How Mao’s Great Leap Forward Failed Miserably


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

While Mao’s idea for a Great Leap Forward was being implemented in China, he was also engaged in a contest of egos with Nikita Khrushchev. The Chinese leader was eager to prove the superiority of China’s newly discovered pathway to communist perfection. Across China, the ‘wind of communism’ was blowing with gale force.

Statue of Mao Zedong
Mao was determined to show how China had come up with a new and improved path to communism. (Image: Gary Lee Todd/Public domain)

A New Way to Pay the Workforce

To bolster China’s claims that the people’s communes would hasten the arrival of pure communism, Mao gave his blessing to a new system of income distribution to pay China’s communal farmers. 

Instead of receiving a payment proportional to the work they performed, as in the past, commune members would now receive the bulk of their income based on the communist distribution principle of ‘to each according to his need’, that is ‘free supply’.

In the new system, income entitlements were calculated for different demographic categories, for men, women, children, and the elderly, on the basis of their average daily caloric requirements. At the conclusion of each harvest, 70 percent of the commune’s distributable income would be handed out according to these entitlements, without regard to labor contribution. Only 30 percent was awarded on the basis of work actually performed.

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Eradicating Capitalism

To ensure that all remnants of capitalism were thoroughly eradicated in the new communes, the small private plots and domestic animals that individual families had been permitted to retain for their own private use under collectivization were now communized. And rural free markets, where peasants had traditionally sold or bartered their surplus produce, were summarily abolished. 

To spur even greater increases in farm output, emulation contests were held throughout the countryside. First, the members of one commune would pledge to double their grain output at the next harvest. Then, a neighboring commune would counter-pledge to raise their grain harvest by, say, 125 percent, and so on. Those communes that met or exceeded their pledges were awarded the honorary title of ‘Sputnik’.

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Too Much Ego? 

By August of 1958, Central Party leaders had become dizzy with success. Believing that food was abundant, they ratcheted up communal quotas for mandatory grain procurement by the state. Local officials, who were painfully aware that many of the reports were grossly exaggerated, were nonetheless obligated to fulfill the new, higher quotas. 

Clearly reluctant to offend their superiors, they lied to them, inflating their harvest estimates while squeezing every last drop of grain out of the hapless peasants, who were forced to tighten their belts just to survive. The result was a national orgy of official exaggeration and unreality at the very top of the food chain, while at the bottom of the chain, hundreds of millions of peasants began to suffer shortages.

The engine driving this entire upward spiral of inflated expectations was Mao Zedong himself. By the late summer of 1958, Mao had gone all-in in his competition with Khrushchev, in effect betting the house on the success of the Great Leap. Because of this, he could not countenance the loss of face that would accompany any acknowledgment of failure. Aware of the intensity of Mao’s feelings, his lieutenants dared not question his judgment or dampen his enthusiasm.

Meeting in August of 1958 at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, not far from  Beijing, Chinese leaders basked in their ostensible success. China’s 1958 grain harvest had, it was estimated, exceeded 450 million tons, surpassing even the United States. And party leaders were told that the country could produce as much rice as it wanted to. Mao even went on record as suggesting that everyone should eat not three meals a day but five.

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Sparrows: Enemy Number One

Image of a house sparrow, Beijing, China.
A low-cost, labor-intensive strategy was devised to reduse sparrow population. (Image: Feng Yu/Shutterstock)

A problem that had long plagued rural China was the prevalence of grain-consuming pests—birds, rats, and insects. As part of the Great Leap, a ‘people’s war’ was launched to eliminate the four leading crop-eating pests. In this new campaign, sparrows were designated public enemy number one. 

To reduce the sparrow population, millions of peasants, mainly women, children, and the elderly, were mobilized to bang pots and pans and wave sticks and brooms outdoors. 

The resulting din frightened the sparrows out of the trees and fields, and into the air. Unable to land because of the intense noise, they would eventually drop from exhaustion. Tens of millions of sparrows were killed in this way.

The systematic elimination of sparrows was also of dubious value. People soon realized that the tiny birds devoured their weight in insects. Without sparrows to control the insect population, crop damage was even greater than before.

Great Leap Projects Begin to Fail

Portrait of Chairman Mao on Yuan banknote
In 1959, Mao accepted that the Great Leap Forward had to take a step back. (Image: Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock)

When the first heavy summer rains fell in 1958, many of the dams, canals, dikes, and reservoirs constructed in the previous winter began to fail, causing inundation of hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland. Of the 500 largest reservoirs under construction in the winter of 1957–58, more than 200 were abandoned within two years.

The Great Leap’s water conservation failures did not end there. In 1975, a dam built in 1958 in Henan Province collapsed, causing an estimated 200,000 deaths—the largest single dam disaster in human history.

The main causes of failure were inadequate engineering know-how and the routine use of substandard construction materials. The  Maoist emphasis on mass mobilization over careful planning, on ideological ‘redness’ over technical expertise, had created not miracles, but vast misfortune. 

By the winter of 1959, the Party Central Committee—and even Mao himself—recognized that something had gone seriously wrong. He now ordered a reduction in compulsory steel and grain quotas and a readjustment of the free supply system to strengthen work incentives in the people’s communes.

At a meeting in February 1959, Mao grudgingly acknowledged that leftist excesses had created problems. It was an audacious gamble. And it failed, miserably.

Common Questions about How Mao’s Great Leap Forward Failed Miserably

Q: How did the new wage distribution work in China?

Part of the Great Leap Forward was changing the wage distribution in which people were paid according to their needs. Based on the demographic they fit into—man, woman, child, elderly— their calorie intakes were calculated, and that was the basis for getting paid.

Q: How did the expectations for annual production get out of hand?

The Great Leap Forward had set high standards for workers to follow. Although local officials knew that the expectations were unrealistic and the numbers they were based on were grossly exaggerated, nevertheless they set unrealistic expectations for the workers as well.

Q: Why did the Chinese start killing sparrows?

As part of the Great Leap Forward, in an attempt to destroy crop-eating pests, sparrows were designated as the main enemy. As time went on, increasingly more sparrows were killed.

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