A Very Very Short History of the CCP (6): The Age of Mao—Great Leap Forward Into Catastrophe

Part 6 – The Age of Mao: Great Leap Forward Into Catastrophe

The geopolitical Map of the Cold War in early 50s was bloody red with half the world under Communism. Communism appeared to be winning, and on its way to conquer the entire world. At home, Mao felt pretty secure about his new reign. Future looked bright.

Not so fast.

In June 1956, workers in Poland, a Soviet-Bloc country, embarked on a series of massive protests against the Communist government, demanding better working conditions.

In October 1956, more devastating news came out of the Eastern Europe. This time from Hungary. The Hungarian people staged a countrywide uprising against the Soviet backed government, known as the Hungarian Revolution.

Although both were suppressed, they sent shockwaves across the Communist world. It definitely shocked Mao. A Communist country was supposedly a country for the proletariats against the bourgeois oppressors. How come the working class would rise up against their own government?

There was more bad news.

Also in 1956, Khrushchev, the leader of Soviet Union openly denounced Stalin in his speech On the Cult of Personality shortly after Stalin’s death. That surely aggravated Mao because Mao had been working hard to build his own Cult of Personality.

It was against this backdrop that in 1957, Mao launched another campaign, this time with a beautiful name, Let One Hundred Flower Bloom, to encourage Chinese people, especially intellectuals, to openly criticize the Communist Party and to make constructive suggestions on how to improve its work.

Historians can’t come to a consensus regarding Mao’s real intention. Most believe that Mao’s intention was to let his enemy expose themselves by expressing their opinions about the Party. Many criticisms turned out to be brutally honest. Many asked for free speech, power sharing, and stopping corruption.

The tide was quickly turned. A brief campaign to allow one hundred flowers bloom was turned into crushing those blooming flowers. An Anti-Rightist Campaign was launched. People who spoke out were rounded up in waves, publicly condemned, and then sent to labor camps for re-education. Many thought it would be short term punishment. But most ended up spending up to two decades in the camps. Many perished there, never to return home.

The CCP’s own sources show that about to 550,000 were labeled as rightists, which made 10% of the total intellectuals in China. The campaign was carried out like the ZhenFan campaign where quotas were given out to each work unit. Many were wrongly categorized and punished.
Zhang Kejin (张克锦) made history for being the youngest rightist. He was only 12. How did he get to become a rightist? Zhang was known for being good at drawing. A factory worker asked Zhang to draw a picture for him to criticize a party leader. That’s how he got himself to prison for 7 years.

A lesson was learned: speaking truth would be costly. Anti-Right campaign effectively silenced everyone. Free speech was dead. Truth was dead. To survive everyone would not just accept but actively participating in lying. The path was paved for the deadliest catastrophe to come.

In 1958, Mao launched his Three Red Banners Campaign to jump start building socialism. The banners stand for General Line for socialist construction, the Great Leap Forward, and the People’s Communes.

The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s plan to industrialize China. The slogan was Catch up with UK and surpass US. If you think Mao wanted to modernize China to raise people’s living standard, you are Wrong. Industrialization in Mao’s mind was one thing: Steel. He wanted the steel production to surpass that of UK and US so that he could build his military might. And he believed he could achieve this goal by sheer manpower under his command: the 600 million Chinese.

Everyone would be participating in the single most urgent task of steel-making including peasants, soldiers, urban residents, and school children. Erected home-made wood burning furnaces made up a new landscape across the country. People were asked to search for anything metal in their home to be thrown into the furnaces: door knobs, kitchen utensils, toys… Anything.

The campaign not just failed. It failed miserably. While the strong laborers were engaging in steel making, the fields were left to the old and weak to attend.

The third Red Banner was the People’s Commune, or collective farming campaign. This meant all the land that was given to the peasants through the bloody Land Reform was taken back by the state. Commune meant collective ownership, the peasants were told. But it really meant ownership by the state. Instead of working on their own land and planting what they wanted, the peasants now were organized into production teams. Everything including what to plant and how was decided by the Commune leaders. Pleasants became landless laborers working for the work points, with which they would get the grain and produce in harvest time. They indeed became socialist proletariats, literally.

People’s Commune campaign aimed at collectivizing not just land, but also every aspect of the peasants’ lives. Private dining was banned and replaced by collective “Big Dining” ,which was also called free dining through the CCP’s propaganda machines. All the food as well as dining tables, benches, and cooking utensils were forcefully collected from each household. And that was called free. People today keep forgetting that there is no free lunch.

Eager for success, local leaders started to falsely report and exaggerate grain production. It eventually became a contest which were reinforced by the CCP’s propaganda machines. Newspapers published photos of rice growing so thick in the fields that small children could sit on them like a carpet. Everyone knew better not to challenge the lie. So the bogus claims went on. It was reported that Mao started to worry about what to do with all these excess grains. He suggested that they could be used for making liquor.

Harvest time came. Communes were expected to meet the procurement quotas based their claims. The state took everything including the grains for the peasants themselves.

Reality did not care about lies. Starvation set in. It took over the entire country. 1959 to 1962 would be remembered forever as the worst famine in human history. It is estimated that up to 50 million Chinese perished, mostly peasants. Some believed the actual death toll was even higher. We will never know the real number as long as the CCP is in power. The Great Famine was one of the gravest crime the CCP committed against the Chinese people! A crime that was not widely reported at the time, and still unknown to many westerners.

There is not a single photo of the Great Famine survived. All were either destroyed or hidden away. I managed to find this gruesome photo of a father before his execution with his son who he killed and cooked for food. Yes, cannibalism was commonplace in the countryside.

In attempt to clamp down any rumors about the occurring famine, the American journalist Edgar Snow was invited to China to visit the countryside. Again, Snow believed what he was shown by the Chinese government and reported to the world that there was no famine in China.

Growing up, I, together with hundreds of millions of Chinese, was told that the famine was caused by the three year nationwide natural disasters. A lie that is still taught to students in China today.

No matter how the Party could lie about the disaster, famine was real. Someone had to take the responsibility. Since all these were Mao’s ideas, he was compelled to admit his mistake in a Party meeting with 7000 participants in 1962. Subsequently, he was forced to take the back seat and let Liu Shaoqi, president of China, and his ally Deng Xiaoping, to take over the day-to-day works of the government to recover from the disaster by focusing on economic development.

Mao was not happy. He would definitely do something about it.

But the Party still had to deal with the anger of the peasants who suffered so much from the Three-Red Banner campaign. The CCP had to come up with a scapegoat.

In 1963, the Socialist Education campaign was launched, also known as the Four Cleanups Campaign. The suffering peasants were told that the disaster was not brought about by Mao’s policies, but by the local leaders who either failed to understand the instructions or who intentionally wrongly implemented the policies.

Now the peasants had a target to vent their anger. They were the local and commune leaders. The Land Reform model was reinstated. Peasants were organized to condemn those leaders that same way that they condemned the landlord class 12 years ago. Violence was deployed. Many CCP cadres were beaten, tortured and killed.

The estimate was that around 80,000 were killed and more than 5 million were brutally persecuted.

The Socialist Education campaign was the prelude to the Cultural Revolution. It was during the Cultural Revolution that President Liu was persecuted to death as someone who was accused of planning to take China from Socialism and bring it back to Capitalism. He would be singled out as being the chief representative of the “capitalist roaders”.

The 1960s also witnessed the Sino-Soviet Split. After Stalin’s death, Mao saw it a perfect chance to get out of the shadow of Stalin and to replace him as the supreme leader of the Communist world. This was his time to shine and to make Maoism the updated version of Marxism and Leninism. And he would do it in the Cultural Revolution.