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    China The Great Leap Forward, 1958-60
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies

    The antirightist drive was followed by a militant approach toward economic development. In 1958 the CCP launched the Great Leap Forward campaign under the new "General Line for Socialist Construction." The Great Leap Forward was aimed at accomplishing the economic and technical development of the country at a vastly faster pace and with greater results. The shift to the left that the new "General Line" represented was brought on by a combination of domestic and external factors. Although the party leaders appeared generally satisfied with the accomplishments of the First Five-Year Plan, they--Mao and his fellow radicals in particular-- believed that more could be achieved in the Second Five-Year Plan (1958-62) if the people could be ideologically aroused and if domestic resources could be utilized more efficiently for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture. These assumptions led the party to an intensified mobilization of the peasantry and mass organizations, stepped-up ideological guidance and indoctrination of technical experts, and efforts to build a more responsive political system. The last of these undertakings was to be accomplished through a new xiafang (down to the countryside) movement, under which cadres inside and outside the party would be sent to factories, communes, mines, and public works projects for manual labor and firsthand familiarization with grassroots conditions. Although evidence is sketchy, Mao's decision to embark on the Great Leap Forward was based in part on his uncertainty about the Soviet policy of economic, financial, and technical assistance to China. That policy, in Mao's view, not only fell far short of his expectations and needs but also made him wary of the political and economic dependence in which China might find itself (see Sino-Soviet Relations , ch. 12).

    The Great Leap Forward centered on a new socioeconomic and political system created in the countryside and in a few urban areas--the people's communes (see Glossary). By the fall of 1958, some 750,000 agricultural producers' cooperatives, now designated as production brigades, had been amalgamated into about 23,500 communes, each averaging 5,000 households, or 22,000 people. The individual commune was placed in control of all the means of production and was to operate as the sole accounting unit; it was subdivided into production brigades (generally coterminous with traditional villages) and production teams. Each commune was planned as a self-supporting community for agriculture, small-scale local industry (for example, the famous backyard pig-iron furnaces), schooling, marketing, administration, and local security (maintained by militia organizations). Organized along paramilitary and laborsaving lines, the commune had communal kitchens, mess halls, and nurseries. In a way, the people's communes constituted a fundamental attack on the institution of the family, especially in a few model areas where radical experiments in communal living-- large dormitories in place of the traditional nuclear family housing-- occurred. (These were quickly dropped.) The system also was based on the assumption that it would release additional manpower for such major projects as irrigation works and hydroelectric dams, which were seen as integral parts of the plan for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture (see Agricultural Policies , ch. 6).

    The Great Leap Forward was an economic failure. In early 1959, amid signs of rising popular restiveness, the CCP admitted that the favorable production report for 1958 had been exaggerated. Among the Great Leap Forward's economic consequences were a shortage of food (in which natural disasters also played a part); shortages of raw materials for industry; overproduction of poor-quality goods; deterioration of industrial plants through mismanagement; and exhaustion and demoralization of the peasantry and of the intellectuals, not to mention the party and government cadres at all levels. Throughout 1959 efforts to modify the administration of the communes got under way; these were intended partly to restore some material incentives to the production brigades and teams, partly to decentralize control, and partly to house families that had been reunited as household units.

    Political consequences were not inconsiderable. In April 1959 Mao, who bore the chief responsibility for the Great Leap Forward fiasco, stepped down from his position as chairman of the People's Republic. The National People's Congress elected Liu Shaoqi as Mao's successor, though Mao remained chairman of the CCP. Moreover, Mao's Great Leap Forward policy came under open criticism at a party conference at Lushan, Jiangxi Province. The attack was led by Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, who had become troubled by the potentially adverse effect Mao's policies would have on the modernization of the armed forces. Peng argued that "putting politics in command" was no substitute for economic laws and realistic economic policy; unnamed party leaders were also admonished for trying to "jump into communism in one step." After the Lushan showdown, Peng Dehuai, who allegedly had been encouraged by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to oppose Mao, was deposed. Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, a radical and opportunist Maoist. The new defense minister initiated a systematic purge of Peng's supporters from the military.

    Militancy on the domestic front was echoed in external policies (see Evolution of Foreign Policy , ch. 12). The "soft" foreign policy based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (see Glossary) to which China had subscribed in the mid-1950s gave way to a "hard" line in 1958. From August through October of that year, the Chinese resumed a massive artillery bombardment of the Nationalist-held offshore islands of Jinmen (Chin-men in Wade Giles but often referred to as Kinmen or Quemoy) and Mazu (Ma-tsu in Wade-Giles). This was accompanied by an aggressive propaganda assault on the United States and a declaration of intent to "liberate" Taiwan.

    Chinese control over Xizang had been reasserted in 1950. The socialist revolution that took place thereafter increasingly became a process of sinicization for the Tibetans. Tension culminated in a revolt in 1958-59 and the flight to India by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' spiritual and de facto temporal leader. Relations with India--where sympathy for the rebels was aroused--deteriorated as thousands of Tibetan refugees crossed the Indian border. There were several border incidents in 1959, and a brief Sino-Indian border war erupted in October 1962 as China laid claim to Aksai Chin, nearly 103,600 square kilometers of territory that India regarded as its own (see Physical Environment , ch. 2). The Soviet Union gave India its moral support in the dispute, thus contributing to the growing tension between Beijing and Moscow.

    The Sino-Soviet dispute of the late 1950s was the most important development in Chinese foreign relations. The Soviet Union had been China's principal benefactor and ally, but relations between the two were cooling. The Soviet agreement in late 1957 to help China produce its own nuclear weapons and missiles was terminated by mid-1959 (see Defense Industry and the Economic Role of the People's Liberation Army , ch. 14). From that point until the mid-1960s, the Soviets recalled all of their technicians and advisers from China and reduced or canceled economic and technical aid to China. The discord was occasioned by several factors. The two countries differed in their interpretation of the nature of "peaceful coexistence." The Chinese took a more militant and unyielding position on the issue of anti-imperialist struggle, but the Soviets were unwilling, for example, to give their support on the Taiwan question. In addition, the two communist powers disagreed on doctrinal matters. The Chinese accused the Soviets of "revisionism"; the latter countered with charges of "dogmatism." Rivalry within the international communist movement also exacerbated Sino-Soviet relations. An additional complication was the history of suspicion each side had toward the other, especially the Chinese, who had lost a substantial part of territory to tsarist Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. Whatever the causes of the dispute, the Soviet suspension of aid was a blow to the Chinese scheme for developing industrial and high-level (including nuclear) technology.

    Data as of July 1987

    NOTE: The information regarding China on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of China The Great Leap Forward, 1958-60 information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about China The Great Leap Forward, 1958-60 should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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    Revised 04-Jul-02
    Copyright © 2001 Photius Coutsoukis (all rights reserved)