Mao in the extract from the Jinjiang Hotel meeting notes is arguing for a reduction of Great Leap Forward schemes. It is usually argued that Mao was indeed willing to scale down the Great Leap Forward in the period when this meeting occurred, in early 1959, but changed his mind after the battle with the Defence Minister, Peng Dehuai, at the Lushan conference in August 1959. It is claimed that Mao recognised there were problems with the Great Leap Forward at the end of 1958 and started to moderate policy, for example by ending the ‘backyard steel furnace’ program. However, the conventional wisdom among historians has become that when Peng attacked Mao over the Leap at Lushan, Mao responded by ordering a new leftist upsurge (8). Dikotter adopts the same approach to Lushan in his characteristic style: ‘Had the leadership reversed course in the summer of 1959 at Lushan, the number of victims claimed by famine would have been counted in the millions. Instead, as the country plunged into catastrophe, tens of millions of lives would be extinguished through exhaustion, illness, torture and hunger.’ (9).Dikotter then ploughs on heroically through another 200 pages of his diatribe against Mao without ever making clear any connection between the policies announced at Lushan and the alleged deaths of tens of millions of people. Dikotter is clearly trying to make the alleged famine deaths after 1959 look like examples of Mao’s wilfulness, rather than error or natural disasters but he cannot present real evidence of this.

There is a possibility that less extreme critics of Mao than Dikotter will ultimately make the same type of argument. They may accept that Mao’s comments in Shanghai in March are indeed an example of Mao trying to prevent deaths. However, they will then say that this cannot save Mao’s reputation because he changed direction and pursued a wilfully reckless course after Lushan.

However, we must ask whether this is what really happened. The best evidence for this thesis is the fact that procurements went up in 1959, according to figures released by the post-Mao regime. As we have seen, this issue needs more investigation, as Mao seems to have believed they were going down. Other evidence sheds even more doubt over these figures. Why would the Chinese state have decided it needed to procure such a greater proportion of grain in 1959? It could be argued the food was meant for a rising industrial workforce to carry on a reckless industrialisation process but there is not much indication that this was what was happening. According to figures released by the post-Mao regime the total number of industrial workers rose from 28.81 million in 1959 to 29.79 million in 1960, out of a 1960 total Chinese workforce of 258.8 million. The agricultural workforce actually expanded to 170.19 million in 1960 from 162.73 million in 1959, although this was still lower than the 1957 total of 193.10 million (10).

Certainly there was a great deal of left-wing political rhetoric after Lushan, in political statements and official publications, condemning those that had been attacking the Great Leap Forward. However, this was Maoist China and left-wing rhetoric tended to be the norm whatever the circumstances. If the critics of Mao really want to prove there was a reckless upsurge of ultra-leftism after Lushan, then they need to look at what happened in practice. Most of the indications are that policy carried on moderating after Lushan. It is interesting that western historians rarely quote much from the actual communique of the Lushan conference. For example, the communique states that in the light of that fact that production statistics for 1958 had been revised downwards and:

‘the recent occurrence of serious floods and drought over large areas of the country, the Eighth Plenary Session re-examined this year’s plan for development of the national economy and found that the original targets set in this plan were somewhat too high and need to be appropriately adjusted.’

Then the communique states of 1958:

‘…the labour power allocated for the bumper autumn harvest was inadequate, with the result that reaping, threshing and storing were all done in a somewhat hurried manner.'(11).

It then states:

‘In view of the fact that this year there is a certain shortage of labour power for agricultural production, it is suggested that the production of steel by indigenous methods for local use [the so-called backyard steel furnaces] be decided upon by the local authorities in accordance with local conditions.’ (12).

The Central Committee also decided at Lushan that:

‘Where natural calamities have occurred, the Party organizations must resolutely lead all people urgently to organize manpower and material resources, make full use of all existing water conservancy facilities and fight tenaciously to overcome the serious natural calamities, safeguard the autumn harvest and organize relief through production….After the autumn, labour power must be rationally deployed and diverse undertakings in forestry, animal husbandry and, side-occupations and fishery strengthened.’ (13).

These two quotes show that the Party regarded it as important not to divert labour needed for food production into the so-called backyard steel furnace campaign and that other rural side occupations should only be pursued once the Autumn harvest was gathered. There is hardly much evidence of ultra-left excess or lack of concern for the food needs of the population here.

It is true that the policy of communal eating was upheld at Lushan but could communal eating really have been the cause of massive famine? The same resolution affirmed that there should be vigorous economy in the community dining-rooms with a fixed allocation of food per individual and participation in communal eating to be voluntary (14). According to Chou En-Lai, speaking ten days after the Lushan Plenum, the Party was aware that initially:

‘some dining halls failed to manage their grain and non-staple foods well, so that a little too much was consumed. This is understandable. This defect has now been corrected. After the summer harvesting, such measures as distributing grain to each family, voluntary participation in dining-rooms, allocating food according to each individual’s capacity and returning unconsumed grain to the person who saves it, have been introduced in various localities, with the result that most of the dining-rooms have been put on a sound basis.’ (15).

It is also true that industrial output was planned to increase very rapidly in 1959 and 1960, though by a lot less than originally envisaged. However, given the small rise in the industrial workforce it is not at all clear how this could have created a massive famine.

It also might be argued that the diversion of the rural workforce to rural activities other than grain production might have been to blame for famine but as we have seen the Central Committee stipulated that these activities should take place after the harvest. According to figures released by the post-Mao Chinese regime, the number of rural non-agricultural workers decreased from 45.1 million in 1959 to 27.5 million in 1960 and only 5.1 million in 1961. The area sown to grain increased from 116.00 million hectares in 1959 to 122.4 million hectares in 1960 (although it had been 136.3 million hectares in 1956) (16). It is true that much labour was used for water conservancy but organising efforts to build water conservancy schemes at a time of drought was surely more a response to somewhat desperate circumstances than ‘leftist excess’.

These comments should not be taken as a full analysis of the aftermath of Lushan. However, they do provide a very good prima facie case that Lushan carried on the efforts of the previous few months to address the problems of the Great Leap Forward and to try and safeguard the nation’s grain supply. Especially in agriculture, sober planning and organisation took the place of the alleged utopianism of 1958. We have to ask ourselves why modern historians always repeat that Lushan led to a resurgence of the alleged excesses of 1958 and that political in-fighting led to the deaths of millions in 1960, given the very inconsistent evidence for this.