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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.

The Great Leap Forward aimed at make China a major industrial power overnight rapidly raising industrial and agricultural production. Deviating from the Soviet model, giant cooperatives (communes) and “backyard factories” were created. One of the goals was the maximum use of the labor force by dramatically altering family life. In the end industrialization was pushed too fast, resulting in the overproduction of inferior goods and the deterioration of the industrial sector as a whole. Normal market mechanisms broke down and the goods that were produced were unusuable. Agriculture was neglected and the Chinese people were exhausted. These factors combined and bad weather caused the three successive crop failures in 1959, 1960 and 1961. The widespread famine and appeared even in fertile agricultural areas. At least 15 million and possibly as many as 55 million people died in one of the deadliest famines in human history.. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale]

The Great Leap Forward began as part of one of Mao’s Five Year Plans to improve the economy. Among its goals were redistributing land into communes, modernizing agricultural system by building dams and irrigation networks and, most fatefully, industrializing rural areas. Many of these efforts failed due to poor planning. 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 [Source: Eleanor Stanford, "Countries and Their Cultures", Gale Group Inc., 2001]]

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.

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."

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “"Mao had no concrete plans for the Great Leap Forward." All he did was repeat the incantation "We can catch up with England in fifteen years." In fact, as Yang Jisheng's "Tombstone" shows, neither experts nor the Central Committee discussed "Mao's grand plan." The Chinese President and Mao cultist Liu Shaoqi endorsed it, and a boastful fantasy became, as Yang writes, "the guiding ideology of the party and the country." [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012]

“A hundred absurd schemes, such as close planting of seeds for better yields, now flowered, as loudspeakers boomed out the song "We Will Overtake England and Catch Up to America." Mao constantly looked for ways to productively deploy the world's biggest national population: farmers were taken out of fields and sent to work building reservoirs and irrigation channels, digging wells, and dredging river bottoms. Yang points out that, since these projects "were undertaken with an unscientific approach, many were a waste of manpower and resources." But there was no dearth of sycophantic officials ready to run with Mao's vaguest commands, among them Liu Shaoqi. Visiting a commune in 1958, Liu swallowed the claims by local officials that irrigating yam fields with dog-meat broth increased agricultural output. "You should start raising dogs, then," he told them. "Dogs are very easy to breed." Liu also became an instant expert on close planting, suggesting that peasants use tweezers for weeding the seedlings.”

Death and Hardship Caused by the Great Leap Forward

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.

"A vision of promised abundance not only 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."

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. *

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. *

Economic and Political Background

Behind the Great Leap ForwardThe 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. *

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. *

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working at night in Xinjiang

Goals of the Great Leap Forward

The historian Frank Dikötter wrote in History Today: “Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors by herding villagers across the country into giant people’s communes. In pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivised. People had their work, homes, land, belongings and livelihoods taken from them. In collective canteens, food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party’s every dictate.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: the decentralization of industries began and a people's militia was created. The "back-yard furnaces," which produced high-cost iron of low quality, seem to have had a similar purpose: to teach citizens how to produce iron for armaments in case of war and enemy occupation, when only guerrilla resistance would be possible. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1977, University of California, Berkeley]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the early 1950s, China’s leaders made the decision to proceed with industrialization by following the example of the Soviet Union. The Soviet model called for, among other things, a socialist economy in which production and growth would be guided by five-year plans. China’s first five-year plan went into effect in 1953. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The Soviet model called for capital-intensive development of heavy industry, with the capital to be generated from the agricultural sector of the economy. The state would purchase grain from the farmers at low prices and sell it, both at home and on the export market, at high prices. In practice, agricultural production did not increase fast enough to generate the amount of capital required to build up China’s industry according to plan. Mao Zedong (1893-1976) decided that the answer was to reorganize Chinese agriculture by pushing through a program of cooperativization (or collectivization) that would bring China’s small farmers, their small plots of land, and their limited draught animals, tools, and machinery together into larger and, presumably, more efficient cooperatives.

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.”

Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times, “The Great Leap Forward started in 1958, when the party leadership embraced Mao’s ambitions to rapidly industrialize China by mobilizing labor in a fervent campaign and merging farming cooperatives into vast — and, in theory, more productive — people’s communes. The rush to build factories, communes and communal dining halls into models of miraculous Communist plenty began to falter as waste, inefficiency and misplaced fervor dragged down production.By 1959, food shortages began to grip the countryside, magnified by the amount of grain that peasants were forced to hand over to the state to feed swelling cities, and starvation spread. Officials who voiced doubts were purged, creating an atmosphere of fearful conformism that ensured the policies continued until mounting catastrophe finally forced Mao to abandon them. [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, October 16, 2013]

Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Mao initiated his Great Leap Forward, demanding huge increases in grain and steel production. Peasants were forced to work intolerable hours to meet impossible grain quotas, often employing disastrous agricultural methods inspired by the quack Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko. The grain that was produced was shipped to the cities, and even exported abroad, with no allowances made to feed the peasants adequately. Starving peasants were prevented from fleeing their districts to find food. Cannibalism, including parents eating their own children, became commonplace. [Source: Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2013]

"How China Proceeds with the Task of Industrialization" (1953)

In an article in the Party paper, the People’s Daily, Ji Yun explains how China should proceed to industrialize under the first five-year plan: “The five-year construction plan, to which we have long looked forward, has now commenced. Its basic object is the gradual realization of the industrialization of our state. Industrialization has been the goal sought by the Chinese people during the past one hundred years. From the last days of the Manchu dynasty to the early years of the republic some people had undertaken the establishment of a few factories in the country. But industry as a whole has never been developed in China. … It was just as Stalin said: “Because China did not have its own heavy industry and its own war industry, it was being trampled upon by all the reckless and unruly elements. …”

“We are now in the midst of a period of important changes, in that period of transition, as described by Lenin, of changing “from the stallion of the peasant, the farm hand, and poverty to the stallion of mechanized industry and electrification.” We must look upon this period of transition to the industrialization of the state as one equal in importance and significance to that period of transition of the revolution toward the fight for political power. It was through the implementation of the policies of the industrialization of the state and the collectivization of agriculture that the Soviet Union succeeded in building up, from an economic structure complicated with five component economies, a unified socialist economy; in turning a backward agricultural nation into a first.class industrial power of the world; in defeating German fascist aggression in World War II; and in constituting itself the strong bastion of world peace today.

Mao Zedong’s "The Question of Agricultural Cooperation"

In a speech on July 31, 1955 — "The Question of Agricultural Cooperation" — Mao expressed his view of developments in the countryside: “A new upsurge in the socialist mass movement is in sight throughout the Chinese countryside. But some of our comrades are tottering along like a woman with bound feet always complaining that others are going too fast. They imagine that by picking on trifles grumbling unnecessarily, worrying continuously, and putting up countless taboos and commandments, they will guide the socialist mass movement in the rural areas along sound lines. No, this is not the right way at all; it is wrong.

“The tide of social reform in the countryside — in the shape of cooperation — has already reached some places. Soon it will sweep the whole country. This is a huge socialist revolutionary movement, which involves a rural population more than five hundred million strong, one that has very great world significance. We should guide this movement vigorously warmly, and systematically, and not act as a drag on it.

“It is wrong to say that the present pace of development of the agricultural producers’ cooperatives has “gone beyond practical possibilities” or “gone beyond the consciousness of the masses.” The situation in China is like this: its population is enormous, there is a shortage of cultivated land (only three mou of land per head, taking the country as a whole; in many parts of southern provinces, the average is only one mou or less), natural catastrophes occur from time to time — every year large numbers of farms suffer more or less from flood, drought, gales frost, hail, or insect pests — and methods of farming are backward. As a result, many peasants are still having difficulties or are not well off. The well-off ones are comparatively few, although since land reform the standard of living of the peasants as a whole has improved. For all these reasons there is an active desire among most peasants to take the socialist road.

Great Leap Forward Comes Unraveled

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: ““The farmers put up resistance, mostly in the form of passive resistance, lack of cooperation, and a tendency to eat animals that were scheduled for cooperativization. Many of the Communist Party leaders wanted to proceed slowly with cooperativization. Mao, however, had his own view of developments in the countryside. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

The historian Frank Dikötter wrote in History Today: “ As incentives to work were removed, coercion and violence were used instead to compel famished farmers to perform labour on poorly planned irrigation projects while fields were neglected. A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine.”

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

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]

left 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.

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. “

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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."

Consequences of the Great Leap Forward

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “The disaster that unfolded closely followed the ghastly precedent set by the Soviet Union. Under the experiment known as "people's communes," the rural population was deprived of its land, tools, grain, and even cooking utensils, and was forced to eat at communal kitchens. Yang calls the system "the organizational foundation for the Great Famine." Mao's plan of herding everyone into collectives not only destroyed the immemorial bonds of the family; it made people who traditionally used their private land to grow food, secure loans, and generate capital helplessly dependent on an increasingly maladroit and callous state. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012 ]

“Ill-conceived projects such as back-yard steelmaking took peasants away from the fields, causing a steep decline in agricultural productivity. Led, and often coerced, by overzealous Party officials, the new rural communes reported fake harvests to meet Beijing's demand for record grain output, and the government began to procure grain based on these exaggerated figures. Soon, the government granaries were full — indeed, China was a net exporter of grain throughout the whole period of the famine — but most people in rural areas found themselves with little to eat. Peasants working on irrigation projects fared no better: they were "treated as slaves," Yang writes, "and hunger exacerbated by arduous labor caused many to die." Those who resisted or were too weak to work were beaten and tortured by Party cadres, often to death.

Great Leap Forward Devolves 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.

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.

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.

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.”

End of the Great Leap Forward

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During the Great Leap Forward, Mao was challenged by his moderate defense minister Peng Dehuai. Peng, who accused Mao of having become so out of touch with the conditions in the countryside that he did not even know about problems emerging in his home county. Peng was quickly purged. In 1959 Mao defended farmers who evaded grain procurers and advocated the “right opportunism.” Historians view this period as “one of “retreat” or “cooling off” in which Mao pretended to be a “benign leader,” and “the pressure temporarily abated.” Still the famine went on and peaked in 1960.

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times. “Moderates in the party rallied around one of China’s most famous generals, Peng Dehuai, who tried to slow Mao’s policies and limit the famine. At a meeting in 1959 at the Lushan resort in central China, Mao outmaneuvered them — a turning point in modern Chinese history that transformed the famine into the worst in recorded history and helped create a personality cult around Mao. At a critical point during the Lushan meeting, one of Mao’s personal secretaries was accused of having said that Mao could accept no criticism. The room went silent.” Li Riu, another one of Mao’s secretaries, “was asked if he had heard the man make such a bold criticism. In an oral history of the period, Mr. Li recalled: “I stood up and answered: ‘[He] heard wrong. Those were my views.’ ” Mr. Li was quickly purged. He was identified, along with General Peng, as an anti-Mao co-conspirator. He was stripped of his party membership and sent to a penal colony near the Soviet border. “With China besieged by famine, Mr. Li almost starved to death. He was saved when friends managed to get him transferred to another labor camp that had access to food.

Finally, somebody had to confront Mao. As China descended into catastrophe, Liu Shaoqi, Mao’ No. 2 man and head of state, who had been shocked at the conditions he found when he visited his home village, forced the chairman to retreat. An effort at national reconstruction began. But Mao was not finished. Four years later, he launched the Cultural Revolution whose most prominent victim was Liu, hounded by Red Guards until he died in 1969, deprived of medicines and cremated under a false name. [Source: The Guardian, Jonathan Fenby, September 5, 2010]

The “turning point” was the Party meeting in early 1962, Liu Shaoqi admitted that a “man-made disaster” had occurred in China. Dikötter described how Mao feared that Liu Shaoqi would discredit him just as completely as Khrushchev had damaged Stalin’s reputation. In his view this was the impetus behind the Cultural Revolution that started in 1966. “Mao was biding his time, but the patient groundwork for launching a Cultural Revolution that would tear the party and the country apart had already begun,” Dikötter wrote. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]

Legacy of the Great Leap Forward

When asked How much has the political system fundamentally changed in the years since the famine and how much has it not, Frank Dikötter, author 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.

Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The Great Leap Forward was an extreme example of what happens when a coercive state, operating on the conceit of perfect knowledge, attempts to achieve some end. Even today the regime seems to think it's possible to know everything—one reason they devote so many resources to monitoring domestic websites and hacking into the servers of Western companies. But the problem of incomplete knowledge can't be solved in an authoritarian system that refuses to cede power to the separate people who possess that knowledge. [Source: Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2013 +++]

Great Leap Forward: the Greatest Mass Murder in History?

Ilya Somin wrote in the Washington Post: “Who was the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world? Most people probably assume that the answer is Adolf Hitler, architect of the Holocaust. Others might guess Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who may indeed have managed to kill even more innocent people than Hitler did, many of them as part of a terror famine that likely took more lives than the Holocaust. But both Hitler and Stalin were outdone by Mao Zedong. From 1958 to 1962, his Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million people – easily making it the biggest episode of mass murder ever recorded. [Source: Ilya Somin, Washington Post August 3, 2016. Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University ]

“What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.

“The basic facts of the Great Leap Forward have long been known to scholars. Dikötter’s work is noteworthy for demonstrating that the number of victims may have been even greater than previously thought, and that the mass murder was more clearly intentional on Mao’s part, and included large numbers of victims who were executed or tortured, as opposed to “merely” starved to death. Even the previously standard estimates of 30 million or more, would still make this the greatest mass murder in history.

“While the horrors of the Great Leap Forward are well known to experts on communism and Chinese history, they are rarely remembered by ordinary people outside China, and has had only a modest cultural impact. When Westerners think of the great evils of world history, they rarely think of this one. In contrast to the numerous books, movies, museums, and and remembrance days dedicated to the Holocaust, we make little effort to recall the Great Leap Forward, or to make sure that society has learned its lessons. When we vow “never again,” we don’t often recall that it should apply to this type of atrocity, as well as those motivated by racism or anti-semitism.

“The fact that Mao’s atrocities resulted in many more deaths than those of Hitler does not necessarily mean he was the more evil of the two. The greater death toll is partly the result of the fact that Mao ruled over a much larger population for a much longer time. I lost several relatives in the Holocaust myself, and have no wish to diminish its significance. But the vast scale of Chinese communist atrocities puts them in the same general ballpark. At the very least, they deserve far more recognition than they currently receive.”

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters; Photographs, Ohio State University and Wikicommons, Everyday Life in Maoist ; YouTube

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; 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.

Last updated August 2021

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