Lushan Conference

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Peng Dehuai, who blamed Mao Zedong for the failure of the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan Conference

The Lushan Conference (廬山會議, 庐山会议) was a July 1959 meeting of leading communist cadres in the resort town of Lushan in Jiangxi Province, People’s Republic of China. It became famous because of two related events: the removal of Peng Dehuai as defense minister and the reaffirmation of the Great Leap Forward strategy, which was actually recognized as wrong.

Previous story

Preparations for the Great Leap Forward began in the winter of 1957/58, when a number of cooperatives, until then the dominant form of organization in agriculture, were merged into larger units. During 1958, the 740,000 cooperatives and collectives merged into 26,000 communes.[1] As early as the autumn of 1958, the first serious difficulties arose in the countryside, which led, among other things, to individual communes dismantling parts of their structures again or distancing themselves from the absoluteness of central commune ideas and allowing private land management and private supply and care again.[2]

On the political level, a meeting of the top leadership of the CCP took place in Wuhan in November 1958, the minutes of which indirectly show that there was an awareness of undesirable developments in the Great Leap Forward. The documents contain indications of how the negative effects were to be countered and how the movement was to be steered into economically compatible channels. Mistakes were also admitted by Mao Zedong, for whom the Great Leap was a major concern.[3] One result of this meeting was Mao’s resignation from the post of Party Chairman. This position was to be taken over by Liu Shaoqi, who took office in the spring of 1959. However, a substantial correction of the Great Leap did not take place, despite the tentative attempts at limitation of November 1958.

Peng Dehuai’s Journey to the Countryside

In early 1959, Peng Dehuai, then Minister of Defense, like other politicians during the Great Leap, made a cross-country trip. It became clear that the movement was by no means producing the magnificent results reported to Beijing. Peng was able to see for himself that the backyard steelmaking resulted in rejects and that the harvests had merely been normal. Because of the shift in economic focus, the real task of the peasants, farming and animal husbandry, received less attention, and at times considerable neglect. Spurred on by reports of the alleged food surplus, food consumption was also fueled, leading to regional food shortages and problems with the basic supply of material goods as early as the beginning of 1959.

Peng Dehuai, among others, saw this in his home village, where the elderly and children in particular suffered from the supply situation, and peasants silently but bitterly endured the living conditions dictated to them by the movement, such as being fed in canteens, giving up private family life, and having their daily existence militarized. They also revealed the enforced exaggeration in reporting production results, as underreporting could possibly result in stigmatization as a right-wing deviant.[4] Peng also visited Mao Zedong’s home village of Shaoshan, which was doing much better and had actually seen an increase in production. However, this was mainly due to massive state support through loans.

For Peng Dehuai, additional indicators that the Great Leap was getting out of hand were to be found directly with the People’s Liberation Army, of which he was the de facto leader as Minister of Defense. On the one hand, there were relief shipments to famine-stricken areas carried out by the VBA; on the other, rumors spread through the army, whose recruits were mainly peasant sons who received news of the problematic situation from home.[5]

The conference

The conference began on 2 July 1959 with informal talks and working groups to discuss all aspects of the Great Leap.[6] Peng Dehuai initially wanted to cancel his participation as he had just returned from a six-week trip through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but was urged by Mao Zedong to attend.[7] In the discussions of his working group, Peng spoke about his experiences at the beginning of the year, about the conclusions he had drawn from them, as well as about a conversation with Mao Zedong on this topic. Among other things, it became apparent how differently Mao and Peng assessed the situation in Shaoshan. While Mao, after a visit to his native village, wrote a eulogy to the Great Leap with historical echoes[8], Peng made it clear in his study group that it was not difficult to find out that although there had been an increase in production, it was much less than what was indicated for the village. However, the actual increase of 16% had only come about because of subsidies and loans.

Peng also reported that he had approached Mao Zedong about it, but the latter denied having received any information about it. Peng expressed the assumption in the group that Mao was well aware of how the results at Shaoshan came about.[9] The later, more frequently expressed assumption that Mao could not have known about the effects of the Great Leap because he was only presented with the embellished figures and only got to see the prettified facade on his travels is also contradicted by the rather thoughtful Maurice Meisner in his 2007 biography of Mao: “He was too shrewd an observer of rural life not to know about the difference between a real and a Potemkin village. If he was deceived, it was only because he wanted to be deceived.”[10]

The letter

A few days after the informal talks began, Peng Dehuai drafted a letter outlining his thoughts and analysis on the Great Leap and addressed it to Mao Zedong. He delivered it to Mao’s office on July 13. In this letter, which was a mixture of praise and criticism for the policies and results of the Great Leap so far[7] peng also addressed the undesirable developments and negative excesses: for example, despite the increases in production achieved, the Great Leap had been a matter of loss and gain – Peng probably deliberately changed the order of the two terms here. Among other things, he said, there had been considerable exaggeration, there had been mistakes in the production of steel, and the directions given for carrying out the movement had probably been inadequate. There had also been, as the language of the time put it, “left-wing deviationist misjudgements which might be called petty-bourgeois fanaticism.”[11] Although Peng addressed this letter only to Mao personally, asking for an equal assessment and evaluation of his views, Mao Zedong had this letter reproduced and distributed to all participants in the meeting on July 17. This was initially interpreted as a sign that Peng’s views might be a basis for further discussion, so that over the next few days a number of those present spoke up with supportive contributions, including Zhang Wentian, Li Xiannian and Chen Yi.[12]

The conviction of Peng Dehuai

The Politburo meeting

In the course of the official part of the meeting, the Politburo meeting, Mao delivered a speech on July 23, during which all present became aware that Peng’s views were unwelcome. He accused Peng of forming a right opportunist clique, of unprincipled internal party activity, and charged that during his recent stay in the Soviet Union, Peng had supplied Khrushchev with data that allowed the Soviet leader to mock the communes in a speech.[13] In fact, Peng Dehuai had probably raised this issue during his visit not only to the Soviet Union but also to other stops on his Eastern European tour.[14] What made it easy for Mao to accuse him of treason was a Taiwanese agency report that spread Khrushchev’s unsupportive words. Mao also had this report distributed, which was intended to expose Peng’s counterrevolutionary sentiments, which worked into the hands of the enemy.[15]

At the same time, Mao acknowledged that mistakes had been made so far during the Great Leap. For example, he said, state planning had broken down, the steelmaking campaign as a result of which the disaster occurred was his personal responsibility, and the communes had been built up too quickly.[16] Although his speech has been characterized by historians as erratic and improvised, he obviously combines this admission, which echoes Peng’s main criticisms, with a reference to the theoretical shapers of the ideological framework within which the party operates in an argumentatively clever way. After all, Lenin and Marx themselves had also made mistakes, had been impatient, had prophesied things that did not happen, and had thus also been guilty of petty-bourgeois fanaticism. Even Confucius had not been free of mistakes and exaggerated expectations. So it was quite possible that the transition to communism envisaged by the great leap forward would take a little longer and be more arduous than first assumed. Nevertheless, Peng’s letter was a misnomer in terms of political line. Mao compares Peng’s “error” with those of Li Lisan, who ceased to play a significant role in the Party after 1930, Wang Ming, who went into exile in the Soviet Union in 1956, and Gao Gang, who committed suicide in 1954 after ambitions for Liu Shaoqi’s post, and thus makes a clear classification of Peng’s letter.[15]

Mao insisted that the fundamentals of the Great Leap were going in the right direction and gave the assembly the choice of either committing themselves to the Great Leap and thus to it, or to waver and join Peng Dehuai. If those present chose the latter, he, Mao, would take to the hills, mobilize the peasants once again, and wage guerrilla warfare against the government. This threat by the now 65-year-old may have been, above all, a dramatic exaggeration[17]but it conveyed a clear message – it’s him or me, and without me, collapse looms.

The Plenum of the Central Committee

The actual conference ended on July 30, and the next day the specially convened plenum of the Central Committee began, which could decide on Peng’s recall. Peng and his supporters no longer had a chance to prevent their elimination from the political stage. The charges leveled weighed heavily, and almost no one could be found whose political weight was great enough not to risk his very existence immediately at the utterance of a critical thought. Only Zhu De, one of the three great army leaders of the civil war period along with Mao and Peng, spoke out in favor of moderation, which he had to “make up” for a little later with a self-criticism.[18] Peng Dehuai himself underwent an apparently very humiliating self-criticism in Lushan with regard to the views expressed in the letter – a step he later regretted.[19]

It was decided that Peng Dehuai and Zhang Wentian, who had been in the Soviet Union with Peng, should lose their government posts. Both, however, retained their membership in the Politburo, probably because it was difficult for Mao at that time to completely destroy the social existence of such a respected and deserving man as Peng Dehuai.[20]


The removal of Peng Dehuai as defense minister was the outwardly visible result of this conference. But the effects were more far-reaching.

Jonathan Spence describes the Lushan Conference as a turning point in party history, because here for the first time public criticism within the highest cadre circle of a strategy or political orientation of the party was interpreted as a personal attack on the leadership role of Mao Zedong by the same and was not questioned by anyone.[13] Historians largely agree that here a contradiction finally manifested itself as a rule: Mao Zedong was allowed to criticize himself, other persons, strategies and political orientations, but such criticism by others had to pass before him or was treated in the manner demonstrated in Lushan.

Furthermore, the opportunity was missed to rethink the strategy of the Great Leap Forward and make directional corrections or end the movement. The famine and severe supply shortages continued until 1961.

Control of the army now rested entirely with Mao Zedong, who brought in Lin Biao, who was loyal to him at the time, to succeed Peng Dehuai. Simultaneously with Lin’s assumption of the post of defense minister, one could observe an increase in the importance of the army as a power and shaping factor in domestic politics[21]which was to come to bear especially in the years before and in the first years of the Cultural Revolution.

Source Overview

  • Jung Chang, Jon Haliday: Mao. The life of a man, the destiny of a people (“Mao”). 5. Ed. Karl Blessing Verlag, Munich 2005, pp. 577-593. ISBN 3-89667-200-2.
  • June Teufel Dreyer: China’s Political System. Modernization and Tradition. 2. Ed. Allyn and Bacon, London 1996, pp. 94-99. ISBN 0-333-66850-2.
  • Tilemann Grimm: Mao Tse-tung. With pictorial testimonies and pictorial documents (Rowohlts Monographien; Vol. 50141). 16. Ed. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2001. ISBN 3-499-50141-4.
  • Maurice Meisner: Mao Zedong. A Political and Intellectual Portrait (Political Profiles). Polity Press, Cambridge 2007, pp. 151-157. ISBN 978-0-7456-3107-3.
  • Philip Short: Mao. A Life. John Murray London 2004. pp. 493-502. ISBN 0-7195-6676-2.
  • Jonathan Spence: China’s road to modernity (“The search for modern China”). Updated and expanded edition. Dtv, Munich 2001, pp. 681-688. ISBN 3-423-30795-1.
  • Jonathan Spence: Mao. Claassen, Munich 2003, pp. 189-205, ISBN 3-546-00261-X.

Individual references

  1. Spence 2001, p. 683.
  2. Dreyer 1996, p. 98.
  3. Meisner 2007, p. 151.
  4. Short 1999, p. 493.
  5. Short 1999, p. 494f.
  6. Spence 2003, p. 201.
  7. a b Short 1999, p. 495.
  8. This (p. 141) and other poems can be read in: Grimm 1968.
  9. Chang 2005, p. 588f., from the transcripts of Peng Dehuai’s speeches in Lushan
  10. Meisner 2007, p. 156, translation from English by User:Blue Orchid. Original quote: “He was too astute an observer of rural life not to know the difference between a real village and a Potemkin village. If he was deceived, it was only because he wished to be.”
  11. Summary of the contents of the letter and quotations from Spence 2003, p. 201f.
  12. Short 1999, p. 496.
  13. a b Spence 2001, p. 686.
  14. Chang 2005, p. 581f.
  15. a b Short 1999, p. 497.
  16. Meisner 2007, p. 153.
  17. Meisner 2007, p. 154.
  18. Short 1999, p. 498.
  19. Short 1999, p. 499.
  20. Short 1999, p. 500.
  21. Meisner 2007, p. 156.