Great Leap Forward

Great Leap Forward

History of the
People's Republic of China
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    1949–1976, The Mao Era
        Korean War
        Zhen Fan
        Three-anti/five-anti campaigns
        Hundred Flowers Campaign
        Anti-Rightist Movement
        Great Leap Forward
            Great Chinese Famine
        Cultural Revolution
            Lin Biao
            Gang of Four
            Tiananmen Incident
    1976–1989, Era of Reconstruction
        Economic reform
        Sino-Vietnamese War
        Tiananmen protests
    1989–2002, A Rising Power
        One country, two systems
            Hong Kong (post 1997)
            Macau (post 1999)
        Chinese reunification
    2002–present, China Today
        Sichuan Earthquake
        The Beijing Olympics
        Shanghai 2010 Expo

   See also:
        Constitutional history
        History of China
        History of Beijing
        History of Shanghai

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 1st: Mao Zedong
 2nd: Deng Xiaoping
 3rd: Jiang Zemin
 4th: Hu Jintao

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Propaganda poster of the era

The Great Leap Forward (simplified Chinese: 大跃进; traditional Chinese: 大躍進; pinyin: Dà yuè jìn) of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign of the Communist Party of China (CPC), reflected in planning decisions from 1958 to 1961, which aimed to use China's vast population to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a modern communist society through the process of rapid industrialization, and collectivization. Mao Zedong led the campaign based on the Theory of Productive Forces, and intensified it after being informed of the impending disaster from grain shortages.

Chief changes in the lives of rural Chinese included the introduction of a mandatory process of agricultural collectivization, which was introduced incrementally. Private farming was prohibited, and those engaged in it were labeled as counter revolutionaries and persecuted. Restrictions on rural people were enforced through public struggle sessions, and social pressure. Rural industrialization, officially a priority of the campaign, saw "its development … aborted by the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward."[1]

The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of excess deaths.[2] Estimates of the death toll range from 18 to 46 million,[3][4][5] with estimates by demographic specialists ranging from 18 to 32.5 million.[6] Historian Frank Dikötter asserts that "coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the very foundation of the Great Leap Forward" and it "motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history."[7]

The years of the Great Leap Forward in fact saw economic regression, with 1958 through 1961 being the only years between 1953 and 1983 in which China's economy saw negative growth. Political economist Dwight Perkins argues, "enormous amounts of investment produced only modest increases in production or none at all. … In short, the Great Leap was a very expensive disaster."[8]

In subsequent conferences in 1960 and 1962, the negative effects of the Great Leap Forward were studied by the CPC, and Mao was criticized in the party conferences. Moderate Party members like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping rose to power, and Mao was marginalized within the party, leading him to initiate the Cultural Revolution in 1966.



In October 1949 after the defeat of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Communist Party proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Immediately, landlords and wealthier peasants had their land holdings forcibly redistributed to poorer peasants. In the agricultural sectors, crops deemed by the Party to be "full of evil" such as opium, were destroyed and replaced with crops such as rice. 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 wait until industrialization, which could provide the agricultural machinery for mechanized farming. A more radical faction led by Mao Zedong agreed 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.

Agricultural collectives

It was realized that this policy would be unpopular with the peasants and therefore it was proposed that the peasants should 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 Great 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.[citation needed]

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 them to initiate divorce if they desired) and ending foot-binding, child marriage and opium addiction. Internal passports (called the hukou system) 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.

Hundred Flowers Campaign

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.[9] Some claim that Mao simply swung to the side of the hard-liners once his policies gained strong opposition. Once he had done so, at least half a million were purged under the Anti-Rightist campaign, 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 5 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 Western powers. Mao had become convinced that China should follow its own path to communism.

According to Jonathan Mirsky, a historian and journalist specializing in Chinese affairs, China's isolation from most of the rest of the world, along with the Korean War, had accelerated Mao's attacks on his perceived domestic enemies. It led him to accelerate his designs to develop an economy where the regime would get maximum benefit from rural taxation.[10]

Before the Great Leap, peasants farmed their own small pockets of land, and observed traditional practices connected to markets—festivals, banquets, and paying homage to ancestors.[10] Starting in 1954, peasants were encouraged to form and join collectives, which would putatively increase their efficiency without robbing them of their own land or restricting their livelihoods.[10] By 1958, however, private ownership was entirely abolished and households all over China were forced into state-operated communes. Mao insisted that the communes must produce more grain for the cities and earn foreign exchange from exports.[10]

Organizational and operational factors

Propaganda poster of the steel production objective. The text reads: "Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields", the text below is pinyin.

The Great Leap Forward campaign began during the period of the Second Five Year Plan which was scheduled to run from 1958–1963, though the campaign itself was discontinued by 1961.[11][12] Mao unveiled the Great Leap Forward at a meeting in January 1958 in Nanjing.

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 labour and avoid having to import heavy machinery. The government also sought to avoid both social stratification and technical bottlenecks involved in the Soviet model of development, but sought political rather than technical solutions to do so. Distrusting technical experts,[13] Mao and the party sought to replicate the strategies used in its 1930s regrouping in Yan'an following the Long March: "mass mobilization, social leveling, attacks on bureaucratism, [and] disdain for material obstacles."[14] Mao advocated that a further round of collectivization modeled on the USSR's "Third Period" was necessary in the countryside where the existing collectives would be merged into huge People's Communes.

People's communes

In the beginning, commune members were able to eat for free at the commune canteens. This changed when food production slowed to a halt.

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 were 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. By the end of the year approximately 25,000 communes had been set up, with an average of 5,000 households each. The communes were relatively self-sufficient co-operatives where wages and money were replaced by work points.

Based on his fieldwork, Ralph A. Thaxton Jr. describes the people's communes as a form of "apartheid system" for Chinese farm households. The commune system was aimed at maximizing production for provisioning the cities and constructing offices, factories, schools, and social insurance systems for urban-dwelling workers, cadres and officials. Citizens in rural areas who criticized the system were labeled "dangerous." Escape was also difficult or impossible, and those who attempted were denied by "party-orchestrated public struggle," which further jeopardized their survival.[15] Besides agriculture, communes also incorporated some light industry and construction projects.


People in the countryside working at night to produce steel.

Mao saw grain and steel production as the key pillars of economic development. He forecast that within 15 years of the start of the Great Leap, China's steel production would surpass that of the UK. 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.[citation needed] Major investments in larger state enterprises were made in 1958-60: 1,587, 1,361, and 1,815 medium- and large-scale state projects were started in 1958, 1959, and 1960 respectively, more in each year than in the first Five Year Plan.[16]

Millions of Chinese became state workers as a consequence of this unprecedented industrial investment: in 1958, 21 million were added to non-agricultural state payrolls, and total state employment reached a peak of 50.44 million in 1960, more than doubling the 1957 level; the urban population swelled by 31.24 million people.[17] These new workers placed major stress on China's food-rationing system, which led to increased and unsustainable demands on rural food production.[17]

During this rapid expansion, coordination suffered and material shortages were frequent, resulting in "a huge rise in the wage bill, largely for construction workers, but no corresponding increase in manufactured goods."[18] Facing a massive deficit, the government cut industrial investment from 38.9 to 7.1 billion yuan from 1960 to 1962 (an 82% decrease; the 1957 level was 14.4 billion).[18]

Backyard furnaces

Backyard furnaces in China during the Great Leap Forward era.

With no personal knowledge of metallurgy, Mao encouraged the establishment of small backyard steel furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood. Mao was shown an example of a backyard furnace in Hefei, Anhui in September 1958 by provincial first secretary Zeng Xisheng[citation needed]. The unit was claimed to be manufacturing high quality steel (though in fact the finished steel had probably been manufactured elsewhere).[citation needed]

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. Although the output consisted of low quality lumps of pig iron which was of negligible economic worth, Mao had a deep distrust of intellectuals and faith in the power of the mass mobilization of the peasants.

Moreover, the experience of the intellectual classes following the Hundred Flowers Campaign silenced those aware of the folly of such a plan. 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 in that year.


Substantial effort was expended during the Great Leap Forward on large-scale, but often on poorly planned capital construction projects, such as irrigation works often built without input from trained engineers. Mao was well aware of the human cost of these water-conservancy campaigns. In early 1958, while listening to a report on irrigation in Jiangsu, he mentioned that:

"Wu Zhipu claims he can move 30 billion cubic metres; I think 30,000 people will die. Zeng Xisheng has said that he will move 20 billion cubic metres, and I think that 20,000 people will die. Weiqing only promises 600 million cubic metres, maybe nobody will die."[19][20]

Though Mao "criticized the excessive use of corvée for large-scale water conservancy projects" in late 1958,[21] mass mobilization on irrigation works continued unabated for the next several years, and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of exhausted, starving villagers.[19] The inhabitants of Qingshui and Gansu referred to these projects as the "killing fields."[19]

Crop experiments

Chinese propaganda poster showing larger-than-human melon

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.[citation needed] Deep plowing (up to 2m deep) was encouraged on the mistaken belief that this would yield plants with extra large root systems. Moderately productive land was left unplanted with the belief that concentrating manure and effort on the most fertile land would lead to large per-acre productivity gains. Altogether, these untested innovations generally led to decreases in grain production rather than increases.[22]

Meanwhile, local leaders were pressured into falsely reporting ever-higher grain production figures to their political superiors. Participants at political meetings remembered production figures being inflated up to 10 times actual production amounts as the race to please superiors and win plaudits – like the chance to meet Mao himself – intensified. The state was later able to force many production groups to sell more grain than they could spare based on these false production figures.[23]

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 Marshall Peng Dehuai. Mao used the conference to dismiss Peng from his post as Defence 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.

Treatment of villagers

The ban on private holdings ruined peasant life at its most basic level, according to Mirsky. Villagers were unable to secure enough food to go on living, because the traditional means of being able to rent, sell, or use their land as collateral for loans was deprived of them by the commune system.[10] In one village, once the commune was operational the Party boss and his colleagues "swung into manic action, herding villagers into the fields to sleep and to work intolerable hours, and forcing them to walk, starving, to distant additional projects."[10]

Edward Friedman, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Paul Pickowicz, a historian at the University of California, San Diego, and Mark Selden, a sociologist at Binghamton University, wrote about the dynamic of interaction between the Party and villagers:

Beyond attack, beyond question, was the systemic and structured dynamic of the socialist state that intimidated and impoverished millions of patriotic and loyal villagers.[24]

The authors present a similar picture to Thaxton in depicting the Communist Party's destruction of the traditions of Chinese villagers. Traditionally prized local customs were deemed signs of "feudalism" to be extinguished, according to Mirsky. "Among them were funerals, weddings, local markets, and festivals. The Party thus destroyed 'much that gave meaning to Chinese lives. These private bonds were social glue. To mourn and to celebrate is to be human. To share joy, grief, and pain is humanizing.'"[25] Failure to participate in the CPC's political campaigns—though the aims of such campaigns were often conflicting—"could result in detention, torture, death, and the suffering of entire families."[25]

Public criticism sessions were often used to intimidate the peasants into obeying local cadres; they increased the death rate of the famine in several ways, according to Thaxton. "In the first case, blows to the body caused internal injuries that, in combination with physical emaciation and acute hunger, could induce death." In one case, after a peasant stole two cabbages from the common fields, the thief was publicly criticized for half a day. He collapsed, fell ill, and never recovered. Others were sent to labor camps.[26]

However, J. G. Mahoney, Professor of Liberal Studies and East Asian Studies at Grand Valley State University, has said that "there is too much diversity and dynamism in the country for one work to capture … rural China as if it were one place."

Mahoney describes an elderly man in rural Shanxi who recalls Mao fondly, saying "Before Mao we sometimes ate leaves, after liberation we did not." However, he points out that Da Fo villagers recall the Great Leap as a period of famine and death, and among those who survived in Da Fo were precisely those who could digest leaves.[27]


The failure of agricultural policies, the movement of farmers from agricultural to industrial work, and possibly weather conditions lead to severe famine. Many also died from mistreatment by government officials. The economy, which had improved since the end of the civil war, was devastated. In response to the severe conditions, there was resistance among the populace. The effects on the upper levels of government in response to the disaster were complex, with Mao purging the Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai in 1959, the temporary promotion of Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping, and Mao losing some power and prestige following the Great Leap Forward, which lead him to launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966.


Propaganda poster displaying the production of grains skyrocketing.

Despite the harmful agricultural innovations, the weather in 1958 was very favorable and the harvest promised to be good. Unfortunately, the amount of labour 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 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. Foreign aid was refused. When the Japanese foreign minister told his Chinese counterpart Chen Yi of an offer of 100,000 tonnes of wheat to be shipped out of public view, he was rebuffed. John F Kennedy was also aware that the Chinese were exporting food to Africa and Cuba during the famine and said "we've had no indication from the Chinese Communists that they would welcome any offer of food."[28]

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 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center,[29] it directly killed, either through starvation from crop failure or drowning, an estimated 2 million people.

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.[30]

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 drastically 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, cases of cannibalism also occurred in the parts of China that were severely affected by famine.[31]

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 started. 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.

Famine deaths

Great Leap Forward famine death estimates
Author(s) Year
23 Peng[3] 1987
27 Coale[32] 1984
27 Rummel[33] 1991
30 Ashton and Hill[3] 1984
30 Banister[34] 1987
36 Yang[4] 2008
38 Chang and Halliday[35] 2005
42 minimum Dikötter[36] 2010
43 to 46 Becker[3] 1996

The exact number of famine deaths is difficult to determine, and estimates range from 18 million to 46 million people.[3] Because of the uncertainties involved in estimating famine deaths caused by the Great Leap Forward or any famine, it is difficult to compare the severity of different famines. However if a mid estimate of 30 million deaths is accepted, the Great leap Forward was probably the deadliest famine in the history of China and in the history of the world.[37][38] This was in part due to China’s large population; in the Great Irish Famine, approximately 1 million[39] of a population of 8 million people died, or 12.5%, in the Great Chinese Famine approximately 30 million of a population of 600 million people died, or 5%.

Death toll estimates[which?] based on demographics are usually derived from the 1953 and 1964 censuses showing total population change. This is combined with estimated birth and baseline death rates over the period to arrive at an excess death rate for the years of the Great Leap Forward, which is then translated into the total number of famine deaths. Estimates by Yang also include information from provincial and central archives and interviews with survivors,[40][41] and estimates by Dikötter also include data from minutes of emergency committees, secret police reports, and public security investigations.[42]

Estimates based on national census data and birth rates are fraught with uncertainty. National census data was not accurate and even the total population of China at the time was not known to within 50 million to 100 million people. [43] There were numerous flaws[which?] in the 1953 census on which famine death projections are made.[44] In addition to being inaccurate, census figures may also be inadequate[why?], and lead to undercounting of famine deaths.[5] Estimates of birth rate also contain a great deal of uncertainty.[citation needed]

The severity of the famine varied from region to region. Fuyang, a region with a population of 8 million in 1958, had a death rate that rivaled Democratic Kampuchea's Killing Fields;[45] more than 2.4 million people perished there over the next three years.[46] In Gao Village in Jiangxi Province there was a famine, but no one actually died of starvation.[47]

Prior to the Great Leap Forward, famines were not uncommon in China.[48] Additionally, prior to 1949, the chaos following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese Civil War, the Japanese invasion, and Japanese, Communist, and Nationalist democide all contributed to a high death rate.[49] Minqi Li, a former Chinese dissident and political prisoner and now a Marxist Professor of Economics at the University of Utah, has produced[further explanation needed] data showing that even the peak death rates[quantify] during the Great Leap Forward were in fact quite typical[quantify] in pre-Communist China. Li argues that based on the average death rate over the three years of the Great Leap Forward, there were several million fewer lives lost during this period than would have been the case under normal mortality conditions before 1949.[50]

Causes of the famine and responsibility

The policies of the Great Leap Forward were mostly, if not completely responsible for the famine. There is disagreement over how much, if at all, weather conditions contributed to the famine and how much, if at all, the famine was intentional or due to willful negligence.

Yang Jisheng, a long-time communist party member and a reporter for the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, puts the blame squarely on Maoist policies, such as diverting agricultural workers to steel production instead of growing crops, and exporting grain at the same time.[51][52] During the course of his research, Yang uncovered that some 22 million tons of grain was held in public granaries at the height of the famine, reports of the starvation went up the bureaucracy only to be ignored by top officials, and the authorities ordered that statistics be destroyed in regions where population decline became evident.[53] Economist Steven Rosefielde argues that Yang's account "shows that Mao's slaughter was caused in considerable part by terror-starvation; that is, voluntary manslaughter (and perhaps murder) rather than innocuous famine."[54] Yang notes that local party officials were indifferent to the large number of people dying around them, as their primary concern was the delivery of grain, which Mao wanted to use to pay back debts to the USSR totaling 1.973 billion yuan. In Xinyang, people died of starvation at the doors of grain warehouses.[55] Mao refused to open the state granaries as he dismissed reports of food shortages and accused the peasants of hiding grain.[56] From his research into records and talks with experts at the meteorological bureau, Yang concludes that the weather during the Great leap forward was not unusual compared to other periods and was not a factor.[41] Yang also believes that the Sino-Soviet split was not a factor because it did not happen until 1960, when the famine was well under way.[41]

Chang and Halliday argue that "Mao had actually allowed for many more deaths. Although slaughter was not his purpose with the Leap, he was more than ready for myriad deaths to result, and had hinted to his top echelon that they should not be too shocked if they happened."[57] Democide historian R.J. Rummel had originally classified the famine deaths as unintentional.[58] In light of evidence provided in Chang and Halliday’s book, he now believes that the mass dyings associated with Great Leap Forward constitute democide (murder).[59]

According to Frank Dikötter, Mao and the Communist Party knew that some of their policies were contributing to the starvation.[60] Foreign minister Chen Yi said of some of the early human losses in November 1958:[61]

"Casualties have indeed appeared among workers, but it is not enough to stop us in our tracks. This is the price we have to pay, it's nothing to be afraid of. Who knows how many people have been sacrificed on the battlefields and in the prisons [for the revolutionary cause]? Now we have a few cases of illness and death: it's nothing!"

During a secret meeting in Shanghai in 1959, Mao demanded the state procurement of one-third of all grain to feed the cities and satisfy foreign clients, and noted that "If you don't go above a third, people won't rebel." He also stated at the same meeting:[62]

"When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill."

Benjamin Valentino writes that like in the USSR during the famine of 1932-33, peasants were confined to their starving villages by a system of household registration,[63] and the worst effects of the famine were directed against enemies of the regime.[64] Those labeled as "black elements" (religious leaders, rightists, rich peasants, etc.) in any previous campaign were given the lowest priority in the allocation of food, and therefore died in the greatest numbers.[64] According to genocide scholar Adam Jones, "no group suffered more than the Tibetans," with perhaps one in five dying from 1959 to 1962.[65]

Mobo Gao suggested that the Great Leap Forward’s terrible effects came not from malign intent on the part of the Chinese leadership at the time, but instead relate to the structural nature of its rule, and the vastness of China as a country. Gao says "..the terrible lesson learnt is that China is so huge and when it is uniformly ruled, follies or wrong policies will have grave implications of tremendous magnitude".[47]

The PRC government’s official web portal places the responsibility for the “serious losses” to “country and people” of 1959-1961 (without mentioning famine) mainly on the Great Leap Forward and the anti-rightist struggle, and lists weather and cancelation of contracts by the Soviet Union as contributing factors.[66]

Deaths by violence

Not all deaths during the Great Leap were from starvation. Benjamin Valentino notes that "communist officials sometimes tortured and killed those accused of failing to meet their grain quota."[64] Frank Dikötter estimates that at least 2.5 million people were beaten or tortured to death and 1 to 3 million committed suicide.[67] He provides some illustrative examples. In Xinyang, where over a million died in 1960, 6-7 percent (around 67,000) of these were beaten to death by the militias. In Daoxian county, 10 per cent of those who died had been "buried alive, clubbed to death or otherwise killed by party members and their militia." In Shimen county, around 13,500 died in 1960, of these 12 per cent were "beaten or driven to their deaths."[68]

Beatings with sticks was the most common method used by local cadres (roughly half of all cadres regularly pummeled or caned people), but others devised harsher means to humiliate and torture those who failed to keep up. As mass starvation set in, ever greater violence had to be inflicted in order to coerce malnourished people to labor in the fields. Victims were buried alive, thrown bound into ponds, stripped naked and forced to labor in the middle of winter, doused in boiling water, forced to ingest excrement and urine, and subjected to mutilation (hair ripped out, noses and ears lopped off). In Guangdong, some cadres injected salt water into their victims with needles normally reserved for cattle.[69]

Impact on economy

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

The Great Leap also led to the greatest destruction of real estate in human history, outstripping any of the bombing campaigns from World War II.[70] Approximately 30 to 40 per cent of all houses were turned to rubble.[71] Frank Dikötter states that "homes were pulled down to make fertilizer, to build canteens, to relocate villagers, to straighten roads, to make place for a better future beckoning ahead or simply to punish their owners.”[70]

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 Jung-En Woo 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.)"[72]

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 Cadres Conference criticizing that "The economic disaster was 30% fault of nature, 70% human error."[73]

Modes of resistance

According to over 20 years of research by Ralph Thaxton, professor of politics at Brandeis University, villagers turned against the CPC during and after the Great Leap, seeing it as autocratic, brutal, corrupt, and mean-spirited.[10] The CPC's policies, which included plunder, forced labor, and starvation, according to Thaxton, led villagers "to think about their relationship with the Communist Party in ways that do not bode well for the continuity of socialist rule."[10]

Often, villagers composed doggerel to show their defiance to the regime, and "perhaps, to remain sane." During the Great Leap, one jingle ran: "Flatter shamelessly—eat delicacies.... Don't flatter—starve to death for sure."[25]

Impact on the government

Many local officials were tried and publicly executed for giving out misinformation.[74]

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 CPC. Liu Shaoqi (the new PRC Chairman) and reformist Deng Xiaoping (CPC General Secretary) were left in charge to change policy to bring about economic recovery. Mao's Great Leap Forward policy came under open criticism at the Lushan party conference. The attack was led by Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, who, initially troubled by the potentially adverse effect of the Great Leap Forward on the modernization of the armed forces, also admonished unnamed party members for trying to "jump into communism in one step." After the Lushan showdown, Mao defensively replaced Peng with Lin Biao.

However, in June 1962, the party held an enlarged Central Work Conference and rehabilitated the majority of the deposed comrades who had criticized Mao in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward. The event was again discussed, with much self-criticism, with the contemporary government calling it a "serious [loss] to our country and people" and blaming the cult of personality of Mao. Following the 1962 conference, Mao became a "dead ancestor", as he labeled himself: a person who was respected but never consulted, occupying the political background of the Party.[dubious ] He launched a vain attempt for influence in 1966 with the Cultural Revolution, but died ten years later, leaving the forces within the party that opposed the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward in power.[dubious ][75]

See also


  1. ^ Perkins, Dwight (1991). "China's Economic Policy and Performance". Chapter 6 in The Cambridge History of China, volume 15, ed. by Roderick MacFarquhar, John K. Fairbank and Denis Twitchett. Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Tao Yang, Dennis (2008). "China's Agricultural Crisis and Famine of 1959–1961: A Survey and Comparison to Soviet Famines." Palgrave MacMillan, Comparative Economic Studies 50, pp. 1–29.
  3. ^ a b c d e Wemheuer, Felix (2010). "Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine in the People's Republic of China". The China Quarterly 201: 176–194. doi:10.1017/S0305741009991123. Retrieved 2011-04-02.  "After the foundation of ‘New China,’ between 15 and 40 million people starved to death in the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward in the years between 1959 and 1961. … The number of people who died as a result of the famine remains a controversial issue. Based on Chinese population statistics that were published in the early 1980s, scholars estimate different figures. Peng Xizhe calculated 23 million deaths in 14 provinces (Peng Xizhe, “Demographic consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s provinces,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1987), p. 649). Ansley Coale came to the conclusion that 16.5 million people died, and Basil Ashton counted 30 million deaths and 30 missing births (Basil Ashton and Kenneth Hill, “Famine in China, 1958–1961,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1984), p. 614). Jasper Becker estimated 43 to 46 million casualties on the basis of an internal investigation of the Chinese government (Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts – China’s Secret Famine (London: Murray 1996), p. 272). In 1984, Coale revised his estimate from 16.5 million (1981 estimate) to 27 million, leaving Grada's 18 million as the low estimate (Coale (1984) p.7).
  4. ^ a b Yang, Jisheng (2010). "The Fatal Politics of the PRC's Great Leap Famine: The Preface to Tombstone." Journal of Contemporary China Vol.19 issue 66. pp.755-776. Retrieved 3Sep11.
  5. ^ a b Dikötter, Frank (2010). Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Walker & Company. p.333. ISBN 0802777686. Frank Dikötter claims that the census figures, which point to a death toll between 15 and 32 million, are largely inadequate, and that public security reports and secret reports collated by party committees towards the end of the Great Leap indicate the human cost was far greater. He also notes that "Some historians[who?] speculate that the true figure stands as high as 50 to 60 million people."
  6. ^ Gráda, Cormac Ó (2011). Great Leap into Famine. UCD Centre For Economic Research Working Paper Series. p. 9. 
  7. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2010). pp. x, xi. ISBN 0802777686
  8. ^ Perkins (1991). Pages 483-486 for quoted text, page 493 for growth rates table.
  9. ^ Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon (2005). Mao: The Unknown Story, Knopf. p. 435. ISBN 0679422714.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Mirsky, Jonathan. "The China We Don't Know." New York Review of Books Volume 56, Number 3. February 26, 2009.
  11. ^ Li, Kwok-sing (1995). A glossary of political terms of the People's Republic of China. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Translated by Mary Lok. Pages 47-48.
  12. ^ Chan, Alfred L. (2001). Mao's crusade: politics and policy implementation in China's great leap forward. Studies on contemporary China. Oxford University Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780199244065. Retrieved 2011-10-20. 
  13. ^ Lieberthal, Kenneth (1987). "The Great Leap Forward and the split in the Yenan leadership". The People's Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1949–1965. The Cambridge History of China. 14, pt. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 301. Retrieved 2011-04-05.  "Thus, the [1957] Anti-Rightist Campaign in both urban and rural areas bolstered the position of those who believed that proper mobilization of the populace could accomplish tasks that the 'bourgeois experts' dismissed as impossible."
  14. ^ Lieberthal (1987). p.304.
  15. ^ Thaxton, Ralph A. Jr (2008). Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. Cambridge University Press. p.3. ISBN 0521722306.
  16. ^ Lardy, R. Nicholas; Fairbank, K. John (1987). "The Chinese economy under stress, 1958-1965". In Roderick MacFarquhar (ed.). The People's Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949-1965. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 367. ISBN 9780521243360. 
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  52. ^ Applebaum, Anne (2008). When China Starved. The Washington Post, August 12, 2008. Applebaum writes about Tombstone by Yang Jishen.
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  67. ^ Dikötter (2010). pp.298 & 304.
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  73. ^ Twentieth Century China: Third Volume. Beijing, 1994. p.430.
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This article incorporates public domain text from the United States Library of Congress Country Studies.China

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