How Communist Propaganda Tricked the Chinese into False Sense of Economic Security


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

By the late spring of 1958 in China, collective farms were becoming the norm because of the Great Leap Forward, and several innovations had become more or less permanent fixtures in the nation’s collective farms. Communal dining halls were now the standard. Communist propaganda was lauded in party newspapers as a breakthrough for their communist spirit of literally ‘serving the people’.

“Great Leap Forward,” written in Chinese
The media very quickly started to promote and applaud the experiments of the Great Leap Forward. (Image: White whirlwind/Public domain)

Premature Overconfidence

In some areas, rural cadres began to experiment with enlarging the scale of the existing collective farms by amalgamating as many as 10 or even 20 neighboring villages to form a single, integrated administrative unit, with populations as high as 10,000 or even 20,000 people.

Mao’s statue in a museum.
Mao calling the communal farms and large-scale collectives ‘good’ made them quite popular in China. (Image: Daniel Case/Public domain)

The mass media were quick to applaud such experiments as the ‘first sprouts of communism’. And Mao himself was delighted with the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for these things that he called ‘newborn socialist things’.

On an inspection tour of rural Henan Province in the early summer of 1958, Mao visited one of these newly amalgamated large-scale collectives. Impressed by the evident enthusiasm of the local peasants and cadres, Mao asked for the name of their new organization. Weixing renmin gongshe, came the answer—the ‘Sputnik people’s commune’.

On Mao’s return trip to Beijing, a reporter from the People’s Daily asked the chairman for his impression of this new Sputnik commune. Mao’s five-word response—’Renmin gongshe hao!‘ (people’s communes are good!)—appeared the next day as a banner headline on the masthead of Communist Party’s flagship newspaper.

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

The Sputnik Experience

All over China, rural officials now hastened to emulate the Sputnik experience. Mao had said, ‘people’s communes are good’, and now, suddenly, they began to pop up everywhere like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Suddenly, all roads to Weixing were jammed with officials converging from all parts of the country, seeking to learn the secrets of organizing and running a people’s commune. Just what was a people’s commune? And how did it work?

Communist Propaganda Claimed Breakthroughs in Productivity

Chinese workers in a factory
As expectations became unreasonable, workers soon became unable to compete with the unrealistic numbers reported from other communal endeavors. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Along with the dramatic enlargement of China’s collective farms, extraordinary claims of unprecedented crop yields began to appear in the official media. In areas where people’s communes had been formed relatively early, the summer wheat harvest in 1958 was said to have virtually doubled from the previous year. New breakthroughs in productivity were reported almost daily as a wave of unbridled optimism spread like wildfire.

Almost immediately, claims of doubled or even tripled crop yields were reported in the party press, as rural officials across the country competed among themselves to meet and exceed established norms of per-acre production. With the new, larger size of the people’s communes, it now became possible, at least in theory, to broadly diversify the rural economy. 

By introducing a large-scale division of labor involving thousands of peasants, the communes could, it was argued, become entirely self-sufficient—not merely in food production, but in industry, commerce, education, and military training as well. No longer bound by the conventional technocratic constraints of the old Soviet model, China was blazing a new and original pathway to the future.

Learn more about the impersonal people’s communes.

Expectations Become Higher Than Ever

Perhaps the most famous example of rural economic diversification during the Great Leap was the notorious campaign to create large amounts of high-quality steel in backyard blast furnaces. Here, again, the idea was to substitute large-scale, mobilized human labor for the scientific, technical, and capital requirements of making steel in modern urban factories. 

In launching the new campaign, Mao declared that his goal was to surpass Great Britain in steel production within 15 years. Throughout the countryside, millions of peasants were conscripted to build small-scale clay, brick-and-mortar kilns. 

Operating around the clock, the kilns were fired to superheated temperatures. To keep the furnaces blazing, all available rural fuel supplies were consumed. Whole forests were denuded of trees, and all available household heating and cooking coal were requisitioned.

To supply the needed pig iron, scrap metal was collected in every village, including old farm tools, bicycle parts, household pots, pans, and utensils. Anything and everything metallic was fed into the furnaces. Nothing was spared, not even family woks.

Learn more about the systemic mismanagement of the Great Leap Forward.

Surpassing Expectations

Working night and day, China’s mobilized peasants produced almost three million tons of backyard steel in 1958, approximately 15 pounds of steel for every man, woman, and child in rural China. The sudden spike in output represented a 30 percent increase in the country’s total steel production for 1958. A few months later, an obviously exuberant Chairman Mao revised his goal of catching up with Great Britain from 15 years down to only three.

By the mid-summer of 1958, a national euphoria was in evidence. Fueled by extreme claims of success in the ‘people’s war against nature’, and amplified by an overactive Communist propaganda machine, China’s leaders began to believe that they had discovered a shortcut to communism—the ultimate Nirvana.

By the end of 1958, the country’s 750,000 collective farms had been consolidated and merged into just 23,000 people’s communes, each with an average size of 25,000 people. In the excitement of the moment, it escaped notice that many (if not most) of the communes had been set up in haste, without much planning or preparation.

By summer’s end, the party’s propagandists were proclaiming unprecedented breakthroughs in every realm of human endeavor, from steelmaking and grain production to medical science and even athletic competition. On the ground in the provinces, however, the gap between rhetoric and reality was becoming painfully apparent.

Common Questions about How Communist Propaganda Tricked the Chinese into False Sense of Economic Security

Q: How did the press react to the first collective farms in China?

The communist propaganda called the collective farms ‘the first sprouts of communism’ and made headlines with Mao’s statement of approval on people’s communes.

Q: What led rural officials to hastily travel to Weixing?

When the communist propaganda machine told the public about the people’s commune in Weixing and subsequently told them about Mao calling them ‘good’, every rural official wanted to see what was going on and how they could emulate the model.

Q: What were the media claiming in general in favor of communism?

The communist propaganda machine was claiming breakthroughs in many industries like steelmaking and grain production, but it wasn’t limited to just that. They were also claiming breakthroughs in a number of other endeavors, from medical sciences to athletic competitions.

Keep Reading
The Sino-Soviet Alliance: Conditions and Challenges
China and Soviet Union Alignment: Geopolitical and Ideological Causes
China and the Korean War