The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen – both within China and outside – as a major economic failure and great humanitarian disaster with estimates of the number of people who starved to death during this period ranging from 14 to 43 million.
Besides these economic changes the party implemented major social changes in the countryside including the banishing of all religious and mystic institutions and ceremonies and replacing them with political meetings and propaganda sessions. Attempts were made to enhance rural education and the status of women (allowing females to initiate divorce if they desired) and ending foot-binding, child marriage and opium addiction. Internal passports were introduced in 1956 forbidding travel without appropriate authorisation. Highest priority was given to the urban proletariat for whom a welfare state was created.
The first phase of collectivisation was not a great success and there was widespread famine in 1956, though the Party's propaganda machine announced progressively higher harvests. Moderates within the Party, including Zhou Enlai, argued for a reversal of collectivisation. The position of the moderates was strengthened by Khrushchev's 1956 Secret speech at the 20th Congress which uncovered Stalin's crimes and highlighted the failure of his agricultural policies including collectivisation in the USSR.
In 1957 Mao responded to the tensions in the Party by promoting free speech and criticism under the 100 Flowers Campaign. In retrospect, some have come to argue that this was a ploy to allow critics of the regime, primarily intellectuals but also low ranking members of the party critical of the agricultural policies, to identify themselves. Some claim that Mao simply swung to the side of the hard-liners once his policies gained strong opposition. Once he had done so, at least half a million were purged under the Anti-Rightist campaign organised by Deng Xiaoping, which effectively silenced any opposition from within the Party or from agricultural experts to the changes which would be implemented under the Great Leap Forward.
By the completion of the first 5 Year Economic Plan in 1957, Mao had come to doubt that the path to socialism that had been taken by the Soviet Union was appropriate for China. He was critical of Khrushchev's reversal of Stalinist policies and alarmed by the uprisings that had taken place in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, and the perception that the USSR was seeking "Peaceful coexistence" with the Western powers. Mao had become convinced that China should follow its own path to Communism.
The Great Leap Forward was the name given to the Second Five Year Plan which was scheduled to run from 1958–1963, though the name is now generally limited to the first three years of this period. Mao unveiled the Great Leap Forward at a meeting in January 1958 in Nanning. The central idea behind the Great Leap was that rapid development of China's agricultural and industrial sectors should take place in parallel. The hope was to industrialize by making use of the massive supply of cheap labour and avoid having to import heavy machinery. To achieve this, Mao advocated that a further round of collectivisation modelled on the USSR's "Third Period" was necessary in the Chinese countryside where the existing collectives would be merged into huge People's communes. An experimental commune was established at Chayashan in Henan in April 1958. Here for the first time private plots were entirely abolished and communal kitchens were introduced. At the Politburo meetings in August 1958, it was decided that these people's communes would become the new form of economic and political organization throughout rural China. Astonishingly for such a dramatic social change, by the end of the year approximately 25,000 communes had been set up, with an average of 5,000 households each. The communes were relatively self sufficient co-operatives where wages and money were replaced by work points. Besides agriculture they incorporated some light industry and construction projects.
Mao saw grain and steel production as the key pillars of economic development. He forecast that within 15 years of the start of the Great Leap, China's steel production would surpass that of the UK. In the August 1958 Politburo meetings, it was decided that steel production would be set to double within the year, most of the increase coming through backyard steel furnaces. Mao was shown an example of a backyard furnace in Hefei, Anhui in September 1958 by provincial first secretary Zeng Xisheng. The unit was claimed to be manufacturing high quality steel (though in fact the finished steel had probably been manufactured elsewhere).
With no personal knowledge of metallurgy, Mao encouraged the establishment of small backyard steel furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood. Huge efforts on the part of peasants and other workers were made to produce steel out of scrap metal. To fuel the furnaces the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants' houses. Pots, pans, and other metal artifacts were requisitioned to supply the "scrap" for the furnaces so that the wildly optimistic production targets could be met. Many of the male agricultural workers were diverted from the harvest to help the iron production as were the workers at many factories, schools and even hospitals. Although the output consisted of low quality lumps of pig iron which was of negligible economic worth, Mao had a deep distrust of intellectuals and faith in the power of the mass mobilization of the peasants. Moreover the experience of the intellectual classes following the Hundred Flowers Campaign silenced those aware of the folly of such a plan. According to his private doctor Li Zhisui, Mao and his entourage visited traditional steel works in Manchuria in January 1959 where he found out that high quality steel could only be produced in large scale factories using reliable fuel such as coal. However he decided not to order a halt to the backyard steel furnaces so as not to dampen the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. The program was only quietly abandoned much later in that year.
Substantial effort was expended during the Great Leap Forward on large-scale but often poorly planned capital construction projects, such as irrigation works often built without input from trained engineers.
On the communes, a number of radical and controversial agricultural innovations were promoted at the behest of Mao. Many of these were based on the ideas of now discredited Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko and his followers. The policies included close cropping, whereby seeds were sown far more densely than normal on the incorrect assumption that seeds of the same class would not compete with each other. Deep plowing (up to 2m deep) was encouraged on the mistaken belief that this would yield plants with extra large root systems. Even more disastrously it was argued that a proportion of fields should be left unploughed.
The initial impact of the Great Leap Forward was discussed at the Lushan Conference in July/August 1959. Although many of the more moderate leaders had reservations about the new policy, the only senior leader to speak out openly was Marshall Peng Dehuai. Mao used the conference to dismiss Peng from his post as Defence Minister and denounce both Peng (who in fact came from a poor peasant family) and his supporters as bourgeois and launch a nationwide campaign against "rightist opportunism". Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, who began a systematic purge of Peng's supporters from the military.
In 1959 and 1960 the weather was less favorable, and the situation got considerably worse, with many of China's provinces experiencing severe famine. Droughts, floods, and general bad weather caught China completely by surprise. In July 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center , it directly killed, either through starvation from crop failure or drowning, an estimated 2 million people.
In 1960, at least some degree of drought and other bad weather affected 55 percent of cultivated land, while an estimated 60 percent of northern agricultural land received no rain at all .
With dramatically reduced yields, even urban areas suffered much reduced rations; however, mass starvation was largely confined to the countryside, where as a result of massively inflated production statistics, very little grain was left for the peasants to eat. Food shortages were bad throughout the country; however, the provinces which had adopted Mao's reforms with the most vigor, such as Anhui, Gansu and Henan, tended to suffer disproportionately. Sichuan, one of China's most populous provinces, known in China as "Heaven's Granary" because of its fertility, is thought to have suffered the greatest absolute numbers of deaths from starvation due to the vigor with which provincial leader Li Jinquan undertook Mao's reforms. During the Great Leap Forward, cases of cannibalism also occurred in the parts of China that were severely affected by drought and famine.
The agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward and the associated famine would then continue until January 1961, where, at the Ninth Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee, the restoration of agricultural production through a reversal of the Great Leap policies was started. Grain exports were stopped, and imports from Canada and Australia helped to reduce the impact of the food shortages, at least in the coastal cities.
The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen, both within China and outside as a major economic disaster, effectively being a "Great Leap Backward" that would affect China in the years to come. As inflated statistics reached planning authorities, orders were given to divert human resources into industry rather than agriculture. The official toll of excess deaths recorded in China for the years of the GLF is 14 million, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million .
The three years between 1959 and 1962 were known as the "Three Bitter Years" and the Three Years of Natural Disasters. Many local officials were tried and publicly executed for giving out misinformation.
Starting in the early 1980s, critics of the Great Leap added quantitative muscle to their arsenal. U.S. Government employee Judith Banister published what became an influential article in the China Quarterly, and since then estimates as high as 30 million deaths in the Great Leap became common in the U.S. press. However, Wim F Wertheim, emeritus professor from the University of Amsterdam, disagrees with the numbers presented on the basis that they lack scientific support.. Critics of this position point to the numerous studies by individuals such as Aird in 1982, Ashton et al in 1984, and Peng in 1987 that specifically sought to quantify the Great Leap's demographic impact. A lingering problem that all scholars point to is the assumptions regarding birth rate used in the most widely cited projections of famine deaths. These assumptions make it difficult to precisely gauge the death toll with a high degree of accuracy.
Dr Ping-ti Ho, professor of history at the University of Chicago, and an expert in Chinese Demography in a book titled Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953, Harvard East Asian Studies No 4, 1959, also mentioned numerous "flaws" in the 1953 census on which famine death projections are made.
This work seriously undermines the statistical base used by demographers who try to maintain the "populist" figures in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's book the "Unknown Mao" During the Great Leap, the Chinese economy initially grew. Iron production increased 45% in 1958 and a combined 30% over the next two years, but plummeted in 1961, and did not reach the previous 1958 level until 1964.
Despite the risks to their careers, some Communist Party members openly laid blame for the disaster at the feet of the Party leadership and took it as proof that China must rely more on education, acquiring technical expertise and applying bourgeois methods in developing the economy. Liu Shaoqi made a speech in 1962 at Seven Thousand Man's Assembly criticizing that "The economic disaster was 30% fault of nature, 70% human error. It was principally to crush this opposition that Mao launched his Cultural Revolution in early 1966.
Mao stepped down as State Chairman of the PRC in 1959, predicting he would take most of the blame for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, though he did retain his position as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Liu Shaoqi (the new PRC Chairman) and Deng Xiaoping (CCP General Secretary) were left in charge to execute measures to achieve economic recovery. Moreover, Mao's Great Leap Forward policy came under open criticism at a party conference at the Lushan Conference in Jiangxi. 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 Nikita Khrushchev to oppose Mao, was deposed. Peng was replaced by Lin Biao.
Additionally, this loss in Mao's regime meant that Mao became a "dead ancestor," as he labeled himself: a person who was respected but never consulted, occupying the political background of the Party. Furthermore, he also stopped appearing in public. All of this he later regretted, as he relaunched his Cult of Personality with the Great Yangtze Swim.
In agrarian policy, the failures of food supply during the Great Leap were met by a gradual de-collectivization in the 1960s that foreshadowed further de-collectivization under Deng Xiaoping. Political scientist Meredith Jung-En Woo argues: "Unquestionably the regime failed to respond in time to save the lives of millions of peasants, but when it did respond, it ultimately transformed the livelihoods of several hundred million peasants (modestly in the early 1960s, but permanently after Deng Xiaoping's reforms subsequent to 1978.)
After the death of Mao and the start of Chinese economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, the tendency within the Chinese government was to see the Great Leap Forward as a major economic disaster and to attribute it to the cult of personality under Mao Zedong, and to regard it as one of the serious errors he made after the founding of the PRC.