Another Look at the Great Leap Forward
The Founding of the New Republic
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, two events are so controversial that they almost cannot be discussed rationally or void of politics. One of them is the Great Leap Forward of 1958, and the other being the Cultural Revolution of 1966. A reference to history cannot be avoided for any event, more so an event as significant as GLF. The PRC was founded in 1949 October the 1st. What most people didn’t realize is, on that day, the Communist Party of China and its military arm, the People Liberation Army controlled less than 2/3 the territory of modern China. Areas such as Chongqing, Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Hainan, Xizang, Taiwan etc are still under the control of various Nationalist armies. In fact, Gansu and Xinjiang was only taken by the Communist in September. It would be June 1950 when all those regions except Hainan, Xizang and Taiwan were to be liberated.
However, an international event in a neighbouring country would put a stop to the unification of China under the CPC. On June 25th, 1950, the continual conflict between the Soviet installed and supported DPRK and the US installed and supported ROK broke out into an all out war. On June 27th the US sent its 7th Fleet (and later element of the US 13th Air Force) to Taiwan. To the PRC, the US has gotten directly involved in the Chinese Civil War on the Nationalist’s side. Before that, US support was limited to the supply, training and transport of Nationalist troops. The Chinese Civil War however, was never strictly a Chinese affair. This is not the first time foreign powers have a hand in Chinese politics. After its founding, the CPC was initially controlled by a faction supported by the Comitern, which in turn was controlled by Moscow. From 1934-35 the communist forces even came under the direction of a German communist named Otto Braun. The CPC only broke away from Moscow directive during the Long March when Mao Zedong took over the command of the Red Army in 1935. Contrary to most belief, Mao and many local Chinese leaders did not have cordial relationship with Stalin in Moscow or the Moscow faction (also called Wang Min faction by historians). Mao and his colleagues felt that Moscow’s intervention are mostly negative. From the direction of the many disastrous uprisings, to the support of the Nationalist, the CPC and Mao was nothing but an expendable pawn in the eye of Moscow. In 1948, Stalin even pressured the CPC to sign a peace agreement with Nationalist for fear that US forces would be dragged into the civil war.
The Soviet Union which was isolated and invaded by major colonial powers are wary of Japanese expansion in China. At this time, Japan was an allies of UK, France and USA. In order to check Japanese expansion in East Asia, the Soviet will support any party that can serve that purpose. Soviet support was essential in setting up the Chinese Military Academy (also known as Huangpu Military Academy which is now in Taiwan) in 1924. Jiang Jieshi was the first commandant of the academy. The Soviet wanted the CPC was to work side by side or rather inside the KMT, and built up a strong China as counter weight to Japan. Unfortunately, Jiang and most Nationalist leaders distrust the Soviet and dislike the communist ideology. In 1927, after killing and purging communist members from the KMT, Jiang showed his preference by enlisting German military advisors. However, after Japan launched an all out invasion of China in 1937, Jiang found that the Soviet Union is the only power that will support him. And again Soviet arms and advisors started pouring in to China again. During 1931-1940, Imperial Japan invasion of China wouldn’t be possible without western countries supply of oil, minerals, scrap metal etc. The reality in the 1930s is that western countries controlled nearly all those resources in the world!
Confrontation with US
In 1949 the newly founded republic faced a daunting task. The China they inherited was ravaged by the civil wars of the late Qing, western Imperial powers invasions, the various warlords, Japanese invasions and also the civil wars between the CPC and KMT. Pretty much all the government gold and silver reserve has been shipped to Taiwan. The average life expectancy was around 36 and only 15% of the population are literate. Due to serious corruption under the previous administration, the Chinese economy was suffering hyper inflation. Poverty and suffering of the common folks was a daily occurrence. On top of that the country side was controlled by bandits. The bandit gangs numbered from a few dozen men to well established groups numbering thousands. These bandits come into being before even before the end of the Qing dynasty. They were so effective that the Nationalist Government, the invading Japanese forces could not defeat them. To make matter worse, during their retreat the Nationalist started arming these bandits and giving them ranks in the military. They are active in launching sabotage in a large part China and the PLA didn’t defeat them until well into the 1950s.
In 1950 the PRC was still actively engage in civil war and was in no position to fight the number one economical and military power and its allies in Korea, but the CPC believed that to allow a hostile US stationing large military forces on Chinese territory (Taiwan) and next to the most industrialized area of China is simply unacceptable. There is an underlying fear that the US and allies could launch an attack anytime they want. So when the US led international force crossed the 38th parallel the PRC sent in the People’s Volunteers Army. To the PRC the move was purely defensive because they simply cannot afford a hostile force taking out a friendly neighbouring government, the DPRK. The PRC was willing to accept a unified Korea under the ROK provided they can alleviate the fear of the PRC by stationing ONLY Korean troops over the 38th parallel, but the US did not heed this warning.
Despite being the biggest backer of the DPRK, the USSR did not feel it was worth the risk of fighting the US and its allies directly in Korea. The USSR initially promised the PRC air cover but backed out at the last minute. Eventually the USSR decided to send air cover but did not officially admit it. The US and allies discovered Russian speaking pilots on the air waves but chose to keep the information classified until the war is over. Likewise the PRC also did not want to present itself as directly confronting the US and called its army volunteers in Korea.
Fighting a war against the US and its allies meant that the new Chinese republic was being embargoed by the richest and most advanced economies almost since its inception. The only positive aspect of the Korean War for China was that it secured PRC’s position as a force to be reckoned with, and the eventual support of the Soviet Union. In 1950, the USSR and the PRC signed a Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance (中苏友好同盟互助条约). The Chinese would send their best and brightest students to Soviet Union, (later Chinese leaders such as Jiang Zemin is one of those students). The USSR would also send many experts, paid for by PRC to China, to help build China’s industry. In 1953 the world would see China launching its first Five Year Plan modeled after Soviet one. During this period, the USSR pretty much transferred 9/10 of their technical knowhow to the new Chinese republic. However, the treaty is not one completely beneficial to China. The details of the treaty can be seen here.
In the first Five Year Plan China’s limited industries were mostly centralized and expanded. In the rural areas, plot of farms were given to individual family. So for the first time in history, all Chinese farmers have their own land (although technically all land are state owned). By 1958, agriculture production almost doubled from 1949 (108 million tons to 185 million tons), coal production quadrupled to 123 million tons, and steel production increased from 100,000 tons to 5.3 million tons. The first Five Year Plan was a roaring success, which boosted the standing of the CPC.
Confrontation with both Super Powers
As the number one military and economical power of the Communist bloc, the Soviet Union feel that it is the absolute leader of the group and consider itself having the final say in understanding of the communist ideology. Being the only communist country before WWII, the Soviet Union was sanctioned and embargoed by pretty much rest of the world too. The Soviet’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan allow it to break out of the isolation and set up a string of communist states in Eastern Europe and in Korea. The emergence of the communist Soviet Union as a new world power sent alarm to the traditional western colonial empires and was considered by them as the biggest threat. However, differences between different communist states started to appear in the 1950s.
The Uprising in East Germany in 1953, Poznań protests in Poland 1956, the Hungarian uprising in 1956 etc all are sign that Soviet or communist control is not an absolute thing. Nikita Khrushchev became the new first secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev also viewed China as a junior partner that should contribute to a “common communist cause”. The Soviet leadership feel that since China has benefitted greatly from Soviet aid, it is time China take a more active role. They suggested putting Chinese military under Soviet command like the Warsaw Pact model. However, in China’s view, the weapon supplied during the Korean War and subsequent Soviet help were all paid for. The CPC also wanted the latest technological advancement like nuclear weapon and missile technology which was refused by the Soviet. The final straw came when Khrushchev request to set up naval bases for its submarines fleet in China. The request was repeatedly refused by Chinese leadership. The Soviet respond was to threaten to cut off all technical support to China. The situation was worsened by the fact that trade from other Soviet controlled communist countries would also be severed. Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership was prepare to make the sacrifice to remain independent. In Soviet’s view the Chinese communist are ungrateful and irresponsible member. In China’s view, the Soviet Union is a dictatorial bully. The Sino-Soviet split is imminent by the late 1950s. From 1957 onward, no new project was started, and the Soviet Union officially cut off all aid in 1960. The PRC and the Soviet Union would continually engage in mutual criticism in what Chinese historian called Sino-Soviet Debate (中苏论战).
The 1950s was a turbulent period. The Korean War did not end with a peace treaty, only a cease fire was signed in 1953. In 1954, the US and the ROC signed a mutual defence pact and started supplying state of the art weapons to Taiwan free of charge. Thus it came as no surprised the Nationalist Armed Forces are among the first US allies to obtain the then highly secretive AIM-9 Sidewinder missile and later the Lockheed F-104 fighter (in great contrast to today where mostly 2nd rate weapon was sold at exorbitant price). On top of its own air force incursion, Taiwan also allowed US spy plane to make reconnaissance flight into mainland air space. Emboldened by US support, Jiang Jieshi trumped up his plan to retake the mainland. In the Middle East, the 1956 Israeli-Franco-British-Egyptian war broke out. In 1958, US Marines landed in Lebanon, the same year Britain sent troops to Jordan. Although Vietnam gained its independence from France, the US started its involvement in the south.
The Road to Great Leap
The PRC not only was being threatened by the US but now also faced the prospect of a confrontation with the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union. Of course, the PRC is not entirely isolated, it has the support of the largest Arab country, Egypt. It is also friendly with country like Indonesia, India, Romania and Albania etc. Nevertheless, none of these countries and the smaller third world countries that recognized the PRC can offer anything other than moral support to China. The PRC did not have representation at the UN until 1971. By refusing to compromise its national sovereignty with the US and Soviet bloc, the PRC was forced to chose the path of isolation again. However, Mao Zedong was still concerned by a US backed ROC invasion of China. So in 1958, he planned a bombardment of the island of Jinmen. By blockading the island, Mao was able to test how far US warships would go on running the blockage. Events showed that US warships stood idly by when PLA artillery engaged and sunk ROC transports. It is clear to Mao that if the US would not even get involved in a shooting war with the PRC over a small islands, they would never back a full scale invasion of the mainland. The artillery duel would end in a draw for both sides. Although tactically defeated in air battles, the PLA moved their fighter base into Fujian thus taking control of the sky above Jinmen and Mazu. This would eventually put an end to Nationalist and US air incursion.
It is under this historical backdrop that the CPC launched the 2nd Five Year Plan, which is to be famously known as GLF. The plan was to industrialize China, in Mao’s words to overtake Britain and catch up with the US. It first came into being in Sept 1956 during the Eight National Congress of the CPC. The general outline consists of:
1. Continue expansion of heavy industry in China.
2. Further the cause of socialism by transferring more property to collective ownership.
3. Encouraging the economic growth of China through industry, agriculture, handicrafts, transportation and commerce.
4. Cultivating cultural and scientific development of the Chinese people.
5. Strengthening national defence and improving living standards in China.
Due to the overwhelming success of the first Five Year Plan, very ambitious goal was set for both industrial and agricultural production. However, the devil is in the detail. The biggest difference compared to the previous Five Year Plan is a new strategy called the Three Red Flags which consists of the General Development of Socialism, Great Leap Forward and People’s Commune. In CPC’s view a country industrial capacity was measured by its steel production. The US being number one followed by the Soviet Union and UK. The goal was to overtake UK. It looks entirely feasible on paper as China has close to ten times the manpower of UK.
Ideology and Reality on the Ground
There is a limit to the number of factories that can be built due to resources constrain. In order to make up for the short fall, each county was to set up communal furnaces for smelting iron and steel. For agriculture, a new system was to be implemented. Instead of family tended farm, collective farm where whole village would be grouped as a single production entity would be introduced. On paper, a collective farm where resources would be centrally controlled would be more efficient and yield higher productivity. For example, all young men would be utilized to work the farm, the women would take care of old folks, children, live stocks, cloth production etc. To top it off, there would be a communal furnace for iron and steel production.
Unfortunately, things went very wrong before it even started. Imagine one day, the government tell you thirty days from today all your personal property and saving are to be put into a communal account where everybody would be given an equal share? In 1958, nine out of ten Chinese family are simple farming family with a plot of land, some grain saving, some chickens, in addition to that the richer ones might have a bunch of pigs too. What would they do when they knew they have to turn in all their possession the next month?
If you cannot imagine what would happen, I will clue you in. When news of the new communal policy was announced, most family simply have a series of feasts and ate most of their grain saving and domestic animals. So before the program started, China’s grain and livestock reserve already took a nose drive. The communal kitchen also started with communal farming. Other than being communally staffed, the communal kitchen provide unlimited food supply to its member. Basically, China is now in a stage of socialist heaven where everybody has a job and unlimited food.
The first sign of trouble appeared when village secretary discovered that agricultural production has actually fallen compare to previous month. The village secretary would report to the county secretary. The county secretary thought it must be a temporary setback or mistake because communal farming where everyone has food represent the pinnacle of communist development. They convinced each other that they should be able to make up the short fall the next month rather than dampen the zeal of revolution. When the neighbouring county report a higher than before figure, the local county was pressured into reporting the same gain or higher figure. In the end a highly inflated figure was reported to the province and likewise the province report them to the central government.
And to go in tune with national spirit of the time. Some unnecessary fine tuning was thought to be able to bring up production. On the agricultural side, sparrows were considered a menace because they ate grain. A national program was launched to eradicate them. The unforeseen circumstance was that the locusts and other pest that also feed on grain but was controlled in numbers by their natural predator, sparrow took a big toll of grain in some areas. In iron production, to maximize production, every iron wares even nail and bolts from doors were pulled out to be smelted. The iron produced by communal furnace was mostly worthless scrap but was also reported to the central government as iron production.
Elation swept the entire nation. However, there are realists who scrutinized the figures. Some of the agricultural production figures are so unrealistic that it would mean the rice or wheat field would be so thick with grain that someone could stand on them. When these sceptics raised the issue, they were not believed. The whole CPC was totally drunk on the infallibility of its own system. It only became an issue when news of food shortage started to be reported in late 1958. Then natural disaster struck, in March 1959, the entire Hunan region was under flood. That same year, spring harvest in south western China was lost through drought. The situation in many regions was worsened by the fact that due to the inflated claim a lot of grain was diverted to urban or other poorer regions.
Before being introduced to the whole country, collective farming by commune was actually tried out in small numbers in China. Deng Zihui, who is Deputy Premier and also Minister of Farm Work (中共中央农村工作部) was in charge of the experiment and had obtained bad results with collective farming. He reported his finding to Mao Zedong but was brushed aside by the notion that it failed because the people were not motivated. Mao argued that if the people are motivated and worked selflessly for the socialist cause it would be a resounding success. Deng also tried to raise the issues in subsequent meeting but was overwhelmed by other committee members who believe that collective farming would do even better, especially after the success of the first Five Year Plan.
An Early End to the Great Leap
So who is to blame for this disaster which Liu Shaoqi later classified as 70% human error and 30% natural disaster. The reasoning is that natural disasters always caused food shortages in China. However, the famine this time can easily be avoided if there are reserve. If Mao is a monster for causing so many starvation death, what would you call the US administration who purposely embargoed China when it was frantically trying to import grain to make up for the short fall? Below is an excerpt from Henry C K Liu’s writing:
In 1963, the Chinese press called the famine of 1961-62 the most severe since 1879. In 1961, a food-storage program obliged China to import 6.2 million tons of grain from Canada and Australia. In 1962, import decreased to 5.32 million tons. Between 1961 and 1965, China imported a total of 30 million tons of grain at a cost of US$2 billion (Robert Price, International Trade of Communist China Vol II, pp 600-601). More would have been imported except that US pressure on Canada and Australia to limit sales to China and US interference with shipping prevented China from importing more. Canada and Australia were both anxious to provide unlimited credit to China for grain purchase, but alas, US policy prevailed and millions starved in China.
It is obvious a shortage of food and low quality of the iron would be exposed in a few months top. As soon as that was discovered, Mao and the CPC immediately went into damage control mode. From Oct 1958 to Aug 1959 a total of five top level meeting was held. In these meetings Mao took full responsibility of the blame and do not seek re-election of the post of Chairman of the China (the position was also translated as President of China). Liu Shaoqi would be elected as the next President. Mao, however, would still be ranked number one in the politburo and hold on to the position of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
The 2nd Five Year Plan was cut short and ended in 1960. Liu was to formulate a new domestic economical model. In 1961 a temporary model was introduced to cushion the damages inflicted by the GLF. The 3rd Five Year Plan would not be launched until 1966, the year another monumental event would make its presence felt.