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When the Communist party came to power in 1949 after a brutal war against the Nationalists, China was in a devastated state. War against Japan had resulted in the destruction of many of it’s cities including Beijing. China’s people were left scared with the horrific memories of the Japanese army’s horrendous acts. Rescuing China from the gutter was to prove to be a difficult task for Mao Zedong and his communist comrades. In order to understand the fundamental problems with the Great Leap Forward, previous reforms must be considered in order to fully assess the reasons for the it’s failures.
One of China’s most notorious problems was land ownership. Most of China’s land was owned by cruel landlords. Peasants were being exploited and were forced to work long hours for poor pay and terrible living conditions. Mao used this in order to take a fundamental step in assuring that he had total control over the people. He introduced the policy of land reform. Mao re-distributed 40% of China’s land and gave it to the peasants. This proved to be a truly brilliant political decision as he swept the hearts of the peasants on his side.
He realised that as 90% of China’s population were peasants, he needed to appeal to the masses. This policy was considered a success as an estimated 60% of the entire population benefited form the reform. However, this was to be a sign of Mao’s disregard for human life as this policy resulted in the death of 2 million landlords, by means of public execution during ‘struggle’ meetings. Mao also started an early form of collectivisation, by 1952, 40% of peasants were collectivised. The next step was the encouragement of cooperatives, these favoured central management of land under private ownership, and by 1956 80% of peasants were part of cooperatives.
The important factor of the land reform policy is that Mao was able to gain support from the peasants, the same peasants he would later use to conduct the Great Leap forward. Despite claiming to be a Marxist, Mao considered rural peasants to be the seeds of agricultural success but thought that industrial peasants were the backbone of the economy. The Great Leap Forward was to be the second economic reform Mao was to launch in China.
Inspiring himself from Stalin’s economic model, in 1953 Mao launched the first 5 year plan. This plan was to be extraordinarily successful. The first of his 5 year plans set high production targets in oil, steel, pig iron and chemical fertiliser. Most of these targets were achieved, notably steel production quadrupled. Mao was able to cut inflation down from 1000% to only 15% by introducing a new currency the ‘Yuan’. Mao’s reforms were all interlinked. He used his social reforms to back up his economic reforms.
Mao made revolutionary changes to women’s lives in modern China. New sets of laws were introduced giving women the right to work, education and custody rights over their children. This was a significant improvement from the harsh days of foot binding. Mao also deemed it important to educate the Chinese population, another success was his improvement of literacy, and by his death 90% of China was literate. Not only did Mao revolutionise Chinese social life, but he put an end to corruption the government.
However, these changes were to contribute to the launch of the great leap forward in a crucial way, by giving women the right to work Mao had significantly enlarged his work force which was important considering his beliefs in mass mobilisation. By the time the he announced the launch of the great leap forward 70% of women were employed. The success of the first 5 year plan can be explained by several factors. The targets set were plausible and most importantly Mao had the help of Russian economic and agricultural experts.
However Mao deeply mistrusted experts. Some may argue that this was one of the main reasons for launching the hundred flowers campaign. In order to lure out intellectuals and opposition Mao gave a speech in 1957. During this speech Mao encouraged the intelligentsia to ‘constructively’ criticize the communist party. At first the movement was slow to take of but once Mao forced the media to get behind it, people started speaking their minds about Mao’s regime.
Communist party members were being heavily criticized and the Chinese people demanded reform. Mao, not uncharacteristically decided to reverse the policy in May 1957. This was to result in a crackdown on the intelligentsia known as the ‘anti rightist campaign’. Over 300,000 people were sent to labour camps. The hundred flowers was not simply a way at removing the intelligentsia, it was a way of removing Mao’s opponents, and this was to make the launch of the Great leap forward less difficult and certainly less questioned for the few experts that remained would be too terrified of speaking against the communist party chairman.
The scene is now set for the introduction of the Great Leap Forward. Mao dreamed of transforming China into one of the world’s leading economic powers. Mao’s dream was to become China’s nightmare with the launch of the great leap forward in 1958.
Mao’s goal was to transform China into an economic superpower overnight. Many peasants knew little of what the Great Leap forward was for, most thought it was simply a plan to overtake major capitalist countries. However, to serve a higher purpose, Mao saw nuclear power as an essential element to become a superpower. However Mao’s secrete ambition was expensive. In order to mobilise labour, Mao had to further collectivise cooperatives in the rural parts of China. Mao believed that industry and agriculture were equally important, hence the slogan “walking on two legs”. However, the first 5 year plan had been beneficial to industry but agriculture had stagnated. One of Mao’s main concerns was China’s population was outgrowing food production. In 1957 food production had grown 1% whilst the population had grown by 2%. Mao was distraught by the fact that the countryside’s production was being used up in by the rural population.
This posed a real economic problem for China. It meant that industry was not going to be sufficiently supported by agriculture and thus meant that Mao’s ambitions could not be realised. Mao’s answer to this problem was to decentralise control and enable enlarged agricultural units produce food and industrial products. These new ‘super collectives’ would be known as People’s Communes.
These communes were under the control of local cadres who’s main order were to extract as much labour as possible from the peasants. These cadres forced peasants were forced to hand over their property, thus reversing his policy of Land reform. The first of people communes was created in Henan in April 1958. It was composted of 27 collectives with over 9369 households joined together, by December 1958, 740,000 cooperatives had been turned into 26,000 communes.
Mao had successfully militarised China’s society, militia units squads were formed and were composed of everyone between 15 to 20 years of age. Living conditions in the communes were nothing short of appalling. Peasants eat, slept and washed together. All privacy was swept away from them, Mao even considered getting rid of people’s names and replacing them with numbers. According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday “Mao aim was to dehumanise China’s 550 million peasants and turn them into the human equivalent of draft animals” Mao had betrayed the peasants and was going to trade the peasant’s life for economic growth.
Mao expected far too much from these communes. This may explain why the harvest predictions were astronomically high. Mao would have done well to examine the previous harvesting results. The normal yield was a ton per acre. The previous harvest of 1957 yielded a poor 195 million tons of grain. In 1958 Mao announced that the harvest figures for that year had been 430 million tons, western experts place this figure around 200 million tons. This demonstrates how much the production figures were exaggerated. Mao ‘s political secretary Chen Boda told Mao that China was accomplishing in a day what it took capitalist states 20 years to accomplish.
Production actually decreased during the Great Leap Forward by significant amounts, the harvest of 1959 was yielded a disappointing 170 million tons the CCP reported it at 282 million tons. This figure was to get even lower in 1960 when it fell to 143 million tons. This can be attributed to poor agricultural techniques. Close planting and deep ploughing were considered to be at the hear t of agricultural success. During these years Mao was asked how he intended to pay for his newly ordered soviet heavy machinery. Mao answered by claiming that “China has unlimited food supplies”. Consequently China increased its food exports towards Russia.