GREAT LEAP FORWARD
backyard furnaces In 1958 Mao inaugurated the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous attempt to rapidly industrialize, collectivize agriculture on an enormous scale and develop China though the construction of massive earthworks and irrigation projects. As part of the "walking on two legs" initiative," Mao believed that "revolutionary zeal and cooperative effort would transform the Chinese landscape into a productive paradise." The same idea would be resurrected later by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
One of Mao's goals during the Great Leap Forward was for China to surpass Britain in steel production in less than five years. Some scholars claim Mao was inspired by the factories he saw in the Soviet Union, and the Great Leap Forward was an attempt by Mao to overtake the Soviet Union so that he could establish himself as leader of the world Communist movement.
Mao hoped to achieve this by redistributed labor from large industrial complexes to small backyard factories modeled after 8th century smelters, where peasants could melt down their cooking pots to make high-grade steel. Mao's followers were expected to chant, "Long live the people's communes!" and "Strive to complete and surpass the production responsibility of 12 million tons of steel!"
During the Great Leap Forward, farmers were encouraged to make steel instead of grow crops, peasants were forced onto unproductive communes and grain was exported at the time people were starving. Millions of pots and pans and tools was turned into useless slag. Entire mountainsides were denuded to provide wood for the smelters. Villager stripped remaining forests for food and ate most of China’s birds. People went hungry because they had melted down their agricultural tools and spent time in the backyard smelters rather than in the fields tending their crops. Crop yields also declined because Mao ordered farmers to grow crops using the dubious practices of close planting and deep plowing.
Great Leap In Mao’s Great Famine , Dutch scholar Frank Dikotter, wrote: “In the pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivized, as villagers were herded together in giant communes which heralded the advent of communism. People in the countryside were robbed of their work, their homes, their land, their belongings and their livelihood. Food, distributed by the spoonful in collective canteens according to merit, became a weapon to force people to follow the party's every dictate. Irrigation campaigns forced up to half the villagers to work for weeks on end on giant water-conservancy projects, often far from home, without adequate food and rest. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.”
"At least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962. The term 'famine', or even 'Great Famine', is often used to describe these four to five years of the Maoist era, but the term fails to capture the many ways in which people died under radical collectivization. The blithe use of the term 'famine' also lends support to the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs. Mass killings are not usually associated with Mao and the Great Leap Forward, and China continues to benefit from a more favourable comparison with the devastation usually associated with Cambodia or the Soviet Union. But as the fresh evidence ... demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.
"Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed - amounting to at least 2.5 million people. Other victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. Many more vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work - and hence unable to earn their keep. People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked, for whatever reason, by the man who wielded the ladle in the canteen. Countless people were killed indirectly through neglect, as local cadres were under pressure to focus on figures rather than on people, making sure they fulfilled the targets they were handed by the top planners.
backyard furnace "A vision of promised abundance not onlv motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history, but also inflicted unprecedented damage on agriculture, trade, industry and transportation. Pots, pans and tools were thrown into backyard furnaces to increase the country's steel output, which was seen as one of the magic markers of progress. Livestock declined precipitously, not only because animals were slaughtered for the export market but also because they succumbed en masse to disease and hunger - despite extravagant schemes for giant piggeries that would bring meat to every table. Waste developed because raw resources and supplies were poorly allocated, and because factory bosses deliberately bent the rules to increase output. As everyone cut corners in the relentless pursuit of higher output, factories spewed out inferior goods that accumulated uncollected by railway sidings. Corruption seeped into the fabric of life, tainting everything from soy sauce to hydraulic dams. 'The transportation system creaked to a halt before collapsing altogether, unable to cope with the demands created by a command economy. Goods worth hundreds of millions of yuan accumulated in canteens, dormitories and even on the streets, a lot of the stock simply rotting or rusting away. It would have been difficult to design a more wasteful system, one in which grain was left uncollected by dusty roads in the countryside as people foraged for roots or ate mud."
The Great Leap Forward come about at a time when: 1) there were still great internal political and economic struggles in China, 2) the hierarchy of the Communist Party was changing, 3) China felt under siege following the Korean War and 4) the divisions of the Cold War in Asia were becoming defined. In his book The Great Famine Dikötter describes how Mao’s personal competitiveness with Khrushchev—made keener by China’s abject dependence on the Soviet Union for loans and expert guidance—and his obsession with developing a uniquely Chinese model of socialist modernity. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: University of Chicago Chronicle chronicle.uchicago.edu ; Mt. Holyoke China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Wikipedia ; Great Leap Forward video You Tube ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube Books: Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (Walker & Co, 2010) by Frank Dikotter Tombstone by Yang Jisheng, a Xinhua reporter and Communist party member, is the first proper history of the Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1959 and 1961. It is 1,100 pages long and is broken into two volumes and has not been translated in English yet. Life and Death Are Wearing me Out by Mo Yan (Arcade,2008) is narrated by a series of animals that witnessed the Land Reform Movement and Great Leap Forward.
Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ncafe.com ; Death Tolls erols.com ; People’s Republic of China : Timeline china-profile.com ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project wilsoncenter.org ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Chaos Group of the University of Maryland a
Great Leap Websites on Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Mao.com chinesemao.com ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Spartacus Education spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com ; Mao Video biography.com ; Marxist.org marxists.org ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao artchina.free.fr ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com ; Oxford Reference oxfordreference.com ; Mao Book: Mao: the Unknown Story (Knopf. 2005) by Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and her husband John Halliday, a British historian, portrays Mao as villain on the level of Hitler and Stalin. The book was read by U.S. President George Bush and embraced by the American right as a condemnation of Communism. It characterizes Mao as cruel, materialistic, self-centered and a leader who used terror with the aim of ruling the world. There is also a Mao biography by Jonathon Spence.
Links in this Website: MAO, HIS EARLY LIFE, TACTICS AND REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNISTS TAKE OVER CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EARLY COMMUNIST RULE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; LEADERSHIP AND PROPAGANDA UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO'S PRIVATE LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; JIANG QING, LIN BIAO, ZHOU ENLAI Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEATH, REPRESSION AND LIFE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT LEAP FORWARD Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION --ENEMIES AND HORRORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION--THE END Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO MEETS NIXON Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO DIES Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Mao Goes Nutty
Mao seemed to go crazy in 1956. Pictures taken at that time show him contorting his face like a mad man and running around in a coolie hat. In 1957 he was influenced greatly by Lin Biao, and by 1958, he refused to swim in his own swimming pool, claiming it was poisoned, and traveled in hot weather in a train followed by two truckloads of watermelons.
In this period Mao moved heavy industry, chemical and petroleum factories to locations in Western China, where he thought they would be less vulnerable to nuclear attack, and established people's communes, colossal communes made up of dozens of large agricultural cooperatives, that he claimed would "be the bridge linking socialism to communism."
Mobilizing the Masses
Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, “An urban myth in the West held that millions of Chinese had only to jump simultaneously in order to shake the world and throw it off its axis. Mao actually believed that collective action was sufficient to propel an agrarian society into industrial modernity. According to his master plan, surpluses generated by vigorously productive labor in the countryside would support industry and subsidize food in the cities. Acting as though he were still the wartime mobilizer of the Chinese masses, Mao expropriated personal property and housing, replacing them with People’s Communes, and centralized the distribution of food.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]
Mao also launched the program to kill the "four pests" (sparrows, rats, insects and flies) and improve agricultural productive through "close planting." Every person in China was issued a flyswatter and millions of flies were killed after Mao gave the directive "Away with all pests!" The fly problem persisted however. “Having mobilized the masses, Mao continually searched for things for them to do. At one point, he declared war on four common pests: flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows<" Mishra wrote. "The Chinese were exhorted to bang drums, pots, pans, and gongs in order to keep sparrows flying until, exhausted, they fell to earth. Provincial recordkeepers chalked up impressive body counts: Shanghai alone accounted for 48,695.49 kilograms of flies, 930,486 rats, 1,213.05 kilograms of cockroaches, and 1,367,440 sparrows. Mao’s Marx-tinted Faustianism demonized nature as man’s adversary. But, Dikötter points out, “Mao lost his war against nature. The campaign backfired by breaking the delicate balance between humans and the environment.” Liberated from their usual nemeses, locusts and grasshoppers devoured millions of tons of food even as people starved to death.” [Ibid]
working at night in Xinjiang
Background Behind the Great Leap Forward
The antirightist drive was followed by a militant approach toward economic development. In 1958 the CCP launched the Great Leap Forward campaign under the new "General Line for Socialist Construction." The Great Leap Forward was aimed at accomplishing the economic and technical development of the country at a vastly faster pace and with greater results. The shift to the left that the new "General Line" represented was brought on by a combination of domestic and external factors. Although the party leaders appeared generally satisfied with the accomplishments of the First Five-Year Plan, they--Mao and his fellow radicals in particular-- believed that more could be achieved in the Second Five-Year Plan (1958-62) if the people could be ideologically aroused and if domestic resources could be utilized more efficiently for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture. [Source: The Library of Congress]
“These assumptions led the party to an intensified mobilization of the peasantry and mass organizations, stepped-up ideological guidance and indoctrination of technical experts, and efforts to build a more responsive political system. The last of these undertakings was to be accomplished through a new xiafang (down to the countryside) movement, under which cadres inside and outside the party would be sent to factories, communes, mines, and public works projects for manual labor and firsthand familiarization with grassroots conditions. Although evidence is sketchy, Mao's decision to embark on the Great Leap Forward was based in part on his uncertainty about the Soviet policy of economic, financial, and technical assistance to China. That policy, in Mao's view, not only fell far short of his expectations and needs but also made him wary of the political and economic dependence in which China might find itself . [Ibid]
“The Great Leap Forward centered on a new socioeconomic and political system created in the countryside and in a few urban areas--the people's communes. By the fall of 1958, some 750,000 agricultural producers' cooperatives, now designated as production brigades, had been amalgamated into about 23,500 communes, each averaging 5,000 households, or 22,000 people. The individual commune was placed in control of all the means of production and was to operate as the sole accounting unit; it was subdivided into production brigades (generally coterminous with traditional villages) and production teams. Each commune was planned as a self-supporting community for agriculture, small-scale local industry (for example, the famous backyard pig-iron furnaces), schooling, marketing, administration, and local security (maintained by militia organizations). Organized along paramilitary and laborsaving lines, the commune had communal kitchens, mess halls, and nurseries. In a way, the people's communes constituted a fundamental attack on the institution of the family, especially in a few model areas where radical experiments in communal living-- large dormitories in place of the traditional nuclear family housing-- occurred. (These were quickly dropped.) The system also was based on the assumption that it would release additional manpower for such major projects as irrigation works and hydroelectric dams, which were seen as integral parts of the plan for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture. [Ibid]
Economic and Political Background Behind the Great Leap Forward
The Great Leap Forward was an economic failure. In early 1959, amid signs of rising popular restiveness, the CCP admitted that the favorable production report for 1958 had been exaggerated. Among the Great Leap Forward's economic consequences were a shortage of food (in which natural disasters also played a part); shortages of raw materials for industry; overproduction of poor-quality goods; deterioration of industrial plants through mismanagement; and exhaustion and demoralization of the peasantry and of the intellectuals, not to mention the party and government cadres at all levels. Throughout 1959 efforts to modify the administration of the communes got under way; these were intended partly to restore some material incentives to the production brigades and teams, partly to decentralize control, and partly to house families that had been reunited as household units. [Ibid]
“Political consequences were not inconsiderable. In April 1959 Mao, who bore the chief responsibility for the Great Leap Forward fiasco, stepped down from his position as chairman of the People's Republic. The National People's Congress elected Liu Shaoqi as Mao's successor, though Mao remained chairman of the CCP. 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 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to oppose Mao, was deposed. Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, a radical and opportunist Maoist. The new defense minister initiated a systematic purge of Peng's supporters from the military. [Ibid]
Account of the Great Leap Forward
"We got...sight of the Great Leap Forward in action after National Day celebrations," Mao's doctor Dr. Li Zhisu wrote. "The fields along the railroad tracks were crowded with women and girls, gray-haired old men and teenage boys. All able-bodied men, the farmers of China, had been taken away to tend backyard steel furnaces.”
"We could see them feeding household implements into the furnaces and transforming them into rough ingots of steel," Li wrote. "I don't know where the idea of the backyard steel furnaces came from. But the logic was: Why spend millions building modern steel plants when steel could be produced for almost nothing in courtyards and fields. Furnaces dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see." [Source: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui, excerpts reprinted U.S. News and World Report, October 10, 1994]
"In the Hubei province," Li wrote, "the party chief had ordered peasants to remove rice plants from faraway fields and transplant them along Mao's route, to give the impression of an abundant crop. The rice was planted so closely together that electric fans had to be set up around the fields to circulate air and prevent the plants from rotting." They also died from lack of sunlight.”
Melting Tools Turns Ugly
More backyard furnaces Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: Adding to the problem were the harmless-sounding “communal kitchens,” in which everyone ate. The kitchens took on a sinister aspect because of a nonsensical plan to boost steel production by melting down everything from hoes and plows to the family wok and meat cleaver. Families thus couldn’t cook and had to eat in the canteens, giving the state complete control over the supply of food. At first, people gorged themselves, but when food became scarce, the kitchens controlled who lived and who died: The staff of the communal kitchens held the ladles, and therefore enjoyed the greatest power in distributing food. They could dredge a richer stew from the bottom of a pot or merely skim a few vegetable slices from the thin broth near the surface. [Source:Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012]
By early 1959, people were dying in huge numbers and many officials were urgently recommending that the communes be disbanded. The opposition went up to the very top, with one of the most famous Communist military leaders, Peng Dehuai, leading the opposition. Mao, however, counterattacked at an important meeting at Lushan in July and August 1959 that turned what had been a contained disaster into one of history’s greatest catastrophes. At the Lushan Conference, Mao purged Peng and his supporters, accusing them of “right-opportunism.” Chastened officials returned to the provinces eager to save their careers, duplicating Mao’s attack on Peng at the local level. As Yang puts it: “In a political system such as China’s, those below imitate those above, and political struggles at the higher levels are replicated at the lower levels in an expanded and even more ruthless form.”
Officials launched campaigns to dig up grain that peasants were allegedly hiding. Of course, the grain didn’t exist, but anyone who said otherwise was tortured and often killed. That October, the famine began in earnest in Xinyang, accompanied by the murder of skeptics of Mao’s policies.” In his book Tombstone , Yang Jisheng “describes in graphic detail how Xinyang officials beat one colleague who had opposed the communes. They ripped out his hair and beat him day after day, dragging him out of his bed and standing around him, kicking until he died. One official cited by Yang estimates that 12,000 such “struggle sessions” occurred in the region. Some people were hung up by ropes and set on fire. Others had their heads smashed open. Many were put in the middle of a circle and pushed, punched, and jostled for hours until they collapsed and died. [Ibid]
Great Leap Forward Charade
Frank Dikötter told Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, “Is there a more devastating example of a utopian plan gone horribly wrong than the Great Leap Forward in 1958? Here was a vision of communist paradise that paved the way to the systematic stripping of every freedom—the freedom of trade, of movement, of association, of speech, of religion—and ultimately the mass killing of tens of millions of ordinary people. “
A party official later told Li that this entire train spectacle was "a huge, multi-act Chinese opera performed especially for Mao. Local party secretaries had ordered furnaces constructed everywhere along the railroad route, stretching for three miles on either side, and the women were dressed so colorfully because they had been told to do so."
With no free press or political opposition to keep them in line, officials exaggerated figures and falsified records to meet the quotas. "We would just find out what they were claiming in another commune," one former cadre told the Los Angeles Times, “and add to that number...None dared give the real amount because you would be branded a counterrevolutionary."
One famous picture in China Pictorial magazine showed a wheat field so thick with grain a boy was standing on the grain stalks (it was later revealed he was standing on a table). On farmer told the Los Angeles Times, "Everyone pretended we had big harvests and then went without food...We were all afraid to talk. Even when I was a little boy, I remember being afraid to tell the truth."
.“The backyard steel furnaces were equally disastrous....Fires were fed with the peasant's wooden furniture. But what came out it was nothing more than melted-down implements." A year after the Great Leap Forward was launched, Li wrote, Mao learned the truth: "High-quality steel could be produced only in huge, modern factories using reliable fuel. But he did not close down the backyard furnaces for fear that this would dampen the enthusiasms of the masses."
Great Leap Forward Lives On
When asked How much has the political system fundamentally changed in the years since the famine and how much has it not, Frank Dikötter, auth or the The Great Famine , told Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, “ There have always been people who have been impatient with the slow pace of the democratic process and have pointed instead at the efficiency of authoritarian models of governance... But the electorate in America can vote the government out of office. In China the opposite is true. The so-called “Beijing model” remains a one-party state, despite all the talk of “openness” and “state-led capitalism”: it continues to maintain tight control of political expression, speech, religion, and assembly. Of course, people are no longer starved or beaten to death in the millions, but the same structural impediments to the building of a civil society are still in place, leading to similar problems—systemic corruption, massive squandering on showcase projects of dubious worth, doctored statistics, an environmental catastrophe and a party fearful of its own people, among others.”
“And one wonders how some of the survival strategies developed sixty years ago during the famine have actually shaped the country as we know it today. Then, as now, party officials and factory managers learned how to exploit the system and cut corners in order to meet quotas imposed from above, churning out massive quantities of pirated, tainted, or shoddy products without any regard for the consequences on ordinary people. When, a few years ago, I read about hundreds of enslaved children working in brick kilns in Henan, kidnapped, beaten, underfed, and sometimes buried alive with the complicity of the police and local authorities, I really did start wondering about the extent to which the famine is still casting its long and dark shadow over the country.
“There is no museum, no monument, no remembrance day to honor the tens of millions of victims of Mao’s holocaust. Official efforts to cover up the past are easy to understand—the current leaders are, after all, the heirs of the regime established by Mao—but what about ordinary people? We should bear in mind that most of the victims lived in the countryside, and to this day farmers are considered to be second-class citizens as a consequence of the household registration system introduced during the Great Leap Forward to keep the famished from flooding the cities. To this day farmers are rarely given a voice, while there is nothing to encourage them to remember the trauma of mass killing and mass starvation. But when they are given an opportunity to speak, as my colleagues who conducted interviews with survivors of the famine discovered, they can be both eloquent and poignant, with extraordinarily precise memories. But all too often they take their memories with them to their graves. I think it is Elie Wiesel who once observed about the nature of memory and trauma that “the executioner always kills twice, the second time through silence.”
Great Leap Forward Devolution Into the Great Famine
Yang Jisheng, the author of Tombstone , wrote in the New York Times, “The Great Leap Forward that Mao began in 1958 set ambitious goals without the means to meet them. A vicious cycle ensued; exaggerated production reports from below emboldened the higher-ups to set even loftier targets. Newspaper headlines boasted of rice farms yielding 800,000 pounds per acre. When the reported abundance could not actually be delivered, the government accused peasants of hoarding grain. House-to-house searches followed, and any resistance was put down with violence. [Source: Yang Jisheng, New York Times, November 13, 2012]
Meanwhile, since the Great Leap Forward mandated rapid industrialization, even peasants’ cooking implements were melted down in the hope of making steel in backyard furnaces, and families were forced into large communal kitchens. They were told that they could eat their fill. But when food ran short, no aid came from the state. Local party cadres held the rice ladles, a power they often abused, saving themselves and their families at the expense of others. Famished peasants had nowhere to turn.
As farmers abandoned the land, their commune leaders reported hugely exaggerated grain output to show their ideological fervour. The state took its share on the basis of these inflated figures and villagers were left with little or nothing to eat. When they complained, they were labelled counter-revolutionary and punished severely. [Ibid]
In the first half of 1959, the suffering was so great that the central government permitted remedial measures, like allowing peasant families to till small private plots of land for themselves part time. Had these accommodations persisted, they might have lessened the famine’s impact. But when Peng Dehuai, then China’s defense minister, wrote Mao a candid letter to say that things weren’t working, Mao felt that both his ideological stance and his personal power were being challenged. He purged Peng and started a campaign to root out “rightist deviation.” Remedial measures like the private plots were rolled back, and millions of officials were disciplined for failing to toe the radical line. [Ibid]
Yang shows how hastily conceived dams and canals contributed to the famine. In some areas, peasants weren’t allowed to plant crops; instead, they were ordered to dig ditches and haul dirt. That resulted in starvation and useless projects, most of which collapsed or washed away. In one telling example, peasants were told they couldn’t use shoulder poles to carry dirt because this method looked backward. Instead, they were ordered to build carts. For that they needed ball bearings, which they were told to make at home. Naturally, none of the primitive bearings worked. [Ibid]
The result was starvation on an epic scale. By the end of 1960, China’s total population was 10 million less than in the previous year. Astonishingly, many state granaries held ample grain that was mostly reserved for hard currency-earning exports or donated as foreign aid; these granaries remained locked to the hungry peasants. “Our masses are so good,” one party official said at the time. “They would rather die by the roadside than break into the granary.”
See Separate Article on the Great Famine
Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; Photographs, Ohio State University and Wikicommons, YouTube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012