What is the Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign that began in the 1950s and sought to change China from an agrarian economy into a modern society. It was an effort made by the Communist Party of China (CPC) under the leadership of Mao Zedong, also known as Mao Tse-tung, to transform China into a society capable of competing with other Western industrialized nations, within a short time period. In January 1958, the Great Leap Forward, the second in China's series of five-year plans, was launched and millions of Chinese citizens were moved to communes to work on farms or in manufacturing. Private farming was prohibited.

BREAKING DOWN Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward was intended to modernize the Chinese economy following the communist revolution. Mao had toured China after coming to power in 1949 and concluded that the Chinese people were capable of anything. The two primary tasks that he felt his government should target were to modernize industry and agriculture. These are the two main sectors of the communist command economy, represented in the Soviet flag with the hammer of an industrial worker and the sickle of the agrarian harvester.  Mao announced the Great Leap Forward plan would last from 1958 to 1963. This plan attempted to modernize China’s economy so that by 1988, China would have an economy that rivaled America.

Failures of the Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward, intended to be a five-year effort, was halted in 1960 after three brutal years and millions of lost lives. As early as 1959, things started to go 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 economic policy compounded by adverse weather conditions, including a flood that killed two million people and the subsequent crop failures that led to starvation.

In addition to the fatalities, the Great Leap Forward had negative environmental impacts, as communes were encouraged to set up "backyard" production plants for needed supplies such as steel, timber and cement. In 1960, an extensive drought further added to the country's troubles. Mao Zedong was forced to resign from his position as Head of State, although he was able to remain in a powerful party position to save face and avoid public embarrassment.