The Great Leap Forward

The extraordinary number of deaths during the Chinese revolution is difficult to comprehend. The Soviet Union had a similar experience when Stalin forced the population to modernize Russia's agricultural and industrialization practices. Historians estimate that Mao's Great Leap Forward (1958–1962), mandatory collectivization, forced labor, and the famine that ensued caused the deaths of between 18 and 30 million people in China.

Read this article on the Great Leap Forward. Pay attention to the toll it had on the people of China and how these experiences have shaped today's China.


After PRC was founded in 1949, it was plagued by various economic difficulties, but it involved in the Korean War the following year. China, claiming victory in the Korean War, received no benefit and even raised the hostility of the West, thus cutting the access to external technologies and fund. Many struggle movements were launched in China, which caused political chaos, economic losses and social unrest.

The Great Leap Forward Movement fueled by Mao Zedong's strategy of "catching up with Britain and surpassing the United States" ended up with great economic recession and even political struggle. The Great Leap Forward, which invested colossal resources in the whole country, proved to an utter failure. Following the movement, the famine killed tens of millions of people. The decade-long political storm hit the politics, economy and society severely. 

During the three-year Great Leap Forward, China's science and technology movement experienced a special period of "Great Leap Forward". This was a process of initial preparation and mobilization, strong competition in all walks of life and the upsurge of the leap forward tide. Encouraged by the idea of "Forging Ahead" during the "Great Leap Forward", the science and technology in China marked a new chapter in the history. This movement paved the way for China's science and technology, and also contributed to its smooth development.

Liu listed the causes of the famine, such as the decline of traditional food supply, public canteen, orientation to urban areas and areas of food shortage, political radicalism, governmental disaster relief capacity, and "historical memory" of famine. Opinions vary among scholars who hold different arguments. In addition, according to the 1981 China Economic Yearbook, the grain exports in the year before the Great Leap Forward and during the three-year famine were maintained between 2 to 4 million tons. Therefore, the erroneous export during the famine was caused by human errors instead of by natural calamity.

As Chi and Wang pointed out, the industrial failure lied in the fact that only a few indicators such as steel were set as the goal to catch up with Britain and surpass the United States, which could hardly show economic superiority. The priority given to steel and the movement without external aids were bound to undermine the comprehensive economic balance.

The "Great Leap Forward" inspired by Mao's Forging Ahead Strategy was originally an economic topic. At first, the failure of the movement triggered famine, but eventually it evolved into Cultural Revolution, becoming a political or even military problem. Wang held that Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was based on his intention to get rid of the framework of the Soviet socialist model and "break a Chinese-style way". The experience of previous revolutionary victories made him regard "the masses and class struggle" as the correct way to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Historically Mao Zedong had achieved brilliant victories in the attempt to localize Marxism in China, but he also experienced severe failures such as the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent "Cultural Revolution", which contain profound experience and lessons.

To sum up the causes for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, external factors include a world in the cold war and the absence of advanced technologies and funds provided by the West; internal factors include the incalculable adverse effects under erroneous policies. In addition, the relationship with the Soviet Union broke up, due to the disagreement between the views of China and the Soviet Union on the Great Leap Forward, resulted in the disruption of fund and technologies provided by the Soviet Union.

The withdrawal of Soviet aids hindered China's economy, which had found itself in predicament, from further development for a very long time. These were tangible harm caused by the Great Leap Forward. Besides, seemingly invisible, the severely negative impact on China in all aspects lies in the talent gap caused by the 10-year Cultural Revolution.

During this turbulent decade, students at all levels were deprived of the right to receive education. This erroneous policy not only afflicted the economy, but also caused great losses in culture, education, politics and military.