(Mao)’Why was this not handed to the masses for discussion? There were only meetings of industrial secretaries and party secretaries of the factories. Why were there no workshop secretaries, team leaders, and activists taking part? Without opposing sides, without the majority taking part, there would not be the mass line. We’ve been talking about following the mass line for ten thousand years. Then why was this not handed to the masses for discussion? It may seem that following the mass line is just like this in China, but in fact it is wrong. In the rural area, there are only county committees’ and commune party committees’ lines; there is no mass line. It is the same situation in the factories. When Yan Xishan took charge of the army, he paid special attention to regimental commanders. In taking charge of the industries, we need to learn from him: paying special attention to workshop leaders and workshop secretaries. When we have industrial meetings, we need to have them to participate.’

When discussing “production arrangement” for the second quarter,” Mao said:

‘It would be good if this list can be accomplished. Is this list Marxist? If 90 percent or above can be completed, it is Marxist.’

When discussing “There are two ways for arranging the second quarter’s production and construction,” Mao said:

‘This can be regarded a lesson. This analysis is good. For industries, we need to pay close attention during these 3 months. There will be a Qin Shi Huang [the first emperor of China] in the leadership of the industries. In order to complete the plan, there needs to be big cuts in projects. We should cut the number of the projects from 1078 to 500. Applying the force evenly is a way of undermining the Great Leap Forward. All going hungry and starving to death is worse than having one half die and one half eat their fill.’

When discussing “In order to guarantee the completion of the yearly plan, we need to concentrate limited resources and personnel, shorten the front line, and accomplish the tasks one by one, batch by batch,” Mao said:

‘This is good.’

[Document Extract Ends]

So we see Mao complaining about the lack of consultation with the masses concerning industrial plans. Then we see Mao asking for the number of Great Leap Forward projects to be cut in half. Then he makes the controversial comment.

There is nothing here to suggest Mao is seriously proposing to let anyone starve to fulfil his plans. What we see here are notes of some of the comments Mao made in a debate over policy. It seems like he is responding to the reports or statements of others but we only have his comments here, we do not know the content of these reports or other statements . We do not know, therefore, quite why Mao made his comment about people dying. So is it sensible to take this comment literally, as Dikotter appears to do? Is Mao really saying that under the Great Leap Forward plans he is criticising, 90 million people, for example, would starve to death so he wants to cut the number of Great Leap Forward projects down to 500, so only 45 million people, for example, starve to death? What is more, at the same time he is proposing to consult the masses and to have a plan for industrial growth that actually comes from the masses-‘the mass line’. Would Mao really have been saying there needs to be greater consultation among the people about plans intended to starve tens of millions of them to death? It hardly seems likely that this is what Mao is saying. It appears that Dikotter’s way of thinking about the whole issue has prevented him interpreting this document in an objective manner.

What is far more likely is that Mao is making a sarcastic comment about plans that have not been consulted on and go too far. There is good evidence for this because four months before at the Wuchang conference, when Mao had also talked of the need to scale back Great Leap Forward plans, he is recorded as warning that no would should die as a result of the Great Leap Forward. Crucially he is recorded as making a rather hyperbolic comment at Wuchang about half of China dying while warning his audience not to go too far with their Great Leap Forward projects.

Mao is quoted as saying at the Wuchang Conference:

‘In this kind of situation, I think if we do [all these things simultaneously] half of China’s population unquestionably will die; and if it’s not a half, it’ll be a third or ten percent, a death toll of 50 million people… If with a death toll of 50 million, you didn’t lose your jobs, I at least should lose mine; [whether I would lose my] head would be open to question. Anhui wants to do so many things, it’s quite all right to do a lot, but make it a principle to have no deaths.’

Then a little later in the same discussion Mao says: ‘As to 30 million tons of steel, do we really need that much? Are we able to produce [that much]? How many people do we have to mobilize? Could it lead to deaths?'(3).

When we put the two statements together we can see that Mao’s comment about half of China dying was something he tended to say when he was angry or worried about over-ambitious or undemocratic plans in the Great Leap Forward. According to the quote from the Wuchang Conference, it is quite clear that Mao wants no deaths at all due to the Great Leap Forward, he certainly was not prepared to risk tens of million deaths as some are trying to claim.

The comments of my correspondents, who saw the whole document, reinforce the view that Dikotter’s interpretation of what Mao is saying is very mistaken. My correspondents made the following comments.

They confirmed the document contains meeting notes of Mao’s speech in a meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959. It does not list who attended the meeting. The entire meeting covered quite a lot of issues, mainly agrarian issues and food supply. My correspondents remember the following points from the body of the document.

(1) Mao urged other officials to set the grain collection quotas as early as possible. He is recorded as saying that if grain collection does not exceed 1/3 of the harvest, peasants will not rebel. However, this must be seen in the context of a lot of other comments. He also said: ‘Set the quota earlier so peasants can be relieved. Even if peasants want to give us their surplus, we will not accept it [because the quota has been set]. It is better to leave more grain to peasants.’ Importantly, my correspondents believe that Mao is recorded as asking local officials not to set the target too high like before.

(2) Although the new quotas are still very possibly too high, the main tone of the speech, according to my correspondents, is to protect the peasants’ interests, stabilise people’s life at a time of food shortage, further expand mass participation in decision making, etc.

As a minimum Dikotter must publish the full document before we can start to consider this issue. This is because, as stated, my correspondents believe that Mao is asking for a lowering of quotas in this document. However, Dikotter is accusing Mao of deliberately doing the opposite when he knew that there was a food shortage. Dikotter argues that the grain procurements for years before 1958 varied between 20 and 25%. He states that some have believed excessive procurements in 1959 were due to the government believing the harvest in 1959 was bigger than it actually was. He then uses Mao’s statement that a maximum of a third should be procured to indicate that Mao himself wanted to procure more than before in 1959 (4) .This is in line with a general approach that the famine deaths in 1959 and 1960 were due to deliberate policy decisions. However, if Mao is saying at the Jinjiang Hotel that the procurement figure of a third is lower than before, then Dikotter’s account becomes incoherent. According to figures released by the Chinese state in 1983, 48.040 million tons of grain out of 195.045 million were procured in 1957, of these 14.170 million tons were sold back to the rural population. So 24.6% of grain was procured in 1957 with a net procurement, after resales to the rural population, of 17.4%. In 1958 the figures were 29.4% and 20.9%. In 1959 the figures were 39.7% and 28% (5). So it is very hard to see why Mao would be saying that procuring not more than a third is a decrease on previous years. Some possibilities are:
1. Mao did not know the true figures for production and procurement in this or previous years. In this case it is hard to accuse Mao of a crime, as he was trying to reduce procurements but with the wrong figures.
2. When Mao says not to procure ‘more than a third’ he does not mean nation-wide. He means do not procure more than a third even in areas producing a big surplus. Therefore he believed the average procurement for China would be less than a third in 1959.
3. Procurements were higher than a third before 1959 and only a third in 1959. Therefore the figures released in 1983 are wrong.
4. Whoever recorded Mao’s comments, at the Jinjiang Hotel, made serious mistakes in which case the document as a whole probably could not be used as reliable evidence of anything.
5. The full document does not, in fact, clearly show Mao as advocating a reduction in the grain quota and his words could be interpreted in other ways. In this case the matter could only be settled by the publication of the full document.

Some might argue, that setting any grain quota at all, at a time of food shortage, was in some sense a crime. However, this would be very simplistic. Mao was setting a limit here, not saying the government should procure a third of the grain in all areas. Presumably in areas of food shortage, the quotas could have been set lower. For one thing, food had to be redistributed to areas most in need. Han Dongping, a Professor at Warren Wilson College in the USA did some research into the effects of the famine in the Great Leap Forward in Jimo county in Shandong. On the subject of famine relief he noted that many farmers said they would have died without state assistance. Han writes:

‘In 1960, six southeast provinces donated 215,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos of dried vegetables and large quantities of winter clothes to Jimo County. In the same year, Qingdao municipal government provided Jimo County with…125,000 kilos grain, and over half of the households in Jimo County benefited. In November of 1960, a Shanghai municipal delegate brought to Jimo 60,000 kilos of grain, 650,000 kilos dried sweet potatoes and other relief materials. In 1961, Shandong provincial government donated 15,000 tons of grain to Jimo and provided 200 grams of grain per villagers each day before the next harvest.’

Han Dongping’s evidence comes from interviews with local farmers and local official records that he studied (6).

If the record of Mao’s speech is authentic, it may be that Mao believed that some reduction in quotas would be enough to allow for a fairly high quota for the relief of food deficit areas and for the needs of the cities and industry, without the quotas themselves leading to more hunger. Whether this was, objectively speaking, correct is a question beyond the scope of this article.

Some food exports were necessary to buy the raw materials and machinery needed to prevent industry and transportation collapsing. A collapse of the transportation system and the urban economy would have just made distributing food aid and economic recovery harder while creating more hunger in the urban areas. Even figures released in the post-Mao era show China only exporting 4,157.5 thousand tons of grain in 1959 or 2.4% of the total harvest of 170, 000 thousand tons. The figure for exports in 1960 was only 2,720.400 thousand tons (7). Contrary to Dikotter’s implication, it is inconceivable that food exports could have played a major role in a generalised food crisis during the Great Leap Forward, still less starve 45 million people to death. Surely, by far the most important cause of the food shortages was a decline in production, not the level of export. The reasons for this should be investigated, along with allegations that more was done to protect the town-dwellers from the effects of food shortages than the country dwellers. However, the implication that keeps recurring in Dikotter’s book that Mao deliberately starved millions of people to death to finance imports is obviously wrong.