Beijing put the country on red alert in April 1952, charging that the Americans had secretly been waging germ warfare since the end of January. The enemy had allegedly dropped infected flies, mosquitoes, spiders, ants, bedbugs, lice, fleas, dragonflies and centipedes over parts of North Korea and Manchuria, spreading every variety of contagious diseases. The Americans had also purportedly released contaminated rats, frogs, dead foxes, pork and fish. Even cotton, Beijing warned, could spread plague and cholera. Enemy planes, it was claimed, had deployed these biological weapons in about a thousand sorties, most of them over Manchuria but a few reaching as far south as Qingdao, the port of Shandong province.
Beijing first alleged that the United States was waging germ warfare in February 1952, claims that rapidly made headlines around the world. The charges gained credibility after several captured American pilots confessed to dropping the disease-carrying insects on Korea and China. Even more damaging was an international commission chaired by Joseph Needham, a Cambridge University biochemist, who published a lengthy report corroborating these allegations – after visiting Manchuria and finding one diseased vole.
The regime’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, giving renewed impetus to the Hate America Campaign. Endless articles on anthrax-laden chickens or brittle bombs filled with tarantulas appeared in the newspapers, with photos showing clumps of dead flies, close-ups of diseased insects, microscopic images of bacteria and smudges identified as germs. In Beijing there were reports of germ-laden joints of pork, as well as dead fish (forty-seven of these found on a hilltop), corn stalks, medical goods and confectionery.
A revolving exhibition toured all major cities. In Beijing it filled three large halls, with exhibits of parachuted cylinders allegedly full of germ-carrying insects, and maps indicating where the Americans had dropped biological weapons 804 times at seventy points. In the corner of one room, a loudspeaker broadcast the recorded confessions of two captured enemy pilots over and over again. Their written statements were displayed in a glass case. A series of microscopes revealed bacteria cultures claimed to have been developed from infected insects. One photograph showed three victims of plague who had been infected by flies dropped by enemy planes.
The campaign strongly resonated in China, where the Japanese had conducted experiments in germ warfare during the Second World War. Now that Japan was an ally of the United States, it was easy to imagine that those tests had carried over into the Korean War. Beijing highlighted how scientists from the notorious Unit 731 had been granted immunity after the Second World War in exchange for their expertise – even though the United States denied this at the time and would only reveal the extent of their collaboration with the Japanese scientists decades later. After General MacArthur had openly toyed with the idea of using the atom bomb, the threat of mass destruction seemed all too plausible, lending credibility to the idea of secret biological weapons. In Asia more generally, as Frank Moraes, the editor of the Times of India, noted, public opinion was sensitive to the idea that the Americans were using Asians as guinea pigs for another weapon of mass destruction. Li Zhisui, the doctor working for the party leaders, was only one among many intellectuals appalled by the news that the United States was using bacteriological warfare in Korea.
But some observers were less convinced. On 6 April the New York Times published an article demonstrating that the photos presented as proof by the People’s Daily were fraudulent. One scientist who had pored over the evidence pointed out that infected lice and fleas could not survive the freezing temperatures of North Korea in winter. Weeks earlier people in Tianjin had already expressed similar doubts: ‘The weather in Korea is very cold, how come the flies have not frozen to death?’ one of them wondered. Others were openly sceptical of the danger from the alleged germs, suspecting they were fake. Li Shantang, identified by the regime as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ who had worked for the nationalists, boldly proclaimed that ‘This is all communist propaganda in an attempt to get the world to hate America, don’t listen to all that rubbish!’ In Manchuria farmers shrugged their shoulders, pointing out that insects always appeared at the end of winter.
Others panicked. The outbreak of the Korean War had unleashed fears of a Third World War. Now, two years later, some people lived in terror of an invisible enemy seemingly lurking in almost any kind of organic matter. In Shenyang several people who had been bitten by insects rushed to the hospital pleading for treatment. The premises were already crowded with those suffering seizures, pains or partial paralysis, all induced by the mere sight of a bug. A few hoarded food in anticipation of an apocalypse. Others, believing that the end was nigh, squandered what was left of their savings on wine and meat for one final feast. In places as far away as Chongqing, children were locked up inside their homes for fear of contamination. Entire villages in Henan shut down, as rumours spread of secret agents poisoning the wells. More worrying to the regime was the popular habit of interpreting natural catastrophes as harbingers of dynastic change. It was whispered that the regime was about to collapse and the nationalists would return. ‘Heaven, the old regime is coming back!’ proclaimed someone in Dalian. In Linying, Henan, farmers desecrated images of Mao, burning out his eyes, tearing down the posters or even attacking them with choppers.
Everywhere, it seemed, poor villagers turned to miracle cures, drinking holy water thought to have magical powers. In Xuchang, surrounded by tobacco plants on the northern plain of Henan, thousands of farmers turned up at various sacred locations to drink the water, said to confer protection against germ warfare. In a village in Dehui, a region in Manchuria where brutal levies had brought famine, up to 1,000 believers gathered daily around an ancient well. Some were demobilised soldiers from the Korean War who came by bus from neighbouring provinces. The authorities decried these practices as superstition, but the local cadres were just as jittery. In Wuyang county the entire leadership locked themselves up in the government’s health bureau to drink realgar, traditionally used in alchemy to ward off disease. They also covered themselves in a miracle balm.
Whatever their reactions to the allegations, around the country people were mobilised to detect germ-warfare attacks. In Manchuria suspected victims were doused in a liquid solution of DDT. In Andong, close to the border, a team of 5,000 equipped with gauze masks, cotton sacks and gloves were on the hunt, scouring the surrounding mountains around the clock for suspicious insects. In Shenyang 20,000 people were deployed to mop floors, sweep streets, remove trash and disinfect the city down to every last pavement slab. Here is how Tianjin fought back against biological infection:
Case #4: June 9, 1952. Insects were first discovered at 12 noon near the pier at the Tanggu Workers Union Hall. At 12:40 p.m., insects were discovered at the New Harbour Works Department, and at 1:30, in Beitang town. Insects were spread over an area of 2,002,400 square metres in New Harbour, and for over twenty Chinese miles [approximately 10 kilometres] along the shore at Beitang. Insect elimination was carried out under the direction of the Tianjin Municipal Disinfection Team. Masses organized to assist in catching insects included 1,586 townspeople, 300 soldiers and 3,150 workers. Individual insects were collected and then burned, boiled or buried. Insect species included inchworms, snout moths, wasps, aphids, butterflies . . . giant mosquitoes, etc. Samples of the insects were sent to the Central Laboratory in Beijing, where they were found to be infected with typhoid bacilli, dysentery bacilli and paratyphoid.
Carried out like a military campaign, the drive to cleanse the country soon alienated large sections of the population. In Beijing everybody was inoculated against plague, typhus, typhoid and just about every other disease for which there was a vaccine, whether they wanted it or not. In the countryside compulsion assumed a wholly different dimension. In parts of Shandong the militia would arrive and block off both sides of the market, locking villagers in until they had been injected. In a village in Qihe the military locked all the houses and injected the assembled villagers themselves. Some young men, already worried about conscription, clambered over walls to escape. Women carrying their children tried to hide in a ditch and were too frightened to return home. Everywhere threats were common, and some of those who refused an injection were portrayed as spies on the imperialists’ payroll. In Shaanxi, too, the campaign treated ordinary villagers as so many potential enemies to be brought to heel. In some places local cadres commanded that ‘he who does not kill flies is guilty of germ warfare’. Households that failed to comply with the instructions had a black flag pinned on their front door. Under the pretext of germ warfare, a few women were forced to undergo a humiliating physical examination before a wedding certificate was granted.
One commendable result of this phobia was that some of the most important cities were cleaned up. In Beijing the pavements were scrubbed, holes in the road were filled and households ordered to paint the walls of their houses up to a height of a metre with white disinfectant. Trees were ringed with disinfectant to keep them free from crawling insects. In a swampy city like Tianjin, where mosquitoes could easily breed, local residents were organised in brigades and supplied with picks, shovels and poles to fill in hundreds of cesspools, one bucketful of soil at a time.
But the drive to clean up cities also had adverse effects on the natural environment. Shrubs, bushes and plants were removed to deprive pests of hiding places. Large bushfires were started to fumigate flies and mosquitoes. Lime whitewash appeared everywhere, on buildings, trees, bushes and even grass, killing vegetation and turning villages and cities into a grey mass streaked with white and dotted, here and there, with red. DDT and other harmful pesticides became a permanent feature in the attack on nature, helping to turn cities into stark concrete landscapes devoid of greenery.
The campaign also had another visible effect. Many residents, from traffic police and food handlers to street sweepers, started wearing cotton masks, which always surprised foreign visitors. This habit would last for decades. In the words of William Kinmond, it gave ‘even young girls and boys the appearance of being fugitives from operating rooms’.
From north to south, people were also required to kill the ‘five pests’, namely flies, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs and rats. In Beijing every person had to produce the tail of one rat every week. Those who greatly exceeded the quota were allowed to fly a red flag over the gate of their house, while those who failed had to raise a black flag. An underground market in tails rapidly developed. In Guangdong, the campaign for rodent prevention also came with strict quotas. In July 1952 each district was ordered to kill at least 50,000 rats, the tails to be severed and delivered to the authorities preserved in ethanol. As in Beijing, the pressure was such that many people turned to a thriving black market to meet their share of the quota. In some cities even 0.20 yuan was insufficient to secure a tail. In Shanghai the issue was not so much rat tails as insect larvae, which had to be collected by the tonne. The penalty for delivering too few buckets was deprivation of all material benefits. As a result, people even took trains to the countryside to collect the stuff, or else tried to bribe their way through the entire process.
Although the campaign did much to spread awareness of the causes of some diseases, it did little to improve basic health care. In January 1953 a report presented at a nationwide conference on hygiene revealed that the incidence of gastrointestinal diseases had actually increased the previous year. In Shanxi hundreds of tonnes of sugar products contained flies and bees. In Shanghai dead rats were found in moon cakes, while in Jinan maggots wriggled their way through bean-paste cakes. Entire groups of people suffered from appalling disease rates, ranging from tuberculosis to hepatitis. In parts of the country half of all miners were sick, as the relentless drive for higher output had led to the neglect of even the most basic facilities. Nine months later the Ministry of Health, in a self-criticism addressed to Mao Zedong, accepted that much of the campaign in 1952 had been based on coercion and had proved wasteful, ‘to the point where it prevented the masses from engaging in production and gave rise to their discontent’. More detailed investigations showed the extent of waste caused by the campaign. In Shaanxi, for instance, a full year’s supply of medicine had been squandered in just six months, as local officials had pursued showcase projects for the campaign rather than using their scarce resources to improve the health of the people they represented.
Dogs never appeared on the list of ‘five pests’ but were also targeted for elimination. All over China one could find them, many of them crippled and mangy, wandering the streets and rubbish dumps in packs, fighting with each other for a scrap of food. In the cities some families kept them as pets, while in the countryside they were popular for guard duty, herding and food. They were routinely put down in communist-held areas during the civil war. Like everything else, the cull came in stages after liberation. In Beijing, a swoop cleared thousands of wild dogs from the streets, often with the support of local residents, as policemen armed with wire nooses on bamboo poles rounded them up. Then, by September 1949, dog owners were required to register their pets and keep the animals indoors. A year later the destruction of registered dogs started. Some of the animals were voluntarily turned in, but a few owners refused to surrender them. In a few cases the police were even confronted by angry dog keepers, who sometimes had the crowd on their side. The police then started breaking into houses. Owners came back home to find their doors broken down and their pets gone.
But the campaign really took off during the fight against germ warfare, when teams of dog chasers appeared on the streets, carrying out house-to-house searches. Most of the animals were removed to an enormous compound outside the city wall. As one resident in Beijing noted, ‘They were taken away in small carts like garbage cars, closed tight and packed solid, and if you passed one you could hear them thrashing inside and see blood on the sides of the cart.’ In the compound hundreds of dogs were kept in cages. As the dogs were not fed, they attacked each other, the stronger eating the weaker. Occasionally a policeman would put a wire noose over the head of a healthier specimen and swing it around till it choked to death. Then the animal would be flung to the ground and skinned. The hide, still steaming from the body heat, was put over a cage to dry as the other dogs cowered underneath.
Even though her roommates objected to the animal, Esther Cheo kept a small female dog in her dormitory, which she had taken in as a puppy. She shared all her food with it, and the dog was named Hsiao Mee, after the millet they ate. During the cull one of her colleagues who disliked dogs opened the door and let her out. The dog was soon caught and carried away, but, with the help of a high-ranking cadre, Esther managed to locate the compound where the animals were kept. ‘I walked up and down stumbling over dead and dying dogs, shouting out Hsiao Mee’s name, trying to drown out the barks and whines of hundreds of dogs. Eventually I found her. She was in a cage with several others. She jumped up and tried to lick my face, trembling with fear and perhaps excited, hoping that I had come to take her home. I could only sit there and stroke her.’ Esther came back to the compound regularly, even taking a pair of scissors to the dog’s coat in the hope that she would not be slaughtered for her skin. But in the end all she was allowed to do was to feed her pet some scraps of pork from the canteen and look on as the animal shivered and ate from the bowl in her mangled coat. Finally, with the help of a sympathetic cadre, Esther was given a pistol. She took off the safety catch, pressed the barrel against the dog’s ear and blew her head off.
Dogs were denounced as a threat to public hygiene and a symbol of bourgeois decadence at a time of food shortages. Except for those owned by a few privileged diplomats and top officials, they were soon cleared from the cities. But parts of the countryside continued to resist for several years. In Guangdong, efforts to impose a cull backfired in 1952, as angry villagers openly defied the authorities. Killing a landlord was one thing, but taking away a man’s dog was another matter altogether, as they protected homesteads, crops and livestock. In Shandong, where almost every family kept a dog, repeated culls also failed. In the end, however, even the countryside fell into line.
Stalin died in March 1953. Within months the new leadership in Moscow moved rapidly towards an agreement over Korea with the Americans and signed a ceasefire on 27 July 1953. Allegations of germ warfare also ended abruptly as the extent of the deception came to light in Moscow. The claims, apparently, had first come from commanders in the field. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai ordered a laboratory investigation of the evidence and dispatched epidemic-prevention teams to Korea, but even before the tests were completed they had begun condemning the United States for engaging in bacteriological warfare. Once the reports had turned out to be inaccurate, Mao was unwilling to abandon the propaganda benefits of his crusade against the United States. A report to Lavrenti Beria, head of Soviet intelligence, outlined what had happened: ‘False plague regions were created, burials of bodies of those who died and their disclosure were organized, measures were taken to receive [sic] the plague and cholera bacillus.’ On 2 May 1953 a secret resolution of the presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers dismissed all allegations: ‘The Soviet Government and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were misled. The spread in the press of information about the use by the United States of bacteriological weapons in Korea was based on false information. The accusations against the Americans were fictitious.’ A top-ranking emissary was sent to Beijing with a harsh message: cease all allegations at once. They stopped as suddenly as they had started.