How did the Great Leap Forward affect the economy?

How did the Great Leap Forward affect the economy?

Business / China

The Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1961, was the second Five-Year Plan in the New  Chinese State. China experienced significant progress in its first Five-Year Plan from 1953 to 1957, where the heavy industry and the national economy improved dramatically. The increase  in income and the improvement in housing enhanced the quality of life among Chinese people.  The idea was born from Mao’s impatience for industrial and manufacturing growth.

During the  Chinese first Five-Year Plan, Mao was doubtful about using the Soviet economic model, and  he wished to shift the economic policy towards agricultural collectivization and  industrialization. Mao aimed to create an industrialized economy to be competitive with the  Western nations, and he intended to transform China into a collectivized society associated  with socialist principles of work, production, and people’s lives. However, the utopian goals  and plan of the Great Leap Forward led to severe economic stagnation, food shortages, and  famine.

Moreover, the poorly implemented backyard furnace caused a massive waste of fuels in the  countryside. Agricultural production was another failure since the agricultural experimentation  was inexperienced, and local officials often faked and exaggerated the production figures. The  Great Leap Forward was a disaster, and an estimated thirty million people died because of  starvation from 1958 to 1961 (Brown, 34). 

Ideological Origins of the Great Leap Forward 

I. Mao’s Utopianism

In 1958, after the triumph of the First Five-Year Plan, Mao Zedong intended to expedite his  ambition to transform China from socialism to his ultimate aim of communism. Based on  Marxism, a communist society would eliminate labor divisions and the distinctions between city and countryside.

Along with the idea of communism, Mao aimed to increase industrial and  agricultural production to produce more “faster, better, and cheaper” (Meisner, 141). Though  the first Five-Year Plan led to progress in industrial output and economic growth, Mao believed  the Soviet path to socialism was inappropriate for China. It expanded the gap between the rich  and the poor and distinguished the technological elite from the peasants. In other words, the  gap between the modernized cities and the backward countryside would expand, and rural areas  would be exploited by the benefits and growth of the urban areas.

The Soviet economic  development model seemed to deviate China from the socialist goals and ultimate communism  path. Mao perceived the Great Leap Forward as the means to end socialism and pushed China  to the forefront of the world’s industrialized nations (Meisner, 141). He emphasized the need  for technical revolution or dramatic increase in industrial production and aimed to overtake the  position of Great Britain in fifteen years (Brown, 29). 

II. Permanent Revolution 

Mao adopted the term “permanent revolution” from Marxism, and he believed the permanent  revolution was a series of social contradictions and struggles. The rapid economic development  and social transformation were crucial to stimulate the revolutionary energies of the masses.  Mao did not only look for a technological and economic revolution through the Great Leap Forward, but he also intended to bring a transformation from socialism to communism in China.  As China remained a poor and backward nation, Mao believed the social transformation demanded a “leap”—a revolutionary break with the past society.  

Since the permanent revolutionary changes were based on the power of human consciousness  and will, Mao believed in the necessity to mobilize people’s revolutionary spirit. The transition  to communism did not depend on the urban proletariat but the rural people (Meisner, 198). The  commune was deemed a communist agency to eliminate the difference between city and  countryside, bourgeois and peasants, and mental and manual labor. One of the most prominent  mass mobilizations was backyard furnaces. Even without previous experience and knowledge  about steel production, Mao encouraged people to build backyard furnaces in each commune  and urban neighborhood.

Furthermore, the illiterate peasants and workers, following Mao’s instruction, utilized their scrap metals to produce steel, and local communes exhausted the local natural resources for the fuels of producing steel. Every family and urban peasant used their backyard furnaces to smelt scrap iron from old farming tools or utensils to meet the production requirements within the commune (Cairns).

However, the outputs only consisted of low-quality steel, which brought no economic value to the Chinese economic and industrial growth. 

III. Poor and Blank 

Though Marxism claimed that socialism presupposed capitalism, Mao rejected Marx’s perspective with his ideology of the advantage of backwardness. He believed backwardness was a “source of moral virtue and political vitality” which could transform China into a socialist society. Without repeating the path related to Western capitalism (Meisner, 19). During the Great Leap Forward, Mao celebrated the condition of being “poor and blank” and concluded peasants  as the primary agent leading to radical changes. The poor people were the peasants, and the  blank people were the youth. The poor people were eager to see revolutionary changes, while  the youth were readily receptive to the ideology and spirit of transformation.

Mao believed the  backwardness of society was not a barrier to the path to communism, but it could stimulate  people’s energy for the permanent revolution and the establishment of a new society. China was  a “clean sheet of paper,” and peasants and youth were the bearers of socialism (Meisner 150).  Based on the idea of “blank and poor,” many policies of the Great Leap Forward were  formulated and implemented. 

Economical Consequence of Great Leap Forward 

I. Harms to Industrial Production, Environment, and Workers, 

The Great Leap Forward led to the destruction of the quality of commodities. Since China was  still a poor and economically backward country, it faced a shortage of materials. In order to meet the unreasonably high output quota required by the government, the workers and  industries were forced to use inferior raw and scrap materials and low-quality substitutes for  production. With many inexperienced workers recruited from the countryside, many regular  production and technical requirements were not met and were not strictly observed. The  deterioration of the quality of production was common among industries. Though some may have expected an improvement of commodities’ quality after the production returned to normal,  the low-quality machines built during the Great Leap Forward prevented it from making sound  quality commodities.

As industries often misused or overused their machinery to meet the outputs, regular maintenance was reduced and overlooked to maximize production time.  Machines were usually operated exceeding their technical limits, and vehicles were usually  overloaded (Chao, 855). Workers and machines from maintenance departments became often used in the production sector to increase production. The adverse effects of reduced maintenance did reveal in the following years. As many machines could not run properly and could not be repaired to continue the production in a short period. 

With low-quality raw materials and inexperienced workers, the poor irrigation system and water conservancy project also damaged the environment and people’s health.

During the Great  Leap Forward, millions of people became mobilized and allocated to constructing reservoirs and irrigation systems. Most of the constructions became done at a fast speed without proper design or further experiments.

The quality of the water conservancy projects and irrigation systems was not much valued; therefore, many large-scale constructions with complex and necessary  well-planned procedures were completed in a short time due to the pressure of the commune.  The poorly designed and low-quality flood-control project eventually increased the difficulty  of controlling the floods, and the improperly built water reservoirs enhanced the alkalinity of  land in the neighborhood areas (Chao, 854). The low-quality irrigation system could lead to  sanitation and salinization because of the improper drainage system. The irrigation system also  negatively affected agricultural production and became a factor in famine in China during 1960  and 1961. 

The Great Leap Forward led to an exhaustion of workers because of the high intensity of production and the lack of food supply.

Millions of people were mobilized from the countryside  to industrial production, and most of them lacked experience and a sense of security. Not  only do most of them act as contract workers who could not enjoy the same social welfare, such  as medical care and allowances, as the old workers, but the casualties among workers raised  due to the lack of safety maintenance under the pressure of production demand (qtd. In Chao,  857). The technicians and professional engineers were forced to abandon their original,  rigorous production procedures. They had to follow the political demand instead of the  scientific principles. The demoralization was raised among both new and old workers. 

II. Great Famine 

Though during the Great Leap Forward, many agricultural constructions and innovations were  of low quality, the weather condition still brought a good harvest in 1958. As many peasants  and workers were mobilized to the industrial production and infrastructure construction  projects, many crops were left uncollected, rotted, and wasted in the field. In 1959, China was  facing a severe problem of locust swarms because of the Four Pest Campaign.

Rats, flies,  mosquitos, and sparrows became claimed as the four pests that needed elimination. The  elimination of sparrows led to an ecological imbalance and created a breeding ground for the  locusts. Combined with the drought and flooding from the Yellow River, the harvest of crops  reduced dramatically. However, under the local government’s pressure, many communes  exaggerated their harvests on the report and even used the crops from nearby neighborhoods  to exaggerate the data. The data became collected and used as a basis for the central government  to determine the supply to urban cities, countryside, and export.

Since the reported number was often highly exaggerated, the food supply for peasants and workers was barely enough to survive. Starvation began to appear in several places and became widespread in 1959. 

The central government raised the tax rate to twenty-eight percent based on the highly exaggerated reported production figure (Brown, 33).

A higher exaggeration led to a higher  amount of tax in the area. Some areas even utilized almost all their revenue from the poor  harvest to fulfill the tax requirement, leading to barely any crops for local peasants for survival.  If there existed a shortage of revenue to fulfill the tax obligation, local governors would not  admit the mistakes in data collection but accused and blamed the peasants for hiding the crops.  Because of starvation and undernourishment, edema and maladies were widespread and even  grew among the urban population (Brown, 33).

As the food reserve reduced dramatically in the  countryside, many peasants and workers died because of starvation in 1960. People collapsed  on the fields and at home with their relatives watching their corpses rotting (Brown 33). Some  families would hide the dead people at home to continue to collect their food rations from the  commune. Many people began to search for grass seeds, tree bark, and fruits on the plants to  reduce their hunger. Some boiled the leathers to fill their stomach, though they could ruin their  digestive system. The scale of famine eventually turned to cannibalism, and some children became killed as food (Dikötter, 321). During the great famine from 1960 to 1961, the estimated death toll was around three million. 


The Great Leap Forward aimed to solve China’s industrial and agricultural problems and develop a labor-intensive system to promote industrialization. The Chinese communists wished the nation could bypass capitalist industrialization, which required slow and accumulated time  and effort to build up capital and heavy machinery. The campaign became epitomized through the construction of backyard furnaces in every family and commune to balloon industrialization.  However, due to erroneous implementations and improper policies, the Great Leap Forward  ultimately caused the breakdown of the Chinese economy and led to the Great Famine and  substantial death tolls.  

The official view of the Great Leap Forward is often in contradiction.

The sense of self criticism often raises among the party because the Chinese communists made many mistakes  during the Great Leap Forward because of the inexperience of the leaders and workers, the  overwhelming complacency from the First Five-Year Plan, and the organizational impropriety  in communes. The subsequent leaders also claimed that they had learned from the tragedy of  the Great Leap Forward and would prevent making similar mistakes when making the new  policies regarding national development.

However, the communist party often utilized the  phrase–“good intention”–to keep up its appearance (Joseph, 449). The extreme weather conditions, the deterioration of the Sino-Soviet relationship. And the misconduct of local commune leaders became often regarded as scapegoats that exacerbated the peasants’ impoverishment and starvation. However, the blame towards Mao and his Communist party  was uncommon. Mao also did not retreat from his policies and initiated the Cultural Revolution  in 1966 to reconsider his power and authority among the Chinese Communist Party.

How did the Great Leap Forward affect the economy?

Works Cited 

Brown, Clayton. “China’s Great Leap Forward.” US, Asia, and the World: 1914–2012, vol. 17,  no. 3, 2012, pp 29-34. 

Cairns, Rebecca, and Jennifer Llewellyn. “The Great Leap Forward.” Alpha History, 25  September 2019. Accessed on 6 November 2021. 

Chao, Kang. “Economic Aftermath of the Great Leap in Communist China.” Asian Survey, vol.  4, no. 5, University of California Press, 1964, pp. 851–58, Dikötter, Frank. “Cannibalism”. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating  Catastrophe, New York: Walker & Co., 2010, pp. 320-323.  

Joseph, William. “A Tragedy of Good Intentions: Post-Mao Views of the Great Leap Forward.”  Modern China, vol. 12, no. 4, Sage Publications, Inc., 1986, pp. 419–57. Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. The Free Press, 1999. Meisner, Maurice. Mao Zedong: a political and intellectual portrait. Polity Press, 2007.

How did the Great Leap Forward affect the economy?