The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign launched by the Chinese government in the 1950s. The initiative was led by Mao Zedong, also known as Mao Tse-tung and Chairman Mao. Mao was an influential leader in Chinese history, serving as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and helping to found the People’s Republic of China. The movement sought to rapidly evolve China from an agrarian economy into a modern society with greater ability to compete with other Western industrialized nations.

History of the Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward began a few years after the defeat of the Nationalists by the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War. The Civil War separated the Chinese Nationalists who moved to Taiwan and the CPC which took over mainland China. After the war, Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and served as its primary leader.

Eight years later, 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 PRC. He devised the plan after touring China and concluding that he felt the Chinese people were capable of anything. Overall, the Leap plan was centered around two primary target goals, modernizing agriculture and industry. His Leap plan acted to separate the Chinese people into communes that were focused on the targets.

Failures of the Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward was a massive failure for several reasons. It broke families apart, sending men, women, and children to different locations to serve the People's Republic of China in various ways. It also used untested and nonsensical tactics in both the areas of agriculture and manufacturing which yielded minimal results and led to widespread devastation. In agriculture, farmland and crops were damaged. In manufacturing, the requirements for backyard production plants also led to environmental damage as citizens were required to produce steel, timber, cement, and other needed supplies from wooded timber along with other available resources.

The Great Leap Forward was finally halted in 1960 after two brutal years and millions of deaths. As early as 1959, things started to go terribly wrong. Politically motivated decisions took precedence over common sense, and communes faced the task of doing things which they were incapable of achieving. The failed initiative is said to have cost an estimated 20 to 48 million lives as a result of catastrophic field policies which included torture, starvation, and execution punishments. The PRC’s actions were also compounded by adverse weather conditions, including a severe flood and later a widespread drought.

The Post-Great Leap Forward Economy

Mao Zedong was forced to resign from his position as China’s head of state but still remained a paramount leader under new Chairman Liu Shaoqi. As paramount leader Mao was able to overthrow Shaoqi and regain power for another movement titled the Cultural Revolution which he led from 1966 until his death in 1976. In 1972 Mao’s leadership reported greater success as it met with U.S. President Richard Nixon and sought to open China to the world. In 1978 China started its most successful economic stimulus reforms under the leadership of Ye Jianying. In 1992 China signed a declaration with Russia aligning the two countries on better diplomatic terms. In 1992, the International Monetary Fund also ranked China’s economy as the third largest in the world. In the modern day China continues to remain a communist nation. It has grown to become the second largest economy by gross domestic product, after the United States.