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The Art of China Watching During the Great Leap Forward

From 1958 to 1961, following the anti-rightest crackdown of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party launched the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign meant to achieve rapid industrialization through collective development of the agricultural and industrial sectors. The plan included moving farmers to industrial work, setting up “backyard furnaces” for steel refinement, relocating people to communes, and establishing quota systems. The Great Leap Forward, later called the Great Chinese Famine by many, was a terrible economic failure and resulted in an estimated 18 million to 32 million deaths from famine and violence; the disastrous campaign caused many Chinese to flee the mainland as refugees.

At the time, the U.S. recognized Taiwan and not the People’s Republic of China (PRC), making access to information on internal affairs and the economic situation extremely difficult. To get a better idea of what was happening, American “China Watchers” relied on a range of various sources, from radio broadcasts and newspapers to interviews with refugees escaping to Hong Kong. Because of its proximity to mainland China and its U.S. consular office, Hong Kong, under British rule at the time, became the prime location for a community for China Watchers to analyze and interpret information into China.

Among those China Watchers in Hong Kong were David Dean, Consular Officer in Hong Kong in 1959-62, Ralph Lindstrom, Economic Officer from 1957-59, and Herbert Horowitz, who was a China Watcher with an economic focus from 1965-69. In his 1998 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Dean describes the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward and how he gathered information from refugee interviews and other sources, and the problem of believing propaganda about China’s growth.

Ralph Lindstrom, interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in October 1994, recalls studying Chinese press, talking to consular officers of other countries, and studying trends from Chinese Products, the outlet for Chinese goods . In the excerpts from his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in December 1992, Herbert Horowitz talks about the end of the Great Leap Forward and the “esoteric art” and guesswork of China watching.

You can read about President Nixon’s historic trip to China, the Tiananmen protests, and other Moments on China.


“We’d get those papers from all sorts of places, even from the market, a fish wrapped in paper”

David Dean, Consular Officer in Hong Kong, 1959-62

DEAN:  I went to Hong Kong and was in charge of our economic section analyzing developments on the mainland. In ’57 the Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign had been launched by Mao Zedong. But he found the criticism was too intense, so he stopped it and purged all of those who had been rash enough to criticize him. Then he began his commune system, taking agriculture producer cooperatives and forming them into large communes. Then he began the Great Leap Forward program, trying to substitute manpower for capital investment. In other words, he was trying to use labor instead of capital investment, to lift China off its feet and move it into a new economic era.

People were melting down all sorts of slag in backyard furnaces, none of it usable, and being drafted for projects elsewhere and leaving the old men and women to work in agriculture. They were told to deep plow. They broke through the fields where you would have your rice growing, usually very thick clay, they would break through the bottom with their deep plowing and all their water would run off. They had a terrible time….

You see, Mao Zedong was great for theory but terrible for practice, partially because his theories were so bent… .He was like the Chinese emperor. No one would dare approach him with a complaint or criticism. Frankly, they were even reluctant to approach him to ask him for instructions. Once he laid down the general line, they would go out and scurry and try to do what they thought he meant, and lots of people just didn’t know….

In ’62, Peng Dehui, who was one of their most famous marshals, objected to what they were doing. He said the statistics everybody was putting out from the communes and from the factories were just unbelievable. During that time Mao dismissed the whole state statistical bureau because it had also objected, but Peng Dehui was a very important official. However, he was purged in an anti-rightist campaign. Even though he was purged, others of similar view, like Liu Shaoqi, who very soon took over from Mao as the president, also believed that the Great Leap Forward was a terrible mistake. Later on, Liu was purged for his views.

A lot of people in China understood, just as we did in Hong Kong, that things were going crazy. It was just a terrible waste and a terrible tragedy. We knew that and reported it. I think gradually people came to understand, even in China, that it was just dreadful. There was a period around ’64 when the rightists had come back in after the anti-rightist campaign that had dismissed Peng Dehui, but then they got purged themselves….

That was a fascinating time because I did get involved in what was happening on the mainland and saw the results of the Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign. I also saw the results of the commune policy and of the Great Leap Forward, which was an abject failure. Coupled with very bad weather, it created famine conditions in many parts of China.

There was a steady stream of refugees coming into Hong Kong. One of our jobs was to study the refugee interviews that the British Special Branch conducted and to find out about conditions in China. [Note: The Special Branch of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (RHKPF) acquired and developed intelligence, usually of a political nature, and conducted investigations to protect the State from perceived threats of subversion, particularly terrorism and other extremist activity.)

Most of these people were refugees for economic reasons; it wasn’t for political reasons. It was because of their livelihood; they had none and they had to find some way of feeding their families. Literally thousands and thousands of refugees came into Hong Kong until it got so bad that in 1962 the British Army and the police put up barbed wire to keep people out as they just couldn’t take any more.

People were swimming across the bay, trying to avoid the sharks, trying to get smuggled in by so-called snake boats. They were trying everything. Once they touched base in those days, they were home free. The British would not expel them if they landed. That wasn’t true later. (Photo: Life Magazine)

We got our information from a whole series of sources. We produced a translation of the Chinese press. It was quite an elaborate group that translated articles of interest from various papers. We’d get those papers from all sorts of places, even from the market, a fish wrapped in paper. It might be an old provincial newspaper which we could use. We did a big translation service of the Chinese press and distributed it to universities and academicians and others for their research, too….

“We knew that things were in very bad shape”

Then we used the FBIS translations of Chinese radio, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service [run by the CIA]. That was based on Okinawa and we got a lot of their published material. Then we used, as I said, the Special Branch reports of the refugees, and we tried to use whatever other sources of information we could get.

I would say that our general overall assessment of what was going on in China was reasonably accurate. It may not have been specifically accurate, but it was reasonably accurate for the economy in the various provinces.… I would say it was an exciting period for us because, although a lot of what we did was analytical, we did see enough people who had been in China for one reason or another and we had enough sources of information to put together a pretty good picture of what was happening.

Of course we liaised with Australian intelligence and British intelligence, and we had a very large contingent of CIA in our Consulate General….

There was a problem here because a lot of people, analysts back in Washington, were believing the Chinese claims about their economic success during the Great Leap Forward. We were debunking these claims, you see, so there was a certain amount of tension between those people who thought China was doing just marvelously and those who knew from talking to people who had seen the situation that it was doing very poorly, in fact tragically.

It wasn’t until later that the numbers of 30-40 million people dying during this period were confirmed. It was very interesting. There were lots of good newspapermen. [Famed columnist] Joe Alsop was there hovering around thinking China was going to break up because of the crisis resulting from the failure of the Great Leap Forward ….

Q: Did you find some people in the academic world or the political world wondering maybe “This is pretty marvelous?” There is always this love affair between the United States and China.

DEAN: You always get some people who believe that. Sometimes people draw up their opinions without enough facts to substantiate them….In European and some academic quarters and some government quarters, there was a tendency to say the Chinese were really substituting labor for capital investment and pushing ahead to industrialize China in a very rapid way.

We knew from my experience in Hong Kong seeing the refugees and the reports that had revealed conditions in China of the utter impossibility of their claims about agricultural production, and we knew from attacks on various members of their own elite in Hong Kong that things were in very bad shape. Granted our analysis was very general, but our views in Washington at the desk were similar.

I don’t believe

we had any false expectations about what was happening in China, in fact, quite the opposite….You are always getting differences of opinion in the China field. Look at today. So, that has been sort of normal, since 1949. I think that, looking back on that time, our Consulate General people did a very good job of using what information they had to project an analysis of what was going on….

People who had consulted any of our reports knew they wouldn’t succeed. Of course we couldn’t prove that what maybe 1,000 people said in their debriefings was accurate, that they portrayed developments in the rest of China. It is like picking up a handful of sand and counting the grains and wondering if they can count for the whole country. But it was an indicator. Also the provincial newspapers were indicators, as were the reports of visitors.

We had a lot of sources:  their own broadcasts, their own newspapers, the attacks against individuals, the purges. This gave us a pretty fair idea of what was happening in China. As I say, it wasn’t until some time later that we knew the extent of the damage of the Great Leap Forward and the effort to remove ownership of the land from the peasants. They had given them ownership of the land shortly after 1949, but then they took it away and formed these smaller agriculture producer cooperatives, then the larger ones, and then the people’s communes. This time that and the Great Leap Forward coincided. Both proved to be disastrous ventures.

“People in the West began to believe the Chinese had found the secret of rapid development”

Ralph Lindstrom, Economic Officer in Hong Kong, 1957-59

LINDSTROM:  My service there coincided with the Great Leap Forward in China, when they thought they really had discovered the secret of economic development and were smelting iron and steel, if they could in the backyard.

By then their relationship with the Soviets had really soured. We didn’t know much about that at that time but subsequently, of course, it became very clear that they were separating themselves from the Soviets, and the Soviets were repaying this by cutting down on Soviet assistance. So I think this in part led to this Great Leap Forward that Mao kicked off. It turned out to be, as we knew later, a tremendous failure, but at the time the propaganda was such, and it was so hard to get in and see what was really happening, that people in the Western world began to believe it, that they finally had found the secret of rapid economic development.

So I ended up being right in the middle of reporting, and The New York Times in particular, and some of the other papers, became believers and were publishing daily stories about the successes of the Chinese which we in the Consulate General tried to rebut and tried to put into perspective. But it was difficult. We didn’t have hard numbers….

Certainly the China mainland press was probably our biggest source. We had a big translation operation we ran in Hong Kong….. So that was one source, the China press, and very biased. Then we had many very good local employees working for us directly in the political and economic sections, who had come down from Shanghai and elsewhere. Then some of our best contacts were with the consular corps people who recognized China and who could go up there from time to time. So we cultivated them.

I was on very close terms with the Australians, and people like that. They would be pleased to be debriefed when they came back from a trip to the Canton trade fair. So that was another way of getting information. And certainly our Chinese employees, although they never did anything you could call spying, or anything like that, they could certainly help us interpret what was in the press….

Again, it was very much of a closed society, and the propaganda was pretty effective. People thought they were going to take over all the export markets in the Far East, which they may do now, but this is 40 years later when it’s a much stronger country. But in those days, they were a very poor country.

I was talking to Ed Green about what we might do about this to put it in better perspective. And he said, “Why don’t you go down to China Products?…”  China Products is a retail outlet for Chinese products as the name suggests and we were told by the Treasury Department in those days to never set foot in it. It would be against U.S. law to buy anything in there. But, anyway, people said I should go in there and see what’s going on, what kind of things they’re selling, are there shortages, or do they have availabilities, or not.

So I did that over a considerable period of time. I suppose I was noticed by the Chinese, but I was never prevented and I made notes when I got back outside. I didn’t go around with a note pad or anything like that.

So finally I got together about a 18-20 page dispatch [telegram] on my findings, and it really established rather convincingly that if there was this great supply of consumer goods, and other exportable items it had vanished. It dried up in that store, which was a pretty good indicator that this whole thing was a fraud.

And, of course, we learned many years later, it was just systematic lying within the Chinese bureaucracy about what they were doing, and went all the way to the top, with people apparently believing the reports that were coming in. So I felt I made my little contribution by putting that into better perspective. I got a commendation for that dispatch from the Department.

The Esoteric Art of China Watching

Herbert Horowitz, China Watching, Economic Focus, 1965-69

HOROWITZ:  Our impression as of about 1965 was that the [Chinese] economy had substantially recovered from the Great Leap collapse, the Great Leap tragedy; that agricultural production had come back to the pre-Great Leap Forward level, where it was in 1958 or 1959.

The Great Leap Forward, roughly 1958 to 1960, was a Maoist led effort to stimulate the economy by getting away from the Soviet model which the Chinese had followed in the first five-year plan and which focused on heavy industry. Mao said, “We are going to walk on two legs, we are going to give attention to agriculture as well as to industry.”…It was a great failure! The gross national product dropped by more than a third.

Unfortunately, there was some bad weather over a couple of the years and because of the disorder generated by the Great Leap Forward, the regime was unable to cope with it in terms of famine relief. It was just a disaster; a starvation situation existed. In the early sixties the pragmatists were in command. We didn’t call them pragmatists at the time but they have now become known as the pragmatists.

Mao had lost some of his influence over the Party and the country; he was still the main person but had lost some of his influence. The people who were in charge of the government in a day-to-day way were trying to get the economy going again.

We felt by 1965 that this had been achieved. Agricultural production was up again, industrial production was moving ahead and they had begun to buy some small amount of machinery and equipment from abroad which was a reflection of some of the growth. By about 1965 they were in better shape than they had been for a number of years….

By that time our China watching apparatus or organization had become more sophisticated and in Hong Kong at the Consulate, which was very large, there was a separate China mainland section which did no business with Hong Kong at all, it focused only on the China mainland….

It turned out that that was a tremendously interesting period. Hong Kong was an ideal place for China watching. People who at that point came out of China as refugees or escapees would come to Hong Kong. People going in to China for business or trade, for whatever purpose, would enter via Hong Kong and come out via Hong Kong. It was a gateway in and out of China. In part by Chinese design because the Chinese like the idea of restricted gateways.

So we could pick up a lot of information about China. Some of the radio monitoring of China was done there, but monitoring that was done elsewhere was easily cabled to Hong Kong. There were lots of other China watchers there….

There was a whole China watching community all to itself, and very little contact with other people in Hong Kong. A lot of informal exchanging of views back and forth, discussion, small groups getting together and exchanging ideas.

You established relationships. I established a good friendship with a businessman in Hong Kong, a Westerner, Caucasian, who was doing business with China. I got to know him well enough so that I could call him when he came back from the visit to Peking and say, “How’s business doing? Come over, Herb, and have a drink.” So everyone was picking up bits and pieces of information.

The British were sensitive about it, but they were picking up a lot of information too and we were exchanging our take with them, and to some extent with others. Even with the non-governmental people:  there was a missionary who put out a publication on analyzing developments in China.… Some of the media people, newspaper people, who were in Hong Kong were good China watchers on their own. We would get together and trade stories, impressions. So it was a very vital place for China watchers.

Let me explain about China watching — it was a very esoteric art. With the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese stopped putting out statistics. Since there were no data to deal with, a lot of estimating was by the seat of one’s pants.

For example, in the agriculture area we had an FAS, Foreign Agriculture Service [of the U.S. Department of Agriculture], person who worked with my unit a lot. I used to write the reports; often he would explain the agricultural issue to me and I would write it up and then he would critique what I wrote. The experts knew what China’s historical agricultural pattern had been — how much area was cultivated, how much rice was planted — and with that background of information and with fairly good Communist statistics in the fifties and knowledge about weather in different parts of the country, the experts were able to make some sort of judgments as to whether the crops were going up a little bit or down a little bit.

Then you could match this with what the Communist propagandists were saying. If they said, “Oh, we had an excellent crop last year,” that meant it was terrible; if they said it was a “super, bumper crop” it might have been better. So after awhile you were able to key what they were saying, the phraseology they were using, with the information that you were gathering elsewhere.

The trouble is, the further you get away from the base year of reliable information the more right or wrong you might be….

Along with other evidence that agricultural production had gone up, people coming out of China complaining about famine had decreased. It was clear from the refugees that the true situation had improved somewhat. So you had all these bits and pieces of information.

Of course, one of the problems with the refugee information was that it was mostly about South China, you didn’t get too much about North China. In other areas of the economy it would be a similar kind of guesswork. Part of it was feel, part of it was impressions of visitors, part of it was what China was buying or trying to buy from abroad….

There was a lot of guesswork involved. Then we would come up with some estimate as to trends in China’s trade and what this told us about China’s economic situation. It was part data and part guesswork.

On the political side there was also a lot of reading between the lines. A lot of the Chinese radio broadcasts or the China press reports would be standard, they would repeat the same thing. Then all of a sudden the slogan would change and it would be a hint that something was happening. A slogan doesn’t change by the whim of a broadcaster.

We also learned in due course, rather later, that this was what the Chinese on the mainland over the years were doing; they were listening to their own radio broadcasts and reading their own newspapers, and reading between the lines trying to figure out what was happening. It was a very specialized field, this China watching.