World History 2 244 - 14.2.4 The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution

Mao Zedong wanted China to chart the direction that communism took in Asia, just as the Soviet Union determined its direction in Europe. To do so, however, China needed to be much more powerful than it was in 1949, when the CCP declared the foundation of the People’s Republic and the Nationalists fled. In imitation of the Soviet model, Mao instituted a Five-Year Plan in China in 1953 and embarked on nearly seven hundred industrial projects, more than one hundred with the assistance of the Soviet Union. He also began the collectivization of agriculture by forcing peasants to labor together on state-owned farms instead of tending to farms worked by individual families. The plan was largely successful in terms of industrial development, and China’s steelmaking, coal mining, and machine- and cement-producing capacity all increased.

Although the first Five-Year Plan was successful, the second Five-Year Plan proved a disaster. This plan, also known as the Great Leap Forward, began in 1958. Mao, inspired by the Soviet Union’s plans to overtake the United States in industrial capacity, proclaimed that China would surpass the United Kingdom. To that end, agricultural production was to increase at the same time as industrial production, and the proceeds of agriculture would fund industry. Collectivization efforts were intensified, and by the end of 1958 more than twenty-five thousand communes had been created, each consisting of several thousand families on average.

Communes were large units of production. Members worked together to grow crops in warm months and build construction projects during the winter. Food was prepared in communal kitchens, and everyone ate together in communal dining halls. Communes also operated schools and hospitals for their members. All tools, livestock, food, and other valuable items belonged to the commune as a whole instead of to individuals or families, and the commune’s leaders determined what work each member would do. Grain produced by communes in the countryside fed city dwellers and industrial workers. Encouraged to grow ever more, communes began to exaggerate their grain production levels to win political favor. Even as they strove to grow more food, laborers were also ordered to engage in extra projects like dam construction.

Farm laborers were also ordered to produce steel in backyard furnaces hastily built in the countryside (Figure 14.11). Some were assigned to steel production exclusively, but others who worked in the fields by day were often forced to tend the furnaces at night. To meet quotas, they stripped the countryside of wood and burned their own furniture to fuel the furnaces. In the end, the steel produced was of such low quality that it was worthless.

A photograph of a large field is shown with houses and hills in the background. In the foreground workers move about the field dressed in long shirts, pants, and large hats. There are many circular steel containers arranged in three rows in the field, some with square holes in them, some covered with pieces of cloth.
Figure 14.11 During the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Chinese peasants were encouraged to build small furnaces to produce steel that often proved worthless. (credit: modification of work “Backyard furnace to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward era” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The requisitioning of grain to feed the cities combined with bad weather and the use of farm labor for industrial projects to produce disaster in rural China. In some areas, floods and locust swarms destroyed crops. In others, too much of the harvest was diverted to the cities to leave enough for the peasants to eat. Famine set in, and people ate bark, leaves, and clay. Some Chinese historians place the death toll at five million, while Western historians believe thirty to fifty million people died between 1959 and 1961.

The stupendous failure of the Great Leap Forward stunned Mao. He turned to other members of the CCP, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Liu Shaoqi, to rectify the situation and allowed them to largely assume day-to-day control of China. Deng especially began to reverse some of Mao’s more damaging policies by, for example, allowing peasants to sell grain surpluses. Given positive incentives to produce more food, the peasants did so, alleviating food shortages. Mao was sensitive to failure, however, and resented the successes of Zhou, Deng, and Liu. When Marshall Peng Dehuai, the Minister of Defense and a longtime associate of Mao, criticized his handling of the Great Leap Forward, Mao dismissed him from his position and replaced him with Lin Biao.

In 1966, Mao abruptly warned that “revisionists” were seeking to alter the direction of the CCP. He called on the younger generation of Chinese people—high school and university students and young factory workers—to engage in “class struggle” and save the revolution. In July 1966 he launched the event known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Students organized themselves into groups of “Red Guards,” guided by quotations of Mao that Lin Biao had gathered and published in a “Little Red Book.”

In August 1966, millions of Red Guards rallied in Beijing as Mao and Lin Biao encouraged them to purge the country of “bourgeois” elements by attacking the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Red Guards then attacked and killed their teachers and school administrators. At one school, students beat the gardener to death because he tended the lawn, a bourgeois concern. Provided with food and lodging at government expense, Red Guards rampaged through the country, destroying books, works of art, temples, monasteries, tombs, and historical sites. They beat people and forced them to confess to having bourgeois thoughts. No one knows how many were killed during the Cultural Revolution; it may have been as many as two million.

Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who displayed insufficient revolutionary fervor, were removed from positions of power. In 1968, the Red Guards were themselves dismissed as Mao sought to curb their power. They were sent to the countryside along with other urban youth to learn from the peasants. In 1969, Lin Biao was named Mao’s successor. Two years later, Lin died in a plane crash while attempting to flee to the Soviet Union. He may have feared that Mao suspected him of plotting against him and planned to punish him.

Link to Learning

The government of the People’s Republic of China made extensive use of propaganda to encourage public support. This website has a large collection of Chinese propaganda posters. If you select “Go to the overview” on the main page, you will find them arranged chronologically as well as by theme.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax