by Hu Jiwei

The Chinese Great Leap Forward/ Great Famine Database is an important tool for studying the history of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party

Overseas Chinese scholars Song Yongyi, Ding Shu, Guo Jian, Zhou Yuan, Zhou Zehao, and Shen Zhijia have produced yet another archival database -- The Chinese Great Leap Forward/ Great Famine Database 1958-1962. With over 7,000 archival documents, this significant project will greatly benefit the research community and contribute to the preservation of the historical truth. The Chinese government has long restricted access to these historical files to prevent revelation of the truth. Yet these scholars have made a concerted effort under difficult circumstances to create this database so that these important documents will be made available to the general public. Along with the Chinese Cultural Revolution Database and the Chinese Anti-Rightist Campaign Database that these scholars previously created, this database will undoubtedly be of significant value for the study of the history of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party, and will serve as well to prevent a repeat of the history.

1958-1962: The Craziest Period in Chinese History

In 1958 China entered the “craziest period” of the Three Red Banners (the General Line for Socialist Construction, the Great Leap Forward, and the People’s Commune). The fact that all of rural China was transformed into people’s communes within a matter of a few months was the direct result of this craziness. People mistakenly thought they had stepped upon the “golden bridge” that would quickly transform China from a socialist state into a communist state. The People’s Daily, where I served as associate editor-in chief, also contributed to this craziness, turning this leading Party newspaper into a newspaper run by “mad people.”

It is important to note that Mao Zedong was not the only person who became “crazy” during the Great Leap Forward. Many others followed suit. There were many opportunistic people who carried out and executed Mao’s political programs; there were those who wanted to please the central authorities by submitting false reports about agricultural output. But even more people were too afraid to speak out because during previous political campaign they had been penalized by the Party for speaking their minds. There were also people of sober minds who, after having been classified as Right-leaning elements, were too timid to defy official orders. During that period, the People’s Daily mixed fact with fantasy and reality with imagination. This dominant Party newspaper promoted unrealistically high output and was instrumental in the mismanagement of the country. On account of this, I am all the more in favor of the efforts by Mr. Song and his colleagues to gather and preserve these historical materials so as to allow scientific analyses and more studies of those crazy periods in the early history of the People’s Republic of China.

It is important to encourage independent thinking, allow people to speak the truth, and test the validity of policies through practice

In 1961 I led an investigation team from the People’s Daily to assess the damage of the Great Leap Forward in Changsha county of Hunan province. We were soon charged to assist President Liu Shaoqi, who at the time also happened to be leading his own investigation team in the same area. I was assigned as Liu’s assistant and spent one month with him. During the investigation, I witnessed the gruesome aftermath of the Great Leap Forward that had been responsible for 37.5 million unnatural deaths. The ultimate cause of this calamity was Mao’s radical policies. Yet Mao refused to accept responsibility for the ramifications of his policies. Instead, he blamed central and local officials for the cataclysmic consequences of his programs and he persecuted all those who dared to speak out. Mao dispatched “investigation teams” to rural China to prove that it was the fault of others, not of his policies, that led to this nationwide catastrophe.

It was during this investigation phase that Liu Shaoqi reflected on the lessons of the Great Leap Forward. In his conversations with journalists, Liu criticized journalists for their role in the catastrophe, noting, “During the Great Leap Forward, having newspapers did greater damage than having no newspapers at all. The disinformation that newspapers disseminated resulted in terrible consequences.” Liu also criticized reporters for failing to engage in research and he referred to them as “the Party’s willing tools, instruments incapable of independent thinking, and lifeless mouthpieces.” Liu further pointed out the damage from not being able to hear opposing viewpoints and he stressed that people deserve to have their voices heard and have the right to petition the central government. “Without such small democracies,” he cautioned, “there is bound to be an adverse impact on the big democracy.” Although Liu encouraged journalists to reach out, discover the truth, and report on the problems they saw, he also recognized the difficulties in their doing so as Communist Party members had the dual obligations of obeying the Party leadership and adhering to one’s own principles. Eventually this inherent contradiction brought down Liu himself during the Cultural Revolution when Mao used unconditional obedience to the Party to suppress Liu’s adherence to principles. Indeed, history has proven that disasters are bound to befall a country and its people when people are denied freedom of speech and constitutional democracy.

The way forward for China’s political reform is to abolish the fascist political system of one Party, one ideology, one leader, and one Party-controlled military

Under Mao’s rule, China went through the ordeals of the Great Leap Forward/ Great Famine and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Under Deng Xiaoping’s rule, China witnessed the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. The fundamental causes of these tragedies were the political institutions that were in place in China. In my view, we must sum up these historical lessons and abolish the fascist political system of one Party, one ideology, one leader, and one Party-controlled military in order to achieve a constitutional democracy and implement universal values.

I enthusiastically welcome the debut of The Chinese Great Leap Forward/Great Famine Database 1958-1962. This collection of state and Party archival sources will help the Chinese people understand the truth about the calamity of the Great Leap Forward. The database will provide researchers both at home and abroad with important and necessary tools to delve into the history of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party and to make objective assessments of the relevant historical figures and events. All these activities will help future generations learn the historical lessons and will prevent a repetition of similar mistakes in the future.

Beijing, April 15, 2012





by Yongyi Song


The Database of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, 1958-1962 is yet another effort by several scholars in North America and China to reveal the historical truth and to preserve national memory in China. It is our third major electronic database, following The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, 1966-1976 and The Chinese Anti-Rightist Campaign Database, 1957- that were previously published by The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Along with the Cultural Revolution Database and the Anti-Rightist Campaign Database, this is one of the three sub-datasets that comprise the forthcoming Database on the History of Contemporary Chinese Political Movements, 1949-. The final sub-dataset in this series, the Database of Political Campaigns in the Early Years of the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1956, is expected to be completed within the next three years. After completion, based on tens of thousands of original documents, the four sub-datasets will provide an unprecedented detailed picture of Chinese history during the Mao Zedong era.


Compared with the previously published sub-datasets in the series, the Database of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, 1958-1962 has several distinctive characteristics. Of the nearly 7,000 primary sources contained here, about 3,000 are internal documents from various CCP archival facilities. The other documents are from once-classified internal publications, such as Internal Reference from Xinhua News Agency, Construction from the CCP’s North China Bureau, and People’s Public Security from the Ministry of Public Security. Even though the actual facts about the Great Famine have been strictly guarded in official CCP publications, they are truthfully revealed in these internal archives and publications.


With completion of this database, I cannot help but revisit the popular Chinese terminology for the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine: the “Three Years of Natural Disaster” and the “Three Years of Difficulty.” These terms are wholly inadequate to accurately capture the truth about this period of history. In fact, a historical review would lead one to conclude that this period of calamity was a natural extension and consequence of the fundamental grain policy of the PRC since 1949. The study of food as an important element in wars and strategic weapons has been introduced by scholars such as Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and Yang Jisheng, author of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. Using their approach, we find that the essence of China’s Great Famine in actuality was a long-drawn-out “food war” that the CCP, and the state under its control, waged on the Chinese peasants.


Historically, the use of food procurement as a strategic weapon was an integral part of the CCP’s war strategy. There are documented reports and archives of peasant riots shortly before and after the founding of the PRC, such as the Wenjiang riot, in which some 300,000 peasants in Sichuan province participated, that resulted from the new regime’s high food procurement. Likewise, the Great Famine of 1959-1962 represented a small-to-big and regional-to-national process. It started with the policy of unified purchases and sales of grain that was coercively enforced throughout the country by the regime under Mao Zedong. This practice sealed the tragic fate of Chinese peasants: as producers of food, they were moved farther and farther away from their own production. Vast rural China where the grain was produced became the center of the disaster.

In fact, the CCP’s system of unified purchases and sales of grain replicated the Soviet Communist Party’s wartime surplus grain appropriation system in the 1920s. It was also closely associated with the Korean War. First, the war directly led to an increase in grain procurements from the peasants. Second, the government forced the peasants to share the burdens of the astronomical war expenses. Third, the United Nations food embargo on China during the Korean War blocked food purchases by the Chinese government from world markets, forcing the government to solve the domestic food problems by demanding extra procurements of surplus grain from the peasants. Finally, the Korean War created a grotesque war-based industrial system in China.


As known to many, the major disaster areas in the 1959-1962 Great Famine include Sichuan, Shandong, Gansu, Anhui, and Guizhou provinces. However, a discerning reader of the historical materials on the background to the policy of unified purchases and sales of grain in the 1950s will notice that these areas also happened to be the very same disaster areas that were affected by the first “food war” launched by the party-state. For instance, the Great Famine claimed the lives of about one million people in the Wenjiang region of Sichuan. However, with implementation of the policy of unified purchases and sales of grain, the region experienced the first episode of famine in PRC history. According Professor Ding Shu, a researcher on the Great Famine, during implementation of the unified purchases and sales grain policy as many as 100,000 abnormal deaths occurred due to either suicide or starvation. Yet this only marked the beginnings of this disastrous food war.



Using the “food war” as an analytical approach to understand the so-called “upsurge” in the Agricultural Cooperativization Movement that Mao Zedong and the CCP engineered between 1953 and 1955, one will find that the essence of the movement was nothing more than a strategy that allowed the government to obtain direct control over and access to the peasants’ food. As a result of the Agricultural Cooperativization Movement, Chinese peasants lost the land and production tools that they had newly acquired during the Land Reform and became dependent on the cooperatives and their officials, the representatives of the party-state in rural communities. The transformation of private property into ownership by the party and the state greatly facilitated the practice of unified purchases and sales of grain.


It is worth noting that there had already been a significant number of famine-related and abnormal deaths, but they began to intensify throughout the country between 1956 and 1958 and on the eve of the radical People’s Commune Movement when collectivization was implemented in rural China. According to Xinhua News Agency’s Internal Reference and other classified central party documents, dozens of cases of large-scale famine-related deaths occurred during this period, including the “Lingui Incident” and the “Pingle Incident” in Guangxi between 1955 and 1956 that resulted in approximately 2,000 deaths, and the “Luliang Incident” in Qujing special district of Yunnan province between 1957 and 1958 when as many as some 20,000 people starved to death.


There has long been a popular belief among the general public, and even in intellectual circles, that the Chinese peasants were so kind-hearted and passive that they never resisted the erroneous policies and practices of the CCP. Some have even used this so-called “lack of resistance” to deny the very existence of the Great Famine. Such misunderstandings and distortions are the results of the government’s tight control over information. The historical truth is that Chinese peasants actually repeatedly resisted the food war waged by the party-state. Between 1953, when the policy of unified purchases and sales of grain was adopted, and the eve of the People’s Commune Movement in 1958, Chinese peasants engaged in at least three forms of resistance throughout the country, namely, grain riots, withdrawal from the cooperatives, and armed riots.

Grain riots occurred following introduction of the policy of unified purchases and sales when the government began to procure excessive amounts of grain from the peasants. Some 100 reports of such grain riots were reported in Xinhua News Agency’s Internal Reference and other classified central party documents between 1953 and 1957.


Withdrawal from the cooperatives, beginning in 1955 and reaching a peak in 1956 and 1957, became a widespread national resistance movement. As many as 70,000 households in Guangdong province sought to withdraw from the cooperatives shortly after implementation of the cooperativization movement in 1955. By 1956, some 127,000 households had already withdrawn. When, in 1956, the CCP declared the successful completion of the Agricultural Cooperativization Movement throughout the country, there were still about one million peasants demanding to withdraw from the cooperatives.


Hundreds of armed peasant riots in 1957 alone are reported in a classified Ministry of Public Security document. This document reveals several important details. First, the Agricultural Cooperativization Movement and the policy of unified purchases and sales of grain were the direct causes of the armed riots. Second, the explicit targets of the riots were grassroots CCP officials but the long-term objective of the riots was the overthrow of CCP rule. Third, the participants in the armed riots were the “newly emerging counterrevolutionary elements,” i.e., ordinary peasants rather than “landlords and rich peasants.” Fourth, several hundred cases of such riots took place in the first half of 1957, with the number of participants varying from several thousand to as many as 100,000. Had they not been brutally suppressed, the conflicts between the state and the peasants might have evolved into an all-out “civil war.”



It has often been argued that Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward to achieve a great leap in national strength so that he could replace the recently deceased Stalin as leader of the International Communist Movement. Although this argument is valid, what is even more noteworthy is the fact that between 1956 and 1959, in discussions on great steel-making project and the agricultural great leap forward, Mao Zedong often commented on preparations for a possible world war.


As evidenced by the aforementioned relationship between the Korean War and the policy of unified purchases and sales of grain, preparations for external wars by the party-state and its leaders often began with disastrous domestic agricultural policies. In August 1958 Mao Zedong publicly advocated a type of people’s commune based on military communism. The idea was that because all of rural China was to be turned into armed forces and military barracks, naturally there would be no place for personal property. This concept then became the source of the “communist wind” that was predicated on the large-scale confiscation of the peasants’ private property. It also enabled government officials at various levels to assume extraordinary power, just like military commanders, and empowered them to use the state machine under their control, such as the People’s Militia, and government power, such as the labor camps, to exploit and oppress the peasants at will. Finally, because Mao Zedong wanted to transform all of rural China into military barracks, of course he would not permit the “soldiers” to enjoy the freedom to prepare their own food and meals. Thus, the “public dining hall movement” was forcibly imposed across the country.


The crux of the state’s food war against the peasants was its denial of the peasants’ rights to purchase, sell, distribute, and consume grain and food. Even though the policy of unified purchases and sales of grain and the Agricultural Cooperativization Movement had thoroughly stripped peasants of their right to purchase, sell, and distribute food, these two practices still allowed the peasants the right to decide on how to handle their own grain rations. But this right was taken away from them with the rise of the public dining halls, and even their own cooking utensils were destroyed.


Military communism also gave officials at various levels absolute power to exaggerate agricultural output. The year 1958 was a year of exaggerations throughout the country, with announcements of astronomical and implausible numbers for agricultural output. The exaggerations had disastrous ramifications: because the reported output by production teams and communes was so high, the required contributions to the state grew accordingly. High procurements of freshly harvested grain went to government granaries and warehouses instead of to the peasants. Furthermore, various work teams and militia units were formed or mobilized to search for even more grain to be turned over to the state or to the public dining halls, leaving the peasants with little or no food for themselves. Peasants who produced grain starved to death right outside the state granaries where they had delivered the government-ordered grain procurement quota. It is no surprise that such devastating scenes often occurred during the Great Famine. Such exaggerations of output also led to murder.


At the beginning of this introduction, I linked the Great Famine to Raj Patel’s food war argument. Here, I would like to add that the food war against the Chinese peasants also had the following unique characteristics.


First, unlike the use of food in international politics by food-exporting countries and agricultural multinationals to influence the policies of other countries, the food war waged by the Chinese party-state was aimed at domestic targets, particularly the peasants who had produced the food. In general, food wars in international politics neither deliberately create famines nor directly resort to violence. Rather, they are a subtle form of strategic maneuvering. In contrast, the food war by the party-state on the Chinese peasants was waged through endless cases of deprivation and exploitation, as well as through a man-made famine carried out by the violent state machine, resulting in the direct loss of tens of millions of lives.


Second, the CCP’s food war was closely connected with its ideology-driven global “revolutionary war.” The state procured excessive amounts of grain from the peasants first to sustain an external war (i.e., the Korean War) and then to use its strengthened status to claim leadership in the International Communist Movement and to prepare for a future global revolutionary war.


Third, the means that the CCP and its leaders employed to wage this food war against the Chinese peasants were both war-like and militaristic in nature. Whether it was the practice of preemptive strikes in securing high grain procurements or the “large formation combat” tactics in stripping the peasants of their food that remained for their own survival, the war-like nature of the government’s food policy is strikingly obvious.

2013, California State University, Los Angeles