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1.07  Three Years of Natural Calamities & End of the Great Leap Forward

6 March 2018

Three Years of Natural Calamities (1960 – 1962)


By 1960, the breakdown of the Chinese economy caused the government to begin to repeal the GLF. The aftershocks it caused, however, not only continued to resonate but were also amplified by three consecutive years (1960 – 1962) of natural calamities when China saw a severe combination of floods and drought. The poor harvest turned the deteriorating situation quickly into a national disaster. Grain consumption per capita dropped 19.5% from 203 kilograms in 1957 to 163.5 kilograms in 1960. The situation was worse in the rural areas where the fall in consumption registered an even greater margin of 23.4%.[1]


Meanwhile, relations with Moscow continued to deteriorate to the point that in the summer of 1960 the Soviets suddenly withdrew all their assistance from China. Soviet’s aid was at that time still sufficiently crucial to a number of key industrial development projects that this action produced grave economic consequences for the PRC. It also distracted Beijing's attention from the economic disaster that was looming in the countryside, thus delaying timely measures to salvage the situation there.


By 1961 the economic disaster in the rural areas caught up with the cities, and urban industrial output plummeted. After declining by 9.8% in 1960, light industrial output decreased by 21.6% in 1961 while heavy industrial output also declined sharply, going down 46.6% in 1961 as compared with 1960.[2] Beijing now recognized the full gravity of the problem and drafted a series of measures to deal with the situation. During this year of crisis, there is every indication that Mao supported the far-reaching retreat from the GLF that his colleagues devised. Indeed, in June 1961 Mao made a self-criticism at a key Party meeting in Beijing and the Party as a whole adopted policies of retrenchment as official doctrine.


In 1962, the situation continued to worsen with light industrial output decreased by another 8.4% while heavy industrial output also declined another 22.2%.[3] As an emergency measure, nearly 30 million urban residents were sent back to the countryside because they could no longer be fed in the cities. While malnutrition was prevalent in the urban areas, death from starvation numbered tens of millions in the rural areas. Demographers have used official census figures to estimate that GLF was responsible for the death of 20 million to 30 million people though another estimate put that figure at 45 million deaths minimum.[4] Officially, however, the death was attributed to natural calamities and this period of time (1960 to 1962) is known as “three years of natural calamities” (三年自然灾害 sannian ziran zaihai).[5]


Corrective Measures Adopted to Tackle the Humanitarian Crisis


The leadership began to turn its attention to coping with the Great Leap disaster during a meeting at Beidaihe in July-August 1960.[6] The termination of all Soviet aid to China that June forced Beijing to think in terms of a self-reliant development effort and to take stock of the deteriorating situation in the countryside. As pragmatists in the CCP seized control of China’s economic policy, corrective measures were taken to help induce a post-GLF recovery. The two most important men who engineered this recovery were Liu Shaoqi, who had taken over from Mao as the nation’s second president-chairman in April 1959, and Deng Xiaoping, who headed the Party Secretariat. A member of the CCP since 1921 and a long standing Mao loyalist, Liu had given the Great Leap Forward his backing. By the Lushan plenum, however, Liu had grown sceptical about Mao’s ambitious policy and the effects it was having on rural China.


With the retirement of Mao in 1959, Liu and his fellow moderate Deng Xiaoping joined forces to develop and initiate economic reforms, assisted by party vice chairman Chen Yun and backed by premier Zhou Enlai. Several types of initiatives flowed out of Beidaihe and subsequent deliberations over the following few months, as the magnitude of the summer crop failure became evident.


First, the second Great Leap was formally terminated, and the guiding policy now became one of "agriculture as the base, industry as the leading factor," with the Eight-Character Principle of "readjustment, consolidation, filling out, and raising standards" (八字方针: 调整,巩固,充实,提高) replacing the previous formula of "more, faster, better, and more economical results. (多快好省)". The Eight-Character Principle was formally adopted during the Ninth Plenary Session of the Eighth CCP Central Committee held in January 1961.[7]  It involved remedying the imbalances in the national economy by readjusting the mix between agriculture, light industries and heavy industries and giving more attention to developments in agriculture and light industries; consolidating the gains already achieved in national economic development; filling out some of the enterprises set up during the GLF by giving them a little more investment so that they could become productive; and raising the quality of products and managerial skills and enhancing labour productivity.[8]


With that change, the growth of the national economy would now be based on agriculture. In the words of Zhou Enlai, “The plan for national economic development should be arranged in the order of priority of agriculture, light industry, and heavy industry”. Henceforth, it would be the primary function of heavy industry to provide agriculture with increasing amounts of machinery, chemical fertilizer, insecticides, fuel, electric power, irrigation equipment, and building materials, and at the same time supply increasing amounts of raw materials to the light industry. Industry thus became the “leading factor” but agriculture would be the “foundation” of China’s economic development.


Second, the CCP sought to increase its control over its badly damaged nationwide apparatus through the re-creation of six regional bodies (these were different from the regional government bodies that existed in the early post-liberation years). Besides also recentralizing the administration of government functions, great emphasis was again put on technical and managerial expertise and on the training of large numbers of technical and scientific personnel. Experts, however, are constantly being reminded not to lose sight of ideological work. Meanwhile, enterprises that were transferred to local governments during the GLF were also brought back under the central control and many were reorganized. Small iron and steel mills started during the campaign were dismantled and the workers were let go. Mao’s ‘backyard furnaces’ were also scrapped and resources were redirected into heavy industry.


The most significant changes, however, were to agricultural production.  Liu-Deng’s reforms did not abolish the People’s Communes system but it had certainly undergone far-reaching reforms in the direction of economic rationality. To begin with, the communes themselves had been reduced in size, with the total number of communes increasing from the original 25,000 to 75,000 by 1962. These changes made many communes conform roughly to the former standard marketing areas. Within each commune, the most important economic unit, the team, now coincided with either small villages themselves or with socially relatively cohesive neighborhoods within larger villages. To move back toward a system that provided greater material incentives, smaller units of brigades and then teams were formed as working units within the communes.[9] From 1962 onwards, production teams, each comprising of twenty to thirty household, became the norm. The income of individual peasants was then pegged to the total output of these successively smaller units. Moreover, up to 12 per cent of collectivised land was given over to peasant families, who were allowed to maintain their own small plots. Peasants were allowed to cultivate this land, as well as wasteland or other unused areas, to grow their own vegetables or non-grain crops. They were also permitted to breed and keep their own livestock. Peasant marketplaces were restored and farmers were again allowed to sell surplus produce (though not grain, which had to be sold to the state).


Next, to address the problems caused by the famines, grain procurement and allocation were closely examined and adjusted, so more crops reached hungry regions. Grain exports were halted and the government began importing grain from Australia, Canada and elsewhere (China became a net importer of grain in 1961). In November 1960, as the famines worsened, Zhou Enlai presided over the drafting of an emergence measure on rural policy, called the Twelve Articles of People Communes which essentially permitted great decentralization within the communes.[10]  By the spring of 1961, local leaders were in general given great leeway to implement whatever measures they felt were necessary to alleviate the famine that was devastating China.[11]


Finally, while self-reliance remained the “foundation stone of the cause of revolution and construction”, it should not imply cutting China off from the rest of the world. It was thought that China could spare herself much costly tinkering and, above all, much time by simply importing the results of foreign expertise and the accumulated knowledge and invention of economically advanced countries. The move signalled the end of China’s autarkic economic policy and heralded the beginning of a more open economy.


In summary, the corrective measures implemented by Liu and Deng improved the distribution of food, eased the pressures of collectivised state farming and slowed the pace of industrial development until the countryside had recovered. To avoid the appearance of a backdown or disavowal of Mao’s earlier policies, Party leaders were careful to avoid public criticism of the GLF or public commentary about its negative effects.


As a result of these corrective measures (1960-65), domestic grain production increased from 193 million tons in 1961 to 240 million four years later. This increase was complemented by a rise in net grain imports (3.7 million tons in 1962 and 4.2 million tons in 1963). At the same time, the government also ended the ‘urban food bias’, winding back grain procurements for the cities. With more grain being produced and less of it being seized by the government, the famine dissipated and rural living standards improved. During this period, industrial output also expanded. In 1964, it rose 15% over the previous year. A Third FYR, set to begin in 1966, was announced in December 1964. The new plan appeared to be continuing the policy of economic restraint inaugurated at the close of the GLF, with, however, a gradual shift of emphasis toward heavy industry.[12]


Traditional Weak Positions of Peasants


Notably, despite all the adjustments making agriculture as the foundation of China’s economy, the agricultural operation system and rural policies still remained unfavorable to the development of productivity in the rural areas. There were several major problems for agricultural production as a result of the Cooperative Transformation Campaign and the People's Communes Campaign.


Firstly, peasants lost control over issues like what to produce and how much to produce, even though they were the best to decide based on their understanding of the soil conditions and the changing weather patterns. After production plans were made by the governments, peasants had no choice but to passively accept them.


Secondly, peasants lost the claim to the surplus of their labour. The state implemented unified purchase and marketing (统购统筹) through state-owned commercial enterprises and quasi-state-owned “supply and marketing cooperatives” (供销合作社). These agencies extracted all surplus value during the process by offering a low unified purchase price. At the same time, peasants were allowed only limited rural fair trading while long-distance transport of goods for sale was forbidden.


In short, the peasants were short-changed by a leadership which supposedly had liberated them from the exploitative landlords and warlords. For all the hard work, peasants received extremely low income. From 1957 to 1978, the annual net income per capita increased merely from RMB 73.37 to RMB 133.57. That works out to an average increase of less than RMB 3 per year. If the increases in commodity prices were factored into the calculation, the actual annual increase in rural per capital income was a meager sum of RMB 1. From 1952 to 1978, 62.6% to 90.6% of the exports comprised of agricultural and their processed goods.


In effect, most of the income created by peasants ended up with the state. Because of its total control over the production, distribution, and pricing of agricultural products, the state had been able to extract a huge portion of its revenue from agriculture since the 1950s. What was even sadder was that those surplus values extracted from the peasants were squandered in one political campaign after another, driving the nation into social pandemonium and economic chaos. Because of their traditionally weak social position, peasants bore the brunt of the catastrophic policies implemented by the central government in the rural agricultural sector.


To improve their own livelihood, the peasants embarked on were three waves[13] of efforts to practice “Contracting output quota to each household” (包产到户 baochan daohu - a term that is similar in practice to the household responsibility system implemented after 1979). The three waves happened in 1956 (following the establishment of advanced cooperatives), in 1959 (following the founding of the people's commune system), and in 1962 (following the havoc of the second go-communism craze in 1960 – 1961). However, the attempts by the peasants were suppressed by the central government which pronounced that these practices constituted efforts to restore capitalism. Even though the disastrous consequences of the GLF and the People's Communes Campaign forced Mao agreed to the system of "three-level ownership with the production team as the basic accounting unit", he explicitly objected to the idea of contracting output to each household, regarding it as going against the principle of socialist collective economic organizations.


Despite his objections, Anhui Province adopted the practice of "fixing output quota for each plot and designating responsibility for each person". By March 1961, 39.3% of the total number of production teams in Anhui Province had implemented the practice of "responsibility plots".


In 1962, the Anhui Provincial Committee was criticized by Mao for supporting the peasants in the adoption of the practice of "responsibility plots". But the leaders of Anhui were not alone. Leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun voiced their support for it. To make his point, Deng quoted a saying by peasants in Anhui Province that “black or yellow, all are good cats so long as they catch mice”.


Liu Shaoqi-Deng Xiaoping’s Policy Reforms

In addition to the emergency corrective measures implemented to mitigate the disastrous impacts of the GLF failures, the CCP also embarked on fundamental policy reforms along two fronts.


The first, initiated by Lin Biao and focused on the military, stressed renewed study of politics as a way to boost morale and increase discipline. Famine in the countryside had produced considerable demoralization among the soldiers, and Lin felt it important to revive political work to combat this. In the military, in September 1960, Lin called for a program of concentrated study of Mao's works. Since this effort was directed in general toward barely educated peasant recruits, it inevitably involved a simplification and dogmatization of Mao's Thought. The attempt to make Mao's Thought comprehensible to simple soldiers culminated in the production of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (毛泽东语录), the "little red book," which would become the Bible of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.


The second, led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, produced a series of investigations that culminated in a series of programmatic documents that are generally known by the number of articles in each. During 1961-62 the following major policy papers were produced: Sixty Articles on People's Communes; Seventy Articles on Industry; Fourteen Articles on Science; Thirty-five Articles on Handicraft Trades; Six Articles on Finance; Eight Articles on Literature and Art; Sixty Articles on Higher Education; and Forty Articles on Commercial Work.


In each case a Party leader took charge of the drafting process. Mao, for example, oversaw the drafting of the Sixty Articles on People’s Communes. In drafting the various program documents, the person in charge not only carried out on-the-spot investigations but also convened meetings with the experts or practitioners involved so as to mobilize their support and solicit their opinions.


In addition, three broad policy groups were established under the Secretariat to oversee and coordinate policy toward major issue areas: Li Fuchun and Chen Yun's group reviewed economic policies, Peng Chen's took charge of cultural and educational affairs, and Deng's covered political and legal work.


The substance of the policies developed by the apparatus under Liu and Deng also struck at the heart of the assumptions that underlay the GLF. In economic development, for example, Chen Yun called for construction of fourteen additional fertilizer production plants, each with a 50,000 ton per year capacity for production of synthetic ammonia. These plants would be large and modern, supplanting the inefficient small-scale chemical fertilizer production that had become so popular during the GLF. They would also require substantial imports of key components from abroad, moving China away from its previous policy of self-reliance. The Eight Articles on Literature and Art promised the reintroduction of traditional art forms and permitted a broader range of topics to be explored by artists. The Sixty Articles on Education stressed quality of education and undercut many of the locally run (民办) schools that had been opened as a part of the GLF strategy. And the Sixty Articles on People's Communes articulated a detailed set of regulations that fixed the team as the basic accounting unit, made provision for private plots, and in general tried to shift agricultural production toward a system that provided greater material incentives for peasant labour.


Overall, these policies, which some historians refer to as China’s New Economic Policy, marked a dramatic shift from the priorities of the GLF. They brought experts and expertise back to centre stage, produced greater reliance on modern inputs to achieve growth, reimposed central bureaucratic controls over various spheres of activity, and appealed to the masses more on the basis of material self-interest than of ideological mobilization.


There is no evidence that Mao objected to these trends during 1961. Indeed, Mao himself had actively participated in drafting the Sixty Articles on People's Communes and had called for serious investigations to be carried out at the Canton (Guangzhou today) meeting in March 1961. But as these investigations and consultations yielded to policy programs, Mao evidently became increasingly disconcerted.


The Long-term Consequences of GLF Failures


The damage caused by the GLF did not stop with the end of the GLF campaign. In the following years, the adverse impacts of the campaign continued to resonate.


To begin with, Mao's own prestige in the highest levels of the CCP suffered badly because of the GLF fiasco. His power and image had eroded as a consequence of his serious misjudgments during the GLF. In June 1961, the Chairman even made some form of self-criticism at a CCP Central Work Conference in Beijing. Mao had in any case planned to retreat to the "second line" in the Politburo as of 1959 so that he could devote more time to major issues and be less involved in daily administrative affairs. But once the disasters of 1960-61 became fully evident, Mao found himself pushed more effectively out of day-to-day affairs than he would have liked. He also felt that his long-time supporters including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping no longer paid him the deference he felt he deserved.[14] Still, Liu and Deng carefully shielded Mao's own responsibility for the GLF debacle to protect his legitimacy. Mao’s self-criticism, for example, was never circulated to lower levels of the CCP. Notwithstanding, Mao was becoming increasingly concerned about a potential waning of his influence. Once the crisis began to ease, tensions among the leaders rose as Mao sought to regain his position as the person who defined the basic tasks of the moment.


Secondly, different leaders drew different conclusions from the utter failure of the GLF. Mao recognized that political mobilization cannot itself produce rapid economic growth but retained his faith in the efficacy of political mobilization to produce changes in outlook, values, and the distribution of political power. Most of Mao's supporters against Peng Dehuai at Lushan, in contrast, concluded after their investigations of the situation in 1960-62 that large-scale political campaigns and the entire Yanan style of "high tide" politics had become counterproductive in virtually every way. They thus wanted to eschew campaign politics altogether. Those in direct control of the CCP apparatus were also anxious to restore internal CCP discipline and to pursue a path of economic development that made appropriate use of specialists and technical expertise. While they shared many of Mao's goals, they shied away from some of his methods.


Next, given that the CCP itself had taken charge of running the GLF, the result of the failure of this monumental effort meant that the CCP suffered in prestige and organizational competence. Moreover, the cadres who had supported the second Leap were now purged for their "leftism," while Mao's own responsibility was carefully shielded to protect his legitimacy. Demoralization of the lower ranks of the CCP mounted even as the country slowly pulled out of the gloom of the GLF. On the whole, given the enormous strains on basic-level CCP cadres during 1960-62, it is not surprising that many lost their sense of revolutionary élan. The question of how best to rectify the basic-level CCP organs caused additional dissension in the upper levels, as various leaders proposed their own somewhat different methods of dealing with this important issue.


Similarly, many citizens dissented bitterly from the CCP's policies of this period. The overall prestige of the Party and of the new system remained high before the launch of the GLF. The Communists could rightly proclaim that their policies were making China stronger and wealthier, even if they were forced to "break some eggs" to make their national omelette. It was precisely this prestige that the CCP lost during the 1958-65 period.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Khrushchev's decision to try to bring a halt to the GLF and to demonstrate to China the great importance of its Soviet connection by swiftly withdrawing Soviet advisors and aid at the height of the 1960 crisis had the unintended effect of shocking Mao into a fundamental re-evaluation of the development of the Soviet’s socialist revolution. To be sure, Mao had previously found much to fault in the actions of its leaders, including Stalin. But the Chairman had not previously thought in terms of a fundamental degeneration of the Soviet system. Khrushchev's crude pressure tactics raised this possibility, and the thought was frightening to Mao. By implication, if the Soviet revolution could change from socialist to fascist (or social imperialist) in nature, then any socialist revolution was in theory reversible. Given Mao's very much weakened position in Peking as a result of the GLF fiasco, he evidently began to fear that his life's work in China might have laid the basis ultimately not for the most just society in the world but, rather, for an extremely exploitative system which he thought was the direction China seemed to be also heading under the leadership of Liu and Deng.


In sum, the failure of the GLF left a full menu of problems varying from interpersonal relations among the top leaders to frayed institutional capabilities, to the relation of foreign to domestic policy. All these concerns, moreover, interacted in a way that tended to heighten Mao's suspicions and make it more difficult to find agreed-upon solutions with his colleagues.

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NEXT: 1.08  Seven Thousand Cadres Conference (1962)



[1] See Wu Jinglian. (2005).

[2] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg. 318.

[3] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg. 318.

[4] See Frank Dikotter. (2010). “Mao's Great Leap to Famine.” The New Tork Times. December 15, 2010.

[5] Some translated it as “Three-year Period of Hardship” (Wu 2005, p.102).

[6] See Roderick MacFarquhar. (2011). “The Politics of China: Sixty Years of The People's Republic of China.” Cambridge University Press. 19 Sep 2011. Pg 113.

[7] See Gucheng Li, 李谷城. (1995). “A Glossary of Political Terms of the People's Republic of China.” Chinese University Press. Pg 9; See 百度百科.“八字方针

[8] See Lin Wei & Arnold Chao. (1982).” China's Economic Reforms.” University of Pennsylvania Press. Pg 305 – 306.

[9] Compared to using production team as basic unit of accounting, production brigade is less productive because there were more households and people in a brigade than in a team. In a bigger group, free-riding was easier to take place. By changing to using production team as the basic accounting unit, this problem of supervision and measurement of work was mitigated, though not eliminated. By 1962, after the disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Forward became obvious, the production team was made to be the basic accounting unit. With a small group of households in a production team, it is easier to account for efforts i.e. free riding became more difficult. As a result of the change, productivity went up.

[10] See Roderick MacFarquhar. (2011). Pg 113.

[11] See Roderick MacFarquhar. (2011). Pg 114.

[12] See Harry G. Shaffer. (1967). “The Communist World: Marxist and Non-Marxist Views, Volume 2.” Ardent Media, Pg 176 – 178.

[13] (Wu 2005 Pg 105).

[14] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg. 320.

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