The Great Leap Forward Incentive As A Cause Of The Great Chinese Famine

The Great Chinese Famine is said to be “the worst catastrophe in China’s history, and one of the worst anywhere.” The devastation which occurred between 1958 and 1962, a decade after the Communist party took power in 1949, resulted in the deaths of 45 million Chinese. Thereby it is difficult to come across a precise number, due to government suppression, and analysts suggest the death rate could be in excess of 45 million. However, 2 to 3 million of these Chinese victims were blamed for not being hard-working or adhering to policies, which led to them being tortured to death, hung, beaten, and occasionally executed. A report which dates back to November 30th tells us how a man named Wang Ziyou had “one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilogram stone dropped on his back before he was burnt with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.” 60 years later, China emerges as an economic powerhouse, with booming productivity. However, to this day, the Communist Party, which is still in power, fails to acknowledge the degree to which the famine was a direct result of Mao Zedong’s launch of the Great Leap Forward. The party continues to treat the famine as a natural disaster and completely denies the true death toll. The period is usually referred to as the Three Years of Natural Disasters or the Three Years of Difficulties, the topic still remains taboo in China; “There is no museum, no monument, no remembrance day to honor the tens of millions of victims. Survivors, most of them in the countryside, are rarely given a voice, all too often taking their memories with them to their graves.”

The Great Leap Forward was an incentive by the Communist Party’s Mao Zedong to “change China from a predominantly agricultural society to a modern, industrial society - in just 5 years.” His attempt to industrialise and revolutionise the entire Chinese economy was “so ambitious that it tipped over to insanity.” The goal seemed unthinkable, but with “the power to force the world's largest society to try”, he hoped to target China’s industrial and agricultural problems. Mao believed that both industry and agriculture bounce off each other; industry would prosper, if the workforce was productive, and agriculture workers would require industry to produce the tools they needed. “The Chinese hoped to develop labour-intensive methods of industrialisation”, which would increase productivity and enable them to reach full capacity, putting more emphasis on manpower, rather than capital. Mao, on the other hand, hoped that “the country could bypass the slow, more typical process of industrialisation through gradual accumulation of capital and purchase of heavy machinery.” Instead of a gradual process, he was determined to turn China into a powerful industrial nation rapidly, focusing on their exports and using cheap labour to his advantage. Between 1958 and 1960, millions of Chinese citizens were divided into giant communes. Coordinated propaganda, through posters, political speeches, and slogans, was employed to create the willpower.

During the process, “Some were sent to farming cooperatives, while others worked in small manufacturing.” These communes contained schools, nurseries and healthcare services which all doubled as opportunities for employment. The government prohibited ownership of all agricultural tools, utensils, and land, placing it into the communes. A portion of the grain they produced was sold to the state at fixed prices, often below the cost of production. This suggests, the state had dominant purchasing power and was impatient in attaining higher yields. The lasting grains were divided up amid the farmers, based on the hours worked accordingly. However, hard work was not incentivised, so no one worked very hard, nor were the farmers productive. Mao intended to continue increasing agricultural production “while also pulling workers into the manufacturing sector.” However, he utilised unreliable Soviet farming methods such as close-planting and deep ploughing, which resulted in acres of strained farmland and a decline in crop yields, rather than an increase in agricultural production with fewer farmers. Statistics show, crop production reduced from 200 million tons to 143, in the space of 2 years. In April 1959, the population was forced to drop everything and mass produce steel in backyard furnaces from scrap iron, using everything from household utensils to farming tools so that China could overtake their rivals, the United States and Britain. Mao was certain that China was going to reach the top “in record time.” By the summer of 1959 much of the enthusiasm for the Great Leap was fading. Villagers switched to survival mentality and it became clear that things were getting out of hand.

The States own interests outweighed common sense, and communes were made to reach the unattainable. The results were catastrophic. Low quality steel was mass-produced that was of no use, massive environmental damage was caused, and the agricultural soil was left overused and vulnerable to erosion due to years of poor harvesting, which led to a severe decline in agricultural productivity. “The country's entire population ate in collective kitchens, pots and pans were confiscated, and farm work was stopped.” A high demand of grains from the state, to be sent to urban areas, exported or distributed as foreign aid to create the impression that China was a booming economy, in an attempt to gain a leadership position in the communist world, left communes with an insufficient supply of grain of to sustain themselves. Villagers had already started to die, whilst other communes hardly felt the impact, due to an information blackout regarding the uneven distribution of grain. It is said that Mao knew of the famine as early as 1958, 'To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward.' Thus, we can come to the conclusion that the famine was mainly due to disproportionate food distribution rather than an aggregate food deficit. This explains why the height of the famine varied across China. In response to this, many commune leaders began to over-report their harvest, hoping to sympathize with the Communist leaders to secure more food, but this backfired as officials carried off more food to reserves for the use of future trade-offs. Some communes simply ignored the problem and didn’t feel the need to ration, in the hope that the current situation would improve or the government would send immediate food relief. But, at this crucial time, the government was still purchasing machinery whilst strengthening the Yen, “and he paid for it with grain, because that was all China had at the time.” It is ironic that the country had surplus to export for trade purposes, whilst the population was starving. Reports discuss, whilst grain production fell drastically between 1959 and 1961, grain procurement remained excessively high, leading us to believe that this was likely an additional cause of the famine.

By the end of 1959, however, food shortages had reached an all-time low, signs of famine were visible and China became extremely unstable. Adverse weather conditions, such as the flooding of the Yellow River in mid-1959 killing over 2 million people and destroying crops, as well as an extensive drought in 1960, “added to the nations misery.” The presence of extreme poverty increased China’s vulnerability. Malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, as well as many other preventable diseases, became apparently widespread, whilst the “unbearable hunger made people behave in inhuman ways”. Mao recalls, “humans became reduced into animals, even worse than animals.” As a result of this food scarcity, Chinese farmers starved to death. Mao’s Great Leap Forward became globally known as ‘Mao’s Great Leap to Famine’, and his five-year plan came to an end after 3 tragic, brutal years.

14 May 2021
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