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Great Leap Forward
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Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward (Simplified Chinese 大跃进, Traditional Chinese 大躍進, pinyin: D yu jn) was a campaign by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the People's Republic of China from 1958 to early 1960 aimed at using mainland China's plentiful supply of cheap labor to rapidly industrialize the country.


During the 1950s, the Chinese had carried out a program of land distribution coupled with industrialization under state ownership with grudging technical assistance from the Soviet Union. By the mid-1950s, the situation in mainland China had somewhat stabilised, and the immediate threat from the wars in Korea (U.S) and Vietnam (France) had receded. People perceived as capitalists by the new leadership had been expropriated in 1952-1953, members of the left-wing opposition imprisoned at the same time, and the remaining Kuomintang on the mainland had been eliminated. For the first time in generations, China seemed to have a strong and stable national government.

However, Mao Zedong had become alarmed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's term since the Twentieth Congress. He perceived that far from "catching up and overtaking" the West, the Soviet economy was being allowed to fall behind. Uprisings had taken place in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, and the USSR was seeking "Peaceful Co-existence" with what the Chinese regarded as imperialist Western powers. These policies meant for Mao that the PRC had to be prepared to "go it alone."

The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward borrowed elements from the history of the USSR in a uniquely Chinese combination. Collectivisation from the USSR's "Third Period;" Stakhanovism from the early 1930s; the "people's guards" Khrushchev had created in 1959; and the uniquely Chinese policy of establishing communes as relatively self-sufficient economic units, incorporating light industry and construction projects.

It was thought that through collectivisation and mass labor, China's steel production would surpass that of the United Kingdom only 15 years after the start of the "leap."

An experimental commune was established in Henan early in 1958, and soon spread throughout the country. The entire population was mobilised to produce one commodity, symbolic of industrialisation—steel.

The hope was to industrialise by making use of the massive supply of cheap labor and avoid having to import heavy machinery. Small backyard steel furnaces were built in every commune while peasants produced "turds" of cast iron made out of scrap. Sometimes even factories, schools and hospitals abandoned their work to smelt iron. Simultaneously, the peasants were collectivised.

The outcome

The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen both within China and outside as a major economic disaster. As inflated statistics reached planning authorities, orders were given to divert human resources into industry rather than agriculture. Estimates of deaths range from 4 million to 40 million people, with much of the uncertainty coming from defining what constitutes a death due to famine; it is widely believed to have been the greatest famine in history.

The Chinese economy initially grew, but plummeted in 1961, and would not reach the level it was at in 1958 until 1964. Though the three years during which the famine were once known as the Three Years of Natural Disasters, they are also known as the Great Leap Famine, although this name is now rarely used in China because it is acknowledged that the disasters were less rooted in natural events than bad economic planning.

Despite the risks to their careers, some Communist Party members openly laid blame for the disaster at the feet of the Party leadership and took it as proof that China must rely more on education, acquiring technical expertise and applying bourgeois methods in developing the economy. It was principally to crush this opposition that Mao launched his Cultural Revolution in early 1966.

After the death of Mao and the start of Chinese economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, the tendency within the Chinese government to see the Great Leap Forward as a major economic disaster and to attribute it to the cult of personality under Mao Zedong and to regard it as one of the serious errors he made after the founding of the People's Republic of China

See also