Unrealistic Goals with Devastating Consequences: 
A Great Leap Forward for China?
China History

Research Report
Web Resources


Following the rise of Mao Zedong and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party very quickly began instituting revolutionary new reforms in the Soviet style to increase the economic effectiveness of the Chinese people.  For the first eight years, these reforms were largely successful in increasing production and establishing greater industry.  Encouraged by these earlier successes, Mao almost single-handedly pioneered the social and economic movement coined as the “Great Leap Forward” and suffered a humiliating failure as a result. Massive rural communes were formed in the fall of 1957, driven by the Maoist optimism in the power of the peasantry to overcome any obstacle.  However, due to adverse climatic conditions, poor local management, and a lack of technological expertise, millions of Chinese starved to death between the years of 1958 and 1960, when the Great Leap was in full effect. 

    This paper will seek to examine Mao Zedong’s logic behind the institution of the Great Leap Forward, a few of the major reasons for its nearly immediate failure, and the effect that the Great Leap had not only on the starving millions in rural China but also the Communist Party of China which had finally encountered a substantial failure in their efforts to make China the greatest industrialized nation in the world.  In doing so, this paper will look closely at the character of Mao Zedong and the ways in which the Chinese model of industrialization and economic reform took a unique path from the Soviet model as instituted by Stalin but proved equally disastrous.  Finally, it will examine the ways in which the Great Leap Forward proved a pre-cursor to the looming Cultural Revolution that would upset all of China just six years later. 

Historical Background

    In the years immediately following the end of World War II, China found itself in a unique political situation.  The Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalists, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek statistically held more sway than the Communists (CCP), led by Mao Zedong.  They possessed control over the vast majority of China, a far more massive army, and, perhaps most importantly in the eyes of the rest of the world, they had the backing of the United States.  Despite putting forward the façade that all was well, by the end of 1945, full scale fighting had broken out between the two rival parties.  Although the Nationalists were initially successful against the Communists, by 1948 the tide was beginning to turn strongly in the direction of the CCP.  Capitalizing on the few liberated areas where he possessed control, Mao began to institute his system of land redistribution and simultaneously recruited large numbers of peasants into the People’s Liberation Army.  Having leveled the military playing field, the CCP moved quickly to victory.  By November of 1948, Manchuria was captured, Tianjin and Beijing fell in early in 1949, and the KMT capital of Nanjing fell by late April of that same year.  On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was officially established (Soled, 53). 

    Having gained control of all of China, Mao Zedong and the CCP established a Soviet style governmental structure that gave all power to the CCP itself, the People’s Liberation Army, and the bureaucracy.  Nearly immediately, the government set out to rapidly increase industrialization and agricultural production in their efforts to make China’s economy the strongest in the world.  Founding his reforms on the belief that ideology could motivate the Chinese people to do great things, Mao logically sought to target the majority of the Chinese population, the peasant class who made up roughly 80 percent of the population.  In doing so, Mao went slightly askew from the Soviet model that rested its hopes on the production of the proletariat class.  Mao saw the first step in increasing agricultural productivity and establishing a fully socialist society to be the collectivization of all privately owned land.  In the years 1950-1952, collectivization efforts caused great bloodshed but were successful as far as the CCP was concerned.  Nonetheless, it is estimated by most that 2 million landlords died during this period (Soled, 57). 

    Holding essentially worthless deeds to their land, agricultural families slowly found themselves being organized together into “mutual aid teams” that were characterized by the sharing of farming tools, animals, and labor.  These teams often coalesced to form into what became known as Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives (APC) which could have as many people as several small villages.  From 1950-1953, such approaches continued in an on again off again manner, but in 1953 Mao and the CCP officially stepped up the peasant mobilization efforts with the declaration of the first Five Year Plan (FYP).  All Chinese land fell under the official control of the CCP and all rural peasants were arranged into Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives. 

    Also essential to the initial Five Year Plan were the tremendous strides to be taken to develop China’s industrial sectors and their overall technology (which was greatly aided by Russia).  With the institution of this plan, it became clear that China was blazing a unique socialist path, as they strayed further from the Soviet model and more towards a distinctly Maoist approach.  Running from 1953 until 1957, the first FYP proved very successful in meeting its established goals though agriculture failed to boom as the party had hoped.  Industry grew at an average of 14 percent during each year of the plan, agricultural production rose 4 percent each year, and China’s overall GNP averaged an increase of 9 percent annually (Soled, 59).  This success provided great hope to the CCP and the Chinese public, although, as history would tell, it would lead to the establishment of unrealistic goals in the future that would ultimately have devastating consequences. 

Research Report
Communization of the Rural Population 

Having deemed the existing cooperatives as too small to be optimally effective, Mao pushed collectivization to the extreme beginning in the winter of 1957.  Whereas before the Great Leap, APC’s had consisted of several hundred people, during this time, enrollment was increased so as to make each new commune home to some 20,000 to 30,000 people (approx. 5000 families) (Soled, 62).  Of course, as is essential to the institution of any new Communist policy, the CCP utilized mass propaganda techniques to cultivate ideological fervor among the people.  Mao did not want the people to be forced into these communes; rather, he wanted the people to believe so strongly in the Communist ideology that they would gladly voluntarily join worker’s communes.  Local propaganda plans that specifically dealt with the problems of the respective areas and made widely unrealistic promises were used greatly to implant the idea that Communism was the answer to all their problems. 

   Another major form of propaganda was the mass meeting led by CCP cadres.  Again, these one sided “debates” emphasized the greater production that could result from communization, but they also took the opportunity to emphasize the negative sides to the much smaller, ineffective APC’s that were already widespread.  Propaganda techniques were to continue well after the establishment of communes as well.  It was a common practice for loudspeakers to be set up in communes so that the peasants could hear political speeches that preached the great benefits of Communism, while they were slaving away in the fields. 

    Despite the forewarning of such CCP officials as Economic Planner Chen Yun and Premier Zhou Enlai who deemed the process a “reckless advance,” the communization process was officially approved by the Politburo in August of 1958.  In total, roughly 26,000 communes were quickly established throughout China, and by the end of 1958, all but 2 percent of the rural population was part of one (Schirokauer, 607).  Even privately owned factories were converted into functioning communes.  The dynamics of the typical commune structure is actually rather interesting.  Within each commune, the agricultural workers were made part of two different groups: brigades and team work units.  Team units consisted of 12 families, and 12 team units formed a brigade.  Regardless of structure, all power truly lay in the hands of the Communist party cadres who were responsible for setting a good example by partaking in the manual labor along side the peasants.  In turn, it was the party cadres who were ultimately personally responsible for their commune’s production.  Despite the guise of relative equality, no decision could be made among the commune, brigade, or team unit without the approval of the cadres. 

    As Chairman Mao stated when pushing the importance of the communes, “Its (communes) advantage is that it combines industry, agriculture, commerce, education, military affairs, and facilitates leadership” (MacFarquhar, 81).  Indeed, the individual communes did prove to serve as the basic political, economic, and social units of China.  Every part of one’s life, right down to their banking, was handled through them.  They were their own self-contained communities in which everyone worked and even ate together in communal mess halls.  Interestingly, one of Mao’s experiments with the communes was for payments for labor to be made in kind.  Thus, one worked largely only for the food they ate.  Separate policing, entertainment, schools, and hospitals could be found in each commune as well.  Education in the communes took an especially unique path during this time.  Wanting to move away from typical book and rote memorization techniques of learning, Mao endorsed a “work and study” program that served to encourage belief in the Communist ideology while promising greater future educational opportunities (Lawrance, 58).  In addition, Mao believed that the communes themselves were advantageous to national defense, for they already had the masses collected should war break out.  Everything seemed to be falling into place as planned.  With surprising ease, Mao had achieved the collectivization of the more than 600 million rural workers in a very short time span.  Despite the fact that the question of their effectiveness remained to be tested, the CCP held out very high hopes.

Industrialization Moves to the Communes

    The second major aspect of the Great Leap Forward, the move towards greater industrialization, also very quickly materialized.  After the communization drive, Mao, assuming his agricultural productivity success, turned his sights toward increased steel production.  Great strides had been made in industry during the first Five Year Plan, and the CCP saw no reason why the process could not continue to increase at the levels that it had been (14 percent per year) if not at a far greater rate (Lawrance, 57).  Despite admitting that he knew very little about industry, to help increase the growth and to utilize the full power of the communal system, Mao quickly went about decentralizing industry.  Over the course of the Great Leap, nearly 80 percent of all enterprises were decentralized in Mao’s efforts to forge a unique Communist path from the Soviet model (Schirokauer, 608). 

    Following his belief that sheer numbers and the human will could factor out the importance of skilled laborers and advanced technology, Mao backed the movement of the steel industry into the communes.  A lesser degree of technology was brought to the countryside in the hopes that the masses could help in the steel drive.  What resulted was the establishment of 600,000 “backyard furnaces” (Lawrance, 58).  These primitively put together furnaces were used to produce steel.  Members of communes utilized any means possible to contribute to the push for greater steel production.  All forms of metal were melted down (often including personal pots and pans), and forests were leveled to provide the fuel for these furnaces.  However, because of the lack of technical skill of much of the peasant population, the end result was highly inferior, virtually useless steel.  It was weak and not trustworthy enough to build anything out of it.  Nonetheless, it was factored into the production calculation tallies.  The legacy of these backyard furnaces has been that they are illustrative of the Communist quest for quantity regardless of quality.

              Overestimation at All Levels

    A root cause of the problems that were to be caused by the Great Leap was undoubtedly the overestimation of production and misreporting of numbers by party cadres.  Only a few months into the Great Leap, this trend was already apparent.  Working off of inflated production numbers for the summer harvest, at the 6th plenum of the Central Committee in December, 1958, the party leaders raised the bar even higher for production in 1959.  Largely due to extremely good climatic conditions, the grain production in China did rise considerably in the summer of 1958.  It is estimated that 200-210 million tons of grain were produced (Lawrance, 58).  However, when reported to the Central Committee, the estimate jumped to some 375 million tons!  Such exaggerations were the trend across the board.  Steel production which totaled 5.3 million tons was reported to be 11 million tons, coal production went from 130 million to 270 tons with the stroke of a pen, and cotton production was inflated from 1.6 million tons to 3.3 million (Lawrance, 58).  These problems of inflated production statistics were soon to catch up with the CCP. 

    In looking at the problems that the overestimation of figures caused, it is essential to examine more closely what led to this problem in the first place.  Problems with the system appear to be due to the fear instilled by the Communist party, or perhaps the inherent nature of people not to want to disappoint their superiors.  Of course, the fact that the CCP played into the misreported statistics certainly did not help.  A fine example of the central government’s role in miscalculations comes from some of the earliest communes, those of the Honan province.

    In early 1958, looking for an example of his vision in practice, Chairman Mao directed his attention largely towards Honan.  Even before the communization effort had been approved by the Politburo, efforts at forming larger communes from the existing APC’s had been taken throughout China, but these efforts were particularly focused in Honan because of its ideal geographic location.  Honan was surrounded by rivers, which interested Mao greatly because of his water conservancy plans (Chang, 80).  Supposedly, it was after a personal visit here that Mao fully committed himself to the idea that communization was the correct path for China to take.  Throughout the Great Leap Forward the province would serve as a yardstick by which all other communes were to be measured.  As a result, high amounts of government funding were channeled here, consequently encouraging corruption and overestimation.  All communes were to emulate the manner in which these were run.  Although it was to be merely looked at as a pacesetter, because of the CCP attention focused on Honan (the so called “cradle of communes”) and the funding benefits that they received, these communes proved to be far more productive than typical.  Already higher production levels were further skewed through cadre exaggeration, and government estimates were ultimately thrown off greatly (Chang, 81). 

   Throughout all of China, such was the case.  Not wanting to fall short of the estimates produced by the government, party cadres found themselves faced with no real choice but to lie about production levels or be deemed a failure.  It turned into quite a vicious cycle very quickly.  Party cadres had two major reasons to over report actual production.  First of all, they did not want to be labeled a “white flag,” or someone who was slow and conservative.  On the flip side, they wanted to be seen as “red flags” who were worthy of acclamation and glory (Lu, 92).  Consequently, it became common practice for cadres to compete with one another to show that they had the most productive commune.

    There is no doubt that the cadres felt the pressure coming from the central government to exaggerate figures.  Daily newspaper reports on steel and grain production are illustrative of just how much emphasis the government placed on output numbers.  Cadres could thus justify the falsification of statistics on the basis that it would only help increase revolutionary fervor and ultimately the acceptance of the Communist ideology.  Perhaps one local official of the time summed it up best when he said, “Without exaggerated reports, the momentum of the Great Leap cannot be furthered; without exaggerated reports, the masses will be humiliated” (Lu, 93).  One can certainly clearly see the devastating cyclical nature of the problem from such a statement. 

Consequences for the General Public

    Because of the tendency to exaggerate production numbers, for a period in 1958 and 1959, the CCP believed that the Chinese people would have a vast surplus of grain.  Wholeheartedly thinking that they held huge surpluses, Mao is said to have stated, “The state may not want it (grain).  Peasants themselves can eat more.  Well, they can eat five times a day” (Lu, 90).  Taking him up on the offer, it became the common practice for peasants to gorge themselves.  Interestingly, grain exports also remained at a steady rate of 4 million tons annually during this time as well (Soled, 62).  Only when Mao and other party officials made personal visits to communes did the bleak reality set in that there was not enough grain to sustain the current population, let alone to permit them to use it extravagantly.  The result was, of course, mass starvation in 1959 and 1960 when the crop proved to be very poor as a result of extensive flooding and other unexpected climatic problems.  Some estimates say that over 19 million people died between 1959 and 1960 and another 4 million are believed to have died of starvation the following year (Soled, 63). 

    Obviously, the CCP did not want to admit the enormity of their failure, so initial statistics that failed to include the amount of capital that was invested in the various industries showed huge gains across the board.  Heavy industry was shown to have grown 230 percent during the Great Leap, and steel production (including the poor steel of the backyard furnaces) was said to have increased from 5.4 million tons in 1957 to 18 million by the end of 1960 (MacFarquhar, 327).  However, when the real statistics finally came in, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the Great Leap Forward was proven to be anything but what its name implied.  Agricultural production, which had been the thrust of the entire campaign, actually decreased in value 4.3 percent between the years 1958-1962.  Industrial production increased only 3.8 percent in value.  Overall, the national income fell by some 3.1 percent (MacFarquhar, 330).  Perhaps most importantly, overall living standards would not be at their 1957 level until eight years later.  Party enthusiasm had overlooked economic realities, and this cost China greatly.  Despite the enormous problems that the Great Leap caused, one striking positive to come from it was the construction of numerous dams, roads, railways, and irrigation plants.

Political Repercussions

    Recognizing his part in the problems caused, Mao resigned his post as President in April of 1959, and he was succeeded by Liu Shaoqi.  Nonetheless, for all intents and purposes, symbolically Mao was still the man in charge; for he had been the father of the Communist revolution and thus would always hold a place of high esteem.  Elsewhere within the CCP, the failures of the Great Leap brought about considerable disagreement in regard to what measures should be taken for recovery.  At the 8th Plenum in Lushan in July, 1959, the realities of the state of China were formally addressed, but more interesting was the shakeup caused by Defense Minister Peng Dehuai. 

    Never afraid to stand up to authority for what he strongly believed in, Peng viciously criticized Chairman Mao for his Great Leap policies.  Particularly questioning the backyard steel campaigns, the use of communes without previous experimentation, and the continued exaggeration of production numbers, Peng went after Mao immediately at the conference, all but calling the Chairman a liar.  As a response, Mao hesitantly admitted that there were mistakes made in the communization process, but these amounted to “only one finger out of ten” (MacFarquhar, 204). 

   Later in the conference, Peng laid out his complaints with the economic failures of the GLF in a “letter of opinion” that was delivered to Mao, and, some believe, distributed to all in attendance.  In addressing the letter, Mao surprisingly accepted most of the responsibility for the major movements that had occurred as a result of the GLF.  Essentially the Chairman set up an “us vs. them” scenario in which he vowed that if Peng was favored over him and the People’s Liberation Army favored him, he would fight a guerilla war (MacFarquhar, 222).  However, he had no real reason to worry.  Within only a few days, the fate of Peng Dehuai was sealed.  He was ousted as Defense Minister and put into isolation.  Lin Biao, a Mao extremist quickly assumed the vacant position of Defense Minister. 

   Interestingly, even though the Lushan plenum had spoken at length regarding the grave realities of the Great Leap Forward, few CCP officials viewed the GLF as an outright failure.  They pointed to the fact that the irrigation methods instituted and the extensive building of dams and roads would be of great significance in the long run.  Regardless, there was no chance that the policies would be continued, and the CCP failed to pursue GLF policies past 1960.  Premier Zhou Enlai helped to draft the “Urgent Directive on Rural Work” which essentially brought the Great Leap to an official end.  The communes were shrunk to about 1/3 of their peak size, and unrealistic production levels were abandoned.  By 1962, private plots were restored to much of the rural population (Lawrance, 64). 

Historical Significance

    The Great Leap Forward proved to be only a sign of things to come under the rule of Mao Zedong.  Chinese society, on every level, was turned upside down as a result of the policies of the GLF.  With the notable exception of the Soviet Union under Stalin, during no other time period was such an effort made to mobilize such a large number of people. . .and so quickly.  As a testament to the power of the Chinese Communist Party, they were able to take an entire population (some 600 million people) and put them to work toward the common goals that were believed to be for the greater good.  This fact alone is quite remarkable.  Of course, the negative side of these changes is even more astounding.  During the Great Leap Forward, it is estimated that over 24 million Chinese died as a result of starvation due to the policies of the CCP.  The death toll incurred during this short time period of only 2 years, far exceeds the 15 million who died in the bloodiest modern war, World War II.  Another factor that makes this atrocity as amazing as it is is the fact that it was occurring right in front of the government’s face, yet they were unable or unwilling to do anything about it.  Even more important for today’s society, one must recognize that this occurred only 43 years ago!

    Historically, perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Leap Forward is that it served as a key pre-cursor of the Cultural Revolution that was to occur just 6 years after the Great Leap was brought to an end.  Despite having lost some of the faith of the Chinese people as a result of his policy making failures during the Great Leap and previous to it (the 100 Flowers Campaign), Mao Zedong did not allow these setbacks to deter him from fulfilling his vision of Chinese Socialism.  The Great Leap had proven that the Chinese people could easily be manipulated to the CCP’s wishes, whether it was out of voluntary compliance or outright fear.  It was with this understanding in mind that he would once again seek to alter China’s political and social structure to his liking during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, once again only to create horrendous consequences for the Chinese people. 


Chang, Parris H.  Power and Policy in China.  University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. 

Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman.  China: A New History.  Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard
    University Press, 1998.

Lawrance, Alan.  China Under Communism.  London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 

Lu, Xiaobo.  Cadres and Corruption: The Organizational Involution of the Chinese Communist Party.  Stanford: Stanford
     University Press, 2000.

MacFarquhar, Roderick.  The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (Volume II).  Columbia University: University Press, 

Schirokauer, Conrad.  A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations (2nd edition).  New York: Thompson
     Learning, Inc., 1989. 

Soled, Debra E. (ed.)  China: A Nation in Transition.  Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995.

Teiwes, Frederick C., and Warren Sun.  China’s Road to Disaster: Mao, Central Politicians, and Provincial Leaders 
     in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward (1955-1959).  Armonk and London: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1999. 

Web Resources

    Site provides a nice and simple summary of the Great Leap Forward and its greater consequences

    This very informative site discusses the impact and consequences of the Great Leap in great detail.  It also has numerous other Chinese links with an extensive list of other sources regarding China.  In addition, it features numerous pictures of China. 

    Site shows the demographic consequences of the Great Leap.  Even though it is not an exciting or flashy page, it is very factual.

    This archive provides an extensive selection of Mao Zedong's writings.  In addition, it provides links to information about numerous other Communist leaders.

    This site provides a timeline and numerous maps of China as well as many links to further information on China (very helpful and informative).

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