Man-Made Disaster: The Great Leap Forward

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The Great Leap Forward was a damning program from 1958-1962 that saw Mao’s rigid goals of a strong communist state develop at the cost of one of the greatest man-made disasters in history. Following the years of Chinese affluence post-1949, Mao was inspired to reform the agricultural system through the Great Leap Forward, with the aim of creating a communist society. Yet ultimately, this was overly ambitious, and it was Mao’s refusal to adapt his staunch ideals that led to a great famine that cost millions of lives.

Since 1949, China had experienced a decade of substantial growth, with resources being redistributed to the peasantry. In 1953, Mao launched the Five Year Plan, primarily based on reducing imports and rapidly increasing industrial development. As a result, industrial output grew by a noteworthy 18% per annum. Despite this success, Mao sought to further accelerate growth, particularly in agriculture, a sector only growing by 3.8% per annum over this period. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spent 1957 experimenting with a new scale of social organisation: mobilising peasants for momentous tasks in irrigation and water control. The effectiveness of these initiatives led Mao to consider whether agriculture could be reformed in a similar way. This, coupled with the CCP’s fear of falling behind Western industrial development, set the stage for further Chinese industrialisation.

A central part of Mao’s China was the establishment of communes. The Great Leap Forward heralded the creation of People’s Communes, leading to a radical reorganisation of the agricultural society into collective farms. The primary aim of this system was to increase agricultural output and simultaneously free labour for industrial purposes. The communes were large, often comprising thousands of families, and were responsible for not just farming, but also education, healthcare, and other local administrative duties. These communes were designed to incorporate agriculture, local industry, education, defence, and health functions, and taking China a significant step towards a centralised communist state. This grand experiment on a societal scale was a direct embodiment of Mao’s vision of an ideal communist society – a unified, self-reliant populace working together towards common goals, with the state’s role minimised to just facilitating the communes. Mao’s grandiose vision of society was one in which these communes were comprised of “lots of people, a vast area of land, large scale of production, and all their undertakings done in a big way”. He believed that with the development of communes, production would be “bountiful”. This misplaced expectation would prove to be a fatal mistake.

In reality, the communes were a disaster. The CCP confiscated huge proportions of grain produced in the communes to distribute it fairly, even though by 1960, many harvesting the grain were starving themselves. As the CCP prioritised industrial output, it diverted resources away from the communes and from agriculture, ultimately leading to fatal underproduction. The CCP’s utopian vision of agricultural revolution led to wildly unrealistic grain quotas. This left local leaders, under huge pressure to report record harvests and inflate statistics on their grain output to satisfy the overly ambitious central government. Ultimately, this false reporting meant that even less grain was actually reserved for the Chinese population. For example, the announced total for 1958 of 375 million tons of grain produced has been revised down to an actual figure of 215 million tons by Western economists. A great famine soon broke out across the country. To maintain China’s reputation, Mao focused on exporting grain so China looked economically strong, meaning that a lot of grain was confiscated from communes with starving workers to export to other countries – further crippling the stores of food available to locals. 

The CCP, already confiscating too much grain, made a conscious effort to stimulate industrial (mainly steel) production and diverted millions of farmers to these efforts and away from agriculture. To make an international statement, Chairman Mao wanted to surpass the steel output of Great Britain by 1968. Instead of modernising the forces of production through technology, he resolved that China should rely on labour diversion. The agricultural labour force was reduced by 38 million between 1957 and 1958 and the area sown to grain was cut in 1959, significantly reducing output that year. This departure of labour and resources from farming then compounded the famine.

Life in the CCP communes during the Great Leap Forward was characterised by centralisation and extreme regimentation, which marked a drastic departure from traditional family and village life. However, this structure often led to resentment among the peasants due to the lack of privacy and personal autonomy. In the communes, work was assigned by team leaders, and workers had little to no say in these decisions. This regimentation extended to aspects of daily life, transforming traditional practices. Notably, as recalled by Li Anyuan, a peasant from northern Sichuan, all food produced during collections was taken by the commune canteens. He said “We were not even allowed to cook at home. The cadres sent people to destroy our stove and took away our wok.”

By July 1959, there was growing opposition to Mao’s treatment of the Great Leap Forward. The Minister of Defence, Peng Dehuia, with the support of numerous CCP ministers, actually challenged Mao’s strategy by questioning the grain reports at the Lushan conference in 1959. In reaction to this, Mao both accelerated the Great Leap Forward and removed Peng from his post, causing other party leaders to accept Mao’s interpretation of recent events. In what has been labelled ‘The Second Leap’, the organisational form of the commune spread to cities and the CCP continued to extract the dwindling grain surpluses from malnourished communes. The results were disastrous; in 1960, an estimated 30 in 1,000 people died in rural areas, the highest figure of any year during the famine. 

The calamitous consequences of the Great Leap Forward led to Mao’s temporary retreat from public and political life, and the implementation of the program was officially halted in 1962. The failure of the Great Leap Forward marked a significant turning point in Mao’s leadership and in the history of the People’s Republic of China. It led to a period of relative economic and political moderation, known as the Socialist Education Movement, before the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. 

At the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference in 1962, the President of the People’s Republic of China Liu Shaoqi attributed 70% of deaths caused by the famine to policies of the Great Leap Forward. In this post-Mao era, a new image was emerging that was critical of the Great Leap Forward and the decisions of Chairman Mao. The Great Leap Forward was not, as the name suggests, a period of progression and prosperity, rather, it is a damning scar in China’s history that serves as a reminder of the catastrophic dangers of a rigid ideology which disregarded human life in the pursuit of a political vision. The Great Leap Forward, driven by Mao’s vision of a communist utopia, resulted in a devastating famine that claimed millions of lives, marking it as the greatest man-made disaster in history. 

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