World War II – 1941-1945 Civil War (Revolution) – 1946-1950 The Great Leap Forward

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World War II – 1941-1945
Civil War (Revolution) – 1946-1950

The Great Leap Forward (simplified Chinese: 大跃进; traditional Chinese: 大躍進; pinyinDà yuè jìn) of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 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 agriculturalization, 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, social pressure, and violence. Food rationing was introduced, in some cases leaving rural Chinese with less than 250g (half a jin, 8.82 ounces) of grain per day. 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, and claimed the lives of 45 million people.[2][3]


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. 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. 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. These new workers placed major stress on China's food-rationing system, which led to increased and unsustainable demands on rural food production. 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."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).

Backyard furnaces

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 HefeiAnhui in September 1958 by provincial first secretary Zeng Xisheng. The unit was claimed to be manufacturing high quality steel (though in fact the finished steel had probably been manufactured elsewhere). 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.

The Cambridge History of China presents data on economic growth rates in China from 1953 through 1985, calculated by Harvard professor of political economy Dwight H. Perkins. Of all the periods spanning this time frame, only the 1958-1962 period, the period during which the Great Leap Forward campaign was carried out, was a period of economic regress as defined by the growth rate. "As these figures indicate, enormous amounts of investment produced only modest increases in production or none at all," argued Perkins. "The growth of national income for the entire 1958-65 period was less than half of the 1966-78 period, and it took almost twice the level of investment to produce a given increase in output in the former period as in the latter. In short, the Great Leap was a very expensive disaster."

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. Party members less economically left-wing 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.

Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution was a violent mass movement in the People’s Republic of China that started in 1966 and officially ended with Mao Zedong's death in 1976. It resulted in social, political, and economic upheaval; widespread persecution; and the destruction of antiques, historical sites, and culture.

It was launched by Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, on May 16, 1966. He alleged that liberal bourgeois elements were permeating the party and society at large and that they wanted to restore capitalism. Mao insisted, in accordance with his theory of permanent revolution, that these elements should be removed through revolutionary violent class struggle by mobilizing China's youth who, responding to his appeal, then formed Red Guard groups around the whole country.

The movement subsequently spread into the military, urban workers, and the party leadership itself. It even took on extreme and surrealistic forms such as the (unsuccessful) attempt to change the meaning of the red traffic light to "go". Although Mao himself officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, its active phase lasted until the death of Lin Biao in a plane crash in 1971. The power struggles and political instability between 1969 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 are now also widely regarded as part of the Revolution.

After Mao's death in 1976, forces within the party that opposed the Cultural Revolution, led by Deng Xiaoping, gained prominence, and most of the political, economic, and educational reforms associated with the Cultural Revolution were abandoned by 1978. The Cultural Revolution has been treated officially as a negative phenomenon ever since. The people involved in instituting the policies of the Cultural Revolution were persecuted. In its official historical judgment of the Cultural Revolution in 1981, the Party assigned chief responsibility to Mao Zedong, but also laid significant blame on Lin Biao and the Gang of Four for causing its worst excesses.

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