San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Great Leap Forward Period
in China, 1958-1960

Economic development under the People's Republic of China government started with about 150 development projects planned, financed and staffed by the Soviet Union. When political ideological differences between Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev led to a split, the 15,000 Soviet engineers and staff on the development projects were withdrawn and the blueprints for the projects destroyed. China did not have the technological and financial resources to complete these projects on its own and Mao Zedong was made conscious of how vulnerable China was in depending upon outside aid, even from communist regimes.

It was then that the conviction developed with Mao that China would industrialize on its own, pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, so to speak. Mao was also aware that the first attempt to create a socialist economy was brought to a halt in the Soviet Union in 1921 when peasants reacted to confiscation of their grain harvest by declining to plant and produce as much grain. Mao was also aware that when Stalin began his five-year plans he collectivized agriculture in order to have control over what was planted and produced. Mao should have also been aware, although perhaps he was not, that the collectivization program in the Soviet Union was a great failure in terms of production and that a severe famine occured in the Ukraine afterwards. Nevertheless Mao called for the Chinese peasants to be organized into communes. This, in effect, took away the land that had been distributed to the peasants in the years immediately after 1949. The peasants had been urged to confiscate the lands of the landowners and distribute it to the peasants that farmed it. This land distribution program was extremely popular with the peasants and contributed to their support of Mao's Communist Party. But the peasants had the land for less that ten years before the State took it away from them.

First, peasants were organized into cooperatives of 20 to 40 families. This was at the village level. Next the cooperatives were replaced by county-wide collectives involving hundreds of thousands of people. In addition to calling for the creation of communes Mao urged the peasants to build backyard blastfurnaces to make iron and steel for tools. The peasants were supposed to melt down scrap metal to make useful items such as tools and utensils. In practice the program worked backwards with peasants melting down useful items to produce unusable masses of metal. This happened because the State exhorted the peasants to increase production from the backyard blast furnaces and when they ran out of scrap they started melting down anything they could find, including tools and utensils. Some of this destruction of useful objects to increase the production from the backyard blastfurnaces might be attributed to enthusiasm but probably more of it was due to there being quotas of production from the furnaces that had to be met. Communist leaders at the local level faced with possible personal punishment for not meeting the quota or destruction of useful items of metal and of wood for fuel usually would choose to try to meet the quota. But the mixture of metals and the impurities in the fuel produced metal that could not be formed into anything useful. The metal was too brittle.

The more incidious consequence of the backyard blastfurnaces and other nonagricultural projects of the Great Leap Forward was that they took labor away from food production and led to a shortfall in food. China was, as always in recent history, on the edge of subsistence and any decrease in food production means privation if not starvation.

To make matters worse the centralized control resulted in no one with the authority to change things being informed of the decline in food production. The commune leaders were under pressure to exceed past production and when production declined they did not report it. They, in fact, reported what the higher authorities wanted to hear. Thus the policy errors that were leading to food shortfalls went on beyond the point when anyone could do anything about them. The central government made things even worse for the peasants by taking a share based upon the falsified production figures and thus leaving the peasants too little to survive on.

In addition to the decline in food production due to the diversion of effort away from agriculture there was losses in food production because of the erroneous policies promoted by the State. One of these idiocies was close planting. If two plants are set too close to each other there is not enough nutrients in the soil to feed both and both die. The State promoted close planting of grain to increase productivity. The initial growth of a plant derives from the nutrient stored in the seed itself. With close planting the initial germination produces spectacular results, but when the growth of the plant has to depend upon nutrients drawn from the soil the close planting produces failures. During the Great Leap Forward there developed a competition for creating the most striking demonstrations of close planting. The record was probably the case which produced a famous photograph of children standing on top of a wheat field that could hold their weight. Jasper Becker, in his history of the Great Leap Forward era Hungry Ghosts tells that an interviewee told him that the picture was faked. There was a bench hidden in the wheat below the children's feet that supported them.

Jasper Becker in Hungry Ghosts traces the foolishness of close planting to the fraudulent science of the Soviet Union. T.D. Lysenko was a quack who got the support of Joseph Stalin and ruled over Soviet genetics for twenty five years. Among the many erroneous notions promoted by Lysenko and which had to be accepted in Marxist countries was his "law of the life of species" which said that plants of the same species do not compete with each other but instead help each other to survive. This was linked to the Marxist notion of classes in which members of the same class do not compete but instead help each other survive. So Marxist ideology seemed to support the notion that the denser grain was planted the better it was for the grain. But in reality this close planting led to whithering of the plants after the initial germination phase. Lysenko was responsible for many other foolish notions most based upon the precept that environment not genetics determine plant characteristics. Lysenko argued that if you grew plants a little farther north each year they would adapt to the climate and eventually you would be able to grow oranges in the arctic. All of the Lysenko nonsense had to accepted in the Soviet Union and promoted in propaganda as scientific truth. The Marxists in China apparently believed it was the truth. The reality was that this nonsense resulted in less production of food under conditions of bare survival.

Some tried to communicate to Mao the failures of the Great Leap Forward but were denounced as traitors. Marshal Peng Dehuai who commanded the Chinese troops in the Korean War was one of those denounced and branded as a counter-revolutionary by Mao. Peng captured the situation well in a poem:

The millet is scattered over the ground.
The leaves of the sweet potato are withered.
The young and old have gone to smelt iron.
To harvest the grain there are only
      children and old women.
How shall we get through the next year?

        Peng Dehuai

This version of the poem quoted in Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts

Famine ensued and was particularly severe in some areas. The people in these areas were forbidden to leave their area and so were doomed to starvation. Altogether about thirty million people died in the famine. The famine was caused by the shortfall in food production but this was a result of the bad policies and centralization of power in the central government. It was made worse by the refusal to admit the problem. During the time peasants were starving in the country side the government was shipping to grain to the Soviet Union to repay loans. Some grain also rotted in warehouses in the cities where it was taken from the communes.

This famine was kept secret from the outside world until China began opening up to the outside world and demographers began analyzing the the population statistics.

When Mao finally accepted the fact that the Great Leap Forward had failed he left the task of achieving an economic recovery to Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai. Harrison Salisbury believes there is evidence that Mao made an explicit agreement with the three that he would give them free rein for five years. The three did bring about the recovery but in 1966 Mao sought to return to absolute power again. The power struggle took the form of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It was a social and economic disaster for China but it was brilliant guerilla warfare on the part of Mao. Mao may have been a fool in matters of economic policy but he was a genius in guerilla warfare.

HOME PAGE OF applet-magic
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins