The previous articles of this series are as follows :

Part 1 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 1

Part 2 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 2

Part 3 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 3

Chaos after the Great Leap Forward

It was against that background that Mao, during the winter of 1957–58, worked out the policies that were to characterize the Great Leap Forward, formally launched in May 1958. While his economic strategy was by no means so one-sided and simplistic as was commonly believed in the 1960s and ’70s and although he still proclaimed industrialization and a “technical revolution” as his goals, Mao displayed continuing anxiety regarding the corrupting influence of the fruits of technical progress and an acute nostalgia for the perceived purity and egalitarianism that had marked the moral and political world of the Jinggang Mountains and Yan’an eras.

Thus it was logical that he should endorse and promote the establishment of “people’s communes” as part of the Great Leap strategy. As a result, the peasants, who had been organized into cooperatives in 1955–56 and then into fully socialist collectives in 1956–57, found their world turned upside down once again in 1958. Neither the resources nor the administrative experience necessary to operate such enormous new social units of several thousand households was in fact available, and, not surprisingly, the consequences of those changes were chaos and economic disaster.

In retrospect, it is evident that Mao had in fact responded to the tensions in the Party by promoting free speech and criticism under the Hundred Flowers Campaign. This was also a ploy to allow critics of the regime, primarily intellectuals but also low-ranking members of the party critical of the agricultural policies, to identify themselves.

By the completion of the first five Year Economic Plan in 1957, Mao had come to doubt that the path to socialism that had been taken by the Soviet Union was appropriate for China. He was critical of Khrushchev’s reversal of Stalinist policies and alarmed by the uprisings that had taken place in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, and the perception that the USSR was seeking “peaceful coexistence” with the Western powers. Mao had become convinced that China should follow its own path to communism. China’s isolation from most of the rest of the world, along with the Korean War, had accelerated Mao’s attacks on his perceived domestic enemies. It led him to accelerate his designs to develop an economy where the regime would get the maximum benefit from rural taxation.

Thus the Great Leap Forward (Second Five Year Plan) of China was an economic and social campaign led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from 1958 to 1962. Local officials were fearful of Anti-Rightist Campaigns and they competed to fulfil or over-fulfil quotas which were based on Mao’s exaggerated claims, collecting non-existent “surpluses” and leaving farmers to starve to death. Higher officials did not dare to report the economic disaster which was being caused by these policies, and national officials, blaming bad weather for the decline in food output, took little or no action. Millions of people died in China during the Great Leap, with estimates ranging from 15 to 55 million, making the Great Chinese Famine the largest or second-largest famine in human history.

The public canteen of a commune

Around 6 to 8% of those who died during the Great Leap Forward were tortured to death or summarily killed.

The major changes which occurred in the lives of rural Chinese people included the incremental introduction of mandatory agricultural collectivization. Private farming was prohibited, and those people who engaged in it were persecuted and labelled counter-revolutionaries. Restrictions on rural people were enforced with public struggle sessions and social pressure, and forced labour was also exacted on people. Rural industrialization, while officially a priority of the campaign, saw “its development … aborted by the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward”. The Great Leap was one of two periods between 1953 and 1976 in which China’s economy shrank.

(To be continued in the next article…………)

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