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Mao's Leaps and the Cultural Revolution

In 1953, China launched its first five-year plan for industry. Nature intervened and in 1953 and 1954 China had poor harvests. People migrated to the cities to escape hunger. The Korean War had ended in 1953 and many young men were being demobilized. Unemployment was rising in China's cities. The chairman of China's Communist Party, Mao Zedong, and other Party members were disturbed by the sight of successful farmers lending money to the less fortunate. The same debate arose in China's Communist Party that had arisen in the Soviet Union in the 1920s: how far should they go in accommodating free enterprise as opposed to building socialism.

Free enterprise had been reduced, and with little established industry the Communist Party was looking forward to industrialization, and it looked to the Soviet Union as a model, with factory and infrastructure projects based on Soviet designs.

There was land reform intending to benefit poor peasants — the core of the Revolution's political support. But the Party wanted some production by larger farms maintained for the sake of continuity in production and for a smooth and orderly transition to a socialist society. Zealous Party cadres were exciting the passions of class conflict in rural communities. Estimates are that more than a million died during these conflicts, and those cadres believed to have been overly zealous were removed from the Party.

To move socialism along, Mao favored collectivization of agriculture similar to what existed in the Soviet Union. The average collective farm consisted of around 170 families, each living as a family unit in his own home, with a small plot of land for growing crops it could sell on the market.

When Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, China's Communist Party was offended and embarrassed. The Party had been praising Stalin and was not about to confess that the praise had been misplaced. The Party's leader, Mao Zedong, declared that despite some faults, Stalin had been a good, well-meaning Marxist revolutionary.

Mao had another grievance against Khrushchev. He felt that the Soviet Union was not treating China as an equal partner, and he thought Khrushchev's idea of peaceful competition with the United States was naive. Several jointly owned Sino-Soviet corporations had been established that Mao impinged on Chinese sovereignty. They were disbanded. And Mao told Khrushchev:

Listen carefully. We have worked long and hard to drive out the Americans, the British, the Japanese, and others. Never again will we allow foreigners to use our territory for their purposes.

China's manufacturing in 1956 and 1957 grew at an annual rate of four percent, and Party strategists wanted faster gains. They estimated that because of China's poverty several years might pass before a more impressive rate could be achieved. Seeing the growth in agricultural production as a part of the problem, the government sought to increase peasant incentives to grow by reducing taxes to twenty-five percent of their income.

Mao disliked seeing arrogant Party cadres lording over common people, and he was concerned about the rise of a bureaucratic educated elite of technology specialists that included Party members. (This had motivated his "hundred flowers" campaign in 1956, withdrawn in 1957 because of too much criticism.) Mao was also concerned about the drift of people from the countryside into the cities. He believed China could do better if the economy were turned over to the spontaneity of the masses. To jump-start this spontaneity Mao separated himself from the Soviet model and announced a new five-year economic plan: a new program, and he called it the "Great Leap Forward." It was promoted as the proletarianization of the economy. Collective farms were to be replaced with "People's Communes." Each commune was to consist of from ten to twenty thousand people — around twice the size of collective farms. On the communes, people were to eat in mess halls. Their tools, farm animals, and chickens were to be pooled, as was property such as furniture. And women would be encouraged to join work brigades.

Mao was trying to move faster toward the communism of which Marx had spoken, with an abolition of differences between rich and poor and the abolition of divisions in labor. Mao wanted everyone to become an economic and managerial expert. He looked forward to a new generation of cultured laborers and people who had acquired skills in a variety of trades.

Also in 1958 and 1959, new roads were built, new factories were constructed, dams were built, as were dikes, irrigation channels and lakes. Land was reclaimed, and new terraces were carved into mountains, most of it created by hand labor rather than modern earth-working machines. And beginning in July 1958 the "battle for steel" began. A measurement of a nation's industrial strength was the amount of steel it produced. Backyard furnaces were built. At night, skylines in cities, Shanghai among them, were lit up with spots of red from fires for melting metal. In the countryside, producing steel withdrew labor from growing food, which was to prove disastrous.

Also in 1958 the Four Pests campaign began: a mass mobilization to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The sparrows were included because they ate grain seeds. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs broken and nestlings were killed. Sparrows and other birds were shot from the sky. The Sparrow extermination enabled the proliferation of locusts, resulting in severe crop damage, and the anti-sparrow campaign was halted in 1960.

The Great Leap Forward was victimized by bad weather, bureaucracy and poor organization. In addition to blaming the weather, the Soviet Union was blamed. The Soviet Union had withdrawn all of its technicians and advisors from China, taking their blueprints with them. There were disruption failures that also could have been blamed. Interactions between commune leaders and the central government bureaucracies were faulty. Figures distorted for the sake of covering up or for self-promotion contributed to inadequate distributions of supplies, including food. But voicing criticism was attacked as hostility toward the revolution.

Backyard steel production was a failure. The Chinese melted down pots and woks and what they produced was a metal too poor in quality to be of any use.

One of the loudest opponents of the Great Leap Forward was the Defense Minister, Peng Dehuai. He was a believer in orthodox Soviet-style economic planning and totally against experimentations. Peng blamed Mao for the ruined crops and the piles of useless pig iron. In retaliation, Peng was denounced as a member of an "anti-Party clique" and purged from holding office for the rest of his life.

Peng was replaced by Lin Biao and ally of Mao's. Nevertheless, Mao remained under pressure within the Party. Authority was being given to trained managers over Maoist ideologues. Skilled technicians were to be promoted, and material incentives were created in the place of moralistic slogans. Control over commerce was returned to an economics ministry. The government closed thousands of small and inefficient factories. The industrial work-force was cut in half, and many were sent back to the countryside, where, it was hoped, they could find gainful employment. Viewing commune schools, the Party saw people teaching subjects in which they had no training. Many peasants had already dismissed the commune schools as failures, wishing to have their children educated instead in the old-fashioned schools, and the Party abolished the commune school system.

China is described as having suffered famine between 1959 and 1961 (the Great Chinese Famine). These were China's government statistics estimate the famine as having produced 15 million deaths beyond normal. Historian Frank Dikötter, having been granted special access to Chinese archival materials, estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths from 1958 to 1962. Drought and poor weather were to be described as contributing factors, as well as Mao's policies.

Within the Party, Mao suffered humiliation. His ally, Lin Biao, leader of the People's Liberation Army, was promoting him by putting together a little red book of Mao's quotations for distribution within the army. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, belonged to a group that wished for purity in literature and the performing arts. Lin Biao invited her to establish cultural policy for the People's Liberation Army. Jiang Qing's group described China's culture as infested with "anti-socialist poisonous weeds". She called for a revolution against bourgeois culture: a cultural revolution. Mao was encouraged and spoke about a regeneration in attitude. He spoke of weeding from authority those who had chosen to lead China down "the capitalist road". Old comrades directly beneath Mao – Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping – chose to accommodate Mao and his supporters rather than collide with them head-on.

China needed peace and order, but now came more disruption, disorder, violence and the persecution of able people. Young people called Red Guards, imbued with support for revolution and hostility toward tradition rampaged through the country. Millions, including Party members, were persecuted. Something like a million more was said to have died in the violence.

The Cultural Revolution destroyed itself with intolerance. Violence erupted between Red Guard factions. Mao ordered the People's Liberation Army to enforce Red Guard unity, and Lin Biao as head of the People's Liberation Army called on the Red Guards to stop fighting each other and instead to study the works of Mao. The chaos became too much for Mao. Jiang Qing spoke out against what she called "ultra-leftist tendencies". The People's Liberation Army itself split into hostile camps. Mao wanted order and commanded that the Red Guards disperse.

By the summer of 1968 the People's Liberation Army had subdued the Red Guards. Some of the Red Guards were sent to do labor in the countryside. For order, Mao was counting on the People's Liberation Army, and he had the army form revolutionary committees in all provinces.


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