During the period 1955-58, a split emerged in the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party on another issue as well. A majority on the Central Committee favored continuing to follow the Soviet model of industrialization that had been implemented during the previous four years in China. The Soviet model emphasized investment in heavy industry. In contrast, Mao favored an alternative model of rural industrial development. In Mao’s vision, rural labor would be mobilized to develop labor-intensive, light, and small to medium industry, which would be connected to agricultural production (such as crop processing, tool manufacturing, small chemical and fertilizer plants), and which that would produce inexpensive consumer goods for peasant consumption. Mao’s proposal projected a radical decentralization of the economy that would favor the development of relatively autonomous local communities, in which peasants and workers themselves will master modern technology. And it implied as well a reduction of urban—rural inequality (Meisner, 1999:162, 169-70, 178, 198-99, 207-9, 212, 358-59).
In 1956, Mao called for the abandonment of the Soviet model, in order to break the bureaucratization that it had fostered (Meisner, 1999:156, 161). He criticized the Party’s proposed Second Five Year Plan, scheduled to begin in 1958, for its emphasis on heavy industry and urban industrialization, which, he believed, “implied a further expansion and proliferation of bureaucracy and the solidification of professional and bureaucratic elites, an increasing gap between the modernizing cities and the backward countryside, . . . and a further decay of ideology” (Meisner, 1999:169).
However, Mao in 1956 was no longer in control of the Party. Thus, Mao again, as he did in 1955 in order to attain agricultural collectivization, went outside normal Party channels. This time he turned to non-Party intellectuals, seeking to use them against the Party and against the bureaucracy. Mao argued that the class struggle continues under socialism, in the form of the struggle of the people against the bureaucratic elite. The Party is not immune to bourgeois ideological influences, he maintained, and the people may know more than the Party. In late 1956, as a result of Mao’s challenge to the Central Committee majority, “Maoist” and “non-Maoist” factions were beginning to emerge (Meisner, 1999:166-174).
In calling the intellectuals to a critique of the Party and the bureaucracy, Mao’s intention was to reform the Party. However, many intellectuals wrote and spoke in defense of “freedom” and “democracy” as conceived in bourgeois democracy. Such Rightist criticism confirmed the worst fears of the Central Committee majority, and it took Mao aback. In response, the Party launched an anti-Rightist campaign against the intellectuals. Mao, however, was able to turn the campaign against the Party itself, and a purge of Rightist members of the Party took place. As a result, the Maoists took control of the Party during 1957 and 1958, and thus they were able to launch a program based on Mao’s vision, known as the Great Leap Forward (Meisner, 1999:178-81, 186-88).
The Great Leap Forward began in late 1957 as a drive to increase productivity in agriculture, rural small industry, and heavy industry. Meisner writes:
The campaign to produce “more, faster, better, and cheaper” . . . proceeded in accordance with the new Maoist economic strategy of “simultaneous development” formally adopted by the Party in October 1957. A new emphasis on agriculture and small industries accompanied the raising of production targets in the heavy industrial sector. The centralized bureaucratic economic apparatus was partially dismantled in favor of relative autonomy and decision-making authority for localities and basic production units. Administrative offices were emptied as officials were “sent down” to engage in manual labor on farms and in factories in the name of “simple administration.” Ideological exhortations and moral appeals replaced material rewards as the incentive for workers and peasants to work harder and longer, accompanied by the promise that “three years of struggle” would be followed by “a thousand years of communist happiness.” The social mobilization of the masses for labor rather than the bureaucratic direction of laborers became the central organizational feature (Meisner, 1999:216).
The Communes had not been conceived in the original formulation of the Great Leap Forward. Rather, they were developed on the basis of the initiative of radical local activists. They were developed at a frantic pace, fueled by “the spontaneous radicalism of rural cadres and poor peasants from below” and “the radical utopianism of Mao and Maoists from above” (Meisner, 1999:218). “The movement grew without official Parry sanction and with little central direction, but it received powerful ideological encouragement from Maoist leaders” (Meisner, 1999:218).
The Great Leap Forward also included the development of large production brigades of several thousand peasants as well as smaller work teams, formalizing and extending structures that previously had been developed. The brigades and teams were dedicated to agricultural production, newly established communal industries, and large-scale construction works. In addition, the Great Leap Forward included a new educational policy, based on the combination of education with industrial production, including part-time educational programs and work-study programs (Meisner, 1999:222-25).
Although the Great Leap Forward contained evident positive elements, it was undermined by the manner and pace of its implementation. Many projects were developed with haste on the basis of spontaneous and improvised decisions, and there were inefficiencies as a result of a lack of national economic planning. In addition, agricultural production was undermined by the mobilization of peasant labor for industrial, irrigation, and construction projects. Moreover, there was an unrealistic extension of the working day in order to meet impractical production goals (Meisner, 1999:217, 226, 228).
By late 1958, as a result of economic and organizational chaos, food shortages emerged, industrial production fell, and peasant morale declined. At a meeting of November 28 to December 10, 1958, the Party reduced the authority of the communes and sought to reduce their radical character. In July 1959, Mao admitted that communization had proceeded with too much haste. At the Eighth Plenum of the Central Committee on August 2, 1959, the Party officially acknowledged the failures of the Great Leap Forward, which it attributed to the absence of central planning and direction. Subsequently, the retreat from the communization continued, and the pre-Great Leap mutual aid teams were restored. In addition, private markets reemerged, and material incentives were adopted again. The emphasis was on the provision of immediate economic needs in the face of spreading food shortages. “The previous year’s utopian fervor and popular enthusiasm withered as the struggle to achieve communism turned into an elemental struggle for basic subsistence and sheer survival” (Meisner, 1999:233). By the end of 1959, Mao accepted the inevitability of dismantling the Great Leap Forward (Meisner, 1999:228-33, 264).
In 1960, the difficulties caused by the Great Leap Forward were compounded by natural disasters: typhoons and flooding in South China; drought in the lower reaches of the Yellow River; and plagues of pests in many areas of the country. In addition, the Soviet Union, in a context of declining relations with China, abruptly withdrew 1,400 Soviet scientists and technicians working in 250 Chinese enterprises. With two successive years of organizational chaos and natural calamity, hunger and famine became widespread. The difficulties were compounded by the “wind of exaggeration,” as local state officials, under pressure to produce spectacular results, reported inflated figures of production, so that national authorities were unaware of the extent of the calamity (Meisner, 1999:234-38).
Scholars estimate that from 1959 to 1961 there were fifteen to twenty million famine-related deaths (Meisner, 1999:237; Díaz, 2010:24). “The Great Leap Forward, which began with such great expectations in 1958, thus ended in 1960 with an economic and human disaster for China” (Meisner, 1999:238).
With the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the Party turned to the economic pragmatist Liu Shaoqi, who directed the nation in the formulation and implementation of a New Economic Policy during the period 1960 to 1965. In response to the difficulties in the distribution of food, the state bureaucracy reasserted its authority and implemented an efficient system of rationing and transportation. In order to reverse three years of decline in agricultural production, urban Party members, soldiers, students, and unemployed urban residents were sent to the rural villages to engage in agricultural work. Other forms of emergency aid were sent to the rural areas, including insecticides, chemical fertilizers, and farm tools. Peasants were encouraged to reestablish small private family plots and to claim uncultivated lands. Rural markets were re-opened, and peasants could sell their products on a free market basis. The People’s Communes were reduced considerably in size, and they were placed under the direction of state functionaries who were directed by the policies of the central government. Many inefficient rural industries established during the Great Leap were closed. Industrial production was organized, placed under centralized planning, but with a degree of autonomy for state-owned factories and enterprises (Meisner, 1999:260-66).
Liu’s pragmatic policies brought rapid economic recovery and renewed economic growth. Meisner writes:
In light of the disastrous conditions confronting the government in 1960-1961, the rapidity of the recovery and the renewal of economic growth was quite remarkable. Agricultural production began to revive in 1962 and increased at a steady, if not spectacular rate, over the following years. Grain output rose from a low of 193,000,000 tons in 1961 to 240,000,000 tons in 1965 augmented by large wheat purchases from Canada and Australia (Meisner, 1999:266).
With the failure of the Great Leap and the success of the New Economic Policy, it seemed that Mao and the Maoists had suffered a fatal political defeat. However, they would reemerge as a decisive political force in the period 1962 to 1967, with disastrous consequences, as we will see in the next post.
Díaz Vázquez, Julio Aracelio. 2010. China: ¿Otro Socialismo? (LX aniversario). La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.