• Email
  • Print

Starving to Death in China

Important information bearing on the recent controversies over the extent of famine in China1 is revealed in the following article translated from the official Chinese journal Nongye Jingji Congkan (Collected Materials on Agricultural Economics). (The original article appeared on pages 18 and 19 of issue number 6, published on November 25, 1980.) Access to this journal is restricted to cadres who have a letter of introduction from the Party secretary of their own organization, but a copy was. obtained by a foreigner working in China, with whom I have collaborated in writing the accompanying introduction.

This article describes the history of the Liyuan commune in Anhui province, some 250 miles northwest of Shanghai. About half the original article is translated here, covering the period up to 1978. The rest deals with recent reforms of the commune system and consists mainly of statistics on production, income, and consumption, which demonstrate the benefits of the new agricultural policies carried out in China since 1978. Since this sort of information is readily available both in Western scholarly writings as well as in the English-language Chinese press, e.g., Beijing Review or China Daily, it is not included here.

The translated portion provides considerable information on conditions in Liyuan commune during the extended famine following the “Great Leap Forward” and the rapid establishment of people’s communes in 1958. The new leaders in China have openly criticized the mistakes made during this period but have by and large not referred to famine. References to mass deaths during the Leap have, however, appeared on occasion in the Chinese press, as when a senior economist, Sun Yefang, wrote of the “high price in blood” paid during the Leap, when “the national death rate rose from 10.8 per 1,000 in 1957 to 25.4 per 1,000 in 1960.”2 This would imply that in 1960 about 9 million people died in excess of those who died in the normal year of 1957.

Whether or not Sun’s data are accurate is a matter of debate among Western demographers, but their open publication in China suggests that knowledgeable Chinese believe that a terrible tragedy occurred. The present article on famine in one commune lends support to this proposition. Although the commune described here is in a poor region of China and is not therefore representative of conditions everywhere, it is sufficiently similar to other poor places to suggest that the severe famine in this commune was by no means an isolated incident.

Of particular interest is the article’s use of the Chinese term e si, which may be literally translated as “to starve to death.” This term has not been commonly used in accounts of the period that are issued openly by the Chinese government, but it is used twice in the article. The article also described conditions after the Great Leap Forward, showing that the commune never recovered fully from the devastation of the Leap and that disruptive political movements, particularly during the decade of the “Cultural Revolution,” contributed to the persistence of absolute poverty until the post-Mao reforms of the late 1970s. The material in this report contrasts sharply with many Western accounts of growing rural prosperity and of peasant commitment to Marxist values published in the 1960s and 1970s.

Feng Yang County, in which the Liyuan commune is located, has become a model of national agricultural policy, in particular of the revival of household-based farming which has led to very substantial increases in peasant incomes. The county, about 30 kilometers east-southeast of Bengbu in northeastern Anhui province, was opened to visits by foreigners for the first time in the fall of 1981 as a part of a special arrangement for an official delegation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (see Science, September 3, 1982, pp. 898-903). Before its visit, the delegation had an audience in Beijing with the former governor of Anhui, Wan Li, who had been promoted to vice-premier in charge of agriculture. When the delegation was invited to Feng Yang, the new policies for organizing production favored by Wan Li were frequently praised as being responsible for making a great change in the peasants’ lives, and the delegation report mentions the appearance of a “learn-from-Anhui” movement. The commune apparently received such attention only after a film was made about it in 1978 and shown to restricted audiences. The text of the article follows.

An investigation into the Household Production Contract System in Liyuan Commune, Feng Yang County. By the Research Group of the Feng Yang County Communist Party Committee.

Liyuan commune in Feng Yang County, Anhui province, is a famous “three depends” commune (“depend on the state for production loans, for food supplies, and for monetary relief”). In 1979, the entire commune implemented the production contract responsibility system. Production has greatly increased, and the long-term poverty which pressed down on the people has been swept away.

Historical Review

At present, the Liyuan commune has five production brigades, fifty-nine production teams, and over 5,600 people. The production contract system covers 17,500 mu of an actual land area of about 25,000 mu [6 mu equal 1 acre]. This is a hilly ridge area, and the main fear is of drought. The main crops are wheat, rice, tubers, and beans. After Liberation, and especially during the three-year period of restoration, production developed rapidly here. In 1955, during the early stages of forming co-operatives, total production was 4.86 million jin [1 jin equals 1.1 lb.], a per capita production level of 900 jin.

During that period, household sideline production was doing very well, and there were many chickens, ducks, and pigs. Society was very stable. People had to stand in line to sell grain, and those turning over public grain had to spend the night at the grain supply center. The commune came to be known far and wide as a place where “the country is prosperous and at peace, and the people live in happiness.” Many people recall that “in those days, the grain and oil coupons that were issued weren’t wallpaper, they were colored bits of paper for the children to play with. No one had to go to the grain supply center to buy grain or oil.”

After 1956, continual transformation of the relations of production and devastation arising from the “Five Winds”3 caused serious damage to agricultural production. An elementary cooperative started operating at the end of 1955, and an advanced cooperative was set up with great fanfare during the last half of 1956. Work groups were sent into the villages to organize the cooperative, and getting people to join involved a great deal of momentum and pressure. The propaganda focus proclaiming the beauties and strengths of the advanced cooperative was, “Electric lights and telephones in every home, no need for oxen to plow the fields, no need for oil to light a lamp, no need to worry when walking the road, you can pick apples by the wayside.”

Many of the peasants had faith in the Party; they half willingly and half reluctantly joined the cooperative, half believing and half doubting. They were divided into teams for labor, the co-op was the basic accounting unit, and there was unified distribution of wages. Before the advanced cooperative had become firmly established, however, there was a rapid leap in 1958 into a people’s commune whose scale was seven or eight times as large as the present commune. There was a distribution system called the “ten items for which you don’t need to pay,” which was “communist in nature.”

In the forms of production, people were organized into companies and platoons; men and women lived in separate dormitories. There were a lot of “big armies” involved in “fighting east and west,” and a great uproar was raised. There was a terrible confusion of blind production orders, and close planting standards were issued at will. In some wheat-growing areas, the people were forced to use 200, 300, 400, or even 500 jin of seed per mu, causing many problems in transplanting and watering.

As a result of this sort of repeated upheaval, grain production dropped from 4.86 million jin in 1955 to 1.14 million jin in 1961, a decrease of 77 percent. The commune’s population of 5,730 people in 1957 had dropped to 2,870 people by 1961. More than half died of starvation [e si] or fled the area. The 23,400-plus mu of cultivated land in 1955 declined to a little over 14,800 mu in 1961. Over a third of the fields had reverted to wasteland. There were 565 draft animals in 1957; only 190 were left in 1961, a loss of more than two-thirds. These were precipitous declines in the forces of production. In many villages, the people either died or fled, leaving ghost towns of collapsed houses and broken walls as far as the eye could see. Weeds were growing everywhere. There was a degree of misery seldom seen in history.

In 1955, the Houwang production team was a model elementary cooperative. The village had twenty-eight families, a total of 154 people, 780 mu of land, nineteen oxen, three donkeys, and ninety-two rooms of housing. As a result of the Five Winds, fifty-nine people starved to death [e si], and the survivors fled the area. The only thing left in the village was a single adobe house. The Ximiao production team, composed of three natural hamlets, had twenty-four families, 120 people, and ninety rooms of housing before 1958. During the Five Winds period, all of the people either died or fled. After three years, no houses or people remained in the three villages; they were totally desolated. At that time, many teams had only one or two draft animals and ten or so laborers too weak to lift a plow. Their vitality had been sapped from carrying the millstone of poverty for so long. In normal years, more than a third of the population left to beg for food. If there was a minor disaster, more than half the people had to leave the area. In the winters of each year, one to three thousand people, carrying or leading the children, were driven from their villages to go begging in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, Hubei, Fuijan, or Guangdong provinces. Before 1979, part or all of the population of many teams had to leave their villages year after year.

Another element in creating the poverty here was a multitude of political movements. The masses said that there hadn’t been a single quiet year since 1956. Every time a political movement came down, the people lived in a constant state of anxiety. No one dared say “no” to setting up a cooperative during the Anti-Rightist period when they would surely be criticized. Democracy was trampled underfoot; criticisms and suggestions were stifled. It was better to do what one was told by the higher authorities. As a result, the three-year Five Winds campaign became so intense that the interests of the masses themselves were seriously damaged throughout the period.

During the Cultural Revolution, the struggle that developed over the “socialist road” and the “capitalist road” was even more intense. The masses split into two large factions. Many production teams engaged in factional warfare during the summer and went away to beg for food during the winter, wearing red arm bands. Still, the political movements continued one after another to “make a great criticism of capitalism” and to make great attempts to “cut off the tail of capitalism” and “block the road to capitalism.” Private plots were confiscated, and there were all sorts of restrictions placed on commune members’ attempts to get ahead and make a living.

Yan Jingchang, a member of the Xiaogang production team, had a family of seven. In 1975, the family planted small plots of ginger, peppers, and garlic around their house, and took good care of their ten to twenty persimmon trees. These products were sold on the market after the autumn harvest. The family also raised two pigs, and had an income of 800 to 900 yuan for the year. Most of the money went to buy food for the family so they wouldn’t have to leave and beg for food. However, Yan Jingchang was criticized three or four times as a model of taking the capitalist road. It got to be so bad that a mention of wealth made the commune members turn pale for fear that they would be cast into the “fortified city” of the bourgeoisie. Many commune members said, “Several years ago we thought of trying to throw off our poverty, but our hands and feet were tied. There was nothing we could do except be bound together, poor and miserable.”

Of the ten families in the Qianwang production team before 1977, four families had only bamboo doors on their houses, and three families had no eating tables, benches, or drinking bowls. There was no well in the village, so the people had to drink pond water or ditch water throughout the year. Many had no padded trousers to wear during the winter, nor did they have a change of clothes during the summer so they could do their laundry.

The poor peasant family of Shi Chengde, with a total of ten people covering three generations, had a dilapidated two-room thatched house with a single three-legged cold bed. In normal years they had to sleep on mats on the floor. Their seven small children had to share three broken bowls. Team member Yang Xueqin had a family of seven which was crowded into a singleroom thatched cottage. There was a small cooking pot behind the door; smoke and soot were everywhere. During the winter the family had to sleep under a single ragged quilt on a reed mat. In 1978 the Central Television Station made a restricted reference film in the commune. Conditions were so bad that they had to be seen for one to believe that the villages could be so poor and the commune members so miserable this many years after Liberation.

The costs to the Party and government in leading the people to collectively overcome their poverty have been enormous here. Since the establishment of the cooperative, apart from work teams and propaganda teams sent to strengthen leadership and provide substantial assistance, the amount of economic assistance has been shocking. From 1955 to 1978, the state supplied 8.07 million jin of grain to the commune and granted loans, emergency relief, and investments totaling 1.45 million yuan (in addition to loans for water conservancy and grants for social relief). Per capita levels of state-supplied grain averaged 120 to 130 jin per year, equivalent to about one-third of annual per capita grain consumption. Per capita use of state funds for production and living averaged twenty to thirty yuan per year, equal to collective per capita income.

The peasants planted the fields, and the state provided the money. If there were shortages of food or clothing, the government provided relief.” This epitomized the situation in the commune for over twenty years. But what were the results? The burden of poverty still hadn’t been broken, and begging persisted.

  1. 1

    See, for example, the recent article by Amartya Sen in The New York Review (December 16) and the subsequent comments on it (NYR, March 3).

  2. 2

    Jingjii Guanli (Economic Management), no. 2 (February 15, 1981), p. 3.

  3. 3

    What are pejoratively called the “Five Winds” or trends were those of communism (e.g., excessive egalitarianism), of exaggeration (of output), of “commandism,” of giving blind directives in production, and of cadres seeking special privileges. The Five Winds, particularly the first two, were a hallmark of the Great Leap Forward, 1958-1961.

  • Email
  • Print