The Great Leap Forward: The Great Failure of Mao Zedong in China

From the Lecture Series: Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles

After decades of civil war and struggles over the future of China, the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. The “People’s Republic” was declared under the charismatic leadership of Mao Zedong. It would not end well.

Vector of Poster in the culture revolution of China in 1970s
(Image: John Lock/Shutterstock)

Mao Zedong – A Five Year Plan

Portrait of Mao Zedong 1963
Mao Sedong used the Soviet Union as a model for development in his five year pan for future of China. (Image: By неизвестный (unknown) – domain)

The first Five-Year Plan for the future of China was launched by Mao Zedong in 1953, in which the Soviet Union was held up as the model for development. Films of the Soviet Union were even shown to peasants and ordinary Chinese to show them what to aspire to. A common slogan in the 1950s summed it up: “The Soviet Union’s today is our tomorrow.”

At the same time, however, one can detect within Mao’s policies and statements the growing determination not merely to follow the Soviet Union, but, in fact, to outdo it by leaping ahead of it. One could see, in spite of all the pledges of Communist fraternity, that unity was beginning to break down in these great Communist powers. The Soviet Union was the largest Communist state in a geographical extent. China, however, was the most populous.

Passing the Communist Torch to China

A cropped section of a photograph of Stalin taken in 1937.Scanned image from the book: Stalin. His sixtieth birthday. Moscow, Pravda, 1940.
Mao was supported by the Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who viewed Mao as a junior partner. (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

Josef Stalin viewed Mao as a junior partner. He pressured Mao to help North Korea in the Korean War. But Mao, understandably, soon came to resent being treated as a junior partner.

After Stalin’s death and de-Stalinization, Mao grew to despise the Soviet Union, feeling that it had deviated from the true path toward Communism, and he now declared that the torch had been passed to China, which had a revolutionary calling.

By 1958, the Chinese-Soviet split was increasingly clear, and border clashes took place between their armies in the late 1960s.

This is a transcript from the video series Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

In 1964, China exploded a nuclear bomb, underlining its independence in military terms as well. Mao would move toward an imitation of other patterns of Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with purges.

In 1956 and 1957, in what came to be called the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao first encouraged the blossoming of “a hundred flowers and a hundred schools of thought.” This was an invitation to independent-minded thinkers and those who showed initiative in society to criticize and to present new ideas.

This seeming liberalization lured forth dissidents, who now felt they could speak up.

Then, Mao attacked.

An estimated 500,000 people were killed in the purges against such deviationists that followed. Some historians argue that, in fact, Mao himself had not expected the extent of criticism or, as he saw it, the deviation that followed, and he panicked.

Learn more about how domestic and international conflicts disrupted Mao’s Socialist vision

Thousand Years of Happiness for Mao’s Communist China

This opened the way toward an even greater determination through will to forge ahead toward the future, in what was called the Great Leap Forward, from 1959 to 1961. The Great Leap Forward had already been announced in 1958 as a revolutionizing of the entire country. Mao argued that it was necessary for China to “strike while the iron was hot,” and press forward through willpower and dedication.

Mao Zedong shaking hands with a people's commune farmer 1959. From the  - Chinese book "10th Anniversary Photo Collection of the People's Republic of China 1949-1959" published by 10th Anniversary Photo Collection of the People's Republic of China Editorial Committee.
Mao praised the Chinese as an especially disciplined people who would do as their government demanded. (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

He praised the Chinese as an especially disciplined people who would do as their government demanded. Official slogans promised something in return. One sonorous slogan of this time said, “Hard work for a few years was then to be followed by a thousand years of happiness.”

Learn more about the catastrophic failure of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” through faulty engineering and massive bureaucratic errors

What was involved in this policy?

Mao explained that if one followed industrialization and the agricultural reforms that he had in mind, China would become a utopia, a paradise on Earth. He explained that new ideas about deep plowing in agriculture would produce food so bountiful that China would no longer even have any food problems, but in fact, would export food.

Food would be distributed free. Hard work would make people healthy, and doctors would soon be unemployed. Education and production would somehow be fused into one and work together in synergy. Clothes would be free in this abundant state. All would be equal; all would enjoy the benefits of this new quality of life.

Mao’s Promise of Skyscrapers, Airplanes, and Communes

Others further built on his promises and expanded on them, arguing that ordinary Chinese peasants would soon be living in skyscrapers. Ordinary Chinese people would have airplanes as their mode of transportation. What was needed, however, they underlined, was hard work and fanatical self-sacrifice.

Workers were to sleep at their machines, to fulfill their quotas, and to make this plan a reality. Peasants could be expected to sleep in the fields, to be able to leap into work from the earliest morning hours.

Workers were to sleep at their machines, to fulfill their quotas, and to make this plan a reality. Peasants could be expected to sleep in the fields, to be able to leap into work from the earliest morning hours.

The measures involved the consolidation of collectives into gigantic “people’s communes,” which aimed to achieve economies of scale. In these people’s communes, it was expected that the peasants and the workers would practice what was called, theoretically, “mixed and intensified production.”

Backyard furnaces, on a primitive enough scale, were supposed to produce steel, even if this meant melting down ordinary household items to produce what was essentially worthless scrap metal.

The problems of agricultural food being eaten by birds of the fields—sparrows—were to be eliminated by a campaign against birds to wipe them out. This turned into an ecological disaster: As these predators of insects were eliminated, the insects proliferated at a horrific rate.

Canteen where people could eat for free in 1958. The slogan: Eating meal don't cost money, working hard to production.
Early in the Great Leap Forward, commune members were encouraged to eat their fill in communal canteens where food was free. (Image: By Unknown – domain)

Common dining halls were to replace individual households. The fraudulent agricultural ideas of Trofim Lysenko from the Soviet Union were copied and, indeed, intensified. Deep plowing, which had been hailed as the revolutionary transformation of agriculture, now saw plowing not just a foot into the soil, but 10 feet into the soil.

Learn more about the emerging ideologies that fueled two revolutionary movements—Nationalism and Communism

Predictably enough, the result was an agricultural disaster. However, propaganda would announce successes. It was announced that pumpkins of a vast new size were being grown, weighing 132 pounds and that pigs had been crossbred with cows, in order to yield a new, dynamic breed.

China’s Great Famine

This was the propaganda, but the reality was that harvests failed, and the Great Famine followed.

This has been called the greatest, largest famine in human history. In some sense, it was perfectly predictable, because it matched the pattern of events unfolding in the “terror famine” of Ukraine, in 1932 and 1933, in the Soviet Union.

Learn more about how systemic mismanagement of the Great Leap created horrific consequences

By 1960, famine was raging in the provinces, and cases of cannibalism were recorded. Dining halls in the communes broke out into food riots. Up to 40 million people died as a result. The event was denied by the Chinese government, but those who had a chance to travel through the provinces had one particular haunting impression: The silence in the Chinese countryside, with people and animals all gone.

By 1960, the project of the Great Leap Forward was abandoned, but the commune structure remained in place, ready for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that would follow only a few years later.

Common Questions About Mao Zedong

Q: What was Mao Zedong most notable for?

Mao Zedong was most famous for leading a civil war against the Nationalist party, which resulted in the Great Leap Forward, a famine that killed millions of Chinese citizens.

Q: How many deaths was Mao Zedong resonsible for?

Mao Zedong is known as the largest mass murderer yet, with over 45 million deaths from his policies.

Q: When did Mao Zedong die?

Mao Zedong died on September 9, 1976.

Q: What killed Mao Zedong?

Mao Zedong died from a heart attack.

This article was updated on September 15, 2020

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