Great Leap Forward

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    1949–1976, The Mao Era
        Korean War
        Hundred Flowers Campaign
        Anti-Rightist Movement
        Great Leap Forward
            Three Years of Natural Disasters
        Cultural Revolution
            Lin Biao
            Gang of Four
            Tiananmen Incident
    1976–1989, Era of Reconstruction
        Economic reform
        Tiananmen protests
    1989–2002, A Rising Power
        One Country, Two Systems
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    2002–present, China Today

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The Great Leap Forward (Simplified Chinese: 大跃进; Traditional Chinese: 大躍進; pinyin: Dàyuèjìn) of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social plan used from 1958 to 1960 which aimed to use China's vast population to rapidly transform mainland China from a primarily agrarian economy dominated by peasant farmers into a modern, industrialized communist society.

Mao Zedong based this program on the Theory of Productive Forces, a widely-used concept in communism and Marxism placing primary emphasis on achieving abundance in a nominally socialist economy before real communism, or even real socialism, can have a hope of being achieved. It was allegedly necessitated by the fact that, despite the theoretical predictions of Marxism, China's revolution took place not in a modern, industrialized society, but a poor, agrarian one. It was epitomized by the absurdity of rural farmers having backyard furnaces to increase national steel production (yet what was produced was nearly unusable pig iron).

The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen—both within China and outside—as a major economic and humanitarian disaster, with estimates of the number of people killed by famine during this period ranging from a minimum of 14 million to as many as 43 million.[1] This failure of ideology—based on ideological rigidity rather than pragmatic economic, social and technical realities—led to disastrous social consequences and human cost in China.

The Theory of Productive Forces

The concept has been used in all examples of state-supervised socialism to date. Joseph Stalin is one proponent of this view. The most influential philosophical defense of this idea has been promulgated by Gerald Cohen in his book Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. According to this view, technical change can beget social change; in other words, changes in the means (and intensity) of production causes changes in the relations of production, i.e., in people's ideology and culture, their interactions with one another, and their social relationship to the wider world.

In this view, actual socialism or communism, based on the "redistribution of wealth" to the most oppressed sectors of society, cannot come to pass until that society's wealth is built up enough to satisfy whole populations. Using this theory as a basis for their practical programs meant that communist theoreticians and leaders, while paying lip service to the primacy of ideological change in individuals to sustain a communist society, actually put productive forces first, and ideological change second.

The Theory of Productive Forces was the basis of Stalin's Five Year Plans, Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, and most other examples of attempts to build and refine communism throughout the world in the 20th Century.

Historical background

In October 1949 after the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Immediately, landlords and more wealthy peasants had their land holdings forcibly redistributed to poorer peasants. Within the Party, there was major debate about redistribution. A moderate faction within the party and Politburo member Liu Shaoqi argued that change should be gradual and any collectivization of the peasantry should await industrialization, which could provide the agricultural machinery for mechanized farming.

A more radical faction led by Mao Zedong argued that the best way to finance industrialization was for the government to take control of agriculture, thereby establishing a monopoly over grain distribution and supply. This would allow the State to buy at a low price and sell much higher, thus raising the capital necessary for the industrialization of the country. Realizing that this policy would be unpopular with the peasants, the plan called for peasants to be brought under Party control by the establishment of agricultural collectives which would also facilitate the sharing of tools and draft animals.

This policy was gradually pushed through between 1949 and 1958, first by establishing "mutual aid teams" of 5-15 households, then in 1953 "elementary agricultural cooperatives" of 20-40 households, then from 1956 in "higher co-operatives" of 100-300 families. These reforms (sometimes now referred to as The Little Leap Forward) were generally unpopular with the peasants and usually implemented by summoning them to meetings and making them stay there for days and sometimes weeks until they "voluntarily" agreed to join the collective.

Besides these economic changes the party implemented major social changes in the countryside including the banishing of all religious and mystic institutions and ceremonies and replacing them with political meetings and propaganda sessions. Attempts were made to enhance rural education and the status of women (allowing females to initiate divorce if they desired) and ending foot-binding, child marriage and opium addiction. Internal passports were introduced in 1956 forbidding travel without appropriate authorization. Highest priority was given to the urban proletariat for whom a welfare state was created.

The first phase of collectivization was not a great success and there was widespread famine in 1956, though the Party's propaganda machine announced progressively higher harvests. Moderates within the Party, including Zhou Enlai, argued for a reversal of collectivization. The position of the moderates was strengthened by Khrushchev's 1956 Secret speech at the 20th Congress which uncovered Stalin's crimes and highlighted the failure of his agricultural policies including collectivization in the USSR.

In 1957 Mao responded to the tensions in the Party by promoting free speech and criticism under the 100 Flowers Campaign. In retrospect, some have come to argue that this was a ploy to allow critics of the regime, primarily intellectuals but also low ranking members of the party critical of the agricultural policies, to identify themselves.[2] Some claim that Mao simply swung to the side of the hard-liners once his policies gained strong opposition, but given such statements and his history of cynical and ruthless attacks on critics and rivals, and his notoriously thin skin, this seems unlikely. Once he had done so, at least half a million were purged under the Anti-Rightist campaign organized by Deng Xiaoping, which effectively silenced any opposition from within the Party or from agricultural experts to the changes which would be implemented under the Great Leap Forward.

By the completion of the first Five Year Economic Plan in 1957, Mao had come to doubt that the path to socialism that had been taken by the Soviet Union was appropriate for China. He was critical of Khrushchev's reversal of Stalinist policies and alarmed by the uprisings that had taken place in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, and the perception that the USSR was seeking "peaceful coexistence" with the West. Mao had become convinced that China should follow its own path to Communism.

The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward was the name given to the Second Five Year Plan which was scheduled to run from 1958-1963, though the name is now generally limited to the first three years of this period. Mao unveiled the Great Leap Forward at a meeting in January 1958 in Nanning. The central idea behind the Great Leap was that rapid development of China's agricultural and industrial sectors should take place in parallel. The hope was to industrialize by making use of the massive supply of cheap labor and avoid having to import heavy machinery.

To achieve the targets, Mao advocated that a further round of collectivization modeled on the USSR's "Third Period" was necessary in the Chinese countryside where the existing collectives would be merged into huge people's communes. An experimental commune was established at Chayashan in Henan in April 1958. Here for the first time private plots were entirely abolished and communal kitchens introduced. At the Politburo meetings in August 1958, it was decided that these people's communes would become the new form of economic and political organization throughout rural China.

Astonishingly for such a dramatic social change, by the end of the year approximately 25,000 communes had been set-up, each with an average of 5,000 households. The communes were relatively self-sufficient cooperatives where wages and money were replaced by work points. Besides agriculture they incorporated some light industry and construction projects.

Mao saw grain and steel production as the key pillars of economic development. He predicted that within 15 years of the start of the Great Leap, China's steel production would surpass that of the United Kingdom. In the August 1958 Politburo meetings, it was decided that steel production would be set to double within the year, most of the increase coming through backyard steel furnaces. Mao was shown an example of a backyard furnace in Hefei, Anhui in September 1958 by provincial first secretary Zeng Xisheng. The unit was claimed to be manufacturing high quality steel (though in fact the finished steel had probably been manufactured elsewhere).

Mao encouraged the establishment of small backyard steel furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood. Huge efforts on the part of peasants and other workers were made to produce steel out of scrap metal. To fuel the furnaces the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants' houses. Pots, pans, and other metal artifacts were requisitioned to supply the "scrap" for the furnaces so that the wildly optimistic production targets could be met. Many of the male agricultural workers were diverted from the harvest to help the iron production as were the workers at many factories, schools and even hospitals. As could have been predicted by anyone with any experience of steel production or basic knowledge of metallurgy, the output consisted of low quality lumps of pig iron which was of negligible economic worth.

Mao's deep distrust of intellectuals and faith in the power of the mass mobilization of peasants led him to order this massive countrywide effort without consulting expert opinion. Moreover the experience of the intellectual classes following the 100 Flowers Campaign led those aware of the folly of such a plan to not dare voice criticism. According to his private doctor, Li Zhisui, Mao and his entourage visited traditional steel works in Manchuria in January 1959 where he found out that high quality steel could only be produced in large scale factories using reliable fuel such as coal. However he decided not to order a halt to the backyard steel furnaces so as not to dampen the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. The program was only quietly abandoned much later that year.

Substantial effort was expended during the Great Leap Forward on large-scale but often poorly planned capital construction projects, such as irrigation works often built without input from trained engineers.

On the communes, a number of radical and controversial agricultural innovations were promoted at the behest of Mao. Many of these were based on the ideas of now discredited Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko and his followers. The policies included close cropping, whereby seeds were sown far more densely than normal on the incorrect assumption that seeds of the same class would not compete with each other. Deep plowing (up to 2m deep) was encouraged in the mistaken belief that this would yield plants with extra large root systems. Even more disastrously it was argued that a proportion of fields should be left fallow.

The initial impact of the Great Leap Forward was discussed at the Lushan Conference in July/August 1959. Although many of the more moderate leaders had reservations about the new policy, the only senior leader to speak out openly was Marshal Peng Dehuai, leader of China's military forces during the Korean War. Mao used the conference to dismiss Peng from his post as Defense Minister and denounce both Peng (who came from a poor peasant family) and his supporters as bourgeois and launch a nationwide campaign against "rightist opportunism." Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, who began a systematic purge of Peng's supporters from the military.

Climate conditions and famine

At the direction of Chairman Mao, sparrows were killed by the peasants, causing a major ecological imbalance in the environment

Despite these harmful agricultural innovations, the weather in 1958 was very favorable and the harvest promised to be good. Unfortunately, the amount of labor diverted to steel production and construction projects meant that much of the harvest was left to rot uncollected in some areas. This problem was exacerbated by a devastating locust swarm, which was caused when their natural predators were killed en masse as part of the Great Sparrow Campaign.

Although actual harvests were reduced, local officials, under tremendous pressure from central authorities to report record harvests in response to the new innovations, competed with each other to announce increasingly exaggerated results. These were used as a basis for determining the amount of grain to be taken by the state to supply the towns and cities, and to export. This left barely enough for the peasants, and in some areas, starvation set in. During 1958-1960, China continued to be a substantial net exporter of grain, despite the widespread famine experienced in the countryside, as Mao sought to maintain "face" and convince the outside world of the success of his plans.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbooks for 1958 to 1962 mentions abnormal weather: droughts followed by floods. This includes 30 inches of rain at Hong Kong in five days in June 1959, part of a pattern that hit all of South China. However, all weather data for these Yearbooks came from Chinese government sources.

In 1959 and 1960 the weather was less favorable, and the situation got considerably worse, with many of China's provinces experiencing severe famine. Droughts, floods, and general bad weather caught China completely by surprise. In July of 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center[3], it directly killed, either through starvation from crop failure or drowning, an estimated 2 million people.

The Yellow River, near Xunhua, in Eastern Qinghai. Note the yellowish water, caused by loess.

In 1960, at least some degree of drought and other bad weather affected 55 percent of cultivated land, while an estimated 60 percent of northern agricultural land received no rain at all [4].

With dramatically reduced yields, even urban areas suffered much reduced rations; however, mass starvation was largely confined to the countryside, where as a result of massively inflated production statistics, very little grain was left for the peasants to eat. Food shortages were bad throughout the country; however, the provinces which had adopted Mao's reforms with the most vigor, such as Anhui, Gansu and Henan, tended to suffer disproportionately. Sichuan, one of China's most populous provinces, known in China as "Heaven's Granary" because of its fertility, is thought to have suffered the greatest absolute numbers of deaths from starvation due to the vigor with which provincial leader Li Jinquan undertook Mao's reforms. During the Great Leap Forward, reports of cannibalism also occurred in the parts of China that were severely affected by drought and famine.

The agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward and the associated famine would then continue until January 1961, where, at the Ninth Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee, the restoration of agricultural production through a reversal of the Great Leap policies was begun. Grain exports were stopped, and imports from Canada and Australia helped to reduce the impact of the food shortages, at least in the coastal cities.

Consequences and Human Cost

The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen, both within China and outside by neoliberal critics as a major economic disaster, effectively acting as a "Great Leap Backward" that would affect China in the years to come. As inflated statistics reached planning authorities, orders were given to divert human resources into industry rather than agriculture. The official toll of excess deaths recorded in China for the years of the GLF is 14 million, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million.[1]

The three years between 1959 and 1962 were known as the "Three Bitter Years" and the Three Years of Natural Disasters. Many local officials were tried and publicly executed for giving out misinformation[5].

Starting in the early 1980s, critics of the Great Leap added quantitative muscle to their arsenal. U.S. Government scholar Dr. Judith Banister published what became an influential article in the China Quarterly, and since then estimates as high as 30 million deaths in the Great Leap Forward became common in the U.S. press.

During the Great Leap, the Chinese economy initially grew. Iron production increased 45 percent in 1958 and a combined 30 percent over the next two years, but plummeted in 1961, and did not reach the previous 1958 level until 1964.

Despite the risks to their careers, some Communist Party members openly laid blame for the disaster at the feet of the Party leadership and took it as proof that China must rely more on education, acquiring technical expertise and applying bourgeois methods in developing the economy. Liu Shaoqi made a speech in 1962 at Seven Thousand Man's Assembly criticizing that "The economic disaster was 30 percent fault of nature, 70 percent human error."[6] It was principally to crush this opposition that Mao launched his Cultural Revolution in early 1966.

Mao stepped down as State Chairman of the PRC in 1959, predicting he would take most of the blame for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, though he did retain his position as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Liu Shaoqi (the new PRC Chairman) and Deng Xiaoping (CCP General Secretary) were left in charge to execute measures to achieve economic recovery. Moreover, Mao's Great Leap Forward policy came under open criticism at a party conference at Lushan, Jiangxi Province. The attack was led by Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, who had become troubled by the potentially adverse effect Mao's policies would have on the modernization of the armed forces. Peng argued that "putting politics in command" was no substitute for economic laws and realistic economic policy; unnamed party leaders were also admonished for trying to "jump into communism in one step." After the Lushan showdown, Peng Dehuai, who allegedly had been encouraged by Nikita Khrushchev to oppose Mao, was deposed and replaced by Lin Biao.

Additionally, this loss in Mao's regime meant that Mao became a "dead ancestor," as he labeled himself: a person who was respected but never consulted, occupying the political background of the Party. Furthermore, he also stopped appearing in public. All of this he later regretted, as he relaunched his Cult of Personality with the Great Yangtze Swim.

In agrarian policy, the failures of food supply during the Great Leap were met by a gradual de-collectivization in the 1960s that foreshadowed further de-collectivization under Deng Xiaoping. Political scientist Meredith Woo-Cumings argues:

"Unquestionably the regime failed to respond in time to save the lives of millions of peasants, but when it did respond, it ultimately transformed the livelihoods of several hundred million peasants (modestly in the early 1960s, but permanently after Deng Xiaoping's reforms subsequent to 1978.)"[7]

After the death of Mao and the start of Chinese economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, the tendency within the Chinese government was to see the Great Leap Forward as a major economic disaster and to attribute it to the cult of personality under Mao Zedong, and to regard it as one of the serious errors he made after the founding of the PRC.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Peng Xizhe (彭希哲), "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces," Population and Development Review 13 (4) (1987): 639-670.
    For a summary of other estimates, please refer to this link. Retrieved December 19, 2007.
  2. Jung Chang, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. (New York: Knopf, 2005), 435. ISBN 0679422714
  3. The Most Deadly 100 Natural Disasters of the 20th Century as of 3 July, 2006, The Disaster Center. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  4. "Mao and Lincoln (Part 2): The Great Leap Forward not all bad", Asia Times, April, 2004.
  5. Edward Friedman, Paul Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. ISBN 0300046553) [1] Retrieved December 19, 2007.
  6. John Robottom. Twentieth Century China. (New York: Putnam, 1971), 430
  7. Meredith Woo-Cummings, The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons, ADB Institute Research Paper, January 2002. Retrieved December 19, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: The Free Press, 1996. ISBN 068483457X
  • Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0679422714
  • Friedman, Edward, Paul Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. ISBN 0300046553
  • Li, Zhisui, and Anne F. Thurston. The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician. New York: Random House, 1994. ISBN 0679400354
  • Robottom, John. Twentieth Century China. New York: Putnam, 1971.
  • Short, Philip. Mao: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. ISBN 0805031154
  • Wertheim, W. F. Third World Whence and Whither? Protective State Versus Aggressive Market. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 1997. ISBN 9055890820
  • Wheelwright, E. L., and Bruce J. McFarlane. The Chinese Road to Socialism; Economics of the Cultural Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970. ISBN 0853451508
  • Woo-Cummings, Meredith. The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons, ADB Institute Research Paper, January 2002.

This article incorporates public domain text from the United States Library of Congress Country Studies. - China Retrieved January 22, 2023.


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