The Great Leap Forward (1957-60)

Figure 1.--This wire service photograph shows a Chimese boy scavenges for food in Hunan Province. The capotion read, "Little 10-yearold Tai Lo-ping is sole family breadwinner, since he is only one strong enough to scavenge for food. Mother blind & father emaaciated, child picks dried grass at side of road which will be used in making porridge. Photographer: Harlow Church.

Mao and his supporters, once the Communists were firmly in power, launched a massive effort to remake the Chinese economy, convinced that "scientific" Markist ideology and central control gave them the capacity to achieve in decades what took centuries in the West. Mao and his associates conceived of the idea that the organization of large-scale rural communes could meet the country's industrial and agricultural challenges. Capital as a result of Markist ideology had negative implications. Thus Mao decided to use labor-intensive methods to develop the economy. Rather than capital and machiery, Mao set about mobilizing manpower. This was a plan prepared by poorly educated politicans who saw themnselves as infalable soicial engineeers despite the experimental nature of their undertaking. Not involved in the planning were competent agromomists and engineers. The economic goal behind the endevor was to bypass the slow, gradual process of industrialization followed by capitalist countries. The most famous example of the Great Leap Forward approaches was communities throughout China build "backyard" steel furnaces. These furnaces required little capital to build, only the mobilization of local labor. The iron and steel profuced, however, was of such poor quality that it was virtually useless. As with much of the production in Communist countries, the product produced was actually worth less that the inputs. In the Soviet Union which possessed enmense raw material resources, productive agricultural land, highly competent technicians, and the ability to expoloit its Eastern European Empire. This the impact of Communist economics was a poor standard of living compared to the Capitalit West. China was in a much more precarious situation and, as a result, the result of the Great Leap forward was a social and economic disaster of emense proportions. The Great Leap forward and adverse weather conditions generated perhaps the most dreadful famine in human history. Millions of Chinese died in the famine resulting from Mao's Great Leap Forward. It is no accident that two of the greatest famines in world history were casused by the political leadership of the two great Communist countries--the Soviet Union and the People's Republic. The Great Leap should not only be viewed in economic terms, like the Cultural Revolution to come, there were underlying political factors. [Gabriel] Mao in the 1950s was the most important figure, but he was not a Stalinst dictator. There were other important figures in the Party. The Great Leap can be seen as anm effort to seize total control of the apparatuses of government and Communist Party as Stalin did in the Soviet Union. Other Communist Party figures had a more conservative outlook--men like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping who saw Mao's policies as not only dangerous "adventurism", but also the underlying political implications. Many of these men wanted to follow the proven Soviet policies of transforming an agrarian society into an industrial society rather than acceppting Mao's more experimental approach. (At the time, the weaknesses of Soviet-style Communist economics were not yet exposed.)


Gabriel, Satya J. "Political Economy of the Great Leap Forward: Permanent Revolution and State Feudal Communes," China Essay Series Essay No. 4 (September 1998).


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Created: 2:30 AM 3/17/2010
Last updated: 2:30 AM 3/17/2010