Letters from China

Letter Number 9

July 3, 1963

Dear friends,

I shall not comment on the world headlines, how Kennedy woos Khrushchov in early June to isolate China and later jilts him to woo Adenauer to isolate DeGaulle.

Nor shall I predict the ultimate result of Moscow's refusal to publish China's June 14th letter, and the expulsion of Chinese Embassy personnel for distributing it, with its "Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement".' YOU can make up your minds on these as well as I.

It is time for me, after eight "Letters from China" that told chiefly of relations to In.dia, the U.S.S.R., the world, to write of China's own land. For all the chess-moves of power politics may be of less permanent significance than the changes in the Chinese land in the past five years.


For months I have gathered data directly and from friends in Peking and down country. After discussion I summarize: The economic news this summer is good crops, large quantities of food in both city and countryside, more and better consumer goods at lower prices and a perceptible advance in rural modernization. Little is heard of heavy industry--no figures of total steel production--but it is clear that the tens of thousands of new tractors, four times as many in the field as in 1957, and the hundreds of thousands of irrigation pumps, 20 times as many as in 1957, do not come out of thin air. This is confirmed by a glimpse of the homemade but effective new automation at the Wuhan Steel Works, by the Taiyuan Plant turning out huge cranes for giant industry, etc. Joan Hinton of Sian and Shirley Wood of Kaifeng are more thrilled by the local enterprises, the Sian Enamel Works and the Kaifeng Farm Machinery Works, that grew from scratch.

China's friends tend to grow lyrical. Thus a correspondent from Cuba writes me from a tour of the country: "A new Big Leap is in making. Collective economy has passed the test; the communes are stronger than ever. God bless this people for letting me see all these marvels." Even the skeptics give tribute. A none-too-friendly diplomat who two years ago thought the farm situation "catastrophic", now judges:

"China may well be the first socialist country really to solve the problem of agriculture."

The Chinese themselves are modest. They make no claim to "bumper crops" and release few statistics. They say that each year now is better than the last, that a "sound base has been built for an independent modern industry". Then they add: "We are still a poor and technically backward country; the modernization of our agriculture has only begun and will take decades."

But nobody can miss the confidence and sense of wellbeing that grows across the land. In my opinion, in this summer of 1963, China's economy is not only sound but advancing and its people have more hopeful prospects and in some ways already live better than at any time in the recent past. "Even the Manchu bannermen, once supported by the imperial court as a privileged group, live better now through the communes than under the Kuomintang," said Rewi Alley after visiting Manchu areas near the Eastern Tombs.

The steady improvement and sound condition is due, not only to Nature's favors--despite generally good weather, several large areas this year struggle with drought or excessive rains -- and not to outside aid, but to the self-reliant labor and ingenuity of the Chinese people and the sound policies of their leaders, first expressed in the Big Leap and the Communes and then in the disciplined planning of the three "disaster years". Asian economists, in fact, are more impressed by the way China handled the hard years than even by the miracles of the Big Leap.

"You had three bad crop years but you never begged for a dollar. And now you advance on your own power. What other nation can do that?"

THE BIG LEAP (1958-60)

Since it is fashionable to say abroad that China made some advance prior to 1958 but then "went crazy" with the "Big Leap" and the Communes and had nothing but setbacks, I shall confine most of my discussion to the years from 1958-62, which are also the years of the Second Five-Year Plan. I begin with the Big Leap as I saw it in 1958. The posters showed a Giant Man bestriding a river and cleaving a mountain, saying: "Here I Come!" The theme of the popular songs was Man's Power, by collective labor, to remake the world.

In half a year half a billion peasants poured into 26,000 communes. The harvest that year was truly terrific but nobody ever knew how big. Some communes built railroads with wooden rails to transport it to market; some people left it lying in the fields and went off to make steel. Sixty million people made steel that autumn in home-made furnaces. Honan Province "shot a sputnik" which meant that they worked from midnight to midnight and claimed to have made more iron in that single day than the whole U.S.A. makes in a normal day. Then 75 million people went for the winter to build reservoirs and irrigation systems.

The world ridiculed, especially when China announced, a year later, that the 1958 grain statistics were wrong and much of the iron produced was bad quality. But the irrigation systems begun in 1957 and 1958 withstood the first shock of the "disaster years" and have been steadily expanding to the present day to be now completed by the 200,000 to 300,000 electric pumps. Every county in China today knows how to make iron and steel and where to find the nearest coal and iron ore. Even every township today develops industry suited to its needs. This was the legacy of the Big Leap.

Nobody who lived through that Big Leap forgets it. They say: "The greatest thing we learned was the power that lies in the Chinese people. We also learned the need of better plans."


The "Big Leap" was ended for the time by natural disasters and by the imbalance of its own gains.

In three years steel production tripled from 5.35 million tons in 1957 to 18.45 million in 1960. General industrial output kept pace, attaining in two years more than had been planned for five years. To achieve this, tens of millions of peasants poured into the cities for jobs; everyone believed that the grain problem was licked. Then in the same year of 1960 in which steel output tripled, the worst droughts, floods, hurricanes of a century struck 60 percent of China's cultivated area, 40 percent of it "seriously". It became clear that the farms could not feed the expanded industries either with grain for the workers or materials for the machines.

Grain became the first priority.

The three "disaster years" overlapped the last year of the Big Leap, for crop difficulties began with harvest of 1959 and continued till autumn of 1962. But industrial production swept forward through 1960 by its momentum, with some carry-over of grain from 1958. Thus the worst grain shortage was in winter of 1960-61. From that time new policies set in.

It was in summer of 1960 that Khrushchov smote the industries of China by the sudden withdrawal of all Soviet specialists and the breaking of hundreds of contracts for machinery, parts and whole enterprises. This especially hit heavy industry, which was almost entirely built on Soviet blueprints. Some effect was felt in agriculture, when parts failed for tractors or for big irrigation dams.

The three hard years were thus the result of three factors. The natural disasters of weather were the chief factor, but they impinged on an off-balance economic situation where new social forms had had no time to consolidate, and they were aggravated by a severe blow from the supposed source of "aid".


The policies that carried China through the "disaster years" were first, the commune form of organization, and second, the close relation between industry and agriculture expressed in the formula: "agriculture is the foundation and industry the leading factor".

People's Communes were never the devilish slavery claimed abroad, nor the magic for "Communism at once" which some enthusiasts thought but which the Chinese Communists never claimed. They are a form of social organization that arose in 1958, and that proved highly effective in combining the farming cooperatives--which already contained as members most of the Chinese peasants--for wider needs of mechanization, irrigation and local industries. Their special feature is that they also become government at the basic level, i.e. the township, and thus directly apply the local labor and accumulation to the building of local roads, irrigation, hospitals, schools and small industries, as well as to local welfare work and home defense.

How the communes "saved the country" in the three years of natural disasters is partly told in my booklet "China's Fight for Grain" (New World Press, Peking 1963) and can be only briefly summarized here. The watercontrol they built in 1957 and 1958 contained the first shock of drought or flood. When this proved inadequate, the communes had many techniques of mutual aid whereby a stricken local group, whether a "production team" or "brigade" or an entire commune, would first rally its own resources and then supplement these by help from neighboring units on a basis of "equivalent exchange". That is, the stronger neighbors would send tractors, draught animals, and labor in quantity, and even grain and seed, as a loan, which the recipient was to repay in kind, grain being repaid in grain, labor-days by labor-days.

Even in the worst situations when disasters involving many counties demanded state relief, the commune became its distributor and kept the community together to develop all possible local resources. The worst feature of all famines in the "old society" was the pulverizing of communities, in which the rich hoarded grain while the poor abandoned homes and begged or sold children or died of hunger on the roads. In the recent hard years, because of the commune organization, all communities stood, fought, were given aid and avoided starvation. Thus community life, in city or countryside, came out of the disasters stronger than before.

The communes went through several adjustments; they became smaller in size and many more in number. Instead of 26,000 communes with an average membership of nearly 5,000 households, there are as of the end of 1962, 74,700 communes each with an average of 1,800 households, organized in 9 "brigades" (75 "teams"). The "team" or "brigade" is the production unit for farming, while the commune, i.e. the township, is the unit for the wider tasks of irrigation, road building, and small industries. The Chinese Communists still believe that this commune form, combining farming, industry and state power at the basic level, is one that can endure through the period of socialism into the coming epoch of Communism.


The second thing that carried China through the years of disasters was a close interaction between industry and agriculture, quicker and more conscious than in any country I have known. The formula "agriculture as foundation and industry as leading factor" is a long term one. Industry, especially heavy industry, determines the form and rate of change, whether by tractors, pumps or nuclear power. But agriculture is the foundation, which industry remoulds but on which industry is built. China, finding in 1960 that her farms could not feed her expanded industry and having no outside aid, stopped new construction and closed down "unessential" industry, telling the most recently arrived workers, who still had homes in the villages, to go home and raise food. Workers who agreed to go were given aid with transport of household effects, and six months state grain tickets, that they might not burden the farms until they could themselves again produce.

Meantime industry swiftly expanded all those branches which served the farms. First priority went to farm equipment--tractors and irrigation pumps that would at once make agriculture more productive. The equipment was channelled directly to those areas which could most quickly solve the nation's need for food and raw materials: the basic grain areas, the river deltas, the suburban communes where adequate pumping systems might double or triple a city's vegetable supply.

Tractors are made not only in Loyang Tractor Plant which turns out its quota of 15,000 tractors, a Soviet model suited to Siberia and hence to Manchuria and parts of North China; Loyang also makes parts for imported tractors that no longer come. New tractor plants in Peking, Shanghai, Tientsin, Shenyang, Wuhan and other cities, turn out tractors of other models, designed for areas with other needs. Farm machinery works spring up everywhere, even at township level.... Even Tibet, where four years ago the peasants, then serfs, believed that "iron tools poison the soil", now has eight factories making farm implements. Meantime the handicraft cooperatives, helped by priorities on iron and steel, made 500 MILLION farm tools in the first ten months of 1962!

Drainage and irrigation equipment have equally high priority. Nearly six million horse-power in such equipment went out by the end of 1962, including 1.4 million kilowatts in pumping stations, a tenfold increase in general equipment and a 20 fold increase in electric pumping stations since 1957. This number is already outdated; in spring of 1963 Rewi Alley saw scores of new transmission lines and thousands of new pumps rushing across North Hopei to battle the area's drought. Industrial output leaps fast to an emergency call from agriculture, for a single crop won or lost in a fair-sized area, affects the base of industry too.

This interchange between industry and agriculture becomes a swift rhythm that drives the economy ahead. Industry "leads"; its advance is selective but not narrow and is carefully planned. Factories send out survey teams to study the farmers' needs, whether this be a special kind of tractor for terraced fields, or a heavy-duty bicycle to pull loads on rural lanes. More than a million bicycles a year are made in China, and they are of many models. For, next to farm equipment, second priority goes to consumer goods that the farmer wants.

Fertilizers and insecticides also have priority, and have led an advance of the entire chemical industry, including plastics and synthetic fibers to lessen the need for cotton. Pharmaceuticals are also well developed; as many medical drugs are made in five days now as in the entire year of 1949, not only the simple eye-lotions and cough mixtures as before, but a full line of sulfa drugs, antibiotics, vitamins. Twenty million Chinese children were last year safeguarded against polio by oral (Sabin strain) vaccine made in China. Any epidemic of plague or cholera in adjacent lands of Asia finds the Chinese Red Cross donating large supplies.

Nobody claims that China has a fully grown industry or a modernized agriculture. She has built in five years a sound base on which a self-reliant industrialization will grow. "We do not seek absolute 'self-sufficiency'," explained a leader of foreign trade. "That is a fascist dream. We seek wide relations and trade with foreign lands; we have much to learn from industrialized lands, whether the U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia, Britain, France or Japan. But we also think that every nation must build with self-reliance on its own base and determine the direction of its growth, adding whatever is possible in trade or fraternal help, on a principle of equality and mutual benefit".

The theme song of China is no longer the overcoming of disasters but the mounting symphony of a new advance.


Soap-flakes for washing nylons, a soluble coffee like nescafe but blacker, chocolate bars and "life-savers" comparable to Western quality, a cocomalt powder of eggs, milk and cocoa that makes a tasty nerve-quieting drink, are items picked up in the corner store. Pop-corn and hot rolls with meat inside are bought on the street, now replaced in summer with ice-cream bars. Nylon socks that wear forever, and a "drip-dry" synthetic weave like silk crepe have been on sale over a year, but variety grows. All China-made!

On everything the price goes down while quality goes up. A friend bought leather sandals for her child at 5 yuan ($2.00), went back in a few days to exchange them and found the price had dropped to 3.50 yuan. Sea-fish are plentiful at 40-60 fen a catty (15 to 25 cents a pound; luscious tomatoes at 4 fen, (less than 2 cents a pound!) Milk at last enters the Chinese diet; Peking now consumes ten times as much as in 1959!

Half a million flower plants were sold last year to Peking residents by the nine state-owned flower-shops, not counting plants bought from communes, exchanged with neighbors or dug up on outings. And now they announce a book on Floriculture, based on the secrets of a famous flower-growing area that supplied the Imperial Court for six hundred years. Tells how to hasten or retard the blooming period, how to deepen color of blooms or even modify shape by water and manure. Only available so far in Chinese. The Huangtukang Commune of that area supplies Peking year around with 400 different kinds of flowers.

I laugh when a Los Angeles friend asks me to "elaborate" on the kinds of consumer goods. I can list a few things that make my life pleasant. But Shanghai's No. One Department Store lists 50,000; I'm no catalogue!

Bicycles, radios, watches, sewing-machines, plastics of all kinds have increased tremendously; output on some grew 50 percent, on others tenfold since 1957. Shanghai makes 13,000 kinds of toys, from boxes of construction bricks to small power-driven cars. Dolls appear in gay costumes of 20 nationalities and also as pandas, lions, teddy-bears. Fifty new designs of toys appeared to celebrate Children's Day, June 1st.

Shanghai, first big producer of consumer goods, is no longer the only source. Canton has 72 factories making consumer goods, all built or expanded since 1959. Kiangsu Province, formerly dependent on Shanghai, now makes two-thirds of its own consumer goods; it built 29 factories making plastics since 1958. In Yunnan of the far southwest the national minority areas built 25 small paper factories and now supply one-third of the province's paper from local reeds and bamboo.

Shanghai makes machines now for all such localities and sends skilled workers and technicians to help start factories all over China. In 1963 machines for canneries, glass works, leather products and plastics have gone from Shanghai into 20 provinces.

"Rejects" on Soviet orders are quickly bought. They began a couple of years ago, then mostly canned meats. Last month a friend gave me an exquisite shoe-horn, 16 inches long, so one needn't stoop, carved from heavy bamboo with handle lacquered in floral design. Cost only 8 fen (3 1/3 cents) but I couldn't buy more. I heard they were made to Soviet order, rejected at the border and dumped fast to save storage....Lately Dr. Ma saw those long strings of colored lights they use on Christmas trees, all over northern Inner Mongolia. Made for the Soviet New Years, turned back for some reason, dumped in Hailar near the border to save return transport. The Mongols decorate their yurts with them; they've electricity now and the tiny off-and-on lamps use little "juice". Must be gay on the wild plains on dark nights!

The general commodity situation is illuminated by the remark of a Chinese friend: "Our traffic cops are vigilant but flexible. Last winter they never stopped me when the light in my bicycle lamp was out because they knew I couldn't get batteries. Now they stop me at the first street corner, because they know you can buy all kinds of batteries."


For years the U.S. Post-Office burned printed matter they didn't like as "Communist propaganda". Then A. L. Wirin of Los Angeles brought suit in the name of "Civil Liberties" and won. The.next trick was to notify recipients that "Communist propaganda" had come for them and would be destroyed unless they signed a paper that they wanted it. This was supposed to terrify!

Now there's a later trick. They send China material back to sender, marked with a "red hand" and "F.A.C. VIOLATION". (Foreign Assets Control.) I airmailed my little booklet "China's Fight for Grain" to Mrs. I. F. Stone in thanks for her husband's fine news-letter. It came back with the "Red Hand" mark!

"Letter from China" goes easily to other lands for 8 cents as "airmail printed matter". It can't get into the U.S.A. that way. I send it to friends by "letter postage" at twice the cost and hope it arrives! No land in the world is so isolated from news as the U.S.A.




by Shirley Wood, mother of six and college teacher in a provincial town in a recent drought area

You know how our communes were touted abroad as a fiasco. Our Kaifeng urban commune industries were really over-expanded; this displaced labor and raw materials. We saw this and criticized it three years ago. But when the disasters hit, it was these "Big Leap" industries that made recovery possible when our "Giants" were crippled by incomplete equipment. And when the BBC recently mentioned Honan Province as a farm machinery center, it wasn't the big Loyang Tractor Works they meant but our Kaifeng Machinery Works and all the things it grew into through our urban communes.

Many years ago it made copper coins; in 1950 it began making double-share ploughs; in 1959 it produced 300 small combines from parts and steel made mostly by urban communes and our Normal College. Then it gave birth to two Iron Works; these folded, because Kaifeng is too far from coal and iron to make the steel business profitable. Next the Machinery Works gave birth to a big Combine Factory that now produces in the suburbs; the original Works makes pumps, horse-drawn machines, winnowers, grain-sorters and other medium-sized farm machinery of export quality.

The old iron foundry which used to cast stoves and cauldrons, now also makes machine parts. Most of the "Works" set up by the city communes gave up steelmaking and took up the thriving trade of repairing the city's bicycles, pedicabs, wagons and hand-carts. A few went in for auto-repair and put in drills, presses and other equipment to do the installations, repairs and making of parts the Machinery Works no longer cares to handle.

Our little textile factories with hand-looms and handoperated spinning jennies, were combined and mechanized under Commune management and now make a good quality of thread, strong knitted stockings and underwear from the short staple cotton the big mills won't use.

We also used to make in Kaifeng some very loud dyes that ran at first sight. In the north of town where the earth is solid alkali, most families had a filtering jar and a cauldron to refine crude soda. The communes combined and somewhat modernized this soda business. We now have two kinds of commune-run chemical plants, one refining soda, the other making industrial chemicals. Since 1960 we make carbon paper for export (Sanmen Gorge Brand), and at least two dyes of international standard. We also developed two brands of laundry soap superior to the Shanghai product. That's the "fiasco" or our urban communes.

Rewi Alley

Kwanyin, the female incarnation of Buddha, was the favorite "Goddess of Mercy" in many temples. This 35 feet high Kwanyin overlooks the northern frontier across which for centuries came invaders.

Gone is the ruby from the massive
forehead of this Kwanyin; still
she gazes over ancient roofs
as she has done while armies
of the ages marched in,
massacred, tramped away, leaving
the people to start all over.

Now she sees the dust rise
from trucks carrying to the new
dam across the valley,
which will end flooded fields
too long denied harvest.

A summer's sun
glints in, lights up her head,
giving it the look seen now
on faces of people below:
Peace, confidence, power.


A five-year-old boy named Bashi often played in the square by the Paoting railway station; it was near his home. One day he heard the loudspeaker call: "All aboard for Peking. The train is leaving," and followed the stream of passengers into the train. Nobody stopped him; he might have been a passenger's child and he needed no ticket at that age. In the four-hour trip he wandered about, accepted tidbits of food, looked out of windows, saw nothing to fear. In Peking the gate-keeper noticed him enough to shout: "Mothers, look after your children," but Bashi went on through. He followed passengers into a bright red bus.

From then on Bashi toured three-fourths of Peking, picking trolleys and busses by the bright colors, blue, scarlet, yellow. Dusk found him crying in the diplomatic quarter because he was hungry and the people looked strange. A PLA man picked him up and the familiar uniform calmed him but he couldn't tell where he belonged. So he landed in the police refuge for lost children where they cheered him with candy, fed him, put him to bed. Bashi was smiling again, calling them "uncles" and "aunties".

The police were not as light-hearted as Bashi. They phoned to every ward and suburb but nobody seemed to have lost a child. Bashi stayed on in the refuge seeing other children come, be cheered with candy and eventually leave. Bashi remained.

On the eighth day somebody thought Bashi's accent suggested Paoting, a city four hours away in Hopei Province. A phone to Paoting discovered distraught parents who had already searched "for the body" in 50 wide-mouthed wells.

Bashi was eating sweets when his father reached the refuge. The man burst into tears. Bashi, disturbed, pulled a candy from his pocket. "Don't you want a candy, daddy," he comforted. Everyone laughed.

* * *

This recalls the time when my secretary Feng-feng and I took two little boys under seven by plane from the southern tip of Hainan to Canton. The father brought them down to the beach for their winter vacation; he was staying on but the boys had to go back for school. I asked Feng-feng if she knew the family; she replied that she knew the organization for which they worked and their address was not far out of our way.

Early next morning the father presented Feng-feng to the boys as their "new auntie" who would take them to mother by plane. The boys were elated. They chattered with the chauffeur to the airport and played with the pilots under the plane; the older boy declared intent to become an air-force pilot. Alas! They were both very air-sick in the fifty minute hop to Haiko and landed much deflated.

In the three-hour wait, I was taken up town for an interview and lunch with one of the island's leaders. The boys of course went along, were put to bed in our host's bedroom and later came out to view the lunch. The older boy gazed at the food with jaundiced eye and turned away, saying:"It would just be wasted." The younger boy followed him back to bed. I laughed; the words so neatly expressed the general attitude of "thrift" that year.

In Canton the local Peace Committee representative met us by auto and took one of the unexpected boys on his lap while Feng-feng took the other. We took a detour to land them in their mother's arms. The auto and the suit of our host needed cleaning; the boy had been sick in the arms of the man who met us and whom the boy called "uncle" too.

* * *

This brings me to the tale of the Indian officers, but first I must explain that Chinese children today are taught that the world is one family, and especially all Chinese are either "uncles", "aunties", "grandpas" or "grannies", according to sex and age. When the Soviet specialists were in China, they were "Soviet uncles". Children still use the term for any white-skinned respected foreigner like Rewi Alley of New Zealand and Dr. Ma, an American of Syrian birth. All these are "Soviet uncles" to Chinese children.

The Indian soldiers captured in the Himalayas, invading Chinese territory, were all sent home by the Chinese. Most of the 3,000 odd captured men went back by the nearest mountain passes by arrangement with the Indian Red Cross. The 27 captured officers of fieldgrade were given a trip through China and returned by plane from Kunming to Calcutta. This gave New Delhi a chance to claim that they had been "paraded through the streets of China's cities", a nasty slur spread even by Nehru's daughter, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and quite untrue. The few men who entered China's cities went on private tour, at their own request, and nobody was told their identity until after they had left.

Then word leaked out through interpreters and I learned the following. The Indian officers were surprised to find no war-fever in China, no hate against India. The tale of their visit to a kindergarten is too good to keep. The Indians themselves asked the children: "Who do you think we are?"

After a puzzled pause a bright child said: "We know! You're Cuban uncles"! The other children nodded in pleased assent.

Everyone in China gets the point at once. The Indians were clearly not Chinese, for, while China has many nationalities, the Indians made it obvious by asking. They could not be "Soviet uncles" because of their dark skin. But today there is another country which every Chinese child admires. Clearly, they must be "Cuban uncles".