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By 1957, the communists had governed China for eight years. The chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and leader of the country, Mao Zedong, was motivated by fellow Communist Leader, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had vowed to surpass the US in industrial production by 1975. Mao felt China could become an industrial and agricultural giant by manipulating and motivating its citizens and means of production in his country. When the communists took over in 1949, China was primarily an agrarian country. Million of peasants farmed small plots of land. During the 1950s, a program of “collectivism” was established. The government forced small farmers to join state run collectives and communes where private ownership of land was outlawed. Under control of the government, these peasants were forced to grow more grain for the cities and for foreign export. Everything in the commune was owned by the government, including the food. Since private land was illegal, eating food that was privately grown was considered “unpatriotic,” and people who did this were subject to severe punishment. Each commune had a mess hall where all members (sometimes as big as 5000 families) of the commune would eat the food that the government supplied to them under supervision.
In order for Mao and his cohorts to turn China into a modern communist society, industrialization was necessary. Mao knew nothing about metallurgy, but in 1958, he decided the best way for China to achieve this was for every village to have a small blast furnace. Peasants were encouraged to melt down scrap metal, pots, pans, and metal farm equipment to make steel. Most of the peasants knew little to nothing about metallurgy, but they knew how to follow orders. Precious coal was wasted melting these items down The steel that was produced was for the most part useless black slag. It was evident after a short time that Mao’s plan was not working. But nobody wanted to be the first to tell him.
This rapid industrialization produced three problems. All of which contributed to a disastrous famine that lasted until the early 1960s. First, many of the steel workers were agricultural workers who were taken out of the fields to work the blast furnaces. Second, valuable coal was wasted on these furnaces. And last, much of the metal that was melted down was farm equipment. When it came time to harvest the crops in the field, most of the farm workers were working at the blast furnaces. That and the fact that there was no tools to harvest, which led to much of the crops rotting in the field. Even the crops that managed to be harvested had no way to get to the market because there was a major shortage of coal which powered the freight trains. A lot of the grain that Mao was going to provide for the cities and export rotted in silos because there was no way to get it to the people.
In January 1959, Mao visited a large steel mill in Manchuria, where he learned that large amounts of high quality steel could only be produced in large factories, not in small blast furnaces. But Mao did not want to dampen “the revolutionary spirit” of the peasants, so he decided not to cancel the small furnace program. Later, in 1959, the program to produce steel in every village was quietly ended. But the damage had already been done.
In 1958, the weather was quite good and the harvest was promising. However, due to these economic programs, most of it was wasted. The weather the next two years was not good, which exacerbated the situation. In 1960, areas of China suffered from drought. At that time, China suffered from plagues of locusts which further destroyed crops. The locusts were abundant because several years earlier, Mao had led a campaign to destroy sparrows. The sparrows ate grain seed, but they also ate locusts. By eliminating the sparrows, the natural balance was interfered with.
It is estimated that about 45 million people died in The Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine. Stories of suicide and cannibalism are abundant. It is also reported that many people attempted to eat dirt to stay alive. But not all of the 45 million died as a result of starvation. Frank Dikotter, author of Mao’s Great Famine, said that at least 2.5 million people were killed by government violence and imprisonment. Several protest uprisings were put down violently by the government. Dikotter also estimates that 1-2 million people committed suicide in this period. As it is in most famines, stronger people got the most food. The majority of the 45 million deaths were children and old people.
Why Did This Happen?
A high ranking Chinese physicist told the Washington Post that the famine and deaths “were 90% the fault of Mao Zedong.” Mao has been described as a megalomaniac. He has also been described as driven, vindictive, and callous. When Mao was warned by a brave underling that his people were starving, Mao was reported to say, “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better that half the people die, so the other half can have their fill.” (Many of the people who had the guts to say stuff like this to him we arrested. Most were tortured and killed.)
With Mao’s enormous ego, the instability of the Chinese government at the time, and an ill conceived and large economic plan, one can see why it would not work. Add other factors like the weather that were out of their control and you have the perfect recipe for disaster. Mao was interested in making China the worlds biggest Communist power, and nothing else mattered. He was unsuccessful. Historians have compared Mao to Hitler and Stalin, and this famine has been compared to the Holocaust.
Something like this could not happen in America. In an open and free society, a plan like this would be debated and would only proceed if the people wanted it. In a closed, dictatorship, dissent is stifled and the events in the country do not get out. (The world did not know of the famine until the 1990s. Chinese history books just refer to this period as “3 years of natural disasters.”) The difference is Mao did not respect his people, and they were expendable for his goals. They were mere pawns. In America, the people demand, and get, respect from our leaders.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.