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How Did the Great Leap Forward Affect China?


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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.

Small "backyard" Funraces at a Chinese commune in 1959

Small "backyard" Funraces at a Chinese commune in 1959

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 and 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.

The Famine

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 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.

Mao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949.

Mao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949.

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.


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on May 23, 2017:

I love your ending, "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". It's far too risky to give so much power to one person. When a country decides to do that, it is really a desperation move. This article is highly informative and most helpful in putting the pieces together. At the time, there were so many secrets and the errors of Mao were not known to the world. I hope you could write a continuation piece about China today. I know there are areas of wealth, but there are also depressed areas, too. I hope you decide to write about China today, as this part of China's history gives rise to so many other questions.

billd01603 (author) from Worcester on December 22, 2012:

Good points pramod. Thanks for reading

pramodgokhale from Pune( India) on December 21, 2012:

Mao was peasant's son and usually peasant mindset used to be traditional,he thought, this will boost employment by installing small furnaces, China will be self sufficient in steel.Dream has failed but these dictators are stubborn to admit their blunders.

In India people criticize Nehru but he was pragmatic and built steel plant with help of British, German, Russians and heavy industry proved boon or a backbone during wars with our neighbors.

Nehru was known for his peace hysteria as critic points but strong foundation of India and infrastructure was built under his regime.

Mao has his own ideas of development but hundred percent self sufficiency in any sector is outdated concept.of course any costly foreign development model can not be replicated so it is necessary to search appropriate model of development for own. But these dictators never accept their failure and their arrogance matters .

Then rich and poor gap exists in China though they claim their success by counting GDP and other parameters.

It is paradox everywhere that when system tries for equalities , inequalities comes to surface.

thank you

pramod gokhale

billd01603 (author) from Worcester on November 18, 2012:

I get my info from the media, both conservative and liberal, from TV, internet and talking to people I come in touch with and there differing opinions. Let's face it, most media is biased. Lastly, I lived through Sandy. I was a little north of the bad area around New York/New Jersey, but I was still was without power for 24 hours. A neighbors tree smashed into the fence separating our lots and tore down the fence. A few more feet and it would have torn in my home.As I said before, It doesn't make much sense to spend billions to protect against something that may not happen for another 50 years. (I was watching a documentary on public TV about this storm. I'm not a metoerologist, but they called it a hundred year storm. Several factors came together to push the storm way north of where it usually comes ashore.

No Chris, I don't feel Government action is going to fail every time, but the way business is in the US, private business can do things more successfully than the Gov't. When there is profit to be had, the business has much more of a chance to succeed. Granted that may make a few people very rich.

Last I didn't see the smiley you put in the comment. Sorry.

CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on November 18, 2012:

Bill - i am sure you are informed about what is going on. May i ask by whom you are informed? By the media, via internet, by administration communiques? And who taught what information is truth, what is biased, what is misinformation?

I had the privilege to be raised in the US, to live in Germany and to have lived with strong family ties in Russia. So if i replace your historical reference China by the late Soviet Union then i carry a collection of personal experiences with me concerning your topic.

First of all, government action is not per se bound to fail, to be incompetent and to lead to disaster. I agree with you that the US is far from being compared to former Soviet Union or Mainland China. But in case of the USA i have the impression that much too long too little government left too many people alone. A perfect example are the weather disasters like Sandy or Kathrina. Both hurricanes were not the first to occur, both hurricanes had developed with sigificant prewarning time, why still so many deaths? Unbelievable, very regrettable. Administrations, governments simply didn´t care and don´t care. In Northern Germany we can´t believe the news that it takes weeks to reconnect people to civilization, to electricity. How come? I believe it is selfish ignorance of government, propelled by ongoing calls of almost half of politically active people that government is bad.

Yes, i do think it is the responsibility of a government to take care of infrastructural problems. Yes i do think it is necessary to build dykes and dams, even if last hurricane was 70 years ago. That is why far sighted (but cruel) emporers like Peter the Great came to The Netherlands to learn and study how people can live below sea level. That was in the late 17th century. The US hasn´t got that far in the 21st century. In my professional life i do business all over the world. Once in a while it takes me to Maryland and New Jersey (somewhere north of Baltimore/Philadelphia). There is coastline everywhere and i simply can´t forget the street signs: "In case of coastal flooding, move inland, that direction". I hope i got that fairly right, but with nothing else but those silly signs around, i understand that much of hurricane Sandy´s disaster is man made.

If you allow: How much unbiased information is contained in your remark on what country is first on the scene of disasters? All over the world people, countries, governments and NGO´s rush for help. This is human, this is why we live on this planet. The US is close to the Caribbean, so chances ar good to be there first, and the US is still first world, so they better be first to help. Meanwhile other first world countries do the same for earthquakes in Turkey or Armenia or Iran.

I don´t know where you got the 20% of GDP for healthcare within the next years from. Over here in little G. it is some 20% of total salaries paid to employees. Even if i add up everybody and every unemployed person, i can´t get that figur. Actually 20% of GDP means roughly that 20% of the workforce is in one or the other way employed in health care, from doctors, nurses, pharmacies, hospitals, nursing homes. That must be boom industry!

Personal freedom is interpreted very differently in countries run by different ideologic systems. As a friend of mine from former East Germany, from behind the iron curtain used to say about life in West Germany: I am very much taken aback by the many fences around private property i see here. In the GDR we had one big fence around, but within we could move more freely than you can over here.

Lastly - no, i was not serious about comparing someone stuck in an elevator with ..., I thought i put a smiley there.

billd01603 (author) from Worcester on November 18, 2012:

Chris, I am talking about the US. I feel that we are informed here. This Hub was just intended to display what can happen when government gets too powerful. I said two times in this Hub, I don't believe this can happen in the US.

As for Sandy, (and Katrina), Bad Hurricanes are disasters that occur rarely. Most storms are livable and areas that commonly have hurricanes (Florida, Gulf Coast, Southern Atlantic Coast) have some protection. What made Sandy so bad is that it hit the east coast far north from where is usually does. The New York area hasn't had a hurricane like this since 1938! Do you seriously suggest we spend billions on our infastructure to protect us against a situation that may occur every 70 years or so? (Also, what country is the first on the scene when disasters happen elsewhere? -Pacific Tsunami, Haitian earthquake, Chilian miners,)

And last, are you seriously comparing being stuck in an elevator for a few hours to starving to death or being tortured in a prison?

CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on November 18, 2012:

"Also, I mentioned twice that a thing like that could not happen here. Government would have to be severely totalitarian, ruthless, uncaring and callous. The people would have to be uninformed and servile. I said this has happened a few times in history and I gave one example."

You are not talking about the US, are you? There are few countries on this planet where people are less informed than citizens of the US. There are few countries where governments care less about their people than in the US. How else would you interpret the destructive outcome of hurricane Sandy? There is no coastal protection, no water capture and irrigation system. Why is electricity and communication infrastructure above ground? Because it is cheap and it gets people used to grid break downs? Electricity in China of today is more stable than on the East coast. Explain human rights to the people stuck in an elevator. :-)

I couldn´t agree more with Josak. It is fear mongering and leading off track from the real issues the US has to solve.

billd01603 (author) from Worcester on November 17, 2012:

Josak, We are probably the least socialist first world state in the world because that's the way we got to the point! and at least 49% of us want to keep it that way. Yes a lot of world has Universal healthcare. But at this point, we can't afford it.

It comes down to the way we see government. American conservatives believes government should be small and not get into our private lives, while liberals and socialists believe government should be involved in every aspect of our lives. Conservatives believe in the power of the individual while liberals and socialists believe the society as a whole should be above the rights of the individual.

Also, I mentioned twice that a thing like that could not happen here. Government would have to be severely totalitarian, ruthless, uncaring and callous. The people would have to be uninformed and servile. I said this has happened a few times in history and I gave one example.

Josak from variable on November 17, 2012:

*sigh* This is the very definition of fear mongering. We are probably the least "socialist" first world state in the world, all of the first world has universal healthcare and yet miraculously it has not degenerated into servile totalitarianism indeed many of those nations allow greater rights than we here in the United States poses.

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