The Great Leap Forward: Why is China Viewed So Negatively When the West is Dictatorial? (Part 2)


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

This part discusses the Chinese 1958-1962 Great Leap Forward (GLF) famine and the omission and data selection that perpetuates the negative image of Mao and China to this day. See part 1 for authoritarism and part 3 for the Cultural Revolution.

The GLF campaign aimed to transform China’s agricultural economy into an industrial socialist economy, through industrialisation and collective agriculture.

Mao is often accused of being rash and wanting to push forward GLF policy. Policies included large rural communes of 6,000 households being the 1958 CCP-advised limit which, although based on bottom-up Zijue Ziyuan (willingly and voluntarily by villagers), proved too large to manage in a decentralised system relying on officials to report crop-yields which often produced exaggerations. Such exaggerations may have arisen to save-face during Soviet-contract cancellations, natural disasters, difficulties diverting rural villages towards non-agricultural activities and internal stats-reporting errors, but Mao is commonly blamed as recklessly pushing such policies.

In reality, according to Yang Shankung’s diary (2001) entries, as early as 1959, Deng Xioping [and other…]heavyweights implementing GLF policy, insisted on fulfilling targets (Gao 2018, p. 167).

Great Leap Forward in Chinese Characters | Credit: White whirlwind [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Most GLF policies didn’t come from Mao himself and correspondingly, others pushed them more vehemently. For instance, Liu Shaoqi, the 2nd in command, said on December 20th 1957 that China could surpass Britain in 2-3 years – ‘Liu also said to the worker’s in Shijingshan that communism would be realized in their lifetime’ (p. 167).

By contrast, ‘In one of his random talks, Mao actually demolished Liu and Deng for going too fast and for being too rash’ (Lao Tan 2016). The talk, which took place on November 21st 1958 in Wuhan, hasn’t been included in the officially sanctioned Selected Works of Mao. To Liu Shaoqi and Peng Zhen, Mao warned sternly that if industrial targets were set too high there might be problems in agriculture to the point of many millions dying from hunger. Mao told Deng that the length of time to complete planned projects should be 15 years instead of 10, released later as ‘The Forty Articles Outline on the Construction of Socialism in 15 years’ (p. 169).

Liu Shaoqi / Credit: UnknownUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In both Liu and Deng’s Selected Works, 3+ years were omitted as if Liu said or instructed nothing, having replaced Mao as President of the CCP in 1959, and Deng as CCP general secretary (p. 105). Ironically, Mao’s Selected Works included 20+ instances of discouraging fanaticism. Here knowledge was constructed to distance Deng and Liu from Mao, who can then be held solely responsible for policy failures exacerbating famine amongst leaders blinded-arrogant from a 1957 good harvest, denigrating the Maoist legacy to justify years of anti-Maoist Chinese cheap-labour which the West didn’t foresee as challenging its dominance.

Historian Roderick MaqFarquhar promoted upper-end 1958-61 famine death-tolls, blaming Mao personally, yet he ignores that ‘China’s history of famine shows that a relatively large-scale famine usually claimed millions of lives’ (p. 161). A fact corroborated by Murphy when even if there’d been as many as 10 million additional deaths annually during that 3-year disaster (Aston et al., 1984), it wouldn’t have even brought the death rate up to the level of the pre-communist era.

For instance, Deleyne (1974) states that the annual death rate in China had been 3.4% in normal peaceful (and “prosperous”) times in the 1930’s under capitalism, whereas the death rate had fallen to 1.1% by the mid-1950s under communism. He continues:

Applying the difference of 2.3% to a population of 600 million Chinese, yields a figure of over 10 million lives saved per year by Mao’s communist policies […] Even if a catastrophic extra 10 million deaths did occur annually in the famine of 1958-61, the annual death rate was still below that of pre-communist China during normal times (Triumph of Evil, pp. 56-57).

As Gao writes: ‘You would think that death-toll numbers based on mathematical models couldn’t just be anyone’s guess. But guessing is exactly what happened’ (p. 159), explaining that mathematical models incorporate many assumptions and any errors produce erroneous results:

…the population base in China is so large that even a tiny error, […], in fact, mean[s]a huge discrepancy in the numbers (p. 159).

Backyard Furnace during GLF / Credit: UnknownUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There was no population census nor sample survey at the time, and death-tolls vary widely from just over 1 million to scholarly estimates of 18-40+ million. Unfortunately, researchers claiming upper limits often make generalisations on the whole country from isolated incidents without context, ignoring complexities like household registrations, unregistered births, deaths and migrations, of which records were sparsely kept in the 1950’s. Some suggest these could have been counted as famine-deaths whilst the real status of these people remains unknown, just assumed dead, and therefore useful as a political tool in constructing China’s negative image regardless of reality (See Gao, Chapter 8).

In the Mao-GLF’s predominant construction, other influences are downplayed whilst we’re pushed to focus on a famine that was the first and last large-scale famine in the PRC’s entire history where, with a precarious ratio of land to population, about 7 per cent of the world’s arable land to feed a quarter of the world’s population, famine and starvation had been constant features in China for hundreds of years’ (pp. 160-161).

Famine isn’t just a Chinese or socialist phenomenon. Under the Raj (1986-1990), over 10 million people died in avoidable famines from populations just over 1/3 of China’s 1960 population, and a proportionally even greater number of people died from hunger in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine (p. 161).

The GLF was a policy failure not intended to deliberately murder, unlike Hitlers’s Holocaust and Western-Imperialist conflicts, whereby Murphy concludes the USA have deliberately killed the most people in history, while no “communist” country even makes the top-10 list. In this sense, when we look at the broader scope of anti-capitalist successes and the deliberate killings of the West in works like Murphy and Gao’s, it’s clear we have far more reason to be afraid of our own, Capitalist governments.


Radical journalist interested in Art, Politics, and other creative disciplines.

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