Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), economic and social plan initiated by Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), with the intent of radically increasing agricultural and industrial production in the People’s Republic of China, and of bringing China to the brink of a utopian communist society.
The Great Leap Forward was a reaction to the Hundred Flowers Campaign, a more moderate development program in China in 1957. In this earlier program, Mao Zedong tried to win the support of Chinese intellectuals by calling for their constructive criticism of the policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, such an unexpected torrent of dissatisfaction fell on party leaders that in June 1957 the CCP abandoned the Hundred Flowers plan and moved in much more radical directions, imposing strict controls on freedom of expression and dismissing or imprisoning many intellectuals.
The CCP then called upon all Chinese to engage in physical labor to transform the economy, forcing over 100 million people into projects such as land reclamation and the construction of irrigation systems, which were designed to increase agricultural production. During the Leap, huge self-sufficient communes were established in the Chinese countryside, and China proclaimed that it would overtake England in the production of major products in 15 years. Chinese leaders thought that China was on the verge of establishing a Communist utopia, in which all people would work together to make China productive and totally self-sufficient.
Over the next several years, production targets for communes grew continually larger, and officials competed against each other to see who could proclaim the highest yields. The CCP leadership believed the targets to be accurate and used them, rather than actual production figures, as the basis for determining taxes, which were collected in grain rather than currency. As a result, the amount of grain available to the people of China dropped almost 25 percent. Between 1959 and 1962, more than 20 million people died during a massive famine caused by this practice.
In 1958, as an immediate result of the massive peasant mobilization, industrial and agricultural output increased significantly. In 1959, however, agricultural production started to fall, reaching its low in 1962, when it was only about two-thirds of the 1958 total. Industrial production gradually fell as well, but less severely, always surpassing production totals for 1957. Socially, the Leap produced great enthusiasm among most Chinese in 1958, but as it became clear that the Leap programs were not working and that people were starving, popular dissatisfaction began to grow.
During 1959 party leadership tried to correct some of the problems of the Leap. But these efforts were not sufficient for the Defense Minister, Peng Dehuai (P’eng Te-huai), who in mid-1959 criticized Leap policies and argued strongly for a more moderate stance. Mao Zedong took exception to Peng’s ideas and had him removed from power. Mao’s harsh response to Peng’s criticism essentially intimidated the party into giving up the idea of retrenchment, enabling Mao to reassert the policies of the Leap.
By the middle of 1960 it became clear to party leaders that the Leap could not be sustained. Emergency measures were taken to bring the economy under control, including importing grain from the West and decentralizing the communes. Professional management, which had been attacked as counterrevolutionary during the Leap, was actively encouraged. Originally Mao Zedong went along with these policies, but he increasingly felt that they betrayed his vision of socialism. He grew suspicious of other CCP leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p’ing), who had advocated moderate policies. His differences with Deng and others drove Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to purge his perceived opponents and to try to restore his ideal of a Chinese revolution.