Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Witnesses to the “suppression of rebellion” and Great Leap Forward in Qinghai 1958-61

One page from the Hainan Headquarters Report


"Atomic City" (Factory 221) , a tourist attraction today

Witnesses to the “suppression of rebellion” and Great Leap Forward in Qinghai 1958-61: The Hainan Headquarters report, and the memoirs of Yin Shusheng and “Han Youren”

Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester


This post presents one original document and a series of articles by informed eye-witnesses, which add compelling detail to the documentation of events in Qinghai, and the role of the central leadership.

 The Hainan Headquarters Report 

The Hainan Headquarters for Suppressing Rebellion was a military command established in August 1958 to coordinate counter-insurgency operations in Hainan (Tsolho), one of the prefectures most seriously affected by popular resistance to ‘democratic reform’. On May 22nd 1959 it submitted a report alerting higher authorities to the failings of “political winning-over” work in the prefecture: this meant that the Party’s “Four No-s” policy, guaranteeing that rebels surrendering to the PLA would not be executed, arrested, imprisoned or subjected to ‘struggle’, was not being followed on the ground, and that arbitrary mass arrests and executions were ruining the Party’s credibility with the Tibetan masses.  

The fact that this report was issued by a military authority, which would normally defer to the local Party committee on such matters, in itself indicates the severity of the situation. It would certainly have been encouraged by the central leadership’s recent moves to correct “Leftist mistakes” in the implementation of the Great Leap Forward nationwide: hence the document received swift endorsement from the provincial Party Committee “in the spirit of the Zhengzhou conference” (February 1959), at which Mao Zedong himself had criticised Leftist excesses in the People’s Commune movement. As is well known, this window of reassessment was slammed shut after the Lushan conference in July, when Mao relaunched the Great Leap Forward with catastrophic effect, and it was not until late 1960 that political conditions began to allow for some redressal of excesses. It is likely that the Hainan Headquarters was concerned to avert blame from the military for the atrocities committed in the region, by exposing the local Party leaders.  

It begins by affirming the correctness of Party policies for the suppression of rebellion, before levelling its chief complaint, that implementation has been “extremely uneven”, as “many comrades fail to understand the need for political winning-over.” Section One frames the problem theoretically as an incorrect grasp of the relation between suppressing rebellion and developing production. In Xinghai county (Tib: Tsigorthang), local officials saw only the latter as their responsibility, and due to their failures in “political winning-over work”, the rebels were able to make off with 130,000 cattle and over 1000 horses in one township alone, and in the first five months of the year 441 people in the county had left home to join them. 

Section Two presents examples and statistics of interest. In Tongde county (Tib: Gepa Sumdo), “…the favorable situation of military strikes in winter was used to win back 79 rebels. However, 51, or 61%, of the surrendered rebels were quickly arrested. Since then, not a single rebel returned…it was only after the [Four No-s] policy… was strictly applied to all the rebels who surrendered voluntarily, that [winning-over] work was able to resume again.” In Xinghai county, by contrast, “random arrests and executions have brought serious consequences for the work.” The Headquarters had investigated some of them, but “…due to insufficient disclosure, it is still impossible to find out how many wrongful arrests and killings there have been in the county. [In some cases], even the killers have been found, but the persons responsible [for issuing the order] cannot be identified… the killings were witnessed by some people, and a number of corpses have been dug up by the masses. This created an extremely bad impact.” It concludes with four recommendations: surrendering or captured rebels must be carefully distinguished and treated accordingly, arrests should be kept to the minimum and conducted in public, cases of wrongful arrest (clearly the majority) should be corrected, but the disciplining of cadres responsible should not be done hastily, “…it is better to discipline and dispose of the few cadres who committed serious mistakes with horrendous results.”


Section Three lists four “urgent issues” that further reveal the situation on the ground: the first is an appeal, of the kind that would soon be forbidden nationwide, to address the imminent threat of mass starvation. The second is a call to improve communication with the masses through propaganda-education. The third notes that “grassroots cadres’ forceful orders and violations of law and discipline” breed sympathy for the rebels, calling for “work-style” to be corrected, and the fourth calls for normal religious activity and popular customs to be respected, giving examples such as Tibetan women being forced to wear their hair in two braids like Chinese women, and remove their ornaments.

 Yin Shusheng and “Han Youren” 

Yin Shusheng, Executive Deputy Director of the Public Security Bureau in his native Anhui province, began his career in the Qinghai Public Security Bureau. He was transferred there as a new graduate in 1961 - despite his wish to become a teacher - and witnessed the rectification that year of “Leftist mistakes” committed during the Great Leap Forward. In retirement, Yin wrote a series of outspoken articles for the liberal journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, condemning the political violence of the period in considerable detail, based on personal experience and familiarity with the official documentation. He is one of very few former officials with knowledge of events in minority regions of the PRC in the 1950s and 60s to have come forward. We present four of these articles in English translation. Since Yanhuang Chunqiu was forced to accept personnel and editorial changes in 2015, the original texts are no longer available online.

 My Experiences in the Work of Implementing Nationality Policies (2013) is one of the most revealing accounts of the disastrous years in Qinghai yet published. It begins with the Summary of the First Ethnic Work Conference of the Northwest Bureau held in July-August 1961, which found that “…the Party’s ethnic policies were not conscientiously implemented and executed, or were even violated. Problems in Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Gansu stood out as the most serious…”, and called for “all efforts to be made in disaster relief and to save lives.” It was endorsed by the Central Committee, but Yin candidly points out that “Since the CCP Central Committee still believed that the Three Red Flags (the General Line for Socialist Construction, the Great Leap Forward and the People’s Communes) was great and correct, it was impossible to point out the root cause of the problem.”

He then presents a valuable series of official figures on excessive arrests, closure of monasteries, arrests of upper strata figures, and numbers of wrongful arrests (more than 90%), and deaths in custody. The summary reads: “From 1958 to 1960…the Qinghai Provincial Public Security Bureau arbitrarily arrested and detained people who opposed, resisted or were considered potential opponents of the [Great Leap Forward]. In three years, 63,064 people were arrested, 6,157 detained, 9,918 sentenced to live under surveillance, and 39,419 sent to collective political reeducation camps, making a total of 108,558, accounting for 4.4% of the province's total population of 2.44 million.” 

The remainder of the article is taken up by Yin’s fascinating account of his experience on the Northwest Bureau Inspection Team’s mission to Yushu and Golok in December 1961. The team arrived in Yushu to find that the authorities had already followed directives and released their prisoners. They declined a dinner invitation from prefecture Party secretary Shen, who was responsible for imprisoning most of them, and was about to be relieved of his duties. They moved on to Jiuzhi county (Tib: Chikdril) in Golok, where “1,540 people were arrested in three years, accounting for 27% of the total population. Among them, 848 died in prisons and detention centers, the death rate was as high as 57%.” County Party secretary Guo had “implemented the Three Red Flags, so-called “religious reform”, and following the “leftist” line, to the point of madness.” The several anecdotes about Guo make shocking reading; he too was removed from office once the inspection team had returned to Xining. 

The Agony of Jinyintan (2012) is Yin Shusheng’s memoir brought on by a recent visit to the Atomic City tourist attraction at the former Factory 221, when “my mind churned with thoughts of being there 40 years ago.” Jinyintan (Tib: Ser-ngul tsa-thang), the ‘gold and silver pastures’ in Haiyan county (Tib: Dashi), on the northeast shore of Qinghai lake, was chosen as the site of China’s atomic weapons development base in the late 1950s. In 1963, Yin was sent to the area to investigate appeals “related to the suppression of counter-revolutionaries and relocation” in 1958, the year construction of Factory 221 began. In this article, he reveals the truth that he was not allowed to write in his report at the time.

The author begins by summarising the background in two or three highly instructive pages covering the outbreak of the Xunhua revolt and provincial Party secretary Gao Feng’s approach to suppressing it (“Rebellion is good! It has provided an excuse for us to strike the enemy”). He goes on to explain that under such circumstances, it was possible for the authorities in Haiyan, where no rebellion had occurred, to arrest over 700 people on the charge of “attempting to rebel in the name of hunting” simply because herders in the area kept primitive firearms to protect their livestock from wolves. The victims were rehabilitated only in 1978, but “by then the majority… had been starved or tortured to death in labor farms.” At the same time, in October 1958, over 9000 local people were relocated under “extremely barbaric” conditions to make way for Factory 221, and many died in the process. 

We have supplemented his account with another testimony from the same area, taken from a book written anonymously by another former official, A Vanished War:  The Full Story of Magnification and Reassessment of the 1958 Suppression of Rebellion in Qinghai. The author styles himself “Han Youren” (“Han friend”), explaining that he made many Mongolian and Tibetan friends during his years in Qinghai, who had treated him as a brother, and that he could not be at peace with himself without recording what he had witnessed. The book was published in Hong Kong in 2013, and chapter 7, translated here, details how the authorities in neighbouring Gangcha county (Tib: Kangtsa) imprisoned 10% of the Tibetan population in 1958 on false charges of “rebellion”. 

The Great Leap Forward in Public Security Work (2010) by Yin Shusheng is a 16-page tour de force, an impassioned yet carefully worded summing up of how the police and judicial authorities functioned during the Great Leap Forward, conducting arbitrary mass arrests by quota. Yin draws on personal experience, in Anhui as well as Qinghai, and official speeches and documents to which he had access, presenting references, examples and cases. Readers are warned that some of these are disturbing. He confides that he himself survived the political campaigns of the Maoist era by learning early on to keep quiet; the downfall of his college principal in the 1957 Anti-Rightist campaign “made me deeply aware that careless talk leads to disaster. From then on, I was very cautious, and did not dare to talk freely…”

The final article does not concern Qinghai, but is included here for its importance to early PRC history. Mao Zedong and the Third National Security Conference (2014) is Yin Shusheng’s study, based on internal sources, of the background to a conference on the conduct of the nationwide Suppress Counter-revolutionaries campaign held in Beijing in May 1951. The resolution called for the campaign to be scaled back at once because, the author explains, in the four months since it was launched, 2 million people had been arrested and over 500,000 killed, and Chairman Mao was concerned that the situation was out of control. 

“How did the storm of hastiness, of mass arrests, mass killings, wrongful arrests and wrongful killings start?” he asks. “Fundamentally, it started from the Central Committee. In the early days of the campaign…the CCP Central Committee made this point: ‘A serious right-wing bias exists on the issue of suppressing counter-revolutionaries. As a result, a large number of ringleaders and wicked counter-revolutionary elements who continued to do evil after the Liberation, and even after being leniently treated, have escaped the punishment they deserve.’” 

The article goes through Mao’s directives and comments on the campaign from January to April, revealing how decisions on mass killing quotas were made. The author argues that the arbitrary nature of the campaign set a disastrous precedent for the new Peoples Republic: “…there was no law to guide the implementation of the campaign, and they relied entirely on documents issued by the Central Committee and instructions from the top leaders, mainly Mao Zedong… Since the experience and lessons of the first campaign were never carefully summed up, these mistakes were repeated in successive political campaigns…” In fact, he says, “China’s Suppressing Counter-revolutionaries movement never really stopped until 1976” (with Mao’s death).


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