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Communes and Starvation, 1958-61

At the heart of the Great Leap Forward was the replacing of collective farms with People's Communes. Each commune consisted of from ten to twenty thousand people – around twice the size of collective farms. In the communes, peasants ate in mess halls. They surrendered their tools and farm animals to the commune and much of their personal property, including furniture and chickens. Women were encouraged to leave wifely duties and join the work brigades. Brigades had been working at irrigation and water conservation projects, and with the communes these projects were expanded.

In addition to farming, in 1958 and 1959 new roads were built, new factories were constructed, dams were built, as were dikes, irrigation channels and lakes. Land was reclaimed, and new terraces were carved into mountains, most of it created by hand labor rather than modern earth-working machines. And beginning in July 1958 the "battle for steel" began. A measurement of a nation's industrial strength was the amount of steel it produced. Backyard furnaces were built. At night, skylines in cities, Shanghai among them, were lit up with spots of red from fires for melting metal. In the countryside, producing steel withdrew labor from growing food, which was to prove disastrous.

People in the countryside had time to tend his or her own plot of land. These plots had accounted for seven percent of China's crop cultivation and thirty percent of peasant income. By the end of 1958 this was all but eliminated. It was now the commune that distributed whatever food there was to eat. It was the commune that organized everything, and it was the commune's responsibility to report to the government how much was being produced, to fill production quotas and to send the required percentage of what it produced to the government.

Some in the communes had risen as leaders more by their enthusiasm and patriotism rather than their management skills. Instead of the communal egalitarianism and spontaneity that Mao had envisioned, leadership developed into regimentation. In 1958 there were good harvests, but eager leaders, wishing to look good, passed on to the central government inflated figures as to how much food they had produced. Reports that year were that crop production had doubled. Based on these figures the government set higher production goals and requisitioned more food from the countryside than they should have. Rather than commune leaders confessing their error and refusing to send food that was needed to feed their fellow communards, they distributed the inadequate supplies to those they favored and left others to starve.

By the summer of 1959 much of the enthusiasm for the Great Leap was fading. Mess halls were being abandoned, people who had food to eat preferred doing it in a family setting. The communes continued to dominate agricultural production, but private plots were making a comeback, and with it so too were meager rural markets. But 1959 was another of those years of bad weather and bad harvests. Again too little food was left for local consumption. And again people starved.

In 1960, unusually dry weather brought drought in the north of China, and typhoons caused flooding in the south. Agriculture production dropped further. Party leaders in Beijing were becoming aware of the breakdown in the economy and extent of the starvation in the countryside. The figure commonly agreed upon is that by the end of 1961 as many as 20 million had died from malnutrition.

China's fertility rate had fallen about sixty percent between 1957 and 1961, men starving to death not likely to impregnate women and starving women not giving birth.

China's Communist Party blamed everything on the weather – and on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had withdrawn all of its technicians and advisors from China, taking their blueprints with them. The failure of backyard steel production needed some other explanation. China had melted down much of its utensils for eating and its pots and woks for cooking, and what it had produced was a metal too poor in quality to be of any use.  [ READER COMMENT ]

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