Great Leap Forward


Great Leap Forward (Chinese 大躍進 大跃进, pinyin dà yuè jìn) was the name for a campaign initiated by Mao Zedong and running from 1958 to 1961, consisting of several individual initiatives, which was intended to replace and surpass the Second Five-Year Plan (1958-1962) of the People”s Republic of China. This campaign was intended to level the three major differences of countryside and city, head and hand, and industry and agriculture, to catch up with Western industrialized countries, and to significantly shorten the transition period to communism. The Great Leap campaign began after the first Five-Year Plan from 1953 to 1957, and was to run from 1958 to 1963. In 1961, the campaign was abandoned after its obvious failure. However, the People”s Communes, which were launched along with the Great Leap Forward, continued to exist in mainland China until 1983.

The Great Leap Forward began after the end of the “Anti-Rightist Movement” and coincided with a period of increasing political tension between China and the Soviet Union. It was the major cause of the severe Great Chinese Famine that prevailed from 1959 to 1961. Due to the forced collectivization of agriculture, the additional burden placed on farmers by work on infrastructure and industrialization projects, and an internal migration of the rural population to the cities, agricultural yields fell from 1959 to 1961. At the same time, grain taxes expected by the state as a tax and for export were sharply increased and enforced with coercive measures. The number of victims of this famine is estimated at between 14 and 55 million people, making it the deadliest famine in history.

Another serious problem concerned agriculture, the sector in which more than three-quarters of the population was active. Even before the founding of the People”s Republic, all available arable land was cultivated. Consequently, cultivation on additional land was difficult, and the arable land was, moreover, extremely parceled out. A peasant family owned – at that time – on average a cultivated area of about one third of a hectare, which was worked entirely by hand. Despite the expropriation – and often the killing – of the former landowners and the reduction of the often very high rents, not much had changed on the land. Ironically, it was precisely the initial successes of Chinese socialism that contributed to this: a rapidly rising birth rate based on the fact that food was largely secure (albeit at a low level), and rudimentary medical care and hygiene measures had contributed to the decline in infant mortality. In this respect, people were no longer starving, but the enormous enthusiasm as at the founding of the People”s Republic had waned. The peasants bore the entire burden of industrial development, but saw little economic progress for themselves, which was due, among other things, to a lack of use of artificial fertilizers and a development of small agricultural machinery adapted to Chinese agriculture.

Another problem was the emergence of a new class of functionaries, detached from the population. More and more of these functionaries saw themselves, according to classical Chinese tradition, not as servants of the workers and peasants but as new rulers, and they had no qualms about enriching themselves from state property. Mao spoke of the new capitalists and the need for further class struggle, but without specifying this further.

As a solution to the dilemma, the Chinese leadership – and Mao, Liu, Deng and Zhou were unanimous on this point – called for a move away from large centralized factories and toward decentralized production in the countryside. Expensive machines were not needed for every production. With a lot of manual work and few machines, many things can be produced in the villages themselves. In addition, it is easier to know what is urgently needed close to the consumer, and long transport routes can be avoided. Attempts were therefore made to initiate economic development in the countryside with as little material support from the centers as possible. This was ideologized with the slogan “Bring the city to the countryside.

To achieve this goal, however, from the Chinese centralist point of view, the previous official and, moreover, centralist way of prescribing had to be abandoned. According to the state”s way of thinking, the rural population had to learn to rely primarily on its own strengths and to replace the bureaucratic guidance that had been customary up to then with initiative from below. In this way, the Chinese leadership reacted to the grievance of poorly developed means of communication and transportation in their country. Local authorities were therefore urged to turn to higher-level authorities as little as possible. The guiding principle of the famous Tachai Brigade in Shansi was declared binding for all local authorities: “We make equipment ourselves, we look for raw materials on the spot, we learn the technique in practice!” In this way, it seemed that in 1957 it had indeed been possible to develop effective, cheap and, above all, locally accessible production techniques for entire industries.

The experts from the cities were to support the people”s communes in turn. In this way, the mammoth bureaucracy of centralism that had settled over the country was to be reduced. Instead of the Beijing industrial bureaucracy, the initiative of the 2,000 counties, the 80,000 communes, the 100,000 artisanal and the 700,000 agricultural production cooperatives was now to come into play. The guidelines for these new initiatives remained unclear, however, which was quite intentional. Only a general direction was to be indicated, but the details of implementation were to be left to the “masses” (although here, too, it remained unclear what “the masses” were supposed to mean at all).

This new orientation of economic development required development work in the countryside. What was the “enterprise” in the city was to become the “people”s commune” in the countryside. The development of simple industry and commerce and the expansion of infrastructure in the countryside were to be the task of the people”s communes with several thousand members. The peasants, who until then had done everything on their small plots of land by hand, were to contribute their land to the people”s commune. The “people”s communes,” in turn, were to carry out the economic development necessary for the land organizationally through division of labor, mechanization and specialization. On the one hand, the way was cleared for them to carry out organizational experiments, i.e. they were given extensive economic autonomy, but on the other hand, instead of the previous command economy, they were sent into a kind of “socialist competition.

Start of collectivization in the People”s Republic of China

After the founding of the Chinese People”s Republic on October 1, 1949, the strategy of the “New Democracy” envisioned long-term adherence to mixed economic forms. The Chinese economy was to be transformed only gradually into a “socialist” one. More radical members of the Politburo criticized this as early as 1951. Beginning in 1953, the new general line envisioned a “socialist transformation” of the economy, modeled on Stalin”s 1929 program. Under the slogan “Learn from the Soviet Union!” the principle of central planning and management of production, investment, distribution and consumption was adopted. Coinciding with the end of the Korean War, the first five-year plan was adopted in 1953, following the Soviet model. At the same time, a new ruling elite was formed: While about two million functionaries worked for the national government in 1948, the communist state and party apparatus had eight million cadres in 1958.

Land reforms had already been initiated before the official founding of the People”s Republic of China, but collectivization of land had not taken place, even though the CCP advertised the advantages of such collectivization with leaflets and pamphlets. Mao believed in principle that larger production units would automatically lead to higher mechanization and thus higher yields. In contrast, other, more moderate party members, such as Liu Shaoqi, believed that extensive collectivization would only make sense once China had a sufficient number of agricultural machines. At that time, China did not have its own industry for manufacturing agricultural machinery, and the first tractor factory did not begin production until 1958. From 1952 to 1957, collectivization of agriculture was pushed forward with varying intensity, with Mao Zedong”s desire for far-reaching and rapid collectivization prevailing over more moderate members in the Politburo.

The first wave of agricultural collectivization began in 1952 and provided for mergers of six to nine households at a time. The second phase began in 1955 and was later called “low collectivization. Usually, the families of a village formed a large cooperative in this process. Peasants did not yet lose their land ownership, but were forced to share draft animals, implements, and seeds, work the fields in small groups under the direction of a cadre, and share the yields. For those who had benefited from the land reforms, this had little economic appeal. Those who owned draft animals slaughtered them and sold the meat because this was more profitable than making the draft animal available to the cooperative. Joining the cooperative was theoretically voluntary, but it was often enforced by calling families scheduled to join together to a meeting and not allowing them to leave until they agreed to join. When peasants were briefly allowed to leave cooperatives in 1955, the party leadership in Beijing was surprised at the large number of peasants who took advantage of this option. The first collectivization efforts resulted in higher agricultural yields due to larger plots and more intensive use of agricultural equipment. However, there was widespread resistance among the rural population, which occasionally manifested itself in local uprisings. After further collectivization efforts were temporarily suspended for this reason with Mao”s approval in January 1955, they were intensified again starting in April 1955. Mao had concluded after a trip through the southern provinces that reports of resistance among the population were exaggerated. He himself stated as a goal that by the end of 1957, 50 percent of the rural population should belong to a collective. At the provincial and county levels, collectivization proceeded much faster than Mao had specified. By the spring of 1956, 92 percent of rural households were affiliated with collectives, compared with only 14 percent at the beginning of 1955. By December 1956, only three percent of the rural population still farmed their land individually. In the last phase of collectivization, peasants were increasingly no longer compensated for property they brought into the collectives, but were paid only for the work they did. During collectivization in the countryside, internal migration occurred, with millions moving to the cities. In 1956, domestic passports were introduced in China to largely prevent this uncontrolled internal migration. Peasants were thus no longer able to accept wage labor outside their region during the winter months, to visit markets or, in the event of food shortages, to migrate to regions with sufficient harvests. Collectivization of the industrial and service sectors, both of which were much smaller than the agricultural sector, began after agricultural collectivization was largely completed and proceeded very quickly. It was already completed in January 1956 in all major cities.

The Hundred Flowers Movement

At the XXth Party Congress of the CPSU in February 1956, Khrushchev criticized the personality cult around Stalin and the crimes associated with it in his secret speech on February 25.The Soviet leadership subsequently initiated the so-called de-Stalinization, a fundamental change in social and economic policy. Mao saw his own authority attacked by Khrushchev”s speech, since criticism of Stalin also made criticism of him permissible. In fact, at the 8th Party Congress of the CCP in Beijing, the principle of collective leadership was emphasized and personality cult was rejected. The Maoist principle of “tumultuous mass movements” was also criticized at this party congress. In a departure from Mao”s strategy, the transformation of Chinese society and economy was now to proceed more slowly. Moderate party circles, whose leading representatives included Zhou Enlai, Bo Yibo and Chen Yun, advocated more cautious development and smaller agricultural collectives, and wanted to allow a limited free market.

In a speech to a group of party leaders in May 1956, Mao called for the first time for not leaving the monopoly of opinion to the party alone, and he repeated this demand on February 27, 1957, at a state conference with his address On the Question of the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People. The speech was not published in its wording, but toward the end of April 1957 Chinese media made it clear that constructive critical statements were welcome. The criticism voiced during the so-called Hundred Flowers Movement in the spring of 1957 was directed primarily against the ignorance and arrogance of party officials, the strong orientation toward the Soviet model, and the Communist Party”s monopoly on power. The Hundred Flowers Movement was abruptly ended by Mao in June 1957 and Deng Xiaoping was charged with taking up the fight against enemies of the state in a so-called anti-rights campaign. Historians cite divergent numbers of people who were convicted in the following months for their previously voiced criticism. Sabine Dabringhaus speaks of more than 400,000 people who fell victim to the persecutions and disappeared into labor camps and prisons. The Mao biographer Philip Short names 520,000 people who were sentenced to “re-education through labor” and sent to labor camps in remote parts of the country. A large proportion of these were scientists, intellectuals and students. Several previously influential Chinese politicians, such as Pan Fusheng and Zhang Bojun, who had opposed agrarian reforms and forced collectivization, were also sentenced as dissenters.

It is debatable among historians whether the abrupt end of the Hundred Flowers Movement was a reaction to the unexpectedly strong criticism or whether the call for criticism was a deliberate maneuver by Mao to seek out and then silence critics. However, the anti-rightist movement, which continued with varying intensity over the next few years, created an atmosphere in which few dared to criticize the government”s political and economic course.

With the support of Liu Shaoqi, chairman of the National People”s Congress, Mao called for a new economic campaign, the “Great Leap Forward,” in the fall of 1957. Although a campaign now called the “Little Leap Forward” had been abandoned in 1956 after production targets set too high by local cadres led to resistance among the rural population and strikes among workers, it was not the first time that Mao had called for such a campaign. But the renewed call for such a campaign now met with little resistance. When Khrushchev announced to an international audience shortly after the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution that the Soviet Union would have overtaken the production level of the United States in fifteen years, Mao, who was present as a state guest, replied that in the same period China would have reached the production level of Great Britain, then still a major industrial power. From his return from Moscow until April 1958, Mao toured the Chinese provinces to promote the Great Leap Forward in meetings with local party leaders.

The development of agribusiness was a focus of the Great Leap. At the plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on December 10, 1958, this was stated as follows: “The present shortage in the supply of goods in the countryside as well as in agricultural production can be overcome only by developing industry in the communes on a large scale…. Municipalities must develop rural industry on a large scale and gradually divert a considerable amount of labor from agriculture to industry to make tools for both agriculture and machinery production.” A target was set for each municipality to produce 80 to 90 percent of the industrial products it needed. The most important element for this development was considered to be the mobilization of the masses of peasants and the release of labor from agriculture to build the economy.

Essential elements of the Great Leap were:

The Chinese economy”s turn toward the capital-intensive, industrially oriented Soviet model had meant that workers were favored over peasants in every respect. This resulted in a constant rural exodus, a growth of the urban population with a simultaneous tendency to create slums of impoverished urban dwellers. As a result, from the beginning of 1957 school graduates who could not find work in the city were sent to the countryside. This was intensified in 1958. Students, teachers and administrators were forcibly sent to the countryside. The goal was a thorough reduction of the “unproductive sector” in the cities and thus a relief for the farmers.

In September 1957, the Central Committee issued a directive to launch an irrigation campaign aimed at thoroughly improving the water management infrastructure.

It soon became apparent that the LPGs were too small to fulfill the tasks assigned to them. More and more units were forced to merge their work brigades and move them from village to village. At several conferences in December 1957 and January 1958, it was decided to enlarge the LPGs, and room for experimentation was freed up. In the spring of 1958, when the cadres had to carry out both spring planting and irrigation work simultaneously, they proceeded to divide the work within the LPGs and have it carried out by specialized brigades. This created one of the basic functions of the later People”s Commune.

In 1958, important planning and management tasks were gradually delegated from the county to the LPG, which was also given control over all rural machinery. Starting in June 1958, the Beijing leadership made extensive inspection trips to the province to study the new basic units, which were structured according to the division of labor. The majority were convinced that significant progress had been made. The Peitaho Conference, which met from August 17 to 30, 1958, then designated the people”s commune as the organizational basis of the Great Leap policy. Expectations for economic development in the next few years were enormous; in some sectors, the economy was expected to more than double in 1959. This is shown in Table 7.

In August and September, optimism spread throughout the party, sometimes to the point of euphoria. The optimism was strengthened by the announcement of an outstanding grain harvest. The expected 375 million tons would have doubled the previous record harvest. This appeared to be a firm basis for taking a leap forward in industry and infrastructure projects as well.

Already at the Chengchow meeting from November 2 to 10, 1958, the mood had soured again. Reports accumulated that cadres had acted far too excessively; in some cases, money had even been abolished. The peasants” morale had been severely damaged. The first consequences were drawn at the Wuchang meeting from November 21 to 27 and at the sixth plenum of the Central Committee from November 28 to December 10. First, the plan targets were drastically reduced and it was announced that from now on the statistics that would be reported would be closely scrutinized. Furthermore, from now on, the state would exercise more financial and administrative control over the projects of the people”s communes. Actions by overzealous cadres such as the abolition of performance bonuses were condemned as left-wing extremism and “petty-bourgeois egalitarianism.” Mao himself announced that he would not run for state president the next year, making way for Liu. From this plenum on, Mao increasingly disappeared from the daily political stage.

Economic management

For the Great Leap Forward, a new system of state administration was introduced. It was called the system of “two decentralizations, three centralizations and one responsibility”. This meant: Decentralized use of labor and local investment. Centralized control over policy decisions and natural resource planning and management. One responsibility of each basic unit to the unit supervising it.

The goal was to make the lower party levels largely self-sufficient. The higher party levels were to be responsible for setting targets and for monitoring them. Success was measured by a few key figures such as tons of steel or iron, grain, wheat and rice, and meeting or exceeding the specified targets was equated with party loyalty. There was no verification of the reported figures. Starting in 1957, the Chinese population was called upon to participate in mass campaigns for water construction measures. This was followed in the spring and summer of 1958 by campaigns to increase agricultural yields, while at the same time 25,000 people”s communes were established nationwide. The last major campaign of 1958 was to increase iron and steel production.

Bo Yibo introduced the principle of dual planning at a meeting in Nanning in January 1958. At the national level, a target of production data was set to be achieved. A second plan with higher figures stated the desired target achievement. This second plan was passed on to the provinces and was to be implemented by them by all means. The provinces were likewise expected to plan their respective production, which in the aggregate was higher than the figures given by the central office. Since national targets were repeatedly set higher at party meetings at relatively short intervals, this led in sum to inflationary target setting down to the village level. Dissent from this goal was associated at all levels with the risk of being condemned as a deviant.

Mao had also given as a directive to party members in Nanning to compete with others at the provincial, city, county, municipal, and even personal levels. Good performance was awarded a red flag, while mediocre results were awarded a gray flag, and those who lagged behind others received a white flag as punishment. Throughout China, this sparked a competition to meet goals. Setting a high goal was called “firing a Sputnik” and was named after the first artificial earth satellite fired by the Soviet Union. “Firing a Sputnik,” “joining the Party in its struggle,” or working hard for “a few days and nights” was one of the ways to receive a red flag.

Individual initiatives of the Great Leap Forward

The term “Great Leap Forward” was first used publicly in the fall of 1957 in connection with a call for the construction of dams and irrigation facilities. These water construction measures were considered an essential condition for increasing agricultural production. By October 1957, more than 30 million people had already been recruited to participate in such measures. More than 580 million cubic meters of stone and earth were moved by the end of the year. In the eagerness to implement such measures in accordance with party requirements, the advice of hydrologists was ignored in many measures and the work was poorly executed.

Among the most prestigious major projects of the Great Leap was the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River, which had been planned with the help of Soviet advisors even before the Great Leap Forward began. The project was criticized by, among others, the U.S.-trained hydrologist Huang Wanli, who pointed out that the Yellow River would very quickly fill the reservoir with sediment. Mao himself then accused Huang Wanli of party damage, promoting a bourgeois democracy, and admiring foreign cultures in an editorial published in the Renmin Ribao in June 1957. Indeed, much sediment quickly accumulated in the reservoir. Only the installation of additional openings to flush the reservoir during the rainy season solved the problem. In Gansu Province, in February 1958, leading Party members were accused of being dissenters and expelled from the Party for, among other things, expressing doubts about the speed and extent of the water construction work. They had pointed out that for every 50,000 hectares of land irrigated, hundreds of villagers lost their lives during construction.

The push for people”s communes was shaped by an irrigation project in the arid county of Xushui, about 100 kilometers south of Beijing. As early as mid-1957, local party leader Zhang Guozhang had committed 100,000 people in the county, which was home to some 300,000 people, to work on a major irrigation project. The peasants were divided military-style into brigades, companies, and platoons, living far from their villages in barracks and receiving their food in communal canteens. Each brigade was responsible for seven hectares of land, which was expected to yield 50 tons in two years. At Mao”s suggestion, articles about the successes in Xushui appeared in two major Chinese newspapers by July 1, 1958, most of which were attributed to the military-like form of organization chosen.

At the time of the Great Leap Forward, about eighty percent of the Chinese population lived in rural areas. People”s communes were established only in the countryside, since attempts to establish urban communes had already been abandoned in 1958 because they were unsuccessful.

The first people”s commune was established in Suiping County of Henan Province in April 1958. In August 1958, after Mao extolled the virtues of people”s communes during a tour of the provinces, their widespread establishment in the countryside was decided and carried out within a month. By 1959, communes were already producing 93 percent of agricultural output. Unlike the previous collectives, the communes were to be responsible for everything. Mao praised them as a means of freeing women from the burdens of the household. Children and the elderly were to be cared for collectively, and food was to be provided by communal commercial kitchens. Each commune member was subject to strict regimentation and militarization. About 25,000 communes, each with about 5,000 households, were established by the end of 1958. An average people”s commune thus had between 20,000 and 30,000 people. However, there were also people”s communes with over 100,000 members. Membership was compulsory; apart from houses, all property was transferred to the communes. As during the first wave of collectivization, many peasants reacted by slaughtering their livestock still in their possession. It is estimated that between 1957 and 1958, livestock in the People”s Republic of China fell by about half.

Wages were abolished. Instead, members of a production unit received work points calculated on the basis of the team”s average performance, the work performed, age and gender. At the end of a year, the net income of each team was first divided according to their respective needs. Any surplus that might then remain was distributed according to the work points earned. Since there was rarely such a surplus, labor points were always worth less. In Jiangning, the average earnings of a worker in 1957 were equivalent to 1.05 yuan. A year later it was worth only 0.28 yuan and in 1959 0.16 yuan. Frank Dikötter gives the example of a worker who earned 4.50 yuan in 1958, which was the equivalent of a pair of trousers. Communal catering by the communal canteen kitchens gave the cadres an instrument against the peasants because of their power of disposal over food. Reduction or even complete cancellation of food rations was the usual punishment in many regions for people who did not cooperate, worked too little, arrived late, disobeyed their leaders, organized private supplies, or stole grain.

Already at the Chengchow meeting and the Sixth Plenum of the CC, both in November 1958, it was noted that many cadres had acted excessively, with sometimes disastrous consequences for peasant morale. The Sixth Plenum passed a resolution condemning as left-wing extremism all attempts to leapfrog the socialist stage. At the Second Chengdow Conference, held from February 27 to March 10, 1959, Mao delivered three keynote speeches. Mao stressed that communalization had gone too far, that the masses were inclined to withhold crops despite the good harvest, and that the harmful overzealousness of ultra-leftist cadres was continuing. In order to counteract this non-professional overzealousness of the cadres, it was decided to shift substantial authority away from the commune to the labor brigade below, and in some cases even to the labor group, the lowest labor unit. The Sanhua arabesques, i.e. the socialization of peasant life through compulsory canteen meals, child and elderly care by the people”s commune and others, were again abolished.

A basic concern of the Great Leap was to strengthen rural areas. Preference for the cities was to be scaled back, and urban experts were to support the farmers. However, because large amounts of labor were diverted to industrial and infrastructural activities (see Table 11), agriculture received too little attention, contrary to Maoist intentions. In addition, there was experimentation with very dubious methods.

The leading Soviet agronomist Trofim Lyssenko held that acquired traits were inherited and negated the existence of genes as unsocialistic and therefore false. This doctrine became binding on Chinese agronomists, as did Vasily William”s theories on soil improvement. In 1958, based on Lyssenkoism, Mao himself drafted a blueprint for increasing the production of the people”s communes: the 8-point program provided for improvement of plant material, denser sowing and planting, deeper plowing, more intensive fertilization of the fields, improvement of agricultural implements, a campaign against pests, different cultivation methods, and more intensive irrigation of the fields.

Propagation of the theories of Ivan Vladimirovich Mitchurin, who was frequently quoted by Mao, led to reports throughout the People”s Republic of China of allegedly successful crosses of unrelated plants, such as cotton with tomatoes or pumpkins with papayas. Xinhua, the news agency of the government of the People”s Republic of China, reported farmers who had succeeded in growing plants that had unusually large fruits or spikes. For example, pumpkins would weigh 132 pounds instead of 13, and rice ears would bear 150 grains of rice instead of 100. Jung Chang describes this period as a time when any nonsense desired was unrestrainedly lied together. She describes how farmers unapologetically declared to officials that they would breed pigs that were three meters long.

The production of artificial fertilizers accelerated, albeit at a still low level. It grew from 0.37 to 0.63 million tons between 1957 and 1962 (see Table 1). However, the people”s communes also resorted to questionable fertilizers. Great media attention was given to the head of a women”s association in Macheng who moved out of her house to make its walls available as fertilizer. Two days later, 300 houses, fifty cattle sheds, and hundreds of chicken coops had been demolished to serve as fertilizer. By the end of the year, more than 50,000 buildings had been destroyed.

The campaign to eradicate the four plagues was aimed at controlling flies and other insect pests, rats, and sparrows, which were classified as agricultural pests. The subsequent increase in insect pests led to the pursuit of bed bugs instead of sparrows in 1960. The inevitably higher use of pesticides in the years that followed led in part to the extinction of entire bee populations (see also More than Honey).

Deep plowing, propagated by Vasily Williams, was considered another revolutionary method to increase crop yields. Without tractors, however, deep plowing was labor-intensive, and because plowing was often done without regard to the particular tillage horizon of the soil, plowing often resulted in injury to soil structure and a corresponding decline in soil fertility. People”s communes were also instructed to sow more densely or plant more closely to increase yields. For example, on one mu, about 667 square meters, 20,000 sweet potato plants or 12,000 corn plants were planted in Hebei. Influenced by the doctrines of Trofim Lyssenko, Mao had asserted that plants of the same species would not compete with each other for light and nutrients. Contemporary witnesses interviewed by historian Frank Dikötter regularly pointed out that they were aware that these measures would lead to poorer yields, but dared not oppose them for fear of being punished or even condemned as dissenters. Judith Shapiro cites the example of an agricultural research institute that, under pressure to achieve spectacular yields, transplanted the crops of several rice fields to one “sputnik” field in order to show the desired 10,000 jin per mu. In another county, the vice party secretary, who doubted that yields of 10,000 jin (about 5,000 kilograms) of rice could be obtained from one mu of land, was accused of lack of faith in his Communist Party, forced into public self-incrimination, and deported to a labor camp.

The figures reported to the central government in 1958, most of which were highly exaggerated, suggested high harvests for cotton, rice, wheat and peanuts. For example, the central government projected a harvest of 525 million tons of grain, up from 195 million tons in 1957. When Khrushchev visited Beijing in August 1958, Mao spoke of the success of the Great Leap Forward, among other things. People had so much rice that they did not know what to do with it. Liu Shaoqi also told Khrushchev during a meeting that it was no longer a lack of food that was their concern, but the question of what to do with such a surplus of grain.

After great euphoria in mid-1958, it became apparent at the end of the year that the expected increase in production in the agricultural sector would not take place on a sufficient scale and that a major breakthrough in this area would not be possible. This, however, shook the foundation of the Great Leap. The expansion of the industrial sector could only be achieved through a massive increase in agricultural production. Be it to export grain to generate foreign exchange, be it to feed the growing urban population.

In 1959, official statistics corrected the grain harvest for 1958 from the original 395 million tons (see Table 7) to 250 million tons, which was still a record result. In 1979, the harvest was revised down to 200 million tons, which was a normal harvest in a year with few storms (see Table 1).

In the 1950s, the amount of iron and steel a country produced was considered an indicator of the level of development a country had achieved, especially in the socialist countries. In 1957, the People”s Republic of China had produced 5.35 million tons of steel. Now the country was facing problems. In order to build more large steel mills, the country would have needed foreign currency to pay for the Soviet Union”s help. But China did not have the money. So the idea came up to produce the steel again in the small masonry blast furnaces that are classic for China, instead of in large modern steel mills. First, there was no need for help from abroad, and second, the steel was not produced in a few centers, from where delivery to the hinterland was difficult given the miserable transport facilities at the time, but locally, where the steel was also used. Moreover, the farmers could produce the steel by their own labor instead of waiting for someone to allocate it to them.

The small blast furnaces that were to be built throughout the country were constructed of sand, stones, alumina and bricks and typically had a height of three to four meters. The blast furnaces were fed from above, and the air needed to reduce the ore was introduced via traditional, often hand-operated cylinder blowers. Comparable blast furnaces were already in use in China in the 19th century.

In February 1958, the annual target for 1958 was set at 6.2 million tons and raised to 8.5 million tons in May. In a speech on May 18 at the 8th Party Congress, Mao stated:

However, annual production volumes were raised earlier: In June 1958, Mao set the target at 10.7 million, and in September the target was raised to 12 million tons of steel. Mao came to believe that by the end of the 1960s China would have reached a production level of steel equivalent to that of the Soviet Union, and by 1975 China should be able to boast an annual production of 700 million tons of steel. Mao found support for these ambitious targets from a number of regional party leaders, such as Tao Zhu, Xie Fuzhi, Wu Zhipu and Li Jingquan, who all pledged extraordinary increases in steel production.

The campaign peaked in the late summer of 1958, with Chen Yun in charge, who passed on Mao”s instruction on August 21, 1958, that falling short of the specified production volume would not be tolerated. Those who failed to meet their targets faced penalties ranging from a warning to expulsion from the party and concomitant deportation. The targets set by headquarters led to a series of local mass campaigns. In Yunnan, for example, Xie Fuzhi initially called a 14-day campaign to put all available workers to work in steel production. After Bo Yibo declared October as Steel Production Month on the National Day holiday, the campaign was intensified again and the number of workers involved was increased from three to four million. Since the specified production quantities could not be achieved even with all the effort, metal equipment and metal parts were sometimes simply melted down, thereby “increasing” steel production.

The rural population had few options for evading these campaigns. Partly with the help of militias and by threatening to exclude work refusers from the supply by the large kitchens, cooperation could be enforced. Those who did not work directly at the blast furnaces hauled in wood or foraged for coal. Judith Shapiro estimates that one in six Chinese participated directly or indirectly in this campaign during 1958. Short, on the other hand, speaks of nearly a quarter of the labor population involved in iron and steel production at the height of the initiative; Mao himself, at the Lushan Conference in 1959, spoke of 90 million people he would have been unfortunate to send into the steel battle. With labor tied up in steel production, the harvest was threatened in the fall, so in October 1958, schools were closed and students, schoolchildren, and laborers were sent to the countryside to help with the harvest with a task that was not considered essential.

The party leadership was ultimately able to announce the fulfillment of its goal. However, much of the iron extracted was unusable, as the ingots were too small and too brittle to be processed further. As early as 1959, the initiative was abandoned because of this. According to a report by the Chinese Ministry of Metallurgical Industry, in some provinces less than one third of the pig iron produced was suitable for further processing. The cost of a ton of pig iron produced in the simple blast furnaces was also twice that of one produced in a modern blast furnace. The loss from the mass campaign to increase iron and steel production was later estimated by the State Bureau of Statistics at five billion yuan.

One of the reasons for this was that numerical targets were set that had to be met under all circumstances, and the level above did not want to know about any problems that arose. As a result, the problems were not reported upwards or were ignored there.

A big problem was that within a few months steel was to be produced everywhere in the country, but there were not specialists everywhere who knew how to make the steel. Hence the large amount of unusable garbage that was produced. The fixation on quantity also made it more profitable to produce a larger quantity of poor quality steel instead of focusing on quality.As the pressure continued to grow toward the end, instead of producing steel for further processing for useful equipment, useful equipment was melted down into unusable scrap while the leadership revelled in the phantom numbers of steel production.


Even though Mao Zedong was convinced that the People”s Republic of China would catch up on its development backlog primarily through mass mobilization, the country was dependent on an import of industrial plant and machinery to develop into an industrial state. Imports of these goods began immediately after Mao announced in Moscow in the fall of 1957 that the People”s Republic of China would overtake Great Britain in performance data in 15 years. Imported goods included rolling mills, electric power plants, cement plants, glassworks, and oil refineries. In addition, there was machinery such as cranes, trucks, generators, pumps, compressors and agricultural machinery.

The main supplier of machinery and industrial plants was the Soviet Union, with which close cooperation had been agreed in the early 1950s. In 1958, it was also contractually agreed with the German Democratic Republic that the latter should build cement and electricity plants as well as glassworks in China on a turnkey basis. Imports were not only from socialist countries: Imports from the Federal Republic of Germany rose from DM 200 million in 1957 to DM 682 million in 1958. The People”s Republic of China obtained most of the foreign currency needed to pay for these imports by exporting agricultural products. Zhou Enlai was among the critics of this approach; Mao found support above all from Zhu De, the commander-in-chief of the People”s Liberation Army. The recipients of these exports were mainly countries in the socialist camp, which used them to overcome their own food shortages: Rice, for example, became a staple food in the German Democratic Republic during the years of the Great Leap Forward; for margarine production, the German Democratic Republic depended on imports of vegetable and animal oils from the People”s Republic of China.

When the expected increases in agricultural yields failed to materialize, the People”s Republic increasingly ran into a trade deficit and, moreover, was partly unable to meet promised deliveries to its trading partners. As late as the end of 1958, Deng Xiaoping, believing in the outstandingly good harvest of 1958, announced that the export problem would simply disappear if everyone saved a few eggs, a pound of meat, a pound of oil and six kilos of rice. Accordingly, the amount of planned exports for 1959 was raised, and grain exports were doubled from the 1958 level at a planned 4 million tons. However, as it turned out, the 1958 harvest was not 395 million tons of grain as expected, but only 200 million, and in 1959, not 550 million tons, but only 170 million tons, and in 1960, only 144 million tons (see Tables 7 and 8). In order to be able to pay the accumulated debts, a lot of grain had to be exported, although it was no longer sufficient for the country”s own population.

Famine 1958

The first signs of famine were already evident at the beginning of 1958. As early as March 1958, concerns were expressed at a party conference that the employment of the rural population in the major hydraulic engineering projects would lead to food shortages. In addition, there was substantial internal migration during 1958, with more than 15 million peasants moving to cities. In addition, there was a widespread redirection of the labor resources of the rural population: in agricultural Jinning, out of 70,000 working adults, 20,000 were involved in water construction projects, 10,000 in the construction of a railroad, another 10,000 in the newly established industries, and only 30,000 were still involved in food production. Since it was primarily men who were assigned to work on infrastructure projects and in industry, it was predominantly women who were engaged in tilling the fields. Due to the traditional division of labor in the countryside, however, they had little experience in rice cultivation, with corresponding effects on the grain harvest.

Food shortages in spring were not atypical for rural China, which had suffered 1,828 severe famines between 108 BC and 1911 AD. What was atypical, however, was that the food shortage worsened during the summer in parts of China, even though the new harvest should have improved the food situation. Among the hard-hit regions was Yunnan Province, which had twice as high a mortality rate in 1958 as in 1957. In Luxi, a county in this province for which local cadres had already reported higher crop yields than actually harvested in 1957, more than 12,000 people starved to death after May 1958, over seven percent of the population. In Luliang, where a local party leader had used the militia to force the people”s cooperation in a dam project, more than 1,000 people starved to death. In principle, however, these famines were isolated individual events. Overall, no more people were affected by famine in 1958 than in previous years (see Table 4), and the general famine did not begin until 1959. Between 1949 and 1958, agricultural yields had risen steadily. Contributing factors were the political stability after the years of civil war and the increase in agricultural productivity as a result of the first collectivization efforts.

Mao Zedong received several reports on the problems in the province in the second half of 1958. Commenting on the situation in Luliang, he noted that, contrary to his intention, the living conditions of the rural population had been neglected in favor of increasing productivity. Mao, however, referred to the record harvest expected in 1958 and still maintained China”s rapid development. The new Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi, believing in agricultural yield increases in the face of humanitarian tragedies resulting from the Great Leap Forward, commented in November 1958:

At the end of 1958, it became clear that the production increases in agriculture could not be realized and that many things had gone wrong with the Great Leap. Mao complained about the fanaticism of ultra-left cadres, and from November 1958 onward, the Great Leap was trimmed back step by step.

Soon after the Great Leap Forward, “corrections” followed; the great innovations of the Great Leap were taken back step by step from the end of 1958. The leap did not work. At the Wuhan Plenum in December 1958, the Sanhua arabesques were first abolished again; this was the militarization of the organization and the collectivization of daily life, with compulsory communal canteens and compulsory crèches. The Shanghai Plenum (April 1959) decided to reintroduce performance bonuses in industry and private plots in agriculture. In March 1959, the People”s Commune organization was expanded to include the production brigade and production team subunits, with the production team comparable to the danwei (basic unit) already in use in China during the Empire. The basic accounting functions were downgraded from the people”s commune to the production brigade, which thus became the central unit, at the expense of the people”s commune.

In obedience to necessity, the dismantling of the people”s communes continued. At the Lushan Conference in August 1959, more powers were transferred from the people”s commune to the production brigades. In January 1961, basic accounting functions and ownership of land, equipment and livestock were downgraded from the production brigade to the production team. The people”s commune was now responsible only for tasks that could not be handled by the subunits because of their size, such as the operation of brickworks or mines or infrastructure measures.

see also the main article Great Chinese Famine

Exports 1959

Shortages in food supplies became apparent in the winter of 195859. Each of the provinces had been allocated a deliverable share of the quantities to be exported, but by the end of 1958 provincial leaders were increasingly confronted with the fact that these quantities were not available. In January 1959, the People”s Republic was able to export a total of only 80,000 tons of grain. The following month, Hubei Province announced it was only able to supply 23,000 tons instead of the planned 48,000 tons. In Anhui, the provincial party secretary, Zeng Xisheng, instructed to deliver only 5,000 tons instead of the planned 23,500 tons. Fujian delivered nothing at all. The provinces also fell short of their quotas for other export goods.

Party headquarters reacted similarly to Foreign Minister Chen Yi when the first shortages were reported in November 1958. At a party meeting in Shanghai in March and April 1959, Mao recommended vegetarianism as a solution, and the mayor of Beijing, Peng Zhen, advised reducing the consumption of grain. The party leadership was encouraged by reports that grain had been hidden in many of the people”s communes. The later Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, who was still Party Secretary of Guangdong Province at the time, reported to his superior Tao Zhu that more than 35,000 tons of hidden grain had been found in a single county. Similar reports came from Anhui a little later. Mao spoke in March 1959 of an excessive “wind of communism” that had prevailed and expressed admiration for the ordinary peasants who had so resisted excessive grain levies.

On May 24, 1959, instructions were given to all provinces that in order to support exports and promote the building of socialism, fats intended for consumption should no longer be sold in the provinces. In October 1959, the measures were further tightened, and by the end of 1959 the People”s Republic of China had exported goods worth 7.9 billion yuan. Of the 4.2 million tons of grain exported, 1.42 million tons went to the Soviet Union, 1 million to other Eastern European countries, and 1.6 million to countries classified in the Western camp. These exports represented about 2.3 percent of grain production and are not now considered by the vast majority of historians to have caused the famine.

The Lushan Conference

After the general jubilant reports at the time of the first Peitaho Conference in August 1958, negative reports accumulated. Already at the first Chengchow meeting from November 2 to 10, 1958, the rosy mood of the summer had faded. Reports had arrived from the provinces that many cadres had acted far too excessively or even nonsensically. In many cases, the proclaimed “communist wind” had led to the complete abolition of all forms of private property and sometimes even of money, with disastrous consequences for society.

At the Wuchang meeting of November 21-27, 1958, the planned targets set at the Peitaho Conference (see Table 7) were drastically reduced as a consequence. Marshal Peng Dehuai, who had made an extended inspection tour earlier, to ascertain the real situation in the country, noted that to the best of his knowledge agricultural production had decreased rather than increased. He had seen nothing of a bumper crop. Only now did the party leaders see the need to subject the jubilant reports and statistics with ever new production records to close scrutiny.

At the sixth plenum, held from November 28 to December 10, 1958, there was another retreat. All attempts to leapfrog the socialist stage were condemned as left-wing extremism. As before, the socialist slogan “To each according to his merit.” applied, and not yet the communist slogan “To each according to his needs.” It was decided to give back to the peasants their houses and their small livestock. At the same time, more financial and administrative control was announced again. Mao announced at this sixth plenum his decision not to run for state president in 1959, leaving the post vacant for Liu Shaoqi. Effective immediately, he turned over the day-to-day affairs of the state president to his deputy and Deng, the general secretary. From that point on, Mao disappeared more and more from day-to-day politics, which became increasingly dominated by Liu, Deng, and Peng.

The second Chengchow Conference, held from February 27 to March 10, decided on further steps toward normalization. Mao”s keynote speeches emphasized that too many powers had been transferred to the municipalities and that the harmful overzealousness of ultra-leftist cadres was continuing. Mao”s presentations were sometimes more justifications and excuses than descriptions of the situation. He blamed the problems of the people”s communes on Tan Zhenlin, who was technically responsible for them. For him, the experts who wrote incomprehensible documents and cadres who made false statements were responsible for the inflation of production figures. He described the tense atmosphere in the party leadership as follows: “Many people hate me, especially Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, he hates me to death….. My reaction to that is, if he doesn”t attack me, I won”t attack him, but if he attacks, I”ll hit back.”

Organizationally, it was decided that the unit of account for the peasants” services would be removed from the people”s communes and transferred to the labor brigades below them, in order to shift responsibility back more to the grassroots peasants in the hope that this would better prevent excesses of the people”s communes.

Despite the corrections made, the situation in the country did not ease.

In July 1959, the leading Communist cadres met in the resort town of Lushan in Jiangxi Province for an extended conference. The intention was to discuss intensively how to proceed with the Great Leap. Mao Zedong opened the meeting, which went down in history as the Lushan Conference, on July 2 with a speech highlighting the achievements of the Great Leap Forward and praising the enthusiasm and energy of the Chinese people. He repeated his illustration of the ten fingers, nine of which point forward but only one pointing backward. One should not look only at the one finger pointing backward. Taken together, he said, the Great Leap was a success. After that, there were several days of informal talks and working groups to discuss all aspects of the Great Leap. Mao, who did not participate in the talks, was the only one who received a report on each group”s discussions at the end of the day. In the relaxed and intimate atmosphere of the small groups” discussions, some of the cadres spoke openly about the famines, the exaggerated production figures, and the abuses of power committed by cadres. One of the most outspoken critics was Peng Dehuai, who had been Minister of Defense of the People”s Republic of China since 1954. Mao and Peng had already had a very bad relationship since the Korean War, and as early as March 1959, at the expanded Politburo meeting in Shanghai, Peng had accused Mao of making lonely decisions and ignoring the Politburo. Now Peng had made another inspection tour to his native Xiangtan in Hunan Province and had seen the great misery in the country. Not content with describing current conditions, Peng openly attacked the Maoist style of leadership and declared Mao personally responsible for the failure of the Great Leap. Overall, the discussion moved from the pure question of the problems of the collectives to the question of those responsible for the problems, with Mao as the main culprit.

Mao himself spoke out for the first time on July 10, emphasizing that the achievements of the past year far outweighed the failures. When this met with no opposition from those gathered, Peng wrote Mao a long letter, which he had Mao hand over on July 14, 1959. Peng first emphasized the successes of the Great Leap and did not rule out the possibility that the production level of Great Britain might be reached in four years (in this context, the production level was always considered to be only the quantity of steel and grain), but he also stressed that “there have been leftist deviationist misjudgments that could be called petty-bourgeois fanaticism.” However, Peng could not refrain from ironic roundabouts and personal attacks such as: “Building an economy is just not as easy as bombing a city. Although Peng addressed this letter only to Mao personally and asked for the same assessment and evaluation of his views, Mao had this letter copied and distributed to all 150 participants of the meeting on July 17. This was initially interpreted as a sign that Peng”s views might be a basis for further discussion, so that over the next few days a number of those present supported Peng”s position, including Zhang Wentian, Zhou Xiaozhou, Li Xiannian, Chen Yi, and Huang Kecheng, who had been specially summoned from Beijing.

There were now three events that escalated the dispute and made not only Mao feel that an attack on the party leadership was underway. Mao spoke of a pincer grip on the chairman.

While the Party Secretary of Gansu Province, Zhang Zhongliang, was attending the conference, the regional Party committee of that province wrote an urgent letter to Party headquarters on July 15, saying that thousands in the province had already starved to death and more than 1.5 million peasants were suffering from severe famine. The main responsibility for this, he said, lay with Zhang Zhongliang, who had reported inflated crop yields, raised compulsory grain levies, and tolerated abuses by cadres. This was a direct attack on one of the people Mao counted among the most ardent supporters of his policies.

Almost simultaneously, on July 18, during a visit to the Polish city of Poznań, Nikita Khrushchev condemned people”s communes as an aberration and went on to say that those who had advocated the introduction of these communes in Russia in the 1920s had not understood communism and how to get there. Moreover, on July 19, Mao received a report from the Chinese Embassy in Moscow that some Soviet cadres were openly discussing that people were dying in China as a result of the Great Leap Forward. The Soviet leadership thus got Peng Dehuai and Zhang Wentian into trouble, as both had been to the Soviet Union more frequently and had only just returned to the Soviet Union before the conference. Peng and Zhang were accused, rightly or wrongly, of colluding with Khrushchev or at least of saying too much.

On July 21, Zhang Wentian sharply attacked Mao, even in form. Every criticism of the Great Leap so far has been prefaced with a mention of the positive achievements of the Great Leap. Zhang Wentian went straight to a comprehensive criticism. In conclusion, Zhang stated that China was a very poor country, that the socialist system would allow the country to become richer quickly. But because of Mao”s policies, the country would remain a poor country. No one would say this, however, for fear of Mao. Finally, he reversed Mao”s metaphor that on the one finger back, nine fingers would point forward. Nine fingers would point backward and only one would point forward.

In Mao”s response on July 23, Mao appeared weak and on the defensive. In part, his presentation had the style of self-criticism. Mao stated, “The main responsibility for 1958 and 1959 lies with me. It is to me that the invention of the ”broad-based” steel battle can be traced. We were unfortunate enough to send 90 million people into battle at that time.” Others sounded like looking for an excuse: “A lot of things you just can”t anticipate. Right now, the planning agencies have stopped fulfilling their responsibilities. The State Planning Commission and the Central Ministries suddenly, after the Peitaho Conference (of August 1958) stopped working. Neither coal, iron, nor transportation capacity were calculated accurately anymore. But coal and iron do not walk around by themselves, they must be transported in freight cars. This is exactly the point I missed. I and Premier Zhou know little of these planning matters. I will not apologize here, although this is quite an apology. Until August of last year, I essentially turned my attention to the political revolution. I am really not competent in the matters of economic construction.”

As a success, Mao could claim that, despite all the serious errors in implementation, which of course had to be corrected, there was a record harvest in 1958 and that the number of people affected by famine had decreased. This is still true according to today”s figures (see tables 1 and 4). Mistakes and bad things in detail would not justify a fundamental reorientation.

Mao took overall responsibility for the Great Leap, but he also emphasized the responsibility of those in charge of implementation. Ke Qingshi, the Shanghai party chief, had proposed the steel campaign, Li Fuchun was responsible for overall planning, Tan Zhenlin and Lu Liaoyan were in charge of agriculture, and he described many provincial leaders as “radical leftists.” Mao berated his critics with unprecedented severity, sometimes almost hysterically. Aloof to unworldly, he threatened that if those present subscribed to Peng Dehuai”s views and overthrew him, he would retreat to the mountains, raise troops, and then once again engulf the country in guerrilla warfare. He then asked the party to choose between him and Peng.

Following his speech, Mao approached Peng, “Minister Peng, let”s talk.” Peng saluted Mao tightly and replied, “We have nothing more to talk about.” Now the break had come.

Mao knew that he had lost the confidence of the party leadership and bitterly remarked, “You are all against me, although you do not mention my name.” The majority of the Politburo did not back Mao on the issue, but disapproved of Peng”s attack on Mao as a person and feared splittist tendencies in the party.

On August 2, Mao stressed in a speech to a specially convened plenum of the Central Committee that the party was on the verge of splitting. After a long sharp discussion, the majority backed Mao. Crucially, Liu Shaoqi, the state president, and Zhou Enlai, the premier, rigorously supported Mao. Even Deng did not join the resistance. Mao”s critics were forced into self-criticism, and Peng Dehuai and his supporters were condemned as right-wing dissenters. Peng and Zhang Wentian lost their government posts but retained their membership in the Politburo.

In substance, Mao had to accept significant corrections to his development concept. The powers of the people”s communes were limited to the management of schools, factories, transportation, machinery and seeds. Although the commune leadership retained the right to call on members of the production brigades to do limited public work, the center of gravity of authority shifted further to the production brigades, i.e., to the level of the agricultural production cooperatives (LPGs). Land ownership was transferred to them, and their ownership of farming equipment and large livestock was confirmed. They were also given the right to keep their own accounts.

The conference ended on August 17. In the aftermath of the Lushan Conference, there was renewed persecution of so-called right-wing dissenters throughout the People”s Republic of China. From 1959 to 1960, about 3.6 million party members were persecuted as dissenters.

The shift of authority away from the people”s communes was not the end point of the development. Soon after the conference, further shifts of authority to the production brigades were decided.

The famine

China”s population was poorly nourished throughout the 1950s. According to international standards, an average person needs at least 1,900 kcal per day. For China, this was equivalent to 300 kg of unhulled grain per year. So with 650 million Chinese in 1960, at least 195 million tons of unhulled grain were needed to feed the population halfway.

However, grain production in 1959 was only about 170 million tons, about 13 percent less than that of 1958. It was the first decline in agricultural production since the founding of the People”s Republic of China, and it was insufficient in quantity to feed the population. Part of the loss could be explained by severe weather (see Table 1); in the main, the crop decline was due to policy. The food crisis triggered by the crop decline was now exacerbated by other elements.

In anticipation of a good harvest, part of the crop had already been earmarked for export to pay debts. Also, the number of people in the cities who had to be fed by the state had increased significantly in 1957 and 1958. This meant that the tax burden on farmers had to be increased significantly for 1959. In October and November of 1959, about 52 million tons of grain, about 36 percent of the harvest, had to be paid to the state. (see Table 1)

The situation was made worse by the fact that the local cadres were in some cases collecting much more grain than had been specified from above. Not only the peasants, but every level of the cadre hid grain. To alleviate their own famine, those of the peasants were further increased (see Table 2). In addition, newly established central storage facilities and hiding caused more grain to be spoiled by pests than before.

Through reforms, the party steered against these excesses. In 1960 and 1961, however, there was another bad problem. The peasants, who themselves were fighting starvation, were expected to work physically hard for the next harvest.

Fearing that they would fall victim to renewed persecution of so-called right-wing dissenters, some regional party cadres had declared crop yields much higher than they actually were. In many of these regions, almost the entire grain harvest had to be surrendered, and party cadres moved from village to village in search of hidden grain supplies. Many farmers were tortured and killed in these search operations, some of which were carried out by force. The highest number of deaths from starvation occurred at the beginning of 1960, two to three months after the grain levy was implemented.

Effects of the famine were felt throughout China, but the extent varied from region to region. The urban population was generally better off than the rural population because the state grain distribution system favored cities. In rural areas, gender, age, party and ethnic affiliation, and social origin had an impact on mortality rates. Former large landowners and wealthy farmers, former members of the Kuomintang, religious leaders and those classified as dissenters from the law, and their respective families were given lower priority in receiving food. Elderly people often received too little food to survive in communal kitchens because of their inferior work performance. Within families, male offspring were better provided for than female offspring. In some parts of the country, however, elementary schools remained closed for years afterward because no school-age children had survived. Those sentenced to labor camps likewise had a lower chance of survival, as these tended to be in the more barren regions and these provinces were mostly under the leadership of party members who implemented the Great Leap Forward campaigns with great severity. Party members had a lower mortality rate compared with the population as a whole because they were given preference in the food supply. In many people”s communes, they ate in different canteens than the other communards. Even in the labor camps, former party members were better fed than the other inmates.

Amartya Sen compares the famine during the Great Leap in China to the general food situation in India, writing, “Despite the tremendous mortality during the famine in China, it is far dwarfed by the ordinary shortage at ordinary times in India.” He describes China”s lead over India in health care, literacy, and population life expectancy, noting, “India apparently manages to put more people under the ground every eight years than China did in its years of infamy.”

The political stance of the respective provincial and county leaders influenced the extent to which the famine affected each region. The provinces particularly hard hit by the famine included Anhui, Guangxi, Guizhou and, for example, Henan.

Whu Zhipu implemented particularly radical Great Leap projects in Henan and established a reign of terror with particularly high numbers of starvation deaths. The headquarters in Beijing mentioned Henan with the model region of Xinyang in praise several times and only learned of the sad reality at the beginning of 1960. In the winter of 1960, the headquarters sent 30,000 soldiers to occupy the previous model region of Xinyang and arrest the government.

In Henan, Whu Zhipu had prevailed over the more moderate Pan Fusheng in 1958 after an inner-party power struggle. Whu Zhipu was one of Mao Zedong”s most fanatical supporters and made Henan the experimental field for the most radical projects of the Great Leap Forward. Sinologist Felix Wemheuer argues that the power struggle between these two representatives of a different political school of thought created political taboos that later made it impossible to correct the undesirable developments. Wu Zhipu”s power depended on the success of the Great Leap Forward; even a partial admission of the failure of this policy would have meant that Pan Fusheng”s removal would have been illegitimate. Anyone in this province who expressed the view that the peasants were short of grain, that they were starving, or who reported the mistreatment of peasants by cadres put themselves at risk of persecution. In 1958, the mortality rate in this province had already reached 12.69 ‰, or about 127 deaths per year for every 10,000 people. In 1960, this figure tripled to 39.56 ‰ or about 396 deaths per 10,000 persons. The number of births dropped from 1,621,000 in 1958 to 680,000 in 1960. Central to the famine in this province was the radical withdrawal of grain resources from villages against a background of supposed bumper harvests. Between 1959 and 1961, between 131 and 155 kilograms of grain were available per capita in the countryside. Adequate nutrition was not assured until well over 200 kilograms were available. The provincial government had to use force to take this much grain from the farmers. If the specifications were not met, the provincial government assumed that the farmers were hiding the grain and underreporting production results. This policy was implemented particularly radically in Xinyang Prefecture, which at the time comprised 17 counties and was home to about 50 million people. This model region had attracted attention in 1958 with record yields; the first people”s commune had been established here. Grain collection here was accompanied by such severe repression that some counties even took away the seed grain and food rations. How many people perished in the subsequent mass deaths, which went down in literature as the Xinyang Incident, can no longer be clearly determined. Jasper Becker assumes about one million dead; a party historian interviewed by Felix Wemheuer, who had access to the provincial archives, reported 2.4 million dead, although there would have been more deaths due to the reprisals than deaths from starvation. The provincial leadership around Wu Zhipu initially covered up this reign of terror, and the central office in Beijing did not learn of it until early 1960. In the winter of 1960, the central office sent 30,000 soldiers to occupy this model region, arrest the local leadership around Lu Xianwen, and improve the situation of the peasants through aid deliveries and emergency medical care. The new leadership of this prefecture strongly condemned the old leadership and accused them of murder and torture. However, the cause of the famine was officially cited not as the radical implementation of the Great Leap Forward, but as a resurgence of large landowners and other counterrevolutionary forces. Accordingly, the disaster relief was described as “tutoring in the democratic revolution,” and Wu Zhipu, who was partly responsible, was not held accountable.

There are many examples of the different impact on individual ethnic groups: South of the Yellow River, for example, Han Chinese were more severely affected by the famine than the ethnic minorities there. Han Chinese settled predominantly in the fertile and easily accessible valley regions, which meant a higher standard of living in normal years. However, Han Chinese were more affected by grain requisitions during the Great Leap Forward period than members of ethnic minorities living in the more inaccessible areas.

The 17-point agreement, which representatives of the Tibetan government signed on May 23, 1951, assured central Tibet not only regional autonomy and religious freedom but also a guarantee that the existing political system in Tibet would remain unchanged. In this newly created “Tibet Autonomous Region,” the Chinese government initially made no reform efforts. The situation was different in the parts of Tibet that became part of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, where major unrest among the Tibetan population occurred as early as 1955 as a result of the land reforms and collectivization waves. On March 10, 1959, the Tibet Uprising finally broke out, which was put down with great brutality by Chinese troops and during which up to 100,000 Tibetans fled to India. Jasper Becker denies that during the Great Leap Forward the starvation of Tibetans was deliberately accepted and refers to the large number of deaths also among the Han Chinese in these regions. However, he emphasizes that the cultural upheaval for the Tibetan population was greater during the Great Leap Forward and that this led to such a high number of starvation deaths among the Tibetan population. Tibetans were traditionally either nomadic or farmers who grew mostly barley, which was mostly made into tsampa. During the Great Leap Forward, nomads were forced into a sedentary lifestyle. They were largely prohibited from the traditional slaughter of some of their livestock before the onset of winter, whereupon much of the livestock starved to death during the winter months. Both nomadic and sedentary Tibetans were forced to grow grains unsuited to the region”s climatic conditions. Nevertheless, supposedly bumper harvests were reported, leading to excessive grain requisitions and, when these were not delivered, to widespread reprisals.

During the famine, the rural population initially resorted to traditional emergency foods such as tree bark and leaves, grass and wild herbs. As hardship increased, the death of individual family members was concealed in order to obtain their food rations, women prostituted themselves in exchange for food, and children were abandoned or sold. Cannibalism is also reported from most regions.

Internal migration to regions of China less affected by famine was a traditional response to severe food shortages. This also occurred during the Great Leap Forward. However, because the population had no information about the extent of the famine, many died in flight because their path led them to regions whose food situation was no better. At the same time, in some regions the militia tried to prevent these flight movements. In Henan and Anhui, two regions particularly affected by the famine, the militia set up roadblocks. In Xinjiang, Kazakhs attempting to flee across the border to join their tribesmen in the Soviet Union were shot. An exception was made by some county governments in Hebei, which supported emigration to Manchuria.

Local uprisings and resistance against excessive grain requisitioning probably occurred throughout China. Evidence of attacks on state grain stores includes Anhui and Sichuan provinces. In Shandong, former Kuomintang officers were accused of organizing such rebellions and were executed for it. In Hebei, where Muslim Hui Chinese raided a grain warehouse, the grain warehouse was fenced with barbed wire and guarded by militia troops armed with machine guns. In Gansu, desperate farmers even stormed an army train to get food. In Chengdu, the leader of the local militia was imprisoned for not ordering his men to fire on peasants who successfully stormed a grain warehouse. In general, however, the population was unable to organize resistance on a larger scale. They lacked the weapons to do so, and even if the militia was unable to put down an uprising or even join the insurgents, government circles could still resort to the army. The latter was better supplied with food, as was the urban population. However, the number of insurgencies was still so numerous that Liu Shaoqi warned of a civil war in 1962.

Domestic and Foreign Policy Situation in 1960 and 1961

Journalist Jasper Becker calls the political situation at the beginning of 1960 bizarre. Most high-ranking party members were aware of the famine in the country, but after the Lushan Conference they felt unable to take official note of it before Mao Zedong did. Chén Yún, who had visited Henan Province, retired to his villa in Hangzhou on the grounds that he was ill and turned to studying the operas typical of that region. He did not return to Beijing until 1961. Liu Shaoqi spent most of 1960 in Hainan and pushed to devote himself to the study of economic issues. Deng Xiaoping focused on the growing discord between China and the Soviet Union. In mid-1960, a final rift occurred between the two countries, and the Soviet Union withdrew its remaining 15,000 or so Soviet advisors in July 1960. Jasper Becker argues that the withdrawal of the Soviet advisors was welcome to the Chinese party leadership, as it also prevented news of this widespread famine from reaching the Soviet leadership. After the withdrawal of the Soviet advisers, China was largely isolated internationally, and news about the situation at home could hardly penetrate abroad. The party leadership also stipulated that no publication other than the Renmin Ribao and the bimonthly Red Banner magazine could be exported abroad. Even within the People”s Republic of China, the extent of the famine remained largely hidden from the population. Within the People”s Republic, travel was restricted, correspondence was monitored, and only a few Chinese had access to telephones. The Chinese journalist and book author Yang Jisheng explained in an interview with the New York Times that he himself had long been convinced that the leap forward had been successful and that the famine that prevailed in his home village during those years had been an isolated isolated event. It was not until almost a decade later that he happened to come across a document from the Red Guards in which the then leader of Hubei Province had admitted to 300,000 deaths from starvation, and he thus became aware for the first time of the extent of the famine.

In November 1960, government officials first announced that natural disasters and the need to repay loans to the Soviet Union led to food shortages. Both explanations are largely rejected today. After the extensive break with the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong placed great emphasis on repaying outstanding loans more quickly than the contracts with the Soviet Union required. However, the reference to natural disasters allowed Zhou Enlai, Li Fuchun, and Li Yinnian to suspend the contracts with the socialist trading partners because they had a clause in the contract that force majeure would void parts or all of the contract. Zhou Enlai and Chén Yún also succeeded in convincing Mao to import grain from capitalist countries. The first such treaty on grain shipments from Canada and Australia was signed in Hong Kong toward the end of 1960. In 1961, nearly 6 million tons of grain were imported. The main suppliers were Canada and Australia, but to a much lesser extent also the Federal Republic of Germany and France. To raise the necessary foreign currency for these imports, meat and eggs were exported to the then British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and silver was sold on the London Stock Exchange. The Asian market was also flooded with textiles, although these were urgently needed in the People”s Republic of China itself. Minister of Commerce Ye Jizhuang rejected offers from the Soviet Union to supply relief goods for the time being in April 1961. However, when the food situation did not improve in the summer of 1961, Zhou Enlai asked the Soviet Union whether a delivery of two million tons of grain was possible. It was made clear to him that this would only be possible in exchange for foreign currency, and the request was left largely unanswered. It was not until months later that Soviet representatives hinted to Deng Xiaoping that they themselves were experiencing greater economic difficulties.

Not all grain imports were destined for the Chinese population. Rice purchased by the People”s Republic of China in Myanmar was largely shipped to what was then Ceylon to meet outstanding obligations. Another 160,000 tons of rice were exported to the German Democratic Republic to reduce the trade deficit with that country. To underscore its claim to a leading role among socialist countries, China supplied grain free of charge to friendly countries even at the height of the famine. Albania, for example, which had a population of about 1.4 million at the time, received 60,000 tons of wheat. Between August 1960 and the first months of 1961, another 100,000 tons of grain were sent to Cuba, Indonesia, Poland, and Vietnam. Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Albania also received generous loans. U.S. President John F. Kennedy rejected offers of aid to the People”s Republic of China, citing these exports. The International Red Cross made offers of aid to the Chinese government in such an undiplomatic manner that government circles rejected them, citing an unusually abundant harvest in 1960.

Among the foreign policy successes of the People”s Republic were several visits by foreign politicians, to whom the extent of the hardship remained hidden due to the shielding measures during their visit to selected showcase communities. To François Mitterrand, who was a senator for the Nièvre constituency at the time, Mao declared in 1961 that China was not suffering a famine but merely experiencing some shortages. John Temple, Conservative member of the British Parliament returned from a visit to China toward the end of 1960 and declared that communism was working and the country had made great progress. In 1960, East Germany had still welcomed the introduction of People”s Communes, which ran in parallel with its own further collectivization and the introduction of agricultural production cooperatives. However, when Chinese exhibitors at the 1960 agricultural exhibition in Markkleeberg propagated the Chinese concept of communal feeding, the GDR was prompted to announce that there were no plans to introduce central canteens at the GDR”s LPGs.

In April 1962, about 140,000 people fled from the People”s Republic to Hong Kong, and the famine became known to the world public. The mainland Chinese authorities had temporarily opened the borders. The British authorities of the crown colony turned to the Americans, among others, and suggested possible food sales. Donations were rejected, particularly because it was thought that this would not have been accepted by the American public nor would it have improved Sino-American relations. The American government was kept informed in detail about the changes in mainland China through the consulate in Hong Kong and had gained access to secret People”s Liberation Army documents in 1962 through Tibetans trained by the CIA as a result of the 1959 Tibet uprising. The political scene in Washington took broader notice of the changes only with the onset of the Cultural Revolution, which led to ping-pong diplomacy under Nixon.

The most serious result of the Great Leap was the great famine of 1959 to 1961, which caused 15 to 45 million deaths. It was overcome only with difficulty and by importing foreign grain at the beginning of the 1960s. There was also environmental damage, in some cases of considerable proportions, due to often ill-conceived actions. During the steel campaign from winter 1958 to spring 1959, there was considerable clearing of forests on mountain slopes. A great deal of effort was invested in infrastructure at the beginning of the campaign, but the results were very mixed. The focus on presentable quantities meant that both the maintenance of existing facilities and the quality of newly constructed facilities were neglected. Many roads and dams had to be reworked. From mid-1959 onward, infrastructure services were massively scaled back because of the famine. There were particular increases in the areas of telecommunications and electricity supply in rural areas. Between 1957 and 1960, the number of rural telephone users rose from 200,000 to 920,000, the number of post offices from 38,000 to 54,000, and electricity production increased from 108 million kWh to 992 million kWh. In general industrial production, progress largely failed to materialize despite all efforts (see Table 8).

From 1959 onward, the people”s communes gradually lost many of their powers to the production brigades and production teams below them, as well as to the higher-level agencies, but they remained important elements of the rural structure in their reduced function. The people”s communes, with an average of 7,000 members, remained responsible for those things that were too large in terms of effort for the production brigades. These could be industrial enterprises, tasks in infrastructure, education, medical care and social security.

Table 2The following table shows various figures of the tax burden of Chinese peasants. According to these figures, during the Great Leap, more grain was collected by local authorities than was specified by the central government.

Table 3China was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s. In the ranking of the Center for International Comparison of the University of Pennsylvania, China was ranked as the poorest country. The list of the poorest countries is shown in the following table.

Table 4The following table shows people affected by famine in the 1950s and 1960s. Even before the famine catastrophe of 1959 to 1961, 20 to 40 million people were affected by famine each year.

Table 5The following table shows the share of tax revenues regional institutions compared to state government revenues.

Table 6

Table 7During the first five-year plan, industrial production rose steeply. Between 1952 and 1957, steel production rose from 1.5 to 5.4 million tons, and electricity production from 7.3 to 19.3 billion kWh. Grain production rose from 164 million tons to 195 million tons. Buoyed by the successes to date, the government succumbed to vastly exaggerated expectations. The following table shows the Chinese leadership”s expectation at the end of 1958 for production in 1958 and 1959.

Table 8The following table shows the real output of major economic goods from 1957 to 1962.

Table 9The following table shows the mortality rates from 1954 to 1966 for the individual Chinese provinces as well as the participation of the population in the common canteen meal propagated during the Great Leap Forward. A high proportion of canteen meals correlates with a high number of famine victims. The correlation between rigorous enforcement of the Great Leap Forward requirements and high famine casualties is evident above. In addition, canteens were inefficient and contributed to food waste.

Table 10The next table shows provincial mortality rates in 1960 and grain production per person in 1959.

Table 11The following table shows the employment of China”s rural population in the period from 1957 to 1961. One can see the shift away from the real core business in agriculture in 1958 to 1960.

Table 12The following table shows the amount of calories available to the Chinese on average per day.

After the enthusiasm for the Great Leap in the summer of 1958, an “adjustment” of the Great Leap already began at the end of the year 1958. Step by step, specifications of the Great Leap were withdrawn. Nevertheless, the situation did not improve; it became worse and worse. Since the reports of famine became more frequent, but the party and state leadership could not form a picture of whether these were isolated events or whether the famine was more widespread, it was decided at the end of 1960 that leading politicians such as Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Peng Zhen, Li Xiannian, Liu Shaoqi and Mao should travel around the country for several weeks, with as few followers as possible, to see for themselves. During these trips, they saw not only the catastrophic situation in the country, but also how party cadres acted as dictators and unrestrainedly took advantage of common property. Liu Shaoqi complained bitterly that apparently all letters written to him had been intercepted by local authorities. He said, “We were kept hopelessly in the dark.” Surely there was self-justification in all this outrage, but massive action was now evident.

Deng Xiaoping, who until 1961 had been reticent about making negative statements about the Great Leap, said of the situation in 1961 before the Communist Youth League: “The situation is such that we do not need to say any more, not only the League but also the party knows that. The clothing is of poor quality, the food is miserable, the housing conditions are bad. The standard of living has dropped everywhere. Much of what has been said has been overheated. People have put their money where their mouth is. The campaign was a little too left-wing.”

With this assessment, Deng, Liu and others had the majority of the party leadership behind them. The economy and agriculture had bottomed out. The government was no longer concerned with grand strategies; it was looking for measures that could somehow promise success in the short term.

Commenting on the current requirements, Deng said, “At present, the main thing is to produce more grain. As long as yields increase, private initiative by individuals is also allowed. It doesn”t matter if it”s pied or black, as long as the cat catches mice.” Later, the pied cat became a white cat, although there are hardly any white cats. About the upcoming changes, he said, “The style that the people want, we must adopt. What was illegal, we have to legalize.”

Li Fuchun, a leading planner of the Great Leap from the beginning and a confidant of Mao, gave a review at the Beidaihe Conference in July 1961 with proposals for “adjustment” and “consolidation.” Li enumerated the main failures of the Great Leap:

The changes implemented in agriculture brought China back to the level of the 1954 semi-socialist LPG. The centerpiece of the emergency measures of the so-called “60 Articles on Agriculture” in March 1961 were “The Three Freedoms” and the “Yield Target of the Peasant Budget.”

The “Three Freedoms” allowed peasants private cells, privately run side businesses such as basket weaving, and the sale of their products at free markets. The socialized fields were leased to peasant households. The “peasant household revenue target” meant that peasant households had to deliver a contracted amount of agricultural products to the state as rent, and they could sell the amount above that themselves. In addition, they still had to undertake to work an agreed amount of hours for the production team.

Later in 1961, and then at the “West Buildings Conference” of February 21-23, 1962, material incentives were further strengthened. Those families or groups that could increase production were to receive additional government benefits and additional credit opportunities. In addition to free rural markets, private trade and private small businesses were allowed. Mao warned that the new regulations went too far. With these new rules, a new ruling class, a new ruling class, would quickly emerge again, but the majority of the party leadership cared more about increasing production than Mao”s objections.

The new regulations stimulated production, but there was quickly the strong differentiation among farmers that Mao feared. Successful peasants received additional state support, were able to take out loans, hire employees to work in the fields and enter into trade themselves. This development was accompanied by an amalgamation of the rich peasants and traders with the cadres. Mao spoke of a “corrupting of the cadres by the rural bourgeoisie,” but that was after the Great Leap.

The aim of “regulation” was to bring the individual sectors of the economy back into a balanced relationship, with the primacy on agriculture. The slogan “Agriculture is the basis, industry is in the lead” was issued. In the industrial sector, the metal industry was to be cut back in favor of the chemical and energy industries. Six regional offices were reestablished, and instead of the previous strict decentralization policy, the entire country was to be transformed into a unified chessboard of local responsibilities.

As a material incentive, wages were again spread out and piecework was reintroduced. A distinction was made between permanent and temporary workers. The social security system (iron rice bowl) applied only to permanent employees; the not inconsiderable proportion of temporary workers could not have their contracts renewed at any time.

The people”s communes were reduced in size from an average of 21,000 to 7,000, and their powers were greatly curtailed. On the one hand, they were no longer independent of the higher administrative levels, and on the other, they had to cede most of their powers to the production teams below them. They remained responsible only for those areas that were too large for the production team and production brigade units below them, for example brickworks or coal mines, and they were subject to the control of the administration above them.

The people”s communes remained responsible for expanding medical care in rural areas, developing the education system, providing social security and expanding local infrastructure. The expansion of industry and commerce in the countryside was maintained. In the short term, however, these activities were greatly scaled down and subordinated to increasing grain production (this is shown in table 11).

The “Great Leap Forward” and the resulting famine did not receive much attention in the Western world, either in academic research or in the media, until the 1980s. This was also due to the Chinese government”s efforts to keep the consequences of this campaign secret from the world public. It was not until 1981 that the Chinese government negatively assessed this campaign with the “Resolution on Some Issues in the History of the Chinese Communist Party since 1949.” Moreover, the 1982 census made clear the large number of deaths from starvation, and the sharp drop in the birth rate between 1959 and 1961 was also clearly visible. In the Western world, however, the campaign was primarily seen as the origin of the Cultural Revolution. The “Great Leap Forward” was not classified as an independent event in the Western world until the 1990s, when the role of Mao Zedong increasingly became the focus of academic research.

The early 1980s in particular produced a number of scholarly works on the Great Leap. Maurice Meisner described the replacement of Mao by Liu Shaoqi in the wake of the Great Leap as the moment of thermidor in the Chinese Revolution. What became known was an article by Judith Banister in China Quarterly with which the figure of 30 million deaths began to settle in the U.S. press. Wim F. Wertheim criticized this as exaggerated. Jung Chang argued in Mao. The Unknown Story that Mao expected large numbers of casualties and would have openly and deliberately accepted them. Based on this data, Rudolph Joseph Rummel described the mass deaths associated with the Great Leap as “democide. “Steven Rosefielde described the cause as a combination of terror and starvation, in that sense manslaughter or even murder rather than an abrupt famine. A study conducted by historian Frank Dikötter and published in 2010 determined, among other things, the total number of at least 45 million deaths from starvation based on Chinese archival records. The Chinese historian Yu Xiguang calculated 55 million deaths.


  1. Großer Sprung nach vorn
  2. Great Leap Forward