One of the greatest tragedies of modern times began on May 23rd 1958, when Mao Zedong, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, launched the Great Leap Forward. It was meant to turn China rapidly into a modern industrialized state. Instead it saw the production of much relatively worthless pig-iron and a drastic decline in agricultural output that precipitated a famine that killed millions. The lowest estimate is of 18 million deaths, but many, including Chinese historians, put it closer to 60 million.
The move was implemented by coercion. Peasant farmers were forced into collectives, while vast resources were diverted from agriculture to industrial operations. Peasants were forced to attend lengthy political meetings, and many were beaten into submission by zealous party cadres. Everyone competed to lie about production in order to please party bosses, with collectives sometimes quoting figures that were ten times those actually achieved. Believing the figures, central planners ordered more food diverted to the cities, leaving the rural population to starve.
To achieve the target for steel production, Mao ordered “backyard furnaces” into production. To fuel them, localities were stripped of trees, and wood from peasants’ doors and furniture was used. Agricultural implements were used as scrap metal to go into them, as were the pots and pans people used to prepare food with. As with food production, there was a mass cult of lying about steel production, with regional leaders telling the central rulers what they wanted to hear.
To instill revolutionary fervor into the masses, their local lifestyle was banned, derided as “feudalism.” Traditional ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, local markets and festivals were banned, replaced by party meetings and indoctrination sessions. Much that gave meaning to life in rural China was ruthlessly expunged. Many agricultural workers were diverted to steel production, as were those in many factories, schools and hospitals.
The violence intensified over time, as malnourished workers had to be forced to work punishing hours in the fields. Those who failed to meet standards were ritually humiliated or beaten. Many were simply murdered by being buried alive or thrown into ponds and rivers. Some estimates by historians suggest that, in addition to the deaths from starvation, at least 2.5 million people were beaten or tortured to death and one million to three million committed suicide.
The Great Leap Forward into socialism was in practice a great leap backward, as both agricultural and industrial output declined dramatically. Mao’s power within the party was diminished, and only reasserted in 1966 when he initiated his Cultural Revolution, a second tragedy in which millions more died. China’s agriculture and industry only accelerated after Mao’s death and the imprisonment of the Gang of Four by Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s abandonment of the collective farms and introduction of free markets and enterprise into the economy rapidly achieved in practice what socialism had failed to deliver. That so many lives were destroyed or blighted before the lesson could be learned was a tragedy for China and a lesson to the world.