The Great Leap Forward took place some 60 years ago in Chairman Mao’s communist China and led to the greatest famine in human history. Here, Stepan Hobza discusses why the Great Leap Forward took place and how Chairman Mao can be viewed today.

Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong.

Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong.

Had any Western tourist gone to China 60 years ago, they would certainly have been surprised. They could have wondered if a horrible mistake had taken place and they had actually arrived in England taking part in a Monty Python sketch.

At the beginning of 1958 hundreds of thousands of citizens of the People’s Republic of China flooded the streets with drums and trumpets in their hands. Yet they were not celebrating. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the sky. Now and then, a shot was fired into a treetop… The sole purpose of this strange behaviour would seem surprising to us: the Chinese simply went out to kill sparrows. The poor birds had fallen into disgrace with the Communist Party of China since they “harmed the crops”, and were probably lucky enough not to be labelled as imperialistic agents. The sequel is emblematic of Mao’s Absurdistan. After annihilating two billion sparrows, an excessive reproduction of insects followed. These vermin now really set about harming the crops and in order to kill them off, China had to import millions of sparrows from the Soviet Union.

This escapade was by no means a one-off eccentricity, rather one of the many components of a wider motion called The Great Leap Forward. This glorious operation was supposed to mean, “three years of hard work”, after which “ten thousand years of happiness” would follow. In fact, what followed was the greatest famine in human history. While in the West “Chinese cuisine” was becoming popular, the actual people of China were happy to obtain a bowl of rice. In one of thousands of starving villages “a teenage orphan kill[ed] and [ate] her four-year-old brother“ and “the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, [went] insane. Others [were] tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests.“

The official account of the Chinese government acknowledges 15 million victims. In the 1990s, when the topic was more thoroughly explored for the first time, historians assumed that the real number could very well be twice as big. However, while it may seem unbelievable, a new and very well researched book concerning the topic, Frank Dikötter‘s Mao’s Great Famine speaks about “at least 45 million“ dead people. By way of contrast, this number is almost twice as big as the toll of all military casualties in WWII. You may as well imagine that a whole modern-day Ukraine would perish in the course of four years - because that’s exactly what happened in China from 1958 to 1962.


The reasons for the tragedy

The question could not be more obvious: Why? As happens to be the rule concerning huge catastrophes, a combination of factors rather than a single one was to blame for the outcome. A major geopolitical shift of global scale stood at the beginning. After the death of Stalin a new set of Soviet leaders vied for power in the Kremlin. Though the biggest chances were attributed to Georgy Malenkov – in fact, not so feckless and compliant as depicted in Armando Ianucci’s recent farce film The Death of Stalin –, Nikita Khrushchev finally prevailed. Yet, unlike the Soviet apparatchiks, Mao didn’t trust him. When they met in 1957 he was absolutely sure that the First Secretary would sacrifice anyone in order to reconcile with the USA. China was alone. Characteristically, Mao didn’t recoil from this new and awe-inspiring prospect. He already felt like an ideological leader of the socialist bloc, anyway. What could he learn from those “grandsons of the Revolution” who held sway in Moscow? With a single Great Leap Forward China would jump over the Soviets and pair its spiritual supremacy with an economic one.  

In Chinese Communists’ minds the ultimate goal of the socialist world – Communism as such – was within arm’s reach. It would suffice to mobilize the masses. In order to achieve this, the Party established mammoth-like communes. Many fanaticized farmers were guided to believe that an economic paradise was descending upon the Earth. Before entering the communes, they killed off their cattle and held carnivorous orgies. Needless to say how dearly they would appreciate the meat later, when they would have not even rice or bread. After their last happy days they finally set out for a journey to giant dams, the Red Flag Canal or other – true or failed – masterpieces of water management. Their working conditions were naturally horrific. An even bigger problem, though, was that since they left, there was – what a wonder – no one to plough their fields. However, this fact didn’t stop provincial officials from reporting massive harvest increases to Beijing. Thus starving cities demanded even bigger supplies from the country which didn’t have enough to feed its peasants. The circle of death soon closed. Nothing could have described the situation better than the words in which Zhou Enlai (contrary to widespread habit to quote this as Mao’s motto) summed up the Chairman’s convictions: All under heaven is in chaos, the situation is excellent.


Mao in perspective

Few countries have ever changed as rapidly and profoundly as China has since 1960s. Although little has been revised in the official doctrine, the Trotskyist idea of permanent revolution seems ludicrous under the shades of hundreds of skyscrapers owned by trillions of dollars’ worth’ Chinese banks. Nevertheless, the white-collared communists keep addressing each other “comrade” and humming Pioneer songs. Chairman Mao is still considered a demigod-like hero and the myth surrounding his exploits is sacrosanct. Unfortunately, this lack of self-reflection is not a uniquely Chinese problem. With the People’s Republic possessing every thinkable potential to become a superpower, it is rather disturbing that the Great Famine of 1958-62, one of the biggest and most consequential crimes in human history, is still redubbed Three Years of Natural Disasters in Chinese vocabulary. Now, since Xi Jinping recently declared himself de facto dictator for life, the chances for change have grown even smaller, if not plummeted to zero.


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones