THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD AND ITS IMPACT
By Josh Osman
Mao Zedong: the leader of the Communist Party of China from when it was established in 1949 to when he died in 1976. Today, we see him as a dictator, but in some ways his actions, no matter how cruel they may have been, may have influenced the actions of China in the following years and the growth they faced later.
During his time leading the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong started one of the largest social and economic campaigns ever carried out in the world. It was over a four-year period from 1958 to 1962 and made many "reforms", as Chairman Mao saw them, to the systems in China that changed the way China worked; its impacts on the country were so large that it is believed to have caused the Great Chinese Famine between 1959 and 1961. His intention was to economically advance China to be ahead of the UK and USA within 15 years while being completely self-sufficient. This campaign was called the Great Leap Forward.
The first major set of changes were the agricultural "advancements"; these consisted of many different reforms. For example, crops seen as 'evil' to the Communist party were burned and destroyed before being replaced with other crops that they saw as more useful, like rice. Another major agricultural reform made was 'collective farming', where many farmers collaborate and trade all produce as one collective power. However, this was a complete disaster and it was only when Mao Zedong died that this was changed by giving land from the rich to the poor people to farm on, thus making it easier for poorer farmers to grow more crops and be somewhat more profitable.
The other major set of changes was the attempted industrialisation of China, including many of the poorer states that at the time relied purely on their agriculture to flourish. Chairman Mao saw grain and steel production as the most important sectors of development for China, so 21 million people were added to state non-agricultural payrolls to try and get China to have more workers in industrial sectors, hence leading the urban population of China to 31.24 million people since so many were moving to the city to get work in industrial areas, as jobs their offered higher paid. This also proved disastrous for the Chinese people since there were so few people working in agriculture comparatively to before the "reform" that there was an impossible demand for the farmers to meet and a great stress was placed on the rationing of food, likely being a major cause for the Great Famine, as previously mentioned.
The most important direct and nearly immediate impact, starting only a year after the Great Leap Forward, is definitely the Great Famine, since it had a detrimental impact on the population, causing many to die of starvation and those still alive to be living in poor conditions; it is estimated that there were between 20 to 43 million famine victims, which is an extremely large range for an estimate since there were so many deaths due to 'abnormal illness', likely caused by a weak immune system from starvation, so it would be hard to tell who died from starvation and who died indirectly from starvation. This extremely high death toll meant that there were even fewer workers, meaning less people to support the industrialisation by working in urban areas and, even more importantly, less people to work on the farms to provide food, making the famine crisis even worse and putting China into a state of a brutal vicious cycle of loss of workers and famine.
The next great impact was on the economy, but, not surprisingly, this did not go at all to plan because of the many deaths due to the famine. However, the economy did start to grow greatly at first, before plummeting in 1961 after the effects of the famine were so serious and detrimental that the lack of workers from it made the state of the economy even worse since there weren't many farmers left at all to even provide food for those left and the vicious cycle worsened, as previously described. Essentially, the economy ended up in a worse state than it had been when they had started the Great Leap Forward to advance it, backfiring greatly on the people of China and the Communist Party especially, since the Leap itself and its impacts caused a lot of resistance against the party and deaths by violence, it is estimated that over 2 million people were beaten or tortured to death during the period and over 1 million committed suicide.
It is clear that the Great Leap Forward had a monstrous effect on the state of China, both economically and socially. Yet it seems that from this, China never made another attempt at self-sufficiency so quickly. This also led the party of China to realise that they could not ever be truly self-sufficient, hence leading to many reforms after the death of Mao Zedong, for example, opening up China to international trade and foreign investment to advance their economy. While they have thrived as a country since they opened up to the rest of the world, they are slowly but surely become less and less reliant on foreign consumption and investment, trying to cut both imports and exports currently and rely more on domestic produce. Though possible, it is unlikely China will ever experience a crisis such as the Great Leap Forward once again since they have taken the wiser move of becoming gradually more self-sufficient.
With its abundance of raw materials, manufacture and service, is it possible that China could ever be truly self-sufficient?