Great Leap Forward in China (1958 – 1961)

Great leap forward poster
Great leap forward poster

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) followed the Soviet Union’s model of planned economy on the socialist model. The success of the First Five-Year Plan (1953–57), undertaken with Soviet financial and technical aid, prompted the government to announce a more ambitious Second Five-Year Plan for 1958–62 that called for a 75 percent increase in industrial and agricultural production.

This was not enough for party leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), who proclaimed a “Great Leap Forward” in February 1958 with the goal of passing Great Britain in industrial production by 1972. It mandated an average 18 percent increase in steel, electricity, and coal production for that year. This was only the beginning of a series of escalating and totally unattainable goals for production.

Mao called on the Chinese people to “walk on two legs,” that is, to use modern and sophisticated plants built with Soviet aid to make steel, along with primitive “backyard” furnaces manned by millions of untrained workers.

By late 1958, 600,000 backyard furnaces had been built throughout China that smelted pots, pans, and farm implements, with wood from forests as fuel, and that produced millions of tons of unusable metal in order to fulfill their quotas and avoid punishment.

To mobilize all the available labor force and to complete the socialist transformation of the people, more than 500 million peasants, or more than 98 percent of the rural population, were organized into 26,000 People’s Communes that controlled all aspects of their lives.

In addition, some city people were organized military fashion into urban communes. Afraid of failure to realize Mao’s fantastic expectations, local Communist bosses competed with one another to announce overachievement of quotas and goals, which allowed the government to announce at the end of 1958 that industrial production for that year had exceeded that of 1957 by 65 percent.

backyard furnaces
backyard furnaces

In launching the Great Leap Forward Mao was also motivated by his disapproval of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, whom Mao castigated as “revisionist” for giving incentives to improve productivity in Soviet agriculture. He boasted that he had found a shortcut, through the People’s Communes, to reach the ultimate Marxist utopia ahead of the Soviet Union and thus the right to lead the world communist movement.

The Soviet Union, however, firmly rejected Mao’s claims when Khrushchev declared that “society cannot leap from capitalism to communism.” The debate over the validity of the Great Leap Forward widened the split in the international communist movement and contributed to worsening relations between China and the Soviet Union.

In reality the Great Leap Forward brought unprecedented disaster to the Chinese people. By 1959 it was no longer possible for the government to deny that the economy had been crippled. The people were exhausted and demoralized, and famine stalked the land.

Economists estimated that the economy had declined by $66 billion, and demographers concluded that more than 30 million people had died of starvation in the Mao-made famine, the worst in world history.

At the Lushan Conference of communist leaders Mao had to admit his folly, stepped down from chairmanship of the PRC, and let others who had not lost touch with reality—called pragmatists—run the country to bring it back from ruin.