Mao’s agricultural policies could certainly be seen as responsible for the scale of the famine or at least as a huge factor contributing towards it. Other factors, such as the conspiracy of silence, bad weather and withholding information by peasants and government officials were also partly responsible for the scale of the famine; however Mao’s policies played the biggest role in causing the scale of the famine.
Collectivisation was the first agricultural policy taken on by Mao which was unsupported by the peasants in the countryside, who were the majority of the population. The policy contributed hugely to the scale of the famine as it involved joining peasant families together to farm collectively rather than individually and then sharing the food produced with the rest of the community.
This, in theory, was a good idea; if the peasants worked together they could share knowledge and potentially grow more food. However, they didn’t like the policy as it meant, regardless of how much they grew individually, they would only get a set amount, and it was never enough to feed the whole family. Mao believed that many peasants were growing more food than necessary and keeping some for themselves, however this was proved not to be the case; production rate had fallen from 200 million in 1958 to 143.5 million in 1960. Mao simply didn’t trust the peasants, believing they were ‘inherently capitalist’ and were against being a communist state.
The peasants resented farming collectively because they didn’t have enough land to farm their crops, as well as the fact that the authorities believed that they needed to be ‘strictly controlled and directed.’ This attitude towards them caused the peasants to be reluctant to hand over their crops to the state, however they had no choice as they were no longer allowed to farm for themselves and the grain produced went to the State instead, to feed the cities, leaving many to starve.
Lysenkoism was also a huge factor that contributed to the scale of the famine. This was a theory introduced by Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet agronomist, who claimed to have discovered a new method for producing at least double the amount of crops, which involved planting crops deeper in the ground and closed together. China was heavily influenced by the work of the Soviet Union, especially Lysenko’s ideas as Mao aspired for China to be similar to them, meaning he assumed the policies they followed must work.
He introduced the policy in 1958; however, the plants couldn’t grow in these conditions, causing huge famine and lack of food. Furthermore, a competition was developed during the Great Leap Forward for creating the most striking demonstrations of close planting. Most peasants took this to the extreme and planted seeds as close to each other as possible. As a result, a large amount of their crops died and what survived was taken away by the government officials, leaving the peasants with nothing to eat.
Although collectivisation and Lysenkoism were the main factors leading to the scale of the famine, there were other aspects that contributed to it. Mao was determined to stay in power and refused to believe the true scale of the problem. When presented with a report on the genocide in Tibet, Mao dismissed it as a ‘collection of lies and distortions’ as it criticised the PRC. He was informed that around 15 million peasants had died due to his new policies but he was adamant that he was not to blame. Instead he blamed other external factors causing the scale of the famine, such as bad weather, uninformed local officers and greedy peasants.
Other factors that also contributed to the scale of the famine included how focus was taken away from agriculture and set on industry instead. This meant that a dangerously high proportion of farm workers were diverted into steel production and a shortage of agricultural labour meant led to insufficient planting so large amounts of crops died. Another of Mao’s policies that failed was “Sparrowcide”; this was the killing of thousands of sparrows because it was claimed they ate the seeds of the crops.
However the campaign against sparrows was so effective that as the number of sparrows decreased, the number of caterpillars, on which the birds did actually feed, increased so they consumed large areas of crops.
On the other hand, Mao’s agricultural policies weren’t solely to blame for the scale of the famine; the conspiracy of silence also played quite a major role. Government officials knew that Lysenkoism was failing and that the targets set by Mao
weren’t being met but they were too scared to speak out about it. They knew Mao would have them purged if they appeared to go against him, due to his refusal to face the facts.
An example of this was when a conference was called to discuss the progress of the Great Leap Forward in Lushan, during which one official, Peng Dehuai, spoke the truth about the extent of the famine in an attempt to rectify the situation. However the other members did not support him so as not to appear that they were against Mao because they were afraid of what would happen to them and it was also said to them that criticism of the Party could lead to the collapse of its power. Because of this, some of the information on the scale of the famine was held back from Mao.
At the beginning of the famine, reports of success soon became obligatory and were used for future planning. The figures were believed, resulting in communes serving over-generous meals and using up valuable food reserves on top of the State taking ownership of the food they produced. As the famine continued, officials would still report back to Beijing that the peasants were producing enough grain and the targets were being met so more and more peasants would be left to starve whilst their food was taken away to feed the urban population and to use as exports to the USSR.
Furthermore, the peasants would lie about the amount of food they were producing by moving the grain around or including other food they were producing, such as fruit and vegetables, as well as all the grain they had produced. This meant that the officials would take away all the grain that the peasants had, leaving them with nothing. Therefore, some historians could argue that the peasants themselves contributed to the scale of the famine and it wasn’t just down to Mao’s policies.
Although Lysenkoism is seen to be one of the biggest factors leading to the scale of the famine, the failure of Lysenkoism wasn’t entirely Mao’s fault. Lysenko’s theory on how to increase productivity was false and, although it could be argued that the failing of this policy was inevitable, China was heavily influenced by Soviet scientists. They were influenced into believing that Lysenko’s theories were right and he could do no wrong and this propaganda would have led Mao to believe the policies would benefit his county.
The peasants were also influenced into believing that Mao could do no wrong, so many believed that the new policies would save them, rather than send them further into famine. Additionally, there were some factors contributing to the scale of the famine that Mao couldn’t have controlled, such as bad weather and natural disasters, such as floods.
During 1959, China suffered a lot of bad weather and floods that destroyed large amounts of land and crops and in 1960 an estimated 60% of agricultural land in northern China received no rain at all. Mao blamed the scale of the famine on this, although this was far from being the sole reason for the scale of it. It could be argued that if Mao had not forced the peasants to follow Lysenkoism, the plants may have had a better chance of surviving, despite the weather.
To conclude, I feel that Mao’s agricultural policies were the biggest factors that caused the scale of the famine, as the lack of food only started after they had been introduced. Policies such as Lysenkoism and large communes meant that crops weren’t growing properly and that the peasants didn’t have enough to eat even before the State started to claim them to feed the urban population, besides other policies. However, there were other contributing factors that led to the scale of the famine, the main one being the conspiracy of silence.
The officials were been terrified of Mao’s punishments, so would have told him whatever he wanted to hear to avoid them. Some historians argue that if the officials hadn’t lied, and instead told Mao the extent of the famine, he would have been forced to accept he must rectify his mistakes, and change the policies. However, as the officials were lying to him, there is a possibility he genuinely may have not known the scale of the famine and therefore not seen the need to change anything.
On the other hand, Mao had very little knowledge of agriculture in the first place and set ridiculously high goals for the amount of grain that the peasants were expected to produce. He didn’t realise that the peasants didn’t have the correct methods or enough land to produce the correct amount of grain. If he hadn’t set such ambitious goals in the first place, the officials wouldn’t have had to lie to him to cover up his mistakes, so the majority of the scale of the famine should be placed on Mao’s agricultural policies.