abroad. A smaller number of farmers would have to produce bigger harvests.

Stalin recognized that this plan could succeed only if the peasants were exploited. They would have to be made more productive, and their surplus would have to be appropriated by the state. The appropriation would occur through the state’s power to set prices: it would buy grain from the peasants at low prices and sell manufactured goods to them at inflated prices. For Stalin, the path to increased productivity was the amalgamation of small peasant holdings into state-owned collective farms. These collectives, Stalin believed, would have the same advantage as the kulaks: they would benefit from economies of scale, and they could exploit modern technologies. The Soviet leadership decided in 1929 to collectivize agriculture across the Soviet Union within three years.

In the Ukraine, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, collectivization was not a welcome prospect. Even small farmers owned their own homes and their own land, and raised some livestock. Farmers were accustomed to making their own decisions, and to travelling short distances for family or social events. They often worked at trades to supplement their farm incomes. They might well have been poor, but they were in control of their own lives. Collectivization meant that they would lose their land, their tools and their livestock, and in many cases, they would trade their homes for barracks and communal dining halls. They would cease to be private businessmen and become dependent labourers, often working under rigid discipline.

Collectivization was meant to be voluntary, but it was strongly resisted by the peasants throughout the Soviet Union. The Soviet state interpreted this resistance as counter-revolutionary behaviour on the part of the kulaks, and its response was to seek the elimination of the kulaks as a class. The Ukraine was targeted particularly heavily: the OGPU was commanded to arrest 15,000 of the most obdurate kulaks, and to exile to the Soviet Union’s far north another 30,000-35,000 kulak families. The attack on the kulaks

… was accompanied by an equally powerful ideological attack on the “system” that the kulaks supposedly represented, and that the collective farms were meant to replace: the economic structure of the village as well as the social and moral order, symbolized by village churches, priests and religious symbols of all kinds.6

At the same time there was a crackdown on nationalists in the cities, where it was feared that the “urban anti-Soviet intelligentsia” were collaborating with the “anti-Soviet movements of the kulaks.” The OGPU ultimately arrested 30,000 real or imagined nationalists.

“There is no room in our collective for priests and kulaks.”

Farms were gradually collectivized, but the productivity gains that Stalin had imagined were not realized. A great strength of the peasantry had been their willingness to work for their own betterment, and collectivization destroyed the connection between work and personal welfare.

Threatened by violence and afraid of hunger, hundreds of thousands of peasants finally relinquished their land, animals and machines to the collective farms. But just because they had been forced to move, they did not become enthusiastic collective farmers overnight. The fruits of their labour no longer belonged to them; the grain they sowed and harvested was now requisitioned by the authorities.

Collectivization also meant that peasants had lost their ability to make decisions about their lives. Like the serfs of old, they were forced to accept a special legal status, including controls on their movement: all collective farmers, kolkhozniks, would eventually need to seek permission to work outside the village. Instead of deciding when to reap, sow and sell, kolkhozniks had to follow decisions made by the local representatives of Soviet power. They did not earn regular salaries but were paid trudodni or day wages, which often meant payment in kind — grain, potatoes or other products — rather than cash. They lost their ability to govern themselves too, as collective farm bosses and their entourages supplanted the traditional village councils.

As a result, men and women who had so recently been self-reliant farmers now worked as little as possible. Farm machines were not maintained and frequently broke down. In August 1930 some 3,600 tractors out of 16,790 in Ukraine were in need of repair. The problem was cynically blamed on “class struggle” and “wreckers” who were allegedly sabotaging the farm machinery.7

Many peasants fled the countryside for the cities, where the push for industrialization created a demand for workers. Others slipped across the border into Poland.

The chaos of collectivization was coupled with another year of poor weather. The grain harvest for 1931-2 was 69.5 million tonnes, far less than the 83 million tonnes that had been expected. The poor harvest imperilled the Soviet state’s plan to export grain to pay for capital goods. Ukrainian officials were pressed to collect more grain, and in December 1931, the Ukrainian Politburo agreed to a requisition of 8.3 million tonnes, an impossible amount. All grain that could be found was collected, without regard to the consequences for the peasants. Starvation was soon widespread, and in the spring of 1932, some Ukrainian officials argued that there should be no collections of the last year’s crop, as all of it was needed to feed the Ukraine. This action brought them into conflict with the Soviet state, whose policies were essentially being dictated by Stalin.

Stalin vehemently rejected reports that the Ukraine was short of food, and in July 1932, a Ukrainian request for a reduced requisition was officially denied. Stalin blamed the difficulties of the collective farms and the failure of the grain collection on “class enemies” that had to be rooted out, and he feared a counter-revolution that would take the Ukraine out of the Soviet Union. His response was ruthless.

Stalin’s policies that autumn led inexorably to famine all across the grain-growing regions of the USSR. But in November and December 1932 he twisted the knife further in Ukraine, deliberately creating a deeper crisis. Step by step, using bureaucratic language and dull legal terminology, the Soviet leadership, aided by their cowed Ukrainian counterparts, launched a famine within the famine, a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.

Several sets of directives that autumn, on requisitions, blacklisted farms and villages, border controls and the end of Ukrainianization — along with an information blockade and extraordinary searches, designed to remove everything edible from the homes of millions of peasants — created the famine now remembered as the Holodomor.8

Requisitions were the central issue. In the fall of 1932 the harvest was again small and the requisitions were again impossibly large. The Soviet state demanded their fulfillment, and in November 1932, the Ukrainian authorities buckled. They declared that no effort should be spared to meet the grain requisitions: grain could not be held back as reserves, or as seed for the next planting, or as animal fodder, or even to meet the daily needs of the people. The private and collective farmers had to give up everything they produced. The Soviet state then imposed requisitions on meat and of potatoes, so that the farmers had to give up their livestock and their stores of potatoes as well.

The Soviet state demanded that the Ukrainian authorities treat the hiding of food as theft of state property, which effectively licensed its Ukrainian collaborators to engage in ruthless and destructive searches of the property of anyone that they chose to target.

That winter the teams operating in villages all across Ukraine began to search not just for grain but for anything and everything edible. They were specifically equipped to do so with special tools, long metal rods, sometimes topped by hooks, that could be used to prod any surface in search of grain…Thousands of witnesses have described how they were used to search ovens, beds, cradles, walls, trunks, chimneys, attics, roofs and cellars; to pry behind icons, in barrels, in hollow tree trunks, in doghouses, down wells and beneath piles of garbage. The men and women who used them stopped at nothing, even trawling through cemeteries, barns, empty houses and orchards.

Like the requisitioners of the past, they were looking for grain. But in addition they also took fruit from trees, seeds and vegetables from kitchen gardens — beets, pumpkins, cabbages, tomatoes — as well as honey and beehives, butter and milk, meat and sausage.9

These searches were sometimes accompanied by the beating or torture of the peasants. It seemed that any action could be justified by declaring it to be in the state’s interest.

The warehouses where the collected food was stored were protected by armed guards. The fields of unripe grain were also guarded, so that starving peasants could not sneak into the fields at night and eat the grain from the stalk. Gleaning — searching the fields for ears of grain that had been missed by the harvesters — was forcibly prevented. Millstones were broken, so that anyone who managed to accumulate a little grain would not be able to grind it into flour.

Starving peasants began to flee the countryside. Some went into Russia, where food was more readily available. Others managed to obtain places aboard ships, and others escaped into Poland. Many of those who could not get out of the Ukraine went to the cities, where it was believed that food was more plentiful — it was for the residents, but not for the refugees. In all of these cases the principal concern of the authorities was to keep the peasants in place. In January 1933 Stalin ordered the Ukraine’s borders to be sealed. Ukrainians were prohibited from purchasing train tickets, roads were blocked, borders were patrolled. The Ukraine remained sealed off until the end of the famine.

The people of the cities were not entirely spared. Nationalists were blamed for the problems besetting the Ukraine. In two years, 1932 and 1933, the OGPU arrested 200,000 people in the Ukraine. The Ukrainian Communist Party was purged, and people associated with education, culture, religion and publishing were targeted. Many Ukrainian cultural institutions were completely shattered. Stalin believed that there was a Ukrainian problem, and he intended a comprehensive solution.

The famine peaked in the spring of 1933, then subsided. When it was over, fully one in eight Ukrainians had died of starvation. The shortage of labour was so extreme that a resettlement program was instituted in 1933: state-approved Russians replaced dead Ukrainians.

“We’ll raise a generation, selflessly loyal to communism.”

Anne Applebaum believes that the historical record leaves no doubt that the famine was a calculated political decision:

The archival record backs up the testimony of the survivors. Neither crop failure nor bad weather caused the famine in Ukraine. Although the chaos of collectivization helped create the conditions that led to famine, the high numbers of deaths in Ukraine between 1932 and 1934, and especially the spike in the spring of 1933, were not caused directly by collectivization either. Starvation was the result, rather, of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes; the roadblocks that prevented peasants from seeking work or food; the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages; the restrictions on barter and trade; and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch, unmoved, as their neighbours died of hunger.10

Behind all of these actions was Stalin, a leader who would allow no dissent.

Mao’s Famine

The paradox of China’s communist revolution was that it created a new emperor, in the person of Mao Zedong. Power was ostensibly held by the standing committee of the Politburo, but Mao, as leader of both the party and the state, demanded absolute loyalty. Any official whom Mao deemed to have failed him would be cast out of his position, so even the most senior officials strove to maintain Mao’s approval. A public display of obeisance was sometimes required. Liu Shaoqi11 and Zhou Enlai,12 for example, had angered Mao by expressing reservations over the pace of the Great Leap Forward. Both officials recognized the need to publicly recant their opinions. Here is Liu Shaoqi, speaking at the Chengdu Conference in March 1958:

The Chairman is wiser than any of us; whether in terms of thinking, viewpoints, impact, or methods, none of us can come close to matching him. It’s our duty to genuinely learn from him, or it should be said that we must learn to the best of our capabilities. Of course there are some areas where we can’t hope of match the Chairman; with his rich historical and theoretical knowledge, his wealth of revolutionary experience, and his prodigious memory, none of us can hope to absorb all there is to learn from him.13

And here is Zhou Enlai, speaking two months later:

The historical experience of China’s decades of revolution and construction prove that Chairman Mao is the representative of truth. Departing from or violating his leadership and directives results in error and loss of bearings, and damages the interests of the party and the people, as the errors I have repeatedly committed have amply proven. Conversely, doing things correctly and at the correct time are inseparable from Chairman Mao’s correct leadership and leading ideology.14

Mao’s intolerance of dissent, and his demand for almost idolatrous fealty, would be a significant factor in the events to come. But it was not the only factor.

The Chinese state was a hierarchy in which every official was “a slave facing upward and a dictator facing downward.” Officials at every level acquiesced to the demands of their superiors, however onerous they were, and then imposed still more onerous demands on their subordinates. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the workers, who were sometimes confronted with impossible tasks.15 There were several ways of dealing with impossible tasks. The production records could be falsified, or goods of such poor quality as to be useless could be produced, or the workers could simply toil until they died of exposure, hunger, or overwork. All of these things occurred during the Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward began with Mao’s determination to produce more steel than Great Britain within 15 years. This goal, announced in November 1957, was the centerpiece of a broad program of rapid industrialization and increased agricultural production.

Although China did purchase complete iron and steel complexes from the Soviet Union, Mao recognized that China was simply too poor to reach this goal through capital accumulation alone. Instead, China would mobilize its people. Targets were set for every province, prefecture, county, village. There was little expert guidance, so the people had to rely on their own innate resourcefulness. Their main tool was the backyard iron smelter:

Built of sand, stone, fire clay or bricks, they were relatively simple affairs allowing every villager to be mobilized… A typical backyard furnace was some three or four metres high with a wooden platform at the top, supported by beams. A sloping ramp provided access to the furnace, farmers scuttling up and down with sacks of coke, ore and flux on their backs or baskets slung on long poles. Air was blown through the bottom, the molten iron and slag being released through tap holes. Based on traditional blast methods, some might have worked, but many were a sham forced on the communes by cadres in the grip of steel fever.16

It is claimed that by the late summer of 1958, there were 500,000 of these furnaces in operation.

As reports of success came back from the villages, the national target was raised repeatedly. China’s steel output had been 5.35 million tonnes in 1957. The target for 1958 was set at 6.2 million tonnes in February, 8.5 million tonnes in May, 10.7 million tonnes in June, and 12 million tonnes in September. But the success of the backyard furnaces was largely illusory. Some of the output was entirely fictional, and some was of such poor quality as to be unusable. In the frenzy to meet production targets, floorboards had been ripped from houses to fuel the furnaces, and household implements and farm tools had been deemed to be “scrap iron” so that that they could be melted down to produce iron ingots.17 In these cases the value of the goods destroyed was almost certainly greater than the value of the iron produced. Moreover, these extreme measures were not repeatable: the floorboards burned to meet one year’s quota cannot be burned again to meet the next year’s quota.

Another part of the Great Leap Forward was the building of dams and irrigation systems. The targets were set in terms of the volume of earth moved, and were to be achieved by mobilizing peasant labour, especially during the slack season that preceded the spring planting. One in six people in China were moving earth by January 1958. They were equipped with little more than shovels and buckets. The work camps were rudimentary, food was not plentiful, and the work was arduous. Deaths were inevitable. The projects themselves were more likely to be based on instinct than expertise, and in many cases the peasants’ work was fruitless. Silt accumulated behind poorly designed dams, and badly located reservoirs failed to fill. In Gansu province a major project begun in 1958 was abandoned three years later, having absorbed 600,000 days of labour.

A major goal of the Great Leap Forward was increasing the productivity of agricultural labour. Mao believed that the key was collectivization. Almost all of China’s agriculture was collectivized during the second half of 1958.

The Chinese counterpart of the Soviet Union’s collective farm was the commune. The commune was much larger than the collective farm, often subsuming whole villages. Its fundamental purpose was the mobilization of labour. The care of children and the elderly was taken over by the commune, as was food preparation, so that most women could undertake other work. Both men and women worked under military discipline:

Farmers were roused from sleep at dawn at the sound of the bugle and filed into the canteen for a quick bowl of watery rice gruel. Whistles were blown to gather the workforce, which moved in military step to the fields, carrying banners and flags to the sound of marching songs. Loudspeakers sometimes blasted exhortations to work harder, or occasionally played revolutionary music. Party activists, local cadres and the militia enforced discipline, sometimes punishing underachievers with beatings. At the end of the day, villagers returned to their living quarters, assigned according to each person’s work shift. Meetings followed in the evenings to evaluate each worker’s performance and to review the local tactics.18

The expectation was that the communes would be very productive. Officials were encouraged to report record harvests, and the officials, cadres, and communes that produced such harvests were recognized and rewarded. Those who reported difficulties in reaching their targets, on the other hand, risked being identified as “right deviationist,” a designation that had serious consequences. Many record harvests were claimed. The People’s Daily announced a record wheat yield of 1,008 kilos per mu in June of 1958. Further records were declared throughout the summer, culminating in the announcement of a yield of 4,293 kilos per mu — at a commune more than 9,000 feet above sea level — in September. Claims for rice yields exploded even more dramatically. The record yield was 1,638 kilos per mu in July, and 30,264 kilos per mu in September.19

These records were unbelievable, which did not stop them from being believed. China had produced 195 billion kilograms of grain in 1957. In November 1958 the agricultural minister informed the Central Committee that “the total crop yield for 1958 will reach 425 billion kilograms” and that “this overall total cannot be cast into doubt by a small minority of false or exaggerated reports.” The minister also suggested that the amount of land cultivated in 1959 could be reduced by 20% while still meeting a target of 535 billion kilograms.20

The willingness to believe these incredible records stemmed in part from the communes’ adoption of three “new techniques,” all borrowed from the Soviets. The first technique was heavy fertilization with organic matter. As this technique was implemented, the search for organic matter became frenzied.

Buildings made of mud and straw were torn down to obtain nutrients for the soil. Wall of buildings where animals had lived and especially where they had urinated, such as stables, could provide useful fertilizer. At first old walls and abandoned huts were destroyed, but as the campaign gained momentum entire rows of houses were systematically razed to the ground, the mud bricks shattered and strewn across the fields…In one Macheng commune the head of the Women’s Federation took the lead by moving out of her house and allowing it to be turned into fertilizer: within two days 300 houses, fifty cattle pens, and hundreds of chicken coops had been pulled down. By the end of the year some 50,000 buildings had been destroyed.21

The second technique was deep ploughing, in which the furrows were ploughed much more deeply than had been the custom, in the belief that nutrients lying deep under the ground would be brought to the surface. There is no evidence that this technique increased the yield anywhere. In some cases it permanently damaged the land by burying the topsoil under a layer of subsoil, and in every case it was back-breaking manual labour accomplished with minimal equipment. The third technique was close cropping, in which plants were crowded more closely together within a field. There is an ideal spacing for plants, and there is no reason to believe that generations of peasant farmers had been wrong in their spacing. Close planting did, however, produce a “record harvest”: one commune transplanted mature plants from other fields into an already planted field in order to claim a record harvest in the “close cropped” field.

In the end the total grain output for 1958 was not 425 billion kilograms but 200 billion kilograms, barely 2% greater than the previous year’s harvest.

The state’s system for requisitioning grain ensured that the peasants’ food was not plentiful even at the best of times:

In 1953 a monopoly over grain was introduced, decreeing that farmers must sell all surplus grain to the state at prices determined by the state. The aim behind the monopoly was to stabilize the price of grain across the country, eliminate speculation and guarantee the grain needed to feed the urban population and fuel an industrial expansion. But what was ‘surplus grain’ in a country where many farmers barely grew enough to scrape by? It was defined as seed, fodder and a basic grain ration set at roughly 13 to 15 kilos per head per month. However, 23 to 26 kilos of unhusked grain were required to provide 1700 to 1900 calories per day, an amount international aid organizations consider to be the bare minimum for subsistence. The notion of surplus, in other words, was a political construct designed to give legitimacy to the extraction of grain from the countryside. By forcing villagers to sell grain before their own subsistence needs were met, the state also made them more dependent on the collective. Extra grain above the basic ration had to be bought back from the state by villagers with work points, which were distributed on the basis of their performance in collective labour…

But a more insidious problem lurked behind the notion of a grain surplus, namely the enormous pressure applied to local leaders to pledge ever greater grain sales. The amount sold to the state was determined in a series of meetings which started from the village up, as a team leader passed on a quota to the brigade, where the pledges were adjusted and collated into a bid passed on to the commune, which then negotiated how much it would deliver to the county. By the time a pledge reached the level of the region and the province, the amount had been revised upwards several times as a result of peer pressure. A figure very far removed from reality finally landed on the desk of Li Fuchun, the man responsible for planning the economy and setting national production targets. He, in turn, inflated the target according to the latest policy shifts agreed on by the leadership: that new figure was the party’s command.22

In 1958 the huge gap between the reported and actual sizes of the harvest made the peasants’ situation irredeemably worse. Actual output rose by just 2%, but the procurement targets rose by 21%.23 Attempts to satisfy the procurement targets left the peasants starving. By the spring of 1959 they were dying in large numbers.

The Party leaders soon realized that the procurement targets were not being met, and that there were urgent competing demands for the grain that was available. First, the cities had to be fed, both to meet the industrial targets and to prevent unrest. Second, agriculture goods had to be exported to pay for China’s purchases of foreign capital equipment and military hardware. And third, the farmers had to be fed. The option of not paying foreign creditors was quickly ruled out — China wished to be seen as a creditworthy customer and as a successful Communist country24 — and the cities consistently took priority over the countryside.

There was drought in 1959. The communes struggled with the loss of their members through starvation, and with the secondment of labour for Great Leap Forward projects. They were battered and weakened by the officials’ attempts to meet the procurement targets at any cost. The grain harvest, which had been 200 billion kilograms in 1958, fell to 170 billion kilograms in 1959. It fell to 144 billion kilograms in 1960, rebounded slightly to 148 billion kilograms in 1961, and then slowly recovered to 195 billion kilograms over the next four years.25

At least initially, the procurement targets continued to be based on grossly inflated forecasts of the harvest. In the province of Fujian, for example, output fell by 12% from 1957 to 1959, but the procurement target rose by 41%.26 The farmers were allowed to keep very little of their own grain, and starvation became commonplace throughout the countryside. Yeng Jisheng estimates that roughly 36 million people died in the famine, and that roughly 60% of these deaths occurred between the winter of 1959 and the winter of 1960.27

The response of the leadership was slow and inadequate, largely as a result of two factors. First, the Party’s big carrot, big stick approach to governance led subordinates to exaggerate harvests and hide starvation deaths. Second, information that conflicted with the subordinates’ reports was given an ideological spin that rendered it meaningless.

The ideological spin began at the top. Here is Mao, speaking at the Zhengzhou conference in February 1959, when grain reserves were falling across the country:

Everyone can see that there is a certain amount of strain in our relations with the peasants at this time over some matters. An obvious phenomenon is that following the bumper harvest in 1958, part of the procurement of grain, cotton, oil crops, and other agricultural products has still not been met. Moreover (apart from a minority of disaster areas), there has been widespread incidence of false reporting [i.e., underreporting] of output and private withholding throughout the country.28

This view was not accepted by everyone. When Mao permitted an open discussion at the Lushan conference in July 1959, the attendees divided into factions. One faction, led by the defense minister Peng Dehuai, argued that the production figures were false, that starvation was widespread, and that the people were being abused by the cadres. Peng and at least some of his supporters knew these things to be true because they had seen them in their own home provinces. Mao’s faction (which included both Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai) argued that these matters were small reverses in the midst of a great advance.

This conflict was not allowed to persist for long. In August the Central Committee declared that Mao’s critics were conspiring against the party and the state, and unleashed a nationwide purge of “rightists” that left Mao’s supporters in control at every level of government. Peng Dehuai was among those purged: he would never again hold a significant government position.

More than a year later, in October 1960, a report of widespread starvation reached Li Fuchun, the head of the State Planning Commission. A team of senior officials was sent to investigate. They found a famine of horrifying dimensions. Mao again took refuge in ideology:

Bad people have seized power, causing beatings, deaths, grain shortages and hunger. The democratic revolution has not been completed, as feudal forces, full of hatred towards socialism, are stirring up trouble, sabotaging socialist productive forces.29

Mao began another campaign to root out “class enemies,” but some tentative steps were taken to improve the lot of the peasants.

The attitude of the leadership did not begin to change until April 1961, when Li Shaoqi, until then an ardent supporter of Mao, returned to his home province. He saw for himself the full extent of the famine, and recognized that it was a manmade disaster, not a natural one. He reported his observations to the Party’s leaders, stressing that the famine was the result of policy errors but being careful not to underline Mao’s role:

The center is the principal culprit, we leaders are all responsible, let’s not blame one person or one department alone.30

Zhou Enlai, who was responsible for policy implementation, shielded Mao from blame. Li Fuchun quickly began to moderate the Great Leap Forward, an action that Mao had previously resisted. He, too, was careful to shift the blame away from Mao:

Chairman Mao’s directives are entirely correct but we, including the central organs, have made mistakes in executing them.31

And for that, Mao backed him.

Mao’s word was everyone’s command, and through the worst of the famine, Mao’s claim that class enemies were underreporting the harvest and withholding grain had been maintained by lower-level officials, even when they knew it to be false. Here is the testimony of one commune official:

It wasn’t that I didn’t know anything at the time; of the 200 people who reported for military service last year, only 40 percent met the minimum weight requirement. I also knew about 100 or 200 people dying in a day. Struggling with myself, I went to the county three times to report what was happening, but turned back each time out of fear of being labeled a right deviationist. After returning, I then had to carry out campaigns against false reporting and private withholding.32

The overreporting of harvests, and the ideological rigidity of the cadres and local officials, jointly determined the fate of the peasants. Their impact can be seen in events at the Huaidian people’s commune in Guanghsan county, as described by Li Li in a report to the Party Secretary of Henan province. The commune’s harvest in 1959 was 5.955 million kilograms of grain, but the commune’s officials reported a harvest of 23.05 million kilograms. Li Li describes what followed:

The procurement quota was set at 6 million kilos, which exceeded the commune’s total grain yield. In order to achieve the procurement quota, every means had to be taken to oppose false reporting and private withholding, and every scrap of food had to be seized from the masses. The [actual] procurement was 5.185 million kilos. All of the communal kitchens were closed down, and deaths followed. [Local official] Liu Wencai and the commune party committee attributed the kitchen closures and deaths to attacks by well-to-do middle peasants and sabotage by class enemies, and to the struggle between the two paths of socialism and capitalism. They continued the campaign against false reporting and private withholding for eight months. Within sixty or seventy days not a kernel of grain could be found anywhere, and mass starvation followed.

The commune originally numbered 36,691 members in 8,027 households. Between September 1959 and June 1960, 12,134 people died…There were 780 households completely extinguished…

There were a total of 1,510 cadres at the commune, brigade, and production team level, and 628, or 45.1 percent, took part in beatings. The number beaten totalled 3,528 (among them 231 cadres), with 558 dying while being beaten, 636 dying subsequently, another 141 left permanently disabled, 14 driven to commit suicide, and 43 driven away.

Apart from the standard abuse of beating, kicking, exposure, and starvation, there were dozens of other extremely cruel forms of torture…

With no means of escaping a hopeless situation, ordinary people could not look after their own. Families were scattered to the winds, children abandoned, and corpses left along the roadside to rot. As a result of the extreme deprivations of starvation, 381 commune members desecrated 134 corpses.33

Beatings were administered to force people to reveal hidden stores of food, or to admit rightist tendencies. Desecrating corpses means eating the dead. The Huaidian commune was part of the Xingyang prefecture, where more than a million people in a population of 8.5 million died of starvation within half a year.

Although the specifics varied from commune to commune, the dead and the dying were to be found everywhere.

There were no anguished appeals to heaven, no hemp-robed funerals, no firecrackers and hell money to see the departed to their final destination, no sympathy, no grief, no tears, no shock, no dread. Tens of millions departed this world in an atmosphere of mute apathy.34

A Final Observation

Saying it don’t make it so. Calling it a “People’s Republic” doesn’t make the republic responsive to the people, and calling it a “Socialist Republic” doesn’t prevent the people’s wholesale exploitation. The evidence of the twentieth century is clear. A totalitarian government, regardless of the underlying ideology, looks after the interests of the government itself, not those of the people. As difficult as democracy might be, it is the only mechanism that will ensure the welfare of the vast majority of a country’s population.

  1. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 16.
  2. Felix Wemheuer, Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (Yale University Press, 2014), ch. 1.
  3. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 29.
  4. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 36.
  5. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 59.
  6. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 133.
  7. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 160.
  8. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 190.
  9. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 223.
  10. Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p. 347.
  11. Liu Shaoqi was Chairman (essentially, President) of the People’s Republic of China from 1959 to 1968, but was brought down by the Cultural Revolution.
  12. Zhou Enlai was Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1976. The Premier is essentially the chief executive, responsible for the day-to-day running of the country.
  13. Quoted by Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 100.
  14. Quoted by Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 107.
  15. The Party leadership was aware of this problem by 1956. A People’s Daily editorial prepared by the Central Committee argued that “Impetuous emotion has become a serious problem at present, because it exists…first and foremost among the upper ranks of the leading cadres…no departments wanted to be accused of right-deviating conservatism, and they vied to assign the most aggressive targets to the lower levels, with each level passing an even heavier burden on to the level below, ultimately resulting in an intolerable situation.” These concerns were sidelined when Mao overcame the opponents of rapid industrialization. (Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 91)
  16. Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine (Bloomsbury, 2010), p. 58.
  17. In the province of Henan alone, more than 140,000 tonnes of farm tools were ultimately thrown into the furnaces in order to meet production targets (Frank Dikötter Mao’s Great Famine, p. 122).
  18. Felix Wemheuer, Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (Yale University Press, 2014), pp. 50-1.
  19. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 330.
  20. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 330.
  21. Frank Dikötter Mao’s Great Famine (Bloomsbury, 2010), pp. 38-9.
  22. Dikötter Mao’s Great Famine. pp. 127-8.
  23. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 332.
  24. It is likely that the decision to hide the famine from international observers, and not to seek foreign aid to alleviate it, was also motivated by a desire to protect China’s image abroad.
  25. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 326.
  26. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 332.
  27. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 338.
  28. Quoted by Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 334.
  29. Quoted by Dikötter Mao’s Great Famine. pp. 117.
  30. Quoted by Dikötter Mao’s Great Famine. pp. 122.
  31. Quoted by Dikötter Mao’s Great Famine. pp. 122.
  32. Quoted by Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 32.
  33. Quoted by Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, pp. 31-2.
  34. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone, p. 13.