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Great Leap Forward, 1958-60

In 1958, Mao Zedong, perhaps influenced by Khrushchevs boast that the Soviet Union would surpass the U.S. in key aspects of industrial production within 10 years, launched Chinas Great Leap Forward. This was a tragically delusional effort to dramatically improve agricultural and industrial production, far beyond any realistic possibility, given Chinas limited economic base. The human costs of this folly were catastrophic. A complete and systematic narrative and analysis of the Great Leap Forward is not possible. Much of the key documentation is hidden in closed archives in China.

The period of officially designated "transition to socialism" corresponded to China's First Five-Year Plan (1953-57). The period was characterized by efforts to achieve industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and political centralization. As part of the effort to encourage the participation of intellectuals in the new regime, in mid-1956 there began an official effort to liberalize the political climate. Cultural and intellectual figures were encouraged to speak their minds on the state of CCP rule and programs.

Mao personally took the lead in the movement, which was launched under the classical slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend." At first the party's repeated invitation to air constructive views freely and openly was met with caution. By mid-1957, however, the movement unexpectedly mounted, bringing denunciation and criticism against the party in general and the excesses of its cadres in particular. Startled and embarrassed, leaders turned on the critics as "bourgeois rightists" and launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign. The Hundred Flowers Campaign, sometimes called the Double Hundred Campaign, apparently had a sobering effect on the CCP leadership.

The antirightist drive was followed by a militant approach toward economic development. In 1958 the CCP launched the Great Leap Forward campaign under the new "General Line for Socialist Construction." The Great Leap Forward was aimed at accomplishing the economic and technical development of the country at a vastly faster pace and with greater results. The shift to the left that the new "General Line" represented was brought on by a combination of domestic and external factors. Although the party leaders appeared generally satisfied with the accomplishments of the First Five-Year Plan, they -- Mao and his fellow radicals in particular -- believed that more could be achieved in the Second Five-Year Plan (1958-62) if the people could be ideologically aroused and if domestic resources could be utilized more efficiently for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture.

These assumptions led the party to an intensified mobilization of the peasantry and mass organizations, stepped-up ideological guidance and indoctrination of technical experts, and efforts to build a more responsive political system. The last of these undertakings was to be accomplished through a new xiafang (down to the countryside) movement, under which cadres inside and outside the party would be sent to factories, communes, mines, and public works projects for manual labor and firsthand familiarization with grassroots conditions. Although evidence is sketchy, Mao's decision to embark on the Great Leap Forward was based in part on his uncertainty about the Soviet policy of economic, financial, and technical assistance to China. That policy, in Mao's view, not only fell far short of his expectations and needs but also made him wary of the political and economic dependence in which China might find itself.

The Great Leap Forward centered on a new socioeconomic and political system created in the countryside and in a few urban areas--the people's communes. By the fall of 1958, some 750,000 agricultural producers' cooperatives, now designated as production brigades, had been amalgamated into about 23,500 communes, each averaging 5,000 households, or 22,000 people. The individual commune was placed in control of all the means of production and was to operate as the sole accounting unit; it was subdivided into production brigades (generally coterminous with traditional villages) and production teams. Each commune was planned as a self-supporting community for agriculture, small-scale local industry (for example, the famous backyard pig-iron furnaces), schooling, marketing, administration, and local security (maintained by militia organizations). Organized along paramilitary and laborsaving lines, the commune had communal kitchens, mess halls, and nurseries. In a way, the people's communes constituted a fundamental attack on the institution of the family, especially in a few model areas where radical experiments in communal living-- large dormitories in place of the traditional nuclear family housing-- occurred. (These were quickly dropped.) The system also was based on the assumption that it would release additional manpower for such major projects as irrigation works and hydroelectric dams, which were seen as integral parts of the plan for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture.

The Great Leap Forward was an economic failure. In early 1959, amid signs of rising popular restiveness, the CCP admitted that the favorable production report for 1958 had been exaggerated. Among the Great Leap Forward's economic consequences were a shortage of food (in which natural disasters also played a part); shortages of raw materials for industry; overproduction of poor-quality goods; deterioration of industrial plants through mismanagement; and exhaustion and demoralization of the peasantry and of the intellectuals, not to mention the party and government cadres at all levels. Throughout 1959 efforts to modify the administration of the communes got under way; these were intended partly to restore some material incentives to the production brigades and teams, partly to decentralize control, and partly to house families that had been reunited as household units.

Political Consequences

Political consequences were not inconsiderable. In April 1959 Mao, who bore the chief responsibility for the Great Leap Forward fiasco, stepped down from his position as chairman of the People's Republic. The National People's Congress elected Liu Shaoqi as Mao's successor, though Mao remained chairman of the CCP. Moreover, Mao's Great Leap Forward policy came under open criticism at a party conference at Lushan, Jiangxi Province.

The attack was led by Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, who had become troubled by the potentially adverse effect Mao's policies would have on the modernization of the armed forces. Peng argued that "putting politics in command" was no substitute for economic laws and realistic economic policy; unnamed party leaders were also admonished for trying to "jump into communism in one step." After the Lushan showdown, Peng Dehuai, who allegedly had been encouraged by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to oppose Mao, was deposed. Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, a radical and opportunist Maoist. The new defense minister initiated a systematic purge of Peng's supporters from the military.

Militancy on the domestic front was echoed in external policies. The "soft" foreign policy based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence to which China had subscribed in the mid-1950s gave way to a "hard" line in 1958. From August through October of that year, the Chinese resumed a massive artillery bombardment of the Nationalist-held offshore islands of Jinmen (Chin-men in Wade Giles but often referred to as Kinmen or Quemoy) and Mazu (Ma-tsu in Wade-Giles). This was accompanied by an aggressive propaganda assault on the United States and a declaration of intent to "liberate" Taiwan.

Chinese control over Xizang had been reasserted in 1950. The socialist revolution that took place thereafter increasingly became a process of sinicization for the Tibetans. Tension culminated in a revolt in 1958-59 and the flight to India by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' spiritual and de facto temporal leader. Relations with India--where sympathy for the rebels was aroused--deteriorated as thousands of Tibetan refugees crossed the Indian border. There were several border incidents in 1959, and a brief Sino-Indian border war erupted in October 1962 as China laid claim to Aksai Chin, nearly 103,600 square kilometers of territory that India regarded as its own. The Soviet Union gave India its moral support in the dispute, thus contributing to the growing tension between Beijing and Moscow.

The Sino-Soviet dispute of the late 1950s was the most important development in Chinese foreign relations. The Soviet Union had been China's principal benefactor and ally, but relations between the two were cooling. The Soviet agreement in late 1957 to help China produce its own nuclear weapons and missiles was terminated by mid-1959. From that point until the mid-1960s, the Soviets recalled all of their technicians and advisers from China and reduced or canceled economic and technical aid to China. The discord was occasioned by several factors. The two countries differed in their interpretation of the nature of "peaceful coexistence."

The Chinese took a more militant and unyielding position on the issue of anti-imperialist struggle, but the Soviets were unwilling, for example, to give their support on the Taiwan question. In addition, the two communist powers disagreed on doctrinal matters. The Chinese accused the Soviets of "revisionism"; the latter countered with charges of "dogmatism." Rivalry within the international communist movement also exacerbated Sino-Soviet relations. An additional complication was the history of suspicion each side had toward the other, especially the Chinese, who had lost a substantial part of territory to tsarist Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. Whatever the causes of the dispute, the Soviet suspension of aid was a blow to the Chinese scheme for developing industrial and high-level (including nuclear) technology.

China's opening up to the world made a key difference. The first business deal signed after US President Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972 was an order for 13 of the world's largest and most modern, American designed, nitrogen fertiliser plants. More purchases of such plants followed, and China became the world's largest producer of nitrogenous fertilisers. The first major change initiated by the reformist faction of the communist party in 1979, less than three years after Mao's death, was to dissolve agricultural communes and free farm prices. By 1984 all food rationing was lifted in the cities, and China's average per capita food supply rose to within 5% of Japan's comfortable mean.



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