The plan proved a disaster from the first. Local officials, either from fanaticism or fear, sent grossly exaggerated reports of their success to the centre, proclaiming harvests three or four times their true size. Higher authorities claimed huge amounts of grain for the cities and even dispatched it overseas. Cadres harassed or killed those who sought to tell the truth and covered up deaths when reports of problems trickled to the centre.
Even so, work by Yang and others has proved that senior leaders in Beijing knew of the famine as early as 1958. “To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward,” Mao warned colleagues a year later. “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half the people die so that others can eat their fill.”