Hyping The Numbers: The Case Of The Great Leap Forward

Whereas the field of statistics is supposed to a scientific field ruled by objectivity, the reality is that it is very much influenced by psychology, sociology and politics.  In the case of Chinese history, the most interesting case is the food production statistics during The Great Leap Forward campaign.  The productivity figures were astronomical in the sense that the rice paddies would have sunk several feet into the ground based upon the amount of rice that was supposedly produced.  The following is a translation of one explanatory history of this episode.

Hyping official statistics is not a uniquely Chinese characteristic.  Another example was the famous body counts during the Vietnam War.  These two case studies share similar characters because they both share the same channel and directional characteristics.  The process begins when the top leadership (Chairman Mao and Presidents Johnson and Nixon) needed to have good numbers for political reasons.  So the pressure is transmitted downwards through the bureaucratic hierarchy to deliver.  When the buck can no longer be passed, the village production brigade and the Marine platoon began to cook up numbers.  The base groups were also in competition with each other.  A village production brigade that was significantly behind other bridages is a bunch of slackers, if not rightist saboteurs; a Marine platoon that didn't kill enough enemies was a bunch of slackers, if not cowards.  As the numbers are transmitted back up the bureaucratic hierarchy, each level decided to add another 10% or something such on the way.  So it was that the food production reached as high as the satellites in the sky and the total body count may become large multiples of the estimated total size of the enemy force. 

Although the United States has said that it is not interested in body counts in Iraq (General Tommy Franks: "We don't do body counts"), they inevitably have to use American casualty and anti-Iraqi insurgent body counts as metrics for progress and success.  But if you assert that there are only 2,000 insurgents in all of Iraq and you have killed 4,000 of them already with no end to the war in sight, what gives?  Either the size of the insurgency was much larger than you say, or else you are killing non-combatants.  Take your pick. 

The corporation that I work for may be criticized for being a mindless monster that swallows many smaller companies in mergers and acquisitions for their own sakes.  However, that corporation is no Enron.  In fact, it learned from the Enron experience.  Each manager must personally verify and sign the numbers that they transmit to the next level.  If discrepancy was ever found at that level, that manager is personally liable by virtue of that signature whereas their superiors are not because they accepted what was on ostensibly verified and clearly signed statements.  Given this asymmetric assignment of responsibility, a manager would be a total fool to collude with those above to cheat.  If pressured, the manager also knows that the board of directors will be totally jump on him/her if the whistle is blown.  The board of directors knows that its job is to protect shareholder value, which would plummet at the hint of accounting fraud and much more disastrous than sub-par cash-flow performance for one quarter.  This is one thing that this corporation does right.

This is really not so hard to do.  The top leadership must show by word and deed that they want accurate information and they will punish all fraudsters severely.

(New Century Net)

In 1957, a campaign was launched in China to suppress the rightists who dared to speak the truth.  In 1958, China began The Great Leap Forward, which would have plenty of untruths.  In the thinking of those in power, they have just defeated the rightists on Politics and Thought and therefore inevitably they should be able to accomplish a Great Leap Forward in Production.  They were ready to reap the glorious economic results.

This particular thinking was realized in the form of organizational measures that were imposed from one level down to another, until the base begin to issue production levels that reached as high as "satellites."

In the months of July, August and September of 1958, the People's Daily reported that the productivity of rice paddies had increased from 30,000 jin (note: one jin equals 0.5 kilograms) to 40,000 jin to 50,000 jin to 60,000 jin to 130,000 jin per mu (note: one mu equals one-fifteenth of a hectare or one sixth of an acre).  The productivity of wheat went from 5,000 jin to 60,000 jin to 70,000 jin to 80,000 jin per mu.  The newspaper proudly pronounced: "We can produce as much food as we want if we have to."

The political workers were jumping up and down with joy.  But, of course, it was all a fantasy.  In the case of Xushui County in Hebei Province, the fantasy was based upon using dog meat soup to water the ground as fertilizer in order to produce 120,000 jin of herbal medicine as well as single plants of white cabbage that weigh 500 jin.  Someone asked the County Committee Secretary, "Is this really possible?"  The County Committee Secretary admitted that it was impossible.  "So why are you saying that?"  "We must follow the line.  We are finished if we don't follow the line."  That is to say, Xushui County put on an act to lie to their superiors in order to gain their trust in order to continue for another day.  This was how officials generally felt those days.  Lies were a way of speaking, a prevalent attitude, a trend and a way of getting by.

But what did the top decision-makers think about all this?  When the report from the Chaya Shan People's Commune in Suiping County in Henan Province was delivered to Chairman Mao Zedong, he commented: "This is as beautiful as a poem."  Mao sent his trusted aides Zhen Bada and Zhang Chunqiao to study the situation there.  Zhen Bada was told by an old man in the village that the wheat was harvested in many mu's and then all placed in one single mu in order to arrive at the figure.  Zhen Bada said nothing after he heard it, but he was certainly aware of the hyped-up production statistics.

More precisely speaking, the top leadership was not completely insulated from what was happening at the base because the information was coming up through a number of pathways.  But the problem was that the decision-makers were selective about what information they wanted to see, and lies became "as beautiful as a poem."  Anyone who spoke the truth was denounced as a "rightist" and an "accountant."  This had the obvious effect of making the lies proliferate and the truth scarce.

Thus it was that the Great Leap Forward swept through the land of China.  Mao was very pleased about the stratospheric levels reached by the production figures.  He said: "In the past several thousand years, it has always been one or two hundred jin per mu.  But all of a sudden we can now bring it up to thousands and even tens of thousands!"  "In the past nine years, food production grew at a very slow rate.  We were concerned about not producing enough food.  But this year there were several hundred billion more jins."  He reflected: "Things in the world are so peculiar.  If you don't do anything, you get nothing; if you do something, you can a lot.  Either you get nothing or you get a lot."  "Wouldn't you say it is strange?"  Of course, no one can answer that question, nor did anyone dare to answer it.

The food statistics for the year 1958 were a test for The Great Leap Forward.  Those who advocated The Great Leap Forward obviously hoped for a breakthrough figure, but this desire came into conflict with the actual production quantities.  In The Autobiography Of Peng Tehuai, he disclosed the manner in which this conflict was resolved.  At the Laoshan Conference, the Hunan Province Committee Secretary Zhou Xiaozhou told Peng that the 1958 food production figure was the result of pressure: "The first time, they said that the food production figure did not reflect reality.  The next time, they still said that the food production figure did not reflect reality.  After submitting numbers several times, the cadres at the lower level deduced what the higher-ups wanted -- they wanted a fake number and not a real number."

In the July 1958 report from the Agricultural Department consolidated from the regional reports, the estimate was that more than 1,000 billion jin of food was produced.  This number was obtained through pressuring from one level to the next.  This fake number was actually accepted.

In October 1958, the Poliburo Member Tan Chunlin who was in charge of agriculture for the central government reported at an agricultural conference of nine provinces that a 800 billion jin production figure was guaranteed and a 1,000 billion figure was possible.  In November 1958, Tan Chunlin and Agricultural Department Party Organization Secretary Liu Luyin wrote a report to Mao to say that the estimated food production quantity is 850 billion jin: "These figures are cut back at the provincial and municipal level and are 20% to 30% lower than the figures reported by the local counties.  Therefore, these figures are believed to be reliable."  In November and December of 1958 at the national conference, there was a debate over whether the number was 900 billion or 1,000 billion, and there were even those who said that anything is possible.  Finally, Mao made the final decision: the number of 750 billion jin shall be published.

The falseness of this figure was immediately revealed.  The most direct feedback is this: the food plan called for an immediate purchase of 120 billion jin of food from the peasants, for an increase of 25% over the preceding year.  The local authorities had to forcibly take stored food, seedlings and animal feed away from the peasants, and sometimes this ended up in killing peasants who objected and causing instability in the peasant villages.

It was then that the upper echelon began to wonder about the truth behind the "750 billion jin" figure.  They also realized that the economic plan figure for 1958 was too high and needed to be adjusted downwards.  Under these circumstances, the National Planning Committee vice-chairman Jia Tafu and his team were ordered to determine the actual amount of the 1958 food production.  

It goes without say that this audit was predicated on maintaining the correctness of The Great Leap Forward.  This guaranteed that the audit would be a superficial process that involved even more number-fudging.

On August 26, 1959, the National Statistical Bureau announced the result of the audit: the food production was reduced from 750 billion jin down to 500 billion jin.  On the same day, the Ministry of State recommended that the 1958 planned food production figure be reduced from the original 1,050 billion jin down to 550 billion jin.  This way, it maintained the false impression of a 35% leap forward in 1958, and it also brought down the 1959 planning figure to a basis that is consistent on paper with the previous year.

Obviously, these acts of mutual deception did not last very long.  The simplest reason is this: people cannot live off non-existent food.  Mao had previously suggested that people can now have five meals a day with the additional food.  But now the tune was changed and the peasants were asked to return to eat half meals.  The secretary of Premier Zhou Enlai said that the provinces were sending emergency pleas to the central government every day for more food, causing Zhou so much anxeity as to be unable to eat or sleep well.

The Chinese central government had to come up with emergency food transfer to the cities to ward off food shortages.  In 1961, Zhou Enlai was forced to audit the food quantities again.  The National Statistics Bureau came up with these audit results: in 1958, the 500 billion jin figure should have been 400 billion jin; in 1959, the 510 billion jin figure should have been 340 billion jin; in 1960, the 410 billion jin should be 287 billion jin.  The production figure for all three years were wrong.  But are these the true figures?  According to The Ten Years Before The Cultural Revolution (p. 484) and The Critical Moments In The History of the Chinese Communists (p. 543), the 1958 figure was less than 400 billion jin.  Nobody knows what the true figure is, and it will have to wait until the files are open to the public before the truth is known.

The food production figure was a political issue in those days.  It was the foundation stone of The Great Leap Forward, and the food production figure affected the value assessment of The Great Leap Forward.  Therefore, the compilation of this number was subject to human distortions.  

The food problem was a reflection of the entire economic development.  Simply put, the authorities treated the economic development in the same way that they led their armies to battle: they issued orders that propagated down the hierarchy.  They used punishment as a means of obtaining support.  The field situation was reported upwards, based upon how the leaders felt.  Everything the leaders said was right and everything was reported according to the political line.  These people were used to running political campaigns and they are used to having masses of people going along.  So they got what they wanted.  Under this type of system and attitude, it was obviously difficult to get objective and accurate statistics.

Related postHow Numbers Get Hyped in China  (May 21, 2005)