Big leap forward

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Big leap forward ( Chinese  大躍進  /  大跃进 , Pinyin dà yuè jìn ) was the name of a campaign initiated by Mao Zedong , which ran from 1958 to 1961 and consisted of several individual initiatives that included the second five-year plan (1958–1962) People's Republic of China should replace and surpass. With the help of this campaign, the three great differences country and city, head and hand, and industry and agriculture were to be leveled, the gap to the western industrialized countries to be caught up and the transition period to communism to be shortened significantly. The Big Leap Campaign began under the first five-year plan from 1953 to 1957, and was to run from 1958 to 1963. In 1961 the campaign was canceled after its apparent failure. The People's Commune , which came into being along with the Great Leap Forward, continued to exist in mainland China until 1983.

The “great leap forward” began after the end of the “ anti-right movement ” and coincided with a period of increasing political tension between China and the Soviet Union . It was the main cause of the severe Great Chinese Famine that ruled from 1959 to 1961. There were severe floods and droughts in China during these years, but the main reason for the famine was economic mismanagement. As a result of the forced collectivization of agriculture, the additional burden on farmers from working on infrastructure and industrialization projects and internal migration of the rural population to the cities, agricultural yields fell from 1959 to 1961. At the same time, the grain taxes expected by the state as taxes and for exports rose sharply - and enforced with coercive measures. The number of victims of this famine is estimated at 15 to 45 million people (according to Dikötter at least 45, possibly 55 million). This is the greatest famine in human history.

Goals of the great leap forward

After economic successes since the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government has faced serious problems. Economically, China was closely based on the Soviet Union and, following the Soviet model, launched its first five-year plan from 1953 to 1957, which - according to the company - was completed with an annual growth in industrial production of 15%. However, the large companies that had been built up remained dependent on Soviet financial and technical support. The Soviet Union had gradually delivered 156 projects - oil production systems, vehicle and aircraft construction, armaments factories - to the People's Republic, although the high technical level of these projects often did not match the other productivity level in the People's Republic (e.g. because it absorbed little labor ). Since 1956, when revolts against their communist governments broke out in Hungary and Poland , the Soviet Union felt compelled to provide additional economic aid to these states. As a result, the Soviet Union was forced, on the one hand, to “reduce” its support for China, and on the other hand, the rigid focus of Chinese companies on heavy industry was a problem: around eight times as much investment was made in the capital goods industry as in the consumer goods industry . The question therefore arose as to whether the development of China on the Soviet model, with centrally organized and capital-intensive large companies, corresponded to Chinese conditions.

Another serious problem was agriculture , the area in which over three quarters of the population were active. Even before the People's Republic was founded, the entire available arable land was cultivated. As a result, cultivation on other areas was difficult, and the arable land was also extremely parceled out. At that time, a farming family owned an average of around a third of a hectare of acreage, which was entirely handcrafted. Despite the expropriation - and the associated killing - of the previous landowners and the reduction in the often very high lease fees, not much had changed on the land. Ironically, the initial successes of Chinese socialism contributed to this: a rapidly rising birth rate based on the fact that food was largely secure (albeit at a low level), and the rudimentary medical care and hygiene measures had contributed to the decrease in child mortality. In this respect, people no longer starved to death, but the enormous enthusiasm that had existed when the People's Republic was founded had subsided. The farmers carried the entire burden of industrial development, but saw little economic progress for themselves, which was partly due to the lack of use of artificial fertilizers and the development of small agricultural machines that were adapted to Chinese agriculture.

Another problem was the emergence of a new class of functionaries, detached from the population. More and more of these functionaries, according to classical Chinese tradition, saw themselves not as servants of the workers and peasants, but as new rulers and saw nothing in the process of enriching themselves with state property. Mao spoke of the new capitalists and the need for further class struggle, but without specifying this further.

As a solution to the dilemma, the Chinese leadership, and Mao, Liu, Deng and Zhou all agreed, to turn away from the centralized large-scale enterprises and turn to decentralized production in the countryside. Expensive machines are not needed for every production. With a lot of manual labor and few machines, a lot can be produced in the villages by yourself. In addition, you know better, close to the consumer, what is urgently needed, and long transport routes are avoided. An attempt was therefore made to initiate economic development in rural areas with as little material support as possible from the centers. This was ideologized with the slogan “bring the city into the country”.

In order to achieve this goal, however, from the Chinese centralist point of view, the previous administrative and also centralist ordinance path had to be abandoned. The rural base should learn to rely primarily on its own strength and to replace the bureaucratic guidance that has been customary up to now with initiative from below, according to the state way of thinking. With this, the Chinese leadership reacted to the deficiency of poorly developed means of communication and transport in their country. The local authorities were therefore urged to turn to superordinate authorities as little as possible. The guiding principle of the famous Tachai Brigade in Shansi has been declared binding for all municipalities: "We manufacture equipment ourselves, we look for raw materials on site, we learn the technology in practice!" succeeded in 1957 in developing effective, cheap and, above all, locally accessible production techniques for entire industries.

The experts from the cities should in turn support the people's communes. This change was also intended to cut back the mammoth bureaucracy of centralism that had spread across the country. Instead of the Beijing industrial bureaucracy, the initiative of the 2000 districts, the 80,000 municipalities, the 100,000 handicrafts and the 700,000 agricultural production cooperatives should now be used. However, the specifications for these new initiatives remained unclear, which was intended. It was only intended to show a general direction, but the details of implementation should be left to the "masses" (although here, too, it remained unclear what "the masses" should mean).

This new direction of economic development required reconstruction work in the countryside. What was the "enterprise" in the city, that was to become the "People's Commune" in the country. The development of simple industry and business as well as the expansion of the infrastructure should be the task of the people's communes with several thousand members in the countryside. The farmers, who until now had done everything by hand on their small plots, were supposed to bring their land into the People's Commune. The “people's communes”, in turn, were supposed to carry out the economic development that was necessary for the country through the division of labor, mechanization and specialization, and on the one hand the way for organizational experiments was given to them, as well as being given extensive economic autonomy. Nevertheless, instead of the previous command economy, they were also sent into a kind of “socialist competition”.


Beginning of collectivization in the People's Republic of China

Proclamation of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949 by Mao Zedong
Mao and Stalin in 1949

After the founding of the Chinese People's Republic on October 1, 1949, the “New Democracy” strategy envisaged long-term adherence to mixed economic forms. The Chinese economy should only gradually be transformed into a "socialist" one. More radical members of the Politburo criticized this as early as 1951. From 1953 the new general line envisaged a "socialist transformation" of the economy, which was based on Stalin's 1929 program. The principle of central planning and management of production, investment, distribution and consumption was adopted under the slogan “Learn from the Soviet Union!”. At the same time as the end of the Korean War , the first five-year plan was adopted in 1953 based on the Soviet model. At the same time, a new ruling elite was formed: while around two million functionaries worked for the national government in 1948, the communist state and party apparatus had eight million cadres in 1958.

Land reforms had been initiated before the People's Republic of China was officially established, but there was no collectivization of land, even though the CCP used leaflets and pamphlets to advertise the benefits of such collectivization. Mao was basically of the opinion that larger production units would automatically lead to higher mechanization and thus to higher yields. Other, more moderate party members such as Liu Shaoqi , on the other hand, were of the opinion that extensive collectivization would only make sense if China had a sufficient number of agricultural machinery . At that time, China did not yet have its own industry for the manufacture of agricultural machinery; the first tractor factory did not begin to produce until 1958. From 1952 to 1957 the collectivization of agriculture was promoted with varying intensity, while Mao Zedong with his desire for extensive and rapid collectivization prevailed over more moderate members in the Politburo.

The first wave of agricultural collectivization began in 1952 and envisaged mergers of six to nine households each. The second phase began in 1955 and was later called "low collectivization". Usually the families of a village formed a large cooperative. The farmers have not yet lost their land, but have been forced to share draft animals , tools and seeds, to work the fields in small groups under the direction of a cadre and to share the yields. For those who had benefited from the land reforms, this was not economically attractive. Those who owned draft animals slaughtered them and sold the meat because this was more profitable than making the draft animal available to the cooperative. Joining the cooperative was theoretically voluntary, but it was often forced by calling the families intended for the union to a meeting and not being allowed to leave it until they agreed to join the cooperative. When in 1955 peasants had the opportunity to leave the cooperatives for a short time, the party leadership in Beijing was surprised at the large number of peasants who made use of this option. The first attempts at collectivization led to higher agricultural yields due to larger parcels and more intensive use of agricultural equipment. However, there was widespread resistance among the rural population, which was occasionally expressed in local uprisings. After the further collectivization efforts were temporarily suspended in January 1955 with Mao's consent, they were intensified again from April 1955. After a trip to the southern provinces, Mao concluded that reports of popular resistance were exaggerated. He himself named the goal that by the end of 1957 50 percent of the rural population should belong to a collective. At the provincial and county level, collectivization was promoted much faster than Mao dictated. In the spring of 1956, 92 percent of rural households were members of collectives, compared to only 14 percent at the beginning of 1955. In December 1956, only three percent of the rural population was farming their land individually. In the last phase of collectivization, farmers were increasingly no longer compensated for property that they had brought into the collective, but only paid for the work they did. During the collectivization in the countryside there was internal migration with millions moving to the cities. In 1956, domestic passports were introduced in China, which were intended to largely prevent this uncontrolled internal migration. It was no longer possible for farmers to take on wage labor outside their region during the winter months, to go to markets or to migrate to regions with sufficient harvests in the event of food shortages. The collectivization of the industrial and service sectors, both of which were much smaller in comparison to the agricultural sector, began after the agricultural collectivization was largely over and proceeded very quickly. It was already completed in January 1956 in all major cities.

During the "low collectivization" period, the farmers had to sell a predetermined amount of grain to the government at a fixed price, the rest of the amount obtained could be sold on the open market. According to Soviet economic experts, the industrialization of the People's Republic could only be financed by taxing the agricultural sector. An example of this was not only the economic development of the Soviet Union, but also Japan, where 60 percent of the financial resources necessary for industrialization were raised through taxation of the agricultural sector. The creation of a state grain monopoly was the easiest way to secure the financing of industrialization. About five percent of the land was allowed to be cultivated by the families as private parcels, which meant that the families primarily took care of these parcels. A disproportionately large part of the agricultural production was generated on these plots. It is estimated that 83% of the poultry and pigs were raised on these plots.

The Hundred Flower Movement

On the XX. At the CPSU party congress in February 1956, in his secret speech on February 25, Khrushchev criticized the personality cult around Stalin and the crimes associated with it. The Soviet leadership subsequently initiated the so - called de - Stalinization , a fundamental turning point in social and economic policy. Mao saw himself attacked by Khrushchev's speech in his own authority, since criticism of Stalin also made criticism of him permissible. In fact, at the 8th CCP Congress in Beijing, the principle of collective leadership was emphasized and the cult of personality was rejected. The Maoist principle of “stormy mass movements” was also criticized at this party congress. In a departure from Mao's strategy, the transformation of Chinese society and economy should now proceed more slowly. Moderate party groups, whose leading representatives included Zhou Enlai , Bo Yibo and Chen Yun , advocated more cautious development and smaller agricultural collectives, and wanted to allow a limited free market.

Moved during the anti-right campaign

In a speech to a group of party leaders in May 1956, Mao demanded for the first time that the party should not be left with the monopoly of opinion and repeated this demand on February 27, 1957 at a state conference with his address on the question of the correct handling of contradictions in the people . The speech was not published in full, but towards the end of April 1957, the Chinese media made it clear that constructive and critical statements were welcome. The criticism that was brought forward during the so-called Hundred Flowers Movement in the spring of 1957 was directed primarily against the ignorance and arrogance of party functionaries, against the strong orientation towards the Soviet model and the communist party's monopoly on power. The Hundred Flower Movement was abruptly ended by Mao in June 1957 and Deng Xiaoping was charged with taking up the fight against enemies of the state in a so-called anti-right-wing campaign. Historians give divergent numbers of people who were convicted in the following months for their previously expressed criticism. Sabine Dabringhaus speaks of more than 400,000 people who fell victim to persecution and disappeared in labor camps and prisons. The Mao biographer Philip Short names 520,000 people who were sentenced to "re-education through work" and sent to labor camps in remote parts of the country. Most of them were scientists, intellectuals and students. Several previously influential Chinese politicians, such as Pan Fusheng and Zhang Bojun , who opposed agrarian reforms and forced collectivization, were also convicted as deviants .

It is disputed among historians whether the abrupt end of the Hundred Flower Movement was a reaction to the unexpectedly clear criticism or whether Mao's call for criticism was a deliberate maneuver to find critics and then to silence them. However, the anti-right movement, which continued with varying degrees of intensity over the next few years, created an atmosphere in which few dared to criticize the government's political and economic course.

With the support of Liu Shaoqi , chairman of the National People's Congress, Mao called for a new economic campaign in the fall of 1957, the "Great Leap Forward." A campaign now known as the “Small Leap Forward” was broken off in 1956 after the high production targets set by the local cadre led to resistance among the rural population and strikes among workers. The renewed call for such a campaign met with little resistance. When Khrushchev announced to an international audience shortly after the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution that the Soviet Union would have overtaken the production level of the USA in fifteen years, Mao, who was present as a state guest, replied that China would match Great Britain's production level during the same period, which was still one at that time major industrial power. From his return from Moscow until April 1958, Mao toured the Chinese provinces in order to promote the big leap forward in meetings with the local party leadership.

The plan for the big leap forward

The development of the agribusiness was a focus of the big leap. At the plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on December 10, 1958, it was formulated as follows: “The current bottleneck in the supply of goods in the countryside and in agricultural production can only be overcome by developing industry on a large scale in the municipalities ... The municipalities have to develop rural industry on a large scale and gradually divert a significant proportion of the labor force from agriculture to industry in order to produce tools for both agriculture and for the production of machines. ”The goal was set for each municipality to have 80 to 90 Percent of the industrial products she needed to manufacture herself. The most important element for this development was the mobilization of the masses of the peasants and the release of workers from agriculture to build up the economy.

Essential elements of the big leap were:

Decentralization of administration
The state was divided into seven regions. Each region was instructed to build industrial and economic centers on a large scale. The companies previously managed centrally by the Ministry of Industry were assigned to the local administrations. In September 1958 it was determined that even large building projects could be examined and decided by the local authorities. The development of fiscal centralization is shown in Table 5.
The government should support the people's communes.
The government decides the minimum number of factories each municipality must have. These factories can be designed for agricultural equipment, electricity production, chemical fertilizers, cooking oil, building materials, coal mines, or other. If necessary, the government and the urban state enterprises should support the rural people's communes in setting up their own factories. In the first half of 1960, more than 500,000 craftsmen and traders from the cities were forcibly relocated to the countryside to provide technical support.
The economy is summarized in the people's communes.
The rural cooperatives, craft and industrial companies are assigned to the people's communes. In 1958 it was generally forbidden to do business outside the organization of the People's Communes. The rural secondary production including privately used areas and cattle breeding is transferred to the municipalities. From February 1959, the responsibility for small industry and trade was downgraded from the People's Communes to the Production Brigades.
The people's commune is responsible for social life
The people's commune is responsible for an extensive social infrastructure. On December 10, 1959, the Politburo carried out the following social tasks for the People's Commune: housing, communal canteens, crèches, kindergartens, old people's homes, department stores, post offices, hospitals, recreation centers, movie theaters, public baths, public toilets. The government would like to extend the principle of the production units in the factories, the danweis, to rural production.
An irrigation campaign should ensure additional crop yields
There was also a food shortage in China in the 1950s, although the entire arable land in the country was already in use. In order to increase grain production, since the beginning of the communist takeover, work has been done to increase the irrigation of the fields. This should now be massively accelerated for the big jump. The expansion of the irrigation of the fields is shown in Table 1.
From the end of 1957 a campaign to irrigate the fields was carried out. On August 29, 1958, the Central Committee reported: “Since last winter, the irrigated areas have increased by 450 million acres. If you add the 970 million acres of irrigated land, 57% of China's arable land is now irrigated, which is more than a third of the world's irrigated area. If we continue to work hard for two years, then we can irrigate the entire Chinese arable land. "
An educational campaign against illiteracy is launched
In rural areas, the vast majority of the population were still illiterate. This, too, should change quickly. Each people's commune was asked to enable the children to attend school and the adults to attend evening classes. In addition to primary schools, middle schools should be established. Illiteracy should be eradicated in rural areas within twelve years. Higher education should also be made possible in rural areas.
The campaign to increase steel production starts
Steel production, along with grain production, was regarded by the Chinese leadership as the “main link in the chain” for the country's economic development, and the increase in steel production was therefore a crucial element in the success of the Great Leap. To increase steel production, small, simple "backyard blast furnaces" should be built all over the country, which the farmers should build and operate themselves.
A three to four meter high blast furnace made of bricks or clay was planned as a typical backyard blast furnace. Coal and ore were poured in from above and compressed air was blown in from below. Based on traditional methods, these blast furnaces, properly built and operated, but at twice the cost of using a modern blast furnace, could certainly produce steel. Here too, the approach of decentralization and the principle of subsidiarity was the basis. It is better to use a more expensive method to produce your own steel locally, which is then processed by your own forge, than to wait for the steel from distant combines that can produce far too little steel anyway.
With the help of these new blast furnaces, steel production was to be doubled in 1958.
The expansion of rural infrastructure is accelerated
In addition to irrigation, the rest of the infrastructure necessary for the economy should also be expanded. This was true for railways, roads, telephony, electricity, levees, dams and other things. The manpower required for this should be made available by increasing efficiency in the people's communes through specialization and mechanization in agriculture.

Implementation in 1957 and 1958

The turn of the Chinese economy to the capital-intensive, industrially-oriented Soviet model had meant that workers were preferred over peasants in every respect. This resulted in constant rural exodus, an increase in the urban population with a simultaneous tendency towards the emergence of slums of impoverished city dwellers. As a result, from the beginning of 1957, school leavers who could not find work in the city were sent to the countryside. This was intensified in 1958. Students, teachers and administrators were forcibly sent to the countryside. The aim was a thorough downsizing of the “unproductive sector” in the cities and thus relieve the farmers.

In September 1957 the Central Committee issued a directive to introduce an irrigation campaign with the aim of radically improving the water management infrastructure.

It soon became apparent that the LPGs were too small to perform the tasks assigned to them. More and more units were forced to combine their work brigades and move them from village to village. At several conferences in December 1957 and January 1958, it was decided to enlarge the LPGs, and scope for experiments was given. When the cadres had to carry out both the spring planting and irrigation work at the same time in the spring of 1958, they switched to dividing the work within the LPGs and having it carried out by specialized brigades. This created one of the basic functions of the later People's Commune.

In 1958, important planning and management tasks were gradually delegated from the district to the LPG and the power of disposal over all rural machines was transferred to it. From June 1958, the Beijing leadership went on extensive inspection trips to the province in order to study the new, well-structured base units. The majority were convinced that significant progress had been made here. The Peitaho Conference, which met from August 17 to 30, 1958, then determined the People's Commune as the organizational basis of the big leap policy. The expectations for the economic development of the next few years were enormous, in some sectors the economy was supposed to more than double in 1959. This is shown in Table 7.

In August and September an optimism spread in the party, which in some cases turned into euphoria. Optimism was strengthened by the announced outstanding grain harvest. The expected 375 million t would have doubled the previous record harvest. This appeared to be a solid basis for taking a leap forward in industry and infrastructure projects.

At the Chengchow meeting from November 2 to 10, 1958, the mood had clouded over again. There were increasing reports that cadres had acted far exaggerated, in some cases even the money had been abolished. The work ethic of the farmers has been severely damaged. The first conclusions were drawn at the Wuchang meeting from November 21st to 27th and at the sixth plenary session of the Central Committee from November 28th to December 10th. Initially, the targets were drastically reduced and it was announced that from now on the statistics that would be reported would be carefully checked. Furthermore, from now on the state will exercise more financial and administrative control over the projects of the people's communes. Actions by overzealous cadres, such as the abolition of performance bonuses, were condemned as left-wing extremism and “petty-bourgeois egalitarianism”. Mao himself announced that he would no longer run for president next year and would make room for Liu. From this plenary session on, Mao disappeared more and more from the political stage.

Economic control

A new system of state administration was introduced for the great leap forward. It has been called the system of "two decentralizations, three centralizations, and one responsibility". This meant: decentralized use of labor and local investments. Central control over political decisions as well as planning and management of natural resources. A responsibility of each base unit to the unit that oversees it.

The goal was to achieve extensive self-sufficiency among the lower party levels. The higher levels of the party should be responsible for setting targets and controlling. Successes were measured by a few indicators such as tons of steel or iron, grain, wheat and rice, and compliance or over-achievement of the specified goals was equated with loyalty to the party. The reported figures were not checked. From 1957, the Chinese population was called upon to participate in mass campaigns in hydraulic engineering. This was followed in the spring and summer of 1958 by campaigns to increase agricultural yields, while at the same time 25,000 people's communes were established across the country. The last major campaign in 1958 was to increase iron and steel production.

Bo Yibo introduced the dual planning principle at a meeting in Nanning in January 1958. At the national level, a production data target was set that needed to be achieved. A second plan with higher numbers stated the desired target achievement. This second plan was passed on to the provinces and was to be implemented by them with all means. The provinces were also expected to have a plan that gave the counties their respective production and which in total were higher than the figures given by the headquarters. Since the national goals at party meetings were set higher and higher at relatively short intervals, this led to inflationary goals down to the village level. Any contradiction to this objective was associated with the risk of being convicted of deviating from the law at all levels.

Mao had also given party members a directive in Nanning to compete with others on a provincial, city, county, municipal and even personal level. Good performances were awarded a red flag, moderate results, on the other hand, a gray one, and those who lagged behind the others received a white flag as a punishment. This sparked competition across China for target achievement. Setting a high target was called “firing a Sputnik” and was named after the first man-made Earth satellite that was fired by the Soviet Union. "Firing a Sputnik", "joining the party in their struggle" or "working hard for a few days and nights" was one of the ways to receive a red flag.

Individual initiatives of the great leap forward

Hydraulic engineering

The term “great leap forward” was first used publicly in the fall of 1957 in connection with a call for dams and irrigation systems to be built. These hydraulic engineering measures were considered an essential condition for an increase in agricultural production. By October 1957, more than 30 million people had already been recruited to take part in such measures. More than 580 million cubic meters of stone and earth had been moved by the end of the year. In the eagerness to implement such measures in accordance with party guidelines, the advice of hydrologists was ignored and the work was poorly carried out in many of the measures .

The Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River was one of the most prestigious large-scale projects of the Great Leap , which had been planned with the help of Soviet advisors before the start of the "Great Leap Forward". The project was criticized, among others, by the US-trained hydrologist Huang Wanli , who pointed out that the Yellow River would fill the reservoir with sediment very quickly. Mao himself accused the Renmin Ribao Huang Wanli of damaging the party, promoting bourgeois democracy and admiring foreign cultures in an editorial published in June 1957 . In fact, a lot of sediment was quickly deposited in the reservoir. The problem was only solved by installing additional openings to flush the reservoir during the rainy season. In February 1958, party leaders in Gansu Province were charged as deviants and expelled from the party because they had expressed doubts about the speed and extent of the hydraulic engineering work, among other things. They pointed out that for every 50,000 hectares of irrigated land, hundreds of villagers died during the construction.

An irrigation project in the arid Xushui district , around 100 kilometers south of Beijing, was decisive in promoting the people's communes . The local party leader Zhang Guozhang had already committed 100,000 people in the district, in which around 300,000 people lived, to work on a major irrigation project in mid-1957. The peasants were divided into brigades , companies and platoons similar to the military , lived in barracks far away from their villages and received their food in communal canteens. Each brigade was responsible for seven hectares of land that would yield 50 tons in two years. At Mao's suggestion, articles about the successes in Xushui appeared in two large Chinese newspapers by July 1, 1958, which were largely attributed to the chosen, military-like form of organization.

The hydraulic engineering projects had the same weak points as in many other areas of the Great Leap. Firstly, the focus was on the presentable quantity, the quality was often poor and it had to be improved and, secondly, the maintenance of existing systems was often neglected in favor of the construction of new ones. Nevertheless, the balance sheet was impressive, the proportion of irrigated fields increased from 25% to 31% between 1957 and 1962 (see Table 1).

Introduction of the People's Communes

At the time of the Great Leap, about eighty percent of the Chinese population lived in the countryside. People's communes were only set up in rural areas, as attempts to set up urban communes had already been abandoned in 1958 due to unsuccessfulness.

The first People's Commune was established in Suiping County, Henan Province in April 1958 . In August 1958, after Mao praised the virtues of people's communes while on a tour of the provinces, their nationwide establishment in the countryside was decided and carried out within a month. In 1959, the municipalities generated 93 percent of agricultural production. Unlike the previous collectives, the municipalities should be responsible for everything. Mao extolled them as a means of relieving women from household burdens. The care of children and the elderly should be done collectively, the supply of food should be done by communal canteen kitchens. Every community member was subject to strict regulation and militarization. Around 25,000 municipalities, each with around 5,000 households, were established by the end of 1958. An average people's commune thus had between 20,000 and 30,000 people. However, there were also people's communes with over 100,000 members. Accession was compulsory; apart from the houses, all property passed to the municipalities. As during the first wave of collectivization, many farmers reacted by slaughtering their cattle that were still in their possession. It is estimated that between 1957 and 1958, the number of livestock in the People's Republic of China fell by about half.

Wages were abolished. Instead, members of a production unit received work points that were calculated from the average performance of the team, the work performed, age and gender. At the end of a year, the net income of each team was initially divided according to their needs. Any remaining remainder was distributed according to the working points achieved. Since there was seldom such a surplus, working points were always worth less. In Jiangning , the average wage for a worker in 1957 was 1.05 yuan. A year later it was worth 0.28 yuan and in 1959 it was worth 0.16 yuan. Frank Dikötter gives the example of a worker who earned 4.50 yuan in 1958, the equivalent of a pair of trousers. The communal catering by the communal canteen kitchens gave the cadres an instrument against the farmers due to their power of disposal over the food. In many regions, cutting or even canceling food rations was the usual punishment for those who did not cooperate, worked too little, came late, disobeyed their leaders, organized private supplies or stole grain.

Already at the Chengchow meeting and the sixth plenum of the Central Committee, both in November 1958, it was found that many cadres had acted excessively, with sometimes catastrophic consequences for peasant work ethic. The sixth plenary passed a resolution in which all attempts to skip the socialist stage were condemned as left-wing extremism. At the Second Chengdow Conference from February 27 to March 10, 1959, Mao gave three keynote speeches. Mao stressed that communalization had gone too far, that despite the good harvest, the masses were inclined to withhold harvest and that the harmful over-zeal of ultra-left cadres continued. In order to counteract this overzealous zeal of the cadre, it was decided to relocate essential competencies away from the municipality to the work brigade below, sometimes even to the work group, the lowest work unit. The Sanhua arabesques, i.e. the socialization of peasant life through compulsory canteen meals, child and elderly care by the people's commune and other things, was abolished again.


One of the main concerns of the Great Leap was to strengthen rural areas. The preference for cities should be reduced and urban professionals should support farmers. However, since large amounts of labor were diverted to industrial and infrastructural activities (see Table 11), agriculture, contrary to Maoist intentions, received too little attention. There was also experimentation with very dubious methods.

The leading Soviet agronomist Trofim Lyssenko took the view that acquired traits were inherited and denied the existence of genes as anti-socialist and therefore false. This doctrine, like Vasily Williams' theories on soil improvement, became binding on Chinese agronomists. In 1958, Mao himself drafted a blueprint for increasing production in the people's communes based on Lysenkoism : the 8-point program saw an improvement in plant material, denser sowing and planting, deeper plowing, more intensive fertilization of the fields, and an improvement in agricultural equipment , a campaign against pests, other farming methods and more intensive irrigation of the fields.

The propagation of the theories of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin , who was often quoted by Mao, led to reports throughout the People's Republic of China of allegedly successful crossings of plants that are not closely related, such as cotton with tomatoes or pumpkins with papayas. The Xinhua , the news agency of the Government of China, reported by farmers who had succeeded grow plants, have the unusually large fruits or ears stands. Pumpkins would no longer weigh 13 but 132 pounds, ears of rice would no longer carry 100 but 150 grains of rice. Jung Chang describes this time as a time in which every desired nonsense was unrestrainedly lied to. She describes how farmers declared in front of officials unmoved that they were raising pigs that were three meters long.

The production of artificial fertilizers was accelerated, but at a still low level. Between 1957 and 1962 it grew from 0.37 to 0.63 million tons (see Table 1). The people's communes also resorted to questionable fertilizers. The head of a women’s association inmacheng , who moved out of her house to provide its walls as fertilizer , received a lot of media attention . Two days later, 300 houses, fifty cattle sheds and hundreds of chicken sheds were demolished to be used as fertilizer. More than 50,000 buildings had been destroyed by the end of the year.

The campaign to eradicate the four plagues was aimed at combating flies and other insect pests, rats and the sparrows classified as agricultural pests . The ensuing increase in insect pests in 1960 led to bed bugs being persecuted instead of sparrows. The inevitably higher use of pesticides in the following years led to the extinction of entire bee populations (see also More than Honey ).

The deep plowing advocated by Vasily Williams was considered to be another revolutionary method of increasing crop yields. Without tractors, however, deep plowing could only be achieved with a great deal of work and since plowing was often done without considering the respective working horizon of the soil, plowing often led to a damage to the soil structure and a corresponding decrease in soil fertility. The people's communes were also instructed to sow more densely or to plant the plants closer together in order to increase yields. For example, 20,000 sweet potatoes or 12,000 maize plants were planted on a mu , around 667 square meters in Hebei . Influenced by Trofim Lyssenko's doctrines, Mao had assured that plants of the same species would not compete with one another for light and nutrients. Contemporary witnesses interviewed by the historian Frank Dikötter regularly pointed out that they were aware that these measures would lead to poorer income, but that they did not dare to oppose for fear of being punished or even condemned as deviating from the law. Judith Shapiro gives the example of an agricultural research institute that, under the pressure of having to achieve spectacular yields, transfer the plants of several rice fields to one "Sputnik" field in order to be able to produce the desired 10,000 jin per mu. In another county, the vice-party secretary, who doubted that a mu of land could produce 10,000 jin (about 5,000 kilograms) of rice, was accused of lacking faith in his communist party, forced to publicly blame himself and became a member Deported to a labor camp.

The mostly highly exaggerated figures reported to the central government in 1958 suggested high harvests for cotton, rice, wheat and peanuts. The central government assumed a harvest of 525 million tons of grain, after the harvest in 1957 was 195 million tons. When Khrushchev visited Beijing in August 1958, Mao spoke, among other things, about the success of the Great Leap Forward. You have so much rice that you don't know what to do with it. Liu Shaoqi also told Khrushchev during a meeting that their concern was no longer a lack of food, but the question of what to do with such a grain surplus.

After great euphoria in the middle of 1958, it became apparent at the end of the year that the expected increase in production in the agricultural sector would not take place to a sufficient extent and a major breakthrough in this area would not be possible. But with that the base of the big jump wobbled. The expansion of the industrial sector could only be achieved through a massive increase in agricultural production. Be it to export grain to earn foreign currency, be it to feed the growing urban population.

In 1959, official statistics corrected the grain harvest for 1958 from the original 395 million tons (see Table 7) to 250 million tons, which, however, was still a record result. In 1979 the harvest was reduced to 200 million tons, it was a normal harvest in a year with little storm (see Table 1).

Iron and steel production

In the 1950s, especially in the socialist countries, the amount of iron and steel that a country produced was an indicator of the level of development a country had achieved. The People's Republic of China had produced 5.35 million tons of steel in 1957. Now the country was facing problems. In order to be able to build more large steel mills, the country would have needed foreign currency to pay for the aid of the Soviet Union. But China didn't have the money. So the idea arose to produce steel in the small brick blast furnaces that are classic for China, instead of in large modern steel works. Firstly, no help was needed from abroad and secondly, the steel was not produced at some centers, from where delivery to the hinterland was difficult with the poor transport options at the time, but locally, where the steel was also used. Furthermore, through their own labor, the farmers were able to produce the steel instead of waiting for someone to give them the steel.

The small blast furnaces that were to be built across the country were made of sand, stone, clay, and bricks and were typically three to four meters high. The blast furnaces were fed from above; the air required to reduce the ore was brought in via traditional, often hand-operated cylinder fans. Comparable blast furnaces were already in use in China in the 19th century.

In February 1958 the annual target for 1958 was set at 6.2 million tons and raised to 8.5 million tons in May. In a speech on May 18 at the 8th Party Congress, Mao stated:

“With eleven million tons of steel next year and 17 million tons of steel the year after, we're going to shake the world. If we can reach 40 million tons in five years, we will have caught up with Britain in seven. And eight years later we will be level with the United States. "

Mini blast furnaces that were to be used to produce steel in rural China

However, annual production volumes were increased earlier: in June 1958, Mao set the target at 10.7 million and in September the target was increased to 12 million tons of steel. Mao came to believe that by the end of the 1960s, China would have reached a steel production level equivalent to that of the Soviet Union, and in 1975 China should be able to report an annual production of 700 million tons of steel. Mao found support for these ambitious targets from a number of regional party leaders such as Tao Zhu , Xie Fuzhi, Wu Zhipu and Li Jingquan , all of whom pledged extraordinary increases in steel production.

The high point of the campaign fell in the late summer of 1958 and was responsible for Chen Yun , who on August 21, 1958 passed on Mao's instructions that falling below the specified production volume would not be accepted. Those who did not meet their targets faced punishments ranging from a warning to expulsion from the party and the associated deportation. The instructions from the headquarters led to a series of local mass campaigns. In Yunnan, for example, Xie Fuzhi first launched a 14-day campaign in which all available workers would work in steel production. After Bo Yibo declared October the month of steel production on the national holiday, the campaign was intensified again and the number of workers involved increased from three to four million. Since the specified production quantities could not be achieved even with all the efforts, metal devices and metal parts were simply melted down in some cases, thereby "increasing" steel production.

The rural population had few opportunities to evade these campaigns. Partly with the help of militias and by threatening to exclude those who refused to work from being supplied by the canteen kitchens, the cooperation could be forced. Those who did not work directly on the blast furnaces brought wood or looked for coal. Judith Shapiro estimates that one in six Chinese was directly or indirectly involved in this campaign during 1958. Short, on the other hand, speaks of almost a quarter of the working population involved in iron and steel production at the height of the initiative, Mao himself spoke at the Lushan Conference in 1959, of 90 million people whom he unfortunately sent into the steel battle would have. The harvest in autumn was endangered by the tying up of workers in steel production, so that in October 1958 the schools closed and students, pupils and workers were sent to the country with a task that was not regarded as essential to help with the harvest.

The party leadership was ultimately able to announce the fulfillment of its goal. However, a large part of the iron obtained was unusable because the bars were too small and brittle to be processed further. Because of this, the initiative was abandoned as early as 1959. According to a report by the Chinese Ministry of Metallurgy, less than a third of the pig iron produced was suitable for further processing in some provinces. The cost of a ton of pig iron produced in the simple blast furnace was also twice as high as that produced in a modern blast furnace. The loss from the mass campaign to increase iron and steel production was later estimated at five billion yuan by the State Bureau of Statistics .

One of the reasons was that figures were given that had to be complied with under all circumstances and that the level above did not want to know about any problems that occurred. So the problems were not reported upwards or ignored there.

A big problem was that steel should be produced all over the country within a few months, but that there were not specialists everywhere who knew how to make the steel. Hence the large amount of unusable garbage that has been produced. By being fixated on quantity, it was also more worthwhile to produce a large amount of poor quality steel rather than focus on quality. As the pressure continued to grow towards the end, instead of producing steel for further processing for useful equipment, useful equipment was melted down into unusable scrap, while the leadership reveled in the phantom figures of steel production.


Even if Mao Zedong was convinced that the People's Republic of China would catch up with its development deficit mainly through mass mobilization, the country had to rely on imports of industrial plants and machines in order to develop into an industrial state. The import of these goods began immediately after Mao announced in Moscow in autumn 1957 that the People's Republic of China would have overtaken Great Britain in terms of performance in 15 years. Imported goods included rolling mills , electricity and cement works , glassworks and oil refineries. Then there were machines such as cranes , trucks, generators, pumps, compressors and agricultural machines.

The main supplier of the machines and industrial plants was the Soviet Union, with which close cooperation had been agreed at the beginning of the 1950s. In 1958, it was also contractually agreed with the German Democratic Republic that it would build turnkey cement and power plants and glassworks in China. Imports were not only from socialist countries: imports from the Federal Republic of Germany rose from DM 200 million in 1957 to DM 682 million in 1958. The People's Republic of China obtained most of the foreign exchange necessary to pay for these imports through the Export of agricultural products. Zhou Enlai was one of the critics of this approach; Mao found support above all from Zhu De , the commander in chief of the People's Liberation Army. The recipients of these exports were predominantly countries of the socialist camp, which overcame their own food shortages: for example, rice became a staple food in the German Democratic Republic during the years of the great leap forward, while the German Democratic Republic relied on imports of vegetable and animal products in margarine production Oils from the People's Republic of China.

When the expected increases in yields in agriculture did not materialize, the People's Republic increasingly ran into a trade deficit and, moreover, was in some cases not able to fulfill the promised deliveries to its trading partners. At the end of 1958, Deng Xiaoping, believing in the exceptionally good harvest of 1958, announced that the export problem would simply disappear if everyone saved a few eggs, a pound of meat, a pound of oil and six kilos of rice. The amount of planned exports for 1959 was increased accordingly and grain exports were doubled compared to the export of 1958 with a planned 4 million tons. As it turned out, however, the 1958 harvest was not 395 million tons of grain as expected, but only 200 million and in 1959 not 550 million tons, but only 170 million tons, in 1960 only 144 million tons ( see tables 7 and 8). In order to be able to pay the accumulated debts, a lot of grain had to be exported, although it was no longer enough for the own population.

1958 famine

There were first signs of famine at the beginning of 1958. As early as March 1958, concerns were expressed at a party conference that employing the rural population in the major hydraulic engineering projects would lead to food shortages. In addition, there was significant internal migration in the course of 1958, with more than 15 million farmers moving to cities. In addition, there was a far-reaching redirection of the labor resources of the rural population: in agricultural jinning , 20,000 of the 70,000 working adults were involved in hydraulic engineering projects, 10,000 in the construction of a railway line, another 10,000 in the newly established industries and only 30,000 were involved in food production. Since it was mainly men who were assigned to work on infrastructure projects and in industry, it was predominantly women who did the work in the fields. Due to the traditional division of labor in the countryside, however, they had little experience in growing rice with the corresponding effects on the grain harvest.

Community care in a people's commune

Spring food shortages were the cause of rural China, which lived between 108 BC. Chr. And 1911 AD had suffered 1,828 severe famine, not untypical. What was unusual, however, was that the food shortage worsened in parts of China during the summer, even though the new harvest should actually have improved the food situation. One of the severely affected regions was Yunnan Province , which had a death rate twice as high in 1958 as in 1957. In Luxi , a district in this province for which the local cadres had reported higher harvests than actually brought in in 1957, died of starvation after May 1958 more than 12,000 people, over seven percent of the population. In Luliang , where a local party leader, with the help of the militia, forced the population to work on a dam project, more than 1,000 people died of starvation. Basically, however, these famines were isolated individual events. Overall, no more people were affected by famine in 1958 than in previous years (see Table 4); the general famine did not begin until 1959. Between 1949 and 1958, agricultural yields rose continuously. The political stability after the years of civil war and the increase in agricultural productivity as a result of the first collectivization efforts contributed to this.

Mao Zedong received several reports of the province's problems in the second half of 1958. In his comment on the situation in Luliang, he stated that contrary to his intention, the living conditions of the rural population had been neglected in order to increase productivity. However, Mao referred to the record harvest expected for 1958 and continued to adhere to the rapid development of China. New Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi commented in November 1958, believing in increased agricultural yields, in the face of the humanitarian tragedies of the Great Leap:

“... there have indeed been victims among the workers, but that doesn't stop us on our way. It is a price to be paid and not a cause for concern. Who knows how many people were sacrificed on the battlefields and in the prisons [for the revolution]? Now we have some cases of sickness and death. It's nothing."

At the end of 1958 it became clear that the production increases in agriculture could not be realized and that a lot had gone wrong with the Great Leap. Mao complained about the fanaticism of ultra-left cadres and from November 1958 the Great Leap was trimmed back step by step.

Many small steps back

“Corrections” soon followed the big leap forward, and from the end of 1958 the big innovations of the big leap were taken back step by step. The jump didn't work. At the Wuhan plenary in December 1958, the Sanhua arabesques were first abolished again, this was the militarization of the organization and the collectivization of daily life, with compulsory communal canteens and compulsory crèches. The Shanghai Plenary (April 1959) decided to reintroduce performance bonuses in industry and reintroduce private parcels in agriculture. In March 1959, the organization of the People's Commune was expanded to include the sub-units of production brigade and production team, with the production team being comparable to the Danwei (base unit) that was already common in China during the Empire. The basic accounting functions were downgraded from the People's Commune to the Production Brigade, which thus became a central unit at the expense of the People's Commune.

Obedient to the need, the dismantling of the people's communes continued. At the Lushan Conference in August 1959, additional competencies were transferred from the People's Commune to the Production Brigades. In January 1961, the basic billing functions and ownership of land, equipment and livestock were downgraded from the production brigade to the production team. The people's commune was only responsible for tasks which, due to their size, could not be carried out by the subunits, e.g. B. the operation of brickworks or mines or measures in the infrastructure.

The further development 1959–1961

see also the main article Great Chinese Famine

Exports in 1959

Bottlenecks in the food supply became apparent in the winter of 1958/59. Each of the provinces had been allocated a share of the quantities to be exported to be supplied, but by the end of 1958 the provincial leaders were increasingly faced with the fact that these quantities were not available. In January 1959, the People's Republic was only able to export 80,000 tons of grain. In the following month, Hubei Province announced that it would only be able to deliver 23,000 tons instead of the planned 48,000 tons. In Anhui , the provincial party secretary Zeng Xisheng ordered only 5,000 tons to be delivered instead of the planned 23,500 tons. Fujian didn't deliver anything. The provinces also lagged behind their quotas for other export goods.

Party headquarters reacted similarly to Foreign Minister Chen Yi when the first bottlenecks were reported in November 1958. At a party meeting in Shanghai in March and April 1959, Mao recommended vegetarianism as the solution, and the Mayor of Beijing, Peng Zhen , advised reducing the consumption of grain. The party leadership was strengthened by reports that grain had been hidden in many of the people's communes. The future Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang , who was still party secretary of Guangdong Province at the time, told his superior Tao Zhu that more than 35,000 tons of hidden grain had been found in a single county. Something similar was reported from Anhui a little later. Mao spoke in March 1959 of an excessive “wind of communism” that had prevailed and expressed admiration for the simple farmers who had resisted excessive grain taxes.

On May 24, 1959, instructions were given to all provinces that in order to support exports and to promote the construction of socialism, no more fats intended for consumption should be sold in the provinces. In October 1959, the measures were tightened and by the end of 1959, the People's Republic of China exported goods worth 7.9 billion yuan. Of the 4.2 million tons of grain exported, 1.42 million tons went to the Soviet Union, 1 million to other Eastern European countries, and 1.6 million to countries belonging to the western camp. These exports represented about 2.3 percent of the grain production and are not classified today by the vast majority of historians as the cause of the famine.

The Lushan Conference

Peng Dehuai, Ye Jianying, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin in 1958 a few weeks before the Lushan Conference
Peng Dehuai , who at the Lushan Conference held Mao Zedong responsible for the failure of the great leap forward


After the general cheers at the time of the first Peitaho conference in August 1958, negative reports increased. Already at the first Chengchow meeting from November 2 to 10, 1958, the rosy mood of the summer was gone. Reports had come in from the provinces that many cadres had acted far exaggerated or nonsensical. The proclaimed “communist wind” would in many cases have led to the complete abolition of all forms of private property and sometimes even money, with catastrophic consequences for society.

At the Wuchang meeting from 21. – 27. In November 1958, the targets set at the Peitaho Conference (see Table 7) were drastically reduced. Marshal Peng Dehuai, who had previously made an extensive inspection tour to investigate the real situation in the country, found that, to the best of his knowledge, agricultural production had rather decreased than increased. He saw nothing of a bumper harvest. Only now did the party leaders see the necessity of subjecting the cheers and statistics with ever new production records to a precise control.

At the sixth plenary from November 28 to December 10, 1958, there was another retreat. All attempts to skip the socialist stage were condemned as left-wing extremism. As before, the socialist slogan “Everyone according to his performance” and not yet the communist slogan “Everyone according to his needs” applies. It was decided to give back their houses and livestock to the farmers. At the same time, more financial and administrative control was announced again. At this sixth plenary session, Mao announced his decision not to run for president in 1959 and to vacate the office for Liu Shaoqi. With immediate effect, he handed over the day-to-day business of the President to his deputy and Deng, the Secretary General. From then on, Mao disappeared more and more from daily politics, which was increasingly dominated by Liu, Deng and Peng.

At the second Chengchow conference from February 27 to March 10, further steps towards normalization were decided. In his keynote speeches, Mao emphasized that too many competencies had been transferred to the municipalities and that the harmful over-zeal of ultra-left cadres persisted. Mao's representations were sometimes more justifications and excuses than descriptions of the situation. He put the problems of the people's communes on Tan Zhenlin, who was technically responsible for them. For him, the experts who wrote incomprehensible documents and cadres who made false statements were responsible for the inflation of the production figures. He described the tense mood in the party leadership as follows: “A lot of people hate me, especially Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, he hates me to the death ... My reaction to that is: If he doesn't attack me, I won't attack, but if he does he attacks, then I strike back. "

Organizationally, it was decided that the accounting unit for the services of the peasants would be withdrawn from the people's communes and transferred to the work brigades below in order to shift responsibility more to the farmers' base in the hope of being able to better prevent excesses of the people's communes.

At the seventh plenary session of the Central Committee from April 2 to 5, 1959, it was decided that work in the countryside should again concentrate as much as possible on grain production. 85% of all work should be focused on grain production, work on infrastructure and steel production should be shut down as much as possible. The leading cadres should go to the countryside in the municipalities to prevent the excesses still taking place.

Despite the corrections made, the situation in the country did not ease.

The Lushan Conference

In July 1959, the leading communist cadres met in the Lushan Resort in Jiangxi Province for an extended conference. There should be intensive discussions about how to proceed with the Great Leap. Mao Zedong opened the meeting, which went down in history as the Lushan Conference on July 2nd, with a speech highlighting the achievements of the Great Leap and the enthusiasm and energy of the Chinese people. He repeated his representation of the ten fingers, nine of which pointed forward but only one pointed backward. Don't just look at the one finger pointing backwards. Taken together, the big jump was a success. Afterwards there were informal talks and working groups for several days in which all aspects of the big leap were to be discussed. Mao, who did not participate in the talks, was the only one who received a report of the discussions of each group at the end of the day. In the relaxed and intimate atmosphere of conversation in the small groups, some of the cadres spoke openly about the famines, the exaggerated production figures and the abuse of power committed by the cadres. One of the most open critics was Peng Dehuai , who had been Defense Minister of the People's Republic of China since 1954 . Mao and Peng had had a very bad relationship with each other since the Korean War and as early as March 1959, at the expanded Politburo meeting in Shanghai, Peng had accused Mao of taking solitary decisions and ignoring the Politburo. Now Peng had taken another inspection tour to his home in Xiangtan in Hunan Province and had seen the great misery in the country. Peng was not satisfied with a description of the current situation, but openly attacked the Maoist leadership style and declared Mao personally responsible for the failure of the Great Leap. Overall, the discussion moved from the pure question of the problems of the collectives to the question of those responsible for the problems, with Mao as the main responsible.

Mao himself spoke for the first time on July 10, stressing that the achievements of the past year far outweighed the failures. When there was no objection from the gathering, Peng Mao wrote a long letter that he had Mao delivered on July 14, 1959. Peng first emphasized the successes of the Great Leap and did not rule out that the production level of Great Britain might already have been reached in four years (in this context only the amount of steel and grain was always considered as production level), but he also emphasized that that there were "left-wing deviants misjudgments that could be described as petty-bourgeois fanaticism" . However, Peng could not refrain from ironic sweeps and personal attacks such as: "Building an economy is not as easy as bombing a city". Although Peng only addressed this letter to Mao personally and asked for the same assessment and evaluation of his views, Mao had this letter reproduced and distributed to all 150 participants in the meeting on July 17th. This was initially interpreted as a sign that Peng's views could be a basis for further discussions, so that over the next few days some people present supported Peng's position, including Zhang Wentian , Zhou Xiaozhou, Li Xiannian , Chen Yi and the one who was specially asked to come from Beijing Huang Kecheng .

There were now three events that escalated the dispute and not only made Mao feel that an attack on the party leadership was underway. Mao spoke of a pincer grip on the chairman.

Gansu Regional Committee uprising against Zhang Zhongliang

While Gansu Provincial Party Secretary Zhang Zhongliang was attending the conference, the provincial regional party committee drafted an urgent letter to party headquarters on July 15 stating that thousands in the province had already starved to death and more than 1.5 million farmers under one suffered severe famine. The main responsibility for this lies with Zhang Zhongliang, who reported excessive crop yields, raised compulsory taxes on grain and tolerated abuse by cadres. This was a direct attack on one of those whom Mao considered to be among the most ardent supporters of his policies.

The Soviet leadership publicly deals with the famine

Almost at the same time, on July 18, during a visit to the Polish city of Poznań , Nikita Khrushchev condemned people's communes as a mistake and went on to say that those who had campaigned for the introduction of these communes in Russia in the 1920s, communism and the way there would not have understood. On July 19, Mao also received a report from the Chinese Embassy in Moscow that some Soviet cadres were openly discussing that people in China were dying as a result of the Great Leap. The Soviet leadership got Peng Dehuai and Zhang Wentian into trouble, because both had been to the Soviet Union more often and had only been back to the Soviet Union shortly before the conference. Peng and Zhang were accused, rightly or wrongly, of talking to Khrushchev, or at least saying too much.

Zhang Wentian attacks Mao in an unusually sharp manner

On July 21st, Zhang Wentian attacked Mao sharply, even in form. Any criticism of the Great Leap so far has been introduced with a mention of the great leap's positive achievements. Zhang Wentian went straight to a comprehensive criticism. In the end, Zhang stated that China was a very poor country and that the socialist system would enable the country to get richer quickly. But because of Mao's policies, the country would remain a poor country. However, no one would speak out for fear of Mao. Finally, he reversed Mao's metaphor that nine fingers would point forward on one finger. Nine fingers would point back and only one would point forward.

Mao's answer

When Mao's response on July 23, Mao appeared weak and on the defensive. In part, his portrayal was in the style of self-criticism. Mao stated, “The main responsibility for 1958 and 1959 rests with me. [...] The invention of the 'broad-based' steel battle goes back to me. […] Unfortunately, we sent 90 million people into battle back then. ”Other things sounded like the search for an excuse:“ There are a lot of things you just can't foresee. At the moment the planning authorities have stopped fulfilling their responsibilities. The State Planning Commission and the Central Ministries suddenly stopped working after the Peitaho Conference (August 1958). Neither coal, iron, nor the transport capacity were precisely calculated. But coal and iron don't walk around by themselves, they have to be transported in freight wagons. I missed exactly this point. Myself and Prime Minister Zhou know little about these planning matters. I do not want to apologize here, although it is an apology. By August last year, I was essentially turning to the political revolution. I am really not competent when it comes to questions of economic development. "

As a success, Mao was able to claim that, despite all the serious mistakes in the implementation, which should of course be remedied, there was a bumper harvest in 1958 and that the number of people affected by famine had decreased. This still applies to today's figures (see Tables 1 and 4). Errors and bad things in detail would not justify a fundamental reorientation.

Mao took overall responsibility for the Great Leap, but he also stressed the responsibility of those who were responsible for making it happen. Ke Qingshi, the Shanghai party leader, had proposed the steel campaign, Li Fuchun was responsible for the overall planning, Tan Zhenlin and Lu Liaoyan were responsible for agriculture, and he described many provincial leaders as "radical left". Mao insulted his critics with unprecedented severity, sometimes almost hysterically. Aloof to unworldly, he threatened that if those present followed Peng Dehuai's views and overthrew him, he would retreat to the mountains, raise troops and then re-invade the country with a guerrilla war. He then asked the party to choose between him and Peng.

Following his speech, Mao approached Peng: "Minister Peng, let's talk to each other." Peng greeted Mao firmly and replied: "We have nothing more to talk to each other." The break was there.

Mao knew that he had lost the party leadership's trust and commented bitterly: "You are all against me, even though you do not name my name." The majority of the Politburo did not support Mao on the matter, but disapproved of Peng's attack on Mao and feared split tendencies in the party.

The result of the conference

On August 2, in a speech to a specially convened plenary session of the Central Committee, Mao emphasized that the party was facing a split. After a long and heated discussion, the majority backed Mao. The decisive factor was that Liu Shaoqi, the state president, and Zhou Enlai, the prime minister, gave Mao their rigorous support. Deng did not join the resistance either. Mao's critics were forced to self-criticize, and Peng Dehuai and his supporters were condemned as deviants from the law. Peng and Zhang Wentian lost their government offices, but retained their membership in the Politburo.

In terms of the matter, Mao had to accept significant corrections to his development concept. The powers of the people's communes were limited to the administration of schools, factories, means of transport, machinery and seeds. The municipality management retained the right to use members of the production brigades to a limited extent for public works, but the emphasis of the powers shifted further to the production brigades, i.e. to the level of the agricultural production cooperatives (LPG). The land ownership was transferred to them and their agricultural equipment and cattle ownership was confirmed. They were also given the right to keep their own accounts.

The conference ended on August 17th. As a result of the Lushan Conference, there was renewed persecution of so-called deviants throughout the People's Republic of China. From 1959 to 1960 about 3.6 million party members were persecuted as deviants.

The shift of competencies away from the people's communes was not the end of the development. Soon after the conference, a decision was made to further relocate competencies to the production brigades.

The famine

The population of China was poorly fed throughout the 1950s. According to international standards, the average person needs at least 1,900 kcal per day. For China this corresponds to 300 kg of unpeeled grain per year. With 650 million Chinese in 1960, at least 195 million tons of unhulled grain were needed to feed the population halfway.

Grain production in 1959 was only around 170 million tons, about 13 percent less than that in 1958. It was the first decline in agricultural production since the founding of the People's Republic of China and the amount of it was insufficient To feed the population. The loss could partly be explained by storms (see Table 1), the decline in harvest was mainly due to politics. The food crisis triggered by the decline in the harvest has now been exacerbated by other elements.

In the expectation of a good harvest, part of the harvest was already planned for export to pay off debts. The number of people in the cities who had to be fed by the state also increased significantly in 1957 and 1958. This meant that the tax burden on farmers for 1959 had to be increased significantly. In October and November 1959, around 52 million tons of grain, around 36 percent of the harvest, had to be transported to the state. (see table 1)

The matter was made worse by the fact that the local cadres sometimes drove in significantly more grain than prescribed from above. Not just the farmers, every level of the cadre hid grain. In order to alleviate their own famine, that of the farmers was increased further (see Table 2). In addition, the newly established central storage facilities and the hiding place meant that more grain was spoiled by pests than before.

The party steered against these excesses through reforms. Then in 1960 and 1961 there was another bad problem. The farmers who fought against starvation themselves should work hard physically for the next harvest.

For fear of falling victim to renewed persecution of so-called deviants, some regional party cadres had stated that the crop yields were much higher than they actually were. In many of these regions almost the entire grain harvest had to be surrendered and party cadres moved from village to village in search of hidden grain stores. Many farmers were tortured and killed in these searches, some of which were violent. The highest number of starvation deaths occurred at the beginning of 1960, two to three months after the grain levy was carried out.

The effects of the famine were felt across China, but the magnitude varied from region to region. The urban population was generally better supplied than the rural population because the state grain distribution system preferred cities. In rural areas, gender , age , party and ethnicity, and social background all had an impact on the mortality rate. Former large landowners and wealthy farmers, former members of the Kuomintang , religious leaders and people classified as deviants, as well as their respective families, were provided with subordinate food. Older people often received too little to survive in the communal kitchens because of their lower work performance. Within families, male offspring were better cared for than female ones. In some parts of the country, however, the elementary schools remained closed years later because no school-age children had survived. Those sentenced to labor camps also had a lower chance of survival, as they tended to be in the more sterile regions and these provinces were mostly led by party affiliations that implemented the campaigns of the Great Leap Forward with great severity. Members of the Party had a lower mortality rate than the general population because they were preferred in the food supply. In many people's communes they ate in different canteens than the other communards. Even in the labor camps, former Party members were better cared for than other inmates.

Amartya Sen compares the famine during the Great Leap in China with the general food situation in India and writes: "Despite the enormous mortality during the famine in China, it is far overshadowed by the common shortage during normal times in India." China's lead over India in health care , literacy and life expectancy of the population and notes: "India apparently manages to put more people underground every eight years than China in its years of shame."

Henan as an example of an affected province

The political stance of the respective provincial and district leaders influenced the extent to which the famine affected the region. The provinces particularly hard hit by the famine included Anhui , Guangxi , Guizhou and Henan, for example .

Whu Zhipu realized particularly radical projects of the Great Leap in Henan and established a reign of terror with a particularly large number of starvation deaths. The headquarters in Beijing praised Henan with the model region Xinyang several times and only learned of the sad reality at the beginning of 1960. In the winter of 1960, the headquarters sent 30,000 soldiers to occupy the previous model region of Xinyang and arrest the government.

In Henan in 1958, after an intra-party power struggle, Whu Zhipu prevailed over the more moderate Pan Fusheng. Whu Zhipu was one of the most fanatical followers of Mao Zedong and made Henan the experimental field for the most radical projects of the Great Leap Forward. The sinologist Felix Wemheuer argues that the power struggle between these two representatives of a different political direction created political taboos that later made it impossible to correct the undesirable developments. Wu Zhipu's power depended on the success of the Great Leap, and even a partial admission of the failure of this policy would have meant that Pan Fusheng's removal would have been unlawful. Anyone who took the view in this province that the farmers did not have enough grain, that they were starving or reported about the mistreatment of farmers by cadres, ran the risk of being persecuted. In 1958 the death rate in this province was already 12.69 ‰, i.e. H. for every 10,000 people there were around 127 deaths annually. In 1960 this number tripled to 39.56 ‰ or around 396 deaths per 10,000 people. The number of births fell from 1,621,000 in 1958 to 680,000 in 1960. The main reason for the famine in this province was the radical withdrawal of grain resources from the villages against the background of supposed record harvests. Between 1959 and 1961, between 131 and 155 kilograms of grain were available per capita in rural areas. Adequate nutrition was only ensured from well over 200 kilograms. The provincial government had to use force to take so much grain from the farmers. If the information was not met, the provincial government assumed that the farmers were hiding the grain and reporting low production results. This policy was implemented particularly radically in Xinyang Prefecture , which at that time comprised 17 counties and in which around 50 million people lived. This model region attracted attention in 1958 with record yields, the first people's commune was established here. The re-acquisition of grain was accompanied by such strong repression that some districts even carried away the seed grain and the food rations. How many people perished in the subsequent mass extinction, which entered the literature as the Xinyang incident , can no longer be clearly established. Jasper Becker assumes around a million deaths; a party historian interviewed by Felix Wemheuer, who had access to the provincial archives, reported 2.4 million deaths, with more deaths due to reprisals than deaths from starvation. The provincial leadership around Wu Zhipu initially covered this reign of terror, the headquarters in Beijing only found out about it at the beginning of 1960. In the winter of 1960, the headquarters sent 30,000 soldiers to occupy this model region, arrest the local leadership around Lu Xianwen and through aid deliveries and emergency medical care to improve the situation of farmers. The new leadership of this prefecture sharply condemned the old leadership, accusing them of murder and torture. Officially, the cause of the famine was not the radical implementation of the great leap forward, but a resurgence of large landowners and other counterrevolutionary forces. The disaster relief was accordingly referred to as "tutoring in the democratic revolution", the co-responsible Wu Zhipu was not brought to justice.

Famine and ethnic minorities

There are numerous examples of the different effects on individual ethnic groups: South of the Yellow River, for example, the Han Chinese were more severely affected by the famine than the local ethnic minorities. Han Chinese mainly settled in the fertile and easily accessible valley regions, which in normal years meant a higher standard of living. However, during the time of the Great Leap forward, Han Chinese were more affected by grain reclamations than members of the ethnic minorities living in the more inaccessible areas.

The 17-point agreement that representatives of the Tibetan government signed on May 23, 1951, assured central Tibet not only of regional autonomy and religious freedom but also a guarantee that the existing political system in Tibet would remain unchanged. In this newly created “Tibet Autonomous Region”, the Chinese government initially did not undertake any reform efforts. The situation was different in the parts of Tibet that became part of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan, where land reforms and waves of collectivization caused major unrest among the Tibetan population as early as 1955. On March 10, 1959, the Tibet uprising finally broke out, which was suppressed by Chinese troops with great brutality and during which up to 100,000 Tibetans fled to India. Jasper Becker denies that the starvation of Tibetans was consciously accepted during the great leap forward and refers to the large number of deaths also among the Han Chinese in these regions. However, he stresses that the cultural upheaval for the Tibetan population was greater during the Great Leap and that this resulted in such a high number of starvation deaths among the Tibetan population. The Tibetans were traditionally either nomads or farmers who mostly grew barley , which was mostly processed into tsampa . During the Great Leap Forward, nomads were forced into a sedentary lifestyle. The traditional slaughter of part of the herd before the onset of winter was largely banned, and a large part of the cattle died of starvation during the winter months. Both nomads and sedentary Tibetans were forced to grow crops that were unsuitable for the region's climatic conditions. In spite of this, alleged record harvests were reported, which led to excessive grain purchases and, when these were not delivered, to extensive reprisals.

Public reactions

During the famine, the rural population initially resorted to traditional emergency foods such as tree bark and leaves, grass and wild herbs. With increasing hardship, the death of individual family members was concealed in order to get their food rations, women prostituted themselves for food, children were abandoned or sold . Cannibalism is also reported from most regions.

Internal migration to less famine-hit regions in China has been a traditional response to severe food shortages. This also happened during the big leap forward. However, since the population had no information about the extent of the famine, many died while fleeing because their way led them to regions where the food situation was no better. At the same time, the militia tried to prevent these refugee movements in some regions. In Henan and Anhui, two regions particularly hard hit by the famine, the militia put up roadblocks. In Xinjiang , Kazakhs who tried to flee across the border to their tribesmen in the Soviet Union were shot. An exception to this was some county governments in Hebei , which supported emigration to Manchuria .

There were probably local uprisings and resistance to excessive grain requisition all over China. Attacks on state grain stores in the provinces of Anhui and Sichuan, among others, are documented. In Shandong, former Kuomintang officers were charged with organizing such rebellions and were executed for it. In Hebei, where Hui Muslims raided a grain store, the grain store was fenced in with barbed wire and guarded by militia troops armed with machine guns. In Gansu , desperate peasants stormed an army platoon to get food. In Chengdu , the leader of the local militia was arrested for failing to order his men to shoot the farmers who successfully stormed a grain store. As a rule, however, the population was unable to organize resistance on a large scale. They lacked the weapons and even if the militia were unable to put down a rebellion or even join the rebels, government circles could still fall back on the army. Like the urban population, they were better supplied with food. However, the number of uprisings was so numerous that Liu Shaoqi warned of civil war in 1962.

Domestic and foreign policy situation in 1960 and 1961

The journalist Jasper Becker calls the political situation at the beginning of 1960 bizarre. Most high-ranking party members were aware of the famine in the country, but after the Lushan Conference they were unable to take notice of it officially before Mao Zedong did so. Chén Yún, who had visited Henan Province , retired to his villa in Hangzhou on the grounds that he was ill and turned to studying the operas typical of the region . He did not return to Beijing until 1961. Liu Shaoqi spent most of 1960 in Hainan , preferring to study economics. Deng Xiaoping focused on the growing rift between China and the Soviet Union . In mid-1960 there was a final break between the two countries and in July 1960 the Soviet Union withdrew its remaining 15,000 or so Soviet advisers. Jasper Becker is of the opinion that the withdrawal of the Soviet advisors to the Chinese party leadership was welcome, as it also prevented news of this far-reaching famine from reaching the Soviet leadership. After the withdrawal of the Soviet advisors, China was largely isolated internationally, and news about the domestic situation could hardly penetrate abroad. The party leadership also determined that apart from the Renmin Ribao and the bimonthly magazine Rote Fahne, no other publications could be exported abroad. Even within the People's Republic of China, the extent of the famine remained largely hidden from the population. Travel within the People's Republic was limited, correspondence was monitored, and only a few Chinese had access to telephones. Chinese journalist and author Yang Jisheng said in an interview with the New York Times that he himself had long been convinced that the leap forward would have been successful and that the famine that raged in his home village during those years was an isolated one-off event would. It was not until almost a decade later that he would have come across a document from the Red Guards in which the then leader of Hubei Province had admitted 300,000 deaths from starvation and thus for the first time would have become aware of the extent of the famine.

In November 1960, government agencies first announced that natural disasters and the need to repay loans to the Soviet Union were causing food shortages. Both explanations are largely rejected today. After the extensive break with the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong attached great importance to repaying the outstanding loans faster than the treaties with the Soviet Union provided. The reference to natural disasters, however, allowed Zhou Enlai, Li Fuchun and Li Yinnian to suspend the contracts with the socialist trading partners, as these had a contractual clause stating that parts or the entire contract would be void in the event of force majeure . Zhou Enlai and Chén Yún also managed to convince Mao to import grain from capitalist countries. The first such contract for grain deliveries from Canada and Australia was signed in Hong Kong in late 1960. In 1961 almost 6 million tons of grain were imported. The main suppliers were Canada and Australia, but to a much lesser extent also the Federal Republic of Germany and France. In order to procure the necessary foreign exchange for these imports, meat and eggs were exported to the then British crown colony of Hong Kong and silver was sold on the London Stock Exchange. The Asian market was also flooded with textiles, although these were urgently needed in the People's Republic of China itself. In April 1961, Minister of Commerce Ye Jizhuang initially turned down offers from the Soviet Union to deliver relief supplies. When the food situation did not improve in the summer of 1961, however, Zhou Enlai asked the Soviet Union whether a delivery of two million tons of grain was possible. It was made clear to him that this was only possible against foreign currency and the request was largely left unanswered. It was only months later that Soviet representatives indicated to Deng Xiaoping that they were having major economic difficulties themselves.

Not all grain imports were intended for the Chinese population. Rice purchased by the People's Republic of China in Myanmar was largely shipped to what was then Ceylon to meet outstanding obligations. Another 160,000 tons of rice were exported to the German Democratic Republic in order to reduce the trade deficit with this country. To underscore its claim to a leading role among the socialist countries, China was still delivering grain free of charge to friendly countries at the height of the famine. For example, Albania, which at the time had a population of around 1.4 million people, received 60,000 tons of wheat. Between August 1960 and the first months of 1961, 100,000 tons of grain were still sent to Cuba, Indonesia, Poland and Vietnam. Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Albania also received generous loans. US President John F. Kennedy rejected offers of aid to the People's Republic of China with reference to these exports. The International Red Cross made offers of help to the Chinese government in such an undiplomatic manner that government circles rejected them, pointing to an unusually plentiful harvest in 1960.

The foreign policy successes of the People's Republic included several visits by foreign politicians, to whom the extent of the need remained hidden due to the shielding measures during their visit to selected model communities. In 1961, Mao told François Mitterrand , who was senator for the Nièvre constituency at the time , that China was not suffering from famine, but merely experiencing some bottlenecks. John Temple, Conservative Member of Parliament, returned from a visit to China in late 1960 and said that communism was working and that the country had made great strides. In 1960, the GDR had welcomed the introduction of the people's communes, which ran parallel to its own further collectivization and the introduction of the agricultural production cooperatives . However, when Chinese exhibitors propagated the Chinese concept of community nutrition at the agricultural exhibition in Markkleeberg in 1960 , the GDR was forced to announce that the introduction of central canteens was not planned for the GDR LPGs.

In April 1962, around 140,000 people fled the People's Republic to Hong Kong , and the famine became known to the world public. The mainland Chinese authorities had temporarily opened the borders. The British authorities of the Crown Colony turned to the Americans, among others, and suggested possible food sales. Donations were refused, particularly because it was believed that it would not have been accepted by the American public or would have improved Sino-US relations. The American government was informed in detail about the changes in mainland China through the consulate in Hong Kong and had gained access to secret documents of the People's Liberation Army in 1962 through Tibetans trained by the CIA as a result of the 1959 Tibet Uprising . The political scene in Washington only became more aware of the changes with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution , which led to ping-pong diplomacy under Nixon .


The most serious result of the Great Leap was the great famine from 1959 to 1961 with 15 to 45 million deaths. It could only be overcome with difficulty and by importing foreign grain in the early 1960s. Also, often poorly thought out actions resulted in environmental damage, sometimes of considerable extent. During the steel campaign from winter 1958 to spring 1959 there was considerable clearing of forests on mountain slopes. A lot of effort was invested in the infrastructure at the beginning of the campaign, but the results were very different. By focusing on presentable quantities, both the maintenance of existing plants and the quality of the newly built plants were neglected. Many roads and dams had to be improved. From the middle of 1959, the services for the infrastructure were massively reduced due to the famine. There were particular increases in the telecommunications and power supply sectors in rural areas. Between 1957 and 1960, the number of telephone users in rural areas rose from 200,000 to 920,000, the number of post offices from 38,000 to 54,000, and electricity generation from 108 million kWh to 992 million kWh. In general industrial production, despite all efforts, there was largely no progress (see Table 8).

Starting in 1959, the people's communes gradually lost many of their competencies to the production brigades and production teams below them, as well as to the higher-level positions, but in their reduced function they remained important elements of the rural structure. The people's communes, with an average of 7,000 members, remained responsible for those things that were too big for the production brigades. These could be industrial companies, tasks in infrastructure, education, medical care and social security.

Tables and data

Table 1
The following table shows the development of the grain harvest, the amount of grain to be delivered as agricultural tax, the amount of grain remaining for the farmers (per person), the number of farmers, the area used for growing grain, the proportion of the area affected by storms and more. Areas affected by storms means a yield reduction of at least 30%.

China's agriculture
year Grain harvest Amount of
grain delivered
as agricultural tax
Remaining amount of
per rural inhabitant

Agricultural workers

used for growing grain
Draft animals Agricultural machinery Irrigated
artificial fertilizer
affected by storm
Million tons Million tons kg / person Million Million hectares Million Million horsepower % Million tons %
1952 164 33 270 173 124 76 0.3 19.5 0.08 2.9
1953 167 47 257 177 127 81 0.4 20.1 0.12 4.9
1954 170 51 265 182 129 85 0.5 22.5 0.16 8.5
1955 184 48 278 186 130 88 0.8 23.2 0.24 5.2
1956 193 40 306 185 136 88 1.1 24.3 0.33 8.2
1957 195 46 295 193 134 84 1.7 24.8 0.37 9.5
1958 200 52 286 155 128 78 2.4 31.5 0.55 5.2
1959 170 64 223 163 116 79 3.4 28.4 0.54 9.7
1960 143 47 212 170 122 73 5.0 28.8 0.66 15.3
1961 148 37 229 197 121 69 7.1 29.7 0.45 18.6
1962 160 32 241 213 122 70 10 30.8 0.63 11.9
1963 170 37 245 220 121 75 12 31.5 1.0 14.3
1964 188 40 270 228 122 79 13 32.2 1.3 8.8
1965 195 39 271 234 120 84 15th 33.2 1.9 7.8
1966 214 41 287 243 121 87 17th 34.0 2.3 6.7
1967 218 41 287 252 119 90 20th 35.1 2.4 ?
1968 209 40 265 261 116 92 22nd 36.0 2.7 ?
1969 211 38 266 271 118 92 26th 36.9 3.1 ?
1970 240 46 289 278 119 94 29 38.3 3.4 2.3
1971 250 44 298 284 121 95 38 39.2 3.8 5.1
1972 241 39 286 283 121 96 50 40.0 4.3 11.6
1973 265 48 303 289 121 97 65 41.0 4.8 5.1
1974 275 47 307 292 121 98 81 42.2 5.4 4.4
1975 285 53 315 295 121 97 102 44.1 6.0 6.7
1976 286 49 317 294 121 95 117 45.4 6.8 7.6
1977 283 48 313 293 120 94 140 49.1 7.6 10.2

Table 2
The following table shows various figures of the tax burden on Chinese farmers. According to these figures, more grain was collected by local authorities during the Great Leap than required by the central government.

Harvest yield and grain taxes during the Great Leap
Harvest yield
(million tons)
(million tons)
Fruit unpeeled Peeled fruit Peeled fruit
year Figures from 1983 1 Numbers during the
big jump 2
figures from 1962 3
1958 200 160 51.0 56.3 66.3
1959 170 136 67.5 60.7 72.2
1960 145 116 51.1 39.0 50.4
1961 147 118 55.0 34.0 -
1 Figures from Kenneth Walker based on analysis of published statistics, 1983
2 Government guidelines during the Great Leap Forward
3 Corrected Chinese government figures from 1962

Table 3
China was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s. In the ranking of the Center for International Comparisons at the University of Pennsylvania, China was ranked as the poorest country. The following table shows the list of the poorest countries.

Chinese Gross National Product (per capita) compared to the other poorest countries, 1952–1957
sequence 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957
Second poorest
Third poorest
Fourth poorest
Fifth poorest
The figures are in 1996 purchasing power adjusted US dollars

Table 4
The following table shows people affected by famine in the 1950s and 1960s. Even before the famine of 1959 to 1961, 20 to 40 million people were affected by famine each year.

People affected by famine (million)
1954 1956 1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1963
24.4 20.1 41.3 19.8 97.7 129.8 218.1 70.8

Table 5
The following table shows the share of the tax revenue of regional institutions compared to the revenue of the state government.

Development of fiscal decentralization (1953-2005)
year Proportion of
provincial and regional tax revenue in relation
to total state revenue
Political changes
1953 17.0% First five-year plan begins
1958 19.6%
1959 75.6% Beginning of the great leap forward
1961 78.5%
1966 64.8% Beginning of the Cultural Revolution
1975 88.2%
1978 84.5% Reforms begin
1980 75.5% Start of financial reform
1984 59.5%
1988 67.1%
1993 78.0%
1994 44.3% New financial reform
2004 45.1%
2005 47.7%

Table 6

Number of municipal companies (1958–1961; reference date end of year)
year Number of companies
Percentage development Production
(billion yuan)
1958 2600 6.3
1959 700 −73% 10
1960 120 −83% 5
1961 45 −62% 2

Table 7
During the first five-year plan, industrial production rose sharply. Between 1952 and 1957 steel production rose from 1.5 to 5.4 mil. Tons, the electricity production from 7.3 to 19.3 billion kWh. Grain production rose from 164 million tons to 195 million tons. Inspired by the successes to date, the government succumbed to far exaggerated expectations. The table below shows the Chinese leadership's expectations for late 1958 production for 1958 and 1959.

Expectation for the Chinese economy in the National Economic Plan of December 10, 1958, for the years 1958 and 1959
Results for

1958 estimate
Expectation for
steel Million tons 5.35 11 20th
iron Million tons 5.86 15.8 29
coal Million tons 130 270 420
electricity Billion kWh 1.93 2.75 5.4
mineral oil Million tons 1.5 2.1 4.2
cars thousand 7.5 14.5 65
Locomotives piece 167 280 2100
Artificial fertilizer Million tons 0.63 1.01 2.5
Railway lines km N 1800 10,000
Grain Million tons 195 395 550

Table 8
The following table shows the real production of important economic goods from 1957 to 1962.

Real production of important economic goods from 1957 to 1962 (million tons)
1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1962
Grain 195 200 170 144 148 160
sugar 0.86 0.90 1.1 0.44 0.39 0.34
Oil plants 4.2 4.8 4.1 1.9 1.8 2.0
Pig iron 5.9 13.7 21.9 27.2 12.8 8.1
steel 5.4 8.0 13.9 18.7 8.7 6.7
coal 131 270 369 397 278 220
cement 6.9 9.3 12.3 15.7 6.2 6.0
cotton 1.6 2.0 1.7 1.1 0.80 0.75

Table 9
The following table shows the death rates from 1954 to 1966 for the individual Chinese provinces as well as the participation of the population in the common canteen meal propagated during the Great Leap Forward. A high proportion of canteen meals correlates with a high number of famine victims. The connection between the rigorous enforcement of the requirements of the Great Leap Forward and the high number of victims in the famine becomes clear. In addition, the canteens were inefficient and contributed to food waste.

Mortality rates in the provinces and participation in the common canteen meal
province Participation in
canteen meals
Death rates in the provinces
from 1956 to 1963 (in 0.1%)

1956–1957 average
1958 1959 1960 1961 Average
Anhui 90.5 11.7 12.3 16.7 68.6 8.1 8.1
Fujian 67.2 8.2 7.5 7.9 15.3 11.9 7.9
Gansu 47.7 11.1 21.1 17.4 41.3 11.5 9.4
Guangdong 77.6 9.8 9.2 11.1 15.2 10.8 8.5
Guangxi 91.0 12.5 11.7 17.5 29.5 19.5 10.2
Guizhou 92.6 8.2 13.7 16.2 45.4 17.7 9.9
Hebei 74.4 11.3 10.9 12.3 15.8 13.6 10.2
Heilongjiang 26.5 10.3 9.2 12.8 10.6 11.1 8.6
Henan 97.8 12.9 12.7 14.1 39.6 10.2 8.7
Hubei 68.2 10.2 9.6 14.5 21.2 9.1 9.3
Hunan 97.6 11.0 11.7 13.0 29.4 17.5 10.3
Inner Mongolia 16.7 9.2 7.9 11.0 9.4 8.8 8.8
Jiangsu 56.0 11.7 9.4 14.6 18.4 13.4 9.7
Jiangxi 61.0 12.0 11.3 13.0 16.1 11.5 10.4
Jilin 29.4 8.3 9.1 13.4 10.1 12.0 9.7
Liaoning 23.0 8.0 6.6 11.8 11.5 17.5 8.2
Ningxia 52.9 10.9 15.0 15.8 13.9 10.7 9.4
Qinghai 29.9 9.9 13.0 16.6 40.7 11.7 6.9
Shaanxi 60.8 12.2 11.7 12.8 14.2 12.2 11.4
Shandong 35.5 12.1 12.8 18.2 23.6 18.4 12.1
Shanxi 70.6 10.1 11.0 12.7 12.3 8.8 10.0
Sichuan 96.7 11.3 25.2 47.0 54.0 29.4 13.7
Yunnan 96.5 15.8 21.6 18.0 26.3 11.8 12.5
Zhejiang 81.6 9.4 9.2 10.8 11.9 9.8 8.3
China as a whole 11.1 12.0 14.6 25.4 14.2 10.0

Table 10
The next table shows the death rates in the provinces in 1960 and the grain production per person in 1959.

Death rates in the provinces in 1960 and grain production per person
province Death rate 1960
Grain harvest 1959
kg / person
Shanghai 6.9 107.02
Beijing 9.14 82.01
Neimeng 9.40 412.16
Jilin 10.13 401.07
Tianjin 10.34 91.42
Heilongjiang 10.52 505.95
Shanxi 11.21 244.48
Liaoning 11.50 235.91
Zhejiang 11.88 382.06
Shan'xi 11.27 251.99
Ningxia 13.90 303.70
Guangdong 15.24 242.70
Xinjiang 15.67 304.35
Hebei 15.80 195.12
Jiangxi 16.06 314.36
Jiangshu 18.41 231.42
Fujian 20.70 259.23
Hubei 21.21 241.07
Shandong 23.6 195.24
Yunnan 26.26 265.26
Hunan 29.42 300.32
Guangxi 29.46 246.98
Henan 39.56 195.72
Qinghai 40.73 200.49
Gansu 41.32 223.95
Guizhou 52.33 242.67
Anhui 68.58 204.55
Hainan N / A N / A
Tibet N / A N / A
Sichuan N / A N / A

Table 11
The following table shows the employment of the Chinese rural population in the period from 1957 to 1961. One recognizes the departure from the actual core business in agriculture in the years 1958 to 1960.

Worker structure in rural China (million)
of total

Total workers
Industry construction industry
transport Catering,
1957 547 84.6 206 3.2 4.5 192.0 1.5 1.6 1.2 1.8
1958 553 83.8 213 18.5 20.0 151.2 5.0 11.5 4.5 2.3
1959 548 81.6 208 5.8 18.4 158.2 3.1 11.6 4.6 6.2
1960 531 80.3 198 4.6 4.1 163.3 3.0 12.9 4.0 5.7
1961 532 80.7 203 1.9 2.0 191.3 1.0 0.7 1.3 4.4

Table 12
The following table shows the average amount of calories the Chinese had daily available.

Available calories per person (kcal)
1957 1958 1959 1960 1961 1962 1963 1964
2167 2169 1820 1535 1651 1761 1863 2020


After the enthusiasm for the big jump in the summer of 1958, an "adjustment" of the big jump began at the end of 1958. Step by step, the requirements of the Great Leap were withdrawn. Even so, the situation did not improve; it kept getting worse. Since the reports of famine increased, but the party and state leadership could not form a picture of whether these were isolated events or whether the famine was more widespread, it was decided at the end of 1960 that leading politicians such as Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Peng Zhen, Li Xiannian, Liu Shaoqi and Mao were supposed to travel the country for several weeks, with as few entourage as possible, in order to get an idea for themselves. During these trips, they saw not only the catastrophic situation in the country, but also how party cadres presented themselves as dictators and unrestrainedly enjoyed common property. Liu Shaoqi complained bitterly that apparently all letters written to him had been intercepted by local authorities. He said: "We were kept hopelessly in the dark." Certainly, with all this indignation there was also self-justification, but a massive need for action was now evident.

Deng Xiaoping, who had held back with negative statements about the big jump until 1961, said about the situation in 1961 before the Communist Youth Association: “The situation is such that we don't need to say any more, not only the league knows, but also the party. The clothes are of poor quality, the food is miserable, and the living conditions are poor. The standard of living has fallen everywhere. Much of what has been said was overheated. You have taken your mouth too full. The campaign was a bit too left. "

With this assessment, Deng, Liu and others had the majority of the party leadership behind them. Economy and agriculture had bottomed out. The government was no longer interested in major strategies; it was looking for measures that could somehow promise success in the short term.

Deng said of the current needs: “At the moment, the most important thing is to produce more grain. As long as the yields rise, the private initiative of the individual is also allowed. Regardless of whether it is spotted or black, the main thing is that the cat catches mice. ”Later, the spotted cat became a white cat, although there are hardly any white cats. About the upcoming changes, he said: “We have to adopt the style that the people want. We have to legalize what was illegal. "

Li Fuchun, from the beginning a leading planner of the Great Leap and confidante of Mao, took stock of the situation at the Beidaihe Conference in July 1961 with suggestions for "adjustment" and "consolidation". Li listed the main mistakes of the Great Leap:

You wanted to achieve too much at once and too quickly, because of the elimination of the performance bonuses, the performance incentives lapsed, the procedure was often chaotic and unstructured and the big leap was prone to squandering resources. Regarding the basic strategy of the Great Leap, he said that Mao's instructions were completely correct and that the errors were in the execution. Then he made extensive suggestions for improving the situation. Mao himself explicitly praised Li's report.

The changes that were made in agriculture brought China back to the level of the semi-socialist LPG of 1954. The heart of the immediate measures of the so-called "60 Articles on Agriculture" in March 1961 were "The Three Freedoms" and the "Revenue Target of the Farm household. "

The "Three Freedoms" allowed the farmers to have private cells, privately run ancillary trades such as weaving baskets and the sale of their products on open markets. The socialized fields were leased to the farm households. The “target income of the farm household” meant that the farm households had to lease a contractually agreed amount of agricultural products to the state, and that they could sell the amount themselves. In addition, they had to commit to working an agreed amount of hours for the production team.

In the further course of 1961 and then at the “West Building Conference” from February 21 to 23, 1962, the material incentives were increased even further. The families or groups that were able to increase their production should receive additional government benefits and additional credit opportunities. In addition to free rural markets, private trade and small private businesses were allowed. Mao warned that the new regulations went too far. With these new rules a new ruling class, a new ruling class, would quickly emerge, but for the majority of the party leadership increasing production was more important than Mao's objections.

The new regulations stimulated production, but the strong differentiation among farmers that Mao feared quickly came about. Successful farmers received additional government support, were able to take out loans, hire workers to work in the fields and go into trade themselves. This development was accompanied by an amalgamation of the rich farmers and traders with the cadres. Mao spoke of “the corruption of the cadres by the rural bourgeoisie”, but that was after the Great Leap.

At the 9th plenary session (January 14-18, 1961), the policy of “regulation, consolidation, supplementation and raising the level” was enforced for industry.

The aim of the "regulation" was to bring the individual economic sectors back into equilibrium, with primacy on agriculture. The slogan "Agriculture is the foundation, industry is the leader" was used. In the industrial sector, the metal industry should be scaled back in favor of the chemical and energy industries. Six regional offices were set up again and instead of the previous strict decentralization policy, the whole country was to be transformed into a single chessboard of local responsibilities.

Consolidation, addition and raising of standards meant improving product quality, increasing the number of product types, strengthening weak links in production, closing down unprofitable industrial establishments and discontinuing unprofitable construction projects. To relieve the farmers, around 30 million townspeople were sent out to the countryside in 1961/62. The commitment of the masses to technical innovation, to save raw materials, to reduce production costs and to build up the infrastructure was retained.

As a material incentive, wages were fanned out again and piecework wages were reintroduced. In the case of blue-collar workers, a separation between permanent and fixed-term workers was introduced. The social security systems ( Iron Rice Bowl ) only applied to permanent employees, the contract could not be extended at any time for the not inconsiderable proportion of temporary workers.

The people's communes were reduced from an average of 21,000 to 7,000 people and their responsibilities were severely curtailed. On the one hand, they were no longer independent of the higher administrative levels and, on the other hand, they had to cede most of their skills to the production teams below. They only remained responsible for those areas that were too large for the production team and production brigade below, for example brickworks or coal mines, and they were under the control of the administration above.

The people's communes remained responsible for the expansion of medical care in rural areas, the expansion of the education system, social security and the expansion of the local infrastructure. The expansion of industry and commerce in the countryside was maintained. In the short term, however, these activities were severely scaled down and subordinated to the increase in grain production (this is shown in Table 11).

The most important innovation of the Great Leap, the decentralization of the economy and the departure from Lenin's centralism, was not reversed (see Table 5). In 1958, the provinces and regions accounted for 19.6% of the state's tax revenue; in 1966, despite all the realignment, it was still 64.8%.

Research history

The "Great Leap Forward" and the resulting famine did not receive any major attention in the Western world until the 1980s, either in academic research or in the media. This also contributed to the fact that the Chinese government tried to keep the consequences of this campaign secret from the world public. It was not until 1981 that the Chinese government assessed this campaign negatively with the "Resolution on some questions in the history of the CPC since 1949" . The 1982 census also made clear the large number of starvation deaths, and the sharp decline in the birth rate between 1959 and 1961 was also clearly recognizable. In the western world, however, the campaign was primarily seen as the origin of the Cultural Revolution. The “Great Leap Forward” was not classified as an independent event in the western world until the 1990s, when the role of Mao Zedong was increasingly in the interest of academic research.

The early 1980s in particular spawned a number of scientific papers on the Great Leap. Maurice Meisner described the replacement of Mao by Liu Shaoqi in the wake of the Great Leap as the moment of Thermidor in the Chinese Revolution. A contribution by Judith Banister in China Quarterly became known with which the number of 30 million fatalities in the US press began to level off. Wim F. Wertheim criticized this as being exaggerated. Jung Chang argued in Mao. The Unknown Story that Mao expected large numbers of victims and would have openly and consciously accepted them. On the basis of this data, Rudolph Joseph Rummel called the mass extinction in connection with the Great Leap " democide ". Steven Rosefielde described the cause as a combination of terror and starvation, in the sense of manslaughter or even murder rather than sudden famine. A study carried out by the historian Frank Dikötter and published in 2010 determined u. a. based on Chinese archives, the total number of at least 45 million starvation deaths. The Chinese historian Yu Xiguang calculated 55 million deaths.

Mùbēi (tombstone), a widely recognized study by long-time CCP Party member and Xinhua employee Yang Jisheng on the famine during the Great Leap, published in 2008, estimated the death toll at 36 million. The responsibility for this has largely been attributed to the political leadership. The fulfillment of the plan was more important to the local party leaders than the life of the peasants, and Mao himself was anxious above all to pay off outstanding debts to the Soviet Union. In a book published in 1998, the former Hong Kong journalist Jasper Becker personally accused Mao of withholding state food supplies from starving people because he accused farmers of embezzling grain and secretly hoarding it.


The source for the estimates of the number of victims is the official statistics on birth and death rates produced by the 1982 census. Depending on the calculation method and scientific theories, the number was between 16 and 30 million dead. Another source is Chen Yizi, who defected in 1989 and took part in an investigation by the Institute for System Reform, which is said to have determined 43 to 46 million deaths in a study. Dikötter pointed out that after the end of the campaign, orders were systematically issued to manipulate the population numbers upwards (e.g. in Fuling, Sichuan County, by one sixth more), and that many deaths from starvation were classified as "natural" (e.g. In Fuyang, a place of mass death, only 5% of the starvation deaths were considered "unnaturally died").

See also


  • Jasper Becker : Hungry Ghosts. China's secret famine. John Murray, London 1997, ISBN 0-7195-5440-3 .
  • Jung Chang , Jon Halliday: Mao. The life of a man, the fate of a people. Blessing, Munich 2005, ISBN 3-89667-200-2 .
  • Shi Cheng: China's rural industrialization policy. Growing under orders since 1949. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2006, ISBN 0-230-50171-0 .
  • Sabine Dabringhaus : History of China in the 20th Century. Beck, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-59286-7 .
  • Frank Dikötter : Mao's Great Famine. The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Bloomsbury, London a. a. 2010, ISBN 978-1-4088-1219-8 .
  • Jonathan Fenby: The Penguin History of Modern China. The Fall and Rise of a Great Power 1850-2009. Penguin Books, London 2009, ISBN 978-0-14-102009-9 .
  • Great Leap into Great Famine. In Cormac Ó Gráda: Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future. Princeton University, Princeton 2015, ISBN 978-0-691-16535-6 , pp. 130-173.
  • Erik von Groeling: China's long march - where to? Internal development and organization in the People's Republic of China 1949–1971 (= series of publications by the Study Society for Time Problems eV Zeitpolitik . Volume 10, ZDB -ID 187966-2 ). Seewald, Stuttgart-Degerloch 1972.
  • Ole Mathies Hackfurth: PR China: Economic Policy from Mao to Jiang. GRIN Verlag, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-638-80669-5 .
  • Rainer Hoffmann: The battle between two lines. On the political history of the Chinese People's Republic 1949–1977. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1978, ISBN 3-12-910180-2 .
  • Yang Jisheng : Gravestone - Mùbei. The great Chinese famine of 1958–1962. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am 2012, ISBN 978-3-10-080023-7 (Chinese-language original edition 2008).
  • Xin Meng, Nancy Qian, Pierre Yared: The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959-61. Center for Economic Policy Research, London 2010, [1] (PDF; 2.93 MB).
  • Steven Rosefielde: Red Holocaust. Routledge, London a. a. 2010, ISBN 978-0-415-77756-8 .
  • Judith Shapiro: Mao's was against nature. Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge u. a. 2001, ISBN 0-521-78680-0 .
  • Philip Short: Mao. A life. Hodder & Stoughton, London 1999, ISBN 0-340-60624-X .
  • Oskar Weggel : History of China in the 20th Century (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 414). Kröner, Stuttgart 1989, ISBN 3-520-41401-5 .
  • Felix Wemheuer: Steinnudeln. Rural memories and the state coming to terms with the past of the “big leap” famine in the Chinese province of Henan (= European university publications . Series 27: Asian and African Studies. Volume 100). Lang, Frankfurt am Main a. a. 2007, ISBN 978-3-631-56279-6 (also: Vienna, Univ., Diss., 2006).
  • Zhou Xun: Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine. An oral history . Yale University Press, New Haven / London 2013, ISBN 978-0-300-18404-4 .
  • Yu Xiguang: Dayuejin kurizi shanghuji, Hong Kong 2006
  • Wolfgang Zank: China's “Big Leap”: Mao's bloody harvest . In: Die Zeit , No. 17/2012.


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