Great Leap Forward: Mao’s Denial Led to the Starvation of Millions


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

In 1959, the harvest had dropped by 30 million tons, almost 15 percent of the total, from the previous year. Yet, in the face of growing food shortages, Mao insisted that the problem was not declining grain production but willful sabotage. Read more about the dire times brought by Mao’s new policies.

An image of a Chinese peasant working on a land
Mao continued to insist that the difficulties were only temporary. (Image: janusz.kol/Shutterstock)

The Famine and Its Ugly Consequences

In a few of China’s poorest provinces, instances of cannibalism were documented. Here is one firsthand report from Anhui Province:

The worst thing that happened during the famine was … that parents had to decide [who] would be allowed to die first. They … could not afford to let their sons die, but a mother would say to her daughter, “You have to go and see your granny in heaven.” Then they stopped giving the girl food, just giving her water.

[When the girls died] the families would swap the body of their daughter for that of a neighbor. Five or seven women would agree to do this among themselves. Then they would boil the corpses into a kind of soup. [They] had learned to do this during the famine of the 1930s. [And they] accepted it as a kind of “hunger culture”. (Becker, Hungry Ghosts, p. 138)

And still, Mao refused to change course. He had silenced his critics, but in the process, he had also shut down the regime’s most vital feedback mechanisms—debate and criticism—which were now needed more than ever to prevent an arrogant, willful dictator from indulging his utopian fantasies. To distract himself from his troubles, Mao now spent more and more time with comely young peasant girls at his Saturday night dance meetings in Zhongnanhai.

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

Conditions Deteriorated Even Further

But, by 1960 there was nothing left to buffer the long-suffering peasants from debilitating disease and agonizing death. By the end of that year, people in some places had been reduced to eating clay soil in the hope of filling their empty bellies. By the spring of 1961, more than 30 million Chinese had died of malnutrition and related diseases. 

All the trees inside the village in Anhui Province had been cut down. And nearby trees were all stripped of their bark. More than half the villagers died between New Year and April [of 1960]. When people died, no one collected the bodies. The corpses did not change color or decay because there was no blood in them and not much flesh. 

Learn more about the Children’s Crusade.

Mao’s Reaction to the Suffering Peasants

No longer able to deny reality, Mao made a symbolic display of empathy with the hard-pressed peasants. He announced that he would temporarily stop eating meat. But he continued to insist that the difficulties were only temporary and that they were the product not of his own wrongheaded policies but of rich peasant sabotage and three consecutive years of bad weather and catastrophic natural disasters. 

An image of Deng Xiaoping statue in Shenzhen, China.
Deng Xiaoping was one of the ministers who rescued the peasants from famine. (Image: chanwangrong/Shutterstock)

Yet through it all, in the face of severe famine, Mao callously continued to export millions of tons of Chinese ‘blood grain’ to the Soviet Union. Although Mao’s colleagues dared not oppose his policies, they knew that unless things changed soon, there was a very real danger of regime collapse. And so they quietly began taking matters into their own hands.

In late 1960 and 1961, Mao’s second in command, party Vice Chairman Liu Shaoqi, joined with Deng Xiaoping and others to address the most egregious causes of the famine. In any event, after the Lushan Plenum, Mao ‘voluntarily’ retreated to the second line of party policymaking; and he allowed Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping to try to rescue China’s devastating rural economy.

Liu and Deng’s Solutions to Stop the Famine

Over the next two years, Liu and Deng adopted a number of emergency reform measures. First, they drastically reduced the size of the people’s communes. To strengthen local production responsibility and to overcome the endemic free-rider problem, they restored the accounting functions of the pre-1958 collective farms so that peasants from each village would be held responsible for their own production results, including both profits and losses, rather than simply folding these into the commune’s general accounts as before.

And, in 1961, they shifted ultimate responsibility for income, profits, and losses down to the level of the old cooperative farms, consisting of just 20 to 30 families. To generate additional food and income for hungry peasants, Liu and Deng also restored to individual families the right to own small private plots of land and small domestic animals. 

Learn more about Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution.

How Liu and Deng Worked to End the Famine

By 1962, Liu and Deng had strengthened material incentives even further by ‘contracting production to individual households’. Under this system, each family was allocated a piece of village land to cultivate for itself. After delivering a fixed quota of compulsory grain to the state, each family was free to consume or sell or trade the remainder of their output as it saw fit. 

Under this policy, there would be no more free-riding on the collective since each family was fully responsible for its own success or failure, profit or loss. By 1962, the reform policies of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping had brought about the first clear signs of an economic recovery. 

The worst of the famine was over, and throughout the countryside, hundreds of millions of peasant survivors began to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. But for the Communist Party, the job of restoring its badly damaged reputation and credibility had just begun.

Common Questions about Mao’s Denial Led to the Starvation of Millions

Q: What was Mao’s reaction to the catastrophic problems faced by peasants?

Mao‘s only reaction to the famine was to temporarily stop eating meat. But he continued to insist that the famine problems were temporary.

Q: Who were Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping?

Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were Mao‘s underlings who worked tirelessly to help the peasants to overcome hunger during the famine. They jumpstarted many programs to enable peasants to gain more access to food.

Q: What did Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping do under the ‘contracting production to individual households’ system?

Under Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping‘s ‘contracting production to individual households’ system, all peasant families were allocated a plot of land so they could cultivate it for themselves. After giving a fixed proportion of mandatory grain to the government, each family was free to spend the rest.

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