What Is the Great Leap Forward?

The Great Leap Forward was a five-year plan of forced agricultural collectivization and rural industrialization that was instituted by the Chinese Communist Party in 1958, which resulted in a sharp contraction in the Chinese economy and between 30 to 45 million deaths by starvation, execution, torture, forced labor, and suicide out of desperation. It was the largest single, non-wartime campaign of mass killing in human history.

The initiative was led by Mao Zedong, also known as Mao Tse-tung and Chair Mao. Mao’s official goal was to rapidly evolve China from an agrarian economy into a modern industrial society with a greater ability to compete with Western industrialized nations.

Key Takeaways

  • The Great Leap Forward was a five-year economic plan executed by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, begun in 1958 and abandoned in 1961.
  • The goal was to modernize the country's agricultural sector using communist economic ideologies.
  • Instead of stimulating the country's economy, The Great Leap Forward resulted in mass starvation and famine.
  • It is estimated that between 30 and 45 million Chinese citizens died due to famine, execution, and forced labor, along with massive economic and environmental destruction.
  • The Great Leap Forward remains the largest episode of non-wartime mass killing in human history, and a clear example of the failures of socialism and economic central planning.

Understanding the Great Leap Forward

In 1958, Mao announced his plan for the Great Leap Forward, which he laid out as a five-year plan to improve the economic prosperity of the People’s Republic of China. He devised the plan after touring China and concluding that he felt the Chinese people were capable of anything.

Overall, the plan was centered around two primary goals, collectivizing agriculture, and widespread industrialization, with two main targets, increasing grain and steel production.

Agriculture

Private plot farming was abolished and rural farmers were forced to work on collective farms where all production, resource allocation, and food distribution was centrally controlled by the Communist Party. Large-scale irrigation projects, with little input from trained engineers, were initiated, and experimental, unproven new agricultural techniques were quickly introduced around the country. 

These innovations resulted in declining crop yields from failed experiments and improperly constructed water projects. A nationwide campaign to exterminate sparrows, which Mao believed (incorrectly) were a major pest on grain crops, resulted in massive locust swarms in the absence of natural predation by the sparrows. Grain production fell sharply, and hundreds of thousands died from forced labor and exposure to the elements on irrigation construction projects and communal farming. 

Famine quickly set in across the countryside, resulting in millions more deaths. People resorted to eating tree bark and dirt, and in some areas to cannibalism. Farmers who failed to meet grain quotas, tried to get more food, or attempted to escape were tortured and killed along with their family members via beating, public mutilation, being buried alive, scalding with boiling water, and other methods.

Industrialization

Large-scale state projects to increase industrial production were introduced in urban areas, and backyard steel furnaces were built on farms and in urban neighborhoods. Steel production was targeted to double in the first year of the Great Leap Forward, and Mao forecast that Chinese industrial output would exceed Britain’s within 15 years. The backyard steel industry produced largely useless, low-quality pig iron. Existing metal equipment, tools, and household goods were confiscated and melted down to fuel additional production.

Due to the failures in planning and coordination, and resulting materials shortages, which are common to central economic planning, the massive increase in industrial investment and reallocation of resources resulted in no corresponding increase in manufacturing output.

Millions of “surplus” laborers were moved from farms to steel making. Most were the able-bodied male workers, breaking up families and leaving the forced agricultural labor force for the collective farms consisting of mostly women, children, and the elderly. The increase in urban populations placed additional strain on the food distribution system and demand on collective farms to increase grain production for urban consumption. Collective farm officials falsified harvest figures, resulting in much of what grain was produced being shipped to the cities as requisitions were based on the official figures.

Throughout the Great Leap forward, while millions starved to death, China remained a net exporter of grain as Mao directed grain exports and refused offers of international food relief in order to convince the rest of the world that his plans were a success.

The End Result

The Great Leap Forward ended up being a massive failure. Tens of millions died by starvation, exposure, overwork, and execution in just a few years. It broke families apart, sending men, women, and children to different locations, and destroyed traditional communities and ways of life. Farmland was damaged by nonsensical agricultural practices and the landscape denuded of trees to fuel the steel furnaces. Thirty to 40% of the housing stock was demolished to obtain raw materials for collective projects. In industry, massive quantities of capital goods and raw materials were consumed in projects that yielded no additional output of final goods. 

The Great Leap Forward was officially halted in Jan. 1961 after three brutal years of death and destruction.

What Was the Purpose of the Great Leap Forward Program?

The Great Leap Forward was a relatively short-lived effort by the communist regime of China to modernize its rural and agricultural sectors through collectivism and industrialization.

What Happened in the Great Leap Forward?

Rather than stimulating the economy, the measures undertaken by the Great Leap Forward resulted in massive food shortages, leading to famine and starvation—ultimately, tens of millions of Chinese citizens died as a result.

How Did the Great Leap Forward Cause Famine?

The failure of this program was due to the confluence of several factors. Efforts to kill off birds increased insect populations that ruined crops. The communal farms set up by the Great Leap Forward were beset by inadequate food distribution throughout the country given China's relatively primitive infrastructure at the time.

At the same time, there was an overproduction of grain, much of which rotted before being able to be transported. In addition, there was a bias to feed residents of urban centers rather than to peasants across the countryside, leading to higher death rates among rural communities than in cities.

How Many People Died During the Great Leap Forward?

While there is no exact count, researchers have estimated the death toll to be between 30 million and 45 million individuals.