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Great Leap Forward facts for kids

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Sending officials to the countryside
Sending government officials to work in the countryside, 1957

The Great Leap Forward (Chinese: 大跃进; pinyin: Dàyuèjìn) was a plan that was created to increase China's economy and industry. It was started by the Communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong in 1958 and ended in 1961. The Great Leap Forward failed to bring industrialization and the famine that it created killed millions of people. Some people think it to be the biggest famine in history.

Agriculture and farms

Mao wanted China to be able to make food for the country and make food to export; he also wanted China to produce a lot of goods. He started the Great Leap Forward to do this. Some people were forced to give their land to the government. Many people had to work on farms for the government, also called agricultural cooperatives. Later, these cooperatives were put together to involve thousands of people. In 1958, ninety-eight percent (98%) of people who worked on farms were in these cooperatives.

In 1958, there was a good harvest. However, this began to change the year after.

People believed that planting plants close together was good. However, crops did not grow as well when they were close together. This led to lower grain harvests in 1959. After that the harvests were bad also because resources were not used well. This lasted at least until 1961.


Iron smelting in 1958 China, from- Backyardfurnace5 (cropped)
People in the countryside working at night to produce steel
Carriages on the mine field
The minecart leading to the steel base in October 1957
Soil blast furnaces
An earthen blast furnace taken in mid-October 1958.

Mao saw grain and steel production as the key pillars of economic development. He forecast that within 15 years of the start of the Great Leap, China's industrial output would surpass that of the UK. In the August 1958 Politburo meetings, it was decided that steel production would be set to double within the year. If people did not like the fast pace of the schedule, they were usually killed. By 1958, 550,000 people were killed because they did not agree with the government.

Major investments in larger state enterprises were made and millions of Chinese became state workers. Total state employment reached a peak of 50.44 million in 1960, more than doubling the 1957 level; the urban population swelled by 31.24 million people. These new workers placed major stress on China's food-rationing system, which led to increased and unsustainable demands on rural food production.

During this rapid expansion, coordination suffered and material shortages were frequent.

Backyard furnaces

With no personal knowledge of metallurgy, Mao encouraged the establishment of small backyard steel furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood. Huge efforts on the part of illiterate peasants and other workers were made to produce steel out of scrap metal. To fuel the furnaces, the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants' houses. Pots, pans, and other metal artifacts were requisitioned to supply the "scrap" for the furnaces so that the wildly optimistic production targets could be met. Many of the male agricultural workers were diverted from the harvest to help the iron production as were the workers at many factories, schools, and even hospitals. Although the output consisted of low quality lumps of pig iron which was of negligible economic worth, Mao had a deep distrust of intellectuals, engineers and technicians who could have pointed this out and instead placed his faith in the power of the mass mobilization of the peasants.

Moreover, the experience of the intellectual classes following the Hundred Flowers Campaign silenced those aware of the folly of such a plan. According to his private doctor, Li Zhisui, Mao and his entourage visited traditional steel works in Manchuria in January 1959 where he found out that high quality steel could only be produced in large-scale factories using reliable fuel such as coal. However, he decided not to order a halt to the backyard steel furnaces so as not to dampen the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. The program was only quietly abandoned much later that year.

Crop experiments and famine

On the communes, a number of radical and controversial agricultural innovations were promoted at the behest of Mao. Many of these were based on the ideas of now discredited Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko and his followers. The policies included close cropping, whereby seeds were sown far more densely than normal on the incorrect assumption that seeds of the same class would not compete with each other. Deep plowing (up to 2 meters deep) was encouraged on the mistaken belief that this would yield plants with extra large root systems. Moderately productive land was left unplanted based on the belief that concentrating manure and effort on the most fertile land would lead to large productivity gains per-acre. Altogether, these untested innovations generally led to decreases in grain production rather than increases.

Meanwhile, local leaders were pressured into falsely reporting ever-higher grain production figures to their political superiors. They would tell the government that they were making more than they actually were. In 1959, the country began running out of food. This is because they sold their grain to other countries. This problem was made worse because the output of farms was decreasing. People were also not allowed to leave the areas they were living in. That meant that they could not look for food in other places. Some villages had one-fourth or one-third of people dying in them.

The famine is thought to have killed between 16.5 million and 40 million people.

Mao stepped down as State Chairman of the PRC on April 27, 1959, but remained CCP Chairman. Liu Shaoqi (the new PRC Chairman) and reformist Deng Xiaoping (CCP General Secretary) were left in charge to change policy to bring economic recovery.

Impact on the economy

Negative impacts

Backyard furnace4
Backyard furnaces in China during the Great Leap Forward era

The Great Leap led to the greatest destruction of real estate in human history. Approximately 30% to 40% of all houses were turned to rubble. Frank Dikötter states that "homes were pulled down to make fertilizer, to build canteens, relocate villagers, straighten roads, make place for a better future, or punish their owners."

In agrarian policy, the failures of food supply during the Great Leap were met by a gradual de-collectivization in the 1960s that foreshadowed further de-collectivization under Deng Xiaoping.

Despite the risks to their careers, some Communist Party members openly laid blame for the disaster at the feet of the Party leadership and took it as proof that China must rely more on education, acquiring technical expertise and applying bourgeois methods in developing the economy. Liu Shaoqi made a speech in 1962 at "Seven Thousand Cadres Conference" criticizing that "The economic disaster was 30% fault of nature, 70% human error."

A dramatic decline in grain output continued for several years, involving in 1960–61 a drop in output of more than 25 percent.

Positive impacts

According to Joseph Ball, writing in Monthly Review, there is a good argument to suggest that the policies of the Great Leap Forward did a lot to sustain China's overall economic growth, after an initial period of disruption. The Great Leap Forward period also marked the initiation of China's rapid growth in tractor and fertilizer production.

The Great Leap Forward's focus on total workforce mobilization resulted in opportunities for women's labor advancement. Increasing collectivization of labor brought more opportunities for women to "leave the home," thereby increasing their economic and personal independence. As women became increasingly needed to work in agriculture and industry, and encouraged by policy to do so, the phenomenon of Iron Women arose. Women did traditionally male work in both fields and factories, including major movements of women into management positions. Women competed for high productivity, and those who distinguished themselves came to be called Iron Women.

Related pages

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Gran Salto Adelante para niños

  • List of campaigns of the Chinese Communist Party
  • Crimes against humanity under communist regimes
  • The Black Book of Communism
  • Virgin Lands Campaign, a contemporary program in the Soviet Union

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