Economic History 101, Individual Vs. Government Initiative: The Great Leap Forward


The communist revolution in China had come to pass almost a decade earlier.

During that decade, the leadership of China led by Mao Zedong had spent their time consolidating their power, eliminating internal enemies, battling the USA in the Korean War, and collectivizing much of the economy.  Ironically for a revolution that owed its success to the peasant population of China, Mao and the leadership of China had largely left the agricultural sector of the economy alone except for extracting huge stores of grain from the rural areas to pay for weapons during the Korean War.  The agricultural economy of the late 1950’s largely resembled that of the Nationalists prior to Mao’s ascension to power, characterized by peasant farmers tilling small plots on which they had some form of claim of ownership or tenancy, the latter of which dated from the time of China’s last dynasty, the Qing line.

All that changed in 1957 with the policy known as the Great Leap Forward, its major policy elements being the redirection of labor from agriculture to industrial production and the collectivization of farming.

From the Wikipedia entry on the Great Leap forward:

 Chief changes in the lives of rural Chinese included the introduction of a mandatory process of agricultural collectivization, which was introduced incrementally. Private farming was prohibited, and those engaged in it were labeled as counter revolutionaries and persecuted. Restrictions on rural people were enforced through public struggle sessions, and social pressure, although people also experienced forced labor.[1] Rural industrialization, officially a priority of the campaign, saw “its development … aborted by the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward.”

From the University of Chicago Chronicle, March 14, 1996 in a summary of Dali Yang’s publishing of “Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society and Institutional Change Since the Great Leap Famine”:

The Great Leap Forward was begun in 1957 by Chairman Mao Zedong to bring the nation quickly into the forefront of economic development. Mao wanted China to become a leading industrial power, and to accomplish his goals he and his colleagues pushed for the construction of steel plants across the country.

The rural society was to keep pace with the dream by producing enough food to feed the country plus enough for export to help pay for industrialization. As a result of the Communist revolution, landowners had been stripped of their property, and by 1957 peasants already were forced to work in agricultural cooperatives.

These changes were intended to improve conditions for everyone by collectivizing agriculture and establishing communal eating facilities where peasants could eat all they wanted free of charge. This utopian dream turned into a nightmare as the central leadership grew increasingly out of touch with reality, Yang found through his study of government records and personal accounts……..

Although in theory the country was awash in grain, in reality it was not. Rural communal mess halls were encouraged to supply food for free, but by the spring of 1959, the grain reserves were exhausted and the famine had begun.

No one is sure exactly how many people perished as a result of the spreading hunger. By comparing the number of deaths that could be expected under normal conditions with the number that occurred during the period of the Great Leap famine, scholars have estimated that somewhere between 16.5 million and 40 million people died before the experiment came to an end in 1961, making the Great Leap famine the largest in world history.

Estimates of deaths from the famine produced by this initiative emphasizing Government action over individual incentives range from 18 to 45 million people, with most recent academic estimates settling in the 30 to 40 million range (that would be well over 10% of the current United States population).

Most scholars agree that the collectivization of agriculture and diversion of labor to industrial production were the primary causes of the famine, but some point to poor weather in 1959 and 1960 and other more conspiratorial root causes.  Ironically, the subsequent events dramatically demonstrate that it was primarily the collectivization of Agriculture and also set the stage for the post Maoist liberalization of China’s economy.

From the Chronicle’s article, again:

At the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, Mao proclaimed that China would overtake Britain in production of steel and other products within 15 years. Other Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, supported Mao’s enthusiasm, according to documents Yang studied in China.

Deng Xiaoping, the leader that would eventually form a temporary triumvirate of leadership to stabilize the country after the great famine and, more famously, return from political exile and imprisonment to lead the country to economic freedom upon Mao’s death learned an important lesson from the “Great Leap Forward”……

The failure of the Great Leap Forward was, no doubt, humiliating for Mao and the Left. But just as Mao had used the failure of the five year plans as a weapon to beat the party conservatives into submission, the Right now used the Great Leap Forward to push back the Left and regain prominence within the Party. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and other more conservative members of the Party moved into positions of greater authority and influence and the Great Leap Forward — which now appeared more like a Great Fall Downward — was terminated.

Deng, Zhou, and Liu immediately reversed much of the collectivization of agriculture, and before many of their other policy changes could take place grain production significantly increased and the famine subsided.  In other words, however many contributing causes there were to the Great Famine, the collectivization of agriculture was clearly the most significant root cause.

Fortunately, for China, Deng Xiaoping learned his lesson of private versus public initiative and led the liberalization of China’s economy after Mao’s death, averting continuing suffering for its entire population.

For more information on the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, I recommend the following sources:


Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 by FRANK DIKÖTTER

Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China by Dali Yang

Articles and Summaries..

Wikipedia Entry on the Great Leap Forward

Wikipedia Entry on the Great Chinese Famine

University of Chicago Chronicle Summary of Dali Yang’s Book

NY Times Article by Frank Dikotter

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